The Power of Finding Freedom

The following is based on my more extemporaneous derasha on 1/16/2010 Parashat Va’eira at The Stanton St. Shul, posted in response to multiple requests. I’ve added annotations and links, though some jokes and cultural references in the original derasha may have been omitted. I’ll try to reconstruct my delivered thoughts as best as I can, but I was on a roll today and for some things you just have to be there.

Let me begin my derasha today by reassuring the congregation. If in the course of my next contract negotiation, the shul wishes to renew but only on the condition that davening will be moved a half hour later to 10:00am, and that Rabbi Yossi Pollak1 will return to give a shiur at 9:30am, and for this concession I will be paid $20m a year, I will most happily take the money.
I am of course referring to the recent drama in the unfolding Late Night Television controversy. As you all know by now, NBC has decided to replace Conan O’Brien after roughly 7 months of hosting The Tonight Show, in order to replace the time slot with Jay Leno. Conan refused to go along with this new schedule stating that doing so would damage “the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting.” For his part, Jeff Zucker, President and CEO of NBC Universal, responded by threatening to keep Conan off the air for three and a half years.
Few of us can relate to fighting over time slots and how to split hundreds of millions of dollars. But anyone who has worked in a hierarchical work environment, particularly in corporations, know full well that bosses and superiors do not respond well to being challenged. It’s bad enough when a subordinate fails to follow orders, worse if he publicly defies them causing personal embarrassment and undermining the chain of command. When his authority is questioned, the superior will often reassert himself with a demonstration of his supposed power, lashing out with violent deeds or words. For what better way to justify one’s own power than with a display of strength or force.
This past week, we saw this sentiment of power and authority expressed in individual’s reaction to the horific Haiti earthquake. One side we have Pat Robertson, no stranger to controversial quotes, explained that the Haitians brought the earthquake upon themselves, having “swore a pact with the devil” to free themselves from French rule years ago. For his part, actor Danny Glover offered a similar sentiment, blaming the earthquake on global warming. The parallel in both of these statements is that both imply, “I am associated with a supernatural power – offend at your peril.” I am great because I choose to follow the Right Diety. If you go against me, you go against my God, who will in turn “strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger” anyone who will oppose him (and by extension, me).
Which brings us to the obvious question: what is the difference between Pat Robertson and Danny Glover on one hand with what we find in this week’s parasha? After all, isn’t God trying to enforce Pharoah’s compliance with the might of “a strong hand and outstretched arm?” Doesn’t Moshe threaten Pharoah with the various plagues of God’s divine strength?
The answer, believe it or not, is “not quite.”
Prof. Menahem Ben-Yashar notes that throughout the narrative of the exodus, God does not actually refer to his miracles as “makkot” or “plagues” but rather “otot umof’tim” – “signs and wonders.”2
To be sure, if you’re on the receiving end, “signs and wonders” may be indistinguishable from “plagues” but the difference for our purposes is the intent. A plague as a punishment implies retribution, but it also implies that one definitively knows God’s motivations – one of the limits of Jewish theodicy. The term “signs and wonders” accurate describes the event, but without the moral qualifications or implications. Instead it treats the events as they are, leaving it up to us as humans to respond based on our own inclinations. Here too we may look towards the tragedy in Haiti where the global response has been mostly altruistic, with Haiti receiving more aid than they have the capacity to distribute.
On Monday we will commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, who perhaps is best known for his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in which he declared:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

For Dr. King, this dream was perhaps the best to which he could aspire. But maybe Torah teaches us to dream even higher. To not even judge people by the content of their character, but the recognition of “ein dayan yahid ela ehad” – there is no judge who sits alone aside from one (M. Avot 4:8). That we may be able to look at the world and people around us not with the judging eyes to find “plagues” – but to accept the “signs and wonders” all around us. And for those catastrophic events which will inevitably occur, we view them first as opportunities for compassion.
And I suspect we may take this perspective and an important step in our own paths to freedom.

1. Friend, colleague and my immediate predecessor at The Stanton St. Shul, currently in Westport CT.
2. I highly recommend reading the Prof. Ben-Yashar’s full article for the textual references.

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