Sunday, December 16, 2018

The “The Debate is Settled” Lie

Parshat Vayigash Sermon
“And Yaakov Didn’t Believe Them” 
How Do We Know What is True?

Rabbi Avi Billet

Having seen and experienced a number of serious altercations over the years, one thing I have learned is that people sometimes, if not often or always, have or live in their own reality. 

When claims were made about the size of the crowd at the 2017 presidential inauguration, we were introduced to a new phrase, “alternative facts.” Now, of course, there is no such thing as “alternative facts.” There are facts we like, facts we don’t like, facts we choose to pay attention to, facts we ignore. There are facts which support our positions, facts which go against our positions. 

I’ll give you an example of how “facts” can do exactly this. This week has been a rough week in Israel, with several terror attacks, a number of dead, including a baby forced to be delivered prematurely, who lived 4 days. If you did not see the interview of the father whose son in Nahal Haredi was killed, you should try to watch it. This man served in the army when he was a young man, was “Chozer Bitshuva” and described how proud they were of their son who was serving the Jewish people with honor. Who was so proud that he had this opportunity, to protect Am Yisrael. These are horrible stories. They continue to overwhelm us, to the point that there were demonstrations this week in Israel, people ANGRY at the government for not doing enough to prevent these attacks. 

The Guardian, a British rag, produced a headline that on a particularly nice day Goebbels would have produced. “Two Israelis and Two Palestinians killed in West Bank Violence.” Now, before I give you the real story, we have to understand why this garbage is perfect for them. Because it shows balance! Proportion! And… because the two Arabs in question were killed earlier in the week (btw, the Guardian ignored the story where people were shot and the baby murdered!). 

So now here’s the real story, as told by the great Hillel Neuer of UN Watch. 
The Guardian is equating today's terrorist murder of two Israelis with yesterday's IDF killing of "two Palestinians"—the terrorists who murdered the baby Amiad Ish-Ran on Sunday, the other who murdered 29-year-old Kim Yehezkel & Ziv Hajbi, 35, in October. Imagine if a 9/11 headline read, "Americans and Saudis die." 
After their twisted headline & opening, later in the article The Guardian writes that one of the Palestinians is "accused" of shooting at Israelis & the other "suspected" of shooting two Israelis dead. But they didn't report and the headline omitted that Hamas and Fatah both claim them as martyrs and heroes for their murders of Jews. 
So, yes, 2 and 2 are dead. But the story leaves out facts the Guardian doesn’t like, and uses the word “killed” in place of “murder” even though there is a significant difference between the two. 

So facts are the item in question. 

Not "alternative facts," but "the whole picture facts."

When Yosef’s brothers return from Egypt to get their father and their families, they send the message to their father that Yosef is alive and ruling over Egypt. 

Yaakov’s response: וַיָּ֣פָג לִבּ֔וֹ כִּ֥י לֹא־הֶאֱמִ֖ין לָהֶֽם: 

According to the Artscroll, that phrase means “His heart rejected it for he could not believe them.” 

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in the Living Torah, translates, “[Jacob's] heart became numb, for he could not believe them.” 

Rashbam explains it to mean that he switched his heart, convincing himself this wasn’t true. 

The Hirsch Chumash’s translation “And his heart stood still for he did not believe them.” 

Hirsch explains that the word פוג denotes cessation of movement. ויפג לבו means his mind was confused, his heart froze out of doubt, for he did not believe them; he could not adjust all at once to the good news which had reached him. 

I think we can all relate in some way to the idea that his heart “skipped a beat” or had a strange surge of “palpitations” or some other reaction… this is incredible news Yaakov could have never anticipated, especially since he has believed Yosef to be dead for so long. 

But the idea that he could not believe them is unbelievable to me! Maybe “unbelievable” is the wrong word. Meaning, I can believe that he didn’t believe them. But it is fantastic. What kind of relationship did they have, that they give the one piece of news Yaakov may have held open in the back of the back of his mind… you know, we never did find a body… 

Wouldn’t he want to believe them? 

