Behar-Behukotai: The Fate of Duncan Jones
A Torah Short by Joseph Cox
“We’ll all just quit.”
The voice is that of a young woman. She is beautiful, with a generally approachable smile that made everybody who spoke to her seem welcome and appreciated; even as they know she’s well outside their class. Her smile, at this moment, is more twisted. There’s a hint of anger in it.
I have more than a hint of anger. I’m raging inside.
“We quit,” won’t cut it for me.
The two of us, and twelve others, are standing in slacks, tailored shirts and custom shoes in a cornfield in Minnesota. A cornfield. None of us have bags or cell phones or any real possibility of hiding those sorts of things on our bodies. Our cars are a half-mile away. And, to add insult to injury, it is three in the morning and chilly. Not wintertime cold, we’d probably be dead in that case. But summertime chilly.
It is not comfortable.
A word wells up inside of me. And before I can stop myself, I find it spitting it out, angrily.
“No,” I announce.
Thirteen faces look in my direction. I see their surprised expressions in the clear moonlight.
“You want to keep working for the man?” asks the attractive young woman. She’s surprised.
“Not really,” I think to myself.
An older man, in his mid-50s, looks at me through his designer-brand eyeglasses, “Are you afraid he’ll hurt us?”
The thought hadn’t occurred to me. Then again, we are meeting in a field at 3AM to talk about a man who is halfway around the world in Central Africa. I guess it should have occurred to me.
“No, and no,” I say. I answer the first question truthfully. But I lie, with necessary confidence, about the second.
“Then what?” asks another person.
I look around the little group, with their expectant, waiting faces.
“You’re all alike,” I say, “You all come from the same place and are doing the same thing.”
I see confusion in their faces.
“How many of you imagined you’d be stealthily meeting in a damned cornfield, given our line of work?”
I see them glancing around, as if suddenly realizing how freakishly weird the whole thing is.
“We raise money for charity,” I continue, “And we’re damned good at it. In fact, I feel confident saying we’re the very best there is.”
Heads nod, proudly.
“But you didn’t get good at this by being aggressive, ego-filled, people. You got good at this because, fundamentally, you like to help out those around you. You’re good people.”
There were more nods of approval.
“And, we’re listeners. We don’t just listen to words and arguments. We hear what people need and we help them realize it. And so many people need a cause. So, you hitch yourselves to a cause, a worthy cause, and you help those people scratch that itch. We hear what they need, in their souls, and we give it to them.”
More nods. But now, there is more than that. Some faces are furrowed in concentration. I get the impressions most of the people in this august gathering have never given that much thought to what they do. They aren’t like me.
“We have a calling,” I say, “And we are the best at that calling. But we only have so many years to make that calling real. Our careers might be 45 years long. And we’re at the peak of our skills for maybe 10 of those years. We have ten years to scratch our own itch. We have 10 years to truly live for a cause. That’s it.”
I pause, and then there’s a whispered voice in the small crowd, “And Duncan Jones has taken 7 of mine.”
“6 for me,” says another.
The numbers flow around the small group, announcing themselves in hushed and mournful tones.
“He took five years from me,” I say, “Five years I spent thinking he was changing the world. Five years I thought I was enabling a great man to accomplish great things.”
It is no hyperbole.
Duncan Jones is a genius of charity. He’d gone to Central Africa and he’d made a study, a real study, of the poverty there. And he’d launched a whole series of initiatives to do what had never been done before: to actually fix things.
Where others had simply brought low-interest loans as a road out of the poverty trap, Duncan Jones had tapped into more fundamental human drives. Those who paid off loans in a timely manner were rewarded not with more loans, but with small luxuries – gifts of appreciation and self-reward. Chocolates were particularly effective.
Where others had pumped money into a corrupt economy, Duncan Jones had introduced his own scrip, his own currency. It was electronic, and you had to pass a personal audit to use it. When you did, you got a card that interfaced with the country’s wireless network, so you could spend it anywhere. Duncan Jones stored people’s money centrally, giving people who lived in constant fear of losing their personal possessions the confidence to actually save money and think about tomorrow. Of course, the scrip could be exchanged for local cash (or dollars) on request.
Where others dedicated resources to low-cost, high-impact, surgeries – surgeries that did change lives – Duncan Jones paired those surgeries with massive educational credits. That way, those who had been rescued, or their relatives, might eventually become surgeons themselves.
He not only gave hope, he gave purpose to the suddenly hopeful.
Duncan Jones realized the need to satisfy more than a balance sheet.
And his wholistic vision seemed an unmitigated success.
