Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Wavering Leader

I am the designated positive guy, the one who is supposed to maintain a positive attitude about “the other” and inspire others, but I don’t always feel inspired or positive. I grapple with the questions about the merits and prospects for success of my work bringing together Jews, Muslims, Christians and others. Of course this is ok, but it is worth thinking about again and draw inspiration from a great wavering leader, Moses.

One evening in the early 90’s in Boston, I was sitting with my family at a New England Lubavitz Yeshiva, fund-raising dinner that is honouring my grandfather Rabbi Joshua T. Kastel. I was in my twenties considering what I wanted to do with my life.

A wealthy donor of the school spoke about the first time my grandfather came to his office to ask for a donation for his school. The speakers father had been a donor and had passed away, now my grandfather was hoping the son would follow his father’s example.

The speaker saw my grandfather through the window. “Rabbi Kastel walked toward the building, then he hesitated, stopped, turned around and walked a few steps away. Then he turned around and walked toward the building again. Stopped again...he was nervous. But he really had nothing to worry about, we all loved him”.  

Photo by
used under general permission see link below
According to the Midrash, my grandfather’s hesitation echoed the wavering of Moses himself. The Torah tells us that after God charged Moses with demanding freedom for the Israelites, “He was on the road, in the hotel (and God met him and sought to kill him)[i]”. The Midrash[ii] states that “Moses was entering and exiting the hotel to the road and from the road to the hotel, he was ruminating in his mind and saying if he will go to Egypt to redeem Israel or not...[iii]

One of the first doubts for Moses is when he sees two Israelites fighting each other and is afraid that perhaps they are not deserving of redemption[iv]. When Moses is called to challenge the system in Egypt he doubts his own ability, his speech defect as well as the likelihood of success and tries five times[v] to avoid this frightful responsibility.

Soon after, he is confronted with failure as the situation deteriorates[vi] and a loss of confidence by his own people.  Moses, now has a much greater problem. “Indeed the Israelites did not listen to me, and how will Pharaoh listen to me?[vii]” Moses is understood to be making the point that as a leader he draws his strength from the Israelites, his core constituency, if they are not prepared to back him, how will have the credibility with Pharaoh[viii]?  

There are two messages here. One is for me or any other leader, at times we will find that we don’t have the support of our own side, and this will make it harder to advocate externally. Unlike the suggestion of the speaker about my grandfather, not everyone is going to love a leader who is pursuing a controversial path. Moses went from a childhood in which he was loved, kissed and hugged by the princess and Grandpa Pharaoh[ix], to being ignored by the people he was sent to save. It’s tough. We need to keep at it.  The second message is to us as prospective followers; our leaders are often only as strong as the support we give them. 

[i]     Exodus 4:24,
[ii]    Midrash is not necessarily understood as factual
[iii]   Midrash Aggada, cited in Torah Shlaima Shemot p.197, it asks the question about the language in the text; "Was he on the road or at the hotel?"
[iv]   Midrash Tanchuma 10, Shemot Rabba 1:35
[v]    1) Exodus 3:11, 2) 3:13, 3) 4:1, 4) 4:10 and 5) 4:13
[vi]   Exodus 5:4-21
[vii]  Exodus 6:12
[viii] Sfas Emes,
[ix]   Shemot Rabba 1:31

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Facts, Prejudice & Pessimism (Pharaoh & Politicians)

"But it’s true!”, cry out those accused of racism. It seems that to avoid prejudice, we are expected to pretend certain facts are not there. Pessimists would make a similar truth argument against optimism. Martin Seligman convincingly argues in Learned Optimism[1] that we do not need to ignore the evidence to be optimistic, rather we can choose among alternative honest explanations of all the “facts”. This approach can also work with prejudice. In one of the earliest records of prejudice, against the Hebrews in ancient Egypt, some of these issues play out. The key idea in this article is that we can be truthful and still beat prejudice and pessimism by focusing, when appropriate, on positive aspects of the truth, while at other times we can choose to face up to the negatives.