A number of Midrashim share the teaching of Rabbi Chiya - תני ר' חייא כך עונשו של בדאי אפילו אומר דבר של אמת אין מאמינין אותו. This is the punishment to a deceitful person. Even when he tells the truth, no one believes him. 

So what does it take? Well, we know what got Yaakov to believe them. When he saw the עגלות, he figured it out. Radak explains that, of course, for the last leg of the journey the brothers ran ahead of the wagon train, and began talking to their father in anticipation of everything else showing up. So they’re breaking the news to their father, he doesn’t accept it, then he sees the wagons that have just showed up and he realizes, OK. It’s true. 


But it’s not really amazing. I mean, the Radak is correct in a “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” sense that people who are not trustworthy are not believed. But what about the facts? What about the evidence? 

One has to be open to hearing it, to seeing the evidence, then one can be convinced. 

There’s a small tiny person inside of me who wishes that everyone would think the way I think. It would make my existence great, I would never need to explain, to justify, anything. 

But then there’s the real me who says that having different minds, different brains, different ways of thinking makes humanity richer. 

Which is why the phrase “the debate is settled” is so unsettling to me. 

It’s only settled when one side concedes and says “your evidence is overwhelmingly clear, and whatever I was thinking or thought I knew is wrong.”

That’s why there is a debate. And may continue to be one. Sometimes one side wins one round, sometimes the other side wins a round. 

That’s how it goes in politics. 

Where can we say the debate is settled? I think everyone in this country agrees that slavery is immoral. While I wish everyone would agree racism and Naziism are also immoral, I have yet to find anyone in those camps who have a reasonable argument as to why judging people based on distorted and untrue perceptions and stereotypes has merit. 

But every political argument you hear is not settled. Each side has merit! Guns, abortion, health care. It’s a debate! And it remains a debate. 

And that’s how it goes in Judaism. I heard a speech once by a Reform rabbi, who claimed that only Reform Judaism has the right solution for gay people, for transgender people, for intermarried couples. I’ll concede the point! While I like to think we have empathy for marginalized people – and I would imagine that despite whatever one thinks is one’s bias, when confronted with an actual individual who struggles, or who does not fit in easily, that we would have empathy – the Orthodox community does not have a simple solution for these people. On which side of the mechitza does a transgender person sit? Can we give the person an Aliyah? In some cases it might not be their fault!

Intermarriage is a choice. But it’s not simple! I can tell you from personal experience, because I often get calls from people looking for a mohel, when the mother isn’t Jewish. I get when only the mother is Jewish as well. But in the former case, I can’t help them. Mother isn’t Jewish? Baby isn’t Jewish! No requirement for a bris! And the story is often the same. “Rabbi, I didn’t care when I fell in love. But now that I have a kid, my Judaism is very important to me. And she’s agreeing to raise the kids Jewish!” 

So Reform, who basically accepts everyone, has that over us. 

But in terms of carrying the mantle of Torah, sad to say they will never win that round. 

Is the debate settled? Clearly there are very different perspectives. What makes it very sad is that it is only a short amount of time – one or two generations – before the Orthodox will no longer consider the Reform as Jews-according-to-halakha at all, because we define Jews as either being born to a Jewish mother or as having converted through a program that insists on Shmirat Mitzvot. 

Which is sad. Because Hitler would still kill all of us if he could. So what’s wrong with us? 

So how can we know what’s true? The reality is that sometimes contradictory things can be true at the same time. 

In his book, Maybe (Maybe Not), Robert Fulghum – author of All I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, writes. 
I once began a list of the contradictory notions I hold: 
Look before you leap. 
He who hesitates is lost. 
Two heads are better than one. 
If you want something done right, do it yourself. 
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. 
Better safe than sorry. 
Out of sight, out of mind. 
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. 
You can’t tell a book by its cover. 
Clothes make the man. 
Many hands make light work. 
Too many cooks spoil the broth. 
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. 
It’s never too late to learn. 
Never sweat the small stuff. 
God is in the details. 
And so on. The list goes on forever. Once I got so caught up in this kind of thinking that I wore two buttons on my smock when I was teaching art. One said, "Trust me, I’m a teacher." The other replied, "Question Authority." 
Different things can be true at the same time, yet be contradictory. 

