Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Accepting the non-acceptance of consolation - Torah portion Va'era

Moses assures his people they will be freed from slavery, extracted from Egypt with God's outstretched arm, and brought to the land of their ancestral inheritance. The people balk:
וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֶל מֹשֶׁה מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה "...but they did not listen to Moses, out of shortness of spirit and hard labor." (Ex 6:9)
Rashi understands the phrase "they didn't listen to Moses" to mean:
לא קבלו תנחומין "They did not accept [his] words of consolation."
But is what Moses says really "consolation?" He essentially tells the people that everything is going to be okay. Which pretty much flies in the face of all conventional wisdom about how to offer consolation. When you go to a shiva house, you don't pronounce that everything is going to be okay. Because it's not "okay." Far better to simply be there with the mourner, listen to them. Something more along the lines of what God tells Moses just a few verses earlier:
אֲנִי שָׁמַעְתִּי אֶת נַאֲקַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר מִצְרַיִם מַעֲבִדִים אֹתָם "I have heard the moans of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians are enslaving" (6:5)
Or earlier, at the burning bush:
רָאֹה רָאִיתִי אֶת עֳנִי עַמִּי אֲשֶׁר בְּמִצְרָיִם וְאֶת צַעֲקָתָם שָׁמַעְתִּי מִפְּנֵי נֹגְשָׂיו כִּי יָדַעְתִּי אֶת מַכְאֹבָיו "I have indeed seen the affliction of my people in Egypt, and I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters, for I know their pains." (3:7)
Or simply:
וַיַּרְא אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֵּדַע אֱ-לֹהִים "God saw the children of Israel, and God knew." (2:25)
This sounds more like what we typically think of as consolation - acknowledging, listening, being there, and thereby easing people's emotional burden. Yet these verses are either in the narrative of the text, or part of the dialog between God and Moses. They're not included in what Moses is supposed to tell the people.

Slaves making bricks, Egyptian tomb ca. 1450 BCE
Of course, death is not the same thing as slavery, and so the consolation given might also be different. There's no "solution" you can offer to someone who's lost a loved one. You can't reverse the situation. Slavery of course can be reversed. Moses' words could very well offer people a glimmer of hope in a bleak and seemingly intractable nightmare of systematic oppression.

Also, the Hebrew verb nacham doesn't simply mean "console." It conveys reframing, shifting one's mindset. In some instances, the shift localizes in changing one's mind, reconsidering, e.g. God reconsidering having created humans (see Gen 6:6). In others, it can refer to the shift from distress to calm, as in offering comfort. And indeed much of the "comfort" offered in the Bible typically is centered around assurances of better things down the road, i.e. hope for the future.

So why don't the people find Moses' words consoling? It could be that they simply don't believe him. Here they are in the midst of endless, crushing slavery, and along comes this guy with a speech impediment promising them that God's salvation is near. He would have understandably been taken as some sort of crackpot.

One could ask the question: How could God tell Moses to offer words of comfort to the people if God presumably knew his words wouldn't be accepted?

First off, the question is a "false start" philosophically. God as presented in the Torah doesn't necessarily know how people are going to act, or react. The God of the Torah gets angry, reconsiders, smells satisfying aromas, tries strategies that don't always work, then has to switch tactics, etc. This isn't the cosmic, ineffable, perfect God of philosophical treatises. It's the God of the Torah narratives, presented as quasi-human. So therefore God can tell Moses something that doesn't fly with the people, and it's not a logical contradiction.

But also, who says that just because they didn't listen, didn't accept his consolation, that it wasn't helpful? There's a benefit to saying something and just letting the idea seep in, percolate, even if it isn't "accepted." It's related to the psychology of persuasion. People typically need to hear something several times before they're willing to commit, before they're ready make the mental shift.

Similarly, the mood at the start of a shiva is different than the mood toward the end. There's a difference between being in the midst of trauma, shock, distress, and being in a place where you're ready to have someone help you shift to the next phase. But it doesn't mean that the comfort offered at the beginning isn't important in its own right.

