Aaron Mizrahi slowly climbed the steps to the stage. He could feel the energy of the crowd around him. There were 40,000 people here. 40,000 people who had come to here him speak. He was blown away by how quickly it had all happened. He was blown away by how quickly he had risen. Less than a year earlier, he’d been a waiter at a café in Jerusalem. Actually, waiter was too fancy a word. And so was café. He’d been working the counter at a hole-in-the-wall falafel shop in Talpiot. The shop itself was located in a narrow alley stuffed with mechanic’s stalls. There was constant traffic and not a fair bit of honking as the mechanics’ customers weedled their way through the mass of parked vehicles. And, of course, everything was covered with the grime and grease of automotive repair.
Even though it was quite a humble establishment, Aaron didn’t even own it. He only worked there, feeding the mechanics’ customers falafel and more than a few cups of coffee and watching their faces as they bore the burden of automotive expense.
Aaron had had higher aspirations. He’d come out of the army dreaming of a job in high-tech. But, somehow, he failed the psychometric testing that was all the rage in Israel at the time. Something about him didn’t fit what the computers and the systems designed to assemble the ideal workforce were seeking. The fact was, he hated the psychometric tests and he suspected that they knew it.
And, so, he had taken the first job he found. Working at a bottom-of-the-barrel falafel shop had been convenient. The mechanics’ shops weren’t far from his parents’ house, where he still lived. And, having secured that lowly position, he just never left. He worked in that dead-end job for 11 years, going nowhere.
And then, in under a year, he had climbed to where he is now. He couldn’t quite believe it himself.
And, yet, here he was. A stage had been set up at one end of the field in Teddy Stadium. Three quarters of the stadium, the three quarters that could see the stage, and the field, were stuffed with a standing room only crowd. And more people were crowded outside, watching huge monitors that had been set up. And beyond this place, hundreds of thousands more were watching on a live online broadcast.
As he took his place at the podium, all these screens shifted. They followed him as he bounded up the stairs. He could feel the millions of eyeballs tracking him. It made him uncomfortable. It wasn’t stage fright, it all just seemed inappropriate to him.
As he took his place at the podium, a massive cheer rose up through the crowd.
Aaron tried to look out at them. He tried to see the people. They were why he was here. And, now, as they assembled, he could feel their power. He had to see them. He had to thank them. He had to acknowledge them.
But he couldn’t. The lights were all on him. The stadium was invisible to his eyes.
As he cleared his throat, a hush rippled through the stadium.
And then he spoke.
“To the beloved person who is in charge of the lights…” he paused, and then continued, “Can you shine them on the crowd?”
He sensed movement on the stage and a man hurried up to him, a headset resting on his head. “What?” he whispered.
Aaron turned to him, but spoke through the mic, “Are you in charge of the lights?”
“Yes,” said the man, quietly, glancing around.
“And your name is?”
“Amir,” said the man.
“This is our beloved Amir,” Aaron announced, “And he is charge of the lights.”
A cheer rose through the crowd. Amir glanced out, uncertain.
Aaron continued, “I would like him to shine the lights on the crowd. I would like to see them and I would like them to see each other.”
“And the video?” asked Amir.
“The video too,” said Aaron, as hundreds of thousands watched. “Show us the faces of these beloved people.”
The tech scurried back off stage.
And then, one-by-one, the lights focused on Aaron went down. And the lights that showed the crowd came up. Aaron could see them now, almost indistinctly small. He turned to look at the monitor, and he saw it too had changed. Instead of focusing on him, the camera was meandering through the crowd. He could see them now, one looking to the other, as if they hadn’t noticed their neighbors until now. Now, they noticed each other. He could see introductions and smiles of appreciation. There was a rippled murmuring that trickled through the stadium. It was like electricity for his soul.
“I can feel,” he announced, his voice growing in strength, “The love of this crowd.”
He saw the faces on the screen craning to see him. But he was far away.
“Do not look to me,” he said, trying to build the feeling, “Look to each other. You are a community. It is you who have brought us together. Look to your neighbors. And love them as you love yourself.”
The power of the place grew.
“A year ago,” said Aaron, his voice reverberating in the open spaces, “I was a serving falafel on mechanics row in Talpiot.”