Head in the sand?
Recently, Australian parliamentarian Teresa Gambaro suggested that migrants be taught about using deodorant and waiting in a que, and Rick Santorum, an American presidential candidate referred to blacks on welfare[2]. Gambaro unreservedly apologised and said she was taken out of context, while Santorum denies he said the word black. I wonder about the facts, is there a real deodorant and que problem? NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous, blasted Mr. Santorum, “In Iowa for example, only nine percent of food stamp recipients are black, while eighty-four percent of recipients are white”. Jealous ignores the fact that there are far more whites than blacks in Iowa (91% white to nearly 3% black[3]). It seems that we are all supposed to be nice and just pretend that this obvious hole in the argument is just not there. I do not think either statement as reported, was appropriate, but why not? 

Realists in Ancient Egypt?
According to the Torah’s account of “social integration” in ancient Egypt, the truth did not look good. The Hebrews were not going to fit in, it did not matter how long they were in the country they could still be described as those “coming to Egypt[4]” in the present tense, as if they always just arriving[5]. They did not change their language or their names[6]; “They did not call Reuben, Rufus, nor did they call Shimon, Lulini[7]. In contrast to the sexually liberated Egyptians, they had very conservative attitudes to women; they would not even look at each other’s wives[8]. Shepherding, a common occupation of the migrants, was an abomination to Egyptians[9].

They were not a marginal group. These outsiders had already managed to occupy the second highest office in the land, secure the best agricultural land[10] and they were rich[11]. Their birth-rate was as high[12] as that of rodents[13] to the point where the land was filled with them[14]. It was like an infestation of reeds[15]. Whenever an Egyptian went to get some entertainment they found the theatres were full of them[16]. These internationalists could also migrate out of the land[17] of Egypt just at the moment when their labour was needed most[18]. Was it unreasonable for the Egyptians to be concerned and pessimistic about those people? 
Realist and pessimist
Until this week, I would have described myself as a realist rather than an optimist or pessimist. I do not agree with the idea that if you think positive thoughts about something you want, “the universe” or God for that matter will give it to you. There is evidence that pessimists are generally been better at discerning reality than optimists[19], at least when thinking about them calmly. On the other hand, pessimists are more likely to fail to achieve their goals, feel depressed and have poorer health[20].

I did a test to measure my degree of optimism and pessimism, particularly the degree to which I think of both good and bad events as being permanent, pervasive and personal. I found that in some ways I think like an unrealistic pessimist. With negative events, I have been likely to think of them as reflective of what happens generally (permanent), as them being part of a broader pattern rather than isolated to that particular issue (pervasive) and I tend to take responsibility for it (personal). With positive events, I am more likely to think of it as a fluke or a lucky break (neither permanent nor personal) and more specific to that issue rather than thinking of it in a broader sense (not pervasive). I was not being consistent or logical and that alternative explanations could be even more realistic so I was free to choose those[21].

Methods for honest positive living
In some cases, our negative perception is backed up by a set of facts. With those situations, it depends on the context and the timing. If a lot is at stake, we might do well to take a pessimistic view about the risks, rather than just hope it will all take care of itself. If we are in a position to take action and deal with it, we can replace our worry with determination to address the problem[22]. If we are worrying about them when we are in middle of something else, it would be sensible to tell ourselves that this not the time for thinking about this, and actually schedule an alternative time to deal with it[23].

Other than dealing or delaying dealing with the problem itself, Selikman’s main strategy for dealing with pessimistic beliefs is disputation with oneself, which can still be relevant in spite of a negative set of facts. Disputation has four main components, i) evidence, ii) alternatives, iii) implications and iv) usefulness. For example, it is late at night, I am feeling washed out and I notice that I am doing less than my fair share of the house work, so I think I am lousy person and feel sadder still. I can challenge the idea that I am a lousy person with evidence; “no I am not a selfish person there are other times when I do pull my weight or act altruistically, although I can do better in doing my fair share of house work”. When the evidence is against an optimistic view, I can still question the usefulness of a negative view, consider its implications and look for alternative ways of explaining the event. Eg. seeing myself as a lousy person will not motivate me to do anything about it, like the Chasidic saying “to be depressed is no a sin, but the harm it can cause, no sin can cause[24]. It is more useful to think of my selfish act as a wrong choice, which I can make differently next time.

