Do You Have A Shalom Bias?

Your marital bliss might depend a lot on what society you are part of

A married couple harmoniously navigates decisions, raises a family, and resolves its occasional arguments. Is this amicable relationship a happy marriage? Whether or not their connection is a content one might depend on their personal, mutual, and sociocultural views of marriage. For some, matrimony might be synonymous with teamwork and synergy toward common needs, tasks, and goals. For others, it also demands something else – a deep, emotional friendship and connection. How strongly the individuals value the former, the latter, or a combination of them will usually determine how satisfied they are with their relationship.

Marital relationships have undergone tremendous transformations over the centuries. These can result partly from changes in broader societal, communal, and religious norms. In many contemporary environments, there is an expectation that married spouses relate to each other as intimately close friends. As integral as this aspiration is in current Western society, marriage was not always viewed with that perspective. For example, in Victorian England, where women could not vote and were largely unexposed to education, it would have been untenable for most couples to assume that they could become closest friends. One does not even need to stretch so far back in time. Astonishingly, the first study to investigate and discover empirically that many British women felt emotionally lacking in their marriages came out in 1993. Many British women expressed that their husbands seemed to have an inability to do the emotional work that was deemed necessary to have a happier marriage. The findings themselves might not be so surprising. But it is astounding that research was just beginning to explore the emotional needs that British couples have from each other in marriage only twenty five years ago.

In many contemporary societies, women and men have similar sociocultural and educational opportunities. In this unique setting there is both a possibility – and often a demand – for a couple to have an emotionally mutual relationship. Consequently, a large part of what can make a present-day marriage satisfying and successful is that both members interact with each other as intimate friends. Mutual connection, sharing, and discussion of each other’s vulnerabilities can create a powerful connection that helps two partners feel emotionally satisfied and close.

A deep, satisfying marital relationship is possible now more than perhaps ever in history. Correspondingly, if this profound friendship is perceived as lacking or insufficiently developed, it can severely hurt a couple’s marital satisfaction. A sense of harmony and “getting along” can feel grossly inadequate for many modern day couples. Since they see themselves as having the potential to create an emotionally deep relationship, they also view their marriage as under stress when that connection is lacking.

Despite the general cultural shift toward marriage as an intimate friendship, dating or married individuals still might have very different expectations for their marriage. Cultures, subcultures, personality, and other factors can shape an individual’s emphasis on the emotional aspect of the marital connection. Couples experience marital strife when there is a large gap between what they thought their marriage would be like and what it ends up being. If both members of a couple feel content with a relationship that fulfills their individual and familial goals but does not need to penetrate emotional depths, they might consider a marriage without intimate friendship very fulfilling. It can satisfy their personal and collective needs. Similarly, if both members of a couple desire a deep, emotional feeling relationship, and they provide that for each other, their marriage might be thriving. Discontent and disconnect often takes place when one’s expectations and one’s reality differ.

The implications for dating or married couples can be widespread. If an individual or couple feels lacking in marriage, it might be important for them to be in touch with their expectations for marriage. Conversations about marriage can be most productive when each spouse is open to explore – individually and as a couple – how they see their ideals and goals for marriage. In order to create an ideal relationship it can be important to conceptualize – and often discuss – what that would look like. Differences and similarities might be discussed by individuals themselves or in therapy.

The first step on the journey to a stronger marriage might be becoming more in touch with one’s own conceptions of marriage and relationships. When one becomes more aware of how he would like his marriage to be, he can focus his effort toward creating that reality. It might take effort, energy, and work on the part of both him and his spouse to proceed along that path. But the more one knows where he is going, the more likely he is to get there.

Drive Slowly In The Passing Lane

This too shall change…if you help.

King Solomon elicited a challenge from his subordinates. He dared them to create jewelry that could both relieve sorrow and temper mirth. Most that heard the challenge saw it as insurmountable. Yet, one loyal servant thoughtfully produced a ring with simple phrase, “gam zeh yaavor – this too shall pass.” These words are both simple and brilliant; they pithily summarize the temporary nature of most experiences. King Solomon was overjoyed and handsomely rewarded his insightful subject.

When one is experiencing the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, or any feeling in between, it can be helpful to recall that many strong emotions are short lived. Even a situation that is prolonged will probably will not last for one’s entire life. “Gam zeh yaavor” provides a reminder that difficulties often blow over and opportunities don’t always remain.

