“Wake up, wake up, put on your strength…”
This past week, in almost every meeting or classroom I walked into, there were sighs of hopelessness, confusion and, in some instances, profound anger at the shifting political landscape. While no one seems surprised by various executive orders, appointments and confirmations, the speed of change alone has been, for many of us, deeply disturbing. I personally have never experienced this level of collective anxiety in almost thirty years of teaching. Something momentous is happening. It’s not yet clear what.
“Why do some products, ideas, and behaviors succeed when others fail?” asks Jonah Berger in Contagious: Why Things Catch On. It’s a great question. Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point thinks it doesn’t take many people to make serious change; it takes the right few working in consonance: the maven, the salesman and the connector. Berger is less concerned with how the word gets out even although he writes that, “marketing is about spreading the love .” He thinks content is the biggest driver of an idea. “Nobody talks about boring companies, boring products, or boring ads...”
Looking at our current Torah reading, I wonder how Moses made the exodus contagious enough for us to want our freedom. How would Berger have marketed it because the way Moses sold this idea initially was wildly unsuccessful? Let’s take a careful look at the story. God gave Moses the script. God, I’m guessing, must have known a thing or two about selling great ideas since the Good Book has been around for millennia.
“Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the Lord.’ Moses reported this to the Israelites, but they did not listen to him because of their discouragement and harsh labor. Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Go, tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites go out of his country.' But Moses said to the Lord, 'If the Israelites will not listen to me, why would Pharaoh listen to me, since I speak with faltering lips?'” [Exodus 6:6-12].
Moses understood that this big idea of God’s was not making a sale to his own people. It would never work with Pharaoh. But by the time we get to Exodus 12, after the tenth plague, when we were about to offer a sacrifice to ritualize our moment of freedom, the people had a change of heart. “Then the people bowed down and worshiped. The Israelites did just what the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron [Exodus 12:28]. Why the change?
Berger writes that, “...seeing others do something makes people more likely to do it themselves.” Maybe seeing the impact of the plagues and the might of their God and the fact that some had bought into the exodus concept created a contagious desire for redemption. The people weren’t interested in Moses’ arguments as much as the potential outcome. Again, we turn to Berger: “People don't think in terms of information. They think in terms of narratives. But while people focus on the story itself, information comes along for the ride.”
Then Berger hits us with a small but powerful idea when it comes to inspiring people to change: “We need to make them angry rather than sad.” When people are sad, their energy is drained, their optimism is spent, their commitment to the future is dulled. But get people angry, and they shout. They strategize. They move.
In the span of a few weeks, we’ve seen helplessness and hopelessness turn into outrage, and outrage turn into protest, and protest turn into power. No matter where you are politically, you can’t avoid the energy, the determination and the commitment out on the streets and in online communities to make the voice of the other matter. While I haven’t ever witnessed this much anxiety, I haven’t ever felt the surge of social activism stronger than I have in recent days. It’s palpable. It’s our great awakening.
We were asleep in Egypt for a long time. We didn’t believe that anything would ever change. We wrapped ourselves in utter despair and thought we’d be slaves forever. But one day and ten plagues later, one man started a movement, and the movement then became the paradigm for many historic revolutions to come. We did that. We woke up. We brought truth to power. This is our time. “Wake up, wake up, put on your strength...”