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The Trust Deficit – Va-era 5782

Like so many other people I tested positive this week, and I am fortunate that due to the fact that I am vaccinated and boosted, I have experienced a mild case of Covid-19 – a sore throat and some congestion. Thank God for the human ingenuity that has produced vaccines. (And it’s worth it to remind you all that if you are not boosted, you really should be: Friday mornings – walk-in at the JCC in Squirrel Hill.)

A curious bit of fake news came across my computer screen this week. It was an article about a fake New York Times headline, which read, “Teachers Should Tolerate Bullying Towards Unvaccinated Students.” It seems that somebody out there with nefarious intent wanted to rile up people who are anti-vaccine, and produced a mock-up of a NYT opinion piece suggesting violence against the unvaccinated. 

Now, of course, there are people out there who will believe anything that they see on the Internet, and of course will repost or retweet extreme content. So as ridiculous as this sounds, the fake headline traveled far enough, provoking its intended reaction, for there to be a genuine news article about it.

The challenge here is that we have reached a point where many of us are willing to believe anything that fits our particular worldview, and not to trust anything that does not. The entire world, it seems, is having trust issues. 

Whom do we trust?

I feel this affecting my own behavior: I was recently shopping online for KN95 masks, and I found myself thinking, how do I know that these are really manufactured to the N95 standard, meaning that it filters out 95% of airborne particles? I certainly cannot test that myself. Am I buying a genuine product?

I read elsewhere that a survey determined that 1 in 5 Americans say that it is acceptable to fake one’s vaccination status to keep a job. One might extrapolate that, kal vaḥomer, all the more so for people who are out for a night on the town, where the stakes might be even lower. This does not breed confidence in our fellow human beings.

Maybe the reason I contracted the virus is because the KN95 that I have been wearing in public is not legit, and the people around me who claim to be fully vaccinated are not. Who knows?

Parashat Va-era, from which we read today, includes a handful of questions surrounding trust. As God gives Moshe his mission to liberate the Israelites from the grip of Egyptian slavery, the text challenges us to wonder, does Moshe trust God? Does Pharaoh trust Moshe and Aharon? Does Moshe trust in himself? Will the Israelites trust Moshe, or God? And so forth.

Tied into all of this are the questions surrounding God’s name. Last week, in Parashat Shemot, we encountered in the burning bush episode one take on the name when Moshe seeks to be reassured about the trustworthiness of this whole operation. He asks God directly (Shemot / Exodus 3:13), “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?”

Exodus: Moses and the Burning Bush, Marc Chagall, 1966

God answers, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh.” Not easily translatable, we might read this as “I am what I am.” Not so reassuring, right? 

And this week in Va-era, God does not wait to be asked. The parashah opens with, (Shemot / Exodus 6:3)

וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י י-הֹוה לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם׃

I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name י-הוה [YHWH].

In both cases, the names given are apparently conjugations of the verb, “to be.” That is, God’s very name is a form of existence. 

And, as you may have heard me mention before, all of those forms of God’s name, and in particular the Hebrew yod/heh/vav/heh which we often express as YHWH, consist of consonants that are formed only from breath. (In ancient Hebrew, as with contemporary Arabic, the “vav” is actually a “w” – hence “waw”.) With all of those letters, no part of the tongue or lips or teeth obstruct the flow of air to create a percussive sound. In fact, all of these letters, alef heh waw yod, serve as so-called matres lectionis, the fancy Latin term that Bible scholars use to describe consonants that sometimes serve as vowels. 

If God’s name consists solely of breath, then, how indeed might we be able to trust this mysterious character who somehow surfaces in an inflamed shrubbery in the desert?

Perhaps that is the point. Perhaps the point is that trust in God is elusive. There will never be a hard consonant in God’s name because you will never be able to see God, to touch God, to perceive a solid surface or a concrete hint of God’s existence. Maybe the point is that the Torah wants us to take the proverbial leap of faith, to trust in something ethereal, because that is sometimes how life works. 

It is, after all, trust in the unseen which has held people together throughout our history. In his monumental review of human history, Sapiens, the Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari points out that basic trust between people erodes in groups larger than 150, since that is the human limit on close acquaintances, and therefore the only way to create trust between people in any larger group is by sharing a common story: 

Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins.  

Harari is an atheist; he pointedly denies the existence of God. But he speaks to the power which the very idea of God has. Or the ideas of a specific shared culture, or state, or peoplehood, or judicial system, or currency. 

Harari’s observation implies that trust in God yields trust in each other. If I know that you are an observant Jew, even if you are from far away and speak a different language and prefer ghormeh sabzi to gefilte fish, then we share a common bond. We adhere to the same traditions, we trust in the same God, and therefore I can trust you.

A fundamental challenge that we are facing today, particularly with the decline of religion, is a decline in trust. In a world that is rapidly transcending statehood, peoplehood, and shared theological principles, how will we trust one another? Will we be able to maintain nation-states, let alone synagogues, if we cannot trust the information we receive? Without a shared story, we have chaos.

The cynics among us will say that it is the bad actors in our world who are creating the trust deficit: Russian or Chinese or Iranian spies, or evil politicians or corrupt public health officials or mad scientists or soulless corporations. But consider how we live today: We are all living in our own silos. We are far removed from where our food is produced, from where our clothing is manufactured, from where our policies are made. And, of course, we are far removed from where our information is emanating, and we often lack the skill, the time, and the patience to verify it. So how can we trust anything?

There will not be a burning bush to show us the truth. 

I look out at the future, at the potentially untrustworthy landscape before us, and I can see only one thing that can help us return to a state of trust. And this may be because I am a rabbi, but we have to lean into the traditional institutions that we have, ailing though they are: religious observance. Trust in and fear of God. The democratic processes of our nation. Our sense of shared peoplehoods – the Jewish one, of course, but also the American one, and all the ways we express those relationships. Our sense of the common good. 

As much as the forces of chaos want to tear these institutions down, as much as each of those institutions are flawed in their own way, a future without them seems bleak indeed.

We need to support, and likely re-imagine, the institutions that we still have, while we still can. We need to uphold the principles we have received: of democracy, of learning and teaching our tradition, of prayer and academic inquiry and shared culture and music and all the things that build trust between people. 

It is inscribed on every dollar bill, a reminder that trust intersects with theology, commerce, and nation at every turn, the official motto of the United States of America: In God We Trust. You won’t find that on any cryptocurrency.

If we cannot live by that motto, I am not sure we can live together at all. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/1/2022.)

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