Sunday, November 28, 2010

Vayishlach 5771: Struggling with Yourself.

One of the most memorable scenes in the Book of genesis is Jacob's midnight wrestling match:

25. And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. 26. When he saw that he could not prevail against him, he touched the socket of his hip, and the socket of Jacob's hip became dislocated as he wrestled with him. 27. And he (the angel) said, "Let me go, for dawn is breaking," but he (Jacob) said, "I will not let you go unless you have blessed me." 28. So he said to him, "What is your name?" and he said, "Jacob." 29. And he said, "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have strived with God and with men, and you have prevailed." 30. And Jacob asked and said, "Now tell me your name," and he said, "Why is it that you ask for my name?" And he blessed him there. 31. And Jacob named the place Peniel, for [he said,] "I saw God face to face, and my soul was saved." [Genesis 32]

This passage has many questions which one could ask. Who is this man Jacob struggles with? IS he even a man? Based on 32:31 we can assume that at least Jacob thinks this is a divine messenger, if not God personally. His new name also points to such a conclusion, that he was striving with God. Rashi notes there is a tradition it was Esau's guardian angel. Some commentators will say it is Esau, others one of the archangels, such as Michael or Gabriel.

There is a tradition concerning the angels insistence of leaving before dawn. The purpose of the angels was to sing praises to God. Since he was struggling with Jacob he was going to be late and unable to fulfill his purpose if this wrestling match continued. The rabbis are also clear the praises are those in Isaiah 6:3:

ג וְקָרָא זֶה אֶל-זֶה וְאָמַר, קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת; מְלֹא כָל-הָאָרֶץ, כְּבוֹדוֹ.
And one called unto another, and said: Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.

What the rabbis cannot agree on is how this is said. Either one set of angels says קדוש, "holy" another set says the next "holy" and a third say "Holy is the Lord of Hosts." But some of the angels might say it every morning, some might say it once and never again. While debating this point, the talmudic Rabbis insist the people of Israel are superior to angels as Jews say all three praises every morning as part of the Morning Amidah.

I believe Jacob was fighting with Jacob and God at the same time. At the core of this fight was Jacob's resistance to go home. Resistance is what keeps us from doing what we want to do and what we have the potential to do. Self doubt, a lack of conviction and confusion lead to resistance, which causes laziness, procrastination, and finding excuses for not moving forward. I'm very familiar with resistance, it tries to prevent me from writing every day of every week. I certainly got me for the last three weeks. Resistance delayed one d'var, and this crunching another one from ever getting written. It's a hard fight, and one I constantly need to do, just as I'm trying to finish this very late once again. I'm sure each of us can think of a situation where we didn't get done what we would have liked to, and somehow irrationally wasted time instead of being constructive.

By this, I don't mean Shabbat rest of course. There is a time and a place for recharging the batteries. But how many time does someone surf the web during the workday instead of getting their tasks for the day done? Such a thing is resistance at work. Its those places we do waste time when we really shouldn't. We could be more efficient, but we don't.

The angel was really Jacob's resistance. He knew he had to get out of Padan Aram, but going back is not easy, particularly on the news his brother, who is out to kill him, is on his way with 400 soldiers. As I once commented his gift of sheep may have been a delaying tatic. Horseback soldiers and sheep don't get along very well- randomly moving animals make it hard to charge in a fast straight line. His positioning of his sons may have had some merit in their ability for battle: Levi and Simon, who later in this portion will commit wholesale murder against the town of Shechem to avnege the rape of their sister is near the front. Jacob is not a warrior, and he knows it. He's never fought, but thought and tricked his way out of every situation he is in. Brute force is not his way.

