If it Bleeds
Parshat Vayigash 5780
Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.
Let’s do a simple equation:
1. If it bleeds, it leads. Media today is a massive business, generating hundreds of billions of dollars a year in revenues. The competition between platforms and networks is fierce, and executives know what brings the eyeballs. Try these two headline teasers and think about which one is more likely to make you tune in to the evening news; “After years of effort, pollution has been lowered more than 30% at local aquifiers. Tune in to learn more about these great efforts on our nightly news with Jim Delaney at 7pm.” or “After years of pollution, is our drinking water still safe? Tune in to learn about what you can do to protect your family on our nightly news with Jim Delaney at 7pm.” This explains the ratio of negative news to positive news, which according to researcher Kalev Leetaru has been getting progressively more negative since the late seventies.
2. Humans interact with the news much more frequently today than in the past. One hundred years ago, there was the daily morning paper, and for the real media addicts, there was a small evening edition as well. Then came the advent of the radio, which enabled people to listen to news programs when clustered around the living room radio. But in the early days, there were not a proliferation of stations, and most stations only offered news a few times a day, or for a few minutes at the top of the hour, while filling the rest of the time with other programming. Television was similar in that it was always in your house, but there were no channels dedicated exclusively to news, programming was much more diverse.
The first all-news channel, was CNN, which was launched on June 1, 1980. Suddenly editors needed “If it bleeds, it leads,” all day, every day. (It’s interesting that it almost exactly coincides with the increased ratio of negative news found by Kalev Leetaru.) But all that pales in comparison to the Age of the Smartphone, where people have news following them in their pockets, and blowing up their phone all day, wherever they go. 2018 was the first year in which more news was consumed via social media than via newspapers. Social media moves a lot quicker than television, which means that editors now need multiple different versions of “If it bleeds, it leads,” all day, every day.
3. The Availability Heuristic: Nobel Prize winning psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman described a facet of human nature they call the Availability Heuristic, which states that people estimate the probability of event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind. For example, plane crashes almost always make the news, car crashes almost never do. Therefore people have much greater fear of flying than driving, even though driving is significantly more dangerous. People rank tornados a more common cause of death than asthma, even though asthma kills about 8000% more people than tornados, but twisters make the evening news, someone dying of asthma doesn’t. So the way we look at the world is strongly colored by what we’re being fed all the time.
4. Human behavior is largely affected by the way people look at themselves. Believe that you are a victimized failure, unable to move forward and achieve success, held back by large shadowy forces intent on keeping your down, and you can be shackled in your vision of self for decades, slowly turning it from a vision into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Believe that you are an incredible human being, endowed with almost limitless creativity and intellectual faculties, and you will create extraordinary things. Believe that you are a happy person no matter how tough your circumstances, and it will be hard to keep you down.
Here is the math equation: 1+2+3+4= A pretty sad state of affairs for humanity.
In other words, 1. If the media is mostly negative, and getting more so, + 2. we’re consuming more media +3. our outlook on the world and ourselves is largely colored by what we’re being fed +4. how we view ourselves determines how we do = a pretty sad state of affairs for humanity! We are bound to see ourselves in a more negative light, and believe that the world is exploding around us and there is nothing we can do because shadowy forces way more powerful than us little guys are holding us down (insert your favorite shadowy force: Big Government, Big Business, Big Pharma…). And then if we believe the world is just getting progressively worse, and there is nothing we can do, we do nothing.
So what can we do? For starters, we can work on our media obesity. Americans are simply consuming way too much news, opinion, outrage, and negativity, and its driving us to ever higher levels of anxiety and depression. We need to go on a media diet. As long as the ratio of news leans heavily to the negative side, we need to simply stop drinking from the poisoned well.
The great sage Shammai tells us in Ethics of Our Fathers (1:15), “Greet every person with a pleasant countenance.” Shammai understood the Availability Heuristic, we judge our world by what is readily around us. If people are constantly passing us with pleasant faces, we will feel pleasant, if everyone walking by us is withdrawn, looking away at their phones, and broadcasting cold and disinterested vibes, we are going to feel isolated, cold, and unimportant. This is why Shammai focused on telling us to make sure we are part of the solution by telling us how we should greet people. But we can learn from him that it’s best for us to stay away from things that don’t greet us with a pleasant countenance. If media is increasing our anxiety, we need to simply stay away.