Yaakov was faced with a dilemma. These are the same guys who brought me a blood stained coat but no body. 

As the Netziv put it, in terms of believing they would never lie – not happening. He was already suspicious that they had lied back in the day. 

Honestly, they had even insulted his intelligence when they said הכר נא, do you recognize this coat? Of course he knew which coat it was. Their playing dumb was unimpressive. 

Netziv continues and says that when they told him now about Yosef, he was doubtful, until he saw the wagons. 

Or HaChaim has a different perspective. These were guys who never really spoke of what happened that day when Yosef disappeared and they presented his coat to their father. There had been many questions left unanswered, many conversations that hadn’t been had. 

But now, when they were opening the conversation again, putting themselves and their story in jeopardy, subject to scrutiny, all that had caused their father pain and the crying over the years… now Yaakov has a chance to react. 

And his heart reacts. And לא האמין להם. 

What does לא האמין להם mean? What did he not believe? That Yosef was alive? Or does he see the whole picture now and realize that he couldn’t believe what they did 22 years ago. He couldn’t believe what they did to Yosef. And he couldn’t believe what they did to Yosef’s coat. And he couldn’t believe they lied to him back then. When everything comes down to a reality, 22 years later, now that the truth is out, now Yaakov knows, the debate is settled. 

Yosef’s dreams were true. They’ve come about. 
I was wrong in interpreting his dream the way I did. 
You brothers were wrong in how you viewed his dreams and in how you treated him. 
I probably shouldn’t have given him the coat. 
We were all wrong. In one form or another. 

But the evidence now, the “alternative facts” that are inconvenient for you, have come to light. And now we all know the indisputable truth. 

It is only then – when all sides see the absolute truth – that we know what is true, versus the false notion that a debate is settled. Let us not be victims of our own biases. Sometimes much research and study of different views and facts are necessary to come to the right conclusion. 

Let us remember that when we see two sides in ANY dispute: There is a dispute. Both sides likely have a point and a perspective. Truth is either somewhere in between, or two parallel or contradictory notions might both have elements of truth. 

To give you an example regarding Israel, I’ll share with you a line I once read in an article in National Review. By Kevin D. Williamson. 
“The Arab–Israeli conflict is a bitter and ugly one. My own view of it is that the Palestinian Arabs have some legitimate grievances, and that I stopped caring about them when they started blowing up children in pizza shops. You can thank the courageous heroes of the Battle of Sbarro for that. Israel isn’t my country, but it is my country’s ally, and it is impossible for a liberty-loving American to fail to admire what the Jewish state has done.” 
I agree that the Palestinian Arabs may have grievances. But the reason I don't side with them is exactly that - their method of Jew-hatred is not deserving of their getting what they want. 

We want truth to prevail. But when there’s gray, and not a clear black and white, sometimes the debate carries on and we remain at an impasse. Bais Shammai and Bais Hillel didn’t agree on everything. The only reason we follow the rulings of Bais Hillel is because we needed a ruling, and so the majority ruled. But do you know who paskened like Bais Shammai? Bais Shammai. Because they weren’t wrong. They just weren’t the majority. (And their debates surrounded halakhic debates, not philosophical ones, which might never be resolved)

But they still followed their way of life. And the people of both schools married into families of those with whom they disagreed. Because debate is one thing. But peace in our ranks is a much higher value. 

Saying there aren’t two sides, is a dishonest way of saying “I don’t want to have this conversation.” Sometimes that sentiment is unfair and unreasonable character assassination. 

In a debate, one side might concede more, and every now and then one side wins a round. But in the bigger picture, it should not always be about winning as much as it should be about coming to a compromise and learning to live together in peace.

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