The Danger of a Single Story – Parshat Shoftim 5781

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at TEDGlobal 2009, bonus session at the Sheldonian theater, July 23, 2009, in Oxford, UK. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson

A few years ago I was introduced to novelist Chimamanda Adichie through a TED Talk. In the video, Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice, and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding. Specifically, the author relays a story of her experience going to university. Her roommate was startled to learn that she, a girl from Africa, could speak English and also know how to use an oven and stove. Chimamanda Adichie says, “What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.”

The danger of a “single story” is that we so often let one person’s narrative color our entire understanding of the issue or situation and don’t stop to take the time to actually look at all angles and facts about the story.

The concept of a single story and the problem behind it are not new; in fact they are very present in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shoftim. This is a section of Torah that completely focuses on the legal system, on justice, and on context. This text includes the commandment to establish judges and officers, as well as a listing of punishments for certain transgressions against mitzvot. We also learn about the laws surrounding false witnesses and murder.

As these laws are articulated, the rabbis worry about a single story narrative. While judicial matters are being discussed, the Torah puts out rules for how a case can be decided. In chapter 19, verses 15-21, they lay out a plan. “A single witness may not validate against a person any guilt or blame for any offense that may be committed; a case can only be valid on the testimony of two witnesses or more.” It goes on to talk about false testimony and the need for a thorough investigation.

The Torah is clearly trying to work against the single story narrative. Our text is instituting a protection against a “he said, he said” situation where there is no research or effort to back up statements or experiences. 

Throughout history the narrative of a single story has plagued minorities especially. From the evil of Haman in our Purim story, to the horrific genocide and displacement of the Maya people in Guatemala, to the Rohingya refugee crisis, when only one viewpoint matters, it can have unimaginable results. One single story or one single stereotype of a people can bring epic destruction and lasting consequences. In a world where misinformation and falsehoods are easier than ever to spread, Parshat Shoftim teaches us to investigate, to get a second, third, or fourth opinion, and to remember that single stories aren’t the whole story.

But Why?! – Parshat Re’eh 5781

“Why?” It’s one of my most favorite and least favorite questions. I love asking the question “why” when I’m trying to get deeper and deeper into a problem working toward its solution. I don’t love it when I come up from all that digging empty handed. If I never actually get to the why, it eats away at me, gnawing at my core. Asking why is one of the first questions a child presents. It’s part of their innate curiosity, and it’s how they learn to engage with the world around them and think deeply about things big and small. And, it’s still one of my least favorite questions when it seems to be on an endless loop. 

The need to understand why something happens isn’t just a childlike curiosity, it exists in the Torah as well. We read Parshat Re’eh this week, as the Torah races to the finish line of its lessons. In our parshah we learn about the blessings and curses that will come with observance (or lack thereof) of the mitzvot we’re given. We receive some final warnings about following the laws against idolatry, laws for keeping kosher, and the importance of treating each other as equals. Finally, we receive some more information on our three pilgrimage festivals.

Throughout the Torah, God gives the commandments to the Israelites to celebrate the festivals. In each of the other places – in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers – God tells the Israelites how to celebrate the holidays. It isn’t until this week’s Torah portion that we learn the why. You can imagine the Israelites getting all of the rules, being told what they are supposed to celebrate, and how they’re supposed to do it. It was probably 40 years in the desert of the Israelites asking God, “But WHY?”

In true Torah form though, God withholds the why to encourage deeper questioning and discovery. In Exodus the Israelites respond to God in chapter 24, verse 7 with, “We will do, and we will understand.” Basically, they committed to learning and to understanding the why only after they were already engaging in action. What if the Israelites had only acted after all their “whys” were answered? They may never have taken the steps to form a cohesive community. They wouldn’t be a nation at all. Instead, their faith and trust led them to the “why” by first doing the “what.”

So often in our lives we get stuck on the why. Like a broken record, we’re unable to move past a certain point unless we get the explanation we think we deserve. However, Judaism is a tradition of action, of involving all of our senses, not just our critical thinking. The Torah in Parshat Re’eh is here to teach us that by taking action, we still get the answer we’re seeking, and it leaves us and the world much more fulfilled.

The Path Before You – Parshat Eikev 5781

If you stay in one place long enough, your family becomes rooted and connected to that place in a deep way. Those of you with older siblings may know the feeling of walking into a new classroom at the beginning of the school year and having the teacher look at your last name on the roster and automatically associate you with any memories of your older sibling. It can even happen a generation or two apart, like when a grandchild who is working hard to start their own career, but in the same field as a grandparent, can’t escape the stories about living up to the legacy. In so many ways we find ourselves following paths laid years or decades before, and yet each human being is also their own person and thus different.

The Torah often follows this line of reasoning, including Parshat Eikev this week. We should trust God because Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob put their faith in God, and God’s promises were fulfilled. At the same time, we’re reminded of all the ways in which the Israelites choose a new path and not be like their ancestors.

This week we read Parshat Eikev. We learn of the blessing and reward you receive if you keep the laws of the Torah and of the consequences for those who don’t follow those laws. The Torah recaps the lessons learned from the Golden Calf, the breaking of the first set of tablets, and Moses’s prayer for the people. We finally receive the second section of the Shema, followed by a clear warning to guard the Torah and its commandments.

