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Parshat Shlach

In memory of Reuven ben Sarah

1. Para Paranoia
2. Discovering and Dealing with Self-Deception
3. Self Esteem of a Grasshopper

1. Para Paranoia

When baseless or excessive suspicion of the motives of others displaces rational thinking and evaluation, we call it paranoia. One who looks beyond (para) the surface of others’ actions, and suspects a scheme or plot against him, is considered to be paranoid. Although paranoia is a condition that may require clinical treatment, it also affects healthy people to one degree or another. Few people notice that they have someone in their life towards whom they feel paranoid – baselessly accusing him or her despite the other’s pure intentions. It might be a child or student with a paranoid view of a parent or teacher. It might be employees or competitors with a paranoid view of one another. I asked a number of older people if they ever felt paranoid or if anyone (without real psychological problems) ever felt paranoid towards them. They all answered in the affirmative. Needless to say, they all mentioned that they endured much emotional stress as long as it was going on.

Paranoid feelings often result from a lack of self-esteem or sense of self-worth. Especially in the emotional context of family or other relationships, perceived lack of appreciation, respect, or love can cause paranoia to surface. Thus, strengthening the self-esteem of the person suffering from paranoia can help in dissipating his fear of the person he thinks is threatening him. But treating self-esteem alone is problematic because it is a drawn-out process and because it cannot fully relieve the misery and pitfalls of paranoia. If we look closely at the parashah, however, we can find an insight that can go a long way towards successfully treating this condition.

On his very last day, Moshe Rabbeinu rebuked the Jewish People for their wrongdoings during their forty years in the desert. Notice the interesting terminology he uses in regard to the national response to the incident of the spies:
ותרגנו באהליכם ותאמרו בשנאת ה’ אתנו הוציאנו מארץ מצרים לתת אתנו ביד האמרי להשמידנו.
You complained in your tents and said: G-d redeemed us from Egypt out of hatred – to put us in the hands of the Emorites to destroy us. (Devarim 1:27)

The Chafetz Chaim (שער התבונה פ’ טז’) connects the word ותרגנו (you complained) to נרגנות, which is essentially paranoia. When the Jews in the desert complained that all G-d had done for them was out of a desire to destroy them, this is nothing less than paranoia. The Chafetz Chaim writes on this concept concerning gossipers. One who suffers from paranoia will constantly transgress the stringent prohibition of לשון הרע (speaking ill of others). Since he will always feel that the other person is out to get him, he will have no emotional rest until he sets the imaginary score straight. The Chafetz Chaim lists another seven violations transgressed or nearly transgressed by the paranoid: ואהבת לרעך כמוך (loving your neighbor as yourself), לא תשנא את אחיך בלבבך (not hating your brother in your heart), בצדק תשפוט עמיתך (judging others favorably), חושד בכשרים (suspecting an innocent person of wrongdoing), אונאת דברים (using hurtful words), הלבנת פנים (embarrassing others), מחלוקת (causing dispute).

In Moshe’s description, we can also see the characteristic way in which one who is paranoid expresses his paranoia: You complained in your tents. Paranoia is often found in a relationship where there is no open discussion. The person who feels he is the victim limits his complaints to the privacy of his own home.

From here, we can derive an important lesson about how to overcome the baseless fear of the other person and his actions. Just by being open and putting the cards on the table, much of the paranoia will dissipate. If the Jews would have communicated with G-d by means of prayer or by having Moshe Rabbeinu take counsel with G-d, the calamity would have been averted. The most effective way to deal with the problem is to be open about it. If not, the most irrational thoughts – such as G-d taking us out of Egypt to have us demolished by the Canaanites – can overcome even the greatest of minds.

2. Discovering and Dealing with Self-Deception

Have you ever been around someone who was suffering from self-deception or self-denial? One man will work long and hard – and with complete integrity – in the name of being a good husband and father. Yet, he can barely find the time to smile at the children for whom he claims to be sacrificing. Another person might be world-famous for doing acts of kindness. Yet his own family knows that he is too busy for even their small requests. Politicians can do the most inhumane and inconsiderate things all the while believing that they are acting according to society’s highest ideals and values. The list goes on and on. It seems that self-deception is an inescapable and universal human predicament.

Indeed, even the great Tzaddikim testify that they periodically fall prey to self-deception, and work tirelessly to detect it. R’ Yisrael Salanter commented: When I first started to involve myself with the study of Mussar (soul searching and internalizing proper values), I saw how bad people are, and how I am so just. After studying more Mussar, I realized that I am not as just as I thought, and other people are not really so bad. Now that I am totally engrossed in soul-searching, I realize how much self-perfection I desperately need, and how much good there is in others.

Why is self-deception as noticeable as a ketchup stain on a white shirt to almost everyone except the person suffering from it? The answer is that vested interests, such as the pursuit of honor or pleasure, create a blind spot. However what needs clarification is how irrationality can find a place in even the most rational of minds. How can a person be so oblivious to what others see as clear as day? A comment of Rashi in this week’s Parashah can offer some insight.

