Psychology teaches us about a phenomenon called dissonance. Dissonance occurs when the image of what we want to believe about ourselves or others does not line up with the reality staring us in the face.
For example, I like to think of myself as a pretty good guy, who cares about others and does the right thing. And then let’s suppose I lose my temper and I yell at my wife. So now I have dissonance: I’m a good guy, but good guys don’t yell at their spouses. So how do I resolve that inner conflict?
One option is to admit that maybe I’m not such a good guy after all – that I made a mistake and did a bad thing, and so I have to apologize and ask forgiveness. But facing that hard truth is really, really hard.
So another way to deal with that inner conflict is to shift the blame. Well, if she hadn’t set me off, if she hadn’t let me down, if she hadn’t ignored my need, then I wouldn’t have yelled. That seems a whole lot easier – now I’m not the bad guy – it was really her fault.
Dissonance is one of the most powerful psychological forces we experience. Dissonance drives us to justify all kinds of awful behaviors.
Take Joseph’s brothers for example. They see their father granting Joseph special favors and privileges, showing him more love than he does for them, and they seethe with resentment. Add to that Joseph’s obnoxious dreams of them bowing to him, and resentment boils over into hatred.
And so, then they see him coming, and they throw him in a pit and conspire to kill him. But instead, they sell him into slavery and pretend to their father he was killed by a wild animal.
The brothers are also dealing with dissonance. They think of themselves as good people, worthy of their father’s love. So instead of looking in the mirror and telling themselves, “Wow, I’m a really bad person! I just sold my brother into slavery!” they tell themselves that they were justified. He was so obnoxious, so insulting. He was really worse than them. He deserved it.
But over time, the brothers grow. Confronted with the prospect of losing his brother Benjamin, Judah chooses to acknowledge his past and the consequences of his actions. “Now, if I come to your servant my father and the boy is not with us—since his own life is so bound up with his…he will die… Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers.” (Genesis 44:30-33)
Since the attack by Hamas on October 7, the world has been confounded by dissonance. Those who champion the cause of the Palestinians have had to confront the reality that Hamas committed atrocities on an almost unimaginable and ghastly scale. So that requires one to admit that perhaps the moral quality of my cause is compromised, or to somehow convince myself that Hamas was justified.
The moral challenge of resolving that dissonance is grave. For some, it resulted in a denial of the attack itself, such as the assertion by Queen Rania of Jordan that there was no proof for the gruesome beheading of babies. Others quickly claimed that Hamas was somehow justified in its attack – that it was all Israel’s fault, and that “resistance by any means necessary” is justified. And still others call Israel’s response “genocide,” thus rendering Israel as an even greater villain, and somehow deserving of what happened.
And similarly, those who support Israel’s right to defend itself have also been confounded by dissonance. Israel’s supporters have had to confront the truth that the war has resulted in thousands of civilian deaths, creating a humanitarian disaster that threatens starvation and disease, along with a dramatic surge in settler violence against Palestinians in Judea and Samaria.
Resolving this dissonance is also fraught with moral challenges. Some throw up their hands and say, “well, that’s what you get for supporting Hamas.” Others suggest that there are no real innocent civilians in Gaza. Still others claim “price tag” attacks – justifying terror attacks by Jews against Palestinian villages.
The resolution to this conflict lies in resolving dissonance with utter honesty and clarity, acknowledging the reality of our choices and confronting their consequences with open honesty and humility.
The Torah teaches that the children of Israel could only restore their family when they stopped lying to themselves, when they unwound the moral pretzels they had used to justify their immoral choices. Only their embrace of the hard truths and consequences of their choices could lead to them to embrace each other.
And today, peace will only come when both Palestinians and Israelis stop lying to themselves, when we heal our dissonance by embracing hard truths, and when we set aside decades of resentment and hatred, look into the eyes of the other, and say: haven’t we all suffered enough?
Rabbi Dan Levin
Temple Beth El of Boca Raton
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem…”