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Isolation Redux

3 minute read
Straightforward

When a person is officially diagnosed with the skin condition the Torah calls tzaraas, the Torah imposes a mandatory seven-day quarantine; the person must leave town and live in solitary isolation. Anyone who lived through COVID has primary experience of isolation and quarantine. However difficult and unpleasant, it has the valuable function of attempting to stop contagion and transmission, saving lives in the aggregate. 

Yet our sages teach that this skin condition resulted from gossip and slander, which is to say that it wasn’t a contagious or transmissible condition.

So why are quarantine and isolation appropriate?

Perhaps isolation is an appropriate measure for the wrongdoing of harmful speech. 

Language distinguishes humans from animals and is the tool that has built and compounded human civilization. More than smarts or strength, it is arguably humanity’s most powerful tool to control and influence the world around us.

Gossip has a positive social utility, exposing genuine threats among us, like abusers and molesters. That kind of gossip is not only permitted but arguably mandatory – תועלת; but most gossip doesn’t meet that standard. Most gossip is destructive speech that puts others down, modifying bonds and cohesion in an imagined social hierarchy, subtly eroding people’s relationships in the perceptions of others. By lowering somebody’s reputation, you can feel superior in gaining status relative to the unknowing victim.  

So gossip quietly but very literally tears apart the fabric of your community and social circle by planting divisive and harmful ideas and impressions, sabotaging trust and relationships.

If that is correct, then quarantine is highly appropriate – society needs protection, not from the disease, but from the person.

And perhaps there’s something else to it as well.

Beyond helping society, perhaps it helps the gossiper as well. They have subverted their precious power of language for nefarious purposes, and isolation from others may help a person who gossips recalibrate how they communicate, reorienting them to their place in society when they rejoin.

Human beings are social creatures; our power of communication is what makes us human, so losing the power of communication is literally dehumanizing. Deprived of human interaction, stimulus, and activity, a person’s mind must fill the void of boredom and sensory deprivation. Solitary isolation isn’t a trivial thing; the prevailing view holds that, generally speaking, more than 15 days in isolation qualifies as torture; it’s not hard to imagine why. 

Moreover, this isn’t the only time the Torah talks about isolation as a punishment; the Torah describes how the penultimate plague of darkness was experienced by its victims, primarily as a form of isolation:

לֹא־רָאוּ אִישׁ אֶת־אָחִיו וְלֹא־קָמוּ אִישׁ מִתַּחְתָּיו – People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was… (10:23)

Presumably, Egyptian adults weren’t like children who are scared of the dark; it’s not just that it felt like blindness, it’s that their worlds were isolated, completely cut off from each other – לֹא־רָאוּ אִישׁ אֶת־אָחִיו.

The Chiddushei HaRim highlights that this isolation was the worst punishment God could inflict on Egypt, short only of death itself – that people could not see each other. In a very real way, recognizing another human and moving ourselves to help them cuts to the very heart of what it means to be human, and we should take that notion seriously. Our sages go so far as to say that someone in isolation is effectively considered dead to the world.

Humans need each other; it’s an existential design feature of being human – לֹא־טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ.

Our most fundamental nature, the root of our behavior, is generosity, empathy, courage, and kindness. Isolation exposes what it means to be human by stripping those things away.

Perhaps by being alone for seven days, a person who gossips can appreciate their ability to communicate in a new light, cultivating a new understanding of the value of community for when they return.

Human beings are social creatures; make sure you use your precious gift of communication to build, not break. But some breaking can be constructive; not all gossip is destructive; some forms of gossip are not only permitted, but required.

A good rule of thumb that should only fail rarely is that if there is a credible threat to communal safety and wellbeing, it is better to expose the threat than suppress it. Someone’s potential status of innocence should never trump everyone else’s certain and definite status of safety.

Suppressing public awareness of abusers only protects and serves the interests of abusers. Exposing them is worthy of pride, not shame; utilizing gossip correctly serves to effectively isolate abusers from the general population and protects vulnerable people in our communities.

When there are dangerous folks people need to be careful around, remember that you can serve the highest of purposes in spreading the word.

No Man Left Behind

5 minute read
Straightforward

After many long and grueling years enduring enslavement, the Creator had at long last dispatched Moshe to save the Jewish People. During one round of talks, Moshe suggested a more modest request to Pharaoh than letting his people go for good; instead, he proposed taking them into the desert for a multi-day festival, leaving open the possibility that they would return once the festivities were completed.

