Eilu v'Eilu Divrei Elohim Chayyim: It's a Valid Perspective But It's Not the Whole Truth
Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman/Rosh HaShanah D'var Torah 5777
It's a warm July day in the Berkshires. A group of ten girls at Crane Lake Camp gather under the trees by the picnic tables for an activity to sum up the summer's Jewish learning. As part of myvery fun week on staff at this Reform sleep away camp, I get to lead this bunk in the afternoon's lesson. We will be going around camp to locations where, in previous weeks, the campers learned about different middot, or personal qualities.
At each location -- the art porch, the pool, the outdoor sanctuary -- is a bag of colored beads, each color corresponding to a middah. Purple for דבוק חברים sticking by friends. Red for אמונה trust. Green for חסד loving kindness. White for אנווה humility. Each camper strings a bracelet for herself, intentionally choosing the number of each color. If she feels the middah is a strength of hers, she only takes one bead. If she wants to work to improve that quality in herself, she takes two or three. She will bring the bracelet home to reflect on during the year.
Swim towels and water bottles gathered, we begin to walk around camp, collecting the beads and making our bracelets. Then one camper takes a step not on the curriculum that moves the activity from creative to profound. She turns to a bunkmate, a child she's been living and playing with for four weeks, and says, "I think I need only one bead for patience, but what do you think?"
Soon half the girls are asking for each other's opinions before selecting their number of beads, figuring out on their own that self reflection is more informed and courageous when we ask those we trust for their perspectives.
It's an early autumn day, and 20 Sinai U high schoolers are gathered in Ehrenfried Hall. One group of students is speaking with a religious school parent, another to a board member, another to a custodian, and another to a staff member. Pens fly over paper as the teens take notes, asking open ended questions to solicit the needs, interests, and concerns of the person in front of them.
As members of the Sinai U Design Lab, these teens are learning the process of Design Thinking, while tackling a real challenge in their Jewish community. We learn from the Sinai U Design Lab teens that the first step to communal problem solving is asking genuine questions, listening empathically, and getting as many perspectives as possible.
What makes each of these stories inspiring? On the High Holidays we ask God over and over again to write us in the book of life. זוכרינו לחיים מלך חפץ בחיים, וכותבינו בספר החיים למענך אלהים חיים. Remember us for life, Sovereign who yearns for life, and write us in the book of life for Your sake, living God. Life life life! At Crane Lake Camp and at the Sinai U Design Lab, we hear young people's voices actively seeking perspectives not their own, practicing curiosity, and opening their hearts to the views of others. The young people's listening is generative, generous, and mature. But above all, it is life affirming. Just as an ecosystem needs diverse species and niches to grow and thrive, so we human systems and human beings need diverse perspectives to grow and thrive. The stasis of perpetual certainty is a kind of death. We must be open to multiple perspectives to remember ourselves and each other for life.
This year I have been spending a lot of time thinking about a concept my husband taught me: That whatever I think, at any given moment, it is a valid perspective but not the whole truth.
It is easy for most of us, at times, to act as if our perspective is the only valid one, even if we intellectually know this isn't so. It happens for any number of reasons: We have ego invested in what we've already said. We don't have time to hear someone else out. Sometimes we have entrenched interests that make a new perspective threatening - as Upton Sinclair said, "It's difficult to get someone to understand something if their salary depends on them not understanding it." - and sometimes we are so enmeshed in our own view that inertia keeps us there. More often, we simply see the evidence for our own view so clearly that further curiosity seems unnecessary.
What we think, at any given moment, is a valid perspective but not the whole truth.
If this sounds obvious, if this sounds easy, I dare you to remember how easy it is the next time you are arguing with a spouse, disagreeing with a coworker, reading an exasperating editorial, or stuck on the phone with a customer service representative.
