Sunday, September 28, 2008

Rosh Hashanah 5769: Facebook and the Goy Letter

I’ve been watching with amusement many of the news feeds I have on social networking sites like Facebook all of the rabbis scrambling to write their most important sermon of the year. I am partially amused because I started Shlomo’s Drash for Rosh Hashanah 48 hours before Rosh Hashanah, so I’m in the thick of this too. Fortunately I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and the outcome of my piece doesn't change the course of thousands of lives, unlike those with a smicha. I also want to start in an odd place – Christmas.

I don’t remember the first time I got one, but it was somewhere around twenty years ago. A friend of mine from college, who is an ordained minister, started sending a letter updating everyone about her life over the past year. It was always fun to read and find out what she was up to in her Christmas letter. Yet I was startled one day when I received from a rather non practicing Jew of my acquaintance a Christmas letter again updating everyone on the changes of her life and family. While I understood the letter from the minster, from another Jew it just seemed a bit weird. I’ve never felt completely comfortable with that letter, which until now I often privately called “the goy letter.”

That was until the year I received during the days of awe another letter like the first two from a dear friend and fellow congregant. Strangely enough, it lost its goyishe feel in its timing. It was then I realized what makes this letter comfortable or uncomfortable is the timing. When at the end of a religious year it is a taking stock before the New Year. It is actually a religious act. I would feel just as uncomfortable with my non practicing Jew genuflecting as I do with that letter, yet I don’t with the congregant and the minister.

I think that letter is the whole point of Rosh Hashanah, and my congregant friend had it right on the mark. The Days of Awe are the time when we take stock of who we are. We note what we have done wrong and what we really want to do right in the next round. I have often in this Rosh Hashanah D’var written that I’m not comfortable with a name written in one of two log books called the Book of Death and the Book of Life. Instead I believe we all have our own books. It is neither the book of life nor the book of death but the book of fully living. Everything we do and are exists in this book. The results of the past year are just a chapter in this book. That chapter may be full of stuff to read or boring, it may have cliff hangers or it may contain that rather dread ending THE END. While that might be a bad ending, what is worse is blank pages meaning we never really lived in this past year. I often like to wish someone “may you be inscribed in the book of fully living.”

That letter is particular impacting me this year for a very modern reason. A friend of mine tempted me into starting to use Facebook, and to say the least I’m addicted. For those not familiar with Facebook, it is one of many of the social networking tools available on the internet. Essentially you are given a web page. All you have to do is fill it with stuff about your self. One can log pictures, videos, and of course text. People write about their lives one small thought at a time. The object of all this is to connect with others. The Facebook database allows finding other people you might know in a variety of ways. Then you electronically ask them to be a Facebook friend. Once they agree, you have access to read all the stuff in one’s page, and communicate publicly on their “wall” or more privately via internal e-mail.

Through Facebook I come across a lot of people I used to know including a lot from my college days. Like my friend the minister, I have been writing repeatedly my story over and over again of the last twenty years. Yet after that introductory letter to a new Facebook friend who was an old acquaintance, things get into the swing of reading each other’s status messages. Status messages are nothing more than single sentence messages publicly broadcasted to your friends telling them what you think or what you are doing. It is of course voluntary. Some friends are chatterboxes and let you know a lot, or give their opinion constantly. Others are more silent. But from reading those messages you have a constant stream of seemingly trivial information about a person, which gives a texture different from the update letter. Such texture is so rich there are other services like Twitter which do nothing but update statuses.

I’ve been thinking lately that the holiday letter is much like the High Holidays, while Facebook is our day to day experience of the mitzvot. One is comprehensive, and grandiose the other simple small and very personal. We write not on keyboard or pen and ink, but with actions and deeds. For some their entire experience is that letter. For others, including myself, the richer experience is the status messages, in the periodic prayer of more regular services. It allows me to be in relationship with others. When they need a friendly presence I can be there for them – if not personally at least in communication electronically I can comfort them. When I need someone, there can also be there some one for me.

While I could debate which is better the letter or status messages, there is a third possibility that is so sad and tragic it is the thing we all should work on in some part of our lives.

