Friday, December 30, 2016

The Other-Siders: On being a Hebrew - Torah portion Miketz

Joseph's brothers are asked to dine at his house. The Egyptians in Joseph's house eat separately, and the Torah tells us why:
"The Egyptians could not eat bread with the Hebrews, because it was abhorrent to the Egyptians." (Gen 43:32)
What was abhorrent about it? We find out later that shepherds are abhorrent to the Egyptians (46:34). Commentators such as Rashi say that this is because the animals being shepherded and eaten by the Hebrews - sheep and bulls - are Egyptian gods. However, we have evidence that at least some subset of Egyptians ate beef and mutton, and the Torah itself speaks about Pharaoh (i.e. the Kingdom of Egypt) possessing livestock (47:6). So there may be more to this issue than meets the eye, and I think I'll leave it to the Egyptologists and other scholars to sort that one out.

At any rate, the Torah describes a taboo among Egyptians against co-mingling with Hebrews. The Hebrew experience, at least in Egypt, is decidedly that of the "other," the outsider. Which incidentally is built into the term "Hebrew" itself.

An Ivri (Hebrew) means a descendant of Ever (Eber), great grandson of Shem. From the root avar, it implies being from, or moving to, the "other side." The first person the Torah describes as a Hebrew is Abraham (Gen 14:13), who migrates from Mesopotamia to Canaan - the "other side" of the river Euphrates.

In the Neo-Assyrian and Persian Achaemenid empires, the tax district west of the Euphrates was known as Eber Nari (Avar Nahara in Hebrew, see e.g. Ezra 10:6), meaning, "the other side of the river." Mesopotamia was "here," on this side, and the communities to the west were "there," on the other side.

So the Hebrews are "other-siders" from a variety of angles. They're not Mesopotamians geographically, having moved from there, nor in mindset, having their own culture and beliefs. They're not Canaanites, but Mesopotamian immigrants. And not only are they foreigners among the Egyptians, but they're abhorred for being shepherds.

To a large degree, this characterizes much of the Jewish experience, certainly in the diaspora. We're other-siders. We're used to feeling like "guests" in our own homes. When we've been expelled or fled from our countries of birth, the tragic reality is that too often we've had nowhere to go, nowhere to call home. Even in the modern-day State of Israel, we're often told by people opposed to our presence to "go back" to Europe or North Africa - places we fled or were forced out of.

Without question, being an other-sider is a significant feature of the Jewish psyche. It can be unsettling and painful, but I'd argue that it also offers some distinct advantages. Possessing a certain outsider viewpoint on things imparts people with perspective. It's a bit like a cinematographer watching a film, as opposed to a regular movie-goer. A cinematographer almost can't help but analyze the film, in addition to (or instead of) simply experiencing it. In so doing, they'll notice things the rest of us are unconscious of, being wholly wrapped up in the plot.

Yes, there's a place for in-the-moment experience, being present rather than analyzing. But there's also a place for the "Hebrew" in us. It helps us to see differently, to take stock on where we're at, where society is at. It lends perspective on norms we otherwise take for granted, prompts us to think outside the box, and to look for new ways to improve things. Being other-siders causes us to step outside of ourselves, to engage in self-critique and self-correction. It's no doubt a key ingredient for so many individuals who go on to achieve greatness.

Of course, the same other-sider mentality can also cause people to become insular, to fear, vilify and blame the outside, and to overlook and downplay their own faults. It's something that can consume a person, or a culture, if they're not careful. So we need to use our "other-sidedness" judiciously, with the intent to become more conscious, more incisive, more imaginative and creative.

