January 11th-12th, 2002
28 Teves, 5762
Occasionally, one comes across an item in the news
that reminds us that human beings do act in accordance with reason sometimes. They can see
an unpleasant truth, and "allow" that truth (with all its implications) to
penetrate their being to the point where it leads them to make painful, but
logical (and necessary) practical changes in the way they behave. They grow, in a tangible way, as a result of an insight or perception…rather than
choosing the perhaps more typical human response of (figuratively) running as fast as they can in the opposite direction. (Remember
Snagglepuss? "Exit…Stage Right!")
A study, it was reported this past week, has found that "graphic warning
labels on cigarette packages in Canada have been effective in discouraging smoking"
(CNN.com; January 9th, 2002). Let me quote from the article, with certain phrases boldfaced by me for poetic (or pedagogic)
"58% of smokers interviewed in the study said full-color pictures of how
cancer affects the mouth, lungs, heart and brain had made them think more
about the health effects of smoking.
The warnings were so effective that 44% of the smokers polled said
the new warnings increased their motivation to quit smoking. And 38% of
smokers who attempted to quit in 2001 said the new warnings were a factor
in motivating them to try to quit.
The full-color, picture-based warnings cover half of the front and back
of each package of cigarettes. They include pictures of a diseased mouth,
a lung tumor, a brain after a stroke, a damaged heart… [Forgive me for not
sending you a photo as an attachment.] Warnings inside each package
offer tips on quitting… The study also found that: …21% of smokers said
they have been tempted on one or more occasions to have a cigarette,
but decided not to because of the warnings.
Let's analyze this--and though some of it may seem fairly self-evident, nonetheless it is crucial for understanding the mechanics of "ethical/moral behavior modification," and of human rationalization. And, lest you wonder where it's all leading, I hope that it will also help us think more deeply about a most striking motif in this week's Torah portion (which we'll address directly below): Pharaoh's intransigence in refusing to release the Jewish people from bondage. [Part of what follows is based on Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler's famous discussion of free will--in which, interestingly enough, he examines the inner workings of the mind of a smoker "struggling" with his craving. See Strive For Truth, II, pp. 49-52] So, please bear with me a moment.
Why have the gruesome and gory pictures on the cigarette packs made more of an impression than the (pallid) prose of Surgeon General's warnings and the like? A picture is worth a thousand words, goes the old saying. For most people--save certain creative geniuses, perhaps, or others who live in the realm of imagination--there is something more vivid (and, therefore, penetrating) about seeing something than merely hearing about it. It is true that there is a novelty factor operating, as well, but a picture in any case tends to confront the mind--and person--more immediately, and on a more emotional level, than the written word. It takes more effort (if not training) to make mere words "create a mental picture."
Another related old saying, and more to the point: "Seeing is believing." I might not really believe some event happened, or that it was as horrific as I'm told it was. But when my eyes see the devastation, it is far more difficult to discount or evade; evidence has impressed itself (and with the immediacy of the visual) on my consciousness. I may say, "I can't believe my eyes," when watching a video of the second plane crash into the World Trade Center, but I believe it a whole lot more than if someone had just told me about it. It certainly takes more of an effort to explain (or rationalize) it away.
"Cigarettes cause cancer." The statement is true, and I may accept it (in an abstract sense), but the fact probably has not made much of a direct impact on my consciousness or my life. When I see a picture of tumor-dotted lungs, it brings to life that abstract "truth" (about cigarettes causing death), and makes it more immediate and personal. The picture helps "bring home" (and very close to home) the great risk I myself am taking by lighting up; it makes it more difficult to choose to ignore, or suppress, that truth I've always "known." Why haven't I acted on that truth in my life before? How can I continue to smoke, when I "know" that it may be shortening my life, and when (even more to the point) I wake up coughing every morning? What's more, how can I resort to different rationalizations ("I'll just have one, that's all" or "I'll quit tomorrow," etc.) to justify my act of giving in to the temptation?
Rabbi Dessler explains in most stark terms: I have chosen to ignore the truth. On some level, even semi-conscious, there was a choice not to listen to the voice of reason, a choice to turn away from trying to act on what it is telling me. There is no honest way of evading one's responsibility. It is true that habits are ingrained and hard to break, but at some level, Rabbi Dessler insists, in each act there is choice…and therefore, responsibility.
"He [the smoker himself] is the one who is capable of deflecting his mind from the truth, even though the truth is perfectly clear to him. He is the one who decides to adopt the fallacious argument in ["one can't hurt," etc.]
order to cover up his deviation from the truth. There are two competing
wills in his mind [the desire to be healthy, and the desire to satisfy his
craving for a cigarette], and he deliberately decides to ignore the claims
of one, and the true argument it advances ["you are destroying your health"],
and to adopt the other together with its fallacious argument.
What induces him to do this? Not the competing wills, but the freely choosing person himself…
The fact is that a human being can grasp hold of the truth, in which case weaker will departs….Or he can deliberately ignore the truth
and accept falsehood in its place, rejecting the will which has truth on its side."
