A Jewish Option B

“Do not comfort your friend in the hour when his dead lies unburied before him…”

Ethics of the Fathers 4:18


In our ongoing study of Ethics of the Fathers, we come across several pieces of wisdom attributed to Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar. Here, in 4:18, he helps us understand when, as a friend, we must hold back. “Do not try to pacify your friend in the hour when he is in a rage; and do not comfort him in the house when his dead lies unburied before him; and do not question him in the hour when he is making a vow; and do not make an effort to see him in the hour of his disgrace.”


Every act of restraint mentioned here protects the emotional fragility of someone caught in the throes of anguish or humiliation.  In his commentary to Ethics of the Fathers, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg observes that in the four cases cited, “the overt message of our words and actions” become “the contradictory subtext of the actual effects of our intervention with another. In other words, our good intentions are contradicted by the facts on the ground. We are saying the right things, but due to insensitivity to the other person’s state, our actions are having the opposite effect.” Communication works two ways. Words are given and received and sometimes, without paying careful attention, they are not received well. Timing is everything.


This mishna calls for two words: situational awareness. Friends shouldn’t interfere when emotions are high and one’s circumstance or one’s dignity is low. This does not mean it is inappropriate to intervene when calm presides. We need our friends to question our anger or our judgment and to provide a guiding hand and a comforting soul when we have the capacity to hear what they have to say. As Dionne Warwick sang so well, “That’s What Friends Are For.”


My friend Adena recently bought me Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s new book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy. We’d all like an Option A life but few of us will have one. Sandberg writes movingly of her pain. Her husband died in a hotel gym on vacation (yet another reason I don’t go to the gym). She found him and shares the exquisite difficulty of sharing this news with her children. The woman who told us to lean in does not hold back. She makes herself very vulnerable in these pages, and I wonder what she might have about this teaching from Ethics of the Fathers.


In one of her most moving chapters, the authors tell us what it means to be a friend to one who has suffered immense loss. Sandberg was struck by friends who restrained themselves so much it was as if they ignored this huge, seemingly unavoidable news in her life. “Many people who had not experienced loss, even some very close friends, didn’t know what to say to me or my kids. Their discomfort being around us was palpable, especially in contrast to our previous ease. As the elephant in the room went unacknowledged, it started acting up, trampling over my relationships. If friends didn’t ask how I was doing, did that mean they didn’t care? Did they not see the giant muddy footprints and piles of manure?


Sandberg also points out that the when the person experiencing these losses remains silent, it can isolate friends, family and colleagues. It seems it’s impossible to get it right. But this was not Sandberg’s issue. She was very open about her grief. She writes about weeping openly at work, thus, the discomfort of others became all the more shocking and disappointing. “The deep loneliness of my loss was compounded by so many distancing daily interactions that I started to feel worse and worse. I thought about carrying around a stuffed elephant, but I wasn’t sure that anyone would get the hint.”


Naturally, many people refrain from saying anything because they don’t want to cause the sufferer more pain, not realizing, of course, that this itself was a cause of pain. She also shares some helpful advice. Avoid platitudes, especially this one: everything happens for a reason. Suffering does not benefit from competition so try not to one up someone else’s suffering or focus on oneself at the expense of the person who needs to be comforted. They include a great card image: “When life gives you lemons, I won’t tell you a story about my cousin’s friend who died of lemons.”


Instead of asking “How are you?” a question which seems inappropriate – how should I be given my suffering? – ask instead, ‘How are you today?” Messages like “I’m thinking about you. It must be really hard for you right now” provided comfort. Letting someone know that he or she is not alone can also minimize the distance. I’ll add, from a parenting perspective, help your kids lean in when it comes to addressing other kids and adults who are struggling. Teach your children not to be afraid of approaching the pain of others.


Shabbat Shalom

A Leadership of Silence

“I have never been eloquent…”

Exodus 4:10


This week, we will open up the book of Exodus in synagogues around the world a day after America’s presidential inauguration. The time feels ripe to think about the relationship between speech and leadership. Words can communicate hope, or they can confirm hate. Words can lift the spirit or send listeners into a depressive tailspin. Words can be a tool of the arrogant or an obstacle to the humble.


Moses complained multiple times about his speaking inadequacies related to content, to the mechanics of speech and to his own unworthiness to represent his people. “’So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’” [Exodus 3:10-11].