This year, for the first time I traveled to Israel. While there were many memorable moments, there was one that blew me away – the hippodrome in Caesarea. It was neither the horse races nor the architecture that I was thinking about. It was a man who most likely stood where I stood on the sand of the arena overlooking the Mediterranean. His name is Simon b. Lakish, though known throughout the Talmud as Resh Lakish. Before he was one of the greatest sages in the Talmud, some claim he was a gladiator. If he was, it was on this field he most likely fought, the horse racing field turned into a gladiatorial arena by his time. We also know that R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus spent his last years there as his bier was being carried from this town to his birth place of Lydda. [Sanhedrin 68a] Resh Lakish and R. Eliezer had a lot in common though living about a century or so apart. Both had a brother in law they spent much of their lives getting along with, indeed had a deep friendship. Yet a small matter broke that friendship and they would not talk to one another. Bitterness and pain would curse them till their dying days.

I went into detail about the oven of aknai incident in my Drash for Nitzavim 5766. The short version was over the permissibility of a oven with interchangeable parts, R. Eliezer was excommunicated and all of his judgments made invalid by his brother in law Gamaliel II. There was bitterness between the two, so much so that R. Eliezer’s wife, Imma Shalom made sure her husband was not alone so he could not pray for the death of her brother. Once she was quickly interrupted.

[On her return] she found him fallen on his face. ‘Arise,’ she cried out to him, ‘you hast slain my brother.’ In the meanwhile an announcement was made from the house of Rabban Gamaliel that he had died. ‘Where do you know it?’ he questioned her. ‘I have this tradition from my father's house: All gates are locked, excepting the gates of wounded feelings.’

Wounded feelings were also at the heart of another pair. R. Johanan and Resh Lakish. Their story begins with an act of t’shuvah, the evil Resh Lakish changing his tune:

One day R. Johanan was bathing in the Jordan, when Resh Lakish saw him and leapt into the Jordan after him. Said he [R. Johanan] to him, ‘Your strength should be for the Torah.’ — ‘Your beauty,’ he replied, ‘should be for women.’ ‘If you will repent,’ said he, ‘I will give you my sister [in marriage], who is more beautiful than I.’ He undertook [to repent]; then he wished to return and collect his weapons, but could not.[Baba Metziah 84a]

Resh Lakish becomes an incredible scholar, though one day he and R. Johanan get into a heated argument about the point in manufacture where blades are can become spiritually contaminated. In a crass statement, R. Johanan mentions Resh Lakish’s sordid past, and thing go downhill from there, both men incredibly hurt and unwilling to forgive the other.

Resh Lakish died, and R. Johanan was plunged into deep grief. Said the Rabbis, ‘Who shall go to ease his mind? Let R. Eleazar b. Pedath go, whose disquisitions are very subtle.’ So he went and sat before him; and on every dictum uttered by R. Johanan he observed: ‘There is a Baraitha which Supports you.’ ‘Are you as the son of Lakisha?’[i.e. Resh Lakish] he complained: ‘when I stated a law, the son of Lakisha used to raise twenty-four objections, to which I gave twenty-four answers, which consequently led to a fuller comprehension of the law; whilst you say, "A Baraitha has been taught which supports you:" do I not know myself that my dicta are right?’ Thus he went on rending his garments and weeping, ‘Where are you, O son of Lakisha, where are you, O son of Lakisha;’ and he cried thus until his mind was turned. Thereupon the Rabbis prayed for him, and he died.[ibid.]

Without his friend, brother-in law and colleague, R. Johanan, the redactor of the Jerusalem Talmud, dies in grief so deep it drives him insane. Their relationship made Johanan a better person, one who was able to make the brilliant rulings he is famous for. Without Resh Lakish he falls into nothingness, half of his soul ripped away by his own anger. Such anger is not just for one generation but many. In a corollary to this story, we hear another.