Although King Solomon, or any other Jewish leader, is not actually recorded as having coined that phrase, its phenomenal ability to express a deep philosophical idea made it attractive to leaders such as Abraham Lincoln (here, in closing) and led to widespread use. Most would probably expect it to be found somewhere in Scripture or in Rabbinic literature, although it does not appear in any classical Jewish source. (For more on its origins and use in Jewish and non-Jewish sources, see this brief article by Dr. Shnayer Z. Leiman.)

Yet, sometimes “gam zeh yaavor” can provide an inappropriate allure. It can shield us from acknowledging and appreciating the facts and the feelings of the present. We can misconstrue “gam zeh yaavor” to endorse an attitude of ignorance and irresponsibility in the face of struggle. If we find ourselves in difficult circumstances, it can be significant to appreciate the gravity of the situation, explore means of ameliorating it, and move in that direction. It can be powerful and helpful to fuel ourselves with the knowledge that adversity usually blows over. At the same time, it is pragmatically and emotionally important to take the bull by the horns, analyze our responsibilities, and act to change our current reality.

This duality was personified by the behavior of Admiral James Stockdale, the highest ranking American to be held hostage in Vietnam. He was subjected to extraordinarily difficult prison experiences, and finally regained his freedom after eight trying years. Stockdale explained that he took a two-pronged approach to his life in captivity. On the one hand, he realized that he needed to remain brutally aware of his current reality. His life was next to meaningless to his captors and he needed to exert extraordinary effort just to remain alive. He had to have his wits about him and appear reasonably obedient to the guards. He had to exercise constant vigilance and devise his own methods of physical survival. At the same time, he hoped and imagined that one day the war would finish. He fostered confidence and optimism that he would survive and be united with his family. This dichotomy became coined “The Stockdale Paradox.”

Stockdale’s tempered optimism allowed his to survive his brutal imprisonment and return home. He eventually became a lecturer at the Hoover Institute at Stanford and was also nominated as a vice-presidential candidate. He was able to hold the beauty and sweetness of hope, yet did not allow it to shake his full awareness of the brutality of his reality.  That balance is essential to thriving in life. Optimism can sometimes obfuscate reality, and realism can sometimes eclipse hope.

This dialectic approach also distills the basis of most psychotherapy. One usually needs to appreciate some aspects of his current reality to make therapy meaningful. It is important for him to acknowledge an impediment so that he can reach out and so he can internalize the discussions he has with is therapist. At the same time, he can usually most effectively engage in the psychotherapeutic process armored with hope that his situation can change.

There is great wisdom in realizing that “gam zeh yaavor.” There is also great importance in being aware and mindful of a current situation and its demands. Combining future perspective while embracing current reality can sometimes seem to take the sagacity of no less than King Solomon.

What’s Black and White and Read All Over?

Is anything really “simply stated?”

“Don’t shoot the messenger!”

“It’s not my fault. I just work here!”

Life experiences might have demonstrated to you that when someone says those excuses, he is usually slithering out of his own responsibility. Curiously, for the ill-fated spies that went to explore the Land of Israel, that claim seems to have had veracity. The Jews in the wilderness, led by Moses, had dispatched them. The spies were deployed to research and report the physical nature of the Land of Israel and how easy or difficult it might be to conquer its inhabitants. When the scouts came back, they reported truthfully. They described the land as bountiful and its residents as strong, formidable opponents who were battle-ready. When the Jews assimilated the account of the fortitude of the Canaanites, they felt dejected and hopeless. They mourned their lot and dreaded fighting battles for Israel that they might lose.

G-d punished the Jews for being fickle and having lack of faith. Surprisingly, the spies got penalized too. Something appears unfair. The Jews’ outlandish behavior demonstrated that they were skeptical of Divine assistance. Why were the spies punished? They reported back what they saw. Don’t shoot the messengers!

