Monday, April 27, 2020

Trust and Truth: Then and Now

Bodily Fluids and Skin Diseases: Yes! While we were all busy last week leyning Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, other, more productive members of our New Mexico Jewish community were engrossed (pun fully intended) in explaining and expounding upon Tazria-Metzora, the double parsha otherwise known as

Image created by Chris Harris
The Bane of B'nai Mitzvah Everywhere

The bane, also, of congregational rabbis - such as Rabbi Dov Gartenberg of Albuquerque's Congregation B'nai Israel, who has written a significant and meaningful sermon for this virtual occasion.

Drasha Diamond Number 8
Shabbat Tazria-Metzora 5780

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg
Congregation B'nai Israel

Trust and Truth: Then and Now

These two portions, Tazria and Metzora, are difficult for us to comprehend as modern readers. The concept of Tumah or ritual impurity is difficult to understand.  The term, tzara’at, which is a leprous like disease featured in chapter 13, is also difficult to understand on many levels.

While this material is difficult, I want to focus narrowly on the role of the Kohen in Chapter 13.

As explained by the Etz Hayim commentary, the Kohen in biblical times served in the matter of tsaraat as both a religious and medical authority. The Kohen’s role was to diagnose the condition and in specific cases to isolate (hisgir) the afflicted individual initially for 7 days.

If an individual is declared impure by the Kohen, he will suffer a longer isolation outside of the camp. The Kohen also served to reintegrate afflicted individuals whose conditions had improved or disappeared.

The commentator in the Humash surmises that
When the Kohen visited the afflicted person in isolation and examined the person’s sores, the experience of being cared for by the most prestigious person in the community must have helped generate healing powers in the sick person.
The Kohen plays this role in the community
because he is trusted by the people he attends to. 

The Kohen has an expertise that is accepted by the community and welcomed in time of need.

Although we no longer rely on or expect Kohanim to serve in this function, the role of the Kohen reminds us of the importance of trust as we pass through this time of unprecedented crisis.

We live in a world filled with competing information, intentional distortion, suspicion toward government and authority, and a novel virus that we do not fully comprehend.

Who do we trust? What sources of information
help us stay safe? What are the qualities we should
look for in experts, leaders, people responsible
for making decisions about our health and safety?

One of my favorite passages in Pirkei Avot (5:7) provides us with guidelines on who we should trust in this confusing environment of disinformation, exaggeration, and distortions.

שִׁבְעָה דְבָרִים בַּגֹּלֶם וְשִׁבְעָה בֶחָכָם. חָכָם אֵינוֹ מְדַבֵּר בִּפְנֵי מִי שֶׁהוּא גָדוֹל מִמֶּנּוּ בְחָכְמָה וּבְמִנְיָן, וְאֵינוֹ נִכְנָס לְתוֹךְ דִּבְרֵי חֲבֵרוֹ, וְאֵינוֹ נִבְהָל לְהָשִׁיב, שׁוֹאֵל כָּעִנְיָן וּמֵשִׁיב כַּהֲלָכָה, וְאוֹמֵר עַל רִאשׁוֹן רִאשׁוֹן וְעַל אַחֲרוֹן אַחֲרוֹן, וְעַל מַה שֶּׁלֹּא שָׁמַע, אוֹמֵר לֹא שָׁמָעְתִּי, וּמוֹדֶה עַל הָאֱמֶת. וְחִלּוּפֵיהֶן בַּגֹּלֶם

There are seven characteristics that typify the Golem [clod] and seven, the Hacham [wise person]. The wise person does not speak in the presence of one who is wiser; does not interrupt a friend’s words; does not reply in haste; asks what is relevant and answers to the point; replies with an orderly sequence; when appropriate, concedes that ‘I have not heard this’; and acknowledges the truth. The opposite of these typify the Golem.

I believe that three of these characteristics of a Hacham deserve our attention in teaching us who we can trust in the context of the pandemic. The first characteristic states that a Hacham does not speak in the presence of one who is wiser. The wise person recognizes others with greater wisdom and knowledge and defers to them.