When showing brute force against your own resistance, you deadlock. You still don't get anything done but waste energy fighting the resistance, yet that resistance has a weakness -- it hates being seen and identified, for then we see how ridiculous it really is and easily defeat it. So too with the angel -- It really doesn't want to be seen, but Jacob does see him face to face, and when he does he realizes he is strong enough to face his brother. Rashi's comment about the angel being Easau's guardian angel comes from a midrash which gives a parable of a king who trains his son not to be afraid of wild animals with a tame lion. Afterwards, feral dogs don't bother the prince. So too with Esau's angel: if he was defeated, so could Easu. Or put another way: if one can defeat our dire expectations of an issue, how much easier when we encounter the real thing?

One of our biggest enemies is ourselves and our negative thinking, the thinking of "I can't." Jacob was victim to this, but spent the night before his encounter with Esau fighting this negative impact. I have found in our modern world there is a lot that tries to tempt human beings into believing they cannot do on their own, they must have some external force do for them. Commercialism tells us that a new television set, car or brand of beverage will be the external force that lets us do what we cannot otherwise do. Some believe this external force is drugs or alcohol, only to fall into a downward spiral of addiction. This is false thinking. God could have done the same as the Red sea and drowned Esau the way he drowned the egyptians. He did not flash-flood the Jabbok river and wash away Esau, but instead got Jacob to do some hard, painful thinking. We need to do the struggle within our selves, not let an external force, including God do it for us.

The phrase "yes we can" is a little tarnished right now, but it is still true. As any grammarian will tell you, "We" requires more than one "I." When I am not believing "Yes I can" then the phrase is really "Yes, they can." We must first believe in ourselves as individuals and then as a collective. Jacob had to believe in himself before he could transmit that ideas to his sons. His sons understood it in their own ways. Ruben and Judah will make mistakes, and try to make up for them. Joseph will too, and as we will read in the next few weeks, Joseph and Judah will only have themselves and God to depend on in some very difficult situations.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Toldot 5771: Why do we believe lies?

This week we have the birth of the two twins, Esau and Jacob. They are very different people, with Esau being a hunter and and Jacob a dweller in tents according to the text. Esau was favored by his father and Jacob by his mother. As the story continues, Esau sells his birthright for a snack, and then when Isaac is ready to give Esau his blessing, Rebecca hatches a plan to have Jacob receive the blessing instead:

11 And Jacob said to Rebekah his mother: 'Behold, Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man. 12 My father peradventure will feel me, and I shall seem to him as a mocker; and I shall bring a curse upon me, and not a blessing.' 13 And his mother said unto him: 'Upon me be thy curse, my son; only hearken to my voice, and go fetch me them.'[Genesis 27]

It is a deception, a lie. This is not the only deception in this portion however, though one of the most well known. Isaac pulls the same stunt his dad Abraham did with Abimelech King of the Philistines. Yet this time, there is no divine warning to the king, he catches Rebecca and Isaac in a intimate moment, and Abimelech realizes they are not brother and sister.

Though Rebecca says the curse will be upon her, Jacob ends up never seeing his beloved mother again. Rebecca dies before his return from Padan Aram and his uncle Laban. Jacob is also deceived when he unintentionally marries Leah instead of Rachel, when Laban switched them just before the wedding. Jacob returns the deception by conning Laban out of all his good livestock. Deception seems to be less a curse and more a communicable disease.

What surprises me is how many people fall for deception. In the story of Jacob, even the con men are conned. I'm sitting here wondering my fate and the fate of many of my friends in the world after the 2010 American elections. A lot of what happened I look at as short sightedness, and not looking at the big picture or the ethical character of who people were voting for. Yet a lot was outright lies and deception, from the editing of a video of a government official to make her sound racist to the the surveys day by day telling us how many people think the President is a Muslim. A great propagandist whose strategies it appears many on the right have espoused said it best about such: If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed. That propagandist, Adolf Hitler, spawned the Shoah with his lies. But such deceptive rhetoric is much older than than the early 20th century:

8 Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph. 9 And he said unto his people: 'Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us; 10 come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there befalleth us any war, they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land.' 11 Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh store-cities, Pithom and Raamses. [Exodus 1]

