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Incentives Matter: Getting Women and Men to Talk

Thomas Sowell famously points out that if you want to change the outcomes, you merely have to change the incentives.

I find it fascinating that the Torah takes this very same approach. Genesis tells us of many bad outcomes. We see that the Torah itself engages in changing incentives in order to avoid repeating the past.

Many of these bad outcomes are the result of men and women not talking enough to each other. Adam and Eve do not properly communicate with each other about the whole forbidden fruit issue: G-d tells Adam not to eat the fruit, but somehow Eve understands that she is not supposed to touch the fruit. They do not discuss anything to reach a consensus, and so it is not even clear that when Adam eats the forbidden fruit, that he is aware that this is the specific one he was told not to eat. Had there been full and clear communication between them, the story could not have unfolded as it did.

Abraham and his wife Sarah also suffer from communications problems: for some reason the wives accept it when their husbands suggest they should pretend they are not married. The situation becomes so bad that when Sarah dies, she was separated from her husband; he has to travel to where she died just to help ensure she is buried properly. In every case this leads to a terrible outcome, and certainly does not help their respective marriages grow. The Torah tells us that a woman is supposed to be an “ezer k’negdo,” a “helper to oppose him.” When the women does not challenge her husband, both suffer as a result.

When Isaac decides to bless his son Esau, Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, makes plans of deceit and subterfuge in order to achieve a certain outcome. She does not talk to Isaac, nor he to her. The result is a disaster, with one son, Esau, alienated and the other fleeing for his life. The parents are left without Jacob’s companionship for the rest of their lives. Secrets kept lead to terrible outcomes.

Rachel similarly hides the fact that she has stolen her father’s idols – she hides it from her husband, and lies outright to her father. Rachel dies in childbirth and in pain, and is not buried in the hallowed cave where all the other forefathers and foremothers were buried, but instead on the side of the road.

Even Moses has a problem with his own wife which leads them to separate – a separation that in some respects lasts for the rest of ther lives. One poor result is that Moses’ own sons are deprived of their father for critical years, and they never experience the Exodus, the central event of the Jewish people. Moses’ sons, perhaps as a consequence, do not amount to much, and they fade into obscurity. His wife, Tzipporah, is really collateral damage in the whole story. Did it have to necessarily work out that way? Could the result have been better if there was better communications between them?

We do know that when communications work well between husband and wife, then the outcomes are much better. The last thing Jacob does for his parents before he leaves home is that he does not depart until his mother talks to his father, and they both agree and tell him that he should go. Leah wears her heart on her sleeve and makes her goals and plans crystal clear to her husband; she is blessed with six sons as a result. Her husband, Jacob, reciprocates: he consults with Rachel and Leah before deciding to go back to his ancestral home. The result is that this family was the first generation to stay together and remain as a complete unit.

The daughters of Tzelofchad appeal to Moses about inheritance law: their claim is clear and involves no deceit. They, also, achieve a positive result.

Thomas Sowell’s adage about altering incentives was a distillation of how the world works, an observation about mankind and how we respond to the forces around us. But one can find plenty of historical examples of leaders altering incentives with a hope of changing the outcome. Within the Torah, there are new incentives given later in the text, incentives that specifically encourage communications between men and women, reducing the chances of secrets destroying relationships. Numbers 30 contains 17 verses dedicated to the laws of vows. The text explains that a person is responsible for the choices they make: a man is responsible for what he promises, and a woman is also responsible for her promises – unless, that is, she tells the man of the house of her words. In that case, her husband or father can cancel out her words, and she is free of tha obligation, that vow.

The incentive contained within of all of these laws about vows is that women are strongly encouraged to make sure their men know what they have planned. And men are similarly encouraged to listen – with a critical ear – to what their wives or daughters say. Both should try to keep the other out of trouble. Neither is able to skate through by merely expecting the other person to read their mind, or intuit what the other person is thinking.

One might ask why the law treats women and men differently – after all, the man does not have to share his vows with his wife. I think the explanation is also found in the text: in the Torah, it is the women who are keeping secrets, not the men. The men surely could – and did – make mistakes. But the men were not hiding their decisions from their wives. On the other hand, Eve and Rebekah and Rachel were guilty of manipulating their husbands by not explaining what they were doing and why.

In view of this, we might go back and explain a classic question from Abraham and Sarah: Sarah decides to expel the maidservant, Hagar, and her son, Ishmael, putting them at risk of their lives. Avraham is distressed by this command, and consults with G-d – who tells him to listen to his wife. G-d then independently saves Hagar and Ishmael from dying in the wilderness.

It is hard to understand that the Torah is really teaching us that if a wife tells her husband to kill someone, that he should do it. On the other hand, the lesson may be something else entirely: what if G-d was telling Avraham to listen to his wife just because she was the first woman in the Torah to openly confront her husband and tell him what she wanted? G-d did not want to punish Hagar and Ishmael (whom he saved); instead, he wanted to make Abraham (and everyone else) understand that we need our women to speak out, and we need to strongly consider what they have to say. There is a virtue in a woman telling her husband what is on her mind, especially if it involves future planning (such as vows).

The phrase G-d uses to tell Avraham to “hear” his wife’s voice is the same one to describe Adam and Eve hearing G-d in the Garden after they eat the fruit: when you truly hear someone’s voice, you are changed by the event: you are compelled to react in some way. A specific outcome is not required – you do NOT have to do what you are told, after all – but some considered reaction is necessary. A good husband or father must listen to his wife or daughter, and he must evaluate what she has to say, and react either by acquiescing to her words, or by vetoing them – and then be asked by the woman to explain his thinking.

In so doing, the incentives are toward more communications, and hopefully, fewer of the avoidable errors and calamities that come when people hide their plans and words from their life partner.

[Written by @iwe and @eliyahumasinter]

Comments are welcome!