Posts Tagged 'Malcolm Gladwell'

Torah 20/20: Looking with Fresh Eyes

As the story goes, was a  baal teshuvah, newly religiously observant person, who started crying in synagogue during the Torah reading.  When the rabbi asked him about this display of emotion, he replied that he just does not understand why Joseph’s brothers could sell him into slavery. This profound empathy moved the rabbi to tears. The next year when they got to Parshat Vayeshev the rabbi was ready and went over to console the crying parishioner during the Torah reading. The following year the rabbi preempted the situation and brought the congregant a tissue. The rabbi was surprised to see that he was not crying or sad, but instead visibly angry. When the rabbi asked the person why he was angry he replied, “I am really annoyed. I used to be sad that his brothers had it out for him, but this time why didn’t Joseph learn his lesson?” 

Every year, the Jewish community reads the entire Torah, our most holy text, on a weekly cycle. With the advent of Simchat Torah we will end this year’s reading of the Torah and start reading it again from the beginning.  It is quoted in the name of Louis Pasteur, “No one is more the stranger than himself <sic> at another time”. Each year we look at the wisdom in this text like a stranger with fresh eyes, and each year we turn to it for sustenance as we navigate our ever-changing, yet also frequently cyclical, world. The nature of the Torah is that we can revisit it throughout our lives. When we learn Torah we demand relevance from revelation and its meaning evolves. 

As we start again from the beginning, we can look at how Adam and Eve saw things. There we read:

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat; and she gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves together, and made themselves girdles. (Genesis 3:6-7)

Something is peculiar in the language here. If the eating itself caused their eyes to be opened, the Torah would have said that she ate and her eyes were opened and then he ate and his eyes were opened. Instead it says “the eyes of them both were opened” only after they both ate. What do we make of this?

In his genre creating masterpiece, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes the way we can influence each other. There he wrote:

…if I smile and you see me and smile in response–even a microsmile that takes no more than several milliseconds–it’s not just you imitating or empathizing with me. It may also be a way that I can pass on my happiness to you. Emotion is contagious.  (The Tipping Point 84-85)

I posit that this is exactly what happened in Eden. Eve ate of the fruit, enjoyed it, and shared it with Adam. When Adam ate, instead of reciprocating with a microsmile, he winced. In so doing he rejected her bid to share something pleasurable. With that wince his eyes made it clear that they did not experience Good and Bad the same way anymore. In that moment, both of their eyes were opened.

Since then the complexity of coming together has grown exponentially. The nature of politics in a democratic society is preserving the tension between our wanting to be the same and struggling with our differences and desire for individuality.  Each of us may have radically different notions of what is tasty or pleasurable, let alone what is Good and Bad for society. From the beginning, this country has been an imperfect but valiant effort “to form a more perfect Union.” 

As we return to Genesis and the Garden of Eden we are all invited to revisit this tension. This cycle of reading the Torah will accompany us through a high-stakes year in America life in 2020. In Torah 20/20, T’ruah is asking rabbis, writers, political leaders, and artists to explore democracy and questions of how to build a just society through the lens of the weekly Torah reading. How might we want to cry or get angry when reading about Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers? How does exploring this wisdom impact how we might want to fight human trafficking, systemic racism, or economic disparity? As we look ahead at 2020 we see the value of seeing the world anew with fresh eyes.

 

10,000 Hours or 40 Years

At the end of  Ki Tavo, this week’s Torah portion, we read:

And Moshe called all of Israel and said to them, “You have seen all that the Lord did before your very eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh, to all his servants, and to all his land; the great trials which your very eyes beheld and those great signs and wonders. Yet until this day, the Lord has not given you a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear. I led you through the desert for forty years [during which time] your garments did not wear out from upon you, nor did your shoes wear out from upon your feet. ( Deuteronomy 29: 1-4)

With all of the signs, wonders, and miracles that this generation saw how come it took them forty years to truly understand what God had done for them?

In reference to this passage the Gemara teaches:

 Yet Moses indicated this to the Israelites only after forty years had passed, as it is said, And I have led you forty years in the
wilderness . . . but the Lord has not given you a heart to know, and eyes to see and ears to hear, unto this day.Said Raba: From this you can learn that it may take one forty years to know the mind of one’s master. (Avodah Zarah 5b)

Does it take forty years to really grok the wisdom of your master?

This reminded me of 10,000 Hours by Mackelmore & Ryan Lewis  in which he references Malcolm Gladwell‘s concept from his book Outliers that suggests that true mastery take 10,000 hours of work.

In their song they sing:

This is my world, this is my arena
The TV told me something different I didn’t believe it
I stand here in front of you today all because of an idea
I could be who I wanted if I could see my potential
And I know that one day I’mma be him

 Maybe the real idea being expressed in the Gemara in Avodah Zarah is not that it take forty years for you to understand your master, but it takes forty years for you to really get mastery over yourself. It takes a serious amount of effort, determination, and work for people to become the people that they aspire to be. Similarly our our Torah portion is saying that everyone is enslaved by their past and they need a serious amount of time, be it forty years or 10,000 hours to free yourself to be yourself. This is powerful message for Elul as we all consider doing Teshuva and investing in ourselves becomes our best selves.

