rabbinic writing
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rabbinic writing

When the Answer is Yes, and Yes

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin, 7.17.20
Parashat Matot-Masei
Congregation Beth Israel, Scottsdale, Arizona

Do you remember the idiom, ‘Do you walk to school or carry your lunch?’ The answer, of course, after a moment of confusion, followed by a moment of thought… is ‘yes.’ Or maybe ‘no.’ What matters more is that both can be true, or neither. Or either. The truth of one statement does not negate the truth of the other.

We are navigating a changing world. Life-moments that we have always taken at face value are now hard to anticipate. Staying in, and social distance, and drive by birthday parties all seemed like a short term, temporary fix a few months ago. Now, it all looks like it will be a much slower, much longer kind of temporary fix.

We have more questions than answers. Like:
What will the High Holy Days look like this year?
When can we travel?
When can I hug my grandchildren?
And, pressing for so many parents right now — is “when, or how, or can, or will my children return to school in the fall?”

And as parents and teachers and school districts and doctors and governments try to navigate these deeply murky and still quite uncharted waters, the conversation becomes heated.

Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with a strong statement urging “all policy considerations for the coming school year [to] start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” For the healthy social, educational, physical, and nutritional development of children and adolescents, their doctors are advocating for the return to in-person learning.

Meanwhile, teachers aren’t so sure. Hannah Wysong, a teacher in Tempe says, “I want to serve the students, but it’s hard to say you’re going to sacrifice
all of the teachers, paraprofessionals, cafeteria workers and bus drivers.”
It appears that children are less susceptible, but not entirely immune to Cornoviraus, whereas adult school professionals are not.

And parents are stuck in the middle, forced to prioritize logistics. Kids and pets and spouses appearing on zoom calls is no longer cute like it was four months ago. Our ability to focus at work is compromised while also breaking up sibling arguments or helping a kindergartener log-on to a daily zoom call. The constant tug of war for attention between home responsibilities and work responsibilities feels never ending, and exhausting. Trying to make sense of the options in this new reality feels like a game of Jenga. We place one value above another, above another, above another… until it seems like the whole tower is about to come crashing down.

As a society, how do we decide what to prioritize? How do we plan when the question is whether you walk to school or carry your lunch? In looking at the options, the questions all ask ‘or,’ and yet, the only answer is ‘yes.’

Do we care about mental health of students or physical health of teachers?
The answer is yes.

Do we care about keeping kids safe from abusive home environments or keeping households safe from coronavirus?
The answer is yes.

Do we care that schools are more than child care facilities,or do we care about working parents being able to do their jobs?
The answer is yes.

Do we care that wearing masks seems to be the most reliable preventative measure against COVID, or that kids can’t reliably wear masks all day?
The answer is yes.

Do we care that teachers can’t teach both online and virtually at the same time, or do we care that parents have access to options that will work best for their family?
The answer is yes.

Do we care about our health, or do we care about the economy?

The answer is yes, and yes, and yes, and yes.

In this week’s Torah portion the Israelites prepare to cross the Jordan river and enter the promised land. They have spent forty years in the desert, and they are on the brink of a promised fulfilled. Their long, slow, temporary way of life is about to become a newer of normal.

That is, until two of the tribes, the Reubenites and the Gadites tentatively approach Moses: They have noticed that the lands around them, the lands of Jazar and Gilead feel like home. This land is the perfect kind of land on which to raise cattle, which is their profession.

וַיֹּאמְר֗וּ אִם־מָצָ֤אנוּ חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ יֻתַּ֞ן אֶת־הָאָ֧רֶץ הַזֹּ֛את לַעֲבָדֶ֖יךָ לַאֲחֻזָּ֑ה אַל־תַּעֲבִרֵ֖נוּ אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּֽן׃

“It would be a favor to us,” they continued, “if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan.” (Numbers 32:5)

Their plan has changed. They have found new promise here on the other side of the Jordan river.

Moses is not pleased. He reminds them of the commitment they have made to their people, and to God. He reminds them of the challenges that still await them on the other side of the river.

הַאַֽחֵיכֶ֗ם יָבֹ֙אוּ֙ לַמִּלְחָמָ֔ה וְאַתֶּ֖ם תֵּ֥שְׁבוּ פֹֽה׃

“Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?” (Numbers 32:6)

In the text, Moses is angry. But I think that we can imagine that he is also hurt. They have come this far together,and suddenly it seems that they’ve grown apart. To Moses, it seems they are no longer concerned about peoplehood, or community, or God. They care more about their cows. After some back and forth and a little bit of divine wrath, they come up with a plan:

The Reubenites and the Gadites will uphold the promise they made to their people, helping them to find their place in the land of Israel. And when that is done, they will return to other side of the river (Numbers 32:17–19).

In other words, do they care about their community, or do they care about their cattle? The answer… is yes.

In 1936, F Scott Fitzgerald wrote:

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

In other words, it is both difficult and necessary to see and to accept more than one truth at any given time. Is this paralyzing, or is this motivating? Well…. Yes.

Rabbi Nicki Greninger explains that a Jewish name for this is ‘Elu v’Elu,’or ‘these and these.’ She writes:

“As Jews, we maintain it is possible to hold multiple truths, and we celebrate having a BOTH/AND perspective. It is possible that multiple — even conflicting — viewpoints can be correct and contain seeds of holiness. In the great debate about schools, we must keep this in mind and not succumb to an EITHER/OR or US/THEM mentality.”

Just like Reubenites and the Gadites, BOTH the new land would be a better place for them to settle, AND they understood the importance of settling in the promised land. With an ‘elu v’elu’ perspective, they find a solution that upholds both truths.

However, to simply compromise, especially when looking at a situation as nuanced and complex and potentially dangerous as opening schools in the midst of a global pandemic is not enough.

There is no middle ground when the question is whose health and safety we value the most. The answer is not for everyone to sacrifice a little bit of health the answer, is yes physical health matters, and, yesemotional health matters.

Our level of conviction on either count cannot be compromised when both answers are equally true.

So what do we do?

Steve Jobs

One possibility: Consider the iphone. Or macbook. Or any apple product, really. Davia Temen writes for Forbes about what made Steve Jobs so successful. She explains, “[his] ability… to hold completely disparate ideas and values in his mind at the same time, synthesize and then act upon them, that is one of the keys to his genius.” She explains that he was both a Bhuddist and a businessman. He was both obsessive about privacy while also creating keys to online transparency. He believed that creating something simple was harder than creating complex. He honored failure as a key ingredient to success. For Jobs, creativity dwelled in the space between truth and truth, between elu v’elu. Something new, and genius, and compelling, and necessary is right there: between yes, and yes.

It is true that kids need school.
It is true that teachers need to be safe.
It is true that parents need to work.

It is true that we are living in a frightening and confusing time.
It is true that life was easier before we had to navigate all of these difficult and earnest truths.

Like Moses, we learn: anger doesn’t help. Arguing and pointing fingers doesn’t solve problems, especially not when both parties are right. What does help, is tapping into the creativity that dwells in the space between your truth and mine. Once we accept that, and only once we accept that, we can find an answer. We may not know what it is yet, but we know where it is: the answer lies not on one bank of the Jordan or the other, but in the rushing river that flows between yes, and yes.

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Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin

Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Scottsdale, AZ.