The indirect way of compassion

August 20, 2012

Photo by Cubosh

Numbers 14 allows us to meet the short-tempered god once again.  Feeling betrayed by the Children of Israel ,who once again doubted their escape from Egypt, god offers Moses to destroy the ungrateful Children of Israel and raise a new people from the Moses’ seed. Moses, who has already accumulated quite an experience with appeasing the ill-tempered god, offers two reasons why god should not act this way:

  1. What will the people of the region, once they hear about the god who took the Children of Israel out of Egypt, just to kill them in the desert, say? They will say that this is because god is not powerful enough to lead them to their promised land.
  2. God is abundant in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression.  While this does not mean all guilty should be cleared, god employ some of this lovingkindness and forgive them.

Which of these explanations convince god?

Well, you can argue with me, but I think god chooses option number two.

And if that is indeed true, I find that comforting. Not because I believe there is omnipotent being which is compassionate, but because it tells us a story about what the motives for our decisions should be.

I know this is a daily struggle for me and I am sure you have some of the same doubts. Why do we care what other people think about us? Why do we base so many of our decisions on what others will think? We can’t really control what they think; if they don’t like us they will probably think bad things about us no matter what we do they don’t have to live our lives, we do. So why?

I see this story as a reminder that in the choice between appeasing others and going with our principles, beliefs and morals, we should always choose our own reasons. If it will make people think better of us, well, that might be a nice bonus. I am not sure having people think better of us is a worthy goal. However, if believe it is, you might want to consider it to be one of those goals that are best achieved indirectly. Keeping to your own principles, acting like a human being, showing strength and discipline with compassion, caring and love, is a better way to earn long-term respect of others, then actually doing what they think you should do.


In their sight

July 28, 2012
Photo by Dreamshoot by Marcel Steger

Numbers 13 presents us with the fascinating story of the spies sent to Israel and their frightening report to the children of Israel about the strengths (and size – they were described as Giants) of the current inhabitants of the Promised Land. One interesting element of the story, one that has received many traditional interpretations by biblical scholars over the years (link in Hebrew), is about this description:

But the men that went up with him said, We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we. And they brought up an evil report of the land which they had spied out unto the children of Israel, saying, The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature. And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.

While it is possible to argue about the truthfulness of many of the spies’ claims, one stands out. How could the spies have known how they looked in the eyes of the current inhabitants of the land? I think this story reminds us how much time we spend thinking about (and deciding) what others think of us, without actually talking to them or asking them about it. I am sure it happened to you as much as it happened to me. You meet someone and then you “decide” somehow that she didn’t like you. in actuality, not only that she might think otherwise, she might have just not noticed you or anything about you.  Research by Thomas Gilovich provides evidence for “The Spotlight Effect”: people overestimate the extent to which their actions and appearance are noted by others.

We assume, usually with no basis for this assumption, besides our own fears, that people see us in the worst way possible. According to Chofetz Chaim, when a person loses his belief in himself (i.e., thinks that he is only a grasshopper) he is led to believe that others see him the same way, while it is possible that they don’t. however, these thoughts not only do make us feel inferior, leading to lower levels of confidence and self-efficacy, but they are also a waste of time and effort. Either we ask the other person what she thinks (if this person’s opinion is important enough) or we shouldn’t care. Why spend effort on guesses – they are just fabrications of our mind.

Next time you have the urge to “decide” about how some other person “sees” you, think about the story of the spies and how futile such decision could be.


Finding fault in the perfect leader

July 22, 2012

Photo by inspiwrit

While Numbers 11 gave us a story of how difficult it is to carry the burden of leadership, Numbers 12 gives us the other side of the leadership story. The Hyper Vigilance. Leaders, are individuals in the spotlight. By virtue of their positions and by virtue of our beliefs (sometimes mythical ones) about leadership, everybody is inspecting the leader closely. Everybody is looking at you all the time. While they are many, you are only one. This kind of scrutiny can never be reciprocated. And when all the attention of many people is directed at one place, it is very easy to find faults, even in place where there none.

And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Cushite woman.

And they said, Hath Jehovah indeed spoken only with Moses? hath he not spoken also with us?

Miriam and Aaron, Moses, sister and brother notice something about Moses. He married a Cushite woman. For those of you whose Hebrew is weak, a Cushite woman means a black woman. Right there and then, the fear of the different comes about. And suddenly, Moses’ personal life choice becomes a fault with his leadership. They start doubting that Moses is indeed so special. “We can do what he can…” they thing to themselves… “what makes him so special?”… “look at who he married”.