People are not machines - we don't have an on/off switch. We need the space to be able to move from one state to another, to shift. It's a process, and every person, every process, has its own timeline. It's a fact we should probably be cognizant of in matters of comfort, as well as all other areas of growth and change in life, so we don't rush people and derail an otherwise organic transformation.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Refugee or Fugitive - Torah portion Shemot

In his zeal to counter the perceived threat from the Hebrews, Pharaoh issues a decree to kill the newborn boys:
"And Pharaoh commanded all his people, saying: Every newborn boy you must throw into the Nile, and every girl keep alive." (Ex 1:22)
He commands "all" his people, and doesn't specify "Hebrew" boys. The Talmud (T.B. Sotah 12a) picks up on this and suggests that Pharaoh's astrologers told him that the savior of the Hebrews was just born, but they didn't know if he was an Egyptian or a Hebrew. So Pharaoh imposed his decree to drown every boy on Egyptians and Hebrews alike.

In this interpretation, Pharaoh is so determined to stop the Hebrews that he's willing to kill his own people if that's what it takes.

The plain meaning however is that "Hebrew boys" is implied by the context. The phrase "all his people" then means that all Egyptians were commanded to carry out the decree against the Hebrews. Which is pretty terrifying when you think about it.

Just imagine for a moment... You're a Hebrew woman, and you're pregnant. No ultrasound in ancient Egypt, so you don't know the sex of your baby. You hope upon hope that it's a girl, because the terror of what will happen otherwise is too horrific to consider. You carry the baby to term and give birth. The baby emerges a boy. Your heart sinks. What should be a joy is now a living nightmare. The Egyptians have been notified of the birth, enter your house on Pharaoh's orders, wrench your newborn baby out of your arms, and then take him away to be murdered, discarded in the Nile. And you're not alone. Countless families are likewise bereft. The Hebrew community is beside itself with trauma and grief.

One mother however manages to avert the decree:
"... she saw that he was good, and she hid him three months. And she could no longer hide him, and she took for him a basket of bulrushes..." (Ex 2:2-3)
She hides him because she sees "that he was good." But this is a bit odd. Doesn't every mother see their child as "good"? Wouldn't they all try to hide their babies if they could? How does Moses' mother manage to hide him? This gives slightly different picture than the one I painted above, where the Hebrews are presumably resigned to the decree and painfully but obediently give up their babies to the Egyptians. Moses' mother is the exception, who sees something so special in her child that she rebels and does not consent. Instead, she hides him.

Let's skip ahead now. Moses grows up in Pharaoh's house. He sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating one of the Hebrew slaves, and Moses kills him. And he's forced on the run:
"And Pharaoh heard of this matter, and he sought to kill Moses, and Moses fled..." (Ex 2:15)
Interesting that Pharaoh, who would have been a grandfather to Moses, nonetheless sought to kill him, his own daughter's son. It might be surprising, except that this is the same Pharaoh after all who issued the initial decrees to kill the Hebrew boys. So Moses being a Hebrew might have always at the forefront of Pharaoh's mind. Perhaps he agreed to the initial adoption only as a very reluctant concession to his daughter. Or maybe he'd hoped that Moses' would cease to identify as a Hebrew and become fully Egyptian, which this incident clearly proved wrong.

In any case, note the textual proximity of these two events, Moses being hidden and Moses fleeing. They exemplify two different types of hiding:
1. Hiding because of who you are.
2. Hiding because of what you've done.
It's something like the difference between being a refugee, and being a fugitive. (Both words incidentally come from the Latin fugere - to flee.)

Clearly, we have sympathy for people who are being chased, hounded, hunted, for no good reason other than bigotry and baseless hate. We have less sympathy for those being chased and forced into hiding because of wrongdoings they've committed. The refugee is a victim. The fugitive has it coming to them.

One would think that this distinction should be pretty clear. The problem however is that those who force others into hiding because of who they are, often times also claim that these people have done something wrong, if not individually then collectively. To the oppressors and victimizers, the people they're hunting are looked at as fugitives, not refugees.

Yes, the Torah talks about the Egyptians terrorizing, murdering and enslaving the Hebrews, but the complicit Egyptians would no doubt have justified it by the notion that the Hebrews posed a threat to their society. And it is the same throughout history. Societies with an ideology and/or a policy to harm or oppress whole groups of people, invariably rationalize their righteousness and innocence based on the "good" they convince themselves they are ultimately promoting.

And yet there are instances where a problem, a real threat, does localize within a particular group. So how do we work out whether we're actually on the right side, responsibly addressing a bona fide threat, or whether we're simply deluding ourselves with rationalizations? I'll offer one suggestion:

If we lose sight of the individual, it's time to reassess.

Groups can have characteristics. You can make generalizations about groups. You can come up with statistics about groups. And those can be 100% true. But at the same time, many of the individuals within that group (and in some cases even the vast majority of that group) lack those characteristics, defy those generalizations.

Every individual therefore deserves to be judged, evaluated, for who they are - and not based on generalizations about their group. A focus on the individual human being has to be the overriding goal.

It sounds so obvious, but we are constantly judging people based on "categorical" assessments. We talk about whole groups of people as if they were a single entity. That is a blatant falsehood. Yes, erasing the individual makes it "easy" then to justify taking X, Y or Z actions against them. Erase the individual, and we erase our own guilt.

So in very practical terms, we need to start being more aware of the language we use to describe people. Notice when we refer to groups, and what that means to us about individuals within that group. Listen to how people talk. Pay attention. And don't let ourselves - or others - fall into the trap.

Start to do more of that, and we'll be living in a vastly improved world.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Did Jacob die? Yes and No - Torah portion Vayechi

Jacob finishes blessing (and admonishing) his children, and dies. Or does he? Yes, of course he does. Here's the verse:
Egyptian wooden sarcophagus, circa 14th century BCE
"And Jacob concluded commanding his sons, and he gathered his legs into the bed, and expired and was gathered to his people." (Gen 49:33)
Rashi cites the Talmud here, where Rabbi Yitzchak is invited to speak some words of Torah at Rabbi Nachman's table and says the following in the name of Rabbi Yochanan:
"Jacob our patriarch did not die." (B.T. Ta'anit 5b)
The scriptural basis for the idea, says Rashi, is that Jacob is the only person whose death is described in the Torah merely as "he expired" - as opposed to "he expired and died," as it says for Abraham (25:8), Ishmael (25:17), Isaac (35:29), and Aaron (Num 20:26).

Rashi doesn't quote the rest of the conversation from the Talmud. When Rabbi Yitzchak suggests that Jacob didn't die, Rabbi Nachman objects:
"Was it then for nothing that [Jacob] was eulogized and embalmed?"
Meaning, Jacob obviously died. The Torah talks about 40 days of embalming, 70 days where the Egyptians wept, Jacob's sarcophagus, a great procession of horses, chariots, and elders of Egypt accompanying Jacob's body to its resting place in Canaan, an additional 7 days of mourning in Canaan itself - so what do you mean he "didn't die"? I'll also add the slew of other verses in the very same narrative that do in fact use the word "die" relating to Jacob:
"When the time drew near for Israel to die..." (47:29)
"Behold, I am going to die..." (48:21)
"Joseph's brothers saw that their father had died..." (49:15)
"Your father commanded before his death..." (49:16)
So where is Rabbi Yitzchak coming from? He answers as follows:
"I derive it from Scripture, as it says: 'And you, my servant Jacob, do not fear - says YHVH - and do not be dismayed, Israel, for I am saving you from afar, and your descendants from the land of their captivity.' (Jer 30:10) The verse likens him (Jacob) to his descendants (Israel). Just as his descendants are alive, so too is he alive."
The conversation about Jacob ends there. The first thing to note is that Rabbi Yitzchak wasn't at all referring to Gen 49:33, regarding Jacob's death. He was talking about a verse in Jeremiah. It's Rashi who first connects Rabbi Yitzchak's statement to Gen 49:33, picking up on the fact that it doesn't use the word "died."

And that is precisely what a good "drash" does - it takes a teaching from the tradition and attaches it creatively to a verse. Of course, it was already explicitly connected to the verse in Jeremiah. But I imagine that Rashi saw an opening here that was too good to pass up - another "hint" to the idea that Jacob never died, and so therefore another place to attach Rabbi Yitzchak's concept.

