Friday, March 6, 2015

At Least a Few Shades of Grey: A Commentary on Ki Tissa

In one of my favorite quotable movies, the Chevy Chase comedy “Fletch,” the title character, a reporter, is in conversation with an editor, trying to avoid naming his source for a story.  “It’s kind of a grey area,” Fletch says.

“How grey?” the editor asks.

“Charcoal.” Fletch declares.

In the movie, it’s a throwaway “laugh line,” Chevy Chase mugging for the camera.  

While some might define charcoal as meaning "black," I've always interpreted the line to mean that the issue is the most deeply grey, subject to numerous different interpretations.  In life, of course, we have quite a few instances of “charcoal” issues.  While it would be neater—more comfortable and more convenient—to relegate all issues to a simple duality of black and white, many issues that we confront don’t cleave quite so cleanly.   Though many in the media, and perhaps many of our own friends, would like to insist that we must pick sides on political, social, or other issues, oftentimes our feelings and opinions are more nuanced.  We live life in a decidedly “charcoal” place.

Take, for instance, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent address to Congress.  Many people- perhaps even some of you in this room- believe that opinions on this matter should crystal clear: you’re either for him, or against him.  In this framework, the only way to show support for Israel is to accept unflinchingly all that Netanyahu had to offer: not only the actual contents of the speech, but the manner in which it was delivered and all of the attendant issues surrounding it.  Reject any one of these elements, and you are understood to be empathizing with Iran, and probably anti-Zionist.

If you really feel that way, then perhaps we can agree to disagree.  Because, personally, I think this issue is more complicated than that.  We’re not picking teams in a childhood kickball game.  We’re exploring the complexities of global politics.

I consider myself an ציון אוהב Ohev Tziyon, a lover of Zion.  I believe very strongly that Israel serves as a homeland for our people, an historical link to our heritage, and an important bastion of democracy in the Middle East.  I love traveling in Israel, and I feel emotionally and spiritually moved each time I am there.  AND…I feel that some of the decisions made by Israel’s leaders in recent years—both socially and politically—have been wrong.  I feel I can criticize these decisions—I’ll use the failure to curtail settlement construction in the West Bank as an example—without harming my Zionist credentials.  I can believe in the right of Palestinians to live alongside Israelis as part of a two-state solution and not be any less of a Zionist because of this assertion.

AND…I believe that this carries through to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech.  I do not question that Iran represents an existential threat to Israel.  Iran’s ruthless radical regime probably represents an existential threat to U.S. interests as well.  I believe that this was already well known; I did not hear any facts in Netanyahu’s address that I did not already know.  AND…I believe that President Obama knows them, understands them, and is concerned about them as he works to negotiate an agreement with Iran.  A hallmark of American democracy is that we are free to disagree with our elected officials, and so it is the right of each of you to formulate your own opinions about our president.  Personally, I don’t think that one becomes President of the United States or Prime Minister of Israel without being an incredibly intelligent individual.  These men not only have the benefit of their own knowledge and intellect; they also are advised by some of the most expert security and foreign policy individuals alive today.  Each believes that he is advising the best possible course for the ensuring the future security of our world.  AND…We don’t always get to choose who is on the other side of the negotiating table.  We might not like Iran, or trust that the Iranians won't walk away from the conversation with a signed deal that they have no intent of upholding.  Still, Moshe Dayan, one of Israel’s most respected leaders, once noted, “If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends.  You talk to your enemies.”

That’s quite a few “ANDS,” I realize, and I’ve only scratched the surface on a very complex debate.  I think it’s important, however, to be open to the multiple facets of an issue, to allow for the possibility of grey areas in our understanding of the world.

This Shabbat, we read the Torah portion known as Ki Tissa.  While best known for the infamous incident in which the Israelites construct the Golden Calf, it also provides us with a great deal of insight into the intimate relationship between Moses and God.  Exodus 33:11 states, “God would speak to Moses face-to-face, and then Moses would return to the camp.  But Joshua, who was but a lad, did not leave the tent.” 

What are we to make of the distinction between Moses’ actions and those of Joshua?  Moses had a unique, transcendent experience when he interacted with God.  But still, he was able to return to the people, and to translate that experience in a way that would bring meaning and understanding to the people.  Joshua, on the other hand, could not move beyond the tent.  Locked in his singular interpretation of the events unfolding around him, he could not be open to other means of viewing, and interacting with, the world.

Eventually, of course, Joshua is able to broaden his horizons and become a leader in his own right, developing a more nuanced view of the world than the one he had clung to in his youth.  How will each of us choose to act?  Will we be like young Joshua, remaining in the tent we have always known, viewing the world in stark black and white?  Or will we venture forth as Moses did, and open ourselves to the complexities of the world, and all of its variant shades of grey?