On another occasion R. Johanan met the young son of Resh Lakish sitting and reciting the verse, The foolishness of man perverted his way; and his heart frets against the Lord. (19:3) R. Johanan thereupon exclaimed in amazement: Is there anything written in the Hagiographa to which allusion cannot be found in the Torah? The boy replied: Is then this verse not alluded to in the Torah, seeing that it is written, And their heart failed them, and they turned trembling one to another, saying: ‘What is this that God hath done unto us?’(Gen. 42:28) R. Johanan lifted up his eyes and stared at him, whereupon the boy's mother came and took him away, Saying to him, ‘Go away from him, lest he does to you as he did unto your father’. [Ta'anith 9a]

Resh Lakish’s Son and wife both show their bitterness in their own ways against R. Johanan. The Sister of R. Johanan in a very direct way, and the son and nephew of Johanan in a battle of wits, citing a verse in Genesis about the cruelty of brothers. The bitter feud only ends in death.

These stories are not about poor little shlubs but the best and brightest of the Talmud. They are there to tell us a significant thing one we must think about not only between humans but between ourselves and God. Communication is important. Saying how we feel is important. Most of all, not letting those feelings dwell in silence is important, for they will burn a deep black hole that will only leads to sadness and destruction. We must express ourselves and our stories, our chapters in the book of fully living.

Often the goy letter is superficial, how the kids are doing, how many cars and houses we have, where we went on vacation. It gives us more of a status than the Facebook status message. The problem with the status message, and daily communication in general, is while it often has more of our soul in it, it is in such small amounts it is imperceptible. R. Johanan and Resh Lakish only blew up at one another over a small matter, yet underneath there was something building that needed to explode, and when it was lit by a small spark it ended both their lives. Neither lived in the book of fully living ever again.

The letter to our friends and the letter to God during the High Holiday season need to be the release valve. Often we are clueless about what underneath the surface is dwelling. Sometimes we do but are afraid to admit it. In our very public setting of public liturgy we can try to find and release those feelings that have been building over a year both to Man and God. On a daily basis, like twitter and Facebook, we need to express those feelings, both by really talking to people we have wronged and who wronged us, or to God in our daily or Shabbat prayers. In do so we try to work it our before either become a powder keg.

Imma Shalom noted well that the gates of hurt feelings are never closed. God always hears them. What we do with them is the important thing. We can be destructive or we can be reconciliatory. To work towards reconciliation is not to be weak, but requires a deeper strength to truly resolve the problem instead of placating one party. Placating only buries the problem for an explosion later as the resentment continues and increases

As a writer and speaker, I’m never exactly sure who I have offended or hurt by my works in public settings, in my speech and in my writings. As a prelude to this season of repentance, May I ask for forgiveness to all who I did offend. I’m sorry I hurt you if I did. I’m not prefect, but I will try better next year not to do the same.

And may you all have a great exciting and wonderful chapter in the book of fully living for 5769!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Parshat Nitzavim 5768: That you may live

I wanted to write something else this week, but I've been thinking environmentally lately, for a lot of reasons.

One was a major reason I never got to write a Shlomo's Drash last week. Due to the sloppy seconds of a hurricane, the nearby rivers flooded. Apparently while leaving its banks, the Des Plaines River decided to visit a switching box for telephone and internet to my office, silencing all landlines for days. Throughout the Mississippi river valley and of course the coast of Texas, there were incidents of flooding and damage far worse than ours. Yet in many of these places the damage from mold has only just begun, both to buildings and to the people living in them. I have a friend and colleague who was a relief worker from Katrina, who still suffers from a severe mold infection she picked up getting food facilities operational in the aftermath of Katrina.

Another reason is a phrase from last week's portion Ki Tavo in Deuteronomy 28:27.

27. The Lord will strike you with the pox of Egypt, and with the swellings, and with the scab, and with the itch, from which you can not be healed.

It mentions many diseases and during our usual Saturday morning Torah discussion after the Torah service, a physician in my congregation noted how powerless it seems physicians were in this scenario. I countered with an interesting thought: this is about not curative medicine but preventative. This is a matter of environmental health. Many of those diseases start with waterborne parasites and bacteria and lack of care for the water supplies.

This week we read

19. I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live; [Deuteronomy 30:19]

I've thought a lot about that in terms of our environment. Much of what I do for a living is making sure what is in the natural world around us does not hurt us. As terrifying as a tiger lion or rattle snake looks, such animals are no where as dangerous or kill as many people as Tuberculosis or HIV, which are completely invisible. Such is true with bacteria like species of Salmonella and Shigella or the parasite Entamoeba histolytica. These are found in contaminated waters and foods which look perfectly edible or drinkable, yet they kill millions yearly.