The Torah way of life, G-d’s gift to humanity, already has this baked in; every Shabbos is a media-free day. But we can add another day, or another few. We can determine that this year we are simply not tuning in to any media on Tuesdays, or Sundays and Tuesdays, etc. We can also make an effort to be around those who do walk around with a pleasant countenance. King Solomon, the wisest of men, tell us (Ecclesiastes, 9:17) “The words of the wise are heard when spoken softly, more than the shout of a ruler of fools.” You decide if you want to listen to those who are constantly yelling in shrill voices of the doom and gloom, those rulers of fools, or the wise people speaking softly, gently, with encouraging supportive messages.
So as we enter a new decade, the Twenties, let’s do what we can to make sure that we control the narratives that shape our life. Let’s wean ourselves off of the 24/7 outrage cycle, let’s make sure that we are a positive force in other’s lives by greeting people with smiles and kind words even for strangers, because they’re dealing with the same 24/7 outrage cycle and need it just as much. And let’s surround ourselves by people who speak about the good things in the world and good things in the people they meet, the wise people, whose words are spoken softly, and whose company uplifts the spirit and reminds us of the greatness within all of us!
PS If you want some good news, news you might not expect due to what you constantly hear in the outrage media, here goes (Most of it taken from an excellent article by Mark Ridley): Energy consumption per capita in the peaked in the mid-seventies, and each American today uses about 20% less energy each year than in the past. Extreme poverty has gone down to below 10% of the world population, fifty years ago it was over 60%. Global inequality is plunging at Africa and Asia experience much faster economic development than Europe and North America.
Child mortality is at all-time lows. Polio is gone. Heart disease is on the decline. Malaria is almost gone. Despite the world doubling its population in the fifty years by adding four billion people, almost every staple has gone down in relative pricing. Corn, wheat, soybeans, copper, metals, etc. are all lower, because mankind has figured out how to reuse what we can reuse and create more of what we can’t. (e.g. An aluminum soda can today is 13 grams of mostly recycled aluminum, fifty years ago it was 85 grams of new aluminum.)
Human use water in a more efficient way than ever before, and have been able to liberate millions of acres of farmland that are returning to the wild, because we can get what we need out of less acreage. We use less paper than twenty years ago, and every wealthy country has growing stocks of forests, both in terms of acreage and density.
Even the animals are noticing it; we are seeing rising numbers of wolves, deer, beavers, lynx, seals, sea eagles and bald eagles. We are even seeing the tiger come back. Which reminds me, the Detroit baseball seasons starts in 82 days, and may be in this decade we’ll see the return of the Tigers of old? Who knows? But there’s a lot to love about now, have a great Shabbos!
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s parsha we read about how Joseph, now the viceroy of Egypt, reveals his true identity to his brothers. He then sends them back to Israel to their father Jacob, with the request that the whole family move down to Egypt where Joseph will be able to support them throughout the seven year famine. However part of the message that Joseph sends back to his father seems strange; “G-d has made me a lord over all of Egypt” (Gen 45:9).
Understandably, Joseph is trying to persuade his father to come down to Egypt, but does he think that telling his father of his vast power is going to impress Jacob? Does he think that Jacob will be more inclined to move his holy family to a country filled with materialistic pagans just because his son has a good job and lots of power?
Rabbi Yaakov Neiman (of blessed memory), answers this question with an important lesson. What Joseph was trying to show his father was not the great power he had, but his perspective on that great power. When the average person gets a raise or a promotion, they will usually attribute it to their boss, the Human Resources department, or more often, their own hard work. “I got the raise for closing a major deal.”
Joseph, on the other hand, shares none of these illusions. When he describes the incredible promotion he got, he makes it abundantly clear that he recognizes how he got his job. “G-d has made me a lord over all of Egypt” takes on a whole new meaning when we understand that the stress is on the first part of the sentence. Now Jacob would see that despite his meteoric rise to power and despite being immersed in a culture whose leaders usually made deities out of themselves, Joseph was able to maintain his faith and recognize that everything comes from G-d. Hopefully, once Jacob would see that one could retain their Jewish beliefs and perspectives in Egypt, he would be willing to move his family down to Egypt.
This message resonates today more than ever. People are being hired and fired, promoted and demoted in a chaotic economic environment the likes of which we have never seen before. It is important for us to recognize who is the Ultimate Boss, the One who really decides our career path, and Whom we should talk to when we need a bit of career help, or to give thanks for our success.
