Shaya Cohen -


Most People, Most of the Time, are Prey to Their Insecurity

I think that insecurity is at the heart of most of humanity’s failings.

Within social media, almost nobody wants to hear from those who hold different views. Few people are confident enough in themselves to not feel threatened or triggered when someone who disagrees with them speaks their mind.

Most people mindlessly follow the herd, even into terrified Covidsanity, thanks to insecurity. We join and reflexively defend tribes aligned along fault lines as silly as sports teams, driven by our need to feel like we belong. Sibling and marital rivalries are born from insecurity. So are bullying, gossip, and the exclusion of others.

In our modern world, insecurity is the reason why people feel the need to force others to conform to ephemeral and inconsistent nonsense about preferred pronouns or cultural appropriation. Insecurity is why feminists need to attack men, and why men tell misogynistic jokes. In religious circles, insecurity leads to teachers telling children which questions are good, and which are not good. Indeed, religion is itself a haven for the insecure, a way to manage anxiety about all the unknowns and things in the world that are beyond our control.

The thing is that we are all unique people. We are all meant to be unique people. Which means that our thoughts, words and deeds should differ from those of others. Our talents and inclinations and skills are all different, one from the next. Ideally, instead of being threatened by others, we should be big enough to embrace their unique qualities. And we should be able to accept, without criticism, all choices made by others that are found within the big tent of The Good.

People criticize religion as being among the worst offenders when it comes to intolerance, but such an assessment should only be made if we judge a religion on its practitioners rather than its founding text. If the foundational documents are good, then it is possible that the edifices built on that foundation can be good as well.

If we look at the Torah, we see a wide range of acceptable behavior. Judaism praises people like Ruth, who blaze new paths by dint of conviction and hard work. The text of the Torah itself acknowledges that marriages can fail, and so divorce is an option. The text sees that not everyone is meant to be a landowner or a leader; it provides for those who own no real estate, and it allocates for those who need to rely on others (a Levite, a Hebrew servant, etc.).

Indeed, in the example of the Hebrew servant, we have a superb example of managing insecurities in a constructive manner:

When you acquire a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment. … But if the servant declares, “I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,” his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his servant for life.

When we read this, we first think of piercing an ear, or a permanent change to a person because they choose servitude over freedom. But there is a deeper meaning in this verse.

Think further on the imagery: piercing the ear of the servant says that the servant will listen to his master forevermore. Freedom means choosing what we want to hear, making decisions based on weighing inputs from different sources. Piercing that ear means that the servant no longer has to weigh different options: he listens to his master.

The door or doorpost in use is that of the servant’s master’s home. Impaling the ear into the doorpost tells us that the servant’s blood is being infused into the symbolism of that door: the physical structure of the home as well as the spiritual structure of that particular family. The servant is choosing to become, for the rest of his life, part of what constitutes the structure that protects and houses the family within.

Going further: the word for “doorpost” is the very same one that we marked with the blood of the sheep at the Passover: identifying a Jewish home for the Destroyer so he would not kill the first-born within. Marking the doorpost with blood is a core identifier for the Jewish people: it advertises who we are, and what our mission on this earth is.

So to impale the servant’s ear means that the servant is identifying with that same mission, aligning himself with the sheep whose blood was used to mark the doors in Egypt. This aligns with the mezuzah (the same “doorpost” word) that Jews put on our homes, reminding us of the words of the Torah when we go out and when we come in.  Jews already constrain our lives with the mezuzah, because these scrolls are constant reminders of our shared background, and our aspirations to be G-d’s emissaries in this world.

Bringing it all together, it helps show how a servant who chooses to stay is doing more than merely choosing servitude over freedom. The symbolism tells us that the servant is choosing to be part of something greater than himself, the entire home and family within that structure, along with the mission that comes along with being part of a family dedicated to serving G-d.

And it takes the insecurity of the servant and finds a way to constructively direct it into something that can do more than a man can do by himself. Being a part of something larger than oneself is also an entirely legitimate form of self-expression.

The meta-lesson also applies: each person has their own path to walk. Before we assume that others should make the same decisions that we make, we should be quite sure that we are not projecting from our own insecurities.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, and @blessedblacksmith work]

Comments are welcome!

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