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Change is slow — but it’s coming, and it’s why they rioted at the Capitol

The chaos at the Capitol was the work of a desperate group, clinging to false beliefs at all costs, unwilling to shift their paradigm. But it is their last gasp. 

Dawn breaks at the Capitol in Washington,  Jan. 11, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(RNS) —  “Change is slow.” 

I heard this bit of wisdom twice on a recent morning — once from a teacher in Israel discussing the Torah portion Jews around the world read this week, and again from the newly elected senator from Georgia and pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Rev. Raphael Warnock.

The Torah portion for the week of Jan. 6, from the Book of Exodus, describes the Israelites’ “growth of liberation for themselves,” in the words of 19th-century Hasidic writer the Mei Hashiloach (as translated by Avivah Zornberg). Why does it take so much difficulty, so many trials for change to come?

Warnock, meanwhile, in his first interview after his election on Jan. 5, remarked on the slow pace of change, too. Yet, for him, the amount of change in his own lifetime is astounding. As he pointed out in his victory speech, his mother went from picking cotton for others to picking her 11th child, the first to be college educated, for the U.S. Senate.

Change is slow, but remember Jan. 6, 2021 is also the day a Jew and an African American were officially elected to represent a Southern state where a Jew was lynched in 1915 for a murder he did not commit and a Temple was bombed in 1958 for its support of civil rights. 

Slow as it is, in other words, change is occurring — and is precisely why the troubling events of Jan. 6 took place. The administration that gave these armed extremists much of their power is finally being pushed out of office, leaving only its three appointees on the Supreme Court. Their chaos at the Capitol was the work of a desperate group, clinging to false beliefs at all costs, unwilling to shift their paradigm, but it is their last gasp. 

Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor of The Atlantic, reporting on the march to the Capitol from the Ellipse where Trump had spoken for more than an hour, called the gathering, “not merely an attempted coup but also a mass delusion event, not something that can be explained adequately through the prism of politics. Its chaos was rooted in psychological and theological phenomena, intensified by eschatological anxiety.”

Those who went to “stop the steal” believed they were taking something rightfully theirs, denied them only by a deep state and a media conspiring to keep them in the dark, led by a purveyor of lies, a deluded and deplorable con man. But they were also there to identify an enemy. They set up a gallows to summon the memory of lynchings and wore anti-Semitic badges and mottos. 

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington. As Congress prepared to affirm President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, thousands of people gathered to show their support for President Donald Trump and his claims of election fraud. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Oren Segal of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism said about those who stormed the Capitol to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “They feel that something has been taken away from them, and they want to fight the people who took it.”

This sense of grievance recalled the rhetoric of Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus, who worried, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.”

Our leader, too, created a delusion that there was an “other” who would rise up and terrorize his own and that the only way to ensure safety was to enslave or banish this group.

Jews have seen this before: What is our recipe for a way out?

To begin a journey to liberation, we should look to Exodus, which opens with the names of the sons of Israel, a recognition that all lives are precious. This is borne out in a story about the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, related to me by Rabbi Reuven Kimelman, a professor at Brandeis, a former assistant of Heschel’s at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

Kimelman talks of accompanying the elderly Heschel late one evening from his office at JTS to his apartment farther south. As they walked south on Broadway, a man came up to them to ask for money. Kimelman, young and healthy, was frightened by the much larger man and worried they would be robbed. Heschel looked at the man and kindly said, “How can I help you? What can I do for you?”

The growth toward liberation begins in recognizing the value in each of us as individuals. Those aggrieved few who stormed the Capitol need to be rehabilitated from their mass delusion. They need to be shown they are seen, as Moses enabled the Israelites to realize God had taken note of them.

He did so by seeing injustice and fighting it. People need a sense that the leader hears their grievances and listens to them. Then they will be able to remove their people’s shackles. Their leadership must be built on truths, not on delusions. 

The Talmud, in Pesachim 25a, says any item can be used for healing except wood used for idolatry: Things used in idolatrous worship can’t be used to heal. We need to openly admit that a leader who can’t accept the reality of his loss of an election is creating an idolatry around his leadership and should not continue in power. The leaders who disseminated idolatrous lies must be held accountable for misleading their followers and deliberately deluding them. Healing can’t come from idolatry, beliefs based on lies, which must be utterly banished.

(Beth Kissileff, a journalist in Pittsburgh, is co-editor of the 2020 book “Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy” and editor of the forthcoming “Reading Exodus: Journeys.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)