The Preconceptions that keep us from seeing what is before us

In his book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, Dr. Daniel Gordis describes the conceptzia – the ‘“conception’” of strength and military superiority that Israelis had of themselves after the 1967 Six-Day War. It was comforting and uplifting. But it kept Israel’s leaders from seeing with clarity the growing threat of Syria and Egypt in the leadup to the 1973 War. Through this frame of interpretation, Israeli leaders missed what was happening before their very eyes.

Dr. Micha Goodman suggests that much the same might have taken place in the lead-up to October 7, 2023.  The story Israeli leaders have told themselves since the Second Intifada has been one of potency and vitality – without peer or real existential threat in the region. This notion occluded from view the growing evidence that Hamas was planning an unprecedented kind and scale of terrorist attack on Israeli soil.

While Israeli leaders and citizens continue to grapple with their shattered “conceptions” of self and society, recent experiences beg the question from us all: what preconceptions do we have about the world around us that make us feel safe or strong but ultimately keep us from understanding evidence that complicates the story? Do we presume our companies or organizations to be unflappable or peerless? Do we see ourselves as essential parts of any group of which we are a part? Do we believe our communities or families to be copacetic, even if uncertainty or sadness resides beneath the surface?

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayeshev is about how we create such conceptions of self, family, community, and world – in this case, focusing on the story of Joseph. Joseph’s dreams contain profound truths within them, but the manner in which he conveys them alienates him from his siblings – creating a conception that he is arrogant, unkind, and even a danger to his family. Once his brothers have this notion of Joseph and his personhood, it is difficult to disabuse them of it. Ultimately, it provides a pretense for them to abuse Joseph unconscionably.

They throw Joseph into a pit – perhaps the original pit of despair – which multiple Talmudic passages describe as having “snakes and scorpions” (BT Chagigah Shabbat 22a, Chagigah 3a). Whether they intended to kill him or merely forever rid themselves of him, they fail to see his higher purpose and sacred potential as a leader. They can hardly imagine his rise to grand vizier of Egypt with the use of his dreams, nor Joseph’s growing ability to convey the meaning of dreams in a gentler, more palatable way. They certainly cannot foresee the role he will play in saving the entire family from famine.

In some respect, Joseph’s story is one of shattering preconceptions in the most positive of ways. One might even argue that he shatters preconceptions about preconceptions – and that indeed, they can both keep us from seeing problems or wonderous opportunities taking shape before our eyes. It also affirms that the best way to rid ourselves of the (mis)conception is a combination of openness to new ideas and compassion in the way that we share them with others.

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