[Dessler, Strive for Truth; my emphasis]
What Rabbi Dessler has affirmed is the never-extinguished point of free
will (bechira) in every person and every act, and he has masterfully elucidated the inner moral "struggles" we choosing individuals face on a daily (if not hourly) basis.
Now, throw away your pack of cigarettes (with lurid photos), and pick up the Chumash--Parshas Vaiera. Through 7 (count 'em) disruptive, disgusting and deadly plagues, afflicting himself and his country--blood, frogs, lice, wild animals, pestilence (on the animals), boils, hail--, Pharaoh persists in refusing Hashem's commandment to let the Jewish people go. Despite the evidence of the destruction of Egyptian lives and property, and the concomitant evidence--described in the Midrash--of Jewish immunity from destruction ("I shall make a distinction between My people and your people," Hashem says), Pharaoh continues on his course of self-destruction.
Okay, you say, maybe Pharaoh didn't really believe that there was an all-powerful G-d named, "Hashem," Who was behind the strange
goings-on. Pharaoh lived in a civilization proficient in magical arts and
necromancy, and maybe Moshe and Aharon were just better wizards. Already with the third plague (lice), however, Pharaoh's magicians--who, to
a limited and superficial extent, had been able to mimic the first two--openly admitted their impotence. Moreover, they truthfully explained
that phenomenon of lice…in words their master could not have been too happy to hear: "The sorcerers said to Pharaoh, 'It is a finger of G-d!" (The
experts have spoken!)
What's more, even before the first plague began, when Moshe and Aharon did their "sign" in front of Pharaoh, he was impressed…and frightened. For his magicians could make their rods appear to turn into snakes as well, but Moshe and Aharon's swallowed up all their snakes after turning back into a rod. As Rabbi Eli Munk writes in The Call of the Torah, "Pharaoh was shocked and startled by this new feat and began to sense the unique power of Moshe and Aharon (Midrash Hagadol). But, as soon as he recovered from his initial shock and regained his composure, his heart hardened again and he refused to listen further."
Certainly by the fourth plague, Pharaoh has seen and perceived enough to draw the proper conclusions. Indeed, after the wild beasts, he actually concedes for the first time to Moshe's demand to let the Jews go (and also uses the name, "Hashem")…only to retract it when the plague is removed. On some level, then, it seems safe to say: he knows the truth. And, yet, his response is refusal to admit the truth, or to allow that truth to decisively direct his actions: "The heart of Pharaoh was strong, and he did not heed them…Pharaoh's heart was strong, and he did not heed them…[he] kept making his heart stubborn," and so on.
The commentaries have pointed out that starting with the sixth plague, the language of the Torah changes. It is no longer Pharaoh making his own heart stubborn, but rather, "Hashem hardened the heart of Pharaoh…" There are different explanations of this--the most famous being that after showing such enormity of evil against the Jews, and refusing so many opportunities to relent (and to repent), Pharaoh's free will was taken away by G-d (or, at least, greatly impeded) as the ultimate punishment (Maimonidies, and others). It is at least theoretically possible, then, according to this line of thought, that in certain extraordinary cases, free will can be taken away from someone…but you'd have to be an evildoer of gargantuan proportions (Osama? Saddam?) to incur such a punishment.
Pharaoh had more than the Surgeon General's warning; he had full-color pictures. More than that, too: he and his countrymen were afflicted themselves by the plagues.
We can easily speculate (using Rabbi Dessler's typology) that Pharaoh had two competing wills. On the one hand, he had a desire for the health and happiness of his people and himself. On the other, he had the desire to maintain his pretense of absolute power (for our Sages tell us he assumed the posture of a deity himself)--or some other monomaniacal craving. In any case, what induced him to choose the latter? "Not the competing wills, but the freely choosing person himself…" He himself was directly, and ultimately, responsible (certainly in the first five).
Pharaoh is Pharaoh…but can we see such stubborn and willful blindness, such
self-destructive rationalization and evasion, in the people around us? Or, in our own selves?
I'll let you be the judge of that. I've already more than overstayed my welcome this week. But I will close by revealing to you another finding mentioned in that Canadian study: "24% of smokers said they have at least once put a cardboard sleeve over their pack or transferred cigarettes to another container."
We can choose to hide from just about anything. We can see…but we can choose to turn away. To choose not to reflect on, or deeply consider (hisbonen, in Hebrew), the facts we see and the truths we know. And if we don't reflect--long and hard, perhaps, and sometimes at the risk of some discomfort--, we ain't never going to correct.
May we all develop a taste for seeing, and living by, the truth taught in our Torah…and the truth perceived by us throughout our lives. If we can learn (and practice) the art of honest reflection, and develop the courage to begin to move in the direction of truth and personal growth (for Hashem will help us enormously along the way, at every step), we may stand a chance of becoming who we were meant to be. Builders of ourselves, and of the world…not builders of mere pyramids.
My new e-mail address is email@example.com
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