The story tells us that God intervenes and shows them how special Moses really is. In a very blunt and ruthless way. I will leave you to read the details.

For me, the moral of the story is different and is twofold. First, it is easy to find fault in somebody if we really try to look for it. The bible actually tells us that: “the man Moses was very meek, above all the men that were upon the face of the earth”. And still, Miriam and Aaron were able to find fault in him. What does that tell us about the way we treat our leaders? Second, the fact that somebody is not perfect does not mean that he or she are not fit. Finding fault in everybody is easy, because nobody is perfect. It is easy to criticize our leaders. But when we do, we need to realize that expecting them to be perfect is wrong, that they are brave for stepping up and taking the lead and that there is a difference between saying what leaders should do and actually being in the position and doing it.


The burden of leadership

June 16, 2012

Photo by travis_simon

In Numbers 11, after a long while, the people of Israel are sick of the desert and frustrated from the limited food on offer. They start thinking to themselves: “why did we need this? Wasn’t it better in Egypt? At least we could eat me again start doubting all god has done for them and start complaining about the fact that in Egypt they had meat and fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic.

And when the people of Israel go complaining, Moses has the burden of hearing it. I don’t know if any of you have even been responsible for a group of people who do nothing but complain, but it is not an easy task. In his hour of difficulty, Moses turns to god and we read about the old Moses, the self doubting one:

And Moses said unto Jehovah, Wherefore hast thou dealt ill with thy servant? and wherefore have I not found favor in thy sight, that thou layest the burden of all this people upon me? Have I conceived all this people? have I brought them forth, that thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing-father carrieth the sucking child, unto the land which thou swarest unto their fathers? Whence should I have flesh to give unto all this people? for they weep unto me, saying, Give us flesh, that we may eat. I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me. And if thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray thee, out of hand, if I have found favor in thy sight; and let me not see my wretchedness.

“After all I have done for them, they still want more! I don’t need it. Be merciful and kill me now”, Moses says to god. “I can’t take it any more”. And what is god answer? You don’t need to carry the burden alone. Moses is asked to bring 70 elders that will be bestowed with the “spirit” of leadership and will help Moses carry the burden.

And what can we learn from this story? I believe that there are two main points here:

First, leadership is not a solitary act. We have a myth, an implicit theory and our head, that a leader is some solitary individual who solves our problem for us. In reality, most accomplishments I life are a result of cooperation between a number of individuals. Movements are stronger than people. Some people, by virtue of effort, desire, and sometimes even talent, play an instrumental role, but a leader without others is just an individual. Leadership is the act of change and this act is not individual, but collective. If you have the privilege of being put in a “leadership position”, it does not mean you have to do it all alone. Share you burden.

Second, we can put all of hope in our leaders and just sit and complain. Pointing out what is wrong with the current situation and providing information to those that help create a better future is an important step. However, we can’t stop there. We have to share the responsibility. Leadership and followership are not active and passive opposites. They are two sides of the same coin, the Yin and Yang of an interaction that creates better circumstances for the entire community.


Second Chances

May 27, 2012

Photo by Alyssa L. Miller

Speak unto the children of Israel, When a man or woman shall commit any sin that men commit, so as to trespass against Jehovah, and that soul shall be guilty; then he shall confess his sin which he hath done: and he shall make restitution for his guilt in full, and add unto it the fifth part thereof, and give it unto him in respect of whom he hath been guilty. But if the man have no kinsman to whom restitution may be made for the guilt, the restitution for guilt which is made unto Jehovah shall be the priest’s; besides the ram of the atonement, whereby atonement shall be made for him.

In Numbers 5, god explains to Moses what should the rule be when a person commits a sin. On a simple level, this seems obvious. God has been laying out the rules of societal living for a number of chapters now.  In a sense, I feel like the god we saw in the beginning of the bible, which gave only guidelines and general directions became a little tired with disappointments, and decided to micro-manage, but dictating rules governing almost all aspect of life.

However, on a closer look, the specific verses quoted above represent a deep understanding into human life and psychology. Notice, it is not “if” a man or woman shall commit any sin, it is “when” a man or a woman shall commit a sin. The sin is a given; just a matter of time.

And indeed, we all “sin” sometimes. Nobody is perfect all the time. Nobody can always be good, follow the rules, keep his or her promises to self and others. The thing is to realize that. To understand that sinning is part of life. And while it is OK to demand that people be held responsible, if they do acknowledge that responsibility, they are entitled to a second chance.

