Beshalach: Fast and Slow

There are two paths for how ideas spread: Fast and Slow.

In October of 1846, a Boston dentist by the name of William Morton approached a friend and local surgeon, Henry Jacob Bigelow, with a gas that could render patients unaware of the pain of medical procedures. A few days later, Bigelow agreed to let Morton demonstrate the gas in a Massachusetts hospital on a young man undergoing jaw surgery. Four weeks later, Dr. Bigelow published his report describing the use of the gas. While he did not divulge the recipe (Morton was seeking a patent) he did describe “smelling ether” in the air. That’s all it took for letters and messages passed among colleagues to  spread the idea. Within three months, doctors were administering anesthesia world-over.

Twenty years after Bigelow penned a perfunctory report about anesthesia, an Edinburgh surgeon, Joseph Lister, perfected Louis Pasteur’s work of using carbolic acid to purify wounds as well as the doctor’s own hands. In 1867, Dr. Lister published a series of seminal essays in a prominent medical journal. Unlike the immediate adoption of ether, it took a generation before the use of antiseptics was adopted as standard practice in hospitals.  In 2013, the eminent physician and author Atul Gawande profiled the rapid spread of anesthesia and contrasted it to the glacier-paced adoption of an equally important medical discovery – antiseptics.

Fast and Slow

 These stories led Dr. Gawande to ask a deeply spiritual question, “Why do some important ideas spread so quickly, while others seem to take forever?”

What Dr. Gawande found was that solutions to great problems spread more slowly if the problem is invisible. The visible problem and immediate problem of pain during surgery spurred doctors to share notes and encourage each other to adopt anesthesia as a way to make surgery more pleasant for both  patients and doctors. Sepsis, on the other hand, can take days to manifest when presumably the surgeon is already working with other patients. What we learn from this is that ideas addressing big, immediate problems that make life easier for everyone are more readily spread than even the most wondrous solutions to perhaps even bigger, but less visible, quandaries of the human spirit. 

Since the pandemic began, we have moved shockingly fast to mask, wash, and develop a vaccine. In less than one year, we’ve administered nearly 25 million doses of new vaccines to combat the coronavirus, with more vaccines coming into use in the coming weeks. Israel, on a per-capita basis, is even farther along vaccinating its population. To give some perspective, Israel is vaccinating residents at a rate of 32.4 people per 100, compared with 4.8 people per 100 in the U.S., and 7 per 100 in the United Kingdom. Not since anesthesia has the science, development, testing, and distribution of a global technology to save lives ever  moved so quickly.  

Yet, problems like the global destruction wrought by a changing climate, the health damage from unbalanced, over-processed and sugary diets, the economic and social disaster of student debt, systemic racism, rising  income inequality, and rampant cynicism about the future continue to confront us. These things worsen imperceptibly every day. Solutions to these problems require sacrifice, struggle, and deep systemic shifts in our spirit and outlook.  

Fast and Slow

In the era of instant communication, where information spreads faster than the speed of light, we want frictionless environments and immediate, ‘turnkey’ solutions to all of our problems; but fast-type solutions do not work for slow-type problems. If we are hungry and can afford it, we can order food instantly, but to solve food insecurity we can’t just find an app for that. If we miss a friend (again if we can afford it) we call, text, or see them through video conferencing. But to solve the epidemic of loneliness, depression, and other mental health challenges, other kinds of thinking are needed. Mass media can introduce ideas, but it takes a generational shift, where members of a society are willing to share new ideas, struggle with them, and sacrifice some of their own self-interest,. to discover true  communal redemption. To tackle the most invisible but insidious and destructive forces of our society, we have to be willing to move fast and slow.  

Long before modern medicine and internet technology, the very story of fast and slow is found in the Torah’s depiction of the Exodus story. In this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, we come to the culminating sequence of the Exodus. The Israelites have been freed from Egypt, leaving after hundreds of years of slavery. After what felt like interminable and intractable oppression, the utter joy and freedom feels palpable in the text.  

As our reading opens, however, we find that God did not lead the Israelites on the most direct path to their homeland. “Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see no water, and return to Egypt.’”(Exodus 17:1-2) So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds. 

God knew that Exodus from Egypt would be fast; the Israelites didn’t have time to even bake full loaves of bread, but here God slows them down. God also knew what lies in the heart, and responded to the invisible problems of the soul as much as to the visible problems of oppression. The immediate visible political problem of slavery was solved in a single night – liberation cried out all over Egypt, but the more systemic and invisible problem of what one does with their freedom, moves much, much more slowly. 

The midrash adds some texture to this moment. In the Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides understands the Torah’s motivations to toughen up the Israelites as a life lesson to all of us.  It feels wondrous to tear down and break out of slavery, but learning how to provide food every day is much less wonderful, and actually more important. (Guide 3:24) More strikingly, the classical midrash expands the idea of slow redemption as an example for all of us to learn ourselves. The word yasav, to mean “go around”, shares the same root as the root yesev, meaning to recline. The celebration of Passover, the holiday of redemption, cannot be complete until even the poorest among us can recline at the table to eat. (Shemot Rabba 20:18) The redemption of the Israelites slows down, ensuring that everyone, even the poorest and lowliest of the world, can partake.  

God’s path is not the quickest, nor is it without friction. God knows that it takes time, grit, sacrifice, and struggle  to look out for the vulnerable, the poor –  to wrestle with what is not just the visible, but the invisible as well. To move fast when we can see what is in front of us, and to make sure that even if we move slowly, we are changing what is within us.  God never wants to let things just be as they are.  The last story of the Exodus cycle teaches us not just to pay attention to the cataclysmic changes of the moment, but to the generations-long struggle to open the door to all people  – to build a more peaceful, prosperous, healthy, and spirited world. 

Shabbat Shalom 

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