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Outrage and outstanding - the lure of the outliers

  • ParshaRabbiWidmonte
One of (EFF leader) Julius Malema’s G-d given talents, is an ability to capture our guts. When he began the chant, “Pay back the money!” it transcended racial, religious and class boundaries. He had reached into our collective consciousnesses and trawled through our deepest fears and hurts and squeezed out the very essence of our outrage into a single, bull-red bellow, “Pay back the money!”
by RABBI RAMON WIDMONTE | Sep 14, 2017

On the other hand, one of Nelson Mandela’s blessings was the ability to channel a fine distillation of our most outstanding hopes. When he donned the Springbok jersey and was hoisted on the shoulders of a mostly-white rugby team, a symbol of apartheid-sport, he had reached into our collective souls and sifted our aspirations for the finest diamonds of destiny. It was outstanding.

What is common to both of these gestures, as opposed as they are in polarity (one rooted in repulsion and the other in aspiration) is that they are both aligned to the outliers.

They gain their power and impact through the extraordinary outrageousness and extremism they employ. Mandela’s act was like a beacon, way beyond our reach, but showing the way, even if most of us would never get there; while Malema’s mantra was like a lighthouse, warning of a direction and destination to be avoided like the plague.

But neither of these speak to our daily lives in a practical fashion.

Malema captured our outrage and focused it on one man; but if we are honest with ourselves, we have been and are complicit, in the creation of the context of corruption in South Africa.

How many of us drive while talking on our cell-phones, endangering our fellow citizens; and when we’re caught, are all too happy to pay a bribe? How many of us misstate our earnings at tax time or are all too creative with VAT returns?

It is childishly simple to create an external locus of our deepest demons and burn the effigy of all we hate, and then never look inward and see that that effigy is partially in our own image.

Similarly, Mandela concentrated our vision and striving on a single moment of national unity and joy in excellence and achievement beyond race.

But again, if we are honest with ourselves, most of us did not get up the next day and ask: “How do I change the life of the five black people closest to me to ensure they and their children have a more hopeful future?

“How can I make a difference in their education, housing and healthcare, so that our country and society can develop in a more moral fashion and also practically bring all our collective energies to bear in forming a powerful, productive, caring and cohesive society?”

And when we saw the lack of progress in the building of schools and hospitals, how many of us got stuck in, using our voices and time to make a positive difference; and how many of us were happy to delegate the blame to government, as if it wasn’t our issue?

This is the genius of Torah.

We have the prophets who tap into our wild, creative, protesting energies. But we also have a finely-meshed network of tiny, everyday actions which move us inexorably towards personal and communal involvement and implementation of the big ideas.

A few examples of this.

The product of this system was the first welfare state in every Jewish community worldwide for thousands of years, before any thinker, Western or Eastern, began to construct theories around social nets.

The Torah’s requirement never to close one’s hand to a needy person, results not only in a flow of small change, but in a tidal wave of care and sensitisation to the needy, which is unattainable merely through isolated, grand acts performed every few months or years.

A further product of this system was the first national and international network of basic education and literacy for men and women; and the first free system of education in human history.

What is the source of the grand vision of state-sponsored free education, medical care, social welfare and basic needs, which is now the standard of enlightened states? It is big Torah ideas, and small mitzvot.

The Torah focuses on a growth path which nudges us as individuals towards real involvement in the implementation of majestic ideals on a personal and communal level. It also creates a societal fabric which nurtures and encourages the growth of this morality.

This is the difference between the outliers (whether outrageous or outstanding) and a system which cultivates change through incremental personal and societal development. Of course, you need both, but we are too often overly impressed by the loud minority, while ignoring the ultimate question of creating a system and a culture of real, long-term, sustainable growth.

And it is in the latter area where the average “Jo” and “Joanne” make the difference. In fact, a Mandela can never create a society-wide change, only the individuals therein can.

One of the things that often disturbs me is when a fellow Jew steps forward to repudiate the entire system of Jewish life due to an issue about which they feel so passionately. It may be a perennial weak point or something new which they are raising, but in their eyes, it becomes proof of the vacuousness and invalidity of the entire system.

Yes, we do have a heritage of outlier prophets speaking truth to power; but they were always humble enough to appreciate the value and contribution of the complete framework. Incredulously, I sometimes hear the thunder and rumble of the self-righteous, trumpeting outrage, without an iota of understanding that the values which attune them to moral issues are a product of the very system they deride, and without any recognition of the success of the system over the past thousands of years, and definitely without any suggestion of a better system which can effectively uplift both individuals and society.

At such times, I pray that they do not find themselves one day, standing over Laius’ corpse, dedicating themselves to justice and then years later realising their own hand in the unknitting of their patrimony and society. Unlike Oedipus, we need all our eyes.

As we step into a period of self-examination and review this Rosh Hashanah, I pray that we are all able to see the strength in our becoming more involved, more active in the weaving of a strong communal fabric (Jewish and general), recognising our own indispensable contributions and also never forgetting the echoes of the modest outliers (modern and ancient) who challenge us to grow upwards and onwards.

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