Application to Prejudice – then and now
There is a clear application of these types of arguments to prejudice, especially the usefulness and implications arguments as well as the possibility of change. The ancient Egyptians had their negative facts, but in a remarkable midrash, Pharaoh first tells his people they would be crazy to act against the nation that produced Joseph who saved them. They responded by deposing him for three months. He then agreed to see it their way[25], so he was reinstated as if he was a new king[26] and became the fear monger in chief. Their conservative family life could be seen as an asset, people in stable relationships are likely to be less distracted and more productive at work. Their abundant children and wealth could be seen as opportunities for Egyptian business, the Hebrews were not shopping on-line! In fact our sages say that the land was blessed because of the Hebrews[27].   

Mr. Santorum is not factually wrong when he refers to blacks on welfare, nor can one argue with his ethical point about wanting to replace welfare with work[28]. The problem is the implication of his statement; it reinforces a negative image of blacks. A more useful alternative would be to talk about people on welfare generally and as Mr. Jealous pointed out the total number of whites in this predicament is greater than that of blacks. If the context was different, if it was a conference about the welfare of blacks, that statement would have greater justification. Similarly, I was involved in a work situation where someone who happened to be a migrant had a problem with hygiene, if this was found to be a broader problem than addressing this in a focused, tactful way is appropriate. The way it came across in the media, it reinforced some prejudices about smelly foreigners[29].  

The Torah prohibits speaking about the faults of others unless it is for a legitimate purpose[30], eg. providing accurate information about a prospective marriage partner or to deal with a crime. It even avoids denigrating anything, except where this is needed for a purpose[31]. If we are convinced of a fault in another group and we can do something practical about it then we should, otherwise we need to consider additional evidence about whether it is as pervasive, permanent, or essential to people as it seems. Not everything that is true is worth saying. We also need to be mindful of the implications of what we might say and seek the most useful way to talk about it. Often it is optimistic.
When Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Beditchev saw a wagon-driver, wearing tallit and tefillin (holy prayer objects, normally only worn during prayer and treated with respect) whilst oiling the wheels of his wagon, Reb Levi Yitzchak exclaimed, “What a holy people is Israel! Even when they oil the wheels of their wagons, they are praying![32]

