Posts Tagged 'Rav Soloveitchik'

The Secret Sauce of Duality: Being Jewish for Micah and Today

This week’s Haftarah comes from the book of Micah. Micah’s messages were directed chiefly toward Jerusalem. He prophesied the future destruction of Jerusalem and Shomron and then future restoration of the Judean state. He rebuked the people of Judah for dishonesty and idolatry. The Haftarah starts off by saying:

The remnant of Jacob shall be,
In the midst of the many peoples,
Like dew from the Lord,
Like droplets on grass—
Which do not look to any man
Nor place their hope in mortals.

The remnant of Jacob
Shall be among the nations,
In the midst of the many peoples,
Like a lion among beasts of the wild,
Like a fierce lion among flocks of sheep,
Which tramples wherever it goes
And rends, with none to deliver.

Micah 5:6-7

The recurring language of “remnant of Jacob” in these two sentences is striking. Will this remnant be enough? Will we the Jewish people survive? It seems to be our question throughout history, from Micah’s time until today.

While the language here is parallel, it draws attention to the contrast in images. In the first is an image of “droplets on grass”. In the second one we have an image of a fierce lion. While the dew is giving nutrients to its environment, the lion is fighting for survival/dominance.

This juxtaposition is as relevant now as it was for Micah. He is pointing out the duality of the Jewish condition. Is our survival wrapped up in our capacity to sustain the world around us (like the dew) or our ability to be defensive and protect ourselves (like the lion)? Is the secret to our longevity our commitment to universal causes and our investment in the larger ecosystem or is it dependent on our particularism and our fiercely looking out for our own?

To resolve this question I go to one of my favorite essays by Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik‘s on Ger v’Toshav. His thesis is derived from the duality in the language Avraham uses when buying a burial plot for Sarah. There is says, ” ‘I am a stranger and a resident with you: give me a possession of a burying-place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.'” ( Genesis 23:4) What is he telling them? Is he a stranger or a resident? The Rav points out that the nature of being Jewish is holding this duality as being true. We are always strangers and residents. Like Micah we are always dew and lions. We are resident committed to nurturing the universal cause around us and strangers who are fierce like lions looking after our own. The secret sauce to our surviving and thriving if our dual commitment to continuity and contribution.

Defining the Problem: Be a Part of It

One of favorite quotes by Albert Einstein is:

If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.

We need to define the problem before you trying to solve it. This approach always saves time and energy, regardless of whether the issue is big, small, complicated or complex. And the time and energy saved increases with the number of people involved.

I got thinking about this in the context of reading Tazriah – Metzorah, this week’s Torah portion. There we learn the laws of tumah v’taharah, ritual impurity and purity. In particular we learn about Tzaraat (often mistranslated as “leprosy”). It is a supra-natural plague, which can afflict people as well as garments or homes. If white or pink patches appear on a person’s skin (dark pink or dark green in garments or homes), a kohen is summoned. There we read:

When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. The priest shall examine the affection on the skin of his body: if hair in the affected patch has turned white and the affection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous affection; when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him unclean. ( Leviticus 13:2-3)

What is the significance of the priest pronouncement? Time after time we need the priest to share his judgement of the situation. It seems weird. Either the person has the affliction or not, what is the relevance of the diagnosis?

In Kol Dodi Dofek on this notion of “pronouncing” , Rav Soloveitchik writes:

We know well how to ‎criticize, to look ‎for blemishes and to express opinions as self-styled experts. One thing, however, ‎escapes us, and ‎that is that the priest who pronounces defilement must leave the encampment to ‎be with the ‎afflicted sufferer so as to purify him. “And the priest shall leave the encampment … ‎and the priest ‎shall command” (Leviticus 14:3–4). ( Kol Dodi Dofek)

It is easy to find fault in things and be critical of people. It is profound to think that in our commitment to understand a problem we need experience deep empathy. In having to pronounce the problem the priest commits to being part of the solution.

Bertrand Russell said,

The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.

It is important to realize that the lesson of the priests’ leadership is that they cannot be cold and distant thinkers. This model of leadership assumes that the solution needs empathy and support and not just thinking. We need to identify our own role in the problem and the solution to get to any change. That might take more than 5 minutes.


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