Ethical will: Curiosity and mistakes

In Pirkei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers) 2:6, the great Hillel is quoted as follows:

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אֵין בּוּר יְרֵא חֵטְא, וְלֹא עַם הָאָרֶץ חָסִיד, וְלֹא הַבַּיְשָׁן לָמֵד, וְלֹא הַקַּפְּדָן מְלַמֵּד, וְלֹא כָל הַמַּרְבֶּה בִסְחוֹרָה מַחְכִּים. וּבְמָקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִישׁ: He used to say: A brute is not sin-fearing, nor is an ignorant person pious; nor can a timid person learn, nor can an impatient person teach; nor will someone who engages too much in business become wise. And in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.

The most famous section of that Mishnah is surely the last line:

In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.

However, for my purposes right now, I’ll focus on the line I highlighted:

Nor can a timid person learn.

I suppose that for the purposes of an ethical will I could simply stop here because this concept is so very uncomplicated, but I have what to say about Papa in this context.

* * *

For some reason, I don’t have many lucid memories of my childhood, as some do. My wife, for example, has a fantastic memory, and she remembers events from her early years in fairly high resolution. Still, hazy recollections of mine do remain, and snippets have increasingly been coming back over these last two years.

I’ve already mentioned that Papa had a computer at home for as long as I can remember. In the 80’s it was definitely not the norm to have a PC, although I don’t think I knew that as a child. For me, playing games on a computer was normal.

One of my early, hazy memories of Papa goes as follows:

For some reason or another we went together to a computer store. Most likely, he had to purchase some piece of equipment or software for himself, and I just happened to be along for the ride. At the store, there were some computers on display for customers to use, and I was curious so I went over to look at one of the machines and gingerly slid the mouse around to see the cursor move. I wanted to play with it further but was afraid that something might go wrong.

“Can I try it? I’m afraid to mess it up.”
“You should never be afraid of pushing buttons on a computer – there is nothing you can do to one of these machines that you won’t be able to undo. If you fear them, you will never learn to use them. Only by trial and error can you gain knowledge.”

* * *

My five-year-old daughter knows the answer to the following question before she opens her mouth because we’ve had this very same exchange countless times. Still, she continues to ask me:

Abba’chka, I made a mistake, but that’s okay, right?
Yes, Dear, making mistakes is a good thing.
Why?
(she always asks this with such eager anticipation)
Because that’s the only way to learn. If you fear making mistakes, it will be very, very difficult for you to to discover more about the world around you.

* * *

Lastly, for now, I think it’s also important to underscore that we best serve ourselves in this world by approaching other human beings with genuine curiosity, rather than avoiding those who hold views that differ from our own.

People too have buttons, and one such button is the human inclination to talk about one’s self. If we approach others with a sincere desire for understanding, and if we are careful to use open-ended questions (rather than questions that only require short, simple answers), most people will be all too happy to respond.

Human beings, of course, are not computers… but kindness is the key.

Papa was genuinely curious to understand the people he differed with. I remember him proactively engaging ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem with questions while they were protesting against traffic on the Sabbath, querying animal rights activists in Tel Aviv as they campaigned for veganism…

Me, ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ 34, Mar. 10, 2019

Ethical will: Be true to yourself

There is nothing new under the sun, including in this ethical will, but I feel it necessary to plant some flags. Also, in embarking upon this endeavor, I am taking my own advice by being true to myself. As this feels important to me, I shall respect that drive.

To start:

There are many voices around you, but you must listen to your own voice.

– Pocahontas to King James, Disney’s Pocahontas II (1998)

The obvious and necessary first step towards being true to yourself is listening to yourself, as noted by Disney’s Pocahontas. From birth, we are shaped by multiple, external voices, and while these ought not be disregarded, be mindful that nobody else can journey with you from womb to tomb. So – are you comfortable living with and as yourself?

Listening to one’s self does not come easily to everybody, particularly not to children, for they rely upon their parents’ guidance to develop their understandings of the world. Parents need strike a balance between encouraging their children to draw their own conclusions about their life experiences and explaining everything to them. As children develop, the balance should naturally shift.

Famously, God said to Abram (Gen. 12):

א וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ. 1 Now the LORD said unto Abram: ‘Go to yourself, from thy land, and from thy homeland, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee.