I thought of Snow this week in all the flooding. Not the white stuff but the man, John Snow. Another friend and college will be on sabbatical in England this year. My first question to her was “are you going to The Pump?” In my profession as a health inspector, we may inspect thousands of water pumps, but there is only one Pump. Near 39 Broadwick Street in London is the pump that in 1854 Dr. John Snow and Reverend Henry Whitehead deduced was the source of a cholera outbreak, one of the first to connect water supplies with the disease. By removing the handle and preventing people drinking the water, they ended the outbreak which claimed the lives of 616 people.

A white powder that wasn’t snow was also on my mind – powdered melamine. It’s all over the news feeds I read. In china, Close to 13,000 children have been hospitalized and close to 40,000 more have been affected due to the practice of not adding enough milk to infant formula and covering up the lack of protein by adding melamine. The material has been collecting in infant’s kidneys causing painful kidney stones.

19. I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live; [Deuteronomy 30:19

From the heavens come rain which falls and finds their way into rivers. From some of those rivers water seeped into the earth, making water tables and aquifers. From wells dug into the ground, like the inhabitants of Broadwick Street in the 1800’s, some get their water. As I write this, I’m looking at the blue water of Lake Michigan, the source of my drinking water, which too has had it problems with Cholera and Salmonella, till the lock I’m looking out upon helped to reverse the flow of the Chicago River.

Moses challenges us in Deuteronomy

15. See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil; 16. In that I command you this day to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and his statutes and his judgments, that you may live and multiply; and the Lord your God shall bless you in the land which you are entering to possess. 17. But if your heart turns away, so that you will not hear, but shall be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them; 18. I announce to you this day, that you shall surely perish, and that you shall not prolong your days upon the land, to which you are going over the Jordan, to enter and possess.[Deut. 30:15-18]

We are given the responsibility for the commandments. We can do them or we don’t. Many of them affect the environment around us and the people around us. We can be unethical in our business dealings, putting poison in food to make a bigger profit. We can ignore not just the widow and the orphan but the sources of water that they drink. We can exploit the soil until there are no nutrients left in it. Because it is too expensive or too much of a bother, in many ways in our world, we can not bother to put that parapet on the roof. To do any of these leads to the curses, the chemical, microscopic and some not so microscopic demons that will attack and defeat us.

To do the commandments we must obey them on many levels if we are to live healthy. It is not God’s punishment, but our own foolishness that brings cholera outbreaks. We must remain diligent against the attackers. Moses says there is no real cure for this stuff. As we have learned with antibiotic resistance, there is only prevention; there is only the fence around the Torah.

Writing the Drash for Nitzavim means the end of year 5768 and the beginning of 5769. While I fell into this life through a series of odd coincidences and what I thought of as curses, the prevention of disease, Environmental Health, is my life calling and the biggest blessing in my life. 5769 will be a year where that will be true more than ever as I step up to several new tasks on the national level. How we treat the environment and how it treats us determine a lot of our own health.

As 5769 begins, remember to choose life.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Ki Tetze 5768: What is Environmental Health?

At the end of a nonstop string of commandments this week we read two rather interesting and contradictory commandments. We are to remember Amalek did to us [Deut 25:17], and we are to erase the memory of Amalek [Deut 25:19]. How can we do both? I believe the answer is woven throughout this week’s Torah reading, but its key is rather simple:

8. When you build a new house, then you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you should not bring any blood upon your house, if any man falls from there. [22:8]

What does a biblical enemy have to do with a railing? First let’s look a little closer at Amalek, who first show up in the Book of Exodus not long after the Israelites cross the read Sea out of Egypt[17:8-16]. They begin their pattern of picking on the rear, on those who cannot defend themselves. We later read in I Samuel 30 of an Amalekite Attack in the settlement of Ziklag, where David had settled to keep out of Saul’s way. David and all his troops go to war, and while gone, Amalek raids Ziklag and takes all the women and children. Yet when David attacks the Amalekites, he makes easy work of them. The Amalek of the Bible attacks the weak and defenseless.

