There is no question that we live in extreme times, from a global pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and contentious politics that threaten to tear us apart civilly as much as the virus keeps us apart physically, it seems that civilization has carried us toward the utterly radical. There are many, many reasons for the race toward the radical including the nature of media and our individualistic self-conception, the result of which is a sense of global imperilment.
Fear seems to be the greatest driver of our decisions at this moment. If 2020 were given a name, it would be the “Year of Fear,” for we have expressed our fear of each other through social unrest and vicious conversations. We fear the future from climate change. Perhaps greater than them all is the fear we express towards ourselves. The fear of being less than other people, the fear of anger and rage that wells up against the world, and the fear of being wrong.
More than the reasons, it is the consequences that concern me. All of these fears have the effect, as the writer Robert Wright pens in his book, Nonzero, of shrinking our moral imagination into a zero-sum cycle where to be right is to “win” and to be wrong is to “lose.” When fear elides with zero-sum thinking, hatred creeps in. Enmity impedes upon our ability to comprehend each other and our imagination shrinks to accommodate our fear. It’s a natural process, one evolved from hunter-gatherer societies, that helps us navigate a dangerous world, which as a primative people we had little control.
The story of history, and of religion especially, is to push back against our fear. Imagination is the greatest gift given to each of us. As I’ve written elsewhere, it is a cornerstone of religious thought that God dreamed of a world to not be radically alone, and it is our imagination, our dreams and aspirations, that make us human and God’s partners. God is always asking us in the Torah to imagine a world that is different from the one in which we find ourselves. Imagine a world of freedom, a world of redemption, a world free of sin, and a world of peace. Other creatures were given the gifts of fashioning homes and tools; we are the only creature given the gift of the imagination to fashion a future.
If we are to excel we must overcome the fear that is natural within us and that shrinks our imagination. We must reclaim the part of religion that is expansive in our understanding of each other and of the world. To look beyond the zero-sum and push out our moral imagination and into the future.
The key is love.
In the Book of Genesis, we see this process of expanding (love) and shrinking (fear), almost like a moral accordion, occur over and over again. It begins with God’s unfathomable capacity and desire to love. God lights up the world and subdues the chaos, by shrinking God’s ubiquity to accommodate the space for finitude to exist. That first incendiary choice gave rise to the object of God’s love – the world. Every person who has ever loved another knows the same feeling. We, like God, shrink our sense of self, to grow our sense of self. We push out our moral imagination to make room for another in our heart and our lives are better for it. We shrink to expand.
Yet, when the first brother Cain cannot overcome his own fear of unacceptance, he murders his brother in an act of ultimate privation. (Genesis 4:5) When the first step-brothers Ishmael and Isaac are separated on account of Sarah’s fear, God steps in to ensure that both receive blessings. (Genesis 21:10, and 21:17) When Isaac is older, his sons Esau and Jacob quarrel over the birthright and covenant, concluding with Jacob running from home out fear for his life and Esau weeping, asking his blind father if he had an additional blessing that could be bestowed upon him. (Genesis 27:36) Later, it is the anger and zero-sum thinking that drives Jacob’s sons to kidnap Joseph and sell him into slavery. (Genesis 37:20) Every time in Genesis there is violence, it is because the moral imagination of the human mind has shrunk out of fear. They forget God’s first lesson and most godly of gifts. If we contract ourselves just slightly, we can overcome the fear we hold inside and expand our imaginations to encompass the lives of others into that of our own.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, we find a moment of sublime and crucial expansion, one that perhaps saves the fate of the first family. We find the family split between Canaan and Egypt. Joseph, still under a hidden identity, has demanded that the other brothers bring Benjamin from their homestead to him. Terrified, Judah speaks to Joseph, saying that their father Jacob has endured much tragedy, and that the love for Benjamin is passionate: “nafsho, keshura bnafsho, his soul is bound to the soul of his son.” (Genesis 44:300)
Love is the binding of souls together.
This one moment of empathy and the expansiveness of love changes everything. Judah is asking Joseph to do what they could not, to expand his moral imagination and overcome the fear, the pain, and the zero-sum thinking of winners and losers. The Rabbis add context to Judah’s plea by pointing out that the brothers are (wrongly) accused of stealing his goblet. In that context, Judah asked a deeper question of Joseph, in essence saying, “love connects all of us, including the sinners and the saints. Don’t break up the bonds of love.” (Alshlich ad locum)
The moment of expansion breaks Joseph. For all the distance, the fear, the winning and losing the brothers had towards one another, this plea for expanding his moral imagination – a call towards divinity – sunders Joseph from the grips of fear. He can no longer contain himself and through his own tears comes out to his brothers saying, “I am your brother Joseph; is my father alive and well?” (Genesis 45:3)
If fear begets fear, then love begets love.
Love is the key to overcoming our fear of each other and our fear of ourselves. The expansion of our imagination and our dreams to dream not only for ourselves but for others is the lesson of Joseph and of Genesis. For this first book ends where it begins — the battle of love over fear and in the contraction of the self so that we can expand ourselves. In our days of chaos, all of us have the divine power of imagination to overcome our fears and find our love, to look out at the darkness and create life, and realize that all of us are nafsho keshura bnafsho. We are bound together in love.