Recently I was at a friend’s house for Shabbos dinner. And even though it was a Shabbos dinner, the crowd wasn’t particularly observant. Some guests drove there. One person checked their phone. And inevitably one of them (we’ll call him George) asked a Torah inspired question (but with a slight undertone of mockery/skepticism). “I know we left Egypt in haste and that’s the reason we can’t eat leavened products on passover. But wine has yeast, why are we allowed wine?”
I had an answer (see my Matzah spiel blog post.) But I didn’t want to launch into a lecture and be “that religious guy.” So instead I asked prodding questions to George, “Are you sure we can’t eat leavened bread because we left in haste? Did you know, two weeks before the Jews leave Egypt God tells Moses the Jews are going to eat matzah during passover for all future generations?”
After dropping the question, I then tried to change the conversation, because again, I didn’t want to be “that religious guy” (and also because I hadn’t reviewed my own blog post in a while and I was afraid I’d mess it up.) But George wouldn’t let me off the hook and he pressed me for an answer.
So I stumbled through the lesson… explaining what chametz was… how matzah is the bread of our freedom… but we ate matzah as slaves, so why would we eat it at Passover? Yada, yada, yada… Eventually driving to the point that when we were slaves we were driven and now that drive is in our DNA. When I finally got through it all, there was a moment of contemplation out of George. Then, “I like that. It’s a better answer than some rabbi gave me the last time I asked the question.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. But that’s when another guest chimed in. We’ll call him Mike. “I like that too. That’s what we should do with our lives. Work like slaves to beat the other guys.” I couldn’t help but suspect his response was sarcastic. He continued, “And we should kill the first born of our enemies. Like God did to Egypt.” His skepticism now was undeniable and I could tell there was a confrontation bubbling up.
I didn’t counter point him, I just listened. Let him ask his series of mocking questions. But then oddly, he seemed to turn himself around. “I like that. That’s a good point. We should work hard. That is what life is about.” I honestly couldn’t tell if he was still mocking me or being sincere. Or perhaps Mike realized that picking a fight at a Shabbos table wasn’t such a good idea. Whatever went through his mind, the tension dissipated and the Shabbos meal continued in peace. Until someone brought up Donald Trump and Mike and George really went at it.
A Matter of Perspective
The tension of the situation had stopped me from being able to think on my feet so I wasn’t able to give a concise answer. I could have turned the conversation towards the ideas of justice and judgement. But he probably would have shot back with “If we’re supposed to be like God and God reigned down terror upon Egypt, then by the transitive property we should be reigning terror upon our enemies.”
Any point I threw out was going to come back at me. Because Mike didn’t want to understand the Torah. There was likely something deeper going on. What I was dealing with wasn’t a matter of education. It was a matter of perspective.
Parts of the Torah should bother us. We shouldn’t pretend they don’t. We’re meant to wrestle with them. But where someone who believes Torah is true understands that there is a wisdom above you, there is an appreciation and that you can grow to better understand (either by research or experience) these difficult passages and elevate yourself in the process. But the other perspective is that someone like Mike sees these bothersome parts of the Torah and decides it is proof that it must not be true. And so “because I don’t understand it, it must be wrong” and uses that to free himself from the responsibility.
Being Right vs Making Connection
With George I had been able to educate. But with Mike I had to listen. It was an exercise in humility and a sacrifice of ego. I desperately wanted to dismantle and correct every ill-informed statement he was making. But I knew the argument would get away from me and turn emotional. And once it goes emotional, logic can’t penetrate. So I let him continue and I listened. As I said above, he eventually seemed to try to rectify.
I wouldn’t consider it a success story. But it became clear to me that we can argue about ideas, but must never forget the person we’re discussing them with. That when we get caught up in arguing passionately, we can lose sight of our goal. Is it to be right? Or is it to get through to the other person?
A refreshingly honest and authentic look into Ben’s struggle to incorporate what he shares with us weekly into his own life. I applaud you for taking the weekly parsha insight in a different direction and allowing us to connect more with the author. The more we connect with an author, the more we care. The more we understand an author, the more we understand what they are trying to convey. No matter how educated one is, even if he has the right answer as you stated, it is not the answer that matters; it boils down to understanding the other party. This post, as we would say in yeshiva “is a game changer” because if you actually applied Ben’s awareness of discriminating between the time to educate and a time to listen you would save yourself time, energy, impact, and relationships.
Mazel tov achi!
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Ben, you perfectly captured the experience of being “the religious one” challenged by mocking secular Jews. To their credit, “George” and “Mike” showed up at a Shabbat table and asked Torah-related questions. Good job keeping your cool and representing.
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It is not about mocking. It is about whether the Orthodox Jewish narrative is supportable. The answer is most likely not. I can provide links of bloggers who wrote extensively about it.
I don’t feel Mike’s response was a question about the legitimacy of the history (I assume that’s what you mean by the narrative is or is not supportable). His response was clearly about the message he felt the story of the Exodus conveyed.
t is not about mocking. It is about whether the Orthodox Jewish narrative is supportable. The answer is most likely not. I can provide links of bloggers who wrote extensively about it.
Ben: Great post. We would so like to have you over for a Shabbos if you can make it to / through Chicago. We have a very excellent community here, and I’d like you to see it. All our love, Leonard & Inger
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