I have a close friend who truly exemplifies this idea. Six months ago, he joined one of the oldest and largest insurance companies in America. Since then he has devoted himself to his work with incredible zeal and has actually shattered all of the company’s records for an employee’s first six months. He has already won the coveted Rookie of the Year title, and will soon be going to the company’s annual conference where he will be awarded at the company dinner and given the honor of addressing thousands of employees in the industry.
The other day (as he was trying to sell me another policy), we were talking about his upcoming trip and his speech. He told me that he not only plans on proudly wearing his kippah at the dinner, but that in his speech, plans on thanking G-d for his incredible success and acknowledging that his accomplishments were possible only through G-d’s help. The Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s name) that this speech will bring about is immeasurable. In a room filled with thousands of people whose motto is “In Green We Trust,” the most successful of them will remind everyone Who truly determines our success.
Our forefather Joseph blazed a pathway for us, teaching that, despite the prevailing culture’s perspective on success, we can maintain our perspective. We need to follow him down that road to the ultimate success; a life lived with an awareness of G-d and all He does for us!
This week’s parsha, Vayigash, starts off at the charged moment where we left off last week. Yosef’s special silver goblet had been “found” in Binyamin’s sack, and he was hauled back to the palace to become a slave. The ten other brothers are not willing to see their brother taken. They follow him down, and stand to plea before Yosef. Notably, it is Yehuda who speaks with Yosef because he was the one who guaranteed Binyamin’s return. Yehuda launches into a long explanation as to why it is imperative that Binyamin be allowed to go back to his father. He explains that if Binyamin doesn’t return, their father is liable to die from the anguish.
At this point, Yosef decides that it is the right time to reveal himself to his brothers so he orders all the Egyptians out of the room (so that they not witness the brothers’ humiliation upon realizing the enormity of what they had done). Then he says, “I am Yosef, is my father still alive?” The implication is – why were you not concerned with our father’s health when you sold me and let him think I was killed by a wild animal? The brothers were so disconcerted that they couldn’t speak. But Yosef was not one to rub salt in old wounds. As soon as he saw that his brothers were contrite, he consoled them, telling them that selling him was all part of a divine plan so that he would be able to support the family throughout the remaining years of the famine.
Yosef asks that his family come down to Egypt where he would provide them with fertile land and food. Pharaoh seconds the motion. Yosef sends the brothers back with bountiful supplies and special wagons which were symbolic of the last Torah lesson Ya’akov gave Yosef. These wagons were meant to show Ya’akov that Yosef was still on the straight and narrow.
Ya’akov hears about Yosef’s situation, and he sees the wagons indicating his son’s spiritual position, and his spirit is revived. On the way down to Egypt, G-d comes to Ya’akov at night and tells him that He will be with him, and will make sure that his descendants come out of the land of Egypt.
The Torah then recounts the lineage of Ya’akov’s progeny. It also mentions that Ya’akov sent Yehuda ahead of him to Goshen (possibly the first Jewish ghetto ever), the place the Jews inhabited in Egypt to set up a Yeshiva. He did this because he recognized that the only way the Jewish people would be able to maintain their Jewish identity in Egypt is if they have significant Jewish education, a realization that rings very true today.
Ya’akov and Yosef have a tearful reunion after a 22 year separation. At this momentous occasion, Ya’akov recites Shema, indicating that every joyous occasion should be experienced with G-d. When the family goes to meet Pharaoh, Yosef instructs his brothers to tell Pharaoh they are shepherds, as this way he will leave them alone (whereas had they told him they were warriors he would try to draft them). Pharaoh and Ya’akov share pleasantries and bless each other.
The parsha concludes by telling us how Yosef managed Egypt during the famine. He was the only person who had any grain, so everyone sold him their land. He told everyone they could have land as long as they moved (this way his family wouldn’t feel out of place when they settled in a new place), and that they had to give one fifth of their crops to the Pharaoh as tax. Back then they didn’t charge a Social Security tax, and today they shouldn’t either because there is very little likelihood that I’ll get the benefits by the time I retire, what with the S.S. crisis. But that’s a discussion for a different time. That’s all folks!
Quote of the Week: The only menace is inertia. – John Perse
Random Fact of the Week: The trunk of the African baobab tree can grow as large as 100 feet in circumference.
Funny Line of the Week: The face of a child can say it all, especially the mouth part of the face!
Have a Nifty Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham