Torah seemed to know what psychologists learned thousands of years later – and it matters a whole lot right now.
Vayera 5784 (2023)
Note: These words come during the 2023 Israel-Hamas War, sparked by a terror attack on Israeli innocents that became the world's most lethal day for Jews since the Holocaust. Because current judicial ethics rules ban me from discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,
I focus instead on some of the emotional and spiritual implications for us and our Judaism.
It's a tough time in spiritual life. Hurt runs deep, patience runs thin, facts are undermined, challenges are despairingly complex, stakes are high, and it all hits home.
Some of What I'm Hearing
I'm hearing anxiety and anguish about the Mideast "situation" (in Hebrew, matzav).
I'm hearing doubts about how to hold theology, spirituality and political views all at the same time, as if one of them has become irredeemably inconsistent with the other two.
I'm hearing doubts about ecumenism when people react to news of [person or group] doing [thing], validating it or celebrating it. Recently someone I've never seen angry shook and screamed, "HOW! HOW DARE THEY!" – then deflated under the sudden weight of emotion.
I'm hearing doubts about goodness when people feel [emotion] about [group] they blame for [thing]. Recently someone asked me, "Am I a bad person for feeling [that emotion]?"
I'm hearing doubts about fairness when [news source, group or country] blames [nation or group] for [action] but seems to ignore [context or history], or holds [nation or group] to one standard but seems to hold [another nation or group] to a different standard. Someone recently asked me, "If the world is so unfair to [country or group], why even try?"
Some question loyalty to [nation or group] that would do or experience [action or omission]. A public official shared with me feeling conflicted about the matzav and whether to go forward with a scheduled visit to Israel. Hearing me offer that questioning isn't disloyal, they sobbed in my arms.
Cascading Moral Quandaries
As if on cue amidst all the "too much"-ness, this week's Torah portion (Vayera) recounts a long series of too-much situations with seemingly endless moral dilemmas. And it's not difficult to see in each of them a reflection of Mideast events and the many feelings about them:
- Protect the guilty for the sake of innocents! After God reveals a plan to smite Sodom for rampant evil, Avraham bargains with God to spare it for 10 innocents (Gen. 18:20-32). What is the most ethical way for a democracy's military to engage amidst civilians? How to respond if innocents are human shields for the guilty?
- Take my daughters! When Sodom's marauders come after divine messengers whom Lot (Avraham's nephew) is hiding for their protection, Lot offers his own daughters instead (Gen. 19:1-8). When should families and nations send their youth into harm's way for principle's sake?
- Don't look back! As Lot and his family flee Sodom in the nick of time, Lot tells his wife not to look back – but she looks back and becomes a pillar of salt (Gen. 19:17-26). How do current events retrace difficult pasts that keep being experienced in the present tense?
- Incest is relative! Lot flees to a cave with his daughters, who believe they're the only humans left after Sodom's destruction: they inebriate their father and become pregnant by him (Gen. 19:30-37). When do real or perceived horrors justify, excuse or explain otherwise unethical behaviors?
- Take my wife, please! When Avraham encounters rival Avimelekh, Avraham tells him that Sarah is Avraham's sister rather than his wife, thereby exposing Sarah to abuse (Gen. 20:1-2). Can fear ever justify subterfuge or exposing others to harm?
- Exile your son! After Hagar bears a son Yishmael with Avraham so he and Sarah could have a child, Sarah bears a son (Yitzhak) and tells Avraham to expel Hagar and Yishmael lest he inherit instead of Yitzhak – and Avraham complies at God's word (Gen. 21:1-14). When do ethics favor privileging some over others, and justifying it as higher principle?
- Don't let me see my son die! After an exiled Hagar and Yishmael run out of water, Hagar leaves her son under a bush and asks not to see her son die (Gen. 21:15-16). Are some hurts so sharp that it's better not to look, or leave others to suffer unsupported?
- Slay your son!(?) After Avraham expels Yishmael, Avraham understands God to tell him to sacrifice Yitzhak; Avraham appears set to go through with it until an angel stops him (Gen. 22:1-12). When do we follow what we believe are solid principles, and when do we question principles when the consequences are hard to accept?
Trauma, Judgment and the Fundamental Attribution Error
These dilemmas would be tough enough without context – and, context matters. In all of them, Torah records a prior trauma. In last week's Torah portion, Avram departed with Sarai from everything and everyone they ever knew, suffered famine, became a refugee, feared death at Pharaoh's hand, and fought to free Lot from kidnappers.
In this week's sequel, Lot previously having faced his own kidnapping, Lot faces marauders and offers to hand over his daughters. Lot's wife having barely escaped with her life, she couldn't help but turn back to see it again. Sarah having longed for a child, after she bore Yitzhak she forgot herself and lost all empathy for another mother and "their" child whom Sarah had raised. Sarah and Avraham having been ejected from all they knew, they ejected Hagar from all she knew. Hagar having been ejected, she abandoned her own child to suffer alone. Avraham having exiled his son Yishmael, Avraham stood to repeat loss in the Akeidah (Binding of Yitzhak) – this time by his own knife-wielding hand.
Cue the Mideast, where potentially millions are experiencing trauma right now. And cue the world's Jews, Muslims and countless others who watch the news, worry and feel.
Jewish life emerges from a hard foundation, and so has much to offer about tough times. Jewish religion and spirituality aren't for floating blithely above real life circumstances: they're precisely for real life circumstances, difficulties and all. The Judaism I know cares passionately about character under challenge, ethics under even egregious conditions, hope and faith amidst all, and wresting joy from the clutches of despair. We've been at it for a long time.
Proverbs 14:10 offers that we know our own hearts – and far better than we know others' hearts: it's an axiom of being alive. So when we confront hard times and fall short in our choices and behaviors, we tend to judge ourselves as good people doing our best. Conversely, because we don't know others' hearts so well, when they fall short we're more likely to judge them at fault to the exclusion of tough circumstances. It's not that tough times inherently justify or excuse bad behavior, but that human brains are wired to judge ourselves and others differently.
Psychologists know this phenomenon as the Fundamental Attribution Error – our human tendency to over-attribute others' actions to their character, ignoring or devaluing the impact that situational factors might have on that behavior. Along with our natural social biases – for instance, that we tend to favor people we believe to be more "like us" and groups to which we belong – the Fundamental Attribution Error becomes most potent amidst strife, struggle and especially trauma.
In their wake, judgments can become extreme and off-kilter. It's one of the many reasons that the Mideast situation lands so hard and with so much blame. And maybe it's why this week's Torah portion offers no explicit judgment – no clear statement that one behavior or another is absolutely wrong – amidst these difficult circumstances.
I don't understand Torah's silence to accept the unacceptable. Neither do I believe in a simple relativism that equally levels blame at every side in the false name of "fairness." What I do believe is that context matters, blanket judgments tend to be too easy, and right now we need every shred of compassion, tolerance and gentleness – with ourselves and with each other – that we can muster.
Especially amidst trauma, there are more immediate priorities than collective blame.