[1]     Seligman, M, E, P, (1990), Learned Optimism, Random House, Australia
[4]     Exodus 1:1
[5]     Rabbi YY Tronk of Kutno, cited in Greenberg, A. Y.,  (1992), Torah Gems, Y. Orenstein Yavneh Publishing, Tel Aviv
[6]     Mechilta Mesechta Pesachim Bo 5
[7]     Shir Hashirim Rabba, cited in Torah Shlaima, Shemot, p 9, note that the rejected names were latin, which was relevant to the times in which this was written
[8]     Yelamdenu
[9]     Genesis 46:34
[10]    Genesis 47:6
[11]    Lekach Tov
[12]    Midrash Tanchuma Pekudei 9 ,states that there are some Rabbis who state that they were giving birth twins while others say they were having sextuplets
[13]    Midrash quoted in Rabbenu Bchai, and Daat Zekainim Mibaalei Hatosafot, cited in Torah Shlaima, Shemot, p 15
[14]    Exodus 1:7
[15]    Midrash Tanchuma Shemot 5 eg. bamboo is considered a weed in Australia, we have some growing on the side of our driveway and we have seen them grow and spread very quickly).
[16]    Old Midrash Tanchuma Shemot 5
[17]    Exodus 1:10
[18]    Bchor Shor
[19]   Seligman, p.109-111
[20]   Seligman
[21]   Seligman addresses the question about the need for taking personal responsibility, which is a strength. In some situations it is the right way to think about a problem so that we can solve it. In other situations, one can take a disproportionate amount of responsibility for things that are not entirely under our own control, in such cases one cannot correct the problem and instead it is just demoralising and depressing. A variation of this dilemma is discuss in Tanya, if I see myself as wicked I will become depressed, but if I am happy despite seeing myself as wicked then I will become callous  or irresponsible (Rabbi Schenur Zalman of Liadi, chapter 1).
[22] Tanya, Rabbi Schenur Zalman of Liadi, chapter 31,
[23]  Tanya, chapter 26, Seligman p. 218
[24]  R. Shlomo of Karlin, http://www.sichosinenglish.org/books/the-chassidic-approach-to-joy/02.htm same statement with different wording,
[25]   Midrash, Shemot Rabba 1:9, Midrash Tanchuma 5
[26]  Exodus 1:8, and there arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Joseph
[27]  Midrash Chefetz, from a manuscript cited in Torah Shlaima, p.18
[28]  Mimonedes’ highest level of charity is to help someone get on to their own feet.
[30] Hilchot Lashon Hara, sefer Chafetz Chaim, http://www.torah.org/learning/halashon/chapter10.html
[31]  The Lubavitcher Rebbe
[32] http://www.oztorah.com/2008/10/noah-was-a-righteous-man-noach/ with some variation in details reflecting the way the story was told to me 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Unspoken Words

There are words that need to be said about something painful but because of fear or foolishness they remain unspoken. In other cases, tact and wisdom correctly require silence.

I was amazed by the results of people talking things out, including their emotions using the “community conferencing” model. Two young men who were working together and driving each other crazy rang me one Saturday night at midnight to tell me they had enough and will not show up to run a children’s activity on Monday. We used a process that involved speaking about their experiences, and the impact of the others’ behaviour on them, particularly how it felt. As a result they were able to move on and work side by side, although they gave each other “space”. I have also been impressed with another structured process called transformative listening[1] which enables Palestinians and Israelis from opposing camps (on the religious/secular divide) to really hear each other.

To speak to those with whom we have a conflict[2] is commandment. In order to receive forgiveness for sins between people one must seek forgiveness from the victims[3]. Yet, so much is not talked about in so many situations. In this post, I explore this theme in the lives of Jacob and his sons.

Avoiding Dad and “that topic”
After Jacob reunited with his son Joseph in Egypt after being apart for 22 years when Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers the “elephant in the room” was the events of those lost 22 years. Jacob probably wanted to know more. According to one tradition, Joseph was so determined to avoid this conversation that he limits the time he spends with his beloved father. He is afraid that the truth might come out about the brother’s cruelty and his father will curse them in anger[4]. This would explain why Joseph needs to be told that his father is sick[5], rather than noticing this himself on what we would have otherwise assumed to be his frequent visits.

In the end it seems that Jacob knew what happened anyway. On his death bed he curses the anger of the key culprits in the sale of Joseph, his sons Simon and Levi[6]. Jacob would have realised that they had misled him when they brought him Joseph’s coat covered in blood and implied that a wild animal had devoured Joseph[7].  Yet they never admit their actions to Jacob, nor do they seek his forgiveness for his suffering in missing his son, so their sin is not forgiven[8]. Instead this issue is left to fester and even on Jacob’s death bed it is not resolved but only hinted at. Perhaps it was too hard.

Inadequate Conversation?
Unlike the situation with Jacob where it was possible to avoid talking about the sale completely, the brothers do hold some discussion with Joseph. Perhaps it is resolved too quickly. Joseph lets his brothers off the hook, even telling them “it is not you who have sent me here, but God (who intended for Joseph to be sold into slavery so that he could play his historic role in a) “great salvation[9]” during the famine. The brothers were unable to respond because they were overwhelmed[10] and ashamed[11]. Joseph reassures his brothers, he kisses all his brothers and cries on them, they don’t kiss nor cry. They do manage to talk with him but not about their treatment of him. One view was that they simply did some catching up[12] but whatever they talked about was not of enough significance for the Torah to tell us what it was they said[13].

