Shelach – 5 Steps to Better Relationships

“In youth, one learns to talk; in maturity, one learns to be silent. This is man’s problem: that he learns to talk before he learns to be silent.”

– Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

But…

 Have you ever been on the wrong end of an unwanted question, such as, “Will you marry me?” Or, “Will you be my date for the prom?” Or something less serious, such as, “Hey, can you do me a huge favor?”

 If the answer is “no”, there is going to be a “but” somewhere in that sentence, such as, “I really love you – but – I’m just not in love with you.” Or, “you’re such a great guy – but – I’m already going with Mr. Wrong.” Or, “I’d love to help you out, but I think I have to do my colonoscopy prep that night.”

 And no matter how nice or apologetic or convincing the first part of the sentence is, for the listener, it’s only what comes after the “but” that matters, because that’s where the truth of the message lies.

 And so, it’s hard to believe – but – this one innocuous word, “but” is responsible for the downfall of the generation that left Egypt and it caused them to be condemned to die in the desert.

 If you don’t know the story, the Jewish people had just left Mount Sinai after receiving the Ten Commandments and were poised to enter what was then known as the Land of the Canaanites. The people were nervous and didn’t know what they were up against, and so they asked Moses to appoint a group of men to go spy out the land.

 After forty days the spies returned and issued a glowing report. “It’s a land filled with milk and honey. Here are its fruits.” And then they said the word “efes” (which means “but”) after which they painted such a negative picture of the land, that people were scared stiff and wept through the night, thus sealing their fate that where not only would they not enter the land, but future calamities (such as the destruction of the First and Second Temples) would occur on the anniversary of that date.  

The Weight of Criticism

We often mix compliments with criticisms and wonder why the listener is offended.

I gave my son a compliment about his appearance, but I ended the sentence with criticism.   “Mother giveth and Mother taketh away,” he said. And I was surprised. After all, I said something nice – also – so why the drama?

 Plain and simple, it’s what follows the “but” that counts. And we can’t neutralize or offset a criticism with a compliment. It’s not an even wash because we don’t hear or care about the compliment. Evolutionists will explain that we are wired to focus on negativity because the negative carries valuable information about possible danger.  

Whatever the reason, a ratio of 1:1 (compliment/criticism) will destroy the quality of your relationships as surely as it destroyed that generation of the Jewish people. So can we ever criticize? Of course we can, and sometimes we must, but there are ways to do it without harming the relationship.

 In a business setting, there is something called the “Losada Principle,” which tells us that unless a negative or critical remark is offset by at least three positive comments, the work environment is considered toxic, and employees will not thrive and be productive.

 In personal relationships, the ratio is a bit higher. A critical or negative comment needs to be offset with 3-5 positive comments. Dip consistently below that ratio in your marriage, and your relationship is in peril, because you are statistically headed for a divorce.

So here’s my advice:

  1. If you must say something critical (and sometimes you must) make an effort to offset it with multiple positive remarks.
  1. If you must say two contradictory things, switch the order so that the nice comment follows the “but.” For example: “You did a great job cleaning your room, but the bathroom is a mess” – versus – “The bathroom is a mess, but you did a great job cleaning your room.” Do you hear the difference in those approaches?
  1. After you get the hang of that, try to stop talking after the compliment. “You did a great job cleaning your room.” Full stop. The bathroom is another conversation for another time. Don’t ruin the compliment.
  1. Don’t ruin the compliments you receive. When I get a compliment about a meal I prepared, for example, I often would deflect it with a “but,” such as “but the chicken is too dry.” Don’t diminish yourself and make the person giving you a compliment feel silly for doing so.
  1. And finally, consciously transform the “but” from “destructive” to “constructive.” “I hear that your teacher is a demanding perfectionist, but it’s going to make you up your game.” Or, “I don’t know how I can deal with this, but I know it’s going to make me stronger.” Use the “but” to focus on the positive aspect of a challenging situation.

If only the spies could have read this blog, Jewish history could have been completely different! Let us not make the same mistake in our lives, and instead, pay attention to the “but” and infuse our relationships with conscious kindness and create a legacy of positivity.

Internalize & Actualize

  1. Think about a recent argument you had. What could you have said differently that would have changed the outcome of that interaction? What can you say now to help rectify it? 
  1. Think about someone you are likely to criticize. Now write down five positive attributes or compliments you could give that person that would be sincere. This week say one of those compliments daily and then write down any changes you notice from that person.
  1. The way we talk to ourselves is just as critical as the way we talk to other people. Using the 3-5 compliment ration per criticism, write down something negative you often think or say to yourself. Then following that, write down 3-5 compliments you can give yourself (without a “but”) to help offset the damage from that negative statement.


