Mark Twain’s famous line, used to open the Oscar nominated film The Big Short, speaks far beyond the ramifications of the housing crisis. When a person is so sure of them self, or political party, or a religion; extremism, declarations of hate, violence can be the result. But should an individual find true clarity and come to a profound understanding about the world, how can that person live with that knowledge, grow with it, and spread it without being a jerk?
Living for a Cause
Enter: Avram (soon to be renamed Avraham). Avram lived in a world where virtually no one believed in God. Through Avram’s own reasoning came to the understanding that a single being must exist to govern the world. He finds clarity and decides to live with that truth. Avram is referred to as an Ivri. Ivri is where we get the word Ivrit (which is the Hebrew word for Hebrew.) Ivri literally means “from the other side.” Because Avram came from the other side of the Euphrates river. But on a deeper level, the Rabbis take it to mean that he was on the other side of morality. He felt there was a better way to live and he was all alone in that.
There is a famous story where Avram is brought before King Nimrod and is told that if he doesn’t bow down to an idol, he will be burned alive in a furnace. Avram stands by his convictions and is thrown into the fire. Miraculously he isn’t harmed. But the interesting thing is that at this point, Avram has never seen or spoken to God. He makes this choice solely based on what he believes to be right. It’s a great story, but it’s not actually in the Torah. It’s a Midrash.
It is only at the age of 75 that God appears to him and confirms everything that Avram had suspected. This is where Avram’s story begins in the Torah.
God said to Avram “Go for yourself from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. (Bereishis 12:1)
And with that Avram leaves and heads for Canaan (what will be come Israel). But if you look at the quote above, something might strike you as odd. If you’re going to leave your land, aren’t you already leaving your birthplace and your parent’s house? Why does God need to tell him to leave the other two? In fact, in parshas Noach (last week’s reading) he already left his birth place and settled in Charan! Obviously God isn’t just talking about Avram physically leaving his home. God is talking leaving a mentality.
It is a scary thing to fully commit to a new way of living. What God is telling Avram is how to have clarity. To fully and honestly embrace what you know to be true means that you have to critically analyze the nation you grew up in (from your land). And as hard as that is to do, the next step is to critically analyze the way of thinking of the neighborhood you grew up in (from your birthplace). Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, “You can take the man out of New York, but you can’t take the New York out of the man.” Obviously you can substitute any city or environment. And as impossible as that may seem, there’s one more step. To wrestle with and depart from the mentality of your parents’ household. It is only with these three steps, that an individual can honestly engage and objectively commit to what they know to be true. It takes real work, real soul searching, and real sacrifice.
How to Live with Truth
So the question remains, why isn’t the first story in the Torah? Avram gives up his life for God and what he believes in. Isn’t the bible about subjugating yourself and giving up your life for God? No. The Torah is communicating something far more profound about honoring what you know to be true. To die for a cause is a profound testament to the idea you’ve fought for. But it is only one moment. If you decide to live for a cause, you’ll be tested throughout your life and you’ll have many opportunities to bring that truth into the world. The 2nd story is about living for the cause. So that’s the one that’s in the Torah.
So how did Avram live with that cause? Rambam’s Mishneh Torah says, “When people would gather around him and ask him about his statements, he would explain them, to each person according to their understanding, until they turned to the path of truth.” Avram didn’t go out and bombard people with his idea using picket signs and accusations of sin. He set up a tent where he knew travelers would be weary and he gave them hospitality. His concern was for their needs. Once those were met and he got to know the individual, he talked to them in the way they needed to hear. “According to their understanding.” Avram took the time to understand where the person was coming from. It’s only when someone believes and trusts that you love them and actually are concerned for their well being that they are willing to open up listen to you. That’s how Avram was successful.
The World after Tuesday
We have just finished a heated and divisive election in this country. Which ever side you happen be on, you likely have a complete and utter lack of understanding of how people on the other side could have voted for their candidate. You have a choice, you can either ignore the other side, attack the other side, or you can reach out to the other side. Now don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of nonsense to dismiss, and there are plenty of notions that do need to be attacked. But obviously I’m going to recommend reaching out.
However, before you do, you must make certain you have clarity within yourself. Have you tested what you think you know? Or are those the opinions of your party, your city, or your parents? And once you have that clarity, before you tell the other person they are wrong, take a moment to listen and think about what that person thinks that they know. Genuinely listen. Even if you’re sure they’re wrong. At worst, you’ll have wasted a little bit of time. At best you may have made a connection and opened their willingness to listen.