The biblical description of the Jews wandering through the desert after their exit from Egypt, is possibly the most famous story on this planet. It’s not a competition and I am open to challenges as to other equivalently famous beliefs and mythologies. From my perspective, the question is what are we meant to learn from the Jews’ 40 years of wandering, apparently purposeless, before arriving to Israel.
The story, as it was taught to me, was that this was a punishment for the sin of the people of Israel for having listened to the reconnaissance team that spoke ill of the land of milk and honey. For most of my life, I never questioned this interpretation, and never really asked why this punishment in particular would be the most suited, and of course, why specifically 40 years. One of the things I love about the study of the Bible is that it reflects how human nature still has yet to change, at least in comparison to how things were thousands of years ago. That means that we can still learn a great deal about ourselves, even as we are brushing up against the age of the singularity.
There is another “great sin” that is told of, in the stories following the events at Mount Sinai, and it is very likely that there is meant to be a continuity between the “sin of the golden calf” and the sin of speaking ill of the Land of Israel. What was the significance of the sin of the golden calf? Personally, and this is by no means original, I try to refrain from the use of the term “sin” in relation to either event. Rather, I see both “sins” as a psychological test of the mindset of the Jewish people at the time of the giving of G-d’s laws at Mount Sinai and the pre-sin short journey to Israel.
The Jews had just been extracted from hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt. That means that a child at the time of the exit from Egypt, had a father, grandfather, great-grandfather and more, who had only known slavery as a way of life. Based on different calculations, it is still fair to say that slavery was as much a part of that Egyptian Jewish child’s heritage as American democracy is a part of a newborn citizen of the United States. Yet, as described biblically, G-d swoops down and extracts the Jewish people, after some very impressive pyrotechnics, and brings them to a rock in the middle of the desert, and grants them the greatest treatise ever written.
This Bible was a fundamentally different view of the world in terms of philosophy, morality, basic civil law and of course far more. In the span of days, these slaves were meant to throw off their virtual, as well as physical chains, and embrace a new way of thinking that has challenged the greatest minds throughout history. I don’t think it is a stretch of the imagination to say that the likelihood of success was practically zero. But as is also often talked about, in biblical stories, people must be given the benefit of the doubt, and must be given the chance to demonstrate their intentions. And so it passed that the people of Israel created a physical object (big no no) through which they saw the manifestation of G-d, and then later, even after initial punishment, still denied G-d’s words on being given the gift of freedom in their own land – purportedly the greatest gift you could give a slave.
To be free, one has to have a certain openness of mind, and readiness to accept concepts that are new. I could list examples from my personal life where people I know who left the former Soviet Union, continued to live as if they had never left. The 1984 Big Brother mindset still occupied their thoughts 24/7, despite having been physically free for decades. Therefore, it is very easy to understand how any Jew who had just been extracted from Egypt would still be a slave in his or her mind.
I would say that the lesson to be learned is that you can’t build a nation from slaves. Your soul needs to be free to become a people in your land. Why then 40 years of apparently meaningless wandering? The answer could be simple math. It could very well be that it takes two generations to wipe old inbred belief systems out of a people. When I look at my own children, who are two generations separated from Holocaust survivors, I see this as a glaring truth. Considering the world we are now facing, where newspaper articles are frequently speaking about a passive apocalypse, via which there will simply be no need for a human contribution to maintain our society, I would argue that we are facing the same kind of existential challenge of fundamental mindset change. And I would more so argue that it may very well require two generations of humans to embrace the new world order that is careening towards us.
This very long introduction to this blog post has to do with the definition of the term intuitive. I will immediately limit my discussion to the use of this term in relation to user interfaces for computer systems. In such cases, the term intuitive is often used to indicate whether a user can effectively figure out what to do with a system on their own, without formal training.
I remember the first time I was handed a Google phone which was at a Mobile World Congress meeting a number of years ago. I simply did not realize that I had to swipe the screen to advance through the phone’s functions. I approached two other people similarly struggling with their test phones, and they had the same experience. Once it was demonstrated to me what I was required to do, I felt like an absolute fool. This was one of the lessons in life that taught me how limited we can become over time and thus be unprepared for a new world, as it has been built for us by very imaginative people. I assume that had I given the phone to a child, he or she would have almost instantaneously tried swiping the screen and thus discovered its use.
This is a perfect reflection of my introduction above, about previous hardwired perspectives that we are not even aware of. In the case of this Google phone that I had been handed, the problem was not a lack of intuitive design, but of a lack of intuitive intelligence amongst adults. I think that most would agree that we lose this “thinking outside of the box” ability over time. Definitely in medical school, we are taught to look for horses, not zebras, when we hear hoof beats. However, we are now living in a world where genomics is teaching us that almost everyone is a zebra.
As the great green philosopher once said, “we are all special in our own special ways.” I am not sure that any doctor above a certain age has a sufficiently plastic mind to embrace what is obvious to a child. As in the biblical analogy, it may take two generations of medical leaders to pass on before the younger generation has assumed the decision-making roles and brought with them a truly intuitive viewpoint. When a youth that has been raised on a steady feed of breaking invisible barriers, the exponential growth in technology that we are already experiencing, will simply put, become even more exponential.
How does one prepare their children for such a world? One frightening answer might be that we, of a certain age, simply are incapable of figuring out the best answer. Personally, I tried very hard to get my children to experience many different mindsets from the youngest age possible. I am quoting others when I say that my Shabbat table was unique in that it brought together people of very varied backgrounds and viewpoints. And given the dynamics of Israeli society, there was always some fundamental point to argue over. Each individual would express and justify their perspective. Some were definitely more vocal than others and some were definitely more intelligent than others. But I don’t think any one person had the answer to any question that was posed.
My children grew up around such discussions. Each week, they shared two meals with friends who saw the world very differently from each other, from myself and my wife, and at a certain point from my children, once they had grown enough to form their own opinions. I taught my children that no idea was inherently invalid as long as it was internally logically consistent. I would like to believe that they developed an openness of mind willing to consider almost any perspective, yet not be afraid to challenge almost any perspective.
I have taught my children that they will have to find their own way, no matter how different it may be from my own. I have recently learned that even when I am sure, as sure as anyone can be, that I am right in my perspective on a situation, my own children can be diametrically opposed to my viewpoint. I was thrown by this awakening of thought. I even experienced physical pain over it. But I learned in that moment that my children had become the kind of people who will not be held back by the viewpoints of older generations, who claim to be omniscient simply by virtue of their advanced age. One of my favorite definitions of the word experience is the growing confidence that one has in doing something wrong, that comes from doing it as such for decade after decade. My experience is therefore clearly not foolproof.
I personally have come to realize that my own brain’s plasticity has probably reached its limits. In this day and age, trying to argue with younger people and convince them that we know certain things to be true simply doesn’t hold water. This does not mean that the world is in the hands of the anarchists and that all philosophy and law is rendered meaningless. But it does mean that we have to give way to interpretations of this world that we may not even be able to fully comprehend.
There is a very famous quote from the Talmud, that appears as the title of this blog post. It is relatively self-evident, that a person without a vocation or education of any sort will have no choice but to resort to thievery in order to feed him or herself. But this same quote assumes that what we teach our children is valid. This quote assumes that the world that our children will have to navigate through, will be the same as the one that we have experienced. Amazingly, it could very well be the things that we teach our children that will lead them astray, because the skills that we impart to them will be of no use or even be counterproductive in the near future, where the fundamental terms of occupation, career, job, and making a living will all be radically reinterpreted.
I have painfully come to the conclusion that there may be very little that I can still teach my children that will be of use to them through their, G-d willing, long and productive lives. But whether others of my age and generation come to the same realization does not really matter. We have yet to cure death, and as such, in two generations from now, the world will be a place that has buried my ilk in the desert. And from the little that I can still understand of the new world that my children will face, I think that’s where I belong.
Thanks for listening.