Unfinished business
It would seem that there was no cost for the brothers being spared the embarrassment of discussing their crime[14] again their own brother, apparently not. When Jacob dies, the brothers are seized by fear that Joseph might hate them and take revenge. They concoct a false instruction[15] from their dead father which they send with a messenger to Joseph, “so shall you say to Joseph, please forgive the sin of your brothers...[16]” Joseph cries when he hears that his brothers suspect him of holding a grudge against them[17] but says nothing about this, instead he continues with the reversal of roles, the victim reassuring the perpetrators. To their credit at least they did one thing right[18], (after first using a messenger) they showed up in person.  Still, they don’t say to Joseph that they are sorry for what they have done, instead they fall to the ground and offer themselves as slaves.

Triggers – also not discussed
What triggered the brothers concern about retribution? A clue is found in the text preceding their renewed fears, “the brothers saw that their father had died”[19]. One view is that as long as Jacob was alive all of Joseph’s brothers would eat at his table but this stopped when their father died[20]. The reason for this was that as long as Jacob was alive, Joseph sat at the head of the table on his fathers instructions, now he was concerned that sitting there would be disrespectful to Reuben who was the first born...[21]. He could not change the order, as this would be considered disrespectful to their father[22], so opting out was the only option. Another interpretation is that on the way back from their fathers funeral in Canaan, Joseph stopped to recite a prayer at the pit that his brothers had thrown him into. Joseph is implicitly criticized for not ensuring that his intentions were clear to his brothers[23]. It appears that the relationship between Joseph and his brothers was a fragile one, bearing the deep scars of the unresolved trauma of selling him into slavery.

Reubens’ unspoken regret
On Jacob’s death bed another unresolved issue surfaces. Jacob harshly reprimands Reuben for his sin with one of Jacob’s wives, Bilhah. The text of the Torah tells us that Reuben slept with Bilhah[24], while according to our sages he merely moved her bed[25]. Whatever actually happened, I have not noticed in any of the sources that this awkward issue was discussed between father and son except in hints on Jacob’s death bed. The only time we find Reuben talk with his father, Reuben offers his sons as a guarantee for the safety of Benjamin[26], Jacob either ignores him[27] or calls him an “idiot first born[28]”. Although never talked to Jacob about his deed, Reuben deeply regretted it action and fasted to atone for it[29]. The deathbed treatment of Judah offers a hint about what might have been if they had talked earlier.   

Roadside harlots and burials
There are two problematic roadside events Jacobs leaves for his last moments. Judah does not know how his father feels about his having twins from a liaison with his daughter-in -law who he thought was a prostitute[30]. When Judah hears his fathers harsh words to three of his brothers “he trembles backward waiting for his rebuke, instead his father is reassuring you are not like the others[31]”. One reason given for Judah’s positive treatment is his having admitted his sin[32].

Then there is Rachel’s burial on the side of the road in Bethlehem[33]. Jacob knew that Joseph is holding a decades old grudge[34] about his mother’s lowly burial outside the family plot in Hebron. When Jacob asks Joseph to attend to his own burial in the family plot[35], Joseph asks him about this as this distressed him greatly. Jacob began to answer him…and I when I came from Padan[36], by your life just as you wanted that your mother should be buried (there) so did I want it… Joseph asks if perhaps it was the rainy season, no his father says. …It was by God’s command that she was buried there as one day her children will walk on that road and they will hug her tomb and she will stand up and pray for them[37].  One thing I learned from a leader in the field of preserving dignity in conflict, mediation expert and of ‘Conscious Connectivity: Creating Dignity in Conversation[38]’ Michelle Brenner, is that it is important to share one’s own struggle. Jacob gets this right, and also talks of Rachel’s death being the most difficult for him, even more than all his other troubles[39]. I think is sad that they both had this between them for some many years, but at least it is resolved.  