Moses could not agree to a plan that he felt unworthy to represent. Moses countered again. “Moses answered, ‘What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you?’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘What is that in your hand?’ ‘A staff,’ he replied. The Lord said, ‘Throw it on the ground.’ Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it,” [Exodus 4:1-3]


This would surely have moved Moses to action, but still he protested. “Moses said to the Lord, ‘Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.’ But Moses said, ‘Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else,’” [Exodus 4:10-13]


Later, in 6:12 and 30, Moses added an additional, puzzling complaint: he has uncircumcised lips, a very odd expression that suggests some kind of blockage that prevents his words from achieving the mellifluous peak necessary to be an influential leader. Moses failed to understand why he specifically was chosen, why anyone would listen to him and where the source of speech would come from for a man of few words. Although we have classically understood Moses to be a stutterer or have a stammer, this reading may be too literal. Moses may have felt stymied by his lack of elegance rather than by any physical problem. Rashi observes that verse 4:10 should be read this way: “In heaviness, I speak.” Words were neither light nor trivial to him. This he regarded as a political liability. In politics, words can become weapons of insurrection or popularity or insincerity. These were realms not familiar to the young man born in trepidation and suddenly transferred to a house of royalty.


Avivah Gottleib Zornberg in her new and excellent book, Moses: A Human Life, comments that Moses’ “...destiny is yoked with his people’s in ways that he cannot at first fathom. Heaviness is everywhere, both inside his mouth and in his relation with a people who are ‘his’ only by way of a mother who has receded into oblivion. He has been shot into a future that he cannot recognize as his own.” Instead of curing Moses of a speech problem that plagued him, God wanted Moses because of his speech deficiencies: “Moses’ mouth is precisely what God has chosen. But He will be with his mouth, He will implicate Himself in the issues of his mouth. God invites Moses to open his whole being to a kind of rebirth. Already twice-born, he is to surrender to yet another transfiguration.”


God used Moses mouth as a conduit until Moses developed his own gift for language. More importantly, Moses with his staff, his brother and his miracles showed his people that action is more important to leadership than words will ever be. Moses felt trapped by speech and would only be able to free himself and his people when he overcame this incapacity to let words inspire action. They need not be many words either. “Let my people go” may not constitute poetry, but as the language of freedom against oppression, these three Hebrew words and four English ones have been a clarion call to revolution for centuries.


Moses’ humble objection to leadership set the standard for the rest of us. Even when we agree to a task, the question “who am I?” should be a whisper in our ears always. It helps us appreciate that great leadership is about influence rather than power, modesty rather than publicity, deeds rather than words.


Shabbat Shalom


A Hearing Problem

They have ears but cannot hear
— Psalms 135:17

Are you overly-aware of the ambient noise in a confined space? Does the crunching of someone else’s popcorn at a movie theater ruin the movie for you or the sound of sniffling become so distracting you cannot pay attention in a meeting? Join the club. My friend Rebecca directed me to a New York Times article about misophonia – hatred of sound - a hearing condition described as acute irritation when hearing certain noises. Dr. Barron Lerner in “Please Stop Making that Noise” shares his own frustration at sounds that make him absolutely crazy and drive him to distraction. A 2013 study identified the noises that irritate misaphones most: lip smacking, swallowing, pen clicking, typing, breathing and other nostril noises.

Lerner observes that for him one of the greatest irritants as a sufferer is what he calls the “incredulity factor.” It is hard for him to believe that other people are not as irritated as he is by the same sounds. It is as if they simply cannot hear these noises when, in fact, they were not registering them as significant or distracting. Friends and relatives would get frustrated that Lerner was paying too close attention to sounds they easily tuned out.

This dissonance made me think of the biblical expression above that appears in a number of places, both in the singular and plural: “They have ears but cannot hear…” We tend to interpret this verse as not listening to what one is told to do: the sin of unresponsiveness. But perhaps this can also refer to the fact that some people hear what others do not. There are those who are acutely aware of the sounds of injustice. Others don’t hear the cry. There are mothers who hear the sound of their own children crying but are impervious to the whimper of someone else’s child. Our selective hearing never ceases to amaze.

We find one example of this in Jewish law as it relates to prayer. Maimonides in the fifth chapter of his Laws of Prayer creates a list of eight acts people should do to prepare for moments of supplication and contemplation. One is “controlling one’s voice.” Maimonides explains: “A person should not raise his voice during his silent prayer [the Amida] nor should he pray silently. Rather, he should enunciate the words with his lips, whispering so that he can hear himself. He should not make his voice heard to others unless he is sick or distracted. In such instances, he is permitted [to be audible] except when praying with others lest they be disturbed by his voice.”

I must confess to being a shul misaphone. I appreciate that it is difficult to strike a balance between praying so that you can hear yourself – an exercise in amplifying intention and concentration – and making so much “noise” that it gets I the way of the prayer space of others. Often people who articulate each word out loud are regarded as particularly pious, except by those of us who regard this behavior as spiritually selfish. Prayer hogs – ironic, I know - chant with the Torah reader, pray loudly and hum tunes with the cantor or hazan. Misaphones unite.

