The cover of the Economist a couple of weeks ago read, “Trust Machine.” And as my work in large part deals with how to help people to trust each other, and how to build communities in which people trust each other, I was interested: What was this machine they were talking about? And how did it build trust?
It turns out the article was about Bitcoin, the digital currency that you may have heard about and, if you’re like me, haven’t thought about all that much. Bitcoin is one of those things that tech innovators understand and the rest of us are too luddite to really pay attention to. But, as with many other things tech innovators talk about, it’s something we should be paying attention to. And that was the Economist’s point.
Bitcoin runs on a technology (Israeli-pioneered, of course) called blockchain. If you google “blockchain technology for dummies” (as I did), you come to an article that explains it this way:
At the moment, the ownership of rights are registered by trusted third parties. Money is registered by banks, real estate by the land register, specific contracts by notary public etc. If you want to change ownership, you need to contact the trusted third party, follow the right procedures and the trusted third party will transfer ownership. On the blockchain, the knowledge of ownership is shared with everybody. Everybody has his ‘personal’ register of who owns what. On a regular basis, all ‘personal’ registers are compared to correct errors and ensure agreement about the ‘truth’.
When there is a transaction, both the buyer and the seller broadcast the transaction and everybody has to update his ‘personal’ register, after checking if the transaction is broadcast according to the agreed procedures. The last step is for all ‘personal’ registers to be mutually compared again. When there is disagreement about the content, the most common register is accepted as being the ‘truth’.
This is the technology that the Economist heralded as a breakthrough—not just for currency, but for the way the world works in even broader ways. As the Economist put it: “The blockchain lets people who have no particular confidence in each other collaborate without having to go through a neutral central authority. Simply put, it is a machine for creating trust.”
We are living through an age of transformation in the way trust works. The institutions that were once repositories of trust—our banks, newspapers, media networks, political parties, police, companies, religious institutions—are showing their unfitness for the age. This is an era when information is widely available, when the tools for creating and broadcasting our own voices are readily accessible, when the expectation for transparency is greater, and more justified, than ever before. And so we aren’t willing to give these institutions a free pass anymore—a free pass to control information, to control politics, even to control currency. We don’t trust them.
But of course we don’t really trust each other either. Anyone can tell a story and create a warped version of the truth. The same tools that make those institutions obsolete also make it hard to trust things we read and see on the internet, or politicians who aren’t part of political parties, or vigilantes who don’t trust the police and therefore take the law into their own hands.
So we don’t trust our institutions, and we don’t really trust each other. And all of that comes against a backdrop of the Shoah, which sent shockwaves of distrust through families and our entire people that still reverberate today; agains the backdrop of the blacklivesmatter movement, which has exposed how deep distrust of authority justifiably runs in America; and against the backdrop of climate change which, to me anyway, makes it difficult to trust that the world will even be inhabitable for my children and grandchildren.
Talk about a trust deficit. This is a trust desert.
But the world can’t work without trust. Tov l’hodot lashem… l’hagid baboker hasdekha v’emunatcha ba-leilot. It is a good thing, a necessary thing, to praise the trustworthiness of the world that God has created. To be unable to trust makes the world unlivable. The ability to trust is the first thing we learn as infants—to trust that milk will come when we’re hungry. And then as children—to trust that our parents will return for us after they leave us with someone else. And then as we find partners—to trust that we can be physically and emotionally vulnerable with someone else. And in our old age—to trust that others will care for our bodies, our finances, our legacies after we’re gone. To be unable to trust in these things leads us to fear and anxiety, to a dangerous and ugly world.
The impulse to trust is deeply woven into our makeup. We want to trust, but we live in an age when that is increasingly difficult for us, both individually and collectively. So what to do? How do we trust?
It turns out, of course, that these are not new questions. They are questions at the heart of the Torah, from the moment that Adam and Eve question their trust in God and cause God to distrust them; to the first covenant with Noah, the first act of trust-building in the Torah; to Abraham’s episodes of trusting and questioning God. But the life of Jacob presents us with the deepest and most nuanced stories of what trust means, how it is threatened, and how we live as adults in a world that requires trust, but in which trust is no simple thing to manage.
Parshat Toldot tells us of how Jacob tests, and violates, Isaac’s trust by tricking him. Lavan then breaches Jacob’s trust in Parshat Vayetzei, when he gives Jacob Leah instead of Rachel. But the apex of these stories about trust comes in Parshat Vayishlach, when Jacob doesn’t know Esau’s intentions: he certainly seems to coming to do violence. And given that, we can reasonably ask why Jacob doesn’t simply fight—why even try to make peace? He knows Esau is coming to kill him; he takes all sorts of precautions; why even bother with the diplomacy? To which the answer might be: because Jacob can’t live without trusting anymore. It has taken too high a toll. As the midrash quoted by Rashi memorably puts it: vayira Yaakov me’od vayetzer lo—vayira shema yehareg, vayetzer lo shema yaharog; he feared that he would be killed, and it troubled him that he would be a killer. Jacob has been on the run for twenty years. He grew up in a dysfunctional family before that. He is a mature man now, and a kill-or-be-killed world is not one he can tolerate anymore. He has to try to trust.
And it turns out, at least according to the pshat of the story, that Esau feels similarly. Despite Hazal’s best attempts to vilify him, the story as we read it in Bereshit indicates that the two brothers have grown up, that Jacob has apologized to Esau and that Esau has accepted his apology. They’ve built a modicum of trust. Are they going to move in together? No. Is it a warm relationship? Not exactly. But they trust another enough, and they demonstrate their adulthood in honoring the trust of their father by coming together to bury him.
Jacob and Esau do this without any external institutions mediating for them. Rather, their moment of rapprochement happens through a very physical encounter: Vayipol al-tzavarav vayishakehu, vayivku, and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and they cried. The intimacy here is a tikkun for the intimate moment when Jacob betrayed Isaac and Esau in chapter 28, a moment that also involved close touching and tears. And perhaps there is a further lesson to us in this: Trust-building doesn’t happen simply in the mind of one of the parties, though that individual work—wrestling with our angels—is essential. But that is only one part of the work; the other part involves actual encounter, physical encounter, with the presence of the other. It isn’t enough to say the right things in a Facebook post; as Jacob and Esau show us, genuine trust-building requires real physical presence.
And that may be why the Economist is so excited about blockchains and bitcoins. For generations now, we have allowed abstractions—these institutions, these repositories of trust—to do the work of trust-building for us. We put our faith in banks and police and newspapers, and yes, rabbis, and we didn’t ask too many questions. Perhaps we didn’t feel a need to witness for ourselves, to do the work of knowing and checking and verifying, the work of trust-building and trust-maintenance. But the world has changed. And if we are to live in it, and if we are to be make it a world in which we can trust, we are going to have to do more of that work. In Jacob and Esau, we gleam a lesson into what the work of trust-building is.
This dvar torah was originally given at Kol Sasson Congregation.