Managing relationships is more an art than a science. The ancients probably had some valuable insights into talk and silence. We are taught that “with many words, there will be no lack of sin[40], and there is “nothing better than silence”[41].  On the other hand, there is a strong case to be made within our tradition for fuller conversations about issues that are easier to avoid. We are taught about admitting guilt, admonition, and given hints about struggle as well as tact. We should also look outside our tradition[42] for practical insights into preserving dignity in situations of conflict. Our sages have identified four categories for speech[43], none of them explicitly includes structured conversation in the Community Conferencing or Transformative Listening models. Yet we are called to utilise speech for upright conduct and the development of character, to combine the wisdom of both.

[1]     Shalif, Y, Creating Care-Full Listening and Conversations between Members of Conflicting Groups in Israel: Narrative Means to Transformative Listening,
[2]     Leviticus 19:17
[3]    Mimonedes, Yad, Laws of repentance 2:9
[4]    Pesikta Rabbati, also cited in Daat Zekainim Mbaalei Hatosafot
[5]    Genesis 48:1
[6]    Genesis 49:6, “with their will they uprooted an ox”, Midrash Hagadol, also Rashi explain that the ox refers to Joseph, also see Midrash Tanchuma Yashan on Genesis 37:19 where he identified Simon and Levi as playing a key role in the sale of Joseph
[7]    Genesis 36:33
[8]    In the Yom Kippur Musaf prayer, we read the account of the brutal murder of 10 sages who are punished in the place of Jacob’s 10 sons
[9]    Genesis 45:5, 7, 8
[10]  Genesis 45:3
[11]  Rashi
[12]  Radak writes that they asked him about what happened with him since the day they separated and how he ascended to greatness
[13]  The major Midrashim and Rashi don’t bother with the contents of this conversation, interestingly, Bchor Shor writes that the conversation was about annulling the oath of secrecy about the sale of Joseph
[14]  Although they don’t talk to Joseph about it directly, they have at least verbalised their regret earlier saying to each other “But we are guilty about our brother, when we saw the distress of his soul, when he pleaded with us and we did not listen… “ (Genesis 42:21).
[15]  Talmud Yavamot 65b
[16]  Genesis 50:17
[17]  Beresheet Rabba
[18]  Lekach Tov
[19]  Genesis 50:15
[20]  Beresheet Rabba 100:8, Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel
[21]  Beresheet Rabba ibid, Tzor Hamor
[22]  Etz Yosef commentary on Beresheet Rabba
[23]  Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer, cited in Nehama Liebowitz, New Studies in Bereshit. Joseph is cited as an example of the need to do right not just by God, but also for people to know one has done right
[24]  Genesis 35:22
[25]  Talmud Shabbat 55a
[26]  Genesis 42:37
[27]  Avot Drabbi Natan, cited in Torah Shlaima p. 1590
[28]  Beresheet Rabba 91
[29]  Beresheet Rabba 84
[30]     Genesis 38:6-30
[31]    Beresheet Rabba cited in Rashi
[32]    Midrash Tanchuma, Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel
[33]     Genesis 35:19
[34]     Rashi
[35]     Genesis 47:30
[36]     Genesis 48:7
[37]     Pesikta Rabbati 3
[39]     Ruth Rabba 2:7
[40]    Proverbs 10:19
[41]  Pirkey Avot 1:17
[42]    Eicha Rabba 2:13, if someone says there is wisdom among the nations you should believe him
[43]     Both cited in Beit Habechira on Pirkey Avot 1:17, Mivchar Hapeninim, gate of silence 12, lists 4 types of words,
a) that we can anticipate benefits and fear of their consequences, eg. speaking against one person to help another.
b) that we anticipate damage but no benefit at all, such as profanity and tale bearing.
c) that we can anticipate neither damage nor benefits, such as telling what happened, news in the time of war.
d) that we can anticipate only benefit and no damage at all eg. re: wisdom and about good character. He advocates that we limit speech to the fourth category.