In the aftermath of the Golden Calf incident, which happened a while back, God and Moses are going back and forth on the merits of the Israelite nation. The concept of the “merit of ancestors,” or zechut avot, is often cited here. In other words, God should have mercy upon the Israelites because they come from meritorious people. They should receive mercy because they are the same as their ancestors, even in their differences. The thing is, Moses also makes the argument that it’s not just the “good” qualities that they have in common. They also share the same stubbornness, a stubbornness that has preserved them as a people through generations. 

We want to pass down only our best qualities, whether it’s older sibling to younger sibling, parent to child, or grandparent to grandchild. However, sometimes it’s not necessarily the “best” qualities that are the most important, but the ones that best serve us. 

Parshat Eikev reminds us that while the idea of zechut avot paved the way and may open doors for us, it’s up to us to go through the door and pave the way for those who will follow.

Clingy – Parshat Vaetchanan 5781

I’ve always been bothered by the end of the movie Titanic when Rose climbs on to the door in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean after the ship goes down. There seems to be room for Jack to climb on top of the door with her, and yet he dies and she survives. Why do they both not get to make it and only one of them is pulled to safety? There has been much debate about this scene over the 24 years since the movie came out, including a segment on the television show Mythbusters that recreated the tragic ending with a replica of the door. The obvious answer is because it makes the story even more dramatic and moving, not to mention the tragedy of the Titanic isn’t a happy story to begin with. But if you prefer a bit of dark humor, you could say the reason is because Jack didn’t want to be the clingy one in this relationship. 

Of course in this memorable movie scene, “clinging” is a matter of life and death. However, when we turn the verb “cling” into the adjective “clingy” we’re usually referring to people, things, and ideas we hold onto for emotional reasons, not physical necessity. For example, there are some things that we cling to in order to give us hope or sustain us through a rocky patch. “The light at the end of the tunnel” is a cliché that reminds us that if we can just reach a certain point, a reward will follow. Or, as my trainer says, “You can do anything for 30 seconds.” It’s a little bit of hyperbole, but knowing that those 30 seconds will end is the hope I cling to in order to push through the last two minutes of holding a plank. What are some things you cling to? 

Parshat Vaetchanan, which we read this week, offers some insight into this concept. The Torah portion continues with the retelling of the laws here again in the book of Deuteronomy. We also read about God’s persistent refusal to allow Moshe to enter the Land of Israel. The Torah then issues a caution to uphold the mitzvot as the key to building the new Israelite society. Moshe then sets three cities of refuge, and we receive probably the most well-known instruction in the Torah, the Shema. 

In chapter four we receive a verse of Torah that is still used today in the congregation just before the reading of the Torah. “While you, who are clinging to the Lord your God, are all alive today.” In the midst of recounting the destruction of those who didn’t serve God, this verse tells us that Israel is alive today, and Judaism exists today because the people have “clung” to God. Faith, in a sense, is that floating door in Titanic, and that is how we survive. 

“Clinging” to faith looks different for each of us. Holding onto Judaism can look like maintaining multiple traditions over generations, or simply keeping a recipe as sacred to the family. Some of us cling to God, while others cling to the specific words of Torah that bring us meaning and comfort. However you interpret it, this idea of holding tightly to each other and to our tradition is the reason Judaism has survived, and if we remain clingy, it will continue to survive.  

Being Alone – Parshat Devarim 5781

As we reenter an in-person world and discover again what it means to connect with people face to face, it really puts into perspective how alone we’ve been over the last 18 months. Whether it was the frustration of online meetings or the isolation during quarantine, we didn’t just feel alone – we were physically separated. 

One of the effects of this aloneness is the perception of the burden of extra responsibility. Put another way, how do we know if our leaders are doing their jobs if we can’t see them? How do we even know who is doing which job? And how can leaders delegate when they can’t interact with their people? Without the benefits of interacting through our usual support systems, we’re left feeling either untethered and unfocused or tied down and stuck.

This feeling isn’t just a consequence of pandemics. It surfaces in times of imminent transition and change. Our Torah portion this week, Parshat Devarim, introduces the final book of the Torah, which shows the Israelites totally unmoored by their change in leadership and seemingly unknown future. As reassurance, Devarim stresses the covenant between God and Israel and looks toward Israel’s future in a new land as they build a society that pursues justice and righteousness. The central theme of this section of text comes back to the Jewish roots of monotheism, the belief in one God, and building a society around the laws we’ve been given over the course of the four previous books. 

Moses is in the midst of transferring leadership, sharing his final lessons with the Israelites, and helping the Israelite people prepare for this major transition. He reflects back on a moment when he was overburdened and unable to be the best he could be for the fledgling nation. To illustrate his point, Moses reminds the Israelites of the journey he himself took to build his support system in order to move the community forward. For example, he reminds them that he established a court system of different judges so that they didn’t have to wait all day for one person (Moses) to make a decision.  

In this reflection, Moses’s words come in two parts: “I cannot bear the burden . . .” and “How can I bear unaided . . .?” The leader of the Jewish people admits that the problem is too big, and he simply cannot bear the burden of leadership alone. These verses are usually read in the tune we chant for Eicha, Lamentations. The melody is sad and, quite honestly, draining. It very well captures feeling alone and without support.

Individual responsibility is one thing. Of course we should all have to account for our own actions. However, support systems are critical, especially in times of trauma or transition. As we enter the last book of the Torah, we see Moses reminding the Israelites to be there for each other through this change and always. What a perfect analogy as we rediscover what it means to be there for each other as a community.