At this point, since Egypt had already experienced several plagues, cracks began to appear in the Egyptian government’s resolve:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ עַבְדֵי פַרְעֹה אֵלָיו עַד־מָתַי יִהְיֶה זֶה לָנוּ לְמוֹקֵשׁ שַׁלַּח אֶת־הָאֲנָשִׁים וְיַעַבְדוּ אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹקיהֶם הֲטֶרֶם תֵּדַע כִּי אָבְדָה מִצְרָיִם׃ וַיּוּשַׁב אֶת־מֹשֶׁה וְאֶת־אַהֲרֹן אֶל־פַּרְעֹה וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם לְכוּ עִבְדוּ אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹקיכֶם מִי וָמִי הַהֹלְכִים׃ וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה בִּנְעָרֵינוּ וּבִזְקֵנֵינוּ נֵלֵךְ בְּבָנֵינוּ וּבִבְנוֹתֵנוּ בְּצֹאנֵנוּ וּבִבְקָרֵנוּ נֵלֵךְ כִּי חַג־ה’ לָנוּ׃ וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יְהִי כֵן ה’ עִמָּכֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר אֲשַׁלַּח אֶתְכֶם וְאֶת־טַפְּכֶם רְאוּ כִּי רָעָה נֶגֶד פְּנֵיכֶם׃ לֹא כֵן לְכוּ־נָא הַגְּבָרִים וְעִבְדוּ אֶת־ה’ כִּי אֹתָהּ אַתֶּם מְבַקְשִׁים וַיְגָרֶשׁ אֹתָם מֵאֵת פְּנֵי פַרְעֹה׃ – Pharaoh’s advisers said to him, “How long will this one be a snare to us?! Let the men go to worship Hashem their God! Do you not yet know that Egypt is lost?” So Moshe and Ahron were brought back to Pharaoh and he said to them, “Go, worship Hashem your God! Who will be going?” Moshe replied, “We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds; for we must observe Hashem’s festival!” But he said to them, “Hashem be with you; the same as I mean to let your children go with you! Clearly, you are bent on mischief! No! Your men can go and worship Hashem since that is what you want.” And they were expelled from Pharaoh’s presence. (10:7-10)

Outside of wondering whether this alleged festival was mere diplomatic posturing or perhaps a genuinely lost festival we might otherwise mark, Pharaoh’s advisors took it seriously and at least attempted to meet Moshe halfway.

While Moshe delivered a compelling and powerful speech about going with everyone, men and women, young and old, categorically refusing to leave anyone behind, it’s worth dwelling for a moment on why Moshe wouldn’t take Pharaoh up on his counteroffer to take the men out of Egypt.

This was an enormous and monumental concession! At a minimum, Pharaoh was at least willing to let some of the people go! If nothing else, Moshe could extract some fraction of the people he was tasked with saving. It’s not obvious to assume that the only possible plan was for all the people to walk out at precisely the same time. The mission had long been underway, and this was plausibly the beginning of what succeeding at that mission might look like! Moshe could feasibly take this group out under the ruse of the festival and report to God for new orders about how to save those who remained behind. However many or few people were left behind, God still had to do the same work to get them out! It’s not so hard to imagine Moshe accepting Pharaoh’s offer as a practical and realistic option – and it’s not at all obvious why he didn’t.

Why wouldn’t Moshe accept a partial victory and take the first opportunity he had to get some – even if not all – of the Jewish People out of Egypt?

The Shem mi’Shmuel explains that Moshe’s speech to Pharaoh highlighted a core value – if he had to leave even one single soul behind, it would be better if they stayed put.

Healthy humans have concentric relationship circles. I am at the center, then perhaps my spouse and children, then parents and siblings, then friends and extended family, then community and acquaintances. The Torah’s expectation of us is that we expand our consciousness so that those circles be proximate enough to our own that your wellbeing impacts mine.

Pharaoh was a savvy villain and exploited this to great effect by presenting Moshe with such a choice – Moshe could never accept it. The apparent personal victory for Moshe succeeding in part but having to leave some people behind wouldn’t be a partial victory – it was no victory at all. At best, a personal win is the starting point of helping others; and if we have the gall to take the win and abandon others to their fates, not only is it not a victory – it is actually a defeat. Pharaoh’s offer was empty; it offered nothing we could live with.