We live in community, which means we have to tolerate the conversation, opinions, noises, smells and behaviors of others. This is a challenge for misaphones who hear what others ignore. What’s the solution? The Talmud [BT Ketubot 5b] asks a few questions about human anatomy that have to do with our ears. In the spiritual rather than anatomical view, why is it that an earlobe is shaped to fit inside an ear perfectly and why do the tips of fingers fit so easily into the ear? It’s so that these two parts of the body can be used to close up the ear from gossip, tale-bearing and harmful speech.

And yet, even so, we do not walk around with our lobes or fingers in our ears. We would look odd. Perhaps this passage of Talmud is offering us a metaphor that we must teach ourselves to close our ears much the way we teach ourselves to close our eyes so that we can live with others whose noises would otherwise disturb us.

And then – when tolerance for others runs low – there are always noise cancelling headphones.

Shabbat Shalom

Jewish Body Language

As water reflects a face, so too a person’s heart reflects another.
— Proverbs 27:19

Remember the etiology of the narcissus flower? Narcissus, a very attractive Greek hunter, fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and drowned, leaving us with the name of a beautiful flower and a term in psychology for those overly self-absorbed: narcissism.

We find a different reading of water's reflective powers in the book of Proverbs from the verse above. Instead of reflecting ourselves, we find that an image speaks back to us that should make us sensitive to others.

In the Talmud [BT Yevamot 117a], one scholar understands this verse as a plea to the emotions and one to the intellect. The Talmud is discussing whether or not a mother-in-law can provide testimony to support her daughter-in-law in the case of a husband presumed dead that would permit the daughter-in-law to re-marry. The rabbis debated the question of self-interest and possibility of emotional pettiness in this relationship and cited this verse in Proverbs as support. Namely, the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship is often fraught with tension. The daughter-in-law picks up on negative signals from the mother-in-law and then those feelings are returned, just like water reflects the face of one who looks at it, citing our verse in Proverbs.

If one person has strong, negative body language towards another, the feeling is likely to become mutual. Sometimes we don't realize the way our faces talk. When someone grimaces or rolls his eyes at something another person says, everyone in the room picks up on it. No words are needed to pick up on the insult. Daniel Goleman, the pioneer of emotional intelligence studies, along with his co-writers in Primal Leadership, presents research about the body language of leaders. Even when they don't speak, people are busy reading their faces and posture to determine if they feel good or bad about a presentation or an idea. "Leaders manage meaning for the group," they contend, even and sometimes especially, when they don't speak.

Weaker chimpanzees, researchers tell us, will smile at a stronger chimpanzee to show that it is vulnerable and not hostile. Studies also show that people who are good at interpreting body language will watch the mouth and not the eyes since it seems to reveal the most about what someone is thinking.

Rabbi Yehuda, however, interprets the verse differently as referring to an intellectual experience: the more Torah one studies, the more Torah he understands. Rashi, the eleventh century French commentator, writes that if a teacher shows a positive countenance to his student, it is more likely for that student to become a scholar himself. Without the teacher's non-verbal encouragement, Rashi contends that the student will never become a scholar. This places a strong educational and moral responsibility on the shoulders of teachers. Be careful about what your body language says to those studying with you

Clearly, we pick up and respond to the emotions we receive. This is likely the reason that Ethics of the Fathers [1:15] recommends we greet every person with a "beautiful face" because that face or look will be returned to us.

This week, we closed the study of Tractate Yevamot in the Talmud's daily cycle. It was a very long tractate and to honor its completion, I shared the teaching above and would like to share one more that held particular meaning for me.

The Talmud records a drowning incident of the famous scholar Rabbi Akiva. When asked how he survived, he said he grabbed hold of a "daf" - a plank of the ship's wood and held on to it for safety. It carried him to shore [BT Yevamot 121a]. Rabbi Meir Shapiro  of Lublin, the founder of the Daf Yomi program - the daily study cycle that takes 7 ½ years to complete - based a sermon on this story to encourage people to study the Talmud based on the wordplay for plank - called a daf . Just as Rabbi Akiva held on to a "daf" and it saved him, so can the regular study of Talmud save us. I know that it has personally served as a wonderful anchor and daily discipline for me and others, especially in an ever-changing world.

We all need to find that which spiritually grounds us as we get tossed about. We find that in the people who reflect warmth and love to us. We find it in community. We find it in study. But we only find what grounds us spiritually if we're looking for it.

Shabbat Shalom