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Trust and Truth: Then and Now

Tazria-Metzora 2020: Trust and Truth Then and Now
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg
April 24, 2020

These two portions, Tazria and Metzora, are difficult for us to comprehend as modern readers. The concept of Tumah or ritual impurity is difficult to understand.The term, tzara’at, which is a leprous like disease featured in chapter 13, is also difficult to understand on many levels.

While this material is difficult, I want to focus narrowly on the role of the Kohen-priest in Chapter 13. As explained by the Etz Hayim, Humash commentary, the Kohen in biblical times served in the matter of tsaraat as both a religious and medical authority. The Kohen’s role was to diagnose the condition and in specific cases to isolate (hisgir) the afflicted individual initially for 7 days. If an individual is declared impure by the Kohen, he will suffer a longer isolation outside of the camp. The Kohen also served to reintegrate afflicted individuals whose conditions had improved or disappeared.

The commentator in the Humash surmises that “When the Kohen visited the afflicted person in isolation and examined the person’s sores, the experience of being cared for by the most prestigious person in the community must have helped generate healing powers in the sick person.”

The Kohen plays this role in the community because he is trusted by the people he attends to. The Kohen has an expertise that is accepted by the community and welcomed in time of need. 

Although we no longer rely on or expect Kohanim to serve in this function, the role of the Kohen reminds us of the importance of trust as we pass through this time of unprecedented crisis. We live in a world filled with competing information, intentional distortion, suspicion toward government and authority, and a novel virus that we do not fully comprehend. Who do we trust? What sources of information help us stay safe? What are the qualities we should look for in experts, leaders, people responsible for making decisions about our health and safety?

One of my favorite passages in Pirke Avot, Wisdom from the Sages, provides us with guidelines on who we should trust in this confusing environment of disinformation, exaggeration, and conflicting information.“There are seven characteristics that typify the Golem and seven, the Hacham.  The wise person does not speak in the presence of one who is wiser; does not interrupt a friend’s words; does not reply in haste; asks what is relevant and answers to the point; replies with an orderly sequence; when appropriate, concede that ‘I have not heard this.’; and acknowledges the truth. The opposite of these typify the Golem.” Pirkei Avot 5:9

שִׁבְעָה דְבָרִים בַּגֹּלֶם וְשִׁבְעָה בֶחָכָם. חָכָם אֵינוֹ מְדַבֵּר בִּפְנֵי מִי שֶׁהוּא גָדוֹל מִמֶּנּוּ בְחָכְמָה וּבְמִנְיָן, וְאֵינוֹ נִכְנָס לְתוֹךְ דִּבְרֵי , וְאֵינוֹ נִבְהָל לְהָשִׁיב, שׁוֹאֵל כָּעִנְיָן וּמֵשִׁיב כַּהֲלָכָה, וְאוֹמֵר עַל רִאשׁוֹן רִאשׁוֹן וְעַל
אַחֲרוֹן אַחֲרוֹן, וְעַל מַה שֶּׁלֹּא שָׁמַע, אוֹמֵר לֹא שָׁמָעְתִּי, וּמוֹדֶה עַל הָאֱמֶת. וְחִלּוּפֵיהֶן בַּגֹּלֶם

I believe that three of these characteristics of a Hacham deserve our attention in teaching us who we can trust in the context of the pandemic. The first characteristic states that a Hacham does not speak in the presence of one who is wiser. The wise person recognizes others with greater wisdom and knowledge and defers to them.

This week I read an interview by the columnist, Tom Friedman, of Dov Seidman, an expert on leadership. As I read Seidman’s comments, I thought of this teaching in Pirkei Avot:“The strongest local leaders will be the ones who collaborate with others and, at the same time, are exceptionally clear about their plans, brutally honest about the risks, utterly specific about the behaviors they’re asking of us, constantly searching the world for best practices and totally transparent about the technologies and data they want to collect to track our movements and contacts.”Good leaders not only recognize the wisdom of others, but incorporate their wisdom to form clear, honest counsel for the community they serve. To defer to others who are wiser, is to incorporate their wisdom.

Consider the next to last teaching in our passage from Pirkei Avot,  “When he does not know, he concedes that, ‘I have not heard this.’”Seidman observes, “What people actually want in a leader, even a charismatic one, is humility. I feel more certain in the face of uncertainty when a leader says to me, ‘I don’t know, but here are the wise experts I am going to turn to for answers, and here is how we are going to hunt for the answers together.’ The more I hear Dr. Fauci say that he does not know something, the more closely I listen to him discuss what he is sure of.”“Humble leaders actually make themselves smaller than the moment. They know that they alone cannot fix everything. So, they create the space for others to join them and to rise to do big things — together.”Anavah, humility, is the ability to perceive what you do not know and to seek others who do know. The quality is like the first quality mentioned above of deferring to someone who is wiser. The difference here is a person who is acutely aware of what she doesn’t know and can identify those gaps in her knowledge to be able to seek wisdom and knowledge from others. This can only arise from authentic humility.

The last quality in the Mishnah from Pirkei Avot is that a Hacham “acknowledges the truth.”Seidman posits a similar quality. “Great leaders trust people with the truth. And they make hard decisions guided by values and principles, not just politics, popularity, or short-term profits. Great leaders understand that when so many vulnerable and scared people are so willing, so quickly, to put their livelihoods and even their lives in their leaders’ hands, and make sacrifices asked of them, they expect the truth and nothing but the truth in return. Leaders who trust people with the truth are trusted more in return.”The ability to admit the truth, even if it is difficult to bear, is a critical quality for the moment we are in. We are dependent on our leaders at every level to provide us with the truth and point out falsehood.

The final observation in the Pirkei Avot passage tells us that the Golem embraces the opposite of these qualities. 

The Golem does not defer to those who are wiser than him. He has a trouble accepting the authority and wisdom of others.

The Golem never admits to not knowing something. He has convinced himself that he knows everything and has a better grip on reality than anyone else. He is likely to hide his ignorance to embrace alternative realities as a way to cover up for his ignorance.

Lastly, the Golem cannot accept the truth. Or he actively distorts it. He only promises a rosy future because he thinks people will abandon him if he tells the harsh truth.

In an analysis of the methods of Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist of Info-Wars, a journalist observes. “He instills a deep distrust in all authority, while promoting a seductive, conspiratorial alternate reality in which Mr. Jones, via his outlandish conspiracies, has all the answers.“ In another observation the journalist refers to anti-vaxers and people who trump liberty over public health: “They judge about other people’s needs or interests as a form of tyranny by definition. They do not think their choices affect other people.”

As difficult it is to understand our portion today, it is possible to understand that the Kohen was a trusted and truthful authority. While 2500 years have separated us from the ancient practices described in the portion and our own time, we need trusted and truthful leaders as much as our forebears. We hunger for the qualities of sound and wise leadership that are described in Pirkei Avot. In this confusing and distorted world, we must be especially skeptical of false prophets, corrupt and self-serving leaders, and arrogant snake oil salesmen. We must cultivate the critical skills to recognize and support wise leadership that the Torah has left for us as an inheritance.

Shabbat Shalom,
IMAGE: Rabbi Dov Sig
Rabbi Dov