A few years back I asked for a spectacular pair of binoculars for my birthday. I love them. Looking at the tree out my living room window the other day through these binoculars, I could see the leaves in great detail as they shimmered in the sun and rustled in the wind. But when I rolled the focus wheel in the other direction, I could see the metal mesh of the window screen, sharp and clear, just a foot away from my face, and the tree was gone. A moment ago that screen had been entirely invisible.
The leaves were a valid perspective of the view out my window, but they were not the whole truth. What does it take to turn that focus wheel?
Being remembered for life means, among other things, cultivating the middot, qualities, of empathy, curiosity, and courage - the empathy to care deeply about others, the curiosity to ask for further insights, and the courage to share of ourselves and be changed by what we learn. This is part of teshuva, the process of returning again and again to ourselves and to God, of turning and turning the focus wheel of our attention to learn more and more about ourselves, our situation, and the world around us. Teshuva, returning to our highest self, is impossible if we think we already know what the world will look like on the other side.
Baruch HaShem, thank God, we as Jews are heirs to a tradition that both canonizes different viewpoints - the Talmud and rabbinic stories fill thousands of pages of conflicting interpretations of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish law -- and celebrates the process of inquiry, disagreement, and soliciting multiple perspectives.
"For three years," the Talmud teaches "there was a dispute between the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai. One would assert, “The law is in agreement with our views,” and the other would contend, “The law is in agreement with our views.” [Shocking.] Then a bat kol, a voice from heaven, announced, Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim Hayyim hen, “These and those are both the words of the Living God.”
What we each think, at any given moment, is a valid perspective but not the whole truth.
Hillel and Shammai were proto rabbis, ancient teachers whose respective followers spent years arguing with each other. It took a voice from heaven to teach them how to handle this situation. See, the bat kol explains, both of you have valid perspectives. Each school of students is not only right, but is speaking the words of the living God, Elohim Hayyim, the same name for God we use in our high holiday liturgy.
But hold on!
The bat kol continues by saying, "But the law is in agreement with the rulings of the School of Hillel.”
You might be thinking, wait a sec! and the Talmud was too!
The text asks: "If both “Eilu v’eilu, these and those, are the words of the Living God,” what entitled the School of Hillel to have the law according to their rulings? Because," the text answers itself, "they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of the School of Shammai, and were even so humble as to mention the words of Shammai before their own (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b).
According to this story, Hillel's teachings end up being the law not because they are smarter policies, or more practical or profound. They end up being the law because the students of Hillel listened to the students of Shammai, and were able to explain the viewpoints of Shammai as well as their own. While the text doesn't say so explicitly, I think the students of Hillel were transformed by their encounter with the students of Shammai. Their kindly and modest approach would allow their hearts to be open to their rivals such that they could not help but be changed and moved by them. While the rulings of Hillel and Shammai as handed down to us look like opposites, I think that Hillel's teachings were not purely Hillel's anymore. They intermingled with the wisdom and perspectives of Shammai, and they were influenced by the very process of debate itself. This is why the Hillel won the day.
We hear this lesson again nestled in the details of tomorrow morning's Torah portion, one of the more difficult stories in Genesis - chapter 21. Sarah finally gives birth to a child, Isaac. But years earlier, she had encouraged Abraham to have a child with her maidservant, Hagar. Now Sarah sees this child, Ishma'el, with her son Isaac. Afraid for her own son's inheritance, Sarah tells Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael.
If we look at the language around the key characters in this story, each of them is blinded by their own perspective and sees only a limited scope of the difficult situation. The Torah says ותֵרֶא שרה, "and Sarah saw Ishmael playing with Isaac." Instead of seeing children enjoying each other's company, Sarah sees only a threat to her son's power. While according to God Sarah is, upsettingly, correct to want Hagar and Ishmael banished, she is still blind to the truth that Hagar and Ishmael are part of this sacred story, and that they have their own roles to play.
When Sarah tells Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishma'el, the text reads וירע הדבר מאוד בעיני אברהם, "the matter was terrible in Abraham's eyes." Understandably, Abraham sees only the terror of banishing his lover and child. He cannot yet see the truth God will care for them.
