The Torah, Survival, and 'Survivor'

The ethics of the 'jungle' vs. the ethics of the Torah


OK, I'll admit it up front. I'm not one of the 40 million people who watched the final episode of the television show "Survivor" last year. I'm a complete "Survivor" virgin; I didn't tune in to see people eat rats and insects. I missed the mud wrestling. I did other things while the 16 contestants held their breath underwater. I was out at the movies, reading a book, or napping while duplicity, betrayal, and manipulation were touted as laudable interpersonal skills. Somehow, I just can't believe this is what it takes to be a "survivor," even in the primitive tribal society that the series attempts to evoke.

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What then does it take to survive? This is exactly the subject of this week's Torah portion, Shoftim. These chapters of the book of Deuteronomy outline the core rules and values for the society the Jewish people will create in the Promised Land. The Torah states, "When you enter the land which Adonai your God gives you, do not imitate the abhorrent practices of those who are there" (18:9).

Of all the peoples of the ancient Middle Eastern world, only the Jewish people today can claim a culture that has survived continuously for 3,000 years. There are no more Jebusites or Moabites, Ammonites or Hittites, but there are still Jews. No one really knows the "secret" of the survival of the Jewish people, but it certainly makes sense that one factor is the moral code promulgated in the Torah.

It's not a big surprise that the Torah has a rather different view of human morality than American pop culture. The show "Survivor" suggests that survival is based on individual strength and ruthless competition. Each person must do everything possible to thwart others. It is ironic that even in the show, this strategy is obviously flawed, and those who make alliances clearly improve their chances. In the American pop-culture pageant of survival, these interpersonal agreements must be kept secret. In Torah, mutual aid is held up as a value.

Deuteronomy teaches, "If there is a needy person among you in any of the land Adonai your God gives you, do not harden your heart. ... Rather, open your hand and lend what your neighbor needs" (15:7-8). The tribal world of the Torah isn't a dog-eat-dog competition. The "primitive" society of the ancient Hebrews is interdependent--all members of the community jointly support each other and their religious and political institutions.

"Survivor" implies that life is a war, and that war is a relentless struggle without pity or compassion. The Torah, on the other hand, explains that even in times of war, compassion is a key to ethical survival. According to Deuteronomy, when the tribal Israelites fought, certain people were exempt. Anyone who had recently built a house or planted a vineyard or married was left behind to pursue these more peaceful endeavors. In addition, those who were fearful, far from being shamed and humiliated, were sent home.

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