On Polarization

At times, the Talmud can be a bit technical. Pages over pages with discussions that can test the patience of those willing to spend some time learning from this ancient fountain of wisdom. Sometimes it can be hard to just keep it up. And yet, in the midst of so much argument and debate on any given subject, if you pay close attention, you may discover wonderful insights that continue to be relevant in our days. 

In a way, it reminds me of Moses and the burning bush. Moses’ genius was not related to the fact that he saw a burning bush. In the wilderness, bushes burn all the time. What set Moses apart was his ability to discover the one bush that was burning but not consumed. For that, you need to be willing to pay attention to the details that, otherwise, could go unnoticed. In the sea of technical Talmudic details, if we look carefully, we may be able to find beautiful pearls of eternal wisdom. 

Something like this happened to me a few days ago while reading the opening pages of tractate Moed Katan. This tractate deals with a lot of rules and regulations that apply to the intermediate days – or in Hebrew: Chol HaMoed – of Pesach and Sukkot. As you may remember, while during the first and last days of those holidays, no work is allowed, the law changes during the in-between days. On Pesach, for example, you still must eat Matza and refrain from Chametz, but you can do certain specific activities. Well, on tractate Moed Katan we have a long list of dos and don’ts for those days in between. 

As you may imagine, the conversation gets technical. Watering fields on this way is OK, but if you do it this other way then it is not OK. Repairing roads for the sake of public needs is fine, but only is doesn’t cause too much exertion. And the list goes on and on. 

In that context, the Talmud discusses whether you can trap moles and mice in an orchard during these intermediate days or whether destroying ant holes is permitted or not. The Rabbis go back and forth on these subjects and I won’t bother you with the details. However, in the midst of this discussion, we read the following lines: “How does one destroy ant holes? Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: One brings soil from this ant hole and places it in that ant hole and since the ants from the two nests are not familiar with each other, they strangle each other” (6b). 

First of all, I am always amazed at the Talmud’s ability to surprise me with all kinds of things, including a recipe for killing ants. I don’t have ants in my backyard, but you may want to try this formula next time you come across a nasty nest of fire ants. In any case, what I found profoundly interesting is that if you change ants for human beings, you actually get a sense of what’s going in our days with the huge amount of polarization that is engulfing us. We are becoming so far apart from one another that we no longer know how to recognize somebody who may have different ideas than ours and, as a consequence of that, we end up strangling each other. We lose sight of the divine spark that has been hidden in all of us and, in the midst of that painful blindness, we set ourselves for failure. 

But the Talmud doesn’t stop there, and shares with us another insight: “This advice works only in certain circumstances: When the ant holes are located on two opposite sides of the river, when there is no bridge connecting the two sides, when there is not even a plank bridge over the water, and when there is not even a rope stretched taut across the river.” In other words, as long as there is a link between the two sides of the river, the ants won’t be able (or willing) to annihilate each other. As long as there is a connecting bridge, the ants will recognize each other and instead of competing with one another, they will cooperate and eventually become stronger than ever before. 

As I read those lines, I kept thinking about the importance of continuing to do that type of holy work in our days. Even if at times we feel as if there was a huge river separating us from those on the other side, if we remember to keep building bridges, we should be fine. As long as we spend time strengthening connections, we should be able to overcome. 

In these days loaded with hatred and growing antisemitism, our strength may lie in our ability to embrace more than ever our particular identities, while at the same time reaching out to our allies and friends as we all engage in shaping a society that will cherish and celebrate our differences. Even in the aftermath of what happened in Texas a few weeks ago, I still want to believe that those willing to create an inclusive and welcoming world are stronger and more resilient than those who are vested in consolidating the politics of polarization, fear and loathing. Even today, I still want to believe that we have in our power the chance to shape the type of society that we want to craft for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren as well. 


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