The crowd roared. And Aaron listened. And felt.
When it had quieted down, he continued. He continued with a story that every person in the crowd already knew. He had no script, he just felt what the crowd wanted and delivered it to them.
“A man came into my shop. A beloved man. A courier. He owned his own truck. But he had fallen into debt. And now, his truck had broken down. He came into the shop. And I could see the tears on his face. I could see the desperation. I made him a coffee and he sat at the single table. And I sat across from him. And I asked him, ‘What has happened?’ And he told me his story. And, I don’t know why, but I reached for the kupat tzedakah, the charity box, on the counter. And I told him, give some money to charity.
“The man looked at me, incredulous. ‘I am poor, and in debt and I don’t know how I will pay for the repairs to my truck. I don’t know how I will live. And you want me to give charity.’ I looked at him and then, for a reason I still can’t understand, I said, ‘yes.’
“And so, the man gave, just a shekel. But we both felt the effects. There was an energy, a power, that came from that gift. I could see it in the man’s face. It was like a world had opened up for him. It was like he could see how wonderous and immense G-d’s universe is. But, instead of being diminished, he could sense how beloved he was in that universe. So could I. He didn’t leave the coffee shop any richer, materially. But he left far richer in a far more important way.
“Soon, more and more of you came. That kupat tzedakah filled up. And a light seemed to emanate from the mechanics’ alley. It was a grungy place. A place where people faced tremendous financial hardship. But it was also a place where they gave small gifts and reaped incredible rewards.
“It was not long before I discovered this power followed me. In a café, a real café, the same thing would happen. When I prayed in synagogue the daily gifts of charity would shoot an energy into the place. I could enable physical contributions to become spiritual reality. And so, I began to travel the country, sharing this power. I began to travel, helping everyone understand how beloved they are. And how connected they can be to the spiritual universe around us.
“As a nation, we felt connected like we never had before.
“Then, three months ago, our neighbors launched a coordinated attack on our country. Terrorists in the Sinai assaulted our border fence. Those in Gaza launched rockets. Missiles rained in from Syria and Lebanon. And, for three months now, the assaults have not stopped. Thousands have died. We have struck back with overwhelming force. And tens of thousands of our enemies have fallen. And yet, the war continues. The international community pours malice down on us, condemning us for our defense. And the war continues. All of you, who had felt so connected only months ago, now feel abandoned.
“And this is why we have come together. This is why, despite the threat of continual attack, tens of thousands of us have gathered together, in one place. You called me, you organized yourselves, and you asked me to help find you rescue and refuge. And I, I can feel your energy. I can feel the power of this crowd. I can sense the spiritual force within it.”
Aaron paused, and took a drink from his water. He felt the energy of the place crackling over him. And he knew what he had to say.
“We feel abandoned. In the aftermath of our great awakening, we feel abandoned. You feel abandoned. But we do not need to be abandoned. I can feel the power of this community. I can feel the power of this people. We need only look at our history to recognize this power. We organized and acted and survived the terror of Europe. We organized and acted and built a State in a wasteland. We did this. We redeemed ourselves from the lowest terrors and the darkest realities. And we lifted ourselves up. We did it. We did it with our Kibbutzim. We did it with our army. We did it with our culture. We did it, with each other. By discovering and unlocking the power of our community.”
Aaron tugged at his ear. “This is the power. The power to hear your fellow. The power to listen to your fellow. The power to understand that each of us is beloved to all of us. And this power has only grown. Our country has discovered the power of the Internet and social media. We help others listen to one another and we have helped form a global a global community. A community tied together like none before it. A community, a force, a power, that is beyond compare. It is this power that grants so many of us our livelihood. In a land without natural resources, we have unlocked the power of people.
“Because of this, we need not fear. These rockets are but a pinprick. Over 12,000 Jews were killed in a single day in Auschwitz. But we overcame that. And so we can overcome this. They will not penetrate our borders – they will only rain fire on us from above. But we will overcome them.”
He paused and the crowd roared. They were caught up in the power of the moment. And then Aaron continued.
“Every one of us is connected to billions of others through our phones. They are the ears of today. And the ears of tomorrow. They are the enabler of our power. They pull us together into something greater than we have ever envisioned before.”