For me, this advice is most important when thinking about sins we commit against ourselves. Not the big ones, but the little ones. We promised ourselves we get out of work on time; or finish an amount of work; or workout; or not touch that cookie. And we fail. Because it is hard to always keep to our promises, even to ourselves. Especially to ourselves. The question is what do we do when that happens? Are we able to recognize our own responsibility for that failed promise and then forgive ourselves? Or do we, instead, give up, blame everybody else, and stop making promises to ourselves? Current-day research shows that this is essential for our own future success.

So, next time you or others make some wrong choices, look for the responsibility taking and then let yourself the pleasure of forgiving.


Walk the rules

May 6, 2012

Photo by o5com

In Leviticus 26 god lays down before the people of Israel both the “carrots” of following him and the “sticks”. As a good psychologist, how knows that losses loom larger than gains, the “sticks” part of the chapter is almost twice as large as the “carrots” part.

What fascinated me in this chapter is the basic requirement:

If ye walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them…

I find the phrasing to be fascinating. It is not enough to do the commandments. The people of Israel are also required to “keep” them and to “walk” them. Notice the order. “Doing” comes last, while “walking” comes first. That made me think two (maybe contradicting) thoughts:

  1. The rules themselves are not of higher importance, but the whole process and intention involved in them is. In Israel, members of the parliament are constantly bragging about how many of their suggested laws have been passed in the last seat of the house. I would have liked to see a different statistic being used: how many of the laws passed are actually being enforced? It is really nice to have all kinds of laws on paper, but if nobody enforces them, if they stay only on paper, why should we care. I would like to see a reduction of laws that will increase their sacredness. We should choose only a number of very important rules, but live them to the fullest.  Can we say that for every new law someone suggests he or she needs to point which old rule this new law will replace? As Leviticus 26 itself suggests: “ye shall bring forth the old because of the new”
  2. By asking to “walk” the rules, god does not ask for blind obedience. Instead, the requirement is to understand the idea and logic of the law and try to achieve that. Just because it is a rule, does not mean anything. Does it make sense? How does it pan out in reality? What are the consequences of the law when you “walk” it out? These questions are just as important as following the law to the letter.


Freedom (revisited)

April 5, 2012

Source: Hacked IRL

It is that time of year again. The time the Jewish tradition tells us that each and every one of us should see him/herself as if he/she personally escaped from slavery in Egypt. And while we are not slaves in Egypt anymore (at least I am assuming that if you are reading this you aren’t), the lessons from that story should still resonate with us again and again. As became my habit in the last few years, I give you my few own thoughts about freedom as my gift for the holiday. These are the freedoms I wish, first for myself, second to my closest family and friends and last to everybody else (that’s just the kind of guy I am):

The freedom from the person we think we should be – I heard somebody say once that when we look in the mirror, we see three people: the person we want to be, the person everybody else sees, and the person we are. They usually don’t match. And the first two usually determine how we treat the last one. Isn’t it time to turn the table? We are who we are. Not perfect, but wonderful nonetheless. Instead of trying to live up to our dreams or to other’s perceptions, shouldn’t we be free to live as who we are now. The person we want to be and the person everybody else sees are oppressors. It is time to cut free of them.

The freedom to hurt – we spend so much of our time trying to protect ourselves, to make ourselves happier, to prevent any harm. But being hurt is part of being alive. The hurt allows us to know our limits; to understand what we stand for and what we really care about. Yes, being hurt (physically or emotionally) is not a pleasurable experience. But it is an enlightening one. Being hurt is how we forage ourselves to be better.

The freedom from ideologies – don’t get me wrong on this one. I am not saying you shouldn’t have an opinion or believe in something passionately. On the contrary. But when beliefs start to blind us or when they start to be the main issue instead of being a tool to achieve meaningful human accomplishments, then they become evil oppressors. Leave the ideology behind. Talk to people. Try to understand the other side’s point of view. Ask yourself why you believe what you believe. Leave the empty ideologies to the politicians.

The freedom to be an artist – for a long time I believed I had no creativity at all. I believed that creating things, beautiful things, meaningful things, is for other “artsy” people. I was wrong. Because art is so much more than what we usually think about as art. Every time you connect with another human being, you are creating art. I found the places where I made a difference, where the things I did were not beautiful in the traditional sense, but still made an impact, even a small one, in people’s lives. Do I still have doubts about my ability to create art? All the time. It is a constant struggle, but when I win the fight I gain my freedom to create real art, the results are amazing. What is your art? How are you making a difference? Are you fighting for your freedom to create?

Happy Passover,