This is by no means the most practical value to live by. Moshe’s refusal indicated that he’d rather they all stay put – in Egypt! – than leave a man behind. But choosing to live with ideals is never easy; putting values before profit or self-preservation has tangible drawbacks and real-life consequences. It takes immense willpower and inner strength to avoid cutting corners. But that’s what all the stories of our greats call us to, with acts of courage and decency that fan the flames of idealism in our hearts, inspiring a desire to be just as bold and noble.

If we doubt the sacrosanctity of caring about the people we might leave behind, it’s worth recalling the penultimate plague of darkness; and in particular, the effect it had on the people who experienced it:

לֹא־רָאוּ אִישׁ אֶת־אָחִיו וְלֹא־קָמוּ אִישׁ מִתַּחְתָּיו – People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was… (10:23)

We need to remind ourselves that, presumably, Egyptian adults weren’t like children who are scared of the dark; it’s not just that it felt like blindness, it’s that their worlds were completely cut off from each other – לֹא־רָאוּ אִישׁ אֶת־אָחִיו.

The Chiddushei HaRim highlights that this was the worst punishment God could inflict on Egypt, short only of death itself – that people could not see each other. In a very real way, recognizing another human and moving ourselves to help them cuts to the very heart of what it means to be human, and we should take that notion seriously.

The distinguished psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl witnessed humanity stripped to its essence in the concentration camps and observed how, despite living under the most terrible conditions, there were still men walking around comforting others and giving away their last piece of bread. People like these, the ones who placed themselves in service of others, who committed themselves to a greater cause, were the ones who found nourishment even in complete deprivation, who kept their fire burning even in total darkness.

In the wake of a disaster, whether earthquake, flood, terror attack, or other catastrophe, people are consistently altruistic, urgently engaged in coming together to care for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbors as well as friends and loved ones. Every single incident has citizens who come to rescue those in need, providing evacuation and other necessities like food, clothes, medicine, and shelter. There are always first responders, but also plain everyday people from all walks of life, putting their lives on the line to help.

Most people, deep down, want to be pretty decent, reflecting a deep and profound longing for community and connection.

It’s why stories of bravery and sacrifice tend to resonate so strongly, especially when they involve ordinary people. They are reminders of who we know we can be, of who we want to be. They are antidotes to a culture of toxic individualism, cynicism, and general self-centeredness, a culture that dismisses collective meaning in favor of individual gains, that sees altruism only as a personal expense, not as a source of fulfillment, as something from which you receive as much as you give.

Our most fundamental nature, the root of our behavior, is generosity, empathy, courage, and kindness. The shadows of the plague of darkness expose what it is to be human by stripping those things away. It ought to be incredibly telling that one of the most terrible things the Egyptians experienced was a divinely imposed solitary confinement that served to isolate people from each other.

What’s more, if we don’t really see our fate as bound to each other, to the people we love and everyone around us, we might accidentally be inviting the plague of darkness into our lives, carrying its shadows with us, long after Egypt has faded into the distance.

While reaching for greatness, we cannot forget each other. If we do, we forget ourselves.

The Shackles of Your Mind

2 minute read
Straightforward

The redemption story of the Haggadah opens with Matza, the bread of affliction – הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא. It’s what our ancestors ate, and we invite whoever is hungry to join – כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל.

If you think about it, it’s a strange invitation.

It’s one thing to invite people to join your festive meal, but what sort of dubious invitation is it for people to share your bread of affliction?

The Chiddushei HaRim highlights that isolation was the worst punishment God could inflict on Egypt, short only of death itself – that people could not see each other. Our sages go so far as to say that someone in isolation is effectively considered dead to the world. Humans need each other; it’s an existential design feature of being human – לֹא־טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ. Perhaps one of the first steps towards redemption is experiencing pain together; that even in times we don’t have much, at least we have each other.

Moreover, R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that what transforms the bread of affliction into the bread of freedom is the willingness to share with others.

The distinguished psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl witnessed humanity stripped to its essence in the concentration camps and observed how there were still men walking around comforting others and giving away their last piece of bread despite living in the most wretched circumstances. People like these, the ones who placed themselves in service of others, who committed themselves to a greater cause, were the ones who found nourishment even in complete deprivation, who kept their fire burning even in freezing darkness. Even in the worst of times, we can freely choose to share with others, and in doing so, we become partners in planting the seeds of our redemption.

The Maharal notes that the Exodus is so fundamental because it imbues Judaism with an essential quality of absolute freedom – Judaism is born with the removal of coercive influence. 