I interpret the modern Amalek as disease. Salmonella enteritis, Aspergillus flavius, Bacillus anthracis, E. coli STEC, Shigella sonnei, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and Vibiro cholera are just some of the soldiers of Amalek, be they bacteria, viruses, parasites or fungi. Most often these soldiers attack the weak or when we leave ourselves defenseless. Like David, who forgot to leave a garrison, when we are not diligent they strike, often taking lives as easily as someone falling off a roof.

Like that rooftop terrace, the easiest, best way to keep people alive is to prevent them from falling off. According to Torah, it is preventative actions that are key to survival. We as Jews believe that preventative actions are so important, not only do we do things like put railing on roofs, but put fences around the Torah itself, preventative actions to prevent transgression. Prevention works. Had David left a few good men behind, Amalek would not have attacked. Even if they did they would have been easily defeated. We have such soldiers in the modern war against Amalek. They are called Environmental Health professionals. When I’m not writing Shlomo’s Drash, I happen to be one.

Many people get Environmental Health mixed up with environmental protection. Environmental protection I usually define as protecting the environment against us, while environmental health is protecting us from the environment. Environmental health professionals instruct people how to make what is contaminated into what is pure. We as EH professionals try to prevent contamination, so that the people will live and not die. We include indoor air quality experts, epidemiologists, and wastewater treatment specialists. Many of us, including myself are involved with food protection. If those soldiers of Amalek do get loose and start to cause trouble we find them and do our best to contain them. Much of this is reminiscent of a good chunk of the book of Leviticus in chapters 11-16 which talks about such contamination issues from bloodborne pathogens, mold infestations of homes, sexually transmitted diseases, and even what most biblical translations call leprosy, which more likely was fungal infections. Leprosy is once again mentioned in this week’s portion:

8. Take heed in the plague of leprosy, that you observe diligently, and do according to all that the priests the Levites shall teach you; as I commanded them, so you shall take care to do.

In a sense Environmental Health is the role of Levitical priests with a strong science background. Ancient peoples did learn important lessons in public health. There is one passage in this week’s portion which particularly interests me. When in military maneuvers against an enemy, there is a commandment to have latrines:

13. You shall have a place also outside the camp, where you shall go out to it; 14. And you shall have a spade among your weapons; and it shall be, when you will ease yourself outside, you shall dig with it, and shall turn back and cover your excrement; 15. For the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp, to save you, and to give your enemies before you; therefore shall your camp be holy; that he should see no unclean thing in you, and turn away from you. [23:10-15]

The Talmudic Rabbis take this further:

R. Johanan also said: If one desires to accept upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven in the most complete manner , he should consult nature then wash his hands and put on tefillin and recite the Shema’ and say the tefillah: this is the complete acknowledgment of the kingdom of heaven.[Berachot 15a]

Fecal contamination is a major cause of foodborne and waterborne illness. In these two passages from the Torah and Talmud, it is clear that cleanliness and good hygienic practices are holy acts. The rabbis elevate washing ones hands after defecation to the same level as the morning prayers. Interestingly, the spade is not a mere vessel or implement but specifically called a weapon. It is the weapon used against the modern and probably the ancient Amalek. Preventing disease by keeping away what causes disease is a mitzvah. Environmental health’s duty is to do exactly that.

What I do for a living may not be considered some holy job like a rabbi. But in teaching people to wash their hands, cook their food well, store their food below 41°F and wash everything in sight, I am doing something holy, and something sacred. By telling people not to store something on the floor, to close up holes that mice or rats can crawl through, I am installing that railing on the roof.

As I learned when I taught a session on kashrut at my national professional meetings, Jews are a tiny minority in Environmental Health. Yet I also learned that day the Torah has much to teach us about EH. For me, my life in Environmental Heath is not just a profession but a mitzvah handed down by God to Moses at Sinai.

To remove the memory of Amalek and to remember Amalek is not contradictory. It is the role of those of us who keep disease from ever striking. We can get to place where we forget the horrors that disease causes on us, because disease is no longer there. We must get there with constant diligence against disease, and the ever changing, mutating, evolving pathogens that make up the army of Amalek.