This verse continues to fascinate scholars today, and I deliberately chose this translation over others that are also broadly accepted. (I believe this to be the most literal translation)

Essentially, in order to “go to himself” (to become himself?) Abram (who would later receive the name Abraham) had to leave the land where he was living, the land he had been born in, and his family. One could nitpick over what other influences shape us during our formative years, but I believe the Torah, in its literary way, was suggesting that Abram had to distance himself from every influence in his life in order to truly realize himself. Only by doing so could Abram eventually become the father of the Jewish nation.

Metaphorically, we all need, at some point, to step back from the major influences in our lives in order to most deeply understand ourselves at our cores. What remains of “you” when you change your circumstances? Of course, there are sundry influences upon each of us, and it may be nigh impossible to distance ourselves from all of them simultaneously… but that misses the point, which is: we must attempt to identify the external forces acting upon us in order to best understand ourselves.

We can always step back towards them later, with awareness, and some may, in fact, be very positive and even dear to us. (NB: I am in no way repudiating the tremendous potential value of any of our formative influences)

* * *

There is at least one other angle to this idea that I would like to touch upon, which is: I believe that those who respect themselves most will remain true to themselves, regardless of outside expectations.

Later in Genesis, Joseph introduces his brothers to Pharaoh, and advises them as follows in chapter 46:

לג וְהָיָה, כִּי-יִקְרָא לָכֶם פַּרְעֹה; וְאָמַר, מַה-מַּעֲשֵׂיכֶם. 33 And it shall come to pass, when Pharaoh shall call you, and shall say: What is your occupation?
לד וַאֲמַרְתֶּם, אַנְשֵׁי מִקְנֶה הָיוּ עֲבָדֶיךָ מִנְּעוּרֵינוּ וְעַד-עַתָּה–גַּם-אֲנַחְנוּ, גַּם-אֲבֹתֵינוּ: בַּעֲבוּר, תֵּשְׁבוּ בְּאֶרֶץ גֹּשֶׁן, כִּי-תוֹעֲבַת מִצְרַיִם, כָּל-רֹעֵה צֹאן. 34 that ye shall say: Thy servants have been keepers of cattle from our youth even until now, both we, and our fathers; that ye may dwell in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians.’

However, it turns out that Joseph’s brothers have a strong sense of confidence in their identities. In chapter 47, they introduce themselves to Pharaoh as follows:

ג וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אֶל-אֶחָיו, מַה-מַּעֲשֵׂיכֶם; וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, רֹעֵה צֹאן עֲבָדֶיךָ–גַּם-אֲנַחְנוּ, גַּם-אֲבוֹתֵינוּ. 3 And Pharaoh said unto his brethren: ‘What is your occupation?’ And they said unto Pharaoh: ‘Thy servants are shepherds, both we, and our fathers.’
ד וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, לָגוּר בָּאָרֶץ בָּאנוּ, כִּי-אֵין מִרְעֶה לַצֹּאן אֲשֶׁר לַעֲבָדֶיךָ, כִּי-כָבֵד הָרָעָב בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן; וְעַתָּה יֵשְׁבוּ-נָא עֲבָדֶיךָ, בְּאֶרֶץ גֹּשֶׁן. 4 And they said unto Pharaoh: ‘To sojourn in the land are we come; for there is no pasture for thy servants’ flocks; for the famine is sore in the land of Canaan. Now therefore, we pray thee, let thy servants dwell in the land of Goshen.’

And… then… even though “every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians”, Pharaoh responds by putting Joseph’s brothers in charge of the royal livestock. Hardly a rejection, is it?

Certainly, I would be among the last to suggest that any reading of a religious text is correct to the exclusion of others, but this understanding of these verses reads particularly true to me: Pharaoh gave Joseph’s brothers respect for staying true to themselves, in the face of external pressure to hide their true identities.

As I wrote above:

… be mindful that nobody else can journey with you from womb to tomb. So – are you comfortable living with and as yourself?

* * *

I’d like to bring this home with a classic Hasidic tale about Reb Zusha of Hanipol, a student of the Maggid of Mezritch, who, in turn, was a student of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism. It goes as follows:

Reb Zusha was laying  on his deathbed surrounded by his disciples. He was crying and no one could comfort him.

One student asked his Rebbe, “Why do you cry? In your life, you have been as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham.” 

Reb Zusha answered, “When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Tribunal, they won’t ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham,’ rather, they will ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you Zusha?'”