Winning with Forgiveness and Growth
With November elections around the corner, October is plentiful with candidate debates. What debates reveal about candidates they conceal in actual content. Imagine a curious person trying to learn something about financing government, managing debt, or healthcare distribution from the other night’s Presidential debate. In this way, conversation is entirely different from debate – the former advances wisdom, the latter is about winning.
There is an audacious midrash on tomorrow morning’s Torah text – the central forgiveness text following the sin of the Golden Calf – that depicts God asserting, “When I win, I lose; when I lose, I win. I defeated the generation of the flood, but I lost thereby, for I destroyed my own creation…But in the days of Moses who defeated me (by persuading Me to forgive the Israelites whom I had sworn to destroy in the wake of the Golden Calf), I gained for I did not destroy Israel” (Pesikta Rabati, 9). We gained too because we came away with more than survival.
The conversation between Moses and God was as intimate a human-Divine encounter as ever recorded. I noticed for the first time this year that God’s key verb avar (Ex. 33:19,22; 34:6) also appears seven times in the High Holy Days foremost prayer, Who By Fire? Who By Water?, when we contemplate our mortality. Our Hebrew root, avar, can have many meanings like “pass before”, “traverse”, even the word for Hebrew “ivri” may originate from its ‘contrarian’ spirit. For me, the word speaks of being in motion and suggests that generative growth is essential to being organically and spiritually alive.
If political debates are only about winning, let us not lose sight of conversation’s vital role – between God and Moses, and even between ideological opponents. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written, “Disagreement is how knowledge grows. Living with it is how we grow.” Stasis has its time and place. But stillness is more costly when the demands of the day are profound.
Sir Edmond Hillary was presenting to British Society after his first failed attempt to climb Mt. Everest. He turned to the picture of the great mountain peak and said: “You may have conquered me this time. But in the end I will succeed because I’m still growing and you’re not.”
A sweet Shabbat and Sukkot to you.
Rabbi William Hamilton