Shabbat Talmud Study: Why Do We Do Bad Things-and How Can We Stop Ourselves From Doing It?

If you want to see a movie that gets inside of you, lands like a porcupine’s quill, and does not leave, ever, see Three Identical Strangers. It tells the story of three identical triplets born in 1961 who were as part of a diabolical medical experiment separated from one another as 6-month old infants and sent to live with separate families, all in the New York area, unaware of one another’s existence. Identical triplets were a few miles away, and yet a universe away, until young adulthood. They discovered one another at the age of 19. The film tells the sorrowful tale about how this medical experiment ruined their lives.

All of that is sad enough. But what is particularly horrifying is that the creator of this medical experiment was a man named Peter Neubauer, who was born in Austria in 1913. He came of age in Hitler’s Europe. He managed to escape the Nazi regime by immigrating to New York in 1941. Once here, this man who avoided Mengele’s diabolical medical experiments, perpetrated Mengele’s diabolical experiments on unsuspecting babies and families. A refugee from the Holocaust ruined Jewish lives by doing Mengele here.

Why is it that victims of abuse, when they emerge into their adulthood, all too often perpetrate that abuse on others?

The Israelites are slaves for 430 years. When they are finally freed, and receive the Torah at Sinai, God frames the moment by saying I am your God and I took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You would think the first thing they would do is build a society where there was no slavery. Yet, immediately after Sinai, the first law is “When you acquire
a Hebrew slave.” Jews become Jewish slave owners of Jewish slaves. Like the refugee from Mengele doing Mengele in America.

What is that? There is no magic bullet, no magic pill, no panacea for our resistant, recidivist human nature. Not even God at Sinai could shock us into decency.

But the Book of Exodus does have one core insight that can help us at least check ourselves, even if we cannot rid ourselves of our darker shadows. This one insight will allow our nobler angels to emerge, if we work at it every day.

See you tomorrow at 8:30!

Shabbat Shalom,