The truth is, everyone has a little "Hebrew" in them. We all know what it feels like to be left out, not be one of the gang. It's the pain of being an other-sider, but a pain which comes with the gift of perspective, and ultimately the promise of conscious advance. So if you ever find yourself feeling like the other, use it - embrace it, learn from it, and help the rest of us gain from your perspective.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Error Correction and Conscious Progress - Torah Portion Vayeshev

Judah accuses his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar of having illicit relations after she's found to be pregnant. But of course Tamar turns the tables:
"By the man whom these [items] belong to, I became pregnant." (Gen 38:25)
She proceeds to bring out Judah's signet ring, his staff, etc. Judah recognizes them, and then says what is possibly my favorite line in the entire Torah:
"She is more right(eous) than I am."
Judah admits she's right - it was he who pledged to give her his son Shela in marriage and reneged. Tamar was left in the lurch, waiting around for years as a widow for a marriage that Judah never intended to make happen. Why is "she's right" among my favorite lines in the Torah? Because it's an admission of error. It's the willingness to engage in self-correction. And error correction is really the gateway to conscious progress.

Interesting that the English word "admit" has two connotations - to "concede" and to "allow in." When we admit we're wrong, what we're doing is allowing the possibility of absorbing a new idea, a correction over what we held previously. If we do not allow it, if our ego, pride and self-worth are tied up with having to be "right," or with a previously held position, if our resoluteness and iron will prevent us from self-reflection, we block the capacity for progress.

It should also be said that when a society and its institutions (and that includes Jewish ones) deem any idea or person unassailable, unquestionable, or beyond debate, this also impedes conscious progress, because it prevents the possibility of correction.

Judaism is, or should be, in part a celebration of error. Not error per se, but the awareness of it, and the desire to correct it - in order to move forward, morally and intellectually. That is the concept of teshuva, self-correction. In fact the word "Judaism" comes from Judah. The name Yehudah (Judah) is linked to the root yada - yielding, admitting, and acknowledging. (See Gen 29:35)

Judah's descendants become the kings, earn the mantle of leadership. And I would like to think that a part of Judah's "greatness" is linked to his willingness to engage in self-correction. His desire to learn from mistakes portends the humility needed for effective and virtuous leadership. Several hundred years later, David, a descendant of Judah, likewise has the tables turned on him by the prophet Natan, where the person David condemns turns out to be none other than himself. And he accepts Natan's rebuke. Admission of error, and the desire and commitment to make corrections - that is, in my estimation, the most noble and regal part of Jewish tradition.

But I think Tamar's greatness deserves a mention here too. The Talmud (Sotah 10b) praises Tamar for not coming out and chastising or embarrassing Judah, but instead presenting his belongings and giving him the chance to realize and admit his error. Natan uses a similar sort of technique.

Correction (improvement, betterment, progress) is the goal. And self-correction is better than correction by means of coercion, because it's more genuine, and because it stands a better chance of being implemented. It helps to want it. How do we help people want to self-correct? By engaging them respectfully rather than aggressively. Hostile confrontation generally puts people on the defensive and if anything makes them more likely to double-down on their position. And by giving people the experience of discovering their error for themselves. Not an easy trick to pull off, but one which we ought to learn how to do if we want to foster real teshuva, encourage conscious progress.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Parable of the Magic Chicken

I'm not a big purveyor of parables, but somehow the style seems particularly apt here. (H/T II Samuel 12, Natan's rebuke of David. Also inspired by my friend Rabbi Natan Slifkin's post.)

*   *   *

A person comes to seek the counsel of an esteemed rabbinic leader:

"Rabbi, a holy man in our community has been selling chickens. He guarantees that if you buy one of his chickens, it will lay enough eggs to feed your entire household and then some. He also says that it will only work if you do not purchase any other food, because that shows a lack of faith. In fact, he warns that if you do purchase other food, or worse, if you don't buy one of his chickens, your family will be be condemned to poverty.

People are buying the chickens in droves. Some because they believe the holy man's promise. Others out of fear, because they don't want to be ostracized by their friends, neighbors, and community if they are seen bringing additional food into their homes. This man also targets children, indoctrinating them to believe that they must buy these chickens or face ruin in their future lives.

