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Can Humans Be Objective?

Thursday, 28 July, 2016 - 4:00 pm

A politician was sitting at his campaign headquarters when the phone rang. He listened intently, and after a moment his face brightened. When he hung up, he immediately phoned his mother to tell her the good news. "Ma," he shouted, "the results are in. I won the election!"   "Honestly?"  The politician's smiled faded. "Aw Ma, why bring that up at a time like this?"

The laws of inheritance that were initially given in the Torah, which recognized only male heirs, stated that sons inherit their fathers and are responsible to fully support the widow and daughters as long as they are not married. This week's portion of Pinchas tells of five daughters whose father had passed on. There were no sons to inherit the land. The daughters refused to reconcile themselves to this situation, and approached Moses.

They stood before Moses and the entire congregation, saying, "Our father died in the desert, but was not in the assembly that banded together against G-d in Korach's assembly, and he had no sons. Why should our father's name be eliminated from his family because he had no son? Give us a portion along with our father's brothers."

So Moses brought their case before G-d.

God told Moses: "The daughters have a just claim. Give them a hereditary portion of land alongside their father's brothers."

Why did Moses bring this seemingly obvious ruling directly to G-d and not even begin to seek an answer? 

To appreciate the answer, we must examine this question: Are humans capable of objectivity? Is it possible to disconnect yourself totally from your opinions, prejudices, anything that may influence your choice or response to some stimulus, and deliver a completely logical and impartial judgement?

In the Jewish calendar, a leap year is every few years, and an entire additional month is inserted. It is always  the month of Adar. The law prohibits just adding a month at random; there has to be good reason. In Temple times, the Jewish Supreme Court and a panel of experts would decide whether to make a year a leap year. This was based on astronomical calculations, to ensure that Passover would be in the spring as the Torah explicitly states, but also on practical considerations. (Since our months and holidays follow the lunar calendar and the seasons follow the solar cycle, we need to add a month every few years so the lunar calendar catches up to the solar cycle. Otherwise, Passover would sometimes fall out in the summer or winter.) For example, if it was a rainy winter, the roads were muddy, and the Jews would not be able to travel to Jerusalem for Passover, so the panel would consider adding a month before Passover so the roads could dry up.

The Talmud says that “The king or High Priest may not sit in on court proceedings to impregnate the year with an extra month.” Why? The king has an invested monetary interest, since the budget is annual. If a year has 13 months, the treasury gains. The king paid salaries yearly; a longer year meant a lighter burden. Hence, the king could not be trusted in this matter.

The high priest, on the other hand, may not want to add a 13th month, for then Yom Kippur would be later and it would be colder, and he had to immerse in the cold Mikvah five times each Yom Kippur! Besides, he serves in the Temple barefoot, and he does not want the floor to be cold.

This is strange. Are we afraid that the High Priest of Israel would distort the truth so as to skip a leap year, just so that on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, the Mikvah water and the floor would be warmer?

The Torah understands how deep human bias runs. I may be a High Priest, it may be Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, I may be dealing with a national issue—adding a month to the year for the entire Jewish world, but deep down—consciously or not—what is determining my decision? Whatever is best for me!

In the world-view of Judaism, for human beings to become great, they must first know how small they are, how much bias may exist in their hearts, consciously or subconsciously. They ought never deny or repress this truth. They must acknowledge it. This is the first step to not getting entangled by it.

There is a fascinating illustration in the Talmud. A man facing trial was in great distress. He faced a staggering loss if the judge would rule against him. During litigation he conferred with his counsel. “If I lose, I am lost!”

“It is in the judge's hands,” his lawyer instinctively replied.

“Perhaps I can send him a small gift, maybe a case of whisky, to help him make up his mind?”

“Oh, no! Not with this judge,” the lawyer hastily said. “He is a very upstanding man and would be insulted by the implication that he could be bought with a bribe. In fact, it could easily cost us the case if you try any shenanigans.”

The defendant did not respond.  A few days later the judge rendered his decision in the defendant's favor. On the way out of the courthouse the delighted defendant thanked his lawyer heartily: “We won! Thanks so much for your advice on the whisky; it was just like you said!”

“I am certain we would have lost if you had tried that,” the lawyer responded smoothly.

“What do you mean? I did it and it worked.”

The lawyer stopped short and stared at his client in disbelief. “What? You sent him a case of whisky?!”

“Yes, and $10,000. That’s the reason we won.”

“It can’t be. This judge never takes bribes. If someone bribes him, they lose the case. How did you pull it off?”

“It's very simple. I sent the judge a nice, expensive gift. But instead of using my own name and address, I put in my opponent's business card.”

There is no question that a case of whiskey and $10,000 constitute bribery. But how about far more subtle forms of bribery, such as verbal bribery, or a gesture toward the judge?  Based on all of this we can now appreciate what occurred with the five daughters.

When they presented their case, they prefaced it with, “Our father died in the desert. He was not among those of Korach's party who protested against G-d, and you Moshe, but he died because of his own sin, without leaving any sons.”

This detail is the key. Korach staged a ferocious rebellion against Moses. The moment Moses heard the daughters say that their father was not part of Korach’s mutiny, he felt that his psyche was biased in their favor. This was a verbal bribe, though subtle, and it may have been able to make him not fully objective.

Moses was now reaching 120 years. He was the greatest prophet and scholar who ever lived, the greatest human being who ever walked our planet, a person who for the past 40 years communed with G-d and brought His Torah to the world. Still, he questioned his judgement! Had they not mentioned the saga of Korach, Moses might have contemplated the question and offered his view on the law. Yet he felt that when the young women mentioned that their father did not join the mutiny 39 years earlier, he was disqualified to judge their case! He immediately said: I cannot be objective in this case, thus I must ask G-d what needs to be done.

If Moses, at the peak of his life, felt that that no matter his standing, a small compliment from five sisters could alter his objectivity and distort his sense of truth, if the man whom G-d entrusted with His wisdom, about whom G-d declares, “He is trusted in my entire home,” still felt he could be biased, certainly you and I must ask ourselves, “Maybe there is another perspective?” “Maybe my wife has a point?” “Maybe my husband has a point?” “Maybe I need an outside opinion?”

A person is considered related to himself. Just as we don’t accept testimony from a relative, we don’t accept testimony from man about himself.

We all need an outside voice before whom we can run issues, concerns, questions, before whom we can share what is going in our lives, someone who can listen to us, and give us the feedback that we often dread but desperately need.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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