 

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The Power of Co-Creating Reality

“The soul of man is the candle of God”

Proverbs 20:27

Why is this happening?” I don’t know anyone who has not asked that question at some point. And it’s usually for something negative. The question is rhetorical, and we know the reason, even if we don’t care to admit it. After all, there is a direct correlation to binge-eating and gaining weight, evading taxes and getting audited or worse, committing adultery and getting divorced, etc. Invariably, however, when the question goes to the deeper issues of life, there is no easy answer, and sometimes, no answer at all.

We Have Total Control

The processes of wrestling with such existential dilemmas vary according to the personalities of the questioner. At one end of the spectrum is an approach such as, “The Law of Attraction.” This principle is entirely sourced in self, and so everything that we experience in our lives is the direct result of what we create, generate and attract into our lives from our will as expressed through our energy and “vibes.” In a nutshell, this is the operational system of the universe, and it occurs whether or not we are conscious of the mechanism, and even when we get the opposite of what we think we want.  

So, for example, when what we want and what we get don’t line up, as is often the case, we need to look inside for our self-sabotaging behavior and either clean up our act or uncover what it is we really want. As Wayne Dyer put it so succinctly, “We don’t attract what we want; we attract what we are.” Thus, we are the actual creators of all that shows up (or fails to materialize) in our lives.  

We Have No Control

A diametrically opposite approach, as evidenced by organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeater’s Anonymous, etc., is that we control nothing. We are simply not in charge. Our “Higher Power” is in charge. And the sooner we admit this lack of power, not only over ourselves but over others and the universe, the sooner we can be strengthened and guided by whomever or whatever we understand to be running the show. Paradoxically, it’s getting the ego out of the way and striving for a state of humble dependence that is the first step towards developing personal power.

Somewhere In-Between

It should be no surprise that Torah teaches a middle path, which is a blend of these two approaches. This third approach teaches that we are neither totally in control nor totally out of control, but that we are empowered – in partnership with God – to co-create reality.    

Co-Creating Creation

We see this in the very story of creation. Tradition teaches us that God created the world with all of the potential of vegetation lying beneath the surface. It was not until Adam prayed for rain that the earth was watered, causing all plant life to burst forth. Thus, the involvement of man was needed for the earth’s potential to actualize itself.

When God created the living things inhabiting the earth, He did so in general categories of species and description: fish, birds, creeping things, wild animals, domesticated animals, etc. There was no specificity and differentiation between the classes of species. It was Adam who named them all.

In the Hebrew language, a name is not arbitrary; it goes to the essence of the thing. And so Adam saw the singular essence and potential of each type of creature. He culled out each creature from an indistinguishable mass and raised it to a being with a unique identity and purpose. God spoke, and all of the earth’s inhabitants came into existence. Adam, however, provided the finishing touch. Just as the very process of creation is said to be on going, so is our involvement in co-creating it. We are God’s very partners in the on-going process of creation. So what are we creating?

Being a Lamplighter

Fast forward to the Torah portion, “Beha’alotecha” which starts with the command for Aaron to kindle the lights of the Menorah. What menorah? There was no Judaica store nearby and no on-line shopping. Furthermore, the description was daunting – it was to be made of one piece of pure gold, consisting of seven branches with each branch looking like an almond tree – with buds, blossoms, and flowers. Unable to create that on his own, tradition teaches us that Aaron threw the gold into a fire, and the Menorah emerged, fashioned, as you will, by the Hand of God. And so here, it was man who initiated an act of creation, but it was God who finished it.

But then Aaron was commanded to “raise light in the lamps,” (8:2). He not only participated in the creation, but it was now his responsibility to ensure that it was ignited in order to illuminate the greater surroundings. And through being that lamplighter, that light could then continue to light others without being diminished. Jewish philosophy teaches that the soul is compared to the flame. Once lit, it will both give off light and be able to ignite others. That is what it means to both be inspired and inspire. But the same way light can bring about more light, darkness has the power to do the same.

Therefore, just as Aaron threw the gold into the fire with the Menorah, so too with the Golden Calf. When Aaron threw gold into a fire, out walked a golden calf. Same process. (Some say this occurred through Egyptian sorcery, but if you want to play that game, who invented sorcery?) The point is, that as partners in creation, there is an on-going dance between the Divine and us.

As “created beings,” we depend on God for our very existence. As “creative beings,” on the other hand, we can create our own heaven or hell. As Erica Jong quipped, “Take your life in your own hands, and what happens? A terrible thing; no one to blame.”

Thus, it is the paradox of the middle path that embraces both realities. We are created with infinite potential. Moment by moment, each choice is an act of casting gold into the fire. What is it that we are hoping to materialize, to create, to become? What do we want to emerge? A Menorah or a Golden Calf?