That was why we raised money for him. He was the farmer, planting seeds of ideas – and we were the land, enabling them to flourish. We raised money, vast sums of money, to underwrite his incredible efforts.
It had all been going so well. Testimonials and smiling faces and cold hard numbers all reinforced this truth. He had targeted a vast rural area and it seemed to be flourishing.
The first sign that something was wrong had come in an innocuous seeming way. One of our proud donors had gone down to visit the region. Duncan Jones didn’t like those visits. He thought them patronizing. He thought, no matter how good their intentions, the happy white faces mixing with the happy black faces, ended up sustaining a culture of dependency where none was ultimately needed.
He didn’t mingle with the people.
But donors will be donors and they often prove hard to stop.
This donor, a sprightly older white woman from New York with the little glasses that speak of properly pseudo-intellectual values, strode into Duncan’s world. And she was impressed with what she saw. She was impressed, until the very last day, when she turned on the radio.
She’d funded a radio network in that same country. It hadn’t been one of Duncan Jones’ ideas. The purpose of the radio network was to broadcast market prices nationally so local growers wouldn’t be taken advantage of by unscrupulous businessmen.
The problem was, when she tuned to the channel she’d paid for, all she heard was static.
She asked Duncan about it. She wasn’t satisfied with his answer.
She came home and asked her contact in our group, the older man with the fashionable glasses, about it. He responded by sending an agent to investigate. It was the agent who’d asked us to gather in the Minnesota cornfield.
The agent, the name he gave us was Mazi, was a tall black man with a huge forehead that seemed to be thrust out of his smaller, rounded, face. He seemed to use that massive forehead well. He was a very smart man, as demonstrated both by the complexity of what’d he’d uncovered and by the simple fact that he’d returned to tell us of it.
“Mr. Jones,” Mazi had explained in his central African accent, “Is a clever man. He lifted incomes, just as he promised. But he’s only works in rural areas. Areas that have limited access to supplies and equipment.”
“So?” asked one of the fundraisers in the group. Unlike the others, when I’d heard those first sentences, I’d felt a sudden disappointment gripping at my chest.
“So,” said Mazi, “His efforts raise incomes. But he has cornered the markets for the regions he helps. And he has unofficial employees, knife-wielding street toughs from the capital, who create another economic reality. I’ve identified all his top lieutenants.”
“What?” a shaky voice had asked.
“If the farmers,” Mazi explained, “Want seed, or a sickle, or bricks for a well – they must buy it from one of his proxies. He’s run sham audits for them. They are all his people and their prices have been adjusted for the income of the community. It is all very advanced and tightly run. Which is why we’re meeting in a cornfield. I have to assume he’s monitoring you carefully.”
“What does that mean?” asked a young man in the group. Obviously, he wasn’t the brightest of the attendees.
“It means,” said Mazi, “That every dollar you raise eventually makes its way into the pockets of Duncan Jones.”
There’d been a collective gasp at that statement. Not everybody had understood the mechanism, but they understood the implications.
Mazi continued, “He’s built himself a house on a hill with formal gardens and a statuary. He’s built himself an army of men. He’s built himself a small empire.”
There was a whistle. And then the attractive and approachable young woman – her name is Amber – had announced, with moral certainty and satisfaction, “We’ll all just quit.”
That had been only moments ago.
“I’d claimed you are all alike,” I say, “But I am not like you. Sure, for five years I thought I was helping a great man change the world. I thought I was a good man. But I wasn’t always a good man. I used to work for another leader. She didn’t lie to me. She was a thief and a con-artist and I was her enabler. We raised huge sums on the backs of her schemes. I lived for me.”
The faces around me are stunned at this.
“We were never arrested or anything. My record is spotless. The money she stole vanished, looking like it had all been spent as it was supposed to have been. The donors were satisfied at the good they’d done. It seemed like there was no real harm – our victims bought real redemption with the money we stole – and they had the money to lose. But, nonetheless, that work gnawed at my soul. And then, one day, I realized I’d had enough. And I’d done what Amber proposed just now. In a moral huff, I quit. And I found myself another leader, one I thought was worthy.”
The faces are rapt now, drawn into my story.
“I had a few good years left and I spent them on Duncan Jones. I was scratching my own itch, my own need for a higher cause. And I was cheated. We were all cheated.”
The heads nod again.
But then I’m hit with a rush of ideas.
“So,” I say, “I am not going to simply quit. Not again. I’m not going to be satisfied feeling all high and mighty and moral as I walk away from this mess. I’m going to, for the first time in my life, be the actor and the enabler of my own plans.”
“What plans?” asks the older man with the stylish glasses.
“We’re going to make an example of Mr. Duncan,” I say.