The “Plot” of the Spies

The Spies started their speech to the Nation by accurately relating the size of the fruits and other things they saw during their mission to Canaan. Only then did they present their false interpretation of this information. On this approach, Rashi comments: Any lie not preceded by a small truth will not last. We must understand how the truth bolsters the lie, and why it is effective only at the beginning rather than at the end.

The Talmud (Shabbat 104a) states that a truth will endure, for the Hebrew word for truth is made up of the lettersא מ ת – letters which stand upon two legs. A lie, however, will not endure. This is hinted at by the Hebrew word for lie or falsehood, which is made up of one-legged letters: ש ק ר. But, as Rashi points out, by mixing in some truth at the outset, the lie can last. The conscience is then not fortified against the lie because the truth already received “approval” to enter. The little truth must therefore precede the big lie in order to hold the door open for it to enter.

This is very often what happens when a person is suffering from self-deception. A good value has preceded any evil thought or misdeed, i.e. stealing from the rich to give to the poor. This is how politicians can sometimes commit the worst crimes while all the while proclaiming to be acting on the highest values, such as building up the country, culture, and economy.

Let us consider why Yosef’s brothers were unable to recognize their own brother even though they came to Egypt specifically intending to find him and redeem him. Of course, his beard would have thrown them off, but I think there may be more to it. How did they manage to overlook the family resemblance and the fact that he obviously knew so much about them. Why did they not “put two and two together” when Yosef seated them according to age, insisted on seeing his brother Binyamin, and locked up only Shimon – the brother who actually threw him into the pit? How then could they look him in the face and fail to recognize him?

Again, the answer is that vested interests create a blind spot: the brothers were thrown off by their entrenched belief in the justice of their cause. In their minds, they had sold Yosef into slavery as an act of self-defense, and they continued to view him as deserving of slavery – if not for the suffering this brought upon their father. Since they came to Egypt looking for their brother as a slave, they were unable to identify him as Pharaoh’s prime minister.

There is a way to avoid the pitfall of self-deception, to separate the misperceptions (and even lies) from the assumption or “truth” which served as our point of departure. We can do this by asking ourselves hard questions about our initial assumptions and about our often hidden motives. Too often, we fail to introspect and shine the spotlight on our own actions.

In our time, the best way to do this is to study Mussar regularly and in depth, and to talk
things over with an outside party. G-d created us with the ability to see ourselves objectively if we only take out time and focus, and listen with humility to others who can often help us identify and eliminate our blind spots.

Post script

On the surface, there is a difficulty in Rashi’s comment cited above: Any lie not preceded by a small truth will not last. Rashi is actually basing himself on a Midrash that speaks not about lies, but about loshon hora – articulating negative, compromising information about others even though it is true. How can we understand Rashi’s change of terminology?

I believe the answer is that ultimately, loshon hora is always false even though it conveys accurate information. If, for example, you witness someone shoplifting and relate what you saw to a friend, the latter will perceive this person as a “shoplifter.” But this is often far from the truth! The “shoplifter” might have given in to a sudden impulse that he now bitterly regrets. In other words, the “true” information that was passed on has created a false picture. Rashi may well be hinting at this in his substituting lie for lashon hora.

3. Self Esteem of a Grasshopper

(ונהי בעינינו כחגבים וכן היינו בעיניהם (יג, לג
“We were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and that is how we were perceived by the Canaanites as well”

This is how the spies sent by Moshe described their encounter with the Canaanites while on their mission in the Land of Israel. When we read this description, though, we wonder how the spies could possibly have known how the enormous Canaanites perceived them. Indeed, Rashi asks this question, and explains that the spies also reported that they heard the Canaanites saying to one another: There are ants in the vineyards that look like humans.

Still, the spies’ description remains puzzling: Even if the spies intended to relate to the Jewish People their relatively diminutive appearance, why did they mention how they perceived themselves? Furthermore, we need to understand the change in terminology: The spies quote the gigantic Canaanites as calling them ants. Yet, they report that they perceived themselves – and were perceived by the Canaanites – as grasshoppers. How can we understand this switch?

The answers to these questions throw light on an important concept. The Canaanite perception of the Jewish spies as ants was the direct outcome of the spies’ self-perception as grasshoppers. When we perceive ourselves as being incapable or inept, this invites others to belittle us further. This was the spies’ gravest sin. They viewed themselves as being in a pitiable state, and infected the rest of the Jewish People with this self-image as well. Indeed, the Baal HaTurim comments that the reason the Jews suffered the Destruction of the Temple and are still in exile is the assessment the Jew makes of himself as being small in the eyes of the nations.

It is not surprising, then, that at the very end of the horrible curses of Parashat Ki Tavo – sequenced according to severity – we find the following: the Jews will be put up for sale as slaves to the gentile nations, but no-one will want to buy them (28:68). No further curses or punishments are mentioned, as if to say: this is the lowest level to which the Jewish nation can fall. This is the direct result of their perceiving themselves as worthless.

And this concept applies to each and every one of us. If we believe that we have no worth – that is all the worth we ultimately have.

Shabbat Shalom
yosefarhi@gmail.com

In memory of Reuven ben Sarah

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