This question has been addressed and readdressed by commentators through the ages. The Ramban advances an extraordinary approach. At first, the spies faithfully reported facts back to the Israelites. They described the agricultural abundance of Israel and its succulent fruit. They also related truthfully that the current inhabitants were strongly armed and well prepared for battle. Their description was not only truthful, it was responsible. It was their job to report about the land and its people, and they did as they were charged.  The spies would have been negligent if they omitted the description of the Canaanite nations as robust and substantial. They conveyed the information as they saw it. Yet, the foible of the spies was the word that they added to their communication: “efes,” which means “zero,” zero chance and zero possibility. They added that they saw no odds for the successful conquest of Israel. “No way!” they exclaimed. “The nations that are there are too strong.” The spies conveyed to the Jews that they had absolutely no opportunity to ascend to Israel.“ It is impossible to enter the Land!” they proclaimed. “Disregard any previous positive information. There is absolutely no possibility that we will succeed.”

According to the Ramban, the spies were culpable for simplifying their situation. They took a complex reality and saw it as binary. If the question was, “Can we succeed or not?” the answer the spies gave was a resounding “No, not a chance!” The fundamental error of the spies was that they did not allow themselves to see ambiguity and complexity. For them, the situation was black and white. The case was open and shut.

A more truthful response would have taken into account the components of the situation. They might have considered the different aspects of their combat. They might have posited, “The current inhabitants are strong. We also have an army. We have a large population. We might need to devise strategic methods to fight. We have Divine protection. G-d has provided miracles for us during our Exodus.” They did not allow themselves to see the equation as complex. Instead, they looked it at with a simplistic vantage, “The enemy is robust, so we can’t succeed.”

It is common to think that a major aspect of the sin of the Jews and the spies was that they did not trust in G-d and his ability to follow through on his commitment to bring the Jews to the promised land. It was more basic than that. There was nothing to begin to trust G-d for. In their minds, entering Israel was an impossibility that warranted no further discussion. To the contrary, in their immature simplicity, they might have seen entering Israel as prohibited. If there was no possibility for success, waging a losing battle would be suicide. Jewish law demanded that they did not enter!

Life is complex. We might have a desire to simplify our situations, our interactions with others, and our thoughts. Yet, most often there are shades of grey and webs of complexity instead of the black and white we pine for. Many errors in religion and relationships have their roots in unjust simplification of a complex situation. It is easy to see one’s specific religious practice as correct, with all others lacking. In certain situations that might be true; in many others it is a cry of simplistic judgement where more complexity is warranted. In relationships, it is so tantalizing to aim to isolate wrong from right and correct from incorrect. On might gain from observing that almost never – since Creation – is there a relationship disagreement where one party is absolutely wrong and the other is absolutely right. Human relations and human relationships are sophisticated and multifaceted. It is easy to simplify, but that is often not truthful.

Developmental psychologists note that adolescents often think in black and white terms. As they begin to be exposed to life and its experiences and their minds develop, they tend to passionately see circumstances and positions as simply wrong and right. As one matures, he ideally departs from this more simplistic tendency, and begins to appreciate life’s complexities. It has been stated that most extremists are either young or unintelligent. It can be easier to be an extremist, but it might not truly reflect life’s intricacies.

Similarly, Korach rebelled and desired to serve in the Tabernacle like Moses and Aaron. He shamelessly demanded that he be given a chance to serve. Korach was guilty of the same error as the spies. He oversimplified. Korach didn’t allow himself to appreciate the complexity of laws, of societal differentiation, of different strokes for different folks. He passionately desired to work in the Tabernacle and rebelled. He died because of his undying dedication to simplicity.

If some of life’s greatest sins and mistake come from using binary, simplistic thought, then the converse is also true. One of the greatest strides one can make psychologically, religiously, and in relationships, is to appreciate the complexity of most situations and experiences. It can be enriching, gratifying, to embrace life’s complexities. It’s not simple, but neither is life.

Do You Hear What I Am Saying?

How the simply audible becomes deeply understandable.

Amidst the melodious clamor of the beis medrash, two chavrusos animatedly discuss a fine Talmudic point. One man asserts his analysis. The other counters; he comprehends the idea in a divergent way. They argue repeatedly and volley their opinions as they become more entrenched in their perspectives. An intellectual tug of war comes alive between them. One becomes more and more convinced that he is correct. The other has no doubt that his understanding makes the most sense. Then, in their spirited discussion, one begins to see a grain of truth in his colleague’s approach. He stops the conversation, closes his eyes and re-contemplates the logic. His brow furrows as he weighs the pros and cons of his partners assertions. He begins to see how it can make sense. Perhaps his friend’s point is on par with his own thinking. Maybe it is even more valid. In a valiant effort to now partially capitulate, the chavrusa offers one of the highest verbal accolades to his intellectual adversary: “I hear what you are saying.” With that brief phrase he virtually embraces his studymate and acknowledges that he is beginning to see merit in his assertion.

