Gaslight

05/02/2017 at 18:52 1 comment

“Gaslight”

 

Parashat Bo

Neil F. Blumofe

4 February 2017

 

In this most extraordinary of moments, the Israelites are able to collectively move from the narrow confines of slavery, to the uncharted wilderness of freedom—breaking free of their bonds of servitude.  Our tradition asks, in order for this to occur, what had really changed?  How were the conditions in their lives different, in order to enable the Israelites to finally confidently organize and take these transformational, dramatic steps?  In truth, not much had really changed – even the most terrible of the plagues – darkness and the death of the first born — had ultimately failed to move Pharaoh to a place of resignation and acceptance that his subjugation of the people was over.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

As my kids get older, I am more painfully aware of how out of step I am in keeping current with their cultural and linguistic signposts.  To be diplomatic, I am always a couple of days late in recognizing the latest music, technologies, and language that define their experiences as they move through life.  Heaven help me, if I try to employ their language.  Especially as much of their enjoyment of things is through earbuds or in the privacy of more intimate communication with their internet machines held close to their faces, I do not always have the luxury of learning in real time, how their sense of self and the world develops – and I take cold comfort in at least knowing how to access what was popular about a decade or so ago – much to the chagrin and rolled eyes of whoever might be present when I do so.

 

In addition, I have long wondered about the inscrutable description of Pharaoh repeatedly hardening his heart in response to the requests from Moses and Aaron to release the Israelites.  In one moment Pharaoh acts as if this liberation was the new policy, and then all of a sudden, he reverses course – so that the situation is destabilized, and we do not know where he stands in any given moment.  Not being able to trust or rely on someone’s word or rational behavior – especially if it’s cruel behavior — causes us an extreme case of vertigo – as we internalize the sinking feeling of not being secure in what a new day will bring.

 

I have recently learned that there is a term for this – it’s called gaslighting, which is a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in someone or in a group of people.  The goal of gaslighting is to use persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and deceit to make the intended targets question their own memory, perception, and ultimately, sanity.  The term itself comes from a 1938 play by the same name – the play was later made into a movie in 1944 – and this term gaslighting has entered into our vernacular to describe an attempt to destroy another person’s perception of reality.

 

In psychiatry, it is argued that gaslighting involves the projection and introjection of psychic conflicts from the perpetrator to the victim, breaking down our reliance on our own free agency and ultimately causing us to consider ourselves crazy.  In short, gaslighting is a tactic of abuse – and it is chilling to think about the dilemma of the Israelites in such a toxic environment.  How does one know when to move, or how to act – what opinions are to be expressed and what others are to be concealed – out of fear and disquiet?  What is real?  Ultimately, as Judaism teaches, our hardships are magnified by our own bad behavior – this is the central message of the rabbis as they describe sinat chinam – baseless hatred — as the core reason why the Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed by a foreign power.  Earlier, the prophets also express a similar view – as Ezekiel maintains for example, the invasion of the Babylonians into Judea was because of the instability and mutual loathing of the Jews among themselves.

 

To think of the Pharaoh as a gaslighter profoundly changes this narrative – and we realize that we are doing the best we can in uncertain, bleak circumstances, when we can’t believe the news that we read, or when we know we are missing crucial pieces of the story, or that we are deliberately being deceived.  As Pharaoh continues to machinate, and as his word is unreliable, we can break the spell in thinking that we are crazy, by holding onto not the latest in expression as delivered or determined by social media or in the fleeting currency of pop culture – rather we can take a lesson from a day like today and realize as we gather to celebrate Shabbat and the efforts of an extraordinary young girl who is becoming Bat Mitzvah, that we are participating in resistance to our own manipulation.

 

It is an extremely powerful statement that this family has a family Torah that travels the world and shows up at the various family simchas.  This family Torah, like Tiresias has seen it all – today it stands resolutely as a silent witness – surviving the travails of this world and the bleakest of times – and it is this long view – this withstanding of what is in and what is out in this season – it is the independence that is fostered in not gaining an identity from the constructions all around us.  As we celebrate Shabbat, we are reminded to be independent actors and to think critically when someone tries to negatively influence us, or to make us doubt our values or to acquiesce to what they need us to be.  As Sun Tzu writes in the ancient Chinese treatise, the Art of Warthe art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him – not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.  So, for example, if I need a bit of assistance or I feel out of touch with whatever my children happen to be into today – I counter with having them sing the Shema Yisrael with me.  That’s not compensation – that’s heavy-duty strategy.

 

I am finding my way past my need to be hip – and there is a bit of solace in my aging – I can find meaning and identification in joining the tribe that privileges dad jokes and a dad bod and that lives with an ever-receding hairline.  And yet, I am empowered by the non-negotiables in the Jewish tradition that allow us to outlast a Pharaoh that rises and gaslights his constituency.  Even though the conditions didn’t change, the Israelites were able to operate beyond the narrowness of reacting to every little thing the Pharaoh did – and they were able to take agency for themselves.  There easily could have been ten more plagues – and then many after that.

 

For a moment, the Israelites were able to say stop the madness – and find a sense of self-worth and relevance beyond the Pharaoh.  They were able to thrive in difficult circumstances which allowed them to pass beyond their dire straits and wade into the water that floated them in its own magnificent current to vulnerable, exposed, unexperienced freedom upon a savage dry land.  This morning, we are there, exquisitely and safely there — between the two columns of ever-rising water.  Let us ground ourselves in coming regularly to shul – let it be your practice — I don’t get commission – let us seen the value in the constant cultivation of our spiritual life.

 

A life of loving Shabbat, of exploring Judaism is a bulwark against looming disaster.  We can change our mindset, we can deepen our spirit – and then no matter what – we can be free, which then gives us the position and the strength to more effectively neutralize the edicts of slavery that cynically exist and continue to expand, all around us.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Melinda Adina  |  06/02/2017 at 12:03

    Thanks for the comforting words, Rabbi. I was a victim of gaslighting in my previous marriage. You described it very accurately. B”H I am not in that situation anymore!

    Shabbat tov and chag tu b’shvat sameach!

    Shalom, Adina

    >

    Reply

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