What is Environmental Health? It is a mission from God.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Parshat Shofetim 5768: How is War like Dating?

The long list of Mitzvot continues this week. Among them are the rules to be read prior to the engagement of an overwhelming enemy:

2. And it shall be, when you have come near the battle, that the priest shall approach and speak to the people, 3. And shall say to them, Hear, O Israel, you approach this day to battle against your enemies; let not your hearts faint, fear not, and do not tremble, nor be you terrified because of them; 4. For the Lord your God is he who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.

After this speech, another is given, disqualifying some for service:

5. And the officers shall speak to the people, saying, What man is there who has built a new house, and has not dedicated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man dedicates it. 6. And what man is he who has planted a vineyard, and has not yet eaten of it? Let him also go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man eats of it. 7. And what man is there who has betrothed a wife, and has not taken her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man takes her. 8. And the officers shall speak further to the people, and they shall say, What man is there who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, lest his brothers’ heart faint as well as his heart.

When I read this last week, I read an interesting commentary in the Second edition Plaut Torah commentary about the need to keep people with anxiety out of the troops, so as not to sabotage the cause. Again these are soldiers who are up against seemingly overwhelming odds, enemy troops with not just infantry, but mounted soldiers. Targum pseudo-Jonathan calls the enemy “proud and powerful peoples.” Unfortunately when I sat down to write this, I didn’t have my copy of the second edition Plaut handy. So I started digging in the more classical commentaries, seeing if anyone else said anything. It turns out they all agree with the commentary given by the Mishnah and Talmud on the subject. There are two opinions, one from Rabbi Akiba, and one from Rabbi Yosi of the Galilee.

R. Yosi had the more predominant opinion, to the point that the Targums, Maimonides and Rashi all agree with him, based on the last case:

R. Jose the Galilean says: ‘fearful and fainthearted’ alludes to one who is afraid because of the transgressions he had committed; therefore the Torah connected all these with him that he may return home on their account. [Sotah 44a]

The person leaving the army committed some sin. There three other cases were really excuses to get this guy out of the army. The Aramaic translations, the Targums add that there can be cases where a transgression might be about houses fields or marriage, such as a forgetting to post a mezuzah on a new house before going to war (Ps-J). But why is the fearful and fainthearted so dangerous?

Rashi and Maimonides turn to Akiba’s literal approach:

R. Akiba says: ‘fearful and fainthearted’ is to be understood literally viz., he is unable to stand in the battle-ranks and see a drawn sword.

As Rashi explains

He should return lest he die, for if he does not listen to the words of the priest, he deserves to die.

The priest anointed for battle just said that there is nothing to worry about. The guy who didn’t heed that according to Maimonides “does not properly trust in God” and therefore he won’t be protected in the war. In the heat of battle his faithlessness might spread to the rest of the troops, and that is fatal for the entire army. Yet such a fearful person might also be afraid to leave the army due to his embarrassment. R. Yosi of the Galilee’s thus explains that the other three reasons give him a cover to leave without the embarrassment of being labeled a coward.

Thinking about it, cowardice might be fatal even before battle, for the Torah continues:

When you come near a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace to it.[Deut 20:10]

There is disagreement between the medieval French commentator R. Solomon b. Isaac better known as Rashi and the later Sephardic commentator Moses Maimonides, who is sometimes known as the Rambam. Both debated as to whether this is limited to discretionary wars or was for any war. Rashi, basing his opinion on the Talmud, believe only discretionary wars, and Rambam disagrees. However in light of the pronouncements above to the troops, I wonder if both misses an important point, the one the second edition of the Plaut commentary might have been hinting at.

Coming up to enemy troops or fortifications and asking for peace is not easy nor does it seem very wise. However if done with complete confidence one might just get way with it. Anyone with that much confidence must know something we don’t might be one thought running through the enemy’s mind. Yet, if there is any doubt, the opposition will see it. The one soldier with the lack of faith can spread faithlessness like a disease, and it will be visible. The enemy will exploit that weakness, attack and despite assurances from the priest anointed for battle, the bloodshed begins.

