Who are we?

As the events unfolded yesterday on Capitol Hill, I like so many, was taken aback by the brazen and swift insurrection by domestic terrorists. Four people died, dozens of peace officers were wounded, the Confederate Flag, a symbol of hatred and racism, was paraded through statuary hall for the first time in U.S. history. It was shameful and embarrassing as a nation to see what has been a platform for stability in the world, the U.S. Government, become so exposed so quickly.

While the riot lasted only a short time, it is enough to ask abiding questions about our democracy, our values and the very fabric of our country. At one point, I posted about how embarrassed I was, saying “we are better than this,” and I was surprised by the pushback I received questioning whether America, and people in general, are better than being a mob. Critics quickly pointed out that one can draw a “straight line from the [Compromise of 1877], (ending the Reconstruction era) to the riot.” Others took a more existential view, sending memes and questioning whether or not people are capable of anything like progress. Curiously, many of the interlocutors of my post are some of the most progressive people I know.

This bewildering moment in history is a reckoning. There is no question of that, but what is it a reckoning of, exactly? Is it political, social or communal? It’s hard to say in the ever nebulous haze of the present tense, but to me the question all of us must deal with is deeper. It is an inner question. It is a spiritual question:

Who are we really? Is there more the human spirit than vicious animus, or are we made of more sacred stuff?

I find it cynical to simply agree with the prejudice that modern science tells us about our conception of the self. Many neuroscientists say that the self can be reduced to the hundred million or so wisps of pulp firing off inside our heads. Our mental life, comprising our thoughts, ambitions, passions, our love, our fear - everything that we think of as our most intimate selves - is the activity of these little specks of jelly.

Life, the philosopher Martin Buber writes, “is more than the sum of goal-directed verbs.” The entirety of ourselves is not found in the manipulation of things, people, or even experiences. The “I” in each of us, is something that lives in the world and through it, in relation to something much greater than each of ourselves. We are, as the writer David Foster Wallace writes, “both flesh and not.” And iIf there is anything that runs through our tradition as Jews, it’s that progress is possible. Tomorrow does not have to look like yesterday. Liberation is possible. Goodness is sovereign, even if clouded or eclipsed by particular moments of chaos.

The rabbis say that when God revealed God’s self to the masses, God appeared as a mirror, reflecting the myriad of Israelites in the light of revelation. (Pesikta D’Rav Kahana 12:22) In God’s mirror, we find the answer to our own deepest questions. Never before has a culture said that your tomorrows do not have to look like your yesterdays. Never before has a book said that the part of you that feels unworthy, enslaved, downtrodden, and disempowered, shall have eternal sovereignty.

Judaism’s answer to the question of ourselves is to look in God’s mirror, and see that we live for a future that while unseen, can be created. To reflect the Divine image is to know that we are the sacred capacity to imagine a world, to repent for our misgivings, to repair the breach, to forgive trespass, and to liberate the soul. It is the life we lead towards greatness. God’s name in Exodus is ours and ours is God’s. We will be what we will ourselves to be.

At this moment in history, we cannot answer the question “Who are we?I” with only the smallest, most narrow of answers. We are better than our darkest proclivities. If we make the turn towards the future, if we choose to see the light, if we look into God’s mirror, we can grow, we can change, we can speak with kings, we can claim our place. When we extend ourselves beyond our limits and partner with what is holy, we can tell the most important story of all - the story of goodness.

Noah Farkas is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California. He can be followed on Twitter at @RabbiNoah

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

Who are we?

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