May 29, 2024
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Cognitive Atheisonance: Bava Metzia, Daf 39

Yaakov’s sons have made their way to Egypt in search of sustenance for the family. Nabbed by Egyptian guards and accused of engaging in foreign reconnaissance, they suddenly find themselves in the presence of the viceroy. Each of the men casts a hasty gaze towards his other brothers, wondering if they’re thinking what he’s thinking. The Egyptian ruler standing before them bears an uncanny resemblance to their brother Yosef.

“Nah, don’t be ridiculous. It can’t be him,” each one tells himself as he banishes the ludicrous thought from his mind, “It would be a miracle if he were even still alive. I don’t know what we were thinking when we sold our own flesh and blood into slavery, but there’s no way I’d recognize the poor wretch if I saw him today. He’d be a sunken shadow of his former self, what with all he’s probably been through as a slave boy. It’s impossible for this fellow to be my long-lost brother. Look, he doesn’t even speak Hebrew! He’s not the sweet kid I remember either; this guy is so rough. Yeah, now that I look a little closer, there’s no similarity whatsoever. It was all just a figment of my imagination. And to be honest, everywhere I turn in Egypt, I see people who look like Yosef. I was worried this would happen when we made our way down here. I’m not going to breathe a word of how I feel to my brothers. I know what they’ll say. They’ll tell me to pull myself together and then they’ll remind me what they do with dreamers…”

***

Following a discussion of the moral duty to care for a neighbor’s “lost” property if he has been taken captive, today’s daf discusses an individual who appears many years later claiming to be a long-lost relative. If someone shows up and says he is your brother and therefore entitled to a portion of your father’s bequeathed property, should he be believed?

מרי בר איסק אתא ליה אחא מבי חוזאי א”ל פלוג לי אמר ליה לא ידענא לך אתא לקמיה דרב חסדא א”ל שפיר קאמר לך שנאמר ויכר יוסף את אחיו והם לא הכירוהו מלמד שיצא בלא חתימת זקן ובא בחתימת זקן

One day, Mari bar Isak’s brother showed up from Bei Chozai. He said to him, “Divide the inheritance with me.” He replied, “I do not know you.” The case came before Rav Chisda. He said to the stranger, “Mari’s right for the verse states: ‘And Yosef recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him,’ which demonstrates that Yosef left them without the mature sign of a beard, but presently appeared with the mature sign of a beard.”

***

It’s hard to believe that Yosef’s brothers failed to recognize him merely due to his newfound facial hair. After all, people grow beards and remove them all the time. Perhaps you’d mistake a stranger who you’d only met once or twice. But who wouldn’t recognize his brother?

The Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh interprets the episode through the prism of what psychologists today refer to as cognitive dissonance. Of course, they recognized him. But they immediately told themselves that they must be mistaken because the ramifications of such an acknowledgement were far too scary to wrap their minds around. Place yourself in their shoes for a moment: You’ve arrived in Egypt as a last-resort attempt to feed your family who are suffering through the pain of a regional famine. All your reserves are used up and you’re in a strange land at the mercy of a terrifying foreign authority. Your perilous situation couldn’t get any worse.

And then it does. Because you realize you might just be facing the one person on Earth who has every right to have you killed on the spot. And so, your mind plays tricks on you and convinces you that he’s not who you think he is. That’s your mind’s survival mechanism kicking in.

Reading the Torah’s narrative, one almost wonders why the brothers were so frank and honest about their personal lives with the menacing viceroy. As Yaakov later scolds them, “Why did you tell him you had a younger brother in Canaan?” Perhaps they had no choice. Perhaps he placed them in separate rooms to interrogate them. And so, they were forced to stick to telling the whole truth.

Why was Shimon subsequently detained by Yosef? Why did they not refuse to leave without him, as they later did with Binyamin? Is it possible that he was the only one whose story didn’t match up? We certainly find in the earlier story of Dina and Shechem that Shimon was not afraid to tell half-truths to the enemy. While Levi and his family later became the paradigm of righteous heavenly service, Shimon remained the belligerent son of Yaakov. Or maybe he was the only one who was willing to tell the viceroy what was on his mind: that he had an uncanny resemblance to Yosef! Consequently, Yosef may have been forced to separate Shimon from the others, to keep his secret safe.

The mind is a powerful creature. The viceroy was so clearly their brother. But cognitive dissonance did not allow for that option. There was simply too much at stake.

Have you ever had miracles happen in your life? Of course, you have. We all experience small acts of God every step of our lives. It’s so wonderful to feel the hand of our Father in Heaven resting upon our shoulder. But do you know who finds God’s hand really uncomfortable? Atheists. They know that something extraordinary is happening as they stand before the Ruler. But to admit that they recognize Him is just too much to bear. After everything they’ve said and done to Him, it’s way too complicated to acknowledge His presence. And so, cognitive dissonance forces their minds to conclude that they’re imagining things. It’s just really good luck. Amazing coincidence. But certainly nothing to write home about.

Let me share with you the ultimate cognitive dissonance atheists have to deal with. Life itself. Getting out of bed in the morning. You see, atheists like to tell us that there’s too much bad in the world for God to be real. How could a good God be reigning over such an evil universe? If you’re a believer, then you’re able to accept that you don’t understand God’s ways. When bad things happen, it doesn’t shake your faith. Your mind doesn’t get caught up in a state of cognitive dissonance. You simply accept that you don’t see things from God’s perspective.

But if you’re an atheist, our bad world is much more complicated to deal with. Because if it’s true that the world is so bad, then why bother living? If the pain of life is greater than the pleasurable moments of life, who would choose life? If there’s no meaning or purpose to enduring such pain and suffering, then why continue at all?

And yet, atheists do. Because the mind has a funny way of playing tricks on itself. May you forever maintain your faith that everything Hashem does is for the best!


Daniel Friedman is the author of The Transformative Daf book series. He teaches at Touro University’s Lander Colleges and his Center for Torah Values combats Christian anti-Zionism.

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