By Rabbi Adam J Rosenbaum
Not long ago, an Idaho middle-school student won his city’s science fair by studying the reactions of people asked to sign a petition banning a chemical called dihydrogen monoxide. The petition noted that the chemical can cause excessive sweating and vomiting; it is a major component in acid rain; it can cause severe burns in its gaseous state; accidental inhalation of it can kill you; it contributes to erosion; it decreases effectiveness of automobile brakes; and it has been found in tumors of terminal cancer patients. Of the 50 people this student approached, 43 signed the petition, 6 said they had to think about it, and only one refused to sign it, because this one person realized that dihydrogen monoxide is also known as… water.
By taking advantage of his subjects’ lack of knowledge, this student revealed that even the best of us can be duped from time to time. Take, for example, one of the characters in the Haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah. This passage, taken from the first book of Samuel introduces us to the High Priest Eli, who thinks he is just doing his job when he approaches a visibly shaken woman and suggests that she is inebriated. Instead, the woman, named Hannah, is actually pouring her heart out to God, praying fervently to be blessed with a child. Even though Eli looks silly for his suggestion, he quickly reverses himself and treats Hannah with proper respect.
It may be easy to look at this episode and to simply dismiss Eli as gullible, perhaps just as gullible as those 43 people who signed a petition asking that the state of Idaho ban water. The truth is that things like this can happen to the best of us. Our society is inundated with increasingly sophisticated scams, made more deceptive by advanced technology. Many people have fallen for them, causing financial loss and, perhaps more damaging, crushing embarrassment. Even people like Eli who, of course, is not intentionally tricked by Hannah can feel bad about jumping to a conclusion that can hurt someone else.
We are therefore reminded that, more than ever, it pays to read the fine print, to be thoughtful and cautious with the decisions we make.
In the coming year, we will all benefit from being intentional with our choices, enabling us to understand ourselves and others better. Shanah Tovah u’Metukah – I wish you a good, sweet, and intentional new year.
Adam J. Rosenbaum is the rabbi of Temple Beth Tzedek and a contributor to Link Jewish Buffalo