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The year was 2012 and the issue of the hour was same-sex marriage for all Americans, a right that at the time, you may recall, President Obama had stopped short of endorsing. On the morning of Sunday, May 6, Vice President Biden broached the issue on national television, telling NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he was “absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying are entitled to the exact same rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.” Journalists pounced on the perceived daylight between Biden’s and Biden’s boss’s evolving views on gay marriage, to the point that in the days ahead, Obama would reflect publicly that the vice president had “probably gotten a little bit over his skis.” In the next few days the White House reported that Biden had apologized to Obama privately for his public verbal foot fault.
The most interesting thing about the entire episode, however, was neither Biden’s misstep, nor Obama’s “over his skis” turn of phrase, which has become part of the American lexicon, but the fact that despite what was reported, Biden never actually apologized for a verbal misfire. In fact, soon thereafter President Obama became a full-throated supporter of gay marriage, stating: “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.” It is worth pausing to appreciate the political theater of it all. Biden’s public statement provided Obama with a trial balloon for a major policy shift. Obama’s mild rebuke provided him with plausible deniability and political cover from the naysayers. While Biden’s publicly (mis)reported private apology may have denied Obama the short-term advantage of a principled stance in favor of gay marriage, in the long run it arguably accomplished the task of bending the moral arc towards justice with the Supreme Court’s ultimate 2015 decision on gay marriage. Change happened, and everybody, more or less, came out a winner. Was the entire series of events by design? Some sort of staged Kabuki dance? Only two people will ever know. What we do know is that the vignette serves as a case study in how the political game is played and how social change actually happens, specifically, how public pressure can be effectively leveraged to prompt individuals in power to bring about much needed transformation.
If the Biden-Obama story stands as an example of the effective use of the public sphere, then this morning’s Torah reading illustrates the pitfalls of using the public sphere poorly. At God’s command, Moses sends twelve spies to scout out the land: to assess its inhabitants, its fruits, and its fortifications. The spies do as they are instructed and after forty days, return to Moses and the entire Israelite community. The land is beautiful, they say, but we cannot attack the inhabitants. They are stronger than we are; we looked like grasshoppers in their eyes and in our own. Joshua and Caleb try to counter the report of the ten other spies, but to no avail; the people’s will has been broken. The Israelites will be punished with forty years of wandering in the desert, one year for each day of the scouts’ mission, an entire generation deemed unworthy to enter the promised land.
Every year we read the story of the spies, and every year the reader is left with the gnawing question of “Why?” Why were the spies punished? They were told to scout out the land, come back, and deliver a report so Moses could proceed accordingly. They did what they were told; they agreed on what they saw; they came back and shared it. What precisely was their sin?
Some interpreters suggest that their failing was a lack of faith – in Moses, in God, and in themselves – their loss of nerve, their longing for Egypt, prompting them to create fake facts and mislead the people. Others have suggested that their sin was one of mishearing Moses’s charge. Moses was not interested in the question of whether the land should be conquered; rather, Moses needed counsel on how to do it. The spies were stuck on the question of “whether,” while Moses had asked the question of “how” – a subtle but critical distinction in this story and so many others.
Compelling as these reasons and others may be, in my mind the fundamental misstep of the story boils down to the issue of the public vs. the private sphere. The text is specific: The spies shared their findings before the entire people of Israel. Once the spies publicly forced Moses’s hand with news he neither anticipated nor desired, he did what any human being would do under such circumstances: Flatfooted and embarrassed publicly, he dug in his heels and swung back. The spies could have pulled Moses aside; they could have let him know, on the QT, that bad news was on its way. And Moses, I imagine, had he been extended that courtesy, could have caught his breath, regrouped, and recalibrated. But that is not what happened. Were we to stage this tale today, I would have the spies post their reports on their Facebook pages, and then spotlight Moses’s reaction as he checked his account to discover that the feedback he had asked for was being reported not just to him, but to the entire world!
The spies failed on a number of levels, and Moses’ hands are not entirely clean either; he could have handled himself differently. But it is the failure to appreciate the difference between feedback given privately and publicly that stands out to me as the damning failure of the spies and the entire wilderness generation. Their misstep is brought into focus by our haftarah, when, forty years later, the spies that Joshua sends out to Jericho report back to Joshua and only Joshua. This failure is the sin that ties together this entire section of the Torah. Last week, Miriam and Aaron spoke out against Moses, a sin both in what they said and how they said it – publicly. So, too, next week, the challenge of Korah and his company, a rebellion that, in rabbinic literature, becomes the paradigm for an unholy controversy. And the following week, when Moses is barred from entering the land for striking the rock, the punishment seems incommensurate with Moses’s lapse in judgement until you realize that God’s wrath was kindled not so much for the act of hitting the rock but for the fact that Moses did so publicly, before all of Israel. Even, and perhaps especially, God knows the difference between the public and private sphere. Each one of these stories, as well as others I have not mentioned, would have turned out differently had the involved parties simply paused two beats to consider not just what they were going to say or do, but how and in whose company they were going to make their opinions and actions known.