And the chickens? It appears that they're just regular, ordinary chickens. They lay no more than 1 to 2 eggs a day, not nearly enough to feed a household. Children regularly go to bed hungry. Many are thin and malnourished. Families are suffering. Rabbi, what are we to do?"

With fire in his eyes, clearly shocked and incensed, the Rabbi answers:

"This is insanity, a travesty! When a person is brought to heavenly judgment, the first question they ask him is: Did you deal faithfully and honestly with people? Were you trustworthy in your business dealings? By making such empty guarantees, and convincing a whole community to buy into it, indeed scaring them to buy into it, this man is guilty of grave transgressions! He owes every one of these families every cent of what he guaranteed and failed to deliver, five times over. Of course he can't possibly pay them all back. Nor can he compensate them for their great suffering. Who is this 'holy man'? Bring him to me, so I can look him in the eyes and blast the fear of God into him!"

"Rabbi," says the visitor, "that man is you."

"The single chicken per household is your promise of abundant parnasah from a single earner, a woman and mother with nothing more than a beis yaakov education, which you've warned us not to supplement. You've told the men not to depart from their learning, and even the women you've forbidden from obtaining an education that would enable them to bring in enough money to support the family. You guaranteed us great abundance, and yet many of us can scarcely put food on the table, must rely on tzedaka to live. Some accept their poverty as a badge of faith. But many are scared to do anything different, not wanting to be seen as lesser in the eyes of their neighbors, or their own children, who they're also worried about marrying off. Others have lived this way their whole lives and simply lack the skills and wherewithal to do anything different.

Rabbi, you made this guarantee to us, and now I come to you on behalf of the community to ask you to cover that guarantee. Please, pay us the money you've promised we would have. And one more thing. I beg you, please stop selling us these chickens."

White as a ghost, and after a very long pause, the Rabbi responds...

*   *   *

Okay, let's leave it at that. I think you get the picture. Prose and form aside, is the parable fair? Let me know what you think.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Supporting Heroes - Torah Portion Vayishlach

"Deborah, Rebecca's nursemaid, died, and she was buried beneath Beit El, beneath the oak, and [Jacob] named it the Oak of Weeping." (Gen 35:8)
Who's this "Deborah" all of the sudden? We know Rebecca had a nursemaid who came with her when she married Isaac (24:59), but she was never mentioned by name in all this time. And what's she doing with Jacob, anyway?

One idea is that Rebecca sent Deborah to Jacob in Padan Aram to let him know it was safe to come home. (See Rashi.) If that's the case, Deborah would have been around for all of Jacob's youth, probably helped raise him, just like she raised his mother before him. Deborah would've been like a grandmother to Jacob.

Another idea is that Deborah returned to Padan Aram early on but wanted to make this final journey with Jacob to see Rebecca one last time. (See Ramban.) If that's the case, Deborah would have been there with Jacob during his tenure with Laban, helping him to cope, helping him raise his own family, like a great grandmother to his children.

Either way, the Torah goes out of its way to mention Deborah's death. Her death is associated with weeping for Jacob. And I think it says a lot about the way people's death can affect us, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Part is the fact that the person is associated with certain times of our lives. Their death often brings up the emotion - the joy and pain - of those times, and also reminds us of the fact that these times are gone forever. This kind of grief can overtake us even if we've never met the person - like with the death of a musician whose music we grew up listening to, or any public figure who brings us back to certain times in our lives. That kind of "weeping" is not necessarily tied to the person, but to our own past.

For Jacob, there's no doubt that Deborah's death would have brought up so much of his complicated history - including the special close relationship he had with his mother, as well as the family stresses with his father and brother. Good times and also very trying times.

