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Saturday, July 02, 2022
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Moshe’s authority had become unsteady and was teetering on the edge. Having faced a barrage of complaints and grievances, he was forced to delegate some of his authority to a newly-formed Sanhedrin. Excluded from this project, two renegade prophets further subverted Moshe’s authority by prophesying in an unlicensed manner. According to some reports, they predicted Moshe’s early “retirement,” implying that he would not steer the nation to the promised land. Moshe, his authority and his future leadership had become the talk of this small desert town. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, “[small town] politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” Before things turned ugly, Moshe’s position could’ve used some reinforcement.

Instead, Moshe’ siblings began to discuss his marriage. Married to an exotic wife, and designated for constant prophetic “readiness,” Moshe certainly had a “different” marriage. Miriam and Aharon’s initial conversation seemed harmless, and we don’t detect any malice or sinister intent. Quickly though, the conversation veered, becoming more discourteous and more vindictive. Envious of Moshe, his siblings wondered aloud about his distinctive prophetic station. “After all, God spoke with them as well! Why does Moshe behave as if he were different?” Their insensitive chatter about his personal life has morphed into a direct assault on his leadership and his Divinely-ordained prophetic charge.

It was unclear how a harmless conversation about Moshe’s marriage turned into a toxic attack of his behavior. Either way, Hashem’s response made the deeper intentions of his siblings clear. First, the Torah defended Moshe’s unassailable integrity, by designating him as the most humble man alive, who was privileged — partially due to his modesty —to unmatched prophecy. Miriam was then stricken with tzara’at, an affliction generally associated with the sin of slander. Regrettably, at the very moment that Moshe most needed backup, he was backstabbed.

Worse, Miriam’s defamatory behavior seemed to be contagious. The very next section describes the meraglim and their scandalous reports about the promised land. Miriam’s slurs invited the cynicism of the spies and, ultimately, a mass rebellion against Hashem and a 400 year-old promise. This woeful sequence showcased the corrosive effects of slander. Disparaging others will train us to focus upon the negative. Harping upon the negative will breed general cynicism and the loss of hope. Pessimism will emasculate faith and hope, leading to religious rebellion. When the entire Jewish camp became infected by viral slander, Jewish history came crashing down.

Oftentimes, idle and empty gossip will turn vile. Slander doesn’t always begin with malicious intent. Sometimes, it will begin with innocent talk about people and their private lives — but it will always end in invasive or antagonistic conversation. Too much conversation about the affairs of others, may quickly veer into denigration and slurs.

 

Great Minds and Small Minds

Eleanor Roosevelt once remarked: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” Speaking about people and their lives is toxic and leads to slander. Additionally though, unhealthy focusing upon the private lives of others shrivels the human imagination and shrinks us into smaller “spaces.” Ideas stretch our imagination and broaden our horizons. Great minds avoid speaking about the daily lives of others. Small minds can’t get enough of these details.

We are becoming too “un-idea-ed” and we are shrinking. We spend too much time speaking about people and their lives, and not enough time discussing ideas. The pace of information flow in an “information age” forces us to read too quickly, leaving little space for “ideas,” which require time and thought. Speaking about people doesn’t require time nor does it require concentration. We face a furious “information deluge” and we accelerate our “processing” of that information, leaving no room and no space for deeper ideas. In 1934, a British poet named “T. S. Elliot” lamented, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” If we spend too much time on “information,” such as pointless facts and insignificant trivia; we have fewer resources available for real “knowledge.” Likewise, if we pursue endless volumes of knowledge — even important knowledge — we have less time to contemplate that knowledge, internalize it, and distill its deeper wisdom. T.S. Eliot warned us of this phenomenon close to a 100 years ago. I wonder what he would say one hundred years later, in the age of the internet and social media.

When was the last time you thought about one idea for more than fifteen minutes? It typically takes that long to “encompass” an idea, dissect it and associate it with prior knowledge. We are barely afforded fifteen seconds, let alone fifteen minutes.

 

Torah Study

Interestingly, the world of Torah study has undergone a similar — and in many, many ways, a welcome — shift. Daf Yomi has unquestionably revolutionized Torah, by extending the Talmudic experience to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. This remarkable extension of Talmudic study, though, may also be diluting the “quality” of Talmudic studies for those who have greater time and resources available for more in-depth analysis. In-depth analysis of the Talmud, otherwise known as “lomdus,” has receded in the modern world of Daf Yomi. Again, regarding Daf Yomi, potential “thinning” is a price worth paying for the broader extension of the Talmud. However, the Daf Yomi revolution is also creating a mode of Torah study in which we read “quickly” to keep pace with the “schedule.” In our mad race to finish Daf Yomi, Mishnah Yomi, the daily Tanach chapter or even shnayim mikra, we may not be allocating enough time for thinking, for processing and for internalizing. The information that we are consuming isn’t percolating long enough to become internal wisdom or deeply anchored ideas.

 

The Impact

How does this all impact our lives? Firstly, without wisdom, we become shallow versions of ourselves. Mass knowledge can be rapidly consumed, but it rarely “sinks” deeply enough into our personality to shape our identity. We aim to study Torah so that the Wisdom of Hashem shapes our character. If Torah is never internalized into personal wisdom, we can become bifurcated — avid “guzzlers” of Torah, whose inner identity remains unaffected by the Word of God. The same can be said about general knowledge which is easy to process but more difficult to refine into a deeper truth. Knowledge hovers “above” identity, but wisdom will sink into our deep subconscious and craft our personalities. We acquire knowledge, but we “become” wisdom.

Secondly, shallowness has invited broad generalizations of other human beings. We begin to see the world through stereotypical lenses of gender, color, race, religion, clothing, political affiliation or lesser “codes,” which don’t reflect individuality or character. When we apply stereotypes to individuals, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to learn from real people, their lives, their dignity and their depth. Life becomes outlined in back and white and we lose all color.

Sometimes less is more, and more is less. In the age of “more,” we often walk away with “less.”


The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion / Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

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