Hitting the Bull's-Eye: Ethics of the Fathers 1:9
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Hitting the Bull's-Eye: Ethics of the Fathers 1:9

Hitting the Bull's-Eye: Ethics of the Fathers 1:9

If the mind is prone to rationalization, how can we obtain true objectivity?

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"Shimon ben Shatach said: Diligently examine the witnesses; and be careful with your words, unless [the witnesses] learn to falsify."

Ethics of the Fathers 1:9

The previous Mishna exhorted judges to be wary of litigants. Our allegorical rendering of that teaching suggested that making a good decision starts with being wary of the subtle self-interests -- i.e. "bribes" -- that tug and pull at us. Without skepticism toward both "litigants" - i.e. the possible choices confronting us -- we risk accepting a bribe that will lead us to make a decision that negatively impacts upon our life.

If so, what or who are the "witnesses" in this Mishna? And what does Shimon ben Shatach come to add about the decision-making process?

RATIONAL LIES

Witnesses are the "eyes" of the court; hence the term "eyewitnesses." The judges depend upon their information to render a decision. Then allegorically speaking, "witnesses" are the bare facts, the information necessary to make a decision objectively.

The former Mishna cautioned the judge - i.e. our faculty for "judgment" -- to be wary of "litigants" -- i.e. the life-choices we face. "Litigants," by definition, want to persuade the judge to his side and win the case, so it makes sense to initially be skeptical of their claims. Our Mishna, however, cautions a judge - i.e. the part of us that makes judgments - to be cautious even with witnesses, i.e. "our eyes," which are ostensibly objective. After all, isn't "seeing believing"? What can be more unambiguous than what our eyes see?

However, the truth is the mind is very subtle and it has the ability to rationalize which can turn the obvious into the ambiguous, and vice versa. It can turn a decision that's clearly to our detriment into something that begins to makes sense, even noble.

A recovering alcoholic didn't have a drink in months. Then he thought to himself, "It's no big deal to avoid alcohol now. I'm not tempted. Greatness is overcoming adversity. If I can pass a bar and resist the temptation to go in -- that would be great; that would be overcoming adversity!"

So he went across town to a bar, stood outside, took a deep breath and said, "Ah, it's great to overcome adversity. I have no desire to go inside. I've completely overcome my addiction."

Then he thought to himself, "Standing outside the bar isn't so great. What would be great would be to go inside the bar and still resist."

So he went into the bar.

He looked around and said, "Ah, it's great to resist temptation. I'm in total control."

Then he thought, "It would be really great to sit at the bar and not order anything. That would be a real accomplishment."

So he sat at the bar and took a deep breath, "Ah, it's great to resist temptation."

Then he thought, "This is no challenge. Ordering a drink and then resisting temptation -- that would be a challenge!"

To rationalize is to tell "rational lies."

And so he did. He ordered a drink and stared at it for a moment. Then he said to himself, "All this overcoming adversity and resisting temptation stuff is exhausting. You know what, I deserve a drink."

To rationalize is to tell "rational lies." We can go without food and water for a time, but how many of us can go even a day without a rationalization.

DRAWING BULL'S-EYES

This is illustrated profoundly by a parable of the Dubner Maggid (18th century).

A man was traveling through the forest. Suddenly, in a clearing he saw a large wall with several dozen arrows stuck in it -- and each arrow was smack-dab in the middle of the bull's-eye. Then he saw the archer in the distance preparing to shoot another arrow. He excitedly ran over him and said, "Sir, I have never seen such amazing accuracy and skill. You have hit the bull's-eye every time! Please tell me your secret. How did you become such a perfect shot?"

"It's quite simple," the archer replied. "First, I shoot the arrow and then I draw a bull's-eye around it."

This is a description of the human mind at work. We tend to always see ourselves as right, no matter how wrong we may be, and then construct arguments "around" our position to justify our behavior.

For instance, we're offered money that's not fully honest, but employ a "Robin Hood" steal-from-the-rich-to-give-to-the-poor rationalization. The thinking is not, "This is tainted, even dishonest money, but I'm going to take it anyway." Rather, the thinking goes more along the lines of: "I have a moral right to the money. They're filthy rich and I'm not." Or, "This isn't dishonest; it's free enterprise."

