People always want the inside scoop of my job as a campus rabbi. Rarely am I asked the greatest benefit; it is known and assumed that what I do is important. But everyone wants to know the dirt. “C’mon man, what bugs you most about the people?” “Rabbi, do you get tired of hearing the same questions?” “What really bothers you?” While spending some time this past Shabbat with a friend of mine who is, as I call him, a “real rabbi,” I was candid with him about my greatest pet peeve. I was surprised to find that after spending time with college students, he had the same experience. And then, shockingly, I found this exact pet peeve discussed by the great rabbis in this past week’s Torah portion (Parshas Re’eh).
I didn’t get this far in my career by not shaking things up. A mentor and coach of mine once referred to me being like a bull in a china shop when it came to how I dealt with people. Now as strange as it sounds, I never like being the bad cop, or the “no” man, or that guy that spoils all the fun. But then again, sometimes someone’s gotta do it. So imagine the following typical scenario that repeats itself on campus or at my Shabbat table. I’m speaking to someone. So far, conversation is going great. Then, it happens. I am asked my opinion. The person I am speaking with wants to know what I think, and I am aware it’s vastly different, perhaps even confrontational, to how he (or she) thinks. I weigh options; smile, say something “pareve” (neither positive nor negative) and allow the person to walk away thinking ‘hey, he’s cool.” Or maybe I open up a little, say something a little edgy, maybe offend them, maybe challenge them, and maybe show them they’re mistaken. Ok, so I pick B (usually only if I like the person).
A debate ensues. My discussion partner and I go back and forth, trading facts, logic, and figures. Sometimes I win. Usually. Not because I’m smarter, it’s just that I’ve been doing this a bit longer. And I’ve also been there, as a former Bay area raised collegiate. It also helps that nearly all my discussions are about either religion, politics, or relationships. I don’t debate math, don’t really know anything about sports (except weight lifting and who debates about that), and I am still learning about business…and nothing much else gets people riled up. Anyway, I win the argument. Or, if you’ve been to my Shabbat table, I’ll say “It’s time to bentsch” (the after blessing for the meal) and then use that authority to make my final point, and not allow time for a rebuttal.
Anyway, I feel like I’ve made the knockout punch of our intellectual boxing match. Expecting that “a-ha I’ll change my life!” response that happens never, I instead get what has become my biggest pet peeve. My friend sits, stumped. And then he says the famous words, “Well Rabbi, you know, I’m not such an expert, but I bet you could find someone out there that could refute you.” Implication being, you’re right but I’m not changing. Whaaaaaat?? Since when did a discussion ever end with “after my argument has been refuted, I’ll keep my premise on the hope that other facts out there will support it, and I just haven’t yet found them.”
There’s nothing wrong with not knowing. How can a person learn if they don’t start with a lack of knowledge? In fact, it says that a person who doesn’t ask, won’t learn. In a million years, we shouldn’t feel bad having a question. In fact, as someone who has spent most of his life being in situations where I was the least knowledgeable person in the room, I know first-hand how important, and how hard it is to say “I don’t know.” So this shouldn’t be construed as an assault on those lacking knowledge.
Rather, what drives me nuts is people act like they know. They even think they know. Their actions seem to be that they know. And when you call them out and show them that they’re wrong, they still act like they know, except now they know that they don’t. And instead of change, they retroactively claim ignorance. So if you don’t know, be honest about that up front. And if you’re going to take a position, so then allow your position to be proven false if that is the case. And if it’s proven false, don’t rely on the tooth fairy coming to prove your point at a later date. She might come, but until then, take my word for it!
I have had many discussions with a close friend and student of mine. Once in a while he’ll conclude my answers make more sense. “So,” I ask expectantly, “do you agree with me?” He shrugs and says, “Well, there’s no way to know, but I’m going to keep acting as if my initial argument was correct.” What is the genesis of such a stance?
And we all do it! I’m no better than the next guy. But why?
The Torah portion last week says emphatically, “See, I’m putting before you a blessing and a curse.” The Sforno (Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno was an Italian rabbi, Biblical commentator, philosopher and physician. He was born at Cesena about 1475 and died at Bologna in 1550, thank you Wikipedia) says “See to it that your actions are not mediocre like the behavior of most people. For I have placed before you today a blessing and curse which are the two extremes…both of these are available for you to choose.” As one of my favorite rabbis would tell me “Don’t be a baby.”
The nature of people is to embrace mediocrity. We don’t want to take positions because our egos don’t want to deal with the very real possibility that we could be wrong. We like to be “pareve.” As I said before, I very often like to shrink back and not say my mind because I don’t want to be seen as distant, removed, weird, or wrong. Avraham Avinu (our father) questioned, or hesitated, performing the circumcision on himself because he was afraid he’d be perceived as ‘different’ and thereby not be able to have the same impact on people.
