Beware: We Can Get Used to Anything

My wife's maternal grandmother was a wise old woman. She was raised in the Old City of Jerusalem, where she accumulated her wisdom from her Yiddish-speaking family and the diverse Jerusalemites who lived all around her. She even had a long list of Arabic words of wisdom which she picked up from her Muslim neighbors.

One of the pithy nuggets of insight into the human condition that she would often quote, in Yiddish, went like this: "Menn zoll nisht gepruft verren, mit vos menn kenn zugevoynt verren." Roughly translated, it means, "May we never be tested by that to which we can become accustomed." In other words, recognizing that human beings can become habituated even to the most miserable circumstances, may we never be exposed to situations to which we can become habituated.

Think about it. Many of us have experienced long periods of unemployment, during which we learned to live in relative poverty. Yet, we managed to cope under these conditions, and, if we didn't have the good fortune to find employment quickly, we adapted to significantly lower standards of living. Similarly, many of us have experienced injuries or illnesses that forced us to become accustomed to reduced mobility, to pain, and to diminished life choices.

Hence the blessing: May we never be tested by that which we can learn to accept.

But it is not only misfortune to which human beings can become accustomed. We can even become accustomed to evil. We learn to ignore, and ultimately to tolerate, behaviors which once would have shocked us and shamed us.

Consider the images that we see repetitively in the news media. We observe inhumanity, brutality in the raw, and even witness the beheadings of living persons. When we first became exposed to such sights, we found them repulsive and impossible to watch. We felt disgusted, horrified to the core, and could not suppress our moral outrage.

Over time, however, we became inured to such stimuli, and our moral sensitivities became numbed. We became so used to sadistic sinning that we no longer react to it as we once did.

Often, the consequence of familiarity with evil is tolerance of evil. Our Torah warns us about this consequence and enjoins us to avoid the trap of such complacency. The horror that we experience the hundredth time that we see evil must be no less powerful than the horror we felt when we first witnessed such evil. Our sense of moral indignation must never become desensitized.

This lesson is taught to us by a remarkable verse in this week's Torah portion, Parshat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1).

I refer to the passage in chapter 26, in which we read of the results of the census of the Israelites conducted by Moses and by Eleazar. Most of the passage is simply a list of names and numbers. But here and there, short comments are made about particular individuals. One such comment appears in verses 9 and 10, in the middle of the enumeration of the members of the tribe of Reuben. The verses read, "The sons of Eliab were Nemuel, and Dathan and Abiram. These are the same Dathan and Abiram, chosen in the assembly, who agitated against Moses and Aaron as part of Korah's band when they agitated against the Lord. Whereupon the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with Korah—when that band died, when the fire consumed the 250 men—and they became an example."

Is it not strange that the Torah would provide information that we already know about these wrongdoers and their punishment at this stage of the narrative? After all, the passage is intended to simply catalog the details of the census of the tribe of Reuben. Are we not sufficiently familiar with the vile deeds of Dathan and Abiram? Even beginning students of the Bible know of their many sins, which, according to rabbinic tradition, extend all the way back to their betrayal of Moses after they surreptitiously observed him slay the Egyptian slave master.

Rabbi Chaim Zeitchik, of blessed memory, a master preacher and teacher whom I often quote in these columns, suggests an answer to this question. He describes the process by which people become, in his words, "cooled off" to evil. When we are first exposed to evil, we are astounded. We feel the urge to protest forcefully and effectively.

With time, however, we become less astounded, our protests become weaker, and eventually we learn to "mind our own business." We come to ignore even the most egregious wrongdoings. Complacency and indifference replace moral indignation.

Therefore, argues Rabbi Zeitchik, the Torah chooses to remind us of the misdeeds of evil men, even in passages where we least expect such reminders. These reminders are there to prevent us from "cooling off" our rightful negative attitudes toward such men and their actions. This brief review of the story of Dathan and Abiram is designed to "reawaken our conscience so that it remains critical of evilso that we not remain callous in the face of such misdeeds and not become accustomed to such degradation.".

Let me conclude with a story, also recorded in the precious anthology of Rabbi Zeitchik’s writings, entitled Ohr Chadash, on these verses.

The story is told of the saintly Rabbi Yisrael Mayer HaKohen, known by the title of his major work as the Chafetz Chaim. He lived most of his life in Radin, a small, predominantly Jewish town in Lithuania, where he had his yeshiva. This was a town in which Shabbat was observed meticulously and where public desecration of the Shabbat was never evident.

During the first World War, the Chafetz Chaim and his yeshiva were compelled to leave Radin and flee eastward toward Russia. They found refuge in a city where there were few Jews, only a few of whom were observant of Shabbat in the manner to which the Chafetz Chaim was accustomed.

One Shabbat morning, while the great sage was walking in the street, he observed a public act of Shabbat desecration. He was so shaken by what he had seen that he returned immediately to the yeshiva and delivered a tear-filled discourse to the students. He began and ended with the outcry, "Oy! Woe is me! I've seen chillul Shabbat! I've witnessed Shabbat desecration!"

Several weeks later, the Chafetz Chaim again ventured out for a walk and once more observed a public act of Shabbat desecration. Again, he returned immediately to the yeshiva and delivered a tear-filled discourse. But this time, he began and ended with a different outcry.

He exclaimed, "Oy! Woe is me! I've seen chillul Shabbat once again, but this time, the tears I shed were not as hot as the tears I shed before! Woe is me, for my emotional reaction to Shabbat desecration is no longer the same as it was."

We are not all as capable as was the Chafetz Chaim in distinguishing between "hot tears" and "tears which have cooled off." However, we are all capable of distinguishing between shock and numbness, outrage and indifference.

There is a lesson to be learned in the Yiddish folk saying that my wife's grandmother transmitted to me.

Let us pray that we never be tested by that which we can learn to accept.