But did Rashi actually believe that Jacob, the biblical figure, was still alive? Did Rabbi Yitzchak believe it? If so, did they believe he was alive physically, or spiritually, or in a metaphorical sense - i.e. by virtue of his descendants, the "children of Israel," being alive?

The question of "what did so-and-so believe" (i.e. what did they mean by their statement) is an interesting question, but ultimately an academic one, for historians and other scholars to debate. For instance, based on beliefs held at the time, or based on his collective statements in the Talmud, we might conclude that it's very unlikely Rabbi Yitzchak would have meant that Jacob the patriarch himself was still walking the earth. On the other hand, it might be the case that such a belief was not so outlandish at the time.

I say it's "academic" because I'm not sure what the religious significance would be for us if we had a definitive answer one way or the other. Is the goal to try to mimic the beliefs of others, to believe what Rashi or Rabbi Yitzchak believed? What if they believed different things? And even if we wanted to do it, how do we "get" ourselves to believe that Jacob is alive - physically or spiritually - if we really don't believe it?

In any case, I think the first thing to do is to acknowledge that "Jacob our forefather didn't die" is not the pshat (plain meaning) of the text in Genesis, nor in Jeremiah, which frequently uses the terms "Jacob" and "Israel" poetically to refer to the Jewish nation. It's a drash, a homiletic interpretation. Pshat is an academic pursuit - its goal is to "discover" the plain meaning. Drash is a religious, pedagogical approach - it's goal is to "teach" something, using a verse as a mnemonic device or a jumping off point. Which doesn't mean that drash can't utilize vast knowledge and scholarship - it certainly can! Stringing bits of data from the tradition meaningfully and creatively together via associative thinking can entail the work of incredible genius. If done well, it can also impart vital ideas to people and offer guidance in their religious outlook and lives.

So yes, I'm interested from the standpoint of pure curiosity what Rashi and Rabbi Yitzchak believed about Jacob not dying - the "pshat on the drash" if you will. But from a practical, religious standpoint, I'm interested in what significance we derive from their words. What's our "drash on the drash" - i.e. what ideas are we reinforcing by attaching them to the idea that Jacob never died?

Of course you'll encounter some very different answers depending on who you ask. Many resonate with the mystical approach, the idea that Jacob himself is alive in a spiritual sense, for instance based on the Midrashic concept that the righteous are alive in their death - take away the bodily garment and their soul shines even more powerfully. Possibly the Jewish equivalent of Obiwan's "Strike me down and I shall become more possible than you can possibly imagine."

I'll say that for myself, I increasingly prefer the rational, non-metaphysical approach. For me, the statement "Jacob did not die," does not mean that Jacob the person continues to live - rather, it's another way of saying am Yisrael chai, "the people of Israel live." Which when you think about it is an incredible and inspiring thought, one that connects us to thousands of years of history. It's the idea of the Jewish nation as a living entity, one which continues the process of "growing up" and (hopefully) finding ways to contribute to the greater human project. That's how I personally would choose to understand the drash - because I believe it's a thought worth reinforcing.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Joseph's Driver Safety Tips - Torah portion Vayigash

Joseph dispatches his brothers to Canaan to bring the entire family to Egypt, and offers some parting advice.
"And he sent his brothers, and they went, and he said to them: Don't become agitated along the way." (Gen 45:24)
"Become agitated" is a translation for "tirgezu" (from rogez), which in Biblical Hebrew implies emotional volatility, even shaking, in anger or distress. Rashi offers three explanations of the agitation Joseph warns against:
1. "Do not engage in a halakhic discussion, so the road does not agitate against you" (i.e. so that it is not unsafe for you, or alternatively, so you don't lose the way).

2. "Do not take large steps" (i.e. travel inordinately fast), "and enter the city in the sunlight" (i.e. travel during daylight hours).

3. "[Joseph] was worried that they might quarrel along the way about the matter of selling him [into slavery in Egypt], to argue with one another."
The third explanation, says Rashi, is the pshat (plain meaning) of the text - don't become upset with each other along the way. The first two explanations are citations from the Talmud (BT Ta'anit 10b), in the category of "drash" (homiletic interpretation).

Whereas the goal of pshat is to understand the meaning of the text per se, drash embodies the desire to impart ideas and values, relevant to people and their lives. With drash, the Torah text provides an anchor for a teaching - spiritual, moral, and sometimes just practical.

