Believe Me

and he credited it to him as righteousness.
— Genesis 15:7

There are a lot of clichés and catch-all expressions floating in this depressing and bellicose presidential election. My least favorite is "Believe me." Believe me, I'm tired of believe me. In general, if someone says "Believe me" (especially if it is repeated for effect), "Trust me," or "I am a good person," I am automatically suspect. Good people do not advertise. Trustworthy people generate credibility with deeds rather than words. Believability takes time to establish. You need a lot of deposits in a trust account to secure a relationship built with confidence.
And yet, believability is foundational to our entire Jewish life. Faith - emmuna - requires suspension of the rational and a willingness to step into the unknown to achieve transcendence. We find this embodied very early on in biblical history. Abraham, who wrestled with the command to build a nation when his wife was barren, contemplated various solutions, from adopting his nephew or his house-servant, to surrogacy. After rejecting the first two proposed solutions, God took Abraham outside to show him the countless stars that would one day become his offspring. That takes faith.
It was a vision unseen of an incomprehensible future but this did not deter Abraham, as we read in Genesis: "'Look up at the sky and count the stars, if indeed you can count shall your offspring be.' Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness." [Gen. 15:5-7] Who credited whom? Abraham believed despite all odds, and God considered him righteous. Or perhaps because Abraham believed God, he deemed God righteous and was willing to bank on this shared dream. Either way, emmuna - belief - involves risk.
So if we are supposed to believe and take risks for our beliefs, why be suspect of a person who says believe me? Our suspicion reflects a long-standing Jewish tradition of establishing credibility, referred to in rabbinic literature as ne'emmanut. For example, in most instances of Jewish law, one witness to an event is not sufficient. Trust but verify is our motto in Jewish courts. If a person who does not keep kosher but says that he or she will prepare you a kosher meal, according to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, we do not believe him. [Igrot Moshe YD I:54]. This is not because this person is not trustworthy; he may merely have a different notion of what kosher is. We trust his good will; we are suspect only that he may not share the same standards.
If a person begging asks you for food, you should give him food without question. But if a person asks you for clothing, we research whether or not there is real need or if it's a sham request. [Shulkhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah 251:10] Here, an important distinction exists between immediate and urgent care, represented by hunger, and longer-term needs, like the purchase of clothing, that can be more costly. Our assumption - and it is written into our DNA in Jewish law- is that if you are an MOT, you are a compassionate person. As such, we do not want your generosity exploited by others who take advantage of your kindness. When a person is hungry, we believe him. When he's looking for a wardrobe, however, we are more suspect.
"Trust," writes Stephen M.R. Covey in The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything, "is equal parts character and competence... You can look at any leadership failure, and it's always a failure of one or the other." So when someone says believe me, we look away from the words and examine the record. "A person has integrity," Covey writes, "when there is no gap between intent and behavior..." Most importantly, Covey leaves us with something to ponder when we want the trust of others: "In a high-trust relationship, you can say the wrong thing, and people will still get your meaning. In a low-trust relationship, you can be very measured, even precise, and they'll still misinterpret you." 
Shabbat Shalom

The Secret is Out

...Do not reveal another’s secrets.
— Proverbs 25:9

The current issue of The Wall Street Journal Magazine ran their feature "Columnists", about secrets. They asked six individuals from different fields to weigh in on the topic of secrets. Gossip columnist Kitty Kelley, who makes a profession of busting celebrity secrets, made this observation: "I truly believe that you are as sick as your secret - and I'd like to make everybody well." Kelly is prepared to lift off that weight for you by sharing your secret with the known world. Silly me. I never considered the humanitarian contribution of gossip columnists. I've always felt safer with the words of Ecclesiastes: "Do not belittle the king even in your thoughts or curse the rich in your bedroom, because a bird in the sky may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say." [10:20] The walls have ears, and the ears have wings.
Once a secret is out, it's not coming back: "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever..." [Deuteronomy 29:29]

Dr. Phil was more personal in his response. "The isolation that is involved in secret keeping can erode self-esteem and self-worth." He should know. He spoke of a childhood marked by the shame of his father's alcoholism that turned his whole life into a secret. No one knew in school that their utilities were turned off because his father did not pay the bills or that a window in their house was kicked out "because he came home in a drunken rage the night before." His secrets were a poison injected daily. Proverbs 12:13 states that an "Evil person is ensnared by the transgression of his lips, but the righteous escapes from trouble." [12:13] Our tongues become traps; sometimes we seal them. We may seal them so tightly that they damage us in the process.
I found comic relief in Susan Lucci's confession that her character on the soap opera All My Children had so many secrets. She felt lucky to play such a flawed character for decades. I wonder how the challenge of keeping up fake secrets impacted her understanding of secrets in the real world, minus the make-up and glamour of TV. She believed her character kept secrets out of the terror of how people would react, much the way that Micah warns us to be careful about who we tell our most treasured and frightening pieces of personal information: "Put no trust in a neighbor. Have no confidence in a friend. Guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your arms." [7:5]
The prophet helps us understand the seduction of revealing our secrets. We want to be understood. We want to unburden ourselves and experience the relief of being accepted warts and all. But be careful, very careful. Don't simply trust a neighbor, Micah warns, simply because of proximity. Even friends, good friends, may have a very different sense of confidentiality, one that can cause a permanent rift in an otherwise close relationship.
And think about work for a moment. To whom can you speak to in discretion? I am always wary of these few words in a professional interaction: "Please close the door..." Where is that conversation going? What is revealed may cause enduring damage to the reputation of an employee or a boss by making you change your previously held positive views. I have made the mistake more than once of revealing a confidence in order to help someone, and it has come back to bite me. I've learned the hard way. Helping can often mask arrogance. We think we know what's best for someone else. What's best for them is what they asked for: your trust.
When has covering a secret led to an emotional cover-up you can not live with, one that saps your heart and mind of precious energy? When you find a trustworthy friend or mentor, you can bask in the safety shared by the prophet Jeremiah: "Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things you  have not know." And if you take the risk of revealing yourself, let's hope that the one who listens values your relationship enough to keep the secret. 

Proverbs tells us, "Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered." [11:13] Honestly, how good are you at "keeping a thing covered"? It is an honor to have the complete trust of another human being. Respect and treasure it.
Shabbat Shalom