The socioculturally unique usage of that phrase has its etymology in Yiddish. There are two words that describe the word “hear.” The first sounds like its English counterpart, “hehr,”  and simply means to “hear.” A more intense version of the word is “derhehr,” which means to hear intensely. In common use, the word “hehr” might be used to connote audibility, that one can physically hear. In contrast, the word “derhehr” indicates intensive listening, or understanding. The verb “derhehr” became so synonymous with understanding and comprehension that it is used as a noun also. One may say, “I have an interesting derhehr,” meaning an understanding or thought. To make matters a bit confusing, the word “derhehr” sometimes becomes shortened back to “hehr,” too. The result is that the word “hehr” – hear – can mean to physically hear or to deeply understand. Do you hear what I am saying?

These two Yiddish words also highlight a powerful truth about conversations and relationships. When one talks to another, the speaker desires one thing over all else – a listening ear. The talker has an intense thirst that his conversational partner can quench. He does not want to simply be heard – hehr. He wants to be derhehred – understood. He passionately wants the other to comprehend his words and his thoughts.

Speakers do not necessarily desire that their listener concur with them. They fervently desire that the other person digest what they are saying, even if he disagrees with it wholeheartedly. Speakers want to be derhehered.

If you are in the role of the listener in a conversation, what might stop you from derhehring the other? True listening entails focusing on the speaker instead of yourself. When someone else is talking, that point of the conversation focuses on him, not on you. Even if you are the subject being discussed, the speaker is usually expressing his thoughts, his feelings, or his emotions – not yours. When you listen, your “I” takes a back burner to the “I” of the talker.

When Moshe Rabbeinu recounts the giving of the Torah, he states (Devarim 5, 5), “I stood between G-d and you.” A Jewish witticism highlights that Moshe is hinting that too much focus on the “I” can separate between one’s self and his connection with Divinity. Interpersonal relationships function similarly. If one feels an overwhelming need to protect his “I,” it can create a large divide in a relationship and prevent him from listening and understanding what a speaker is saying.

Yet, it can be very difficult to put your desire to express yourself on hold and listen to a speaker’s perspective. This is because you probably have your own thoughts and view about what he is saying.Whether you agree, concur with part of what he is saying, or completely disagree, you might feel emotions well up inside of you, eager to be voiced. When you are triggered it can be difficult to contain yourself. The speaker’s need to be listened to seems to pale in comparison to the need you feel to air your reaction.

You might find it difficult to listen for another reason, too. You might feel psychically petrified that the speaker will conflate your listening with agreeing. If you listen to what he is saying with an open heart and a free mind, you can give him the impression that you concur. That might weaken your approach in his eyes. Even worse, if you truly listen, you might be intellectually seduced by his words to accept some of his points. If you do not protect yourself, you might become a traitor to your own convictions!

Listening is the foundation of profound relationships. It means changing a simple “hehr” into a deep “derhehr.” That often takes practice and conscious effort because it entails temporarily stifling your “I” to give the speaker the opportunity to share his thoughts and words. Sometimes being aware of its importance and why it can be so hard can help you embrace this formidable challenge.

Do you hear what I am saying?

The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat 

Can you embrace both?

Jubilation abounded as Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law, came from his native Midian to join the Jewish encampment in the wilderness. Moshe related to him the details of the miraculous Israelite exodus and the splitting of the Red Sea and Yisro reacted with intense emotion. The Torah uses a unique word to encapsulate Yisro’s feelings – “Yichad”. (It is so distinctive that it is a hapax legomenon – a word that appears only once in Scripture.) Rashi interprets that expression in two ways. Superficially, it is a shortened form of the more common word “chedva,” which means joy. Yisro was overjoyed at the Israelite salvation. (Other commentators suggest that the etymology is from the Aramaic/ Targum – “chadi,” which is has the same meaning. Interestingly, in contemporary Persian, the word “chadi” means happiness and is sometimes taken as a family surname). Rashi then quotes an additional, Midrashic interpretation. The word originates from “chad” – which means sharp.  Yisro developed sharp stress marks on his skin as he heard Moshe’s narration of the decimation of Egypt. Since Yisro originally came from the country of Midian, near Egypt, he felt solidarity with the stricken Egyptians and their downfall pained him.