Ours is a charged season with no shortage of pressing social and political issues. Some days – actually most days – I feel like the man in the old story who complains to his rabbi that his house is too crowded, and the rabbi instructs him to bring chickens, then a cow, then visiting relatives into his home. We have a pandemic; we have economic uncertainty; we have racial strife; we have an imminent annexation of the West Bank; we have a crisis in the attorney general’s office; we have antisemitism on the left and right. Rabbi, my house is full! We are all wondering what we can do, how we can effect change, how we can move the needle a little bit, do our part to make this broken world a little less broken.
In our desire to right the wrongs and heal the world, we want to call out injustice, foot faults, and sins small and large; we dare not stay silent. Those of us who know our history know that neither individuals nor societies change from a place of comfort. Inspirational “ask not” speeches are nice, but generally speaking, fireside chats and stirring appeals to our better angels do not prompt perpetrators of wrongdoing to mend their wicked ways. Think of any movement of social change, from Moses to MLK to Harvey Milk and everyone in between. At some point there had to be public pressure; at some point, someone had to be forced to do something that would not have come about otherwise owing to simple inertia. What were the ten plagues if not a public demonstration of God’s might to bend the will of Pharaoh before the Egyptian public? As Jews, we of all people know the price of public silence. How much human savagery, the Shoah included, could have been limited, if only the press, public officials, and the general public had been more forceful in their denouncements. Thank God, thank God, the framers of the Bill of Rights, with the Boston Massacre still fresh in their mind, chose to protect “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” For us as Americans, as Jews, and as lovers of Israel, there is a time – and that time is now – that we not only can speak up, but we must speak up. Sometimes people need to be forced to do the right thing.
And we need to use our heads. Because as much as I fear for the health of our society, as much as I believe in the power of public speech and the press as instruments of change, I also fear for the well-being of so many whose humanity is forever diminished by our contemporary call-out culture. If we see something, we should say something. But lately, it seems that rather than seeking understanding, dialogue, and change, we have become satisfied with publicly shaming individuals before the facts are in, before the context is understood, before we have extended to others the same courtesy we would ask for ourselves when our actions come under fire. To defame another person by way of social media is not dialogic and it does not make you an instrument of social change; it is a way to seek cheap high fives from your own teammates. It prompts the other party to dig in his or her heels, because like Moses, we all respond differently to feedback when it is delivered publicly. Denouncing someone in social media also undercuts the possibility of rehabilitating a relationship when the offending incident has passed. It is a moral failing akin to that of the spies. It is easy, really easy, just to hit “reply all,” forward someone’s private email, post what you heard third-hand on Twitter as fact, call someone out, cancel someone’s communal standing, crush a person’s future by way of your self-declared moral certitude and the echo chamber of your Facebook friends. You know what takes courage? You know what takes character? To pick up a phone. To seek to understand and to be understood. Those ten plagues God inflicted on Egypt – they only happened after Pharaoh stonewalled Moses’s repeated entreaties to let his people go. Tradition teaches that a person’s good name, shem tov, is our most valuable asset. At risk of stating the obvious, in a social media age we are all stakeholders in maintaining the share value of each other’s reputations.
No more than forty-eight hours ago, I phoned a congregant – a kind and wise and long-standing member of the community. After a bit of a catch-up, he paused, began to open up, and shared with me that he was glad we were talking, because I had, some time ago, caused him hurt. It was an honest conversation, and together we unpacked the incident in question. He understood that I meant no ill will, and upon my apology, he forgave freely and lovingly. When I put down the phone, aside from being totally mortified at the thought that I had caused him hurt, I was grateful. I realized what I had done; I understood how in that moment I could have been better; and while I can’t undo the past, I am resolved to move forward intentionally, hopefully never to be so clumsy in my words or deeds. And you know why it went so well, what made the conversation possible and hopefully made me a better person? The conversation happened privately, in confidence, with a readiness to share hard truths and perhaps most importantly, a willingness to listen on both sides.
When Shabbat concludes tonight, I will say havdalah with my family as I do every week. When we say the third brakhah, we will raise our hands to the light of the candle. There are many explanations why we do this, and one, taught to me as a young child, is to remind us that to shame another person in public is akin to the crime of murder, sh’fikhut damim, the spilling of blood. To damage a person’s reputation is like taking their life. Why do we lift up our hands to the candle? In order to examine our fingers and check if there is blood on our hands owing to the sin of careless speech. Always, but especially in this time when we are all physically isolated from another, let’s make sure our hands are clean. Let’s presume positive intent and do each other the courtesy of picking up a phone.
Shabbat is a time to imagine the world not as it is, but as it should be. This Shabbat perhaps more than most, we are all scouting out what the future holds, wondering what we can do and say and protest to close that gap by getting involved and speaking out – in New York, across our country, and in Israel. Sometimes we need to shout loudly; sometimes we need to hold our tongue; and sometimes we need to tactically, to get over our skis with the aim of prompting other people to head where they need to go – with their reputations intact. The gift of speech can change the world; it can also destroy it. This Shabbat let us remember that it is in our power to to choose our words carefully, to determine to whom they are spoken and where they are posted. Doing that we will arrive together – please God soon – in the promised land.