In the movie Eye in the Sky British Colonel Katherine Powell discovers three of the world’s most wanted terrorists sitting in a safe house in Kenya within range of her drones. When she observes them outfitting someone with a suicide vest, her mission quickly escalates from “capture” to “kill.”
But as American pilot Steve Watts is about to engage, a nine-year old girl enters the kill zone. Worse, she spreads out several loaves of bread to sell, so she is going to be there for a while. As the clock ticks away, American and British officials are faced with a moral dilemma. If they strike, they will likely kill this child. If they don’t strike, a suicide bomber could kill as many as 80 people in the marketplace.
A furious argument develops about what should be done. And, as you’re watching the movie, you feel yourself swept back and forth to each side. I won’t tell you what happens. I will tell you, I took some comfort in the idea that there was a furious argument. But, I could also see how easy it would be to begin to lose your core values in this kind of a conflict.
I could see how you could begin to make small moral compromises that would escalate over time. I could see how you could start with the goal of protecting innocents, but then say we killed them knowingly in order to protect more innocents, and then gradually become less careful about these decisions over time.
The subject of gradually eroding values is at the core of today’s parasha. There is something very puzzling about the central message of parashat re’eh. Moses tells the Jewish people: re’eh anochi notein lifneichem bracha u’klala/behold a set before you a blessing and a curse. Following God is the way of blessing. Idol worship is the way of the curse. It sounds so simple. Why would anyone choose a curse?
But, as Julie mentioned in her remarks to Daniel, most decisions in life are not so simple. And, of all people, Moses knows this. On the first day of Moses’s career, it all seemed so clear. An Egyptian bad guy is beating on a Hebrew innocent. Moses kills the bad guy. Easy! But, the next day, Moses discovers two bad guys beating up each other. And, they’re both Jewish!
Not only that. The whole Torah up until this point has been a lesson in moral complexity. All of the great heroes of the Torah until now are flawed. Abraham lets his wife be kidnapped without protest. Jacob deceives his father. And, the bad guys have redeeming qualities. The same brothers who sell Joseph into slavery become self-sacrificing heroes later.
So, if the Torah has gone out of its way again and again to tell us that right and wrong is not so simple—why does the Torah suddenly reverse itself in today’s parasha? There’s a blessing and a curse. Just pick the blessing. It’s a no-brainer.
I think what’s going on here is the opposite of what it looks like. It’s not that the Torah thinks that moral choices are easy. Just the reverse. Idol worship must have been very attractive to the Jewish people. If it were so obvious that this way of life is wrong, why would it take several hundred years for the Jewish people to stop worshipping idols?
It must have been that the Jewish people didn’t see idol worship as a curse. It must have been that many of the details of idol worship made sense to the Jewish people. And, that’s why the Torah cuts to the chase, and says to the Jewish people. “Here is the bottom line: ki gam et b’neihem….yisrefu ba’esh/ These people sacrifice their own children to their gods.
It may not seem like a big deal to you whether you worship a God you can’t see or a God whose spirit inhabits a statue. Who does it hurt if I bow to a piece of stone? So, think of this. This way of life leads to the murder of children. That’s where you will end up if you go down the idol-worshipping path. And, by the time you get there, you won’t even think it’s a curse anymore.”
The Torah is not telling us that life is a series of simple choices. It’s saying that because most of the day to day decisions we make are very small, we can forget the big picture. We can lose the ability to distinguish between a blessing and a curse. We can make small moral compromises, one at a time, until things which used to shock us have become the new normal.
When Moses didn’t come down from the mountain, the Jewish people persuaded Aaron to build the Golden Calf. When Moses said, ‘brother, how could you do this?’—Aaron said, “I don’t know. I threw the gold into the fire, and out came this calf!” That sounds crazy! But, it must have really seemed like that to Aaron. His actions were so gradual, that he really didn’t see what he was creating. It seemed to him that it just happened.
Many people look at our current election and say: “I don’t understand this! How did this happen? How did we get to this place?” But, things don’t just happen. When over a period of years, there is a decline in the way political opponents speak to each other—-when there is a progressive demonization of anyone who doesn’t agree with us, on both the left and the right—before you know it, we couldn’t tell the difference between a blessing and a curse if it hit us in the face.
If on one side of the spectrum, Israel can be accused by BLM of committing genocide against the Palestinians—if moral language can be used so carelessly—why is it surprising to us that on the other side a candidate suggests that if we don’t like the president who is elected by the American people, we can always shoot her?
A remark here. A remark there. One comment is more outrageous than the other. Before you know it, ‘out came this calf!’ We’ve lost our capacity to be outraged. We have arrived at a new normal.
We can laugh and smirk at France’s burkini wars. But, recently at a concert on a beach in Ashdod in Israel, singer Hanah Goor was asked by the police to cover up because she was wearing a bikini top. And, then it was announced that at all future government sponsored concerts, the musicians must be dressed modestly.
Paul Berman wrote recently that when France first banned the veil, it was after extensive interviews with Muslim girls who were feeling enormous pressure to wear the veil to school. They were grateful for the ban, because they chose to live in France, not in Iran. The French are worried about an erosion of their core value of freedom of expression. We might argue about their methods. But, it is hard to argue with their fears when you look around the world and you see the spread of religious coercion.
Already, in Israel there have been public buses that go through religious neighborhoods that demand that women sit in the back so the men aren’t tempted to look at them. At what point do these kinds of actions accumulate enough to threaten the core values of a free society? The French are fighting back, and we should be glad they are.
We can look at our personal lives in the same way. Family and friends live far away. We used to call every week. Our lives are busy. We call less often. One day we look up and the relationship has faded. How did that happen?
We used to set aside more time for each other in our marriages, but we got involved with work. Suddenly, we look at each other, years have passed, and we are adrift.
We used to light candles every week, but it became once a month, and now we don’t do it anymore. It just happened.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav says: “when a lion comes into your house, you don’t ask—If I leave, where am I going to stay tonight? You just get out as fast as you can.” That’s what our parasha is saying. We need a greater sense of urgency in our lives. We need to picture the blessing or the curse that can result when our small actions add up. And, if small actions can erode values over time, small actions can also reestablish them.
The language that we use to speak to each other matters. The freedoms that we have in our country are not something to take for granted. And, when these values are threatened, we need to stand up and roar like a lion if we want to preserve them for ourselves and our children.