These thoughts of bloodshed are not particularly exciting. However the blood shed that I see like this happens on a mental and emotional level all the time. It is on the minds of a majority of single men who want to retreat from the field of battle either through excuses or fear. And that battle field is the world of dating.

At a simplistic level, this shouldn’t be very hard. A guy walks up to a woman, says hello and asks her out on a date. They go out on a date or two, and might find they do not like each other enough and so go their separate ways. If they like each other, then things get closer, and hopefully lead to a committed intimate relationship.

Yet a possibility of a breakup always looms. The dealing with breakup and rejection is only one of many emotional problems which make dating even more difficult than this simple model above and turns it into a battle ground. There are a variety of sources for this setup, all mixed together. One core element is a consumerist society telling us that buying a certain product will make us successful in romance. Of course the sports car, lipstick or deodorant doesn’t help. Indeed to sell the maximum amount of product, the product must be set up to fail, so more will be bought. In reality only the promise of success is sold in order to keep people buying more products.

They system in order to work requires a built in failure. The one targeted to create the failure is women, who when they wonder why they seem not to get a man, will be told to buy new products. That failure comes from requirements of what a man should be, and many of those requirements come from the same places selling the goods. Furthermore, women are looking to avoid men who might harm them that have something disturbing about their personalities which make them creepy.

In our society, we have been set up that women have virtually every opportunity to reject men, and men have to spend their entire relationship making sure they don’t. It is like the battle situations mentioned in this portion. Women have all the weapons and soldiers to fight a war, men don’t. Women have all the defenses too, all the walled cities. While physically women may not be as capable as defending themselves, there are societal norms, and emotional and mental models which defend women far more than men. For a woman in the dating world, the guy who can get through all those defenses is a valuable partner. But most men cannot, indeed they have been programmed to fail. Granted, once things become a relationship the game is very different, but getting that far is not easy from men. Often women thus stay lonely or give up and settle for something less than what they really deserve.

Men know they are set up to fail. It is just like a small army walking up to a walled, heavily fortified city. Fear is going to be in those soldiers minds. Approach anxiety looms, the fear of getting defeated with not only a rejection, but a slap on the face, a drink thrown at them, or even a jealous boyfriend or overprotective relative coming around the corner to beat the pulp out of them. All of those hurt the man, and often the anxiety will be so strong as he will not approach. Besides my own experiences with this, I’ve heard story after story of the choking effect of approach anxiety. But that is only the beginning, as the performance anxiety of not getting rejected after that point is always there for the man.

There is of course a way out of this: declare peace. The Torah in our portion gives this as the first thing one must do when approaching a city. In the classic text on strategy The Art of War 6th century BCE general Sun-Tzu believe that waging peace is the best war, the one with no casualties on either side. But how does one wage peace? With confidence, which really no one ever really expects. In terms of combat, there is a remarkable statement made by Moses in the Midrash about walled cites and open camps:

How can you tell their strength? If they dwell in camps, they are strong, for they rely on their own strength. If they dwell in strongholds they are feeble and their hearts are timid. [Numbers Rabbah XVI:12]

The people who don’t need defenses, and don’t look defensive when they approach and ask for peace are perceived as incredibly strong. The key element women are looking for in men is strength. Masculinity and internal strength are so associated with each other there is even a word for courage relating to the male genitals. It does take balls of steel to approach women sometimes, but confidence is the one thing that short circuits the whole game. An army approaching a city can be terrifying if they have the confidence to win. The high priest’s message was critical. As those medieval scholars Rashi and Maimonides said, only those who believed in the miracle of going into battle and coming out unharmed were unharmed. Anyone without that kind of faith dies. Anyone around who could create doubt would be detected by the opponent.

All excuses and all fear needs to be removed from the front lines. I’m with Akiba here and take things literally. Thinking about anything but the engagement ahead could be fatal not just to the person who is distracted, but to the entire army. Fear of attacking and fear of defending will also cause people to lose heart in the ranks. In that critical moment when we wage peace, we must look completely confident. I really don’t know if this really works in war, but in the battlefields of relationships, it is a critical lesson.