Friday, February 21, 2014

Self- Worth, Essence vs Concrete Results, Ki Tisa

This is not my daughter. Photo by Christina Rutz.
Used under Creative Commons License Attribution Generic 2.0
I’m reflecting on my trip to Adelaide, on my flight home on Thursday afternoon. There are some times, I make a speech or have a meeting and I walk out feeling like “I hit the ball out of the park”, people were engaged and the objective was achieved. I don’t feel like that right now. Thoughts appear in my mind about whether I could have done this, said that. I have been thinking about the relative importance of concrete realities vs. the essence.  This tension has challenged my people for thousands of years, from the time we wandered in the desert.

On Sunday this week, I felt certain that essence is all important. I wrote:

I am learning that it doesn’t really matter that very much if “I am good”, “professional”, “organised”, “got it right” or wrong.  Yes, I am highly committed to being good and ethical. Yes, it is very important to me and for those I serve that I do competent, organised work. My point is that for me, these achievements and roles have often been essential to my identity and value. Any failure was very personal. No more, with God’s help.  I am none of these things. My value stems from my essence as a human being, as one of God’s children. My 11 month old baby daughter cradled in my left arm as I type, does not need to earn love, it’s her birthright. It is mine. It is the right of every human, regardless of ethnicity, faith or merit.

A few days later, I still think what I wrote about essence is correct. However, it is too optimistic to think I can quickly and consistently change the way I think and feel.  It is tricky because there needs to be a combination of valuing essence with a commitment to concrete good deeds and results that advance justice, truth, acceptance of all people and compassion. 

An example of this tension: something the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said last week really touched me. He told of his experience as a young man, employed as an opposition political staffer he heard the historic “Redfern Speech” by Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating. Despite it being his job to disagree with ‘the other side’, listening to that speech was a “watershed” moment for him. He accepted that “our failures toward Australia’s first people were a stain on our soul”.  ...“If that hardness of heart was ever really to melt, I thought that change had to include me, because you can't expect of others what you won't demand of yourself”. When I discussed the speech with an Aboriginal elder, he replied that many Aboriginal people were very unhappy with Abbott's government because of funding cuts to their community programs that were working. His actions will matter more than his spirit.

For my ancestors freshly liberated by an invisible God, staying connected to this abstraction was difficult. When Moses disappears on the top of a mountain for forty days they become anxious. “This man Moses who took us out of Egypt, we don’t know what happened to him” (1) the people explain as they demand something else, tangible to worship. The abstract God does not soothe their anxiety. A Golden Calf that they can see and touch is what they think they need to replace Moses (2).

As Moses comes down the mountain and sees the Golden Calf and the dances he becomes very angry (3).   Moses is disheartened by a realisation that the people are focused on the concrete object instead of appreciating the spirit. Moses is imagined as crying out; “do you think I am some kind of holiness, and in my absence you resorted to making a calf? God forbid, I am just a man like any of you. The Torah does not depend on me. If I had not come, the Torah would still have been the same”. Because he understands their mistake he realised that if he brings the people the tablets and destroys the calf, the tablets will simply replace the calf as the object of worship. It is clear to Moses that he has no choice (4), so he throws the tablets (with the ten commandments) out of his hands and breaks them at the foot of the mountain (5) to make the point that the object is not holy in and of itself but only as a means for people to connect with God and the Torah. Indeed as the physical tablets shatter, the verses engraved on them are freed and fly up to heaven (6).

As the plane continues to fly me home I feel at peace with myself and my day. Yes, there was an important meeting that did not seem to go as well as I had wanted it to. Perhaps it will not get the desired result in the end, I don’t know.  Whether it does work or not, matters a great deal, because there are people who can benefit from a “good result”. Regardless, my personal value stems from my essence, not the concrete results I get.

1.    Exodus 32:1
2.    Ramban commentary
3.    Exodus 32:19
4.    Meshech Chochma
5.    Exodus 32:19
6.    Pirkey Drabbi Elazar 45, Midrash Tanchuma Parshat Ekev 11, cited in Torah Shlaima p. 130 

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