The Torah seems to emphasize that it is, at times, ok to be an extremist. Have your beliefs. Research them, know them, be able to argue them, and if you’re wrong, it’s ok, be wrong. Be cursed. Just don’t be in the middle. We read about the disappearing middle class in America. Everyone is either becoming uber rich or poor. Perhaps it’s the same in the world of the mind. The middle class is unstable; staying in this dubious state of moral uncertainty and intellectual lack of clarity for the sake of not having to take an opinion is the quickest path to intellectual poverty.
We can say it even more clearly. To be in the middle is not even to be alive. It’s like you’re breathing, and have a pulse, but no life. There’s no passion. Nothing motivates you. You live your life purposeless, floating from one convenient stage to another. As a great rabbi put it, you’re like tall grass blowing in the wind; you go wherever the wind blows you.
The Torah wants you alive. Animated. Anchored. Be WRONG! See that you’re wrong. Change it. Be right. Be really right. Defend your position proudly. Don’t be afraid of people challenging you. People can survive not being liked by everyone. Abraham was one man and the rest of the world stood opposite him. Guess what? He was the, or certainly one of the, greatest agents of change in human history.
Consider this: Your actions are what you know (or think) to be true. We do what we think is right. If we’re going to act in a certain way, it’s because we chose to believe that that is the best thing to do (even if we don’t have a lot of evidence). In the world of action, there’s no pareve. Either you do or you don’t. So since anyway your actions demand you take a stand and choose, why not back it up with knowing if what you’re doing is right??
Put it bluntly. Say you act like there’s no higher authority. You do whatever you want. Now in your mind you aren’t sure. You can’t be sure something doesn’t exist. Say it’s 80/20, or 50/50. Say someone (like me) comes and shows you arguments or evidence that push the scales 51/49 in favor of an intelligent higher authority that has the ability to tell you what to do. Is it logical to act like there isn’t said authority? Do you really have to wait until its 99/1? Or 100/0? Does that make sense? Or is it all about comfort?
Judaism anticipated this problem long before us. It values passion and conviction even over correctness. Now, don’t think you can just do whatever you want just because you believe it. We have a brain for a reason. But be honest with yourself. Learn enough, think enough to be certain in your beliefs, and then do. (****See the bottom of this for an important point, but just not related to the topic of the blog.****)
There was a beautiful story that illustrates this concept. A chassidic rebbe went to visit a non-practicing Jewish man from whom he needed help in a certain project. The Rebbe (rabbi) came into the man’s home as the man was sitting down to a big clearly non-kosher feast (think Chipotle with the chipotle tabasco sauce…no bowl, an actual burrito). The rabbi blessed the man to eat with his full desire. The man was puzzled. He said to the Rabbi, “but Rabbi, how could you tell me to eat with my full desire when you know it’s not kosher??” The rabbi responded that when it comes to making a mistake, if you make a mistake because the temptation was simply too great to turn down, G-d so to speak understands. We’re human, we all make mistakes. But if we sin because we don’t care, because we’re indifferent, so that’s something really bad. So the Rabbi was blessing the man that he should eat his non-kosher food not because he didn’t care about kosher, but because he wasn’t strong enough to overcome the urge to eat it, as it is delicious.
So in short, and in life, we’ll all make mistakes. We can’t help it. But don’t make the mistake of being pareve. Live your life with passion. If you’re going to do something wrong, live with the guilt that you screwed up. Like it says in the parsha, “choose the curse!” Being embarrassed is a gift. Eventually, you’ll stop making the mistake if it makes you embarrassed. The only time you can’t fix yourself is when you justify your mistakes, and make them into good deeds. Living a life where you do what you want, and hope somewhere out there there’s a justification for what you’re doing, is living a life without purpose. There’s no thought, nothing compelling to explain what you do, or why you’re doing it. You’re being a sheep, mediocre, like everyone else.
The Torah in the same parsha says that the blessing that you choose is that you listen. Listen to what? A deep thought on that line says, “Listen to yourself.” Blessing and curse comes from our ability to listen to our conscience. There are some things in life we honestly don’t know. But there are many more things in life that we might know, or have a sense of, and chose not to listen. And that’s part of being human. But when we don’t listen, or don’t want to listen to what we know deep down is right, don’t pretend that we don’t know. Admit it. Sometimes the greatest thing a person can do is admit they made a mistake.
That lesson is the entire concept of the incoming month of Elul, the month that immediately proceeds Rosh Hashana. We have one month before G-d decides the fate of the world. The Torah says it’s a terrifying time. How can we know, how can we honestly say that we lived up to everything that was expected of us? The answer is we can’t. And that’s ok. G-d is called a father. Parents understand their kids make mistakes, and they forgive them, and they love them. But the thing that makes parents happy is when the kids, on their own, see their mistakes and misgivings, and come to the parents and say “I’m sorry, I screwed up.” To do that means taking a risk. It means having a position. It means seeing that the position you took wasn’t perfect, it was wrong and that’s ok. But then if you do that, it means you have to change. And sometimes that is the hardest thing of all.
****When it comes to passion over correctness, I was referring to life choices. Jewish law does have a system to dictate what law is correct, and we don’t choose the correct law. However, when it comes to our life choices that’s where we should be passionate instead of always correct****