Friday, October 30, 2009

Lech Lecha—Good To Be The King?

The first recorded instance of a “declared” war between “kingdoms” or otherwise defined polities occurs in this weeks parsha. The seeds of war, however, are sown in the story of Migdal Bavel, the first instance of a totalitarian project surrounding a “cult of personality”—Nimrod—who raised himself to level of a god and got people to believe him. [Although one might note that G-d waited for the project to get to a certain point: according to the medrash, it was when those who died on the project were ignored but broken bricks were eulogized. Even the “communist” Nimrodians had their corporate priorities.]

Thwarted in the 11th hour only by Divine intervention, Nimrod—now identified as Amrafel—does the next best thing: he invents the state, or even the concept of the polity, with him at the center; 14:1 is the first time the word “melech” appears in the Torah. It only takes until 14:2 that the word “milchama” appears for the first time.

Leaving aside the obvious propensity of localities to engage in belligerencies [one might view professional sports as a healthy modern sublimation of this tendency], the proximity of melech and milchama indicate that a government has violence built right into DNA. That also can be a jump off point to explain why the Mishnah in Avos [2:3] says “Watch out for the government: They befriend a person to meet their own needs, appearing friendly when it is to their benefit, but they do not stand by a person in their moment of distress” [trans. Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz].

It would seem that politicians from Machiavelli all the way to Barack Obama are familiar with this Mishnaic proscription, only they have taken it as an instruction in how to run government. If anyone wonders why the Obama administration has backed off its “commitments” to Sudan and has failed to intervene on the side of the “angels” in Iran…[or why George HW Bush deigned to help the uprising against Saddam in 1991… why LBJ didn’t lift a finger during the Prague spring in 1968…why Ike didn’t stop the Russians in Budapest in 1956…FDR didn’t stop the Holocaust…Wilson didn’t stop the Turks in Armenia in 1916] this Mishnah should provide one instruction. [In her history classic “A Problem From Hell”, Samantha Power conclusively proves the US State policy is to employ diplomacy to avoid intervention at all costs during genocidal episodes].

But a real illustration of the nature of power, its propensity to violence and tenedency to shirk responsibility may be taken from Maurice Sendak’s children’s parable “Where The Wild Things Are”, now a major feature film. Max convinces the creatures about to eat him that he has immense powers and he is immediately crowned king; however, he discovers that power is not all its cracked up to be [being admonished that repeatedly that he was “supposed to make everything better”], and he finds himself mostly at the mercy of Carol, the most powerful and likely de facto leader of the Wild Things, who seems to exude power but is unwilling or unable to use it responsibly—which is why he has to find a King in the first place: so someone else can be “responsible”. In the end, when Max leaves and is told “You’re the first king we haven’t eaten”, the suicidal nature of power is revealed.

In the end, a reversal of the feminist dictum “the personal is political” may be in order: that is, the political is always personal. Its no accident that Nimrod sets himself up ass the first king in the Torah; last week, in making himself “a mighty hunter before G-d” [10:9] used his ego to eventually set himself up as G-d’s biggest rival [if not, kevayachol, equal], therefore establishing forever the nature of power and its tedencies toward the absolute. Max may have been a child Nimrod with no idea of what it meant to be responsible; Carol could have been a Nimrod, except that he may have had enough of a conscience to realize that there was some responsibility involved in leading. Nimrod himself, apparently, was so good at aggregating followers that his ego inflated to the point where he never had to grow up.

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