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Context Matters – Vayyeshev 5783

Perhaps you heard that the South African comedian Trevor Noah recently stepped down as host of The Daily Show, a satirical news program. On his last show, he delivered a kind of sermon regarding some of his lessons learned during his tenure as host, and it was mostly not funny, but delivered in a serious mode, which is unusual for a comedian. Comedians, of course, are good at pointing out the challenges that we all face, and doing it in a way that brings us joy, that enables us to laugh at ourselves.

In the course of this talk, he said something which, I think, is so important: “Never forget how much context matters.” He explained that we live in a world of limitless information, but we are suffering from a lack of context. We simply are not given the tools to understand our world and everything that we are seeing and experiencing.

All of this context-less information has made us extraordinarily susceptible to manipulation, and it does not bode well for the future of humanity. Video clips circulated online are cut or even altered to disguise what came before or after, just to show you the piece that will provoke you the most. The news that travels the fastest and the farthest is the one that makes you the most angry or the most aggrieved.

Throw in the fact that your computer and your smartphone not only know what you want to see, what will push your buttons, what will get you all anxious and upset, but are also effectively designed to keep putting material like that in front of you. And, given that most of us are looking at these screens all day long, we are primed for manipulation. And the algorithms for manipulation are getting smarter and smarter.

Here is the good news: you can combat this by seeking out the missing context. And, by the way, that is what Jews have always done. One might make the argument that the entirety of the rabbinic enterprise of the last 2,000 years or so is to provide context. We, the Jews, are historically talented at both text AND context. And the goal of seeking context is to be reflective, rather than reflexive, in how we approach life and all of its challenges. 

Let me explain: 

The Torah is a particularly difficult document to understand. To begin with, it was written in a language that nobody has spoken for thousands of years. It is also filled with contradictions, gaps, ambiguities, apparent grammatical errors, and obscure words which can only be understood by speakers of that language (i.e. nobody). (Worth noting here that Israelis, speakers of modern Hebrew, are just as befuddled by the Torah’s language as we are.)

And yet, the Torah is the foundational document of Judaism, the basis for much of our tradition. So the only way we can actually understand it is through context, and in particular, the context given by rabbinic tradition: the Talmud, midrashim, the commentaries of medieval and contemporary rabbis, from Rashi in the 11th century until today. 

What do these commentators do? They place the context alongside the text, to help us see how the terse words of the Torah make us better people. They interpret ancient verses, which we sometimes barely understand, to show us how they apply to us in our day, in our context. They give us perspective.

For example, Parashat Vayyeshev, from which we read this morning, tells the story of our hero Yosef, who, after being sold into slavery and brought to Egypt, ends up in the house of a wealthy man named Potiphar, whose wife takes more than a passing interest in their new, handsome slave. She attempts to seduce Yosef, and there is a moment of hesitation before he rebuffs her. The suggestion is that he is certainly tempted to take her up on her offer.

A midrash, however, tells us that as she takes hold of his clothing with lascivious intent (Bereshit / Genesis 39:12), and Yosef struggles with his conflicting fear and desire, he has a vision of his parents, watching through a window behind Potiphar’s wife. And his father Ya’aqov says to him, “Your brothers’ names will be inscribed on the ephod, the breastplate of the Kohen Gadol [the High Priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, which is at this point in the traditional chronology many centuries in the future]. Do you want your name to appear there with them, or not?” (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 36b) And that is the point when he runs from her.

The point of the midrash is that context matters, that our moment-to-moment decisions should be shaped not by immediacy, not by what is happening exactly right now, but by the past and the future. And of course, that is not always so simple. 

Many other moments in the Yosef narrative require context. Yosef does not see the larger context when he boasts to his brothers about the dreams in which they all bow down to him. The brothers are missing context when they throw him in a pit, and then sell him into slavery, and then lie to their father Ya’aqov about what happened.

All of these moments are, you might say, reflexive choices, made quickly and without considering the consequences. Reflexive, rather than reflective.

When we act impulsively, rather than taking time to reflect on the context, we cause damage and pain. When we respond in the anger of the moment rather than waiting, breathing deeply, and thinking carefully, we usually make things worse. When we pile onto the most hurtful, most anxiety-inducing news or online content with more frustration and more insults and more aggression, the lack of context usually leads everybody down the wrong path.

What makes the Yosef narrative work is learning the complete story. Although none of the characters involved could have known this, every choice along the way, good and bad, ultimately brought Benei Yisrael, the children of Israel / Ya’aqov, down into Egypt, where they would become slaves, and then ultimately become a free nation, destined to receive the Torah and to inherit their own land. And in the context of all of that, the series of reflexive moves is woven into a context which has shaped our people for thousands of years. So in this case, you might say it worked out well.

But we all know by now the corrosive effects of the social media platforms through which we all receive our information about the world. And we all know about the potential of these platforms, and to some extent even legitimate purveyors of news, to rile us up. We have seen their ability to enable the id, the unfiltered, most primitive piece of our psyche, to speak for us, and to easily spread hateful ideas of all sorts. 

I am grateful that the Biden administration gathered a group this past week to discuss strategies on anti-Semitism, chaired by the Second Gentleman, Doug Emhoff. But I am also not too optimistic that such discussions will yield anything productive. Hatred of Jews has been with us far too long, and I lament the fact that it will never go away.

However, what we all can do is to try to move society to a place that is more reflective, rather than reflexive. Labeling people as anti-Semites, or racists or trans-phobes or snowflakes or RINOs or whatever, diminishes the humanity of those with whom we disagree. 

Teaching history, however, and giving context and the opportunity for reflection is the way to go. Jon Stewart, who was Trevor Noah’s predecessor at The Daily Show, has said that hearing anti-Semitism spewed out loud is better, because then it is an opportunity for teaching and providing context, kind of like cleaning a wound by opening it. I am not entirely sure I agree with him, but certainly meeting people and talking with them in-person, especially people with whom you do not necessarily agree, is the way to build bridges, to change minds.

Another observation that Trevor Noah shared in his “sermon” was that “the world is a friendlier place than the Internet wants you to believe.” Perhaps if, when we are tempted to respond in a way that is unhelpful, we remember our parents, and we remember the lessons which they attempted to impart to us about being better people, then we might be more likely to see the humanity, or even the Divine spark, in those who say hateful things. And maybe we have a better chance of allowing that Divine spark to bring that person to a more reflective, more contextual place.

A final thought: One of the best ways to slow things down, to bring context to our lives, to help us become more reflective and less reflexive, is to take one day a week to separate ourselves from the outrage machines of Big Tech. If I had one wish for our society, Jews and non-Jews, it would be to shut down your digital devices for 25 hours every Shabbat, and spend time with your family, your friends, and your Qehilah Qedoshah, your sacred community. I do it; you can too.

Context matters.

חג אורים שמח / Ḥag Urim Sameaḥ! Happy Ḥanukkah.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 12/17/2022.)

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