The Lubavitcher Rebbe notes that R’ Elazar ben Azariah discovered Ben Zoma’s teaching to recall the Exodus at night on the day he became a leader; because it falls to a leader to be the beacon of hope during times of darkness and difficulty.

Rav Kook explains that the critical distinction between an enslaved person and a free man is not simply physical liberty; there’s a mental component. There could be an enlightened slave whose spirit is free and a free man whose whole life is enslaved to his basest desires – physically free, but with a slave mentality. The people who walked out of Egypt and through the Red Sea to stand at Sinai then spent 40 lost years pining to go back “home” to Egypt.

It’s essential to understand the direction of the story the Torah tells; that God physically freed the Jews of that time, but that mentally, they never left.

Only you can free your spirit, which leads to a shocking but indisputable conclusion. 

God can save you from Egypt, but not even God can save you from yourself. 

Blue is the Color

3 minute read
Straightforward

After the fallout of the spies’ poor report of what lay ahead, God instructed the Jewish People to observe the mitzvah of tzitzis, which we recite to this day as a part of the Shema:

וְהָיָה לָכֶם, לְצִיצִת, וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת-כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹת ה’, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם; וְלֹא-תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם – You will wear these tzitzis. When you see them, you will be reminded of all God’s commands; and you’ll do them – and you won’t stray after your hearts and eyes! (15:39)

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that the juxtaposition of tzitzis with the story of the spies implies some association by sequence. In fact, the stated purpose of tzitzis mirrors the failure of the spies, being misled by eyes that seek – וְיָתֻרוּ אֶת־אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן / וְלֹא-תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם.

Our eyes and hearts are our emotion and instinct – the spies’ error was that they succumbed to fear out of a desire for comfort and safety. They were correct that conquering Israel would be difficult and scary; they were wrong for thinking it was impossible and that the whole journey had been a fruitless mistake. After everything they’d seen, they still couldn’t conquer their fear, and their fight or flight response was engaged.

As the Sfas Emes notes, it’s only the interpretation of the spies’ report that was flawed – they had correctly assessed the facts. But even if the land were inhabited by hordes of big, strong, tough, well-armed, and well-trained men, would God’s assurances and promises have meant any less? Scouting ahead only altered things from their perspective; nothing changed for God. It was only ever for their benefit – שלח לך – but they were sadly led astray by what they’d seen and how it made them feel.

Enter the mitzvah of tzitzis, reminding us that there is more than meets the eye. Don’t fall for how things appear! While it’s an essential lesson for us to learn, it was especially egregious for them to miss. God had come good for them in Egypt, at the Red Sea, and then gave them food, shelter, and water through an arid and empty desert; God had more than earned their trust. But they couldn’t trust in God, couldn’t live with the uncertainty of what lay ahead. Yet when God conceded to their request, they couldn’t handle it, and they panicked. But the Jewish People would have been better off not sending spies to scout ahead at all!

A key part of the mitzvah of tzitzis requirement is to have a blue-violet string – תְּכֵלֶת. R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum ends with blue-violet. There are infrared, ultraviolet, and lots more additional magnitudes of light that radiate unseen beyond what our eyes can discern on either end of the spectrum. It’s also blue like the sky, the limit of earth’s visible atmosphere, yet we know that space sprawls out far beyond our most powerful and sensitive imaging tools. Perhaps then, part of the mitzvah of tzitzis is to remind us of the essential human boundaries of our perception, that there is an invisible, imperceptible, but very real unseen sphere of existence beyond what we see and feel.

It’s worth highlighting that the blue thread surrounds the white threads and not the other way around. If tzitzis corresponds to all of Torah – לְמַעַן תִּזְכְּרוּ, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֶת-כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹתָי – then it corresponds to all of life within the finite bounds of human capability and limitations. There is no separate track for spirituality to exclude the physical; the Torah utilizes the earthly and physical drives. It’s a man’s duty to unite and elevate all available forces and things and incorporate them under the Torah’s umbrella, and tzitzis is the mini-uniform for the job.

And given blue’s deep symbolism and appearance on a Jew’s uniform,  it should be no surprise that it is the standard color of the Beis HaMikdash and Kohen Gadol’s uniforms.

Tzitzis follows the story with the spies to remind us daily and for eternity that the spies could not have been more wrong. It’s not what you look at that matters, but what you see and how you see.

There’s always more than meets the eye.