Parashat Behaalotecha
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Parashat Behaalotecha

Where to find Jewish answers

Rabbi for Lifelong Learning, Temple Emanu-El of Closter, Conservative

Not long ago I heard a podcast addressing the question of whether it is necessary to drink eight glasses of water a day. The podcaster explained that this idea about drinking a certain amount of water might be a product of a concept known as the Illusory Truth Effect. The idea is that if you hear something often enough, it is likely to sink in as true, even if it is at best inaccurate or worse false.

There are many examples of the Illusory Truth Effect in everyday society and there are some in Jewish tradition as well. For example, it is likely that we all have heard at some point that Jews cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery if they have tattoos. The truth is that this is incorrect. While Jewish law frowns on the idea of tattoos, it does not preclude someone from Jewish burial. But since we all heard this assertion so many times, we all came to believe it to be true. My guess is that Jewish mothers invented this to prevent their wayward children from straying too far from tradition with the threat of punishment that would extend beyond the grave.

So the question becomes, how do we combat the Illusory Truth Effect? I believe that the answer can be found in this week’s parasha.

In Numbers 9:6-7 we learn about a group of Israelites who express dismay at being unable to participate in the Passover sacrifice due to their status of ritual impurity. Since the law was that only people in a state of purity could join in the Passover sacrifice, they were excluded. This group, therefore, approaches Moses to ask for remedy for this quandary. As the leader of the Jewish people, empowered by the Almighty to adjudicate questions of law for the people, Moses could have attempted to answer. Perhaps he may have even known the law or heard a possible answer so many times he thought that was the proper solution. In Numbers 9:8, however, Moses does not deliver his decision on the matter but rather turns to the ultimate source of the Law, the Almighty, for an answer. He is told that all those people who were impure were to offer a Passover sacrifice a month later, during a celebration that often is referred to as Second Passover — in Hebrew, it’s Pesach Sheni. While traditional commentators give several reasons why Moses did not know the answer, one thing is certain: Moses goes to a reliable source.

In a world filled with misleading headlines and fake news, how are we to discern what to believe and what to dismiss? And furthermore, when it comes to Jewish information, how do we know when and if to trust the answer from Google or Siri? Since we are not Moses and cannot receive verbal communication directly from heaven, we need to rely on other methods. In this day and age of electronic communications, it is easier than ever before to reach out to reliable, knowledgeable, and trustworthy sources for Jewish information. You should not rely just on what you have heard or the first hit at the top of a google search. Sometimes those answers might come from a good source, but many times, just because you have heard something a million times, that does not mean it is accurate. Just as doctors advise all of us to speak to a licensed medical professional and not to self-diagnose based on WebMD, neither should we rely on hearsay and the internet to give us Jewish information.

To be clear, I am not saying that all information we hear is wrong, or that all websites are not trustworthy. Some things we hear might be true and the sites we visit are run by organizations and individuals who have the knowledge and expertise necessary to provide good information. What I am saying is that the way to fight the Illusory Truth Effect and to help guide all of us on the path of Jewish living is to seek out sources that we can rely on. So, I offer the following humble advice as this rabbi and Jewish educator. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your rabbi, cantor, or Jewish educator, or if you do not have a synagogue community, contact a local synagogue or Jewish institution for help with Jewish information. There are people trained to help us find the answers for which we are searching. Like Moses, they might not have the answer, but they can help with directing us in the right direction.

So how much water should you drink every day? I don’t know, but I know some good doctors who I am sure can offer you a scientific answer to this question. And in true Jewish fashion I have a feeling there are many answers, depending on who you ask.

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