All these rationalizations add up to the same thing: "I'm in the right here. In fact, I'm smack-dab in the middle of the bull's-eye."

Let's now look at our Mishna allegorically: "Diligently examine the witnesses, and be careful with your words, unless [the witnesses] learn to falsify." Your very words -- the words your mind tells yourself -- may be falsifying, distorting or rationalizing the bare facts. If you're not careful, your mind may indeed be rationalizing and justifying an otherwise indefensible position, a position that could wreak moral and personal havoc on yourself and others.

Your mind may be drawing bull's-eyes around an errant arrow.

REALLY HITTING THE BULLS-EYE

The question now becomes: How can we know if the "witnesses" are falsifying the facts, i.e. if our mind is leading us to rationalize something negative, putting it in a good light?

First of all, the awareness that we are all "bull's-eye drawers" is half the battle. A person who has no understanding how his or her mind might be manipulating the facts is the easiest victim of this human pitfall.

However, if we're now aware of how prone the mind is to rationalization, is there a way to obtain true objectivity, and if so what is that way?

Attaining true objectivity can be accomplished by obtaining external and internal confirmation.

Attaining external confirmation was discussed in a previous Mishna: "Make for yourself a rabbi.". Judaism is a body of knowledge encompassing 3,000 years of the most profound examination into the human condition. A rabbi -- a true scholar with life experience -- has studied this body of knowledge with such depth and detail that he knows the minefields, pitfalls and dark forests of the human soul and how to successfully maneuver through them to safety.

Finding a trustworthy rabbi helps us hit the bull's-eye.

INTUITIVE KNOWLEDGE

At the same time, there's another source of knowledge Judaism advocates:

"Counsel in the heart of a man is like deep water; a man of understanding will draw it out' ((Proverbs 20:5).

"Wisdom is inherent in human nature. . . and the understanding person draws it out from his mind just as he would search for water in the depths of the earth" (Duties of the Heart) . The mind is a deep source of truth.

The Talmud itself teaches: "Even though a person doesn't see, his mazel sees" (Sanhedrin 94a). Mazel, literally "star," has been interpreted in various ways, including "guardian angel" or the subconscious. In the context here, the meaning is that each person has (or can become connected to) a deeper side, which he may not be aware of but which nonetheless knows all that goes on. This is "seeing with faith." It's a seeing which goes beyond the physical senses -- an intuition, a "sixth sense" -- and is thus even more convincing.

Rabbi Avigdor Miller explains the place of intuitive knowledge this way:

"The Creator has given to all living things those instincts which are useful for their existence. To mankind He has given instinct of discerning right and wrong. The spider, without being taught, knows the intricate wisdom of erecting a web; and the bee is born with the intricate wisdom of constructing a beehive. Without these inborn skills, these creatures could not exist. Man cannot fulfill his proper existence without the ability to discern right and wrong and therefore God has endowed him with this inborn skill. The unspoiled mind, or conscience, is really a Divine source of knowledge." (Rejoice O Youth!)

In fact, our father Abraham, Rabbi Miller goes on to explain, "…[U]sed his native instincts and reason to discover the entire truth, without benefit of tradition. Later in life he made contact with the traditions of Noah and his sons, but he had already guessed the truth by his own observations…. He discovered, by observation and reasoning, the laws which were later given in the Torah."

Of course, although humanity may be endowed with an intuitive perception of the good and the right, that intuition can become clouded and even turned on its head by personal bias and desires, as history has amply shown. Intuition alone is generally not reliable.

Nevertheless, it's an important starting point which, when later combined with the first type of knowledge, connected to the wealth of Jewish Tradition, becomes the most surefire way of hitting the bull's-eye.

Therefore, "Be careful with your words, unless [the witnesses] learn to falsify." The best preventative against the mind's built-in penchant for rationalization, for coloring otherwise bare facts, is tapping the deep wells of intuitive knowledge and then linking them up with a person who himself is a fount of Torah knowledge. Like a bow and a string, these are the two best ways to make sure your arrows fire true and straight.

This article was written with my father, Chaim Benyamin ben Esther, in mind. May he have a refuah shlaimah.

Published: November 8, 2003


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