“When there is rebellion in the land, many are its rulers. But with a man who has understanding, many are its rulers.”
People love taking credit for creating revolutions but are not always fast to own up to long-term solutions, as we learn from this verse in the book of Proverbs. Every day we open the newspapers to new incidents of violence, particularly in the Middle East, as we move from one country to another whose leaders have either been deposed, killed or are holding such a tight reign of terror that it is only a matter of time before all anarchy breaks loose. It seems that the Arab Spring is drying up and leaving in its place untold sorrow. Syria has become a humanitarian nightmare. We will only truly understand the damage done by this regime long after the tyranny is over. Sanctions have not yet been successful. Instead, the world watches as innocent civilians are butchered. We stand by waiting for more bad news.
Tyranny often promotes anarchy when restlessness reaches a tipping point. Anarchy has always been a problem in the Hebrew Bible, as it is in politics generally. If Genesis 1 is a portrait of a world of order and intention and mandates that we act as creators in the same fashion, then the horrors of anarchy become particularly damaging to the Jewish world order. The book of Judges ends with a warning that comes after a civil war: “Each man did in his own eyes what was right because there was no king in Israel.” Without the stability of a single ruler, every person did not lead for himself but relinquished all leadership in favor of personal gain.
In Bad Leadership, Barbara Kellerman writes that we choose inept leaders over no leaders because of our need for simplicity and stability: “Leaders, even bad ones, can provide a sense of order and certainty in a disordered and uncertain world. Moreover, to resist leaders is to invite confusion and upset.” But when bad leaders get really, really bad then they generate more chaos than they create.
Much of the same chapter of Proverbs where we learn that rebellions have many rulers, shares admonitions about leadership and overconfidence. Arrogance produces people who see themselves as talented, thoughtful and blameless while they are being abusive, exploitative and thick-skinned. “A rich man is clever in his own eyes” (28:11) but being unable to see himself accurately, he does not improve himself, thus paving a way to an unfortunate end: “He who covers up his faults will not succeed” (28:13).
In an odd turn, this chapter in Proverbs offers a counterintuitive portrait of happiness, one that minimizes the arrogance that can quickly turn into tyranny: “Happy is the man who is anxious always, but he who hardens his heart falls into misfortune.” The best way to protect against anarchy is anxiety, the capacity to be appropriately worried about how one is doing in the world. When leaders harden themselves to the needs of others then the death of the innocent becomes inconsequential to them. Legend has it that a leader once complained to his mentor that he was so anxious about his mistakes that he feared he could never lead well as a result. The mentor turned to him with a raised eyebrow and replied, “And what would be better, my friend, to have a leader who did not have this worry?” Leaders always have to worry about how they are doing. If they are not worried, they are probably not leading.
“The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.’ And the Lord God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky and brought them to the man…”
On October 4th, a feast day in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, you may find a procession of animals heading for the Blessing of Pets based on Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures, where the saint prays: “All praise to you, Oh Lord, for all these brother and sister creatures.” In a downtown DC church, this past weekend, there was a blessing ceremony for dogs as reported in The Washington Post. One dog owner said he felt so blessed to have his dog that he wanted to make sure that his dog received a blessing. Cats were noticeably absent from the ceremony but not for any ideological reason. The church wanted to retain the order that comes with only one species being blessed at a time.
This attitude is in strong contrast to many Jewish superstitions around dogs. The Talmud mentions that it is unlucky to be between two dogs (BT Pesahim 111b) Joshua Tractenberg in his famous book on Jewish superstition writes that in the medieval period: “The disconsolate howling of a dog is a certain indication that the angel of death is strolling through town. If a dog drags his rump along the floor in the direction of the door, this too is a token of approaching death.” In kabbalah, dogs were often associated with demonic powers; dogs on a long leash are compared to acts of evil that can get out of control unless we pull them back and dominate our impulses. These associations with dogs explain why it is rare for Hasidim to have dogs as pets.
