Jon Stewart–and Moses–on Bulls**t

I watched Jon Stewart on The Daily Show for the last time last night. And while the show began with a different host and will continue under a different host, it is hard to imagine it without Stewart behind the desk.

Stewart, during his 16 year run on the “fake news” show on Comedy Central, turned a cable television comedy show into a fixture of political commentary. An entire generation came of age watching him and his presentation of the news. And while I was already politically aware by the time he came on the air, and while I did not watch him as religiously as some (and did not, as some have reported to, use him as my sole source of news), I always appreciated his commentary and humor. (And the fact that he often identified himself as Jewish, and tinged his comedy with Jewish references and phrases, didn’t hurt.)

He would oftentimes deflect this status granted to him as an important political commentator, noting he was just a comedian. But it is hard to deny the impact he had on our political discourse; satire is one of the most serious forms of commentary.

from Comedy Central
from Comedy Central

For me, some of his most hard hitting forms of commentary would come when he would juxtapose video clips of people saying two different things at two different times, or saying one thing while they act differently. In these moments, he would not even need to say a word, but simply offer a knowing look.

His last broadcast was mostly a celebration of his tenure, as he welcomed back many of his on-screen talent from the past 16 years (some of whose careers were started on The Daily Show), celebrated all those who worked behind the scenes to put on the program and finished off with a musical set by Bruce Springsteen.

During his last broadcast he did turn serious for a few minutes, and offered a last bit of straight commentary. It was, in many ways, a meta-commentary on what he has been doing for the past 16 years and a final message to his viewers as they face life without him. And, as usual for cable TV in general and Jon Stewart in particular, it was tinged with obscenities:

Bullshit is everywhere…There is very little that you will encounter in life that has not been infused with bullshit…there is the more pernicious bullshit, your premeditated, institutional bullshit designed to obscure and distract. It comes in three flavors. First, making bad things sound like good things…The second way, hiding the bad things under mountains of bullshit…And finally, it’s the bullshit of infinite possibility…we can’t do anything because we don’t yet know everything…So I say to you tonight friends, the best defense against bullshit, is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something.

Don’t just accept what is told to you by those in power, says Stewart. We have a tendency as people to deflect and obfuscate, and we should be on the lookout for this. In our society things aren’t always what they seem, or what we say they are. We have to be mindful that there are other forces at work that we need to recognize.

In our weekly Torah reading, we are in the Book of Deuteronomy, parashat Ekev. The book is a long speech by Moses who is charging the Israelites as they prepare to enter into the Promised Land. Moses, who has led the people up from slavery, will not be entering into the land with them—he is destined to die on the eastern side of the Jordan River. He is therefore compelled to make sure that the Israelites know what they need to know to be successful in the next stage of their journey. The oration that is Deuteronomy is part history-telling, part rule-reminding, part pep-talk and part warning.

In chapter 8, Moses issues this warning and charge to his followers as he prepared to exit the stage:

Take care lest you forget Adonai your God and fail to keep the commandments, rules, and laws, which I enjoin upon you today. When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget Adonai your God — who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage; who led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its seraph serpents and scorpions, a parched land with no water in it, who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock; who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your ancestors had never known, in order to test you by hardships only to benefit you in the end —and you say to yourselves, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” Remember that it is Adonai your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant made on oath with your ancestors, as is still the case.

What Moses is saying, in other (Stewart-esque) words, when you get to the land and you prosper and you think you did it all by yourself—that’s bullshit.

We do have the tendency to obscure and distract, and not just others, but ourselves. When we arrive at a particular high point on our journey, we may tend to forget that we made it to where we are not despite the challenges of the past but because of them. And when we succeed, we may tend to forget that there are other forces at work—conditions, privileges, people, good fortune –at work to help us along, in addition to our own talents and persistence.

Moses’ final call is both a plea to the Israelites not to forget their history and their God, and to face their future with a measure of humility. It is a plea to us as well: we need to not forget from whence we came, that we are a part of something greater than ourselves and to have our own measure of humility as we move forward in life.

To do otherwise doesn’t pass the smell test.

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I am a Rabbi, serving the Jewish community of Olympia, Washington and the surrounding area.

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