William Hamilton
William Hamilton

When circumstances change

“I didn’t belong to the risk group at the moment he (my son) was born, but by the time I put him to my breast, I had received a blood transfusion and my status had changed.” Eula Biss, in her important 2014 book, On Immunity, recalls how the risk group she belonged to changed in a matter of minutes. So did her need for the inoculation she received.

Still, a change in her classification didn’t imply a change in her convictions. Our beliefs are dear to us. So are our fears. But sometimes it may seem like others are treating them too lightly, more like they are our tastes. ‘You prefer strawberry, I like butter pecan’. This feels uneasy, like someone who purports to care for us, is not listening. When the gravity of what’s at sake for us is even more substantial, others aren’t arguing so much over what we believe, but rather over who we are.

Thus, when people encounter information that contradicts their beliefs, it’s natural to doubt the information before they are ready to doubt themselves.

To be clear, nutty beliefs don’t deserve serious engagement, but what brings people to them does.

Intensely held beliefs, like intense emotions, don’t wait for the consent of reason. Yet they shouldn’t merely be trusted, they should also be tested. This shouldn’t be threatening because, in the end, the believer still gets to grade the test.

This week’s portion of Torah tells a jarring story of agonizing loss. Two of Aaron’s sons are suddenly killed for unauthorized activity. Aaron’s stunned silence speaks volumes. Some verses later, we are a little surprised to see Moses assail Aaron’s remaining sons from an improper procedure. Emotions are running high. But their fever breaks when Aaron steps in to respond to his brother. “Given all that’s befallen me, do you think God would have expected me to eat a sin offering today?” This time, Aaron’s words evoke Moses’s silent assent. “And Moses heard and approved” (Lev. 10:19-20). A sudden change had produced a new circumstance.

We hope to emerge from our painful pandemic somehow different. Two conditions make change more likely. First, when people feel heard. And feeling heard can be more important than being heard. Secondly, people tend to be more willing to change when they become convinced that it’s ok not to. When you listen to their beating heart and then rope-off space that honors their free agency, you dignify them and what they bring to their convictions. Whether or not they change, you do.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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