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  • Bob Karasov

Cognitive Dissonance

Lately, I have been reading the parsha, without looking at the commentary. I read the text to see what questions emerge and then try to think of solutions. I find it more exciting, fresh and creative even if I later discover that a commentator asked the same question.

So one question that came up for me when I read Parshat Shemot, was, why did Pharaoh want to kill Moses? In Chapter 2 we read about an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew. Moses kills the Egyptian and buries the body in sand.

The next day Moses sees two Hebrews fighting and intervenes by asking “why would you strike your fellow?” The Hebrew replies asking “who put you in charge? Are you going to kill me like you killed the Egyptian?” Then the next verse, verse 15 says, “Pharaoh heard about this matter (hadvar hazeh) and sought to kill Moses.

But which matter did he hear about? Killing the Egyptian in Verse 11-12? Or the quarrel of the two Israelites in Verse 13 and 14.

Killing the Egyptian seems most obvious, but then why not say it after verse 12? And, does it make sense that Pharaoh would kill his adopted grandson for killing a taskmaster?

It also says that before killing the Egyptian, “Moses looked around and saw that there was no man.” Yet clearly the Israelites saw. When it says that “Moses saw no man,” he must mean no Egyptians. Does this mean that Moses didn’t view the Israelites as fully human as the Egyptians?

Back to the question of why Pharaoh wanted to kill Moses. Could it have been when heard about the quarrel between the Israelites? And if so, why?

History and current events has taught us that subjugating a people requires dehumanizing them. Moses is treating them with some measure of dignity which threatens to undermine the whole system. That can’t be tolerated, even from Pharaoh’s grandson.

Moses seems to be in a conflicted state. He is treating the Israelites as people with some dignity, but he is still the one who said, “no man was around.” Moses is experiencing cognitive dissonance which is defined as the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.

Cognitive dissonance is the first step in a person’s growth both for Moses and each of us.

Moses flees to Midian where he names his son, Gershon meaning, I have been a stranger there; which he clarifies as “in a strange or foreign land. “

Is he referring to Midian or Egypt? Sham means there, not here. And If this is past tense then Egypt makes more sense. Maybe Moses doesn’t even know exactly what he means, only that he feels rootless.

Moses is going through an evolution of thought. The first step was seeing the Israelites as people with dignity. The second step must be to see himself as a part of that people.

When Moses fled Egypt, it was not because he identified as an Israelite. He was merely running for his life. When he met Yitro’s daughters they clearly identify him as an Egyptian. “An Egyptian man saved us from the shepherds.” In fact I learned Thursday evening at Rabbi Davis’ always wonderful parsha class that the according to the Mekhilta, Yitro’s condition for giving his daughter in marriage to Moses was that the first born son should be brought up in the idol-worshipping tradition of Midian.

Naming his son Gershon was a statement of what he is NOT. He is not a part of any people. He is not an Egyptian and he is not a Midianite. So, what is he? This, God needs to teach Moses.

At the burning bush in Chapters 3 and 4, God tells Moses 4 times that God is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. (Elohai Avraham Elohai Yitzchak, Velohai Yaakov). That’s a lot of repetition!

You will recognize those words from the first paragraph of the Amidah. They were put there to reassure us that, as we get ready to pray the Amidah, it’s okay if you feel distant from God and the Jewish people or not sure what you believe. God told these words to Moses when he was adrift to help Moses find his way back. These words in the Amidah serve the same purpose for us.

Moses may have shown compassion for the Israelite slaves when he killed the taskmaster, but that is very different than feeling that these are my people. This fourfold repetition of God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob feels like God is trying to pound home the point. This is who you are!

No wonder Moses is reluctant to go save them. It’s one thing to empathize with a cause. It’s another to go all in with your life. Change is hard, which explains why Moses argues with God for so long at the burning bush.

Think about changes you have tried to make or tried to avoid making, whether in attitudes or actions. Growing up I knew I wanted 3 kids and I knew that only crazy religious people send their kids to Jewish day schools. My approach to patients has also become less dogmatic and my understanding of the Israeli Palestinian conflict is very different than previously just to name a few.

So how was Moses able to able to transform himself from someone who grew up in the palace, to a person who could challenge everything the palace stood for? And what can we learn so that we can be more open to change?

There is a change model called the Beckhard-Harris equation which describes the conditions necessary for change to occur. The equation is D x V x F > R. D= dissatisfaction with the status quo V= vision of a better future F= achievable first steps R= resistance to change

All three elements must be present. If any are zero, then the product is zero. Let’s apply this to Moses: Dissatisfaction: Moses naming his son Gershon was expressing his dissatisfaction with the status quo. He wanted to figure out his identity.

Vision: God laid out a powerful vision at the burning bush. Saving the Jewish people.

Achievable first steps: God gives instructions to go meet his brother Aaron and supplies miracles Moses can perform to convince the Israelites of his authenticity.

Here is a question for you to discuss over lunch. Why was it so hard for God to overcome Moses’ resistance? Which of the elements; vision, dissatisfaction or first steps was the weakest when God addressed Moses at the burning bush?

So how can this help us to be more open to change? We all have inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes. Most of the time, we try not to think about it. We avoid facts and arguments that threaten our complacency.

Back to my earlier examples, at work, after getting enough feedback from patients about what style they liked and didn’t like, I became dissatisfied enough with the status quo to change my approach. Seeing how great my first three kids were gave me a vision of having 2 more, and talking to people who sent their kids to Jewish day schools led to the easy first step of enrolling my kids in Jewish day school kindergartens.

I am making a conscious effort to hear and read other points of view. For example, Hanna and I started getting the WSJ on Saturdays to read thoughtful conservative viewpoints.

I am active in AIPAC but this year I am going to the J Street conference with my sister and daughter who are J street supporters. We agreed we would each attend the other’s conference to see and hear for ourselves a different message. Just as it was a process for Moses to accept the task of leadership, it is a lifelong process for us to change our attitudes and beliefs.

I will close with a few more questions related to this season of New Year’s resolutions. As you think about change, ask yourself; Do you have a vision of how you would like to be different? How would your life better if you made the change? What is holding you back? If you are not dissatisfied with the status quo is that because you have blinders on? Do you feel like you have the moral high ground? What are some ways that you can hear different points of view? And if it all seems overwhelming, is there a first small first step you can take?

My wish for the new year is that our Torah study and Jewish practices create enough cognitive dissonance to help each of us become our best selves. Shabbat Shalom.


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