Saturday, June 22, 2013

Blinded by Arrogance: Balak and Today's Political Climate

This past week I had the blessing to attend the Jewish Federation of North America’s Rabbinic Cabinet Annual Meeting. Aside from having the longest name for any rabbinic assembly, it was an interesting opportunity to engage in a more political environment. Our first speaker was Norm Ornstein from the American Enterprise Institute. I’m not going to lie, he didn’t say anything that anyone following the current political climate didn’t already know: things are bad, a point reiterated by various congressmen we heard from the following day. The tribal nature of today’s politics and media make problem solving incredibly difficult, and problem solvers all the more rare. What was the most frightening thing for him was that we no longer even share the same facts. Whereas once we may have disagreed on the cause or best way to deal with a problem—poverty, let’s say—today one person says something is a problem, and the other calls that a hoax, or a cover-up. We then demonize the opposition, return to our echo chambers, and refuse to engage. The result is dysfunctional politics and dysfunctional processes.
As I said, none of that is new, and it is terribly depressing. What is new is the way he described cause and solution, and how that solution was echoed by the half-dozen congressmen we met. The problem won’t go away, he said, with a different approach by government. We can’t legislate out of this. Rather, it’s a cultural problem, and requires a cultural solution. We no longer shame those who lie; liars then get to double down and call their lies ‘truth’. We don’t punish those who run mean-spirited campaigns and then refuse to compromise. Instead we punish the moderates. We don’t have a true public forum anymore; we allow the loudest to shout others down. We grade our legislators on everything from approach to taxes, poverty, guns, but we don’t grade them on fairness, cooperation or decency. As Representative Cleaver from Missouri said, Congress has an approval rating of 10%; Satan has an approval rating of 13%. But these folks were elected and sent to Washington. They are us.

And friends, we know this is true. We realize that the political situation in Washington is merely a symptom of a greater problem. We don’t listen to each other. We don’t really, truly see each other, except competitively. And we’d be foolish to think this was new. Our Torah portion shares a strange scene. The prophet Balaam, off to meet with the king of Moab, is intercepted by an angel with a fiery sword. Except he can’t see it, only his donkey can. So the donkey tries to avoid the fiery sword guy, ‘cause fiery sword probably hurts, and Balaam just thinks his donkey’s gone nuts, so he’s whipping the poor beast, until the donkey says to him, ‘why are you beating me?’ Amazingly, Balaam’s response isn’t, “aaaah, talking donkey!” Rather, he gets into a fight, until he too sees the Angel. Then he apologizes to his Donkey and God by saying, “I am the one who sinned.”

I told you it was strange! Balaam sinned? How did he sin? He didn’t see the angel! You can’t sin when you don’t know, can you? In fact, the rabbis argue that his sin was that he SHOULD HAVE seen the angel—he wasn’t looking. He allowed his ego and arrogance to blind him. Even the DONKEY could see the angel, but he let his haughtiness get in the way.
How often do we not really see the person or group we’re talking to? How often do we not really hear them? We’re so busy yelling—YELLING—our perspective that we forget how to hear and respect the other. That doesn’t mean we respect the position, but we respect the other. Instead, we make assumptions about the other person’s intent, we attribute all kinds of negative attributes to them, or may even insult them, call them names, blinded by our own arrogance, our own assumption that we’re right and they’re wrong. On this same conference, twice I was embarrassed by my colleagues. One who reamed out a cab driver, the other for yelling at full volume at a security guard at the State Department (who really should be the last person you yell at these days). What’s the old saying that you know the measure of a man not by how he talks to his friends but by how he treats the waiter? I don’t know these colleagues well, but based on this experience, they came up short, and I had to wonder if they weren’t blinded by their own sense of position or assumption of correctness. And as I took the Metro back to my in-laws in Arlington, I found myself instead letting folks who seemed in a hurry get ahead of me on the escalator or through the turnstile. Not that I wasn’t in a hurry too, but I wasn’t going to save any time nudging them out of my way. Perhaps I was in their way, and letting them go gave them a split-second of relief from a stressful day.

Now, I recognize that’s a little thing. Doesn’t change much, doesn’t move us forward much. And there’s nothing wrong with having strong opinions—we’re Jews, after all—and I’m as guilty as the next person for getting impatient with another’s views or attitude. Or just ‘cause they root for the Yankees. But things aren’t going to get better until we start to reward the values we want to see in ourselves and each other, including remembering the decency and humanity of the Other, and responding to them with humility, rather than a sense of entitlement. It’s a start, and I would rather do that and have my eyes wide open to see others’ humanity than shove them aside because I’m too blind to see. After all, for all I know, there could be a fiery sword that way.

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