Rashi frequently quotes more than one interpretation of a word or an idea in his commentary. It can sometimes seem like each explanation is bifurcated from the other. Here, the two approaches espoused by Rashi, one of elation and the other of distress, seem in opposition. Upon further examination, Rashi might be suggesting an integration of both approaches. (This is possibly the truest meaning of how to understand multiple hermeneutical methods, such as peshat – simple meaning, and drash – homiletical meaning. They are meant to be combined and interwoven. A similar observation is made by Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky, Emes L’Yaakov, beginning of Vayigash.) How can that be in the description of Yisro’s emotions?  Did Yisro react with both jubilation and grief?

The Torah is accenting the beauty and complexity of the human experience. On the one hand, Yisro experienced joy at the miraculous salvation of the Jewish people, including his daughter and son-in-law. At the same time, Yisro felt dread and terror at the punishment of the Egyptians. Yisro embraced both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, simultaneously.

We can frequently find Yisro-type experiences in our own lives. Our minds can harbor several feelings about someone or something; these feelings can even be contradictory. We often, perhaps always, experience mixed feelings for a person, situation, or object. We might appreciate some parts and dread other characteristics or facets. For instance, it is common for people to enjoy the financial remuneration they receive from their employment, but not the job itself.  Alternatively, they might appreciate both of those, but bemoan the need to leave their homes or their families.

This can even be true in one’s most close familial experiences and relationships. For example, it might be significant for a child to be in touch with the pleasurable experience of security and nourishment that parents give, as well as the restriction and demands they might place on him. It is natural to appreciate the former and resent the latter. The same can be true regarding other relationships. It might be beneficial to think about the strains of emotions people evoke within us and feel comforted that there are usually webs of them, and they can often seem to be in opposition.

Yet, it can be hard to allow ourselves the reality of all parts of an experience. It might be easier to focus on one aspect of a person or experience than on multiple pieces. It seems more streamlined and simple. The urge to simplify our thoughts and emotions might cause us to think more about one aspect of an experience than another. Sometimes it takes some effort to become in touch with the multiple feelings and emotions we have about someone or something. It is not always comfortable or pleasant, but it might be more truthful.

This might be especially challenging in a world where people portray themselves technologically and usually emphasize one dimension of themselves, and see others that way. When culture encourages choosing who to date or connect with by means of a simple swipe of the finger, it is hard to buck the trend and notice that we usually have multiple feelings about people, not simply likes or dislikes and yeses or nos.

When the Jews encamped around Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, they are described as doing so with singular mind, like one individual. Chazal describe that as “kish echad b’lev echad” – as one person with one heart. It seems redundant – if they were like one person, weren’t they of unified heart? The Torah might be emphasizing that even one individual may have different thoughts and feelings in his heart. The unique nature of the Jewish encampment around Sinai was that they were so singular of purpose there was no fragmentation whatsoever. But that is the exception that proves the rule. We can often experience many thoughts and feelings, “b’ish echad” – within our own selves. It can be difficult and untidy, and complicated – and honest.

Are You Dating While Still in the Freezer?

Relationship seekers may face difficulties, with lessons for everyone.

Some Yeshivos mandate a moratorium on dating for new students. Students that enroll are not permitted to date for the first several months of the zman (semester). Since a student’s dating ability is suspended until that restriction expires, this is colloquially termed “the freezer.” For students that began studying in the winter zman (semester), “the freezer” opens in the middle of Shevat. Soon, newly dating men and women are going to join their already dating compatriots in facing formidable challenges. These difficulties are encountered by many dating individuals but are compounded by perceived Orthodox sociocultural norms and expectations. The struggles include developing emotional intimacy during the dating process and sharing some of one’s vulnerabilities.

