I’m a political junkie. As soon as CNN goes to commercial, it’s MSNBC, the occasional peek at FOX news, and then back to CNN. I go to the CNN website several times a day. I’m looking at tracking polls, listening to political analysis, reading commentaries… and this summer’s television watching is full of drama and surprises from the news, rather than the regular fictional drama on the networks. And I love it.
And what a summer it has been thus far! It’s a presidential election cycle without an incumbent running. That means that the two major political parties of our country have had to put forth their best and brightest to compete in a head-to-head, no holds barred competition. There will be jeers and smears, jabs and pokes, some done with humor, some with malice, all with the intent of winning the prize of leading our nation.
And through this bitter competition, each candidate, along with his or her supporters, has had to articulate for what he stands and why he does so. Each candidate has verbalized policies on the Iraq war, on the costs of energy, the economy, the poor, the wealthy, on taxes, and on and on and on. And all candidates and both parties have tried their hardest to be consistent, direct, and forthright about their messages.
And yet, as we have seen in recent months, some messages have been delivered and rescinded. Political gaffs have been made and retracted. Excuses for a faux pas here, a “slip of the tongue” there… and what was once a “straight talk express” from both parties has become a derailed train of thought. What’s worse, both major candidates came into this election cycle with strong supporters who knew for what their candidates stood and now it would seem that each stands on shifting sand, changing positions for which they have been known to stand in one place, and find themselves in a wholly other.
Why has this happened? Why have our politicians lost the ability to speak clearly and plainly? Perhaps it is due to the media’s microscopic vision and scrutiny of anyone in the spotlight, which is unrelenting. As opposed to taking a candidate for what he or she states as his or her positions, words are parsed letter by letter, analyzed, and spit out by commentators reworked and retooled to reflect not what someone said, but what a person’s intention might have been. Reporters quoting reporters quoting a rumor on the internet becomes news. And the truth gets lost. And candidates go misunderstood.
And why have our politicians found a need to finesse their positions to conform to polls or trends? Why do we feel our politicians are “selling out,” doing everything they can to get elected, instead of doing everything they can to do what is right? Part of that is due to the fact that as a society, we have grown more and more attuned to solely one issue or another as opposed to the broader picture. We hear issues like “gun control” or “a woman’s right to chose” and depending where one candidate stands on one issue, we lean one way or another, sidestepping or ignoring a host of other issues which affect our nation.
And so, our politicians, people who are supposed to represent us as citizens and care about the greater welfare of our country, have become fragile origami caricatures, folding and bending to become a sculpture of someone who they feel is electable. If only they would unfold the paper from which the origami was crafted, we could see in what they truly believe and for what they truly stand. If only we were to allow them to be unfolded, we would see candidates not as supermen or false gods, but rather as human beings, just like you and me, who are flawed, who have good intentions, who are bright and intelligent, and who simply have divergent views about what is the best course for our country.
But we, just like they, are folded ourselves. We are bent and twisted, impenetrable and vague. We are just as political and we stand on the same shifting sands. We are afraid to be ourselves and we are afraid to speak our minds. Honesty is a virtue we hold dearly, but honesty is not solely about not spreading rumors or distorting facts but rather about being ourselves–truly being ourselves, and not trying to be what we think others expect us to be. Sadly, we do this all the time, and some of us have come to wear our masks like a second skin, hiding our truest selves. The words we use are no longer our own feelings and thoughts but are run through a sieve, filtering out our emotions and opinions and distilling out blandness we call “truth.”
We hide truths when we are in pain and suffering. Not wanting to appear vulnerable, we stow our feelings inside and put on strong faces. We wear masks of bravery and others laud us for doing so. We even go so far as to numb ourselves from feel pain, to bury it and to disavow experiencing it, even to ourselves. Humanity is fragile. We know there is pain and suffering. Why do we try to pretend it does not exist?
We hide truths when we love. Out of fear of intimacy, we don’t allow those we hold dearest in our lives to know our inner selves. We hide behind something we call “normalcy” and don’t realize that if we truly love and allow ourselves to love, it means that we can be ourselves–and this includes the rawest, the most banal self that we are. Love is being a jerk sometimes and an other excepting us for the jerk we are! Why do we hide and not allow others to love us for the jerk inside as well as the beautiful person inside–which very often is one and the same?
In this week’s Torah portion, Balak, the King of Moab, was afraid of the might of Israel, they having defeated the Amorites. And he sent for Balaam, a noted pagan prophet, to curse the people of Israel. In this way, Balak would be safe from the Israelites and he might even overpower them. When Balaam sets his eyes upon the people Israel, he is not moved to curse these people, but to bless them with words familiar: “Ma tovu ohalekha Ya’akov, mishk’notekha Yisrael! How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” When faced with a truth, Balaam could not state anything but the truth. He was overwhelmed with a need to say something from his heart–something that could not be either contained nor tempered by Balak’s charge. Hired as some Biblical “spin doctor,” Balaam saw Balak’s enemies for who they were–a holy nation–and could not stand by and allow Balak’s influence to taint the obvious.
Now the difficulty for us is that, for the most part, the world in which we live does not grace us with epiphanies, signs, nor portents on a daily basis. The world in which we live is still masked behind our defensiveness, our insecurities, our mistrust. It seems so easy to say that we can and should let down our guard so that we can fully express ourselves and damn the consequences. Living our lives, we have learned that, sadly, there are so many who exploit others’ weaknesses, who, because of their own insecurities, prey on the same in others. Our mistrust has put us in a cloak of darkness from under which we pray for security and safety, but instead, our clothing actually prevents us from true and real human connection. This cloak is fear.
We have become Balak, King of Moab. We see strangers among us and have become fearful and full of bile. Balak rules us through our mistrust of the those who might not be like us, who might not share our opinions, who might not look the same, speak the same language, be in the same class… Balak is who and what bifurcates society into cliques and ghettos. It is Balaam who and what sees the world for what it is and allows us to say what we mean and mean what we say. Balaam can see race, religion, creed, sexual orientation, handicap for what each of those things are, and at the same time see past those things and see the human being inside.
How can we be more like Balaam and less like Balak? We need to practice being more trusting of our fellow man and woman. We need to practice looking beyond our stereotypes and fears. We need to practice being ourselves around others and then seeing that, as more and more judge us less, we can be less judgmental ourselves. It is about practice and experience. Whether as children or adults, we have tried to let our guard down and trust more in the presence of Balak and he has met us with disdain. This should not deter us from standing up to Balak as Balaam. We can move beyond fear and realize that Balak, just like all of us, is merely a human being, made up of fears, aspirations, dreams, hesitations, and insecurities. Practice being vulnerable. A little at a time, step by step. We might not get it right the first time, and we may get hurt along the way, but the more we practice and get used to trusting ourselves and each other, the more we can see how good and beautiful the world really is.
May we start the practice of seeing the world as a place of trust. May we be true to our convictions and feel free to express them. And may we see the world as Balaam saw it. “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” How lovely, indeed.