Says Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber Schneersohn, “The lamplighter walks the streets carrying a flame at the end of a pole. He knows that the flame is not his. And he goes from lamp to lamp to set them alight.” What lamps are we lighting and do they emit the light we wish to see?

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. Are you more likely, in a negative situation, to feel that you are the cause of it, that you have no control over it or that it is a combination? Think of a situation that is difficult for you and then write out how you can find that balance between letting go of full responsibility while simultaneously exploring what you can do to impact or change the situation.
  1. There is the concept that we are all empowered to be lamplighters. This is the ability to help spark another’s innate talent and ability. Think about who have been the lamplighters in your life. Write down the qualities they had that inspired you and in what way they impacted your life.
  1. Now write down the lives of those you have been a lamplighter for. What qualities of yours helped ignite and inspire them? Write down these qualities on note cards and place them around your house. When you are feeling negative, read them aloud, reminding yourself of your strengths and abilities and how they have helped the lives of others.

 

 

 

Nasso – Living Forward

“Don’t let the fear of losing be greater than the excitement of winning.”

                                                      ~Robert Kiyosaki

When a morbidly obese friend of mine, who was my age, suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack, the shock made me recommit to my diet and I lost some weight. As opposed to a fear of a theoretical illness, not wanting to wind up like someone we knew who contributed to his or her premature death through neglect can certainly galvanize us into a new mindset. Less than six months later, however, I had gained it back.

While the personal connection provided a really strong motivator for me, that in itself wasn’t enough to make the change permanent. And while there are exceptions to the rule, when motivation to change stems from wanting to avoid a bad outcome, rather than obtaining a good result, the change is usually temporary. The fear of a possible future bad “what-if” scenario simply does not provide lasting motivation. What does serve the process of long-term change, on the other hand, is flipping the goal into something positive.    

If you ever watch the show, “The Biggest Loser,” the contestants talk less about their fears of what they don’t want (dropping dead or being debilitated) and more about what they do want (being physically active, healthy and being a good role model).

“Turn away from evil by doing good.”

                                      -Maggid of Mezerich

In the long run, being pulled towards the good serves better than running from the bad. This idea is explained by the Chassidic master, the Maggid of Mezerich, who taught that the words of the psalm “stay away from evil and do good” really means, “stay away from evilby doing – good,” because the two are naturally connected. It is when we do something positive that we are naturally removed from the negative.

Turning Negativity Inwards

Similarly, when the “bad” has been internalized to oneself, and the motivation to change comes thoughts such as: “I’m not thin enough, disciplined enough, healthy enough, pretty enough, successful enough, rich enough, popular enough, worthy enough, etc.,” we are coming from a place of lack. Whatever we are – it’s just not “enough” and that thought originates in fear and creates the emotion of inner shame. That is toxic to the process of healthy change.

Shame disconnects us – from others and also from ourselves. Disconnection is the diametric opposite of wholeness, as connection is the very mainspring of well-being. It should be self-evident that we can’t use persistent negativity to bring about a desired positive result, but we just keep falling into the trap. No matter how we try, we cannot shame and blame ourselves – or anyone else – into personal growth.

In the Torah portion, “Nasso,” which means “single out,” Moses is commanded to “single out” and allocate different priestly duties to the descendants of two sub-tribes of the Levites: Gershon and Kehos. The descendants of Gershon were tasked with carrying the accoutrements of the Tabernacle (which housed the Ark), while the descendants of Kehos were entrusted with carrying the Ark itself.

Not only does the job description itself speak for the different level of sanctity between these two sub-tribes, but the descendants of Kehos are “singled out” before the descendants of Gershon. What’s strange about that, is that this reverses the birth order, in that the descendants of Gershon, who were the first-born, would be expected to assume the duties that were allocated to the descendants of Kehos.

To serve God, one must “turn away from evil” and “do good.” The name Gershon is related to the Hebrew word “gerushin,” which means, “to divorce.” Thus, the descendants of Gershon were to embody the idea of divorcing oneself and “turning away from evil.” Kehos, on the other hand, is derived from “yikhas” meaning “will gather,” alluding to the idea of gathering and accumulating good deeds – “doing good.”

What does that mean for us today? The lesson of switching the birth order teaches us that at the outset, our initial impetus and motivation to change may very well be sourced in the avoidance of an undesirable outcome or overcoming something negative. I know that I have often been galvanized into action as a reaction to the bad behavior of others.   Recoiling from what I don’t want to be or whom I don’t want to emulate has often been a powerful motivator for me.