Some traditional Jews when seeing a dog will actually move away and recite a verse from Exodus – “but not a dog shall snarl at any of the Israelites (11:7) – assuming a hostile relationship between the two. The context is the plagues, describing the suffering of the Egyptians upon losing their firstborn. There will be a cry all over Egypt, Moses describes, but no dog shall bark at any of the Israelites to make a distinction between the Egyptians and their slaves. This unnatural phenomenon will signal the beginning of the end of slavery with dogs playing a strange role in our redemption.
All superstition aside, as early as ancient midrash there was a value placed in using dogs to guard people. Dogs are also mentioned in the Bible as shepherding and hunting assistants, so while they were not kept as pets, they were used for work purposes. According to Rabbi Louis Jacobs, the first record we have of Jews keeping dogs as domestic pets is in 15th century Germany.
But if we turn all the way to our actual beginnings, Genesis 2 records that animals were originally created as a source of companionship for humans after God announced in a world that seemed all good that human loneliness was not good. To ameliorate it, God created animals and brought them to Adam to name. In the act of naming, Adam realized that ultimate companionship for him would come from someone more anatomically like himself.
Having said that, as all dog owners know, dogs sometimes come through for us when humans fail. Dogs are always happy to see their owners, are deeply loyal, never say a bad word and are profoundly forgiving. Step on a dog’s paw, and a minute later he’ll be licking you with enthusiasm, as the bumper sticker wisdom goes: ‘To err is human. To forgive is canine.” Anna Quidlin wrote Good Dog. Stay when her dog of 15 years died and observes that, “The life of a good dog is like the life of a good person, only shorter and more compressed.” People who do not like dogs have a hard time understanding our affection for them, but dog-lovers hardly have to explain it to each other.
Proverbs 6:6 tells us to learn industry from an ant. The Talmud picks up on this and extends it to what we learn from many other creatures. My dogs have taught me to be a better human being. Now if only I could live up to the person they think I am!
“You did not take these things to heart. You gave no thought to the end of it.”
Last Sunday I finally went out into my yard to take care of a Leyland Cyprus that was rotting in places due to a fungal infection. I wrestled with its large and scratchy branches to remove the dead leaves and spray it, and I was angry with myself. I saw the tree browning and getting incrementally worse every day but let it go for weeks because I was just too busy, and the plant wasn’t complaining.
And as I cut away the bad parts of the bush to strengthen the good parts, I thought incrementalism and about a chapter in Isaiah I had just studied the day before. The historical context is a prophetic prediction that Babylon and other empires would be overturned for their arrogance, believing they would always retain their strength and superiority. And in this critique, one verse stood out: “You did not take these things to heart. You gave no thought to the end of it.” When we are at a point of strength and self-assurance, we often don’t take into consideration the long-term consequences of decisions.
One leadership writer observes that when we are young, acts and consequences live in close proximity to each other. We put a hand on a hot stove, and we get burnt. We learn not to do it again. We do something good, and it has an immediate payback so we are incentivized to repeat our behaviors. As we age and life gets more complex, the distance between acts and consequences grows. We make professional decisions that others will have to tend to long after us. We make parenting mistakes and hurt friendships in ways that are not immediately evident. And as Isaiah says, because we did not take the entire matter to heart, we gave little thought to how things would end. Incrementalism in this scenario hurts us.
In Isaiah 47, incrementalism is moral in nature. The one in power is self-serving: “I am, and there is none but me” (47:8). The narcissistic impulse turns ugly “You were secure in your wickedness; you thought, ‘No one can see me…And you thought to yourself, ‘I am, and there is none but me’” (47:10). But this time, all of your strategies have already been spent and Isaiah warns that you will not be able to charm the problem away as you once did. “You are helpless despite all your art” (47:13).
Sadly, there are people in this world who are bent on wrongdoing. They seed gossip. They manipulate others and pay little attention to the harm they are sowing. They harvest self-protection and self-aggrandizement. They do not see the failed ending, only the promising beginning. And as a result, Isaiah tells us, “they cannot save themselves.”
