Last Monday morning, I entered the Washington Convention Center, along with 18,000 other delegates, for the AIPAC Policy Conference to hear a who’s who of nationally renowned politicians speak. Bill DiBlasio, Mike Pence, and Nikki Haley were all on the schedule. But before any of them spoke, Arthur Brooks, the president of the neo-conservative Washington think tank the American Enterprise Institute, took the stage.
Brooks didn’t talk about Israel, or the volatile situation in Syria or America’s changing role in the world. Instead he told a personal story. Before coming to Washington, Brooks was an economics professor at Syracuse. Until he got lucky. In 2006, he wrote a book that became a best seller. Even President Bush said something about it. But amidst all this acclaim, he received an email from a man in Texas that read “Dear Professor Brooks, you are a right-wing fraud.” The email, 5,000 words in total, was a biting critique of nearly everything Brooks had said. How should one reply to such an email? With more reasoned arguments? Or perhaps with hostile langue of his own? More importantly Brooks wondered, what sort of reply did this man in Texas expect to receive?
How we relate to the people around us, and how we expect them to act and respond to us, are central themes of our parsha. Perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most tragic, element of our parsha is the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu.
The day of the consecration of the Mishkan, the tabernacle, was supposed to be a time of a rejoicing for the Jewish People. The Mishkan was to be an eternal reminder that God dwelled in their midst. Yet, in the middle of these celebrations, as Nadav and Avihu placed an offering on the Mizbeach, the alter, they were killed as “a fire came forth from the Lord.”
The reason for their death is not clear, but despite this tragedy, the dedication of the Mishkan proceeded and Moshe expected Aaron to fully participate. “Why did you not eat the sin offering as you were supposed to?” Moshe demands to know, when he finds out the Aaron had the offering burned instead of eating it as the Torah commanded. “And Aaron spoke (vayedaber) to Moshe,” the Torah tells us. “‘See, this day they brought their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and such things have befallen me! Had I eaten the sin offering today, would the Lord have approved?’” Aaron questions whether God really would have approved of him eating the offering while he was an onen, one who is mired in grief and has not even buried their loved one. However, what is most significant about Aaron’s response to Moshe is the tone which Aaron used. The midrash indicates that the word vayedaber, spoke, always means that someone is speaking harshly and here too the midrash says that Aaron replied harshly and emotionally to Moshe’s critique.
When Moshe questions Aaron’s actions, it appears that he had completely forgotten the death of Aaron’s sons just a few verses earlier. At this moment, Moshe sees Aaron only as the Kohen Gadol, the “High Priest”, whose role was to carry out the prescribed service in the Mishkan. He doesn’t see Aaron as a person silently mourning the loss of his children, but as an abstraction who fills a certain role.
On Monday afternoon at AIPAC, I heard Chloe Valdary speak. Valdary, a progressive activist, started a pro-Israel and conflict resolution geared organization called Theory of Enchantment. Her work starts from a simple principle, but one we too often ignore. “We are human beings not political abstractions.” She writes. “We have forgotten that to be a human being means that we are complex paradoxes, contradictory, messy, and unable to be Pidgeon-holed into ready-made boxes or paradigms.” If we recognize this fact, she says, if we can see a part ourselves in another person’s narrative, then we can lead with love and compassion.
For a moment Moshe saw Aaron not as a person, not as his brother or a father who had just suffered a tremendous loss. Instead, he saw Aaron simply in terms of the role Aaron was supposed fill, simply as an abstraction. But Moshe’s greatness lies in the fact that when Aaron replied harshly and emotionally, Moshe didn’t get angry. Instead, he recognized his own shortcomings and saw Aaron once again holistically. As a person with a backstory of his own, struggling with real challenges and real grief. This is why Moshe accepted Aaron’s remarks and led with love and understanding.
When Arthur Brooks was reading the angry critique of his work, only one thing kept going through his head, “This guy read my book!” And so, that it is how he replied. “Dear So-and-So,” He wrote. “I know you hate my book, and think I’m a stooge, and I’m terrible. But it took me two years to write that book and I put my whole heart into it. You read the whole thing. I am so filled with gratitude to you right now.” Fifteen minutes later he received a response “Dear Professor Brooks,” the email said, “Next time you’re in Dallas, if you want to get some dinner, give me a call.” Brooks explained what happened. “I changed my heart, which was on fire, and accidentally changed his heart too.” Brooks didn’t change the man’s mind, he still probably hates the book, but the response the man received meant that Brooks was no longer an abstraction for him but another person, perhaps even someone he might like. In her work advocating for Israel from within organizations that are often hostile to it, Chloe Valdary described a similar phenomenon. When she explains to people she encounters what Israel means to her personally, how being a Zionist is one identity amongst many that she carries as an African-American Christian woman, she rarely initially radically changes anyone’s mind. However, she often changes their disposition. The level of vitriol decreases, and they are ready to hear and to share personal stories.
Chloe Valdary and Arthur Brooks stand at opposite sides of our political spectrum. Yet they both have discovered that when we see people merely as abstractions, it is all too easy to view them with contempt, and that it is this tendency that is at the root of the polarization which is engulfing our country today. If whenever we encounter another person, we strive to see them not just in light of their opinions or in terms of the role we think they should fill, but as a person with their own story and their own unique challenges, then perhaps we can transform, if not our nation, then at least our community.