- Rabbi Mordecai Finley Ph.D.
The Dutch, Rye Whiskey, Clint Eastwood, Dwight Eisenhower, etc.
Random Thoughts on Torah portion Mishpatim
Our Torah portion begins with laws about slavery. Who begins their Constitution with laws about slavery? Former slaves. Former slaves in the United States would have begun with the 14th amendment. You might say that our nation took a great step forward in its march toward moral grandeur with the Civil War and the 14th amendment, crafted by a nation that had allowed itself to countenance slavery until it couldn’t anymore and fought a bloody war to press the point. As a nation, we could finally face the shame and the horror and pass laws that promised “no more.” Laws, we ruefully learned, are not nearly enough.
Freud, in an early thought about human nature, said “the man who first flung a word of abuse at his enemy instead of a spear was the founder of civilization.” (Freud said he was quoting an unnamed English author.) Let’s think about this. Why fling a word of abuse instead of a spear at your enemy? Maybe the angry person realized that this other person had a soul, and no matter how angry one is, the proper course of action is rarely to kill the other. A man with a conscience, a civilized man. Or maybe the man contemplating flinging the spear did not want to face the inevitable consequence of killing someone’s kin. A prudent man, a man squeezed by civilization.
Law is repression; civilization is made up of laws to control our primal drives – murder, adultery, stealing, lying in court, etc. etc. Freud said that civilization makes us neurotic by forcing us to repress our urges. The man who chose the words over the spear was suffering from a neurosis, a neurosis bequeathed to all civilized human beings. (The term for this neurosis in particular is called “being moral.”)
Lots of things go wrong in our Torah portion. Murder, manslaughter, injuries, goring oxen, unsafe pits, cattle rustling, thieves, burglars, killing in self defense, seduction, gossip, lying in court. A good western.
Our tradition urges us to “Tikkun Olam” – repairing the world. In this modern, social action usage, Tikkun Olam comes down to something like righting the wrongs in the world. On the home front, this usually means through legislating laws. A few things here: First, I believe in righting the wrongs. Second, the world will always be in disrepair, because one thing that is very hard to repair is human nature. Third, we can’t give up. Fighting evil is like pushing back the tide and building an imperfect dike.
Dike comes from a word that means, “ditch.” First they dug ditches to channel water, and piled the dirt up alongside the ditch. Then they found that the wall of dirt was actually more effective than the ditch in channeling water, but people still called the piled dirt a “ditch.” Why? Because people are cool. Some guy objected and said, “But a ditch and a heap of dirt are the exact opposite!” And just to be defiant some other guys said, “Well, we are going to keep calling it a ditch. Whaddaya gonna do about it?”
And the first guy who erroneously thinks that one word cannot mean opposite things reaches for a shovel, and decides against it. He looks at the ocean waves, lapping up against the outrageously named ditch (dike), water aching to break loose and flood the farmland. Being a poetic soul, he realized that the repressed ocean is a pretty good metaphor for himself. So he decided to be neurotic (i.e., moral) instead of a murderer. He called those ditch diggers “the Dutch” and chuckled. Better a chuckle than nunchuks on knuckleheads, as we say.
So what happens to a town after the Clint Eastwood character cleans it up and leaves? The law happens. Or it doesn’t. This is where many stories come from.
Here in America where English is spoken without a snooty accent a dike is called a levee. A levee, as you know, is where good old boys drink whisky in Rye. Not “and rye.” Rye is a kind of whisky. You would drink rye whisky, but not “whisky and rye.” Rye is a small city about 15 minutes north of New Rochelle, where Don McLean grew up. There is a huge Marshlands Conservancy there in Rye. Yes, there is a levee. Why would teenagers from New Rochelle go out to the Marshlands Conservancy, in Rye, NY, to drink whisky? Because it is illegal for teenagers to drink whisky, and there are no cops in the Marshlands.
Why do teenagers drink whisky when it is against the law? Because they are teenagers, who are very intense versions of regular humans. The law can’t stop them from drinking, but we can push their drinking out into the Marshlands, where in this case, they can’t hurt anyone but themselves as they look out into the desolate Marshlands and, because they are teenagers, they all have poetic souls, and the loneliness of the place reminds them too much of their own loneliness, and the water lapping up on the levee reminds them too much of their own need to break on through, but to where? It makes you feel old and want to die.
Most don’t die but late at night when they are much older parking the Prius, they think back to the Chevy and the levee.
Some number of those who drank their whiskey in the Chevy and cruised around New Rochelle did die in a crashed Chevy. They did not fear the law enough to drive out to the levee. Fear of the law is the beginning of wisdom, and the law makes us neurotic, but it can save our lives. Save us from each other. Better neurotic than dead, at least up to a point. For example, it is moral to allow violence to storm up into a war to end slavery. Certain other wars, too.
When the Clint Eastwood character leaves town the citizens have a decision to make. Grow some courage and enforce the laws ruthlessly, tenaciously, or the bad guys come to town again and rip everything up and Clint is off doing his next movie. If behind the law there is no threat of overwhelming violence, then good luck with that.
This is what I think when I think about repairing the world. Think back to Little Rock, AK in 1957. Governor Faubus used the Arkansas National Guard to support the segregationists and to keep the Little Rock Nine out of Central High School. The world changed because the president was a former general who called in the 101st Airborne Division, which had been under his overall command in the Second World War, and which only 12-13 years earlier was smashing up against Nazis. I am pretty sure some vets of the war were still around, and maybe even itching to take on the Arkansas National Guard, called out by a little Nazi manqué in the form of a racist segregationist governor set on violating the law. The Arkansas National Guard was federalized under the watchful eye of the 101st, who escorted the Little Rock Nine to school just in case locals wanted to try to pull something. We learned that the law was not enough. For some people, you need law backed up by paratroopers willing to kill and die to beat back the tide. The governor backed down and Nine went to Central High at least partly because those paratroopers were willing to kill and die.
I never really thought of DDE as a Clint Eastwood character, but now I do, except maybe the other way around. Clint Eastwood was 27 in 1957, and maybe was forming visions of what kind of archetype he wanted to play.