Wah, Wah, Wah
One of the greatest mussar sefarim one can study, Rav Mendel Kaplan, zt”l, was purported to have said, is the daily newspaper. While I don’t usually consider The Wall Street Journal to be part of my daily learning experience, I do find that every once in awhile a story strikes me, leaving Rav Mendel’s words ringing in my ears.
And so it came to pass the other day that pharmaceutical giant Merck was found liable, by a Texas jury, for the death of Robert Ernst.
The trouble began with a relatively new drug produced by Merck, called Vioxx, whose function is to kill pain. But in doing so, it has been accused of killing patients, including Mr. Ernst. The reasoning behind the allegation is that Vioxx causes blood clots, which can lead to heart attacks. Mark Lanier, the family’s attorney, argued that just such a scenario killed Mr. Ernst.
Yet Mr. Ernst’s autopsy says he died of an irregular heartbeat, called arrhythmia, not a heart attack. No problem, countered Mr. Lanier: The arrhythmia had been triggered by the heart attack, which had been triggered by the blood clot, which had been triggered by the Vioxx.
According to that line of reasoning, however, Mr. Ernst must have had a heart attack prior to contracting the arrhythmia, which killed him. But that never happened. Mr. Ernst had no record of ever having had a heart attack. And lest one argue that this theoretical heart attack had gone undetected during his lifetime, the autopsy—the very autopsy that blamed the arrhythmia—would have revealed the telltale damage to the heart muscle that a heart attack always leaves in its wake.
Except it didn’t. The heart muscle was sound.
Nevertheless, this simple syllogism—no heart damage means no heart attack; no heart attack means no evidence of clotting; no evidence of clotting means no liability for Vioxx and Merck—was lost on the jury, which awarded the Ernst family $253 million in damages. Ouch.
What astonished me most, however, was not so much the conclusion of the jury, but the fact that one of the largest corporations in the world, with far-reaching financial resources, with sound science on its side, and with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, could have blown what should have been an open-and-shut case.
Then I read the newspaper, and it quickly became clear to me how one simple mistake is now threatening to bring down a great American corporation.
Speaking to reporters, juror John Ostrom explained the judgment of the jury. The problem was that, despite a highly paid legal team, Merck never made its argument. Mr. Ostrom compared Merck’s lawyers to the adults in the Charlie Brown cartoons, whose voices are unintelligible. "Whenever Merck was up there,” he said, “it was like ‘wah, wah, wah.’ We didn't know what the heck they were talking about."
Merck’s mistake was its inability to break down complex scientific analysis and legal language into layman’s terms. Reading Mr. Ostrom’s comments in the Journal the next morning, brought to mind Paul Newman’s line in Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
Communication failures happen all the time. In the corporate world, we now see that they can cost a quarter of a billion dollars.
But in the world of Jewish education the loss is no less steep. I once had a rebbe who said the laws of Shabbos could be listed on one side of an index card. Today’s teachers would howl—in protest or in laughter—at such a suggestion. But in teaching the minutia of the 39 melachos, are they forgetting to convey the radiance of Shabbos? In teaching the dos and don’ts of halachah, are they neglecting to transmit the majesty of Torah and the privilege of mitzvah observance? Are students simply hearing wah, wah, wah?
One wrong word, one misspoken phrase and children can become discouraged to the point that they abandon observance entirely. The blogosphere carries the testimonies of many such people.
The other great tragedy is that we are barely communicating outside of our own community, standing by while millions of Jews remain unlettered, oblivious to their golden heritage. Those who practice Torah observance are keenly aware of the misconceptions non-observant Jews have. It is heartbreaking that we have not been able to convey the beauty, breadth and brilliance of Torah to a wider audience.
Even among those who show an interest, few commit themselves. Why is that? Why doesn’t the message of Torah inspire them to declare, as King David did, “I rejoice in your words, as one who finds a great treasure”?
What we have here, I believe, is a failure to communicate.
More than once, I’ve sat in on classes geared for the non- or newly-observant and had a hard time staying awake. People visit a class, for possibly the first and only time, to gain some insight into Judaism, and often all they get in return is wah, wah, wah. Speakers carry on about mysticism, hidden codes, halachic extremities—and don’t focus on the simple, salient issues of Judaism.
Communication need not be complex to be deep. It can be simple without being simplistic. “In the beginning, G-d created Heaven and Earth.” Stop there and you could spend a lifetime delving into those Divine words. But at its surface, it still makes sense. The story is understandable to a child.
The beauty of Torah is that it can be studied by five-year-olds and ninety-five-year-olds. The stories of the Chumash can be understood simultaneously on the simplest and deepest levels. The Mishnah, too, with its simple structure and clipped clauses, is easily memorized and triggers deeper understandings. The Torah is designed to grow on its students and with its students.
The state of Jewish education today leaves plenty of room for speakers, writers and, yes, even bloggers to make an impact. But in order to do so they must, in the words of many a communications coach, “keep it simple, stupid.” There is a way to transmit Torah to a generation thirsting for guidance. There are many ways not to. Let us choose wisely.