“Believe You Me”
In “Treachery and Transcendence,” last week’s column, I wrote about the disappointing “new treatment” for my walking handicap. Despite all, I decided to continue it for another week or two, just to see if it could be of some benefit even where I no longer trusted the people administering it. By today, seeing that I was no better than when I’d started (only poorer and out two months of precious time), I realized it was time to quit – the experience was demoralizing me — even before the paid-for sessions had run out.
I woke this morning still riven by thoughts of trying again to “explain” to the facility’s administrators why I could no longer trust them and why I was dropping their treatment.
In meditation, Guidance was cutting. The desire to repair the breach, teach the trespasser, is itself a temptation, it said to me. Evil has magnetic force and the desire to “help” keeps one within its gravitational field. Emmanuel Levinas is rightly admired as a philosopher, but he is mistaken when he makes us all morally responsible for the Other. The Other, like the self, is responsible for herself. Otherwise, freedom stops and instead we’re bound together in a skein woven of the chain links of previous conditions going back and back without end. Nobody can ever be reproached or praised. Everybody can only be “understood” in terms of what was driving her.
Last Saturday, in Torah Study, we read Numbers 16, the chapter where there’s a rebellion against the leadership of Moses. Korah and his faction of 250 Levite elders give voice to the uprising. Why should Moses continue in the leadership as the holiest Israelite? Isn’t the whole community holy? Who made him the CEO of holiness?
In fact, Moses has not claimed to be at all “holy,” much less to outrank anyone else in that respect. At first he does a bit of negotiating with Korah, pointing out that the rebel faction has already been singled out for special responsibilities with regard to the implements of holiness. However, the main thing Moses does is turn the situation over to the God who gave him his original assignment. God then opens a chasm in the earth, which swallows the insurrectionists alive.
End of episode, but not of the discussion, which went round our study circle. Some commented on the phenomenon of spiritual envy, others puzzled over the egalitarian claims. Finally, my turn came.
“When one wants to evaluate a moral dispute,” I said, “it’s useful to see who is lying. For example: Korah asserts that Moses led the Israelites out of a ‘land of milk and honey’ – only to arrive at this dry desert place. But Egypt wasn’t a land of milk and honey. It was the site of bondage and hard task-masters.
“Also,” I went on, “the story of Moses’ leadership didn’t begin that morning. There is a track record: the ten plagues of which he accurately warned Pharaoh, the night of passover, the parting of the sea waters permitting the Israelites safe passage to the other side, the mountain that shook, the ten commandments Moses took down from the mountain, the manna provided … .”
Here the Discussion Leader interrupted me. These things took place, he said, “on Moses’ watch. But who is to say they could not have happened just as much on Korah’s watch?”
“Moses,” I replied, “wasn’t just ‘watching.’ He was not a bystander. He was the active mediator between God and the human scene.”
“Yes,” said the Discussion Leader. “But I’m playing devil’s advocate. I’m trying to see how it looked from Korah’s viewpoint.”
“I’m not here to see it from Korah’s viewpoint! That’s psychology! I’m not here to do psychology! With psychology, there is never any beginning. Everything is a reaction, and the chain of antecedent causes extends indefinitely back in time. With moral evaluation, there is freedom.
The action begins now.”
I spoke with heat, provided perhaps by my recent encounter with the treatment facility whose supervisor had not acknowledged her broken promise. Instead, she had given me a new definition of the word “promise.” In her usage, it designated a commitment that can hold for a week and a half, after which it lapses unless the recipient applies to have it renewed. Absent such a request to keep the promise current, there’s no need to inform the recipient that it’s now null and void.
The supervisor had not been redefining “promise.” She was lying. How do I know this? Because I paid for the treatment by check in three installments. A check is a cashable promise. If, after a week and a half, my checks had bounced, no administrator in that facility would have accepted a “redefinition” of my check such that it could bounce unless the facility had asked me to reaffirm its value. Not asked in a week and a half. Not asked ever.
What is a promise? It’s a commitment we truthfully affirm.
Who are we,
what is the space between us worth,
if we cannot be believed?