Parshat Vayera: But It Was Just a Glance

Parshat Vayera: But It Was Just a Glance

We’ve all had the experience of driving somewhere and noticing traffic is slowing down for no apparent reason.  Eventually it becomes clear that there’s a traffic accident ahead.  Everyone slows down, traffic crawls but most of the traffic bottleneck is not caused because of the actual accident but because everyone is slowing down to look at the accident.  Exactly what are we all looking for?

It is one thing to slow down because something unusual has happened on the road and you want to be cautious with your driving, things might be obstructing your lane.  Unfortunately, that’s not usually the case.  Usually it is that driving has momentarily turned into a spectator sport.  We are watching the accident, taking in the vehicular damage and noticing if there are any injuries.  Helping someone who needs it might be our original intent in slowing down but, if help has already arrived, why are we still slowing down?  We have become spectators.

There is a German word, ‘schadenfreude’, which describes the pleasure someone derives from the suffering of another.  It refers to the passive pleasure, not relating to anyone who causes the suffering of another – ‘schadenfreude’ refers to the spectator.  It is not someone who is curious or questioning what is happening, it is the person who knows there is suffering and wants to observe from the peripherals, feels pleasure for knowing they are better off at this moment.  It is a dark side of the human condition.

I remember being in Israel when I was a student and sitting in a ‘monit’, a public taxi car, travelling from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.  Along the highway there was an accident where we could see cars stopped on the grass between the inbound and outbound lanes.  There were also people lying on the ground and a few people sitting there.  No one was moving.  Our taxi pulled over to the side of the road as did all the cars driving in both directions but no one got out of their cars.  I was confused about what was happening and I asked the driver if we were getting out to help.  He said, ‘not yet’.  We waited a few more minutes, as did everyone else in all the cars that had stopped.  I asked the person sitting next to me why no one is getting out to help and he said we’re all waiting to make sure it’s real.  It took me a minute to understand that what we were all seeing could actually be a trap — an ambush — to draw in as many civilians as possible before the actual attack occurs.  In other words, use our compassion for each other as a weapon against us.  Another dark side of the human condition.

A friend of mine told me a story a few years ago about his motorcycle trip through the Galilee in Israel.  For anyone who’s travelled those roads, you know they twist and turn through the mountains, sometimes with no shoulder or little space between the narrow road and the deep valley drop at the side.  My friend was riding his motorcycle on one of these roads as several cars were trying to pass him because he wasn’t going fast enough.  The roads are narrow and each car that passed him squeezed him closer to the edge of the pavement, onto the gravel and, eventually, off the road and down the steep incline into the valley below.  He told me all the cars immediately stopped and everyone suddenly ran down into the valley, each identifying to the other whether there was a medic among them, perhaps a doctor.  He said everyone immediately drew on their first aid training (this is Israel) and he was quickly secured, checked, assured he would be ok and help was on the way.  His injuries were minor and he profusely thanked everyone who came to his assistance.  Then it occurred to him that these were the same people who had run him off the road in the first place.  His gratitude turned to anger turned back to gratitude turned back to anger…  The grey side of the human condition.

The Torah parshah this week, Vayera, tells us of the story of Lot, his family and the citizens of Sodom and Gemmorah.  As God is destroying the region, Lot, his wife and his two daughters are being escorted to safety by an angel.  The one thing they have been told not to do is to not look backwards at Sodom.  Just as it looks like all is well for them, Lot’s wife turns to look over her shoulder at the city she has left behind, Sodom.  She is turned to salt.  In all of Torah and all of Jewish text, this is the only time that happens.  It is both powerful and baffling.  Why the strong instruction not to look back?  How is it so severe that it will cost her everything, her very life? 

The problem with looking back on Sodom as it is burning is that everyone in Lot’s family is already safe.  Lot’s wife is turning from the vantage of safety to watch the suffering of others.  She does not plead for them, she does not bargain or cry out, she stands and observes.  She has become the spectator.  The ethics of Sodom would support the passive observation of the suffering of others as a pastime but Judaism does not.  Lot’s wife is turned to salt, the ancient world’s substance for preserving things.  She is forever preserved in her choice of ethics.  By watching others suffer, taking no stance against it, while enjoying her safety, she has preserved the ethics of Sodom.  We should not focus on her as being punished but as sending the message that these dark sides of the human condition should stay in the fires of Sodom.

There are some places in the world today where someone is obligated by law to stop and help someone in distress.  Other places do not legally obligate anyone to stop.  Interestingly, there are places which do not obligate anyone to stop, but if you choose to stop, you are now obligated to help.  Part of this is to prevent the misunderstanding that could occur when someone sees someone else stopping to help.  I would assume the person who has stopped will help and therefore I don’t need to stop.  I would assume the person who has stopped will call 911 and therefore I don’t need to call 911 — resulting in nobody calling 911.  Coincidentally, or perhaps not, a benefit of this law could be that we don’t build a culture of passively watching another’s suffering.  

Unfortunately, traffic accidents are common on our roads.  We will slow down to preserve safety and we should watch to make sure help has arrived.  Once we know that has happened, Judaism then tells us to put our eyes forward and allow people who are vulnerable to have their privacy and their dignity in this moment.  Let Lot’s wife stand and stare.

Have you ever wondered what all these books Rachael refers to are? Been curious about the differences between them and what they’re each used for?