Generally, many dating individuals find it difficult to create an emotional connection with each other during the dating process. In most subcultures within Orthodoxy, this connection is more elusive. Many frum (Orthodox) daters maintain that they are not to socialize with members of the opposite sex unless it is “for tachlis” – for the express purpose of trying to get married. Since the beginning of a dating experience between two people is not yet solidified as a relationship, many daters perceive that a cap still exists on their conversation interaction. This often curbs a person’s ability to share meaningful feelings about himself or his life experiences.The hesitation to have conversations about one’s thoughts and feelings fosters the very feeling that there is no emotional intimacy present between the two daters. One or both of the daters will usually express that he or she is “just not feeling it.” There is ample reason for that. Since few conversations revolve around expressing and exploring each other’s thoughts and feelings, it suggests to the daters that the relationship might not be headed toward marriage. Consequently, they do not give themselves sufficient license to open a discussion about their feelings or thoughts. This stifles the creation or development of emotional intimacy and might make one or both of the daters reluctant to continue dating that person. One might no longer be encumbered by the Yeshiva “freezer,” but proceeds to date with an emotionally cold dating method.

A common way that many try to jumpstart their relationship consists of board games or cards that list questions that one can use to cultivate the desired intimacy. In my post, Emotional Intimacy: It’s Not In the Cards,  I discussed that that approach is often not effective. I then elaborate on ways one can free herself from the emotional freezer.

In addition, many dating individuals are reluctant to discuss anything that might highlight their vulnerabilities, foibles, or mistakes. Part of this hesitancy is not unique to dating. Most of us find it hard for to come to terms with our own shortcomings. We sometimes see them as unique deficiencies that highlight that we are personally inadequate. It might be even harder for us to discuss them with another person. Including them in a dialogue gives life and words to those failings, which makes them more real. But daters face an additional inhibition. Society can create a false notion that the more one is removed from faults the more others will desire him. If he discusses some of those on a date, he sees it as possibly ruining his prospects of that individual acquiescing to continue dating him.

It might be worthwhile for daters – and for all of us – to think more about acknowledging our vulnerabilities and imperfections. Having those is a badge of honor – they are the unique hallmarks of being human. All humans make mistakes, have personality deficiencies, and have faults. Ironically, giving voice to those features about ourselves can be endearing. Most daters – and most people – find that the more human and real a person is, the more they want to know him.

As the dating environment welcomes its newest recruits, it might be significant for all daters to consider how their withholding of discussions of their emotions and thoughts might be inhibiting their ability to date successfully. In addition, it might be helpful for those beginning dating, those that are dating for a while, and everyone, to consider the value and truths of our own shortcomings. They are real, endearing, and very human, allowing us to thaw out in life, and live out of the freezer.

I Caught the Cold

Sometimes it’s easier to avoid the warmth.

On an exceptionally rainy and cold winter morning, Rav Yehoshua Trunk of Kutna, a great 19th century Russo-Polish rabbinic scholar, was intensely studying with his students. Suddenly, he closed his Gemara and invited them to accompany him on a stroll. The students looked at one another quizzically. Gradually, they followed him to the outskirts of the city and walked toward the intercity road. As they neared the way, they saw a peddler laboring intensely in the mud just created by the heavy, icy rain. His cart was full of merchandise and his lone horse was powerless to free the cart and pull it to the road. The peddler was concerned that his meager investment would perish as it was exposed to the elements. He also worried that his only horse would collapse from the exertion. He forlornly looked heavenward and cried for help. Rav Yehoshua motioned to his students and they joined together to wrench the cart free of the muck and to the road.

The very grateful peddler, unaware of the identity of his helpers, assumed that he had the Providence and good fortune to encounter a skilled group of haulers. He asked them about remuneration. Rav Yehoshua responded that each of the men were to be paid a kopeck (the former Polish/ Russian version of a penny). The man then turned to Rav Yehoshua, who he presumed was the foreman, and asked him how much he wanted. Rav Yehoshua responded that he should be paid three kopecks. The man promptly compensated, and expressed his unceasing thanks as he made his way on the road to peddle.

The next day, Rav Yehoshua and his students heard vigorous pounding on the door in the middle of their studies. They opened the door and saw the peddler that they had helped yesterday, distraught. He apologized profusely for taking advantage of them. He bemoaned that he had the audacity to make use of the time and effort of a leading Torah luminary and his students for his own service.

