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Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater Headshot

Lame Duck and Tower of Babel

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While laying sick in bed for the past five days, watching the so-called lame duck Congress take up incredibly important, vital legislation, passing some (DADT repeal) and rejecting some (Dream Act), I have been thinking about the idea of a lame duck world. Why is it that we only seem to act when we are under absolute pressure? For two years, our government leaders have been obstructing and obfuscating one another on some of the most important issues of our day, only now to rush through them and try to outbid one another to pass things in the face of being run out of the building. This is no way to operate, no way to live. Governing seems to be less about doing what is right and good, than about doing what is safe and politically expedient. And while that might sound like a naive and silly comment (like, where have you been dunderhead, that is how it has been for years, if not forever!), I think it is valuable and the job of outside commentators like myself to point out and ask, "Is this what we want from our life? Is this what we dreamed about when we founded our great nation?" If we only accept what is as a fait accompli and don't work to agitate it, fix it, point out the flaws and offer serious solutions, then what we have is what we have. I am proud of the many groups that are working to try and bring sanity to our system, the brave men and women who protest daily, organize daily, and agitate daily for the sake of a better, more just and fair system of government. More of us should be in the streets, on the blogs and in the faces of our leaders calling on them to do the work of all the people, not just the rich and powerful people. Just plain lame is what we are looking at right now, more than lame duck, and that should not be acceptable in our great nation.

Which brings me to another thought. I would like to remind us of a short but illustrative biblical story that may prove important as we end 2010 and stare into a 2011 that seems scary. Genesis 11:1-9 is the little story of the Tower of Babel, a reminder of what happens when greed, ego and lack of concern for others blinds our way. As I am sure you remember, the text tells us the people tried to build a tower "to the heavens," a euphemistic phrase that we understand to mean they were seeking to overtake God, to conquer and take over the entirety of the world. With singularity of purpose, working together with a common language and mode of interaction, the people didn't seek to provide for all humans, to create mechanisms for universal support and advancement of the entire race, but rather, out of greed and power, they sought to use their might to build a tower which would "advance their name," and "make them like God." In one strikingly sad Jewish rabbinic commentary, we learn that the people cared more about the bricks they were using than the people who were working. "Many, many years were passed in building the tower. It reached so great a height that it took a year to mount to the top. A brick was, therefore, more precious in the sight of the builders than a human being. If a person fell down and met his/her death, none took notice of it; but if a brick dropped, they wept, because it would take a year to replace it. So intent were they upon accomplishing their purpose that they would not permit a pregnant woman to interrupt herself in her work of brick making when she went into labor. Molding bricks she gave birth to her child, and, tying it round her body in a sheet, she went on molding bricks."

What do we learn from this? Obsession with accomplishment, obsession with achievement, obsession with advancing our name and seeking power blinds us completely. Is this what drives us to give tax cuts to the uber-wealthy in order to beg for unemployment benefits for the most needy for a few more months? Is this what drives us to ignore the destruction of our planet for the sake of keeping oil, coal and gas industries making millions? Is this what drives us to start and perpetuate wars, build missile defense systems and refuse to negotiate with one another, provide food and shelter for one another, help one another from dying of poverty, disease and lack of clean water? Is this what drives us to be lulled into believing in supermemes, as Rebecca Costa writes about in her thought-provoking book, The Watchman's Rattle, where she describes a supermeme as "any belief, thought or behavior that becomes so pervasive, so stubbornly embedded, that it contaminates or suppresses all other beliefs and behaviors in society?" Are we destined to be ever-pursuing builders of ominous towers, seeking our own greedy power, stepping on those around us on the way up?

Greed seems to be the most pervasive attribute that has plagued us throughout history. Yet, just as we have ancient texts to remind us of how greedy we have always been, we have equally powerful texts, from the ancient prophets, that remind us to change our ways, alter our course, put the brakes on the greed and power we seek, and put the destiny of our children and grandchildren ahead of ourselves and our desire for wealth. There seems to be a corrosive disease afflicting our politics, our economy and much of our international relations: we look out for only those already in power, the wealthy and those that can advance our needs. The Tower of Babel story reminds us that this kind of thinking only leads to one end: the collapse of the tower, the scattering of ourselves into lonely camps and isolated entities. Let us begin to care less about the bricks and more about the people; let us begin to care less about our own selfish desires and more about the hopes and dreams of our future generations. This will make us less lame-duck and even more plainly: less lame.