Friday, June 19, 2009

Iran's Trust Revolution and the Meraglim (Derashah Shelach 5769)

According to the analysts, Iran’s upheaval is not a 21st century version of Eastern Europe’s liberation. Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are both conservatives, ideological brothers.

This is also not a “power to the people” rebellion; Iran’s poorer classes support Ahmadinejad, not Moussavi.

Millions of Iranians are endangering their own lives not out of political philosophy or abject poverty, but in outrage over a government that has betrayed their trust.

Government has always been empowered by social contract, but in this age of free and speedy access to information government is also held accountable to social contract. Violating that contract, betraying that trust, in Iran’s case ignoring votes in a democracy, leads to revolt.

The need for maintaining popular trust is not a new idea. In fact, a midrash suggests that Gd's decision to send the meraglim/spies was motivated by that need, to maintain popular trust regarding Canaan, to head off doubt by letting the Jews themselves see what the land offered.

Elaborating on this point, the midrash compares the desert Jews to a man who wishes to purchase a donkey. He asks, 'Would you give it to me for a test run?' The owner agrees. 'Can I take it on mountains and through hills?' 'Sure.' Once the buyer sees that the owner is hiding nothing, he hands over the money without even doing the test.

Of course, our relationship with HaShem is supposed to be about Emunah/faith, but Gd understood that not every Jew would reach such a high level, that some might need to know everything upfront – and so HaShem allowed them to send spies, in order to build trust.

Moshe also practiced this trust-building transparency, regarding the money he raised for the mishkan. After the collection was complete, Moshe gave the nation a full accounting of all of the items presented; it’s listed in the beginning of the parshah of Pekudei.

One midrash suggests that this was a response to people's explicit allegations about what Moshe was doing with the money; Moshe swore he would provide a full accounting in order to earn their trust, and he did.

Moshe's practice with the Mishkan collection became the recommended ‘best practice’ for tzedakah in general; the Shulchan Aruch says that elected tzedakah distributors need not provide a full explanation of their spending, but the Rama adds that they should do so anyway, כדי שיהיו נקיים מה' ומישראל, to maintain innocence before Gd and Israel.

And this transcends the realm of tzedakah; the Torah’s instruction of maintaining innocence in the eyes of Gd and Israel, of earning popular trust, is all-encompassing.

This is certainly true for our communal institutions.

One of the RCA's resolutions at this year's convention was on exactly this topic – the need for Jewish institutions to function with the greatest transparency, in order to build trust.

The wording of the resolution includes the message, “Let it be resolved that all Jewish communal institutions strive to attain levels of transparency regarding financial affairs, regarding the mechanism of leadership succession, and regarding the planning and execution of general business. Vehicles for attaining transparency include annual open meetings, featuring complete reports of their activities and financial condition, as well as periodic newsletters detailing current news and goals.

Iran or Meraglim or Tzedakah funds or communal instituions, it’s all about earning and maintaining trust.

And there’s one more area where transparency and trust-building are critically important: On talking to our children and grandchildren about our religious beliefs.

As parents and grandparents, we wrestle with the question of what to tell our children about illness, about family issues, about finances; we wonder when it's appropriate to include them in the knowledge that a parent lost a job, or that a relative has received a terminal diagnosis.

This question is all the more applicable for our personal spiritual struggles, our issues of faith and doubt, and I believe that pre-teen and teen children need to know their parents’ beliefs, as well as their parents’ skepticism, in an age-appropriate way.

As children near their teenage years, some younger, some older, they experience normal skepticism about all of the things they learn in school, and particularly the Jewish lessons which are contradicted by so much of society's input. How do I know the Torah is true? Where is Gd now, and where was Gd during the Holocaust? Is there really a Mashiach? What happens when people die?

When parents discuss these issues, and their own views, with their children, that open conversation can establish a trusting relationship that will last far into the future:
• It can prove to children that their parents are people of depth, and not rote observers of ritual;
• It can send the message that wondering and doubting are normal and healthy;
• It can provide answers for children’s questions, and it can provide lessons in how to deal with doubt;
• And it can establish a line of communication that children will, hopefully, exploit as they grow older.

The trust this establishes can be the difference between a child who rejects his parents’ path, and a child who chooses to follow it.

In his essay, “My Father’s Bourgeois Judaism,” Franz Kafka described being dragged to shul for Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur. He wrote to his father, “Four days a year you went to the synagogue, where you were, to say the least, closer to the indifferent than to those who took it seriously, patiently went through the prayers as a formality, sometimes amazed me by being able to show me in the prayer book the passage that was being said at the moment, and for the rest, so long as I was present in the synagogue (and this was the main thing) I was allowed to hang around wherever I liked. And so I yawned and dozed through the many hours (I don't think I was ever again so bored, except later at dancing lessons) and did my best to enjoy the few little bits of variety there were…

Kafka felt that his father never discussed the spiritual with him, and the result was a son who did not trust, and who rebelled and walked away.

Let’s model our parenting on HaShem’s act of sending the Meraglim, rather than the silence of Kafka’s father. When our children know that their vote counts, when they see that we permit them to take the donkey for a spin before buying it, then we will have earned their trust.


1. The midrash comparing sending the meraglim with selling a donkey is Sifri Devarim 21; the midrash on Moshe earning trust by making a full accounting is Tanchuma Pekudei 4. The Rama's comment is in Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 257:2.

2. Note that the meraglim trumped Gd in the drive for the nation's trust, by claiming that Gd really had been hiding information all along - the land is filled with giants, it's a harsh land, we've been duped, etc. It isn't until the beginning of Devarim that Gd, through Moshe, acknowledges to the people the residents of the land are mighty, etc.

3. Perhaps this desire for national trust is one reason why a nasi (leader of the Jewish people) is required to bring a unique korban if he sins. Bringing a normal sin-offering, hiding his transgression among the regular citizens, will not suffice; leaders must be honest with their citizenry.

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