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Moses the Mensch and Moral Imagination

18 Mar

Hillel teaches us in Pirke Avot: In a place where there is no mensch (decent person), strive to be a mensch. In Parashat Ki Tissa, Moses demonstrates how to be a mensch when his entire environment is chaos.  The Israelites push God’s patience to the limit when they create the Golden Calf. God threatens to destroy them, but Moses saves the day. Let’s take a closer look. Upset that Moses is tarrying for 40 days on the mountain, they build a Golden Calf to worship as God, despite the fact that they were specifically instructed not to make a graven image.

God is furious and threatens to destroy the people and start a new nation with Moses.

9The LORD further said to Moses, “I see that

this is a stiffnecked people. 10Now, let Me be,

that My anger may blaze forth against them and

that I may destroy them, and make of you a great

nation.” 11But Moses implored the LORD his

God, saying, “Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze

forth against Your people, whom You delivered

from the land of Egypt with great power and

with a mighty hand. 12Let not the Egyptians say,

‘It was with evil intent that He delivered them,

only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate

them from the face of the earth.’ Turn

from Your blazing anger, and renounce the plan

to punish Your people. 13Remember Your servants,

Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, how You

swore to them by Your Self and said to them:

I will make your offspring as numerous as the

stars of heaven, and I will give to your offspring

this whole land of which I spoke, to possess forever.”

14And the LORD renounced the punishment

He had planned to bring upon His people.

 

It seems clear enough from Exodus that Moses intervenes and saves the people from God’s wrath and certain destruction. To underscore the point, Psalm 106:23 singles out Moses for praise:  “And [the Lord] said He was about to destroy them, if not for the fact that Moses, God’s elect, stood in the breach against Him to deflect His anger from destroying.”

Aviva Zornberg notes the Zohar’s contrast between Moses and Noah:

[T]he Zohar rereads Noah’s obedience to God’s commands—to build the ark and save his own family as a genetic basis for a future humanity: what looks like normative obedience is in fact collusion in the destruction of the world. Moses perceives the analogy with his own situation and prefers to die, rather than incur such a charge. The moral intuition that Moses articulates constitutes a momentous advance in ethical sensibility: to accept God’s offer to found a new nation on Moses, reconstructing history with Moses as patriarch of a revised world, would mean in effect to conspire, like Noah, in destroying the sinful world.

“Indeed, the contrast between Moses and Noah may be deciphered from a possible wordplay on Hanicha li (Let Me be…) …Moses, unlike Noah catches the drift of God’s intention, rather than unimaginatively obeying His explicit words. Noah becomes the paradigm, then, of an unimaginative literalism, which is harshly judged as murder. This moral vision is Moses’ creation, making sense of God’s implicit communications. To achieve this order of sensitivity to the unexpressed desire, a kind of self-forgetful attention is necessary. (Kornberg, The Particulars of Rapture, 416)

God wants us to think beyond the bounds of our personal lives.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes of approaching life with a sense of moral imagination, the ability for people to think about the implications of their actions before they do them—to think through before we do it.  People often have imagination but lack moral imagination.

Leaders in our country today have plenty of imagination but are woefully lacking in moral imagination. When lawmakers threaten to strip health insurance away from 24 million Americans, they suffer from a deplorable lack of moral imagination. When our leaders threaten to cut heating subsidies from single mothers in the Midwest who would freeze in the winter without this assistance, that’s not just a lack of moral imagination, it’s pure cruelty.

Moral imagination is the ability to learn before you do something. But how do you teach this? How do we cultivate genius for helping other people? Telushkin writes that we have the ability to cultivate moral imagination, particularly in youngsters, when we reserve our highest praise not for good grades or athletic prowess, but for acts of kindness. Examples may include returning a lost object, helping someone in need or stopping a friend from committing an act of vandalism or some other anti-social behavior. By praising children for simple acts of kindness, and I might add adults as well, “they will identify having a high self-image with being a good person.”

One young man in my community was on a high school sports team a few years ago when a teammate of his developed cancer and lost his hair in the course of treatment. In response, all members of the team shaved their heads to show solidarity with their teammate during his treatment. Somewhere along the way, this team developed moral imagination. Telushkin writes that “children who grow up associating being praised and loved with the performance of ethical acts are apt to most like themselves when they are doing good.”

In our society, it’s too easy for us to say Hanicha li—leave me alone—as God said to Moses in this morning’s Torah reading. But God didn’t really want to be left alone. He was testing Moses’s level of moral imagination. Moses had this keen sense and was able to think on his feet act swiftly so that his people were not destroyed. In a place of chaos and no decency, Moses rose to the occasion to be a mensch. We learn from  Moshe Rabbeinu that God expects no less effort on our part. Ken Yehi Ratzon, so may it be God’s will.

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