Why did Pharaoh or the Nazis lie to get power over people? Very likely I believe it was easy to do so, because we fall for deception so easily. It's easy to lie because it's easy to trust, to believe it. Over twenty years ago, a social psychologist wondered why he was so gullible to sales people, and has since made it his life's work to figure out why. Robert Cialdini published much of his early work in this area in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuation. Ironically, instead of the defense against such practices which Cialdini intended, it is one of the most highly regarded marketing textbooks ever -- it teaches people how to lie. What he found, told through case studies and a review of the research of others, shows how we are compelled to buy things we never wanted, why a doomsday cult still had faith when the predicted end of the world never came, why Stanley Milgrom's experiments, which showed how you can order a decent human being to murder someone by eletrocution, worked so elegantly, and how Jim Jones convinced a lot of people to commit suicide in Guyana.

He found a lot of things in his research, though some of it may seem obvious: We do tend to trust those we like or those perceived in authority. We are terrified of scarcity. We like doing the same thing over and over agin and the same thing everybody else is doing. Though Ciadini doesn't not make the link himself, humans as communal animals seem to have such things hard wired -- to keep a social group intact we will do these things even when it is contradictory to our own interests.

Rebekah's and Jacob's deception of Isaac is not complete without the belief of Isaac that this really is Esau. Isaac even has evidence that this is Jacob:

18 And he came unto his father, and said: 'My father'; and he said: 'Here am I; who art thou, my son?' 19 And Jacob said unto his father: 'I am Esau thy first-born; I have done according as thou bade me. Arise, I pray thee, sit and eat of my venison, that thy soul may bless me.' 20 And Isaac said unto his son: 'How is it that thou hast found it so quickly, my son?' And he said: 'Because the LORD thy God sent me good speed.' 21 And Isaac said unto Jacob: 'Come near, I pray thee, that I may feel thee, my son, whether thou be my very son Esau or not.' 22 And Jacob went near unto Isaac his father; and he felt him, and said: 'The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.' 23 And he discerned him not, because his hands were hairy, as his brother Esau's hands; so he blessed him. 24 And he said: 'Art thou my very son Esau?' And he said: 'I am.' 25 And he said: 'Bring it near to me, and I will eat of my son's venison, that my soul may bless thee.[Genesis 27]

Isaac was suspicious from the beginning, that the venison got there too fast, that the voice was Jacob's not Esau's. It seems odd that goat hair could ever fake human hair. Could goat ever taste like venison? Yet Isaac blesses Jacob anyway. But as a narrative, it strikes me as odd that none of the things that Caildini mentions seems to indicate why Issac believed Jacob: the evidence was rather clear this is Jacob faking it, even to a blind man.

Some commentators on this puzzle think Isaac knew and gave Jacob the blessing anyway. My belief is that Isaac wanted to believe it was Esau. I've written else where why I thought Esau was his favorite, but in essence Esau was strong enough to counter his own father, something that Isaac wasn't at the Akedah. He could not resist a hundred year old man with a knife, That was so embarrassing he wanted to be strong -- and reflected that on his strong son. Isaac was angry at himself and wanted to be another person. Even though he was blind he could only see the image of that other person: Esau. Here is the consistency principle of Cialdini: He was so wrapped in that illusion, Isaac believed with the flimsiest of evidence, since that wimp that was Jacob and the wimp that was Isaac as a young man never would have the guts to decieve his father. To believe anyone but this was strong Esau would shatter Isaac's illusion.

Why do so many believe lies? Because there are illusions of might and greatness, and breaking those illusions, be it with a massive growth of immigrants, economic downturns, a defeat in a war, or a attack on native soil brings us to places where we want the illusion of greatness to be true. The news-- not just one station but virtually all news outlets are consistently giving us statistics and innuendo, over and over again getting us to believe the lies. As Cialdini found and Isaac fell for, once we believe the lies, we cannot go back to the truth, it shatters our world view too much.