What the Torah is teaching us, however, is that it is a higher spiritual priority to sustain our growth by being drawn to the good and what we see as positive. For example, if we grew up in a home with strife, we may be motivated not to repeat the patterns of hostility that we witnessed. It’s a “good” goal, but it’s vague and undefined. It is much more powerful, and much more likely to produce results, when we flip that into the positive, and instead, have the goal of creating a home imbued with positivity, loving connection and unconditional positive regard. Then we can take actual concrete steps to actualize that.

Throughout the Torah, God couples the commandments (even the negative ones) with the phrase, “Be Holy for I am holy.” The first of the Ten Commandments opens with the words, “I am the Lord Thy God,” meaning that every commandment that follows comes from creating a relationship and connection with God. That is because holiness (wholeness) stems from connection – not disconnection – and striving to reach and actualize our highest selves.

I am not suggesting, however, that we only emulate the descendants of Kehos. Both ways are important. In fact, to be only one or the other, can be unbalanced and even dangerous when taken to an extreme. Maybe that’s why there is a third sub-tribe of the Levites mentioned in this week’s Torah portion – Merari – and while his descendants are not “singled out,” they are, nevertheless, “counted.” Being “counted,” however, is not insignificant. As we read in the previous Torah portion “Bamidbar,” taking a “headcount” is not a mathematical exercise, but allows us to understand that we “count,” that each of us is unique, indispensable and singularly purposeful.

The way to growth is a two-sided coin – “avoiding evil” and “doing good.” The key, however, is to understand this polar duality and to know when to do what and how through the doing of good we can automatically avoid the evil. In comparison to Gershon and Kehos, the descendants of Merari were said to be more like the “simple folk.” Being able to tap into either of these energies and consciously choose which will serve you best as you strive to reach your goals and accomplish your mission, however, is anything but simple.    

 

The Jewish Paradox of Standing Tall and Being Small

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself;

it is thinking of yourself less.”

– C.S. Lewis

The Desert

The Torah portion, Bamidbar, which means “in the wilderness” or “in the desert” is always read before the holiday of Shavuot, which is when we received the Torah on Mount Sinai. The classic commentary on this is that the best state in which to receive Torah, is when we make ourselves into a desert, meaning that we nullify our egos and enter into a state of total humility. 

This makes a lot of sense. After all, the desert is an appropriate place for encounters with the Divine (think Burning Bush) as well as the setting for many spiritual journeys. In the desert, there are no material distractions, no cultural noise, and no exits from its stark reality.  

The opening line of the Torah portion is: “And God spoke to Moses in the desert.” The word “midbar” (desert) anddibur” (speech) share the same root, and so the relationship between the desert and speech – Divine speech – is beautifully correlated. For starters, speech represents freedom.  The First Amendment, which guarantees free speech, is considered fundamental and integral to a free society.   Slaves, on the other hand, have no voice. They are silenced. Their opinion is irrelevant, as they are not seen as people, but as property.

On Passover, which is the holiday commemorating the exodus from slavery into freedom, we read from the “Hagadda.” The word Hagadda derives from “lehagid” which means, “to tell,” and so integral to that transition is the telling of a story, that we re-tell every year. In her TED talk on vulnerability, shame researcher Brene Bown defines courage as the ability to tell the story of who you are – with your whole heart.

But speech only works when one is able and willing to both talk and listen. And to listen, and truly hear what the other is trying to say, requires patience, focus and humility. Therefore, the desert is the ideal location for the Jewish people to be open to this Divine speech for there is no distraction.

We don’t have to be physically in a desert to consciously strip away the layers of egocentricity that distort our clarity. By shutting out the noise that distracts us, we can transform ourselves into an appropriate desert of open receptivity. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe stated: “Without question, the material world and your everyday needs distract you from living meaningfully.” While this is the theme oft-repeated in this Torah portion, in my opinion, it’s only half of the picture. Focus on that idea alone (as great as it is) and we’re missing out on a really great paradox.           

The Jewish Paradox

The first line ends with God’s command to Moses to take a census. Rashi, the medieval commentator, teaches us to understand this to mean the following: that God loves us and counts us, just like we like to count our prized possessions. We are not counted by ability, wealth or status, but by identity – signaling that we are unique, precious and beloved. No two people are alike, no one can contribute to the world in the same way, and so, we are singularly purposeful.

On the one hand, we are elevated, each soul, a precious and unique possession, and yet on the other, we should be lowly, like a barren desert, indistinguishable and insignificant as shifting sand. So which is right? The Jewish answer is, of course, that both are right. It’s a Jewish paradox.

In fascinating research done at the Stanford Business School, Jim Collins was able to provide answers as to why some companies are visionary and successful and others are not.  It seems to depend on the companies’ ability to chose between contradictory concepts, and the ability to embrace both sides of the coin, adopting a strategy known as the “genius of the and” and rejecting thinking characterized as “the tyranny of the or.”  Being limited by either/or thinking isn