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Stumbling Over One's Own Feet

05/18/2017 01:47:23 AM


How do we know we are worrying about the right things? In a world where have so many concerns, and the news is full of leaks and laptop bans, spies and special counsels,  this week’s Torah portion, Behar-Behuktai offers some insight. 

Behukotai offers a promise- if the Jews follow God’s law, they will be blessed in many ways.  If they do not, they will be subject to the curses of a passage known as the  tochecha.  God threatens them with the most frightening punishments: war, famine, and exile.  Perhaps even the worst of these afflictions are found in Leviticus 26:36-37.  The Jews will be cursed to tremble and flee in fear of their enemies, to the point that they accidentally injure each other in their flight, even though there is actually no-one chasing them.

There are two ways to interpret these verses.  A common explanation is that self-inflicted wounds due to panic and paranoia, to our own misjudgments and misreactions,  are far worse than the harm that we may suffer from  external threats. Rabbi Mordechai Kaminetsky, however, suggests another view.  He feels that the passage refers to a different kind of affliction is when one is in a fight, or flight, for one’s very life, and yet others refuse to believe that there is any danger. 
These two interpretations are two sides of the same coin.  In many facets of life, personal, professional, political, policy and beyond, we may become so preoccupied with phantom threats that we harm ourselves trying avoid dangers of vanishingly small probability.  Meanwhile, we blithely ignore  other threats which are all too real. 

I’ll offer one concrete, example.   There is  currently a ban on laptops in the cabins of flights from a few countries, and there is much discussion of extending it to many hundreds of flights.  There is valid reason for concern- it has been known for years that electronic devices could potentially be used to conceal explosives.   However, aviation experts are concerned that putting such devices into checked luggage might actually increase the risk that an explosion, intentional or accidental, could cause greater loss of life.  There are other options: Israeli security has mastered other types of screening to reduce the risk no matter where the electronics are stored.  Otherwise, in an effort to escape a particular risk, we could potentially invoke a greater one.

One can go deeper.  Reports indicate that Israeli intelligence was the source of the information about potential attacks, but in the process of sharing that information with Russian leaders, our president risked exposing how it was collected.  This  increased the danger to Israel and its operatives, damaged relationships, and decreased the likelihood that similar  information could be obtained in the future.   In an effort to avert a particular risk, we potentially provoke a greater one.
There is much that we don’t know.  How serious and specific is the threat?  Some have hypothesized that the laptop ban may actually have nothing to do with explosives, and that critical systems on some airplanes could be susceptible to hacking if one patched a laptop into the right wires in boxes under the seat.  (  Of course,  ironically, the electronic device which poses the greatest risk to passengers flying internationally is probably still a cellphone in the hands of someone driving a car on the highway to the airport.

As individuals, and as a society, our society faces many dilemmas and challenges that we must take very seriously.  There is a human tendency to be reactive to particular risks and threats, and downplay others.  The Torah reminds us that when we are not following God’s path, we can run so hard from an imagined danger, that we trip and stumble over our own feet, to even greater injury.

Sun, July 14 2024 8 Tammuz 5784