The Cynic No Longer Whispers

Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.  - Stephen Colbert

Cynicism is a posture and language that is both weapon and shield – attacking even as it protects the cynic from response, inoculating him from everything but himself.  Which is not to suggest that cynicism does not do grievous harm.  It does.  The fabric of community is frayed and torn by the cynic.  To appreciate the truth of this observation, one need look no further than our recent presidential election to measure how cynicism, cynical language and the posture of the cynic has strained – to the point of breaking! – the normative social bonds and mores that have allowed us to follow rule and laws.  Indeed, the cynicism of the recent presidential campaign has laid bare how tenuous the power of decency and laws are in the ways of the community.  Without our willing adherence to the norms of society, we are left facing the reality that only anger, fear, power and might remain to fuel behavior.

And, so, so very sadly, we Jews have seen this movie before.  And we know how tragically it can end.

* * *

Torah often presents us with language which seems extraneous only to ultimately reveal its genius and wisdom.  So it is at the beginning of Parashat Toldot when the Torah says, “And these are the offspring (toldot) of Isaac, son of Abraham.  Abraham begot Isaac…”

This seems, on first glance, to be extraneous language to say the least.  After all, we know that Isaac is the son of Abraham.   We just as surely know that Abraham is Isaac’s father.  So why this curious repetition?

In answer, Rashi cites the famous Midrash that refers to the cynics who scoffed with incredulity that Abraham, at his advanced age, could have fathered a child.  No, they claimed, Sarah must have become pregnant in the house of Avimelech.  Ah, the smugness of the cynic!  Hadn’t Abraham and Sarah been married for decades and remained childless?  And now, suddenly, in their advanced years, they were to have a baby?  Hadn’t Sarah herself laughed at the possibility?

The cynics were sly.  Certainly they knew the truth.

As the midrash reveals, it was in response to these cynics that God made Yitzchak’s features mirror images to Abraham’s – so no one could doubt that Abraham had indeed holid et Yitzchak.

It was lovely that God saw to it that the cynics’ nasty observations were obviously disproved.  But why should God even care what the cynics think?  What difference are the murmurings of the leitzanei ha’dor Of course God didn’t care.  However, no act God performs, no word He reveals is without purpose.  The Brisker Rav wonders that, perhaps, in this example God is demonstrating that there is a point to the cynicism.  After all, while it is surely a miracle that God “Xeroxed” Abraham’s features in his son, certainly the greater miracle was Sarah’s pregnancy itself!  After all, to our modern “experience” the cynics were right to question Abraham’s ability to father a child at his advanced age.  If anything, they were not cynical enough!  How could it be that a ninety year old woman, barren throughout her adult life, suddenly finds that her womb is as fertile as a twenty year old’s?

If the cynicism seems well-founded, what is the Midrash trying to teach us?

A great rav wondered that Abraham, a man who was never intimidated by anyone, anywhere, a man whose very name “Avraham” was earned because his faith and action placed the whole world on one side and he on the other; a man who battled Nimrod, with the five kings, with the idolaters of his generation and was always victorious should suddenly be thrown off balance by a handful of cynics.  Mah pitom he is suddenly nitrashlu yadav, weakened to the point that he needs God’s assistance!

What gives?

We all know “what gives” because we have all felt the damaging effects of cynicism.  Certainly we have each, at one time or another, found ourselves sitting in shul, minding our own business but unable to help but overhear the mutterings of some so-called discussion about rabbis, rebbes, leaders, groups, institutions… whomever and whatever… where the thrust of the words being bandied about is demeaning, demoralizing and delegitimizing to those very leaders and institutions.

Of course, we are troubled by what we hear.  Sickened even.  We find ourselves screaming inside.  We silently practice an emotional response.  A reasoned response.  An eloquent response.  We have the appropriate response to the cynics’ shameful and insidious words on the tip of our tongues but we remain silent.

We can’t get the words out.

We find ourselves victimized by the power of cynicism.  It paralyzes even the most logical and appropriate response.  Even Avraham, the great warrior, believer, man of absolute faith, even he felt that weakness.  He could not stand up to the cynicism by himself.  Even Avraham needed God’s intervention to silence the poisonous cynics.

It is so hard to silence the cynic.  Cynicism is insidious; it is sly; it is cunning.  It is so obviously wrong – on the personal level, the communal level, the religious level – yet we cannot find the right way to respond.  Can they really be in the shul mocking and demeaning the leaders and institutions we hold sacred?  Their words are so… incredulous!

But certainly so were the words of those who suggested that Sarah was really impregnated by Abimelech!

* * *

In Parashat Veyera we read, “Sarah conceived and bore a son unto Avraham in his old age, at the appointed time (la’moed).  Again, the Torah states that which should be obvious.  Why?  Rav Yudan says, that la’moed teaches us that it was after nine months. In the following pasuk, “Avraham called the name of his son who was born to him – whom Sarah had borne him – Yitzchak…”. Why the repetition and emphasis? As Rashi comments, “So people shouldn’t say that Sarah conceived when she was in the house of Avimelech.”

Likewise, when Sarah extols God, “And she said, ‘Who is the One Who said to Abraham, Sarah would nurse children?’” Why is “children” plural?  Is she nursing “children” or only Yitzchak? Again, Rashi refers to the cynical gossip circulating among the town’s women.  On the day of the feast Abraham made, all the noble women brought their babies without their maidservants to nurse them, and Sarah nursed them all.  Why?  To silence the cynicism of these women who claimed the child was not hers.  How to convince them?  A barren woman could not nurse!  So, she nursed all the children.

Cynicism abounds, betraying the community to be filled with petty and mean-spirited people!  And yet here Rashi does not condemn them as being evil, not the leitzanei ha’dor of Toldot.  Here, they are jokesters, just everyday people.

Perhaps his change in tone speaks to cynicism’s true danger.  It is seductive and sly – and “everyday” – because it rarely begins as malice.  Often, it is an offhand, thoughtless and mean-spirited comment.  But no “real harm” is intended.  But real harm can result!  The initial remark is a “harmless” spark that can result in a violent conflagration.

* * *

The Ramban, at the conclusion of Parshas Bo, teaches that even the most meaningful event or experience can be transformed into something meaningless by a bit of cynicism.  Nothing remains sacred when tainted by cynicism.

Humans are seemingly incapable to combat cynicism.  Like Avraham, we need Godly intervention.  Our “skill set” includes mocking that which is most sacred, even God’s miracles for Abraham and Sarah, not standing against such thoughtless and damaging comments.  We are surrounded by cynicism – social media should be renamed cynical media!  Have you seen what Arab social media has posted about the Israel fires, with the hashtag “#Israel burns” trending in Arabic?

Why should we care what these jokesters say on social media?  Why should we care about the whispers in shul?  Why should we care?

Because if we don’t care, if we don’t respond, we will find ourselves in a conflagration the likes of which we know only too well.

Who cares what the leitzanei ha’dor post?  We all must.  For in their cynical comments and postings is the spark that can ignite the fire that will burn us all.