Join us on November 17th for a shiur event – a 45 minute class presented by Rachael – to learn the answers to these questions. Information and registration can be found on our Learning Page.

Parshat Va’etchanan: If I Could Walk In Your Shoes I’d Have Bigger Feet

One of my daughters told me about a book club she recently organized.  She didn’t mean to organize it, it just ended up that way.  It wasn’t even her idea, it was the result of a friend telling her that isolation was getting to her and she couldn’t take any more virtual relationships —she needed “real.”  And so the idea of an actual book club, where people sit together (socially distanced) in one place (outside) and share thoughts on a book (since they are socially distanced, they will be sharing these thoughts with 4 neighbours who are also in their yards) was born.  

The idea was great, but within a few days, her friend told her she was having difficulty finding friends to bring.  All of her friends were busy reorganizing their lives, working from home, streaming media on their devices, too overwhelmed to commit to an actual meeting together once a month, or to pledge to finish reading the book.  My daughter (continuing to feel compassion for her friend who wants the “real” experience) found a friend who agreed to find more people. (She told me the second person she found is the sister of the first person since it was indeed a challenge to get someone to agree to an actual “real” obligation these days).  Soon, friends were finding friends and a book club was formed.  Everything went fine and just as they were getting ready to meet for the first time, one month away, the friend tells my daughter she’s not sure she can be there because she had to go to the United States for an important event and when she gets home she will have to self-isolate for 2 weeks.  My daughter reminded her that the book club has been organized for her.  The friend assured my daughter she could be there…virtually.  “Just plug in your laptop in the backyard and zoom me in,” said the friend.  

As my daughter was telling me this story I started laughing, at which point she told me that she’s not sure how she got into this position but she is now leading a book club (she didn’t want) with a friend, a ‘sister’ and multiples of people (she’d never met) hosting them in her backyard with a computer plugged in for all the neighbours to share in this “real” experience she suggested while trying to help a friend.  I couldn’t stop laughing, the only thought in my head was that this book club should come with only one rule: we never talk about book club (for anyone who’s seen the movie Fight Club, that rule will make sense —for anyone else —it’s a good movie if you’re looking for something to watch because you’re not currently in a book club.  If you’re in a book club, it’s also a good book).

Compassion and empathy for others can get all of us into a labyrinth of strategic planning and twists and turns that often lead us to places we never planned.  In fact, we often use words like ‘sympathy’ and ‘empathy’ as if they are synonyms — they are not.  While Judaism acknowledges the nuances of difference with all of these terms, it doesn’t name them all, but it does show, by example, what the differences are.

There is a wonderful story in the Talmud of a rabbi who helps a colleague rise from his sickbed.  After a discussion on the advantages of suffering (which the sick person concludes isn’t worth the price), the rabbi extends his hand and leads his friend to health.  Soon after, another rabbi falls ill and the now recovered rabbi visits his sick friend.  They also explore the depths of suffering but now the sick rabbi is beginning to pull his friend into the realm of despair along with him.  His friend remembers how he was helped to health and so he asks the bedridden rabbi if there is value to this moment of suffering.  The sick rabbi responds that he doesn’t want this suffering and the friend extends his hand and leads his colleague to health.

Sympathy is when I feel bad for you, empathy is when I realize I have been in your place and I can help you.  The first is an emotion that churns within me, the second is my insight that leads me to act.  When we sympathize with each other, we can be pulled into the dark moments of those we are trying to help; when we empathize with each other, we can find ways out of the darkness together because one of us remembers the road out.

In this week’s parshah, Va’etchanan, Moses is pleading with God to be allowed to enter the land of Israel.  It is heartbreaking to hear his anguish and even more difficult to read that God has told Moses to stop asking for it —essentially telling Moses that this particular prayer will not be answered and it’s hurtful so the request must stop.  Sympathy for Moses will lead us further into our personal theological questions of our relationship with God.  It should lead us there.  But Moses goes on to teach empathy.

Moses immediately instructs Israel that they must always be kind to strangers because we must always remember we were strangers in Egypt (sympathy) and that God led us out of that predicament to freedom (empathy).  If I only feel compassion towards someone who is suffering, I have misunderstood the point of the full statement Moses made.  I have been the stranger, I have been the slave, I have been the victim who stands alone, so I can now recognize this predicament when I see it in someone else.  Because I have a model of how to be redeemed from that horror, I can extend my hand and lead the stranger out.  I am commanded to be empathetic toward someone and not to only feel sympathy for them.  Every time we are told we were strangers in Egypt, we are immediately told that God brought us out.  It is a full model of moving from sympathy to empathy.  It is the way things will change.

My daughter now leads a book club of strangers in her backyard.  I imagine them sitting together and sharing new perspectives, without the audio lag of an online portal.  It started with a friend reaching out to another friend and a way to share some new perspectives sitting with real people amidst a global pandemic.  The answer seemed simple: let’s read some books together.  

We’ve all had our moments lately where we are ‘done’ with Covid and not sure what to do.  We all sympathize with each other and think of the now popular government slogan to remember “we are all in this together”, which only reinforces that we are all sharing the predicament.  I think we’re ready to empathize with each other and find the insights to move from sharing the predicament to enjoying the next step.  I can’t help but think of a rabbi, two thousand years ago, who extended his hand to a colleague and said ‘I’ve been where you are, I can show you the way out.’