Rav Yehoshua swiftly comforted the man. He gently explained to the peddler that he did not gratuitously make use of Torah scholars. They had an ad hoc business arrangement and he had paid for their services properly and fairly.

As I read this story recently in a Hebrew book, I began wondering about the legal permissibility for Rav Yehoshua and his students to leave their Torah study to help that unfortunate peddler. Torah study is a serious matter and is not permitted to be interrupted. Maimonides codifies the absolute significance of Torah study (Laws of Torah Study, Chapter 3, 3 -4):

There is no commandment among all the commandments that has a weight equal to Torah study. Rather, Torah study is equal to all the commandments, because study brings to deeds. Therefore, study takes precedence over deeds in every regard.

If one has the opportunity to do some [other] mitzvah or to learn Torah, and the mitzvah could be done by someone else, he should not interrupt his learning. Otherwise, he should do the mitzvah, and return to his studies.

How did Rav Yehoshua divert his attention from Torah study and direct his students to follow? I began to reason that Rav Yehoshua and his students were covered by the latter clause in the Rambam. There were probably few groups of people that could have banded together to help the poor vendor. Therefore, assisting him fell under the caveat that if the mitzvah cannot be done by anyone else, one may interrupt Torah study to perform it.

Afterward, I began chiding myself. I could have basked longer in the shine of the story and imbibed its statement about the majesty of assisting others. Instead, my mind raced to contemplate the legalistic justification of Rav Yehosuha and his students. My internal give and take was rational, logical, and contained an appropriate question. Yet, I noticed how quickly my “go to place” was to probe and understand the Halachic validity of the story.

I reminded myself of the Jewish joke that explains the difference between two similar terms used for hapless or pesky individuals, schlemiel, schlimazel, and nudnik. The pithy explanation is that the schlemiel is the one who spills the soup, the schlimazel is the one who the soup spills on…and the nudnik is the one who asks what type of soup it was.

I felt a tinge of being a nudnik. I moved away from a beautiful example of kindness, selflessness, and thoughtfulness to the realm of the legal. This seems to have been in contrast to Rav Yehoshua of Kutna in the story. Rav Yehoshua was not a prophet. He probably did not know that a specific merchant needed his help. His deep perception and attentiveness to the needs of others led him to believe that people would probably be in great need of assistance in the rain. On the other hand, my initial thought was to focus on the rational and legal exploration of the story.

Relegating the human experience to analysis and exploration in an official way is sometimes an easy route. When we examine something legally and analytically, it allows us to observe it as an outsider. It side-swipes the messiness of being human. This can prevent the exchange or experience from touching us. That might even be the reason that we run to do it. Legal analysis is complex, but is it safe. We don’t need to feel, explore, or be in touch with the world of emotions of ourselves, or of others.

I then observed that I was not alone in seeking safety in the non-human part of the story. The Hebrew book that I was studying had an epilogue: When a contemporary Torah scholar heard this story, he was perplexed. The Talmud states (Bava Metzia 32a) that since it is a mitzvah to assist one’s neighbor load or unload a struggling animal, one may not take payment for that actions. The scholar was bothered how Rav Yehoshua and his students allowed themselves to be paid for their good deed. The scholar’s reaction contained a different question than mine, but was still focused on the legalistic nature of the story. That scholar himself might have marveled at the beauty of Rav Yehoshua’s benevolence. Yet, the brief analysis in the book and its juxtaposition to the story left me with an impression of analysis instead of feeling and scrutiny instead of humanity.

In contrast, our Sages observe that the first description the Torah gives of Moshe (Moses) in Egypt was that he observed the suffering of his nation in slavery and was tormented. Moshe was sheltered in the protection of Pharaoh’s court, but went to see and experience the anguish of his nation. Importantly, the Torah describes that it was the first thing that Moshe did when he matured. Moshe’s joining the distress of his people was both a result and a statement of his maturity. Moshe’s extraordinary empathy is closely related to his success as the most renowned and revered teacher in Jewish history.

The contemporary educational system sometimes places great emphasis on analysis and legal understanding. The skills, techniques, and knowledge that one learns are invaluable in further study, and in life. Yet, they are one part of an important scholastic corpus. One’s struggle with the complexity of the human experience, both his own, and those of others, is important to keep in mind. Focus on legalisms and rationality can sometimes leave one, or his neighbors, struggling helplessly in the cold.