Aaron didn’t know what he would say next, but then the strangest idea struck him.
“Amir,” he said, “Turn off the lights.”
Suddenly, the stadium was cast in darkness. The screen behind him went dark.
Aaron continued, “We do not adorn our phones, but perhaps they can adorn us. Turn your phones on. Turn your cameras on. Point the screens towards the center of this field. But cast your cameras on yourselves, use your lights to illuminate yourselves. Shine a video of this assembly into the center of this space. And, somehow, we will create an amalgam of our people.”
Aaron watched as the crowd complied. He watched as the tiny screens lit up. As the tiny images of people’s faces appeared on their many phones. Those in the stands cast their lights towards the field. And those on the field casts their lights upwards. And behind him the giant monitor picked up their faces, illuminated by their cell phone lights. Tens of thousands of people, sharing a vision of themselves.
And then, as Aaron watched, he felt the old power surge through him. He saw the images and the lights coalesce in the center of the field. He saw a strange pulsating orb of light hovering over the stadium. He could feel that he was creating it. Just as he had taken the physical and made it spiritual, now he was taking the spiritual – the power of the community – and making it physical.
The event cameras shifted. They shifted from the people to the amalgam the people had created. They shifted to that glowing orb of energy. Aaron was himself stunned by what had appeared.
And then, spontaneously, the people began to dance. They began to sway and move. He could feel them, looking one to another, with love and respect.
And then Aaron began to chant. “We are the power. We have redeemed ourselves. And we will redeem ourselves once again.”
He repeated himself. “We are the power. We have redeemed ourselves. And we will redeem ourselves again.”
The chant was picked up in the crowd. He grew and crackled. The shouting grew louder, the chant more insistent. And the glowing mass over the field grew ever brighter. There was power in a crowd, there was power in this community.
“Celebrate yourselves!” Aaron shouted over the joyful noise.
And he could hear that they did. He could hear them worshipping their community and rewarding themselves in their joyful redemption. The rockets were but an annoyance in the face of this power.
Aaron just closed his eyes and listened. He had hated the psychometric software because it sucked the spiritual from the human. But here he was, placing the human into the spiritual. He closed his eyes and he felt the power of the community.
How could they not worship such power?
But G-d was watching. G-d was listening. And G-d was remembering. Thousands of years before, this same people had taken their gold earrings and made a G-d of their community. It was an amalgamated golden calf. The calf was the sign of a young nation. And the gold a sign of its divinity. The gold had coalesced into an idol of their community. They had praised it for rescuing them from Egypt. And they had worshipped it by playing.
And that was when it was clear they were worshipping themselves.
Aaron, the brother of Moshe, had filled them with the conceit of Pharaoh (Ex 32:25).
And Moshe had responded by rending the community apart (Ex. 32:27).
And G-d had wanted to destroy them then. G-d had wanted to create them anew. He had wanted to fix their flaw; to replace their core. But Moses had intervened and the people had been saved. They had been shown the face of G-d in the attributes that defined His future.
But it had come at a cost. Forever more, they would be a bellwether. They would be blessed when they recognized Him. And they would be cursed when they did not. Blessed or cursed, the fortunes of this people would forever be a sign of G-d’s presence.
G-d wanted the people blessed. But they did not learn. Again and again, G-d had given them the opportunity to understand their own powerlessness and then recognize the source of their redemption. But, whenever they tasted the fat of His blessings, they found a way to ascribe their redemption to themselves.
Despite the thousands of years that had passed, they had never learned.
Now, another Aaron – another man with the power to convert the physical to the spiritual – was repeating the same ancient mistakes.
G-d had promised not to change them, and so even He, the all-powerful one, had to hope that His people would learn. They were to be a bellwether. As Moshe had demanded, they were to be a bellwether. They were to be, through blessings or curses, the evidence of G-d’s place in this world.
Now, worshipping themselves once again, they had to be punished.
They had to be punished or the world would never come to recognize the divine.
Author’s note: This is not an inevitable story, just a warning on the risks of self-worship. As this week’s Torah reading makes clear, it is within our power to take a completely different path – the path of complete redemption. So, tune in next week for something uplifting