This is very different than the approach of the famous Talmudic figure Honi who was traveling and saw a man planting a carob tree. “He said to him, ‘How long will it be until it bears fruit?’ He said, ‘As long as seventy years.’ He said, ‘Are you certain you will live seventy years?’ He said: ‘I found a world with carob trees; just as my fathers planted for me, so I plant for my children’”(BT Ta’anit 23a). This story illustrates incrementalism at its best. We plant knowing the results of the planting will not be ours to reap but understanding that we are stewards of an unseen future.
I hope my Leyland Cyprus will recover. I am disappointed in myself that I watched a problem, and it to got worse. Tackling its branches made me think of the moral implications. Bad outcomes are often the work of willful ignorance. Good outcomes are the result of careful planning for a future unseen. Incrementalism requires patience. So what do you have to take care of that you are ignoring? It will only get worse. Make it better. And Isaiah will smile at you.
"Grandchildren are the crowning glory of their elders;
parents are the pride of their children.”
We all know the saying “Insanity is contagious; you get it from your kids.” It seemed for a while that research bore this out, at least in part. Psychological studies demonstrated that marital satisfaction decreases dramatically after the birth of the first child and increases only when the last child leaves home. In Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert marshaled evidence to suggest that societal myths that having children makes people happy are actually incorrect. He calls this a “belief-transmission game” where we falsely believe that certain things contribute or detract from our happiness. One of them is money, which has been shown to bring happiness only when it relieves an individual of poverty but above that is inconsequential to life satisfaction. The other is parenting.
“Every human culture tells its members that having children will make them happy,” Gilbert contends. People look forward to it with happy expectation. When people are asked about sources of happiness they invariably point to their kids. But, Gilbert claims, when you chart their actual satisfaction a “very different story emerges.” Women surveyed rated taking care of their kids as a chore less satisfying than eating, exercising, shopping, napping or watching television. But don’t worry kids. Mom enjoyed you just slightly more than doing housework.
I remember first reading this research and feeling a punch in my stomach. Jewish life is predicated on continuity and regards the family as the sacred unit by which faith and culture is transmitted. Granted, obligation and responsibility top personal happiness within the framework of faith communities generally and Judaism specifically. It is not that happiness is not important. It’s that happiness is not the most significant or sole motivator for our beliefs and practices.
How does this research jive with the statement from Proverbs above? We believe that children are a crowning glory. Actually in this verse, children are a transition between their grandparents and their parents. Grandparents regard children with delight, and children regard their parents with pride.
This smooth and happy family transition and succession does not always happen. The chapter in which this verse from Proverbs appears, shares something of what happens when families cannot operate with this sense of continuity and pride: “Better a dry crust with peace than a house full of feasting and strife.” In other words, it’s better to be raised in a home where there is little money but much peace than where there is wealth and strife. Later the same chapter offers some advice about keeping that peace: "Before a dispute flares up, drop it,” and then describes what a great sibling relationship looks like, “A brother is born to share adversity." It’s easy to be a good sibling when times are good. The better measure is shared loss and difficulty.
Before you get too depressed, an article from USA Today (I was in an airport) in a loud banner screamed “Parents Aren’t Destined to Be Unhappy.” What a relief! I think I’ll keep my children now. Two new studies suggest that earlier findings may be flawed. Studying 52,000 parents, these studies showed that well-being is elevated while waiting for a child to be born and during the first year of a child’s life. A different study demonstrated that although parents seemed to be less happy between 1985-1995, from 1995-2008, parents were happier. Is this because children have changed, parents have changed or because there has been some kind of societal shift that has helped us understand the nature of personal happiness? It might be too early to tell.
Proverbs 17 also includes the verse, “A joyful heart makes for good health.” That joyful heart includes children, who are the crown of our existence whether you are a parent, an aunt, a friend or a member of society who believes in the next generation. And if that bundle of joy is also a challenge at times, then perhaps children help us affirm our humanity and self-sacrifice. In the words of Hillel, if I am only for myself, who am I?