Erica Brown

The great American awakening

These past weeks, among friends or with strangers, in synagogues and classrooms, I encounter sighs of hopelessness, disappointment and, in some instances, profound confusion about our shifting political landscape. While no one seems surprised by various executive orders, appointments and confirmations, the speed of change alone has been deeply disturbing, even puzzling.  I personally have never experienced this level of collective anxiety in almost 30 years of teaching. Something momentous is happening. It’s not yet clear what.

What happens when you’re in the middle of a change you don’t understand? Michael Walzer in Exodus and Revolution makes the case that the exodus was the first recorded uprising that has had a lingering impact on future revolutionary movements. I thought I’d start there. How did Moses made the exodus contagious enough for us to want our freedom? The way Moses sold this idea initially was wildly unsuccessful even though God gave Moses the script. God, I’m guessing, must have known a thing or two about selling great ideas since the Good Book has been around for millennia. But there was no protest movement, no placards, no shouting from the crowds. It was basically one man with a big stick and a brother in conversation with a Pharaoh who found him to be no more than a pest.

The people had no buy-in even, when chapter six of Exods offers an amazing pep talk with one verb after another of liberation. “I am the Lord and will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God” [Exodus 6]. The people couldn’t absorb this message “because of their bitter spirit and harsh labor.” With every plague, life got harder, and the slaves’ hearing got harder. Rashi, the French 11th century commentator, observes that the people were unmoved by Moses. Empty consolations was what they heard, not the verbs of redemption but the verbiage of a leader who had accomplished nothing for them but harsher conditions.

Moses understood that this big idea of God’s was not making a sale to his own people. It would never work with Pharaoh. But by the time we get to Exodus 12, after the tenth plague, when we were about to offer a sacrifice to ritualize our moment of freedom, the people had a change of heart.  “Then the people bowed down and worshiped. The Israelites did just what the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron [Exodus 12:28]. The change seems inexplicable.

“Why do some products, ideas, and behaviors succeed when others fail?” asks Jonah Berger in Contagious: Why Things Catch On. It’s an obvious question. Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point thinks it doesn’t take many people to make serious change; it takes the right few working in consonance: the maven, the salesman and the connector. Berger is less concerned with how the word gets out. He thinks content is the biggest driver of an idea. “Nobody talks about boring companies, boring products, or boring ads…”

Berger writes that, “…seeing others do something makes people more likely to do it themselves.” Maybe seeing the impact of the plagues and the might of their God and the fact that some had bought into the exodus concept created a contagious desire for redemption. Some scholars believe that the plagues were as much for us as they were for our adversaries, teaching us the power of the One God. The people weren’t interested in Moses’ arguments as much as the potential outcome. Again, we turn to Berger: “People don’t think in terms of information. They think in terms of narratives.” We don’t yet have a great story.

Then Berger hits us with a small but powerful idea about inspiring people to change: “We need to make them angry rather than sad.” When people are sad, their energy is drained, their optimism is spent, their commitment to the future is dulled. But get people angry, and they shout. They strategize. They move. Our ancient slave nation watched as the plagues ravaged Pharaoh’s country and then his countrymen. Finally, his own firstborn son was condemned to die but no matter. It became apparent that Pharaoh’s hate for them was greater than his love for his land, his people and his family, filling the Israelites with righteous indignation. Suddenly, these slaves realized that because they had nothing to lose, they could risk everything. They got angry.

In the span of a few weeks, we’ve seen helplessness and hopelessness turn into outrage, and outrage turn into protest, and protest turn into power. No matter where you are politically, you can’t avoid the energy, the determination and the commitment out on the streets and in online communities to make the voice of the other matter. People are angry about our national security and the inefficiencies of Washington. And they are angry about jobs going to other countries that should stay in America. And they are angry that funding has been withdrawn from Planned Parenthood and that refugees may not be allowed in this country and that our cabinet is populated with billionaires. While it’s true that I haven’t ever witnessed this much anxiety, I haven’t ever felt the surge of social activism stronger than I have in recent days. It’s palpable. It’s our great awakening.

This is the kind of anger, we can call holy outrage, of a variety popular in our prophetic literature, where men of old condemned any slight to justice and fought to have a voice for those who had none. The protest movement of Soviet Jewry made me who I am, as it did many of my colleagues. It felt biblical. When I took off the Sharansky bracelet and poster from my bedroom wall, I thought, “There is nothing our people can’t do.” But that drive for change lay dormant for a generation. Even though people protest and strike all around the world, many of our kids have never been to a protest. Shame on us.

But there is a difference between holy outrage and the rage that is fragmenting our community. The kind of anger at each other that creates incivility and breaks up friendships is too great a price to pay for policies that may come and go. Ad hominem attacks and frum-shaming should be beneath us. They’re not. Anger at policies creates change. Anger at people rarely does.

We were asleep in Egypt for a long time. We didn’t believe that anything would ever change. We wrapped ourselves in utter despair and thought we’d be slaves forever. But one day and 10 plagues later, one man started a movement, and the movement then became the paradigm for many historic revolutions to come. We did that. We woke up. We brought truth to power. This is our time. Isaiah spoke words for the ages, “Wake up, wake up, put on your strength…”

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).
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