In this case, it seems clear that the sages of the Talmud were in the habit of getting engrossed in such vigorous and intricate discussions of halakha that the outside world almost didn't exist. That's great in the beit midrash (study hall), but when traveling long distances along dangerous roads, they would need to keep their wits about them and focus on where they were going. So not getting overly distracted in a discussion was sound advice, and attaching it to the "do not become agitated along the way" verse offered a helpful mnemonic to recall that advice.

Is this travel advice relevant to our day? Absolutely - in fact, it's critical.

The verse says: "Don't become agitated along the way." The Talmud adds: Don't be unduly distracted. Don't travel too quickly. And travel during daylight hours... It's not hard to see how to apply this nowadays to driving safety.
Don't be agitated = Don't drive angry, or aggressively.

Don't be distracted = Don't text or otherwise take your eyes from the road.

Don't travel too quickly = Don't speed in order to get somewhere faster.

Travel during daylight = Drive carefully at night, and don't drive if you're overtired.
Approximately 1.25 million people are killed in traffic-related accidents around the world each year. These figures include motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. 1.25 million is hard to wrap the mind around. Imagine walking onto the field at Yankee Stadium, filled with 50,000 people, all killed in car accidents. Then imagine 25 of these Yankee Stadiums, one after another, and you get the idea. And this happens every year.

Yes, if we were measuring heart disease, we'd be talking close to 150 Yankee Stadiums. But road fatalities are in the top 10 leading causes of death around the world. Some countries are more dangerous to drive in than others. For instance, you probably want to avoid driving in Eritrea, with 48.4 fatalities per 100,000 people. Micronesia is a safe bet with less than 2 per 100,000 people. (But then the island nation only has 100,000 people.) Israel actually makes the top 10 safest driving countries with 3.3 per 100,000. The U.S. is 11.6 per 100,000, twice as many as Canada.

But obviously location isn't the factor to change - it's our driving habits.

We have to stop being "agitated" on the road, driving when we're emotionally volatile - either upset or angry, or anxious about being late. These emotions cause us to drive erratically, irresponsibly, aggressively. It brings us to speed, tailgate, pass other cars when it's not safe, weave in and out of traffic, and perform all kinds of risky maneuvers on the road. A recent study found that driving while emotionally agitated makes people 10 times more likely to get in an accident.

We have to stop doing things that take our eyes off the road. Let's start with mobile devices. Texting makes us 6 times more likely to get in an accident. Dialing a phone number is actually double that. But it's not just phones. Reaching for anything in the car makes us 9 times more likely to crash. Reading or jotting down notes, 10 times more likely. Distracted driving is an epidemic. Distracted walking is too, though in a 1.5 to 3 ton car, we're also operating a deadly weapon. That thought needs to sink in every time we get behind the wheel.

We have to slow down. I'm not just talking about high speed limits, which correlate to more fatalities. I mean driving faster than is safe in a given situation. When we're driving in places where people could potentially cross the street, we need time to react. On my own dead-end street, where there are no sidewalks and people can walk out onto the street at any moment, even 20 kph (12 mph) is too fast. I'm constantly telling people to slow down. Getting somewhere a few minutes or seconds earlier is not worth the risk.

We have to be even more careful at night. All the risks of driving are magnified at night, because we can't see as well, even in well-lit spaces. A disproportionate number of road fatalities take place after dark. Our reaction time is just not as good. So again, s-l-o-w down. Remain constantly aware of the road so that you'll have time to stop. Because you may not be able to see a person, object, or animal until they enter the path of your headlights. Which gives you very little time to stop. Also, don't blind oncoming drivers with your brights. And if you're sleepy, pull over and rest.

There are of course lots of other risk factors to talk about - non-use of seat belts and helmets, driving while intoxicated, etc. Suffice it to say we have much room for improvement in terms of our "derech eretz" - how we conduct ourselves on the derech, on the road.

"Don't become agitated (distracted, reckless, aggressive) along the way."

The sages turned this verse into a mnemonic. We need to make it into our mantra, every time we sit in the driver's seat. Peoples lives, and our own lives, depend on it.