But then there's grief over Deborah herself. No, she wasn't a blood relative, any more than Eliezer was Abraham and Isaac's blood relative. But she was in a very real sense a kind of "matriarch" in the family. She was the person who provided nurturing and guidance to his mother back in Padan Aram, who was probably very much responsible for Rebecca turning out to be the person she was, the girl who would go on to marry Isaac and become a matriarch in her own right. And whether Deborah was with Jacob in his early years or later on, it seems clear that she was a rock for him, a fixture in his life. She stood by the family - loyal, trustworthy, nurturing and supportive - through thick and thin.

There's an idea that Deborah the Prophet/Judge was named after her, centuries later. Aside from the name, Deborah held court under a tree, near Beit El, where Rebecca's nursemaid was buried. If that's so, the original Deborah must have been seen as legendary in her service, as one of the founding pillars of the nation.

So I think it's particularly nice to see Deborah's death get a mention, even if Rebecca's own death isn't mentioned in the Torah. To me, it's a statement that people who dedicate their lives to service, who demonstrate such immense loyalty and commitment, who stand by us and support us in our lives - our friends, teachers, and mentors, volunteers, assistants, and helpers - these people are true heroes. Often unsung. And they deserve to be recognized and honored. They deserve to be loved and remembered.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Meaning, Memory & Perception of Time - Torah Portion Vayetze

Jacob offers to work for Laban, for the privilege of marrying his daughter Rachel. The Torah says after the fact:
"Jacob worked seven years for Rachel, but they seemed in his eyes like a few days, in his love for her." (Gen 29:20)
But why did it seem so quick? Shouldn't it be the opposite? If you can't wait to be finished, and you're just counting the days, watching the clock, time can feel brutally slow. Think about sitting in school counting the minutes for class to end, or being in the hospital waiting for the doctor to come. When you're just waiting, it feels like an eternity. Like the expression goes, "A watched pot never boils." How about a "watched Rachel"?

Time-perception studies in psychology and neuroscience try to understand when and why we experience time as moving slowly or quickly. It turns out that "slow-moving" time is in fact a more accurate assessment of clock time. It's when we perceive "fast-moving" time that we tend to make cognitive distortions. The "time-flying" effect can be brought on by a number of factors, chief among them:

  • Mental engagement - as opposed to boredom
  • Goal-orientation - active pursuit of a goal 
  • Motivation - greater sense of purpose

For Jacob, he certainly had a sense of purpose, and a goal. And it could be that he was engaged in his work, "in the zone," i.e. not bored. Therefore it all went by very quickly.

But there's another interesting research finding, which is that periods of boredom, despite feeling longer at the time, actually seem shorter in retrospect. And times of intense engagement, even though they go by quickly, seem longer in retrospect. The theory is that our after-the-fact ability to calculate time duration is based on the amount of memories we have to draw from. The "memory-scarce" (bored) period has less to build on, so it seems shorter that it was, while the "memory-packed" period has tons to build on, so it seems longer than it was.

Which feels accurate, to me at least. When I think about certain memory-packed, formative times in my own life, which seem so "huge" in their importance, I'm often struck by how little actual calendar time they took up.

So... Does that mean Jacob was actually bored out of his mind for 7 years, and it just seemed short in retrospect, for lack of memories? I don't think so. Clearly Jacob's "love for" Rachel is the focus, as far as the Torah is concerned.

Emotional investment, meaningfulness and sense of purpose speed up our perception of time, and they help us to encode, retain, and recall memories.

In other words, the greater our emotional attachment to the people, events, and information (i.e. knowledge we're exposed to) in our lives, the richer and broader our tapestry of memory will be. So we need more love. More care (as opposed to apathy). More intimacy and attachment. Greater personal significance and relevance. Probably more "in-the-moment-ness."

How do we accomplish this? Just off the top of my head... Maybe more "real" time getting to know the people we love? More depth and less skimming? More thinking about the "why" (i.e. relevance) rather than just the "what" or the "how"? And maybe (note to self)... Less time on our phones?

Suggestions are welcome!