 

Knowing Heart: Ki Tavo and Intuition

Recently I was talking with a friend about Ki Tavo, this week’s Torah portion. She was helping her daughter write a Dvar Torah for her Bat Mitzvah. Her daughter was focusing on the idea at the end of the portion. There we read:

And Moshe called to all Israel, and said to them: You have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh, and unto all his servants, and unto all his land;  the great trials which your eyes saw, the signs and those great wonders; but the Lord has not given you a heart to know, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, unto this day.( Deuteronomy 29:1-3)

It is interesting in that the Torah is challenging the idea of intuition. What does it mean for the heart to know? On this Rashi says that it means “to recognize the kind acts of the Holy One, Blessed is God, and therefore to cleave to God”. What does it mean to cleave to God? In an age of fundamentalism I am very afraid of people doing acts of terrorism because of what they think they know in their hearts. I had not thought about it until looking more closely at this line, but what is the juxtaposition in this portion of the Torah. What does that mean for the heart to know as compared to the what the eyes see or what the ears hears?

This reminds me of the final chapter of Malcolm Gladwell‘s Blink. There he writes about how orchestras hold “blind” auditions where musicians literally play behind a screen. So-called expert judges are able to hear with “just their ears” rather than look first and, in that blink of an eye, make instant (often unfair) assumptions based on what they see. A tiny woman, for example, could never be a great French Horn player because she couldn’t possibly have the strength or lung capacity. Gladwell writes,“Until they listened to her with just their ears … they had no idea she was so good.”

It seems that good intuition is based on determining what is the right thing to focus in on and what is the right thing to ignore. The scary thing is how much people ignore of the world so that they can maintain their claim on what they know in their hearts. Coming of age at a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is really the beginning of a process of defining your own lens for how you will start to see and hear the world and determine how you will know things in your adult life.

-link to another piece on blink Blind Taste Test

 

 

Blind Taste Test

In Toldot, this week’s Torah portion, we read about Yakov’s deception and act of stealing the blessing from his brother Esav. This story starts off with a blind Yitzhak growing aware of his age. He calls Esav. There we read:

Now therefore take, I pray of you, your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and take me venison; and make me savory food, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless you before I die.’ ( Genesis 27: 3-4)

Rivka overhears this plan and tells Yakov to intervene and to follow her plan. There we read:

Go now to the flock, and fetch me from two good kids of the goats from there; and I will make them savory food for your father, such as he loves; and you shall bring it to your father, that he may eat, so that he may bless you before his death.’ ( Genesis 27: 9-10)

At the core of this deception is the issue of perception. Yitzhak is blind so he cannot see the food or who is bringing it.

This reminds me of the final chapter of Malcolm Gladwell‘s Blink. There he writes about how orchestras hold “blind” auditions where musicians literally play behind a screen. So-called expert judges are able to hear with “just their ears” rather than look first and, in that blink of an eye, make instant (often unfair) assumptions based on what they see. A tiny woman, for example, could never be a great French Horn player because she couldn’t possibly have the strength or lung capacity. Gladwell writes,“Until they listened to her with just their ears … they had no idea she was so good.”

This seems to be the case with Yitzhak as well. He says that he wants venison because it tastes savory, but in the end he gives the blessing to the child that brings him the goat meat instead. Until he tastes with his mouth and not with his eyes he did not realize what he truly really wanted. His blindness was like a screen, helping him blink and reveal the right savory taste. But why did he think he wanted Esav’s dish?

In last week’s Torah portion we read about Esav and Yakov as children . There we read:

And the boys grew; and Esav was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Yakov was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Now Yitzhak loved Esav, because he did eat of his venison; and Rivka loved Jacob. ( Genesis 25:27-28)

Yitzhak saw in Esav a virile masculine outdoorsy child. Yitzhak is drawn after the memories of Esav’s venison which blinds him to the gifts that Yakov has to offer. Ironically it is his actual blindness that helps him see. We are all blinded by our assumptions.

I was thinking about this when reading  of the Gur’s ban on soy products. According to a report in BaOlam Shel Haredim based on a HaMevasser report, Gur has now banned soy products like veggie hot dogs from its yeshivas due their Rabbis’ fears that the hormones in soy foods will cause the bodies of young teen students to become feminine in appearance and thereby cause their rabbis and older students to become sexually aroused seeing them. They are worried that soy will damage the spirituality of its yeshiva students by accelerating their sexual maturity. Doctors and scientists find no scientific evidence to support Gur’s decision to ban what is the cheapest – and, probably, the healthiest – protein available. They, like Yitzhak, seem to be blinded by their perception that venison is more masculine.

We all make assumptions that cloud our vision. It is sad to realize how we are overlooking the gifts of so many people by holding fast to these assumptions. You would think that we, the descendents of Yakov, would advocate to put up the screen so we could have a better sounding orchestra and more savory meal.


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