Martin Barraud / Getty Images

This week I read an interview by the columnist Tom Friedman of Dov Seidman, an expert on leadership. As I read Seidman’s comments I thought of this teaching in Pirkei Avot:
The strongest local leaders will be the ones who collaborate with others and, at the same time, are exceptionally clear about their plans, brutally honest about the risks, utterly specific about the behaviors they’re asking of us, constantly searching the world for best practices and totally transparent about the technologies and data they want to collect to track our movements and contacts.
Good leaders not only recognize the wisdom of others, but incorporate the their wisdom to form clear, honest counsel for the community they serve. To defer to others who are wiser, is to incorporate their wisdom.

Consider the next-to-last teaching in our passage from Pirkei Avot,:

When appropriate, a Hacham concedes that
‘I have not heard this.’

Seidman observes:
In addition to truth and hope, what people actually want in a leader, even a charismatic one, is humility. 
I feel more certain in the face of uncertainty when a leader says to me, ‘I don’t know, but here are the wise experts I am going to turn to for answers, and here is how we are going to hunt for the answers together.’ 
The more I hear Dr. Fauci say that he does not know something, the more closely I listen to him discuss what he is sure of.
Humble leaders actually make themselves smaller than the moment. They know that they alone cannot fix everything. 
So, they create the space for others to join them and to rise to do big things — together.
Anavah, humility, is the ability to perceive what you do not know and to seek others who do know. The quality is similar to the first quality of deferring to someone who is wiser.

The difference here is a person who is acutely aware of what they don’t know and can identify those gaps in knowledge to be able to seek wisdom and knowledge from others. This can only arise from authentic humility.

The last quality in the the Mishnah from Pirkei Avot is that

A Hacham acknowledges the truth.

Seidman posits a similar quality.
Great leaders trust people with the truth. And they make hard decisions guided by values and principles, not just politics, popularity, or short-term profits. 
Great leaders understand that when so many vulnerable and scared people are so willing, so quickly, to put their livelihoods and even their lives in their leaders’ hands, and make sacrifices asked of them, they expect the truth and nothing but the truth in return. 
Leaders who trust people with the truth are trusted more in return.
The ability to admit the truth - even if it is difficult to bear - is a critical quality for the moment we are in. We are dependent on our leaders at every level to provide us with the truth and point out falsehood.

The final comment in the Pirkei Avot passage tells us that

The Golem embraces the opposite of these qualities.

The Golem does not defer to those who are wiser than him. He has trouble accepting the authority and wisdom of others.

The Golem never admits to not knowing something. He has convinced himself that he knows everything, and has a better grip on reality than anyone else.

He is likely to hide his ignorance to go along with alternative realities as a way to cover up for his ignorance.

Lastly, the Golem cannot accept the truth. Or he actively distorts it. He only promises a rosy future because he thinks people will abandon him if he tells the harsh truth.

Paul Sancya / Associated Press

In an analysis of the methods of Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist of Info-Wars, journalist Charlie Warzel observes:
He instills a deep distrust in all authority, while promoting a seductive, conspiratorial alternate reality in which Mr. Jones, via his outlandish conspiracies, has all the answers.
In another observation, Mr Warzel refers to anti-vaxers and people who trump liberty over public health:
They judge about other people’s needs or interests as a form of tyranny by definition. They do not think their choices affect other people.
As difficult it is to understand our portion today, it is possible to understand that the Kohen was a trusted and truthful authority. While 2500 years have separated us from the ancient practices described in the portion and our own time, we need trusted and truthful leaders as much as our forebears. We hunger for the qualities of sound and wise leadership that are described in Pirkei Avot.

In this confusing and distorted world, we must be especially skeptical of false prophets, corrupt and self-serving leaders, and arrogant snake oil salesmen. We must cultivate the critical skills to recognize and support wise leadership that the Torah has left for us as an inheritance. 

In August 2019, Rabbi Dov Gartenberg began serving Congregation B’nai Israel as Interim Rabbi.

He leads services, celebrations, education, life-cycle events, and programming. He is also available to members in need of pastoral care.

Rabbi Dov is committed to the process of healing our congregation, welcoming and understanding interfaith families, and supporting those in our community who are traveling the path as Conservative Jews.

Rabbi Dov is guided by his convictions in the spiritual beauty, eternal relevance, and deep humanity of Judaism for our 21st century lives and times.

He is an experienced congregational rabbi who seeks to provide comfort for those in grief, bring hope to those who are ill, and support those who seek to enhance their Jewish lives.

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