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Thought for the Day: The Power of Rationalization, the Importance of Da'as Torah

One of the joys of teaching freshman physics is being able to do cool demonstrations.  One of my favorites was floating an ordinary sewing needle in a bowl of water and then -- nothing up my sleeve (if that expression doesn't evoke the image of a six foot, sleeveless moose holding and aviator capped squirrel by the scruff of the neck, then I just feel sorry for you) -- I add one drop of detergent to the water and the needle immediately drops to the bottom of the bowl.  The point was to show how strong surface tension is when the entire surface cooperates, but how easily it is torn apart when the force is disrupted at one point.  The detergent, being a emulsifier, disrupts the surface tension at one spot; similar to the way a cloth under tension rips easily when one weakness is introduced.  Thank you for that walk down memory lane.

Lot left his comfortable home and society to follow his uncle, Avraham Avinu, across the world as a dedicated student and heir apparent.  Yet this same Lot is infamous for committing a heinous sin (twice!) that is not be expected of even the lowest echelons of society.  How did that happen?  Lot moved to S'dom; simple as that.  The Torah tells us that Lot rose to a position of some prominence.  The medrash relates some of the incidents that lead to his rise.  Once Lot took a Sodomite to court on charges of assault and battery.  The judge ruled that not only was Lot's assailant exempt from paying damages, but just the opposite -- Lot was responsible for paying the "assailant" for the medical procedure of blood letting (that was common at that time).  Lot responded by punching the judge in the nose and telling him to pay the assailant himself as his (the judge's) payment for Lot letting his blood.

What kind of logic is that?  While it is certainly true that (in those days) blood letting was worth something, it seems absurd to take that into account in an assault and battery case!  Try this... look at cigarette ads from the 60s showing the enormous social benefits of smoking.  Look back to the 30s to see those ads touting the medical benefits (calming of nerves and aiding digestion) of smoking.  Where there is a will there is a way.  People want to smoke, they'll find benefits.  People want to live in a society unencumbered by Morality, they'll find a way to justify any action... and even label it as promoting true human kindness and love.

What's the cure?  The Torah says we need to listen to our Sages even if what they say seems to us as they are saying your right hand is your left.  Chazal give two reasons for this: (1) G-d is more interested in a Klal Yisrael with uniform guidelines, than everyone doing what is correct in his own eyes.  (2) You are almost surely wrong.  A council of the greatest minds with no interest other than arriving at the truth has come to one conclusion, and you -- who are נוגעה בדבר/personally affected -- have come to a different conclusion.  Just who do you think is probably correct?  Not a hard sell, at all.

The rosh yeshiva, R' Henoch Leibowitz, z"tzl, asked: if you have the second reason, why do you need the first?  Moreover, Chazal seem to make reason (1) the main reason!  He answers, with typical simply brilliance and insight into human nature, that as long as you are נוגעה בדבר, you can't hear (2) at all.  You are so certain that what they are saying is as wrong as telling you that your left hand is your right... you are done; you can't hear any logic at that point.  Therefore, Chazal tell you that you are welcome to be right, but you still have to do what the Sages have decreed.  Once your personal attachment is removed, all of the sudden you can hear that they might be right (and actually are).  Just as that little drop of soap disperses the entire surface and shows that it is not solid at all, so too the removal of your personal interest in proving yourself right brings the entire facade of "your logic" tumbling down.

If you believe with perfect faith that you can be totally objective, you are lost.  If you refuse to accept the wisdom of others, then you are doomed to a road of justification that leads to the most heinous of crimes -- all in the name of freedom and liberty.


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