Various forms of assent ripple through the group.
“First,” I say, “We’ll fire a warning shot across his bow. He has played casually with the values we embrace. And so, we’ll warn him. We’ll cut off his money for a week.”
“But we won’t quit. We’ll leave him wondering where it has gone. We’ll leave him worried somebody else is stealing it. And he might get the point. Mazi here will listen for the radio with the crop prices. If it comes back on, then we’ll back off.”
“But he won’t turn the radio back on,” I say with certainty, “The lack of radio is critical to his survival on the top of his layers of criminal underlings. No, he knows he can survive being cut off. He’s created an actual economy. He’s living off of it. He can just spend a bit less, lower his prices a touch, but still gather his criminal proceeds. So, we won’t warn him about the next step, or tell him about it even after we’ve done it. I have a friend from my old work. He can put a lock on Mr. Jones’ passport. We’ll seal him into the country.”
I pause and look around. Some are already anticipating a delicious revenge.
“Of course,’ I say, “That won’t stop him either. No, he runs a criminal gang and rules a countryside. The only thing that will stop him is revolt by his own people. If the radio has still not returned, we’ll ‘accidently’ send the next batch of money to the lieutenants Mazi has identified. Some will be loyal and report the money. But not all. Some will smell opportunity. They are cutthroats, not honorable men. And Mr. Jones will get a taste of what it’s like when the culture of dependency – the culture dependent on him – is choked out and dies.”
“What will happen?” asks Amber. Her voice is both frightened and somehow physically excited. I find it energizing. I feel my old persona coming back to the fore. I feel the thrill of a touch of destruction.
“Mr. Jones,” I say, “Will be properly frightened. We’ll break the pride of his power and his enemies will rule over him. He will be consumed by terror. His soul will be harassed. His attempts to reap the profits of his lands will come to nothing. His lieutenants will fight and like beasts they will overrun his estates and ruin them. He made a contract with us, and he will suffer for having broken it. His house will be burned, his statuary flattened, and he will flee in fear. The sound of a leaf in the wind will drive him from place to place. His white face will live in constant fear, trapped in the world of his enemies. He will never be able to blend in with those who hate him.”
“And then?” asks Amber, her teeth biting into her lower lip.
I consider. We could drive him to death. But I found redemption, and so perhaps, so can he.
“He is a genius,” I say, “A unique genius of charity. We still want to fulfil our potential and no man could do more than he to make it real.”
They are just watching.
“Eventually,” I continue, “When the cutthroats have burned through their money and his empire, they will be shocked at the devastation that has been left behind and they’ll return to the capital. And, eventually, when we feel he has learned and suffered enough, we’ll restore his money and enable his old lands to yield their human potential once again. Eventually, he will return. Not to serve himself, but to serve our mutual vision of the good.”
“So, we won’t quit.” says Amber.
“No,” I say, “This is our calling. He is a unique man. We will suffer with him, desolate and unsatisfied. Our only satisfaction will be knowing that no evil is being done in our name. But that will not be the end of our story.”
I look around carefully, to emphasize my point, “Eventually, we will share in his complete redemption.”
I feel my anger receding. There is hope and purpose within me once again.
And then, as the heads of the others begin to nod in agreement, we set about the business of reinventing a man.
This week’s portion of Behar-Bechukotai is about the land. Blood is Dam (דם). It represents potential, bringing life to our cells. Man is Adam (אדם), the willful container of that potential. In the Garden of Eden, Adam is meant to plant crops in Adama (אדמה), the land.
The land, the feminine of ‘man’, is meant to actualize Adam’s will just as the female womb is necessary to actualizes the reproductive will of man.
In Behar-Bechukotai, the land is betrayed and it turns against the Jewish people. The people do not let it rest on its sabbaths. They work it, for their profit, but do not let it serve its higher, holy purpose – which is ultimately the cycle of creation and rest with the timeless.
In this story, the fundraisers are the land. They are necessary to actualize the will of Duncan Jones. They yield their fruit. But they are betrayed. Their higher goal, the service to a greater cause, is denied.
In the Torah the land, like the storyteller, once served another master. The land served Canaan and yielded great fruits (for example the massive cluster of grapes). But it cast off that corrupt service and sought something greater. It sought a farmer gifted with our enormous potential for holiness.
Having dedicated itself to holiness, the land is not satisfied simply expelling those who deny it its Sabbaths. It must make an example of them so that they can eventually return, ready and able to fulfill a mutual destiny.
The curses and ultimate blessings in the story are adapted from Lev 26: 16-44.
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Joseph Cox lives in Modiin, Israel and is the author of City on the Heights, a thriller about finding hope in war.