Judaism has a “master story” that shapes our political narrative. It is, of course, the Exodus.
One famous version goes like this:
A few of us found security in a foreign land. We became many. We were oppressed. We cried out to God. God saved us, bringing us to a land flowing with milk and honey (paraphrase, Deut. 26:5-10, Parshat Ki Tavo ).
This is the quick summary. To be recited in gratitude, Torah says, when you reach the sweet, nutritious land. Or every year at Passover, our sages say, no matter where you find yourself.
It’s story about our past, to be sure. But it’s also a story about our present and future. Egypt. Babylonia. Spain. Germany. Iraq. And now, some fear, North America, too.
Does the Exodus really happen over and over again? We Jews cannot answer objectively. Wherever we are, we collect the facts and organize them into this storyline.
It’s a great storyline! Suffering, faith, and life renewed. A recipe for hope.
I love it, use it, see it. Everywhere. Political events follow the pattern. So do psychological events. And spiritual ones.
But I worry. A single narrative that stretches to fit all facts can be dangerous.
We see the danger in public discourse. Rigid polarized political narrative, unshaken by facts. Challenging data discredited, rather than investigated. It’s getting worse – or so it seems.
Really, it’s nothing new – said journalist Walter Lippmann in 1922. On the eve of World War I (he writes), expats from England, France, and Germany enjoyed life together on a remote island. Remote – as in “off the grid.” Mail arrived by ship every 60 days. August 1914 came…and went. No one told these British, French, and German citizens they were now declared enemies. For them, nothing had changed.
Sounds funny, doesn’t it? To be so unaware of reality? To think, feel, and act guided by false belief?
Yes! But it’s not unusual. We do this every day. We are always minutes, hours, or days behind important news. Always thinking, feeling, and acting. And always based on our picture of reality. Which is rarely accurate.
Why? Why would our picture of reality be inaccurate? Lies. Deliberate censorship. Little contact with people who think differently. Scant time to attend to news. Complex events told in short, simple messages. Prejudices that highlight particular facts. Reluctance to face facts that require us to change. Stored-up images more powerful than facts. Emotional connection with a familiar story. Identification with a group that treasures its political narrative.
Remember Plato’s allegory of the cave? Where prisoners see only shadows of reflections of representations projected on the cave wall? The prisoners, says Plato, are us.
My community cherishes the Exodus story. Does this reduce my contact with people who think differently? Yes. Offer a simple formulaic message that distorts complex events? Yes. Prejudice me to highlight particular facts? Yes. Offer an image more powerful than any fact? Yes.
So I’m working on a new Exodus: freeing myself from Plato’s cave. Sure, my opinions bring security. They place me in good company. But they oppress me. Sometimes I can’t listen or learn. Open my heart, God. Lift veils from my eyes. Help me feel into worlds others know. Bring me to a land flowing with insight. Bring us all! Amen.