And finally, when Hagar is sent into the מדבר, the wilderness, she places Ishma'el at a distance, not wanting to see him die of thirst, unable to see that deliverance is close at hand.
In this story, it is God who provides the missing information to the characters. "שמע בקלהּ, Listen to your wife," God tells Abraham. "Hagar and Ishma'el will be the beginning of a great nation, but your line will travel through Isaac."
"Look up, Hagar," God says, hearing the cries of mother and son in the wilderness. And the text reads, "ותפקח אלהים את עיניה, ותרא באר מיים’ God opened Hagar's eyes, and she saw a well of water."
In this story, a character sees only their own corner of the world, until God comes into the story and gives them the crucial information relevant to survive the ordeal, almost like God twisting the focus knob on the binoculars to let them see something new right in front of their eyes. In our own lives, we must play the part of God for each other - asking and answering from a place of deep curiosity so that we can have more and more of the information we need to make wise decisions and open our hearts. Like the campers and Design Lab teens, we can practice a posture of learning in which we approach others as wellsprings of wisdom, as B'tzelem Elohim, made in the image of God.
Whatever we each think, it a valid perspective but not the whole truth.
This teaching is relevant on many levels.
In our intimate friend and family relationships, we can honor the nature, needs, and experiences of our loved ones by getting curious. "What am I not seeing?" we can ask. Or, "It sounds like you have a few different conflicting thoughts. I'd love to hear from each of them." In honoring our loved ones like this, especially when they are in inner conflict, we not only hold a compassionate mirror up to them; we also gain more insights and can better make decisions together or navigate disagreement.
On teams at work or in school, we can approach collaboration from this stance and be surprised by how much we learn and how much easier it is to get to consensus. Roger Schwartz, leadership coach and creator of the Mutual Learning Approach, teaches people to make genuine statements and ask genuine questions, in that order. (I challenge you to notice whenever you do the opposite - ask a question, and then answer it yourself. It's more common than we think!) When we say our thoughts, and then end with "What am I missing?" or "How do you see it differently?" a conversation can be a real give and take.
Within our own psyches, how often do we have voices or feelings that sound crazy but just need to be heard? When we shut them down, when we tell our anger, shame, disgust, frustration, grief "Take a hike, I hate you and I don't want to hear what you're telling me," the voice of that emotion or part usually gets stronger or repressed. When, on the other hand, we can gently hold that emotion and say, "Hi. I hear you. Thank you for your wisdom. I know you are not the whole truth, but you are a valid perspective," then we may be able to move more easily past the stuck place inside us.
The working title for my remarks today was, "This sermon is a valid perspective, but it's not the whole truth." One way in which the teaching I've offered today may not be the whole truth is that some stances, some perspectives, are just wrong. Politics distorts communication, and distorts personal stories. And this current presidential election has stretched me to the very edge of my capacity to call all perspectives valid.
On the one hand, I take it as an item of deepest faith that every human being's perspective is an expression of their actual needs and experiences, just as every human being is an expression of the divine. On the other hand, I take it as an item of deepest faith that institutional hatred is wrong, that misogyny, racism, and the denial of science for the sake of profit are just wrong. So I have two valid perspectives here, neither of which is the whole truth. I don't know how to resolve them. But I know this. There is always room for more curiosity. There is always room for more empathy. There is always room for more courage, especially in the face of discord and fear which drive people away from truth.
On the High Holidays we ask God over and over again to write us in the book of life. זוכרינו לחיים מלך חפץ בחיים. Remember us for life, Sovereign who yearns for life. We all speak the words of the Living God. Yet it is up to us to nurture the life affirming habit of seeking multiple valid perspectives - a habit which will enrich our own souls, our own learning, and our relationships to others. May we each string a metaphoric bracelet this year with many beads of empathy, curiosity, and courage to better grow towards life.