In The Shadow of the Sun, his masterwork of reportage from Africa, the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski offered an observation by way of explaining some of the major cultural chasms separating the beleaguered continent from prosperous Europe. At the heart of Western culture, he observed, was its âbent for criticism, above all, for self-criticismâin its art of analysis and inquiry, in its endless seeking, in its restlessness. The European mind recognizes that it has limitations, accepts its imperfections, is skeptical, doubtful, questioning.â Other cultures, on the other hand, are âinclined to pride, to thinking that all that belongs to them is perfect; they are, in short, uncritical in relation to themselves. They lay the blame for all that is evil on others, on other forces (conspiracies, agents, foreign domination of one sort or another). They consider all criticism to be a malevolent attack, a sign of discrimination, of racism, etc.â
In this weekâs parasha, one African rises to prove the venerable Kapuscinski wrong: As his leadership is called into question, Moses has the wherewithal to focus, as they say in Sinai, on the bigger, celestial picture.
The story begins when the leader, fed up with his stiff-necked people, kvetches to the Almighty. âWhy have you treated your servant so badly?â Moses asks the Lord. âWhy have I not found favor in your eyes that you place the burden of this entire people upon me? Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them, that you say to me, âCarry them in your bosom as the nurse carries the suckling,â to the land you promised their forefathers? … Alone I cannot carry this entire people for it is too hard for me. If this is the way you treat me, please kill me if I have found favor in your eyes, so that I not see my misfortune.â
Feeling Mosesâ pain, God instructs him to select 70 elders and bring them to the Tent of Meeting. There, the Creator promises, heâll make a special appearance and charge the elders with helping Moses lead the people. The 70 are selected and carted off to the sacred spot, but just as they depart, two young dudes named Eldad and Medad have a divine moment and start prophesying.
To Joshua, Mosesâ second-in-command, such a break with decorum is intolerable. A stickler for order, he runs to complain to his boss. âMoses, my master,â he cries out, âimprison them!â But Moses is unflappable. âAre you zealous for my sake?â he asks Joshua. âIf only all the Lordâs people were prophets, that the Lord would bestow His spirit upon them!â
In the Five Books of Moses, there are, thankfully, many testaments to the manâs greatness, but none, arguably, is more profound than this brief episode. Here is Moses acknowledging his weakness, Moses asking for help, Moses realizing that sometimes what seems like a transgression or a challenge is truly a blessing.
Herein concludes the cheerful portion of this column. If, dear reader, you are not the sort that takes kindly to criticism, I would advise bidding our adieus and turning to less rankling pursuits. Because while Moses stands tall as a paragon of self-criticism, many of us, alas, do not.
Iâve nothing but anecdotal evidence to offer in support of such a cutting observation, but the anecdotes, I think, pile up and harden into a thick wall of obduracy. As someone who habitually writes about Israel, I frequently have the uproarious pleasure of reading this websiteâs comments section and discovering that Iâscion of a great rabbi, ninth-generation Israeli, non-commissioned officer in the Israel Defense Forces, former low-ranking diplomat in Israelâs foreign serviceâam not only not a Jew, but someone who, if true to his hidden nature, would feel much more comfortable in the crisp, black shirt of a National Socialist stormtrooper. In conversations with Jewish communities across the nation, to which I am fortunate enough to be, from time to time, invited, I hear endless variations on the theme of criticism-is-racism: Bring up any observation that portrays the Jewish stateâor those slivers of the Jewish community that support it unequivocallyâin a critical light, and youâre guilty of being naĂŻve or malicious or troubled or some impossible combination of all three. The Jewish state itself, alas, isnât doing much better on the self-criticism front: Even in light of obvious and systematic failures, such as last yearâs massive fires, Jerusalemâs captains are constantly engaged in a perpetual game of pass-the-buck.
In the late 20th century, the dominant cultural paradigm haunting Jewish communal life was that of the self-hating Jew; now, in the dawn of the 21st, the figure to watch out for is the self-infatuated Jew, incapable of introspection, resistant to censure, aggressively rejecting any bit of opprobrium as inherently and intolerably evil. Itâs the self-infatuated Jew who drowns any attempt at dialogue with the din of accusationsâbut the Palestinians started it all! But weâre still more democratic than Syria! But the Iranians are denying the Holocaust!âand who is quick to draw the boundaries of communal belonging as passing somewhere between right and extreme right. And the rest of us, as smarter men have already observed, are left to either fight an uphill battle or walk away from the whole throbbing mess.
Amid the rancor, this weekâs parasha comes as a much-needed reminder of our tradition and its attitudes toward leadership and dissent. Borrowing a favorite turn of mind from the self-infatuated hordes, I can say that self-infatuation and intolerance of criticism are fundamentally non-Jewish traits; real Jews, like Moses, admit their own shortcomings and embrace their passionate kinsmen even if the latter are defiant. Real Jews know how to tell prophesy from piffle. Real Jews reject thundering statementsâin a websiteâs comments section or on the floor of Congressâin favor of difficult, often cantankerous, but always illuminating conversations. Like the one, dear reader, I hope weâre about to have soon.