On Porcupines and Taxes

Do you know what porcupines do in the winter? As you think about that, consider this: In a normal year, today is tax day, the day many Americans collectively bemoan government waste and charge it to the taxpayer. But for the second year in a row, the due date has been pushed back. The pandemic has necessitated a longer pause for Americans to get their bearings and their documents in order.

This season of viral uncertainty has begged questions on the role of social cohesion and our ability to live in community. How do we do life together? What turns a geographic region of land into a society? What good is government and society anyway? In his final book before his death in 2020, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks published Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times. It’s been haunting me ever since I read it last fall.

Sacks argues for the great capacity of Western-style democracy and capitalism to create opportunities and advance freedom, yet he cautions that markets need something other than self-interest. “It needs a sense of the common good, of the ‘We’ not just an ‘I.’ Markets need morals.” Likewise, economics need ethics. Political posturing on the left and the right has often focused on individualism at the expense of the capacity to bear differences and share one another’s burden in our zig-zagged pursuit of human community.

Yet, “we are not mere individuals. We are social animals, embedded in a network of relationships — families, friends, colleagues, neighbors, co-workers, and co-worshippers — and some of these are constitutive of our sense of self.” Our ability to work for the betterment of others, even those who will come after us, speaks to our divine capacity to self-limit in order to live well.

Like Sacks, another rabbi’s words continue to haunt me. Jesus tells the disciples in John’s Gospel, “This is my commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that a person will lay down his life for his friends.” To live well is to love well. And how do we love? By caring about the well-being of others. I am responsible for the good of others. So are you.

The Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament speak of a God who creates us in the very same freedom of God’s own nature, giving us the moral agency to choose the good, but not forcing us. The morality of the Bible is the shared vision of mutual care for all of God’s creation, not because we have no choice, but because we do. That choice to work for the common good of society will not come without the cracks of tension and struggle, but to quote Leonard Cohen, “…there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” 

So, do you know what porcupines do in the winter? They can’t stand too close together without piercing one another with their quills, but they have to stand close enough to stay warm against the harshness of the wind and the bitter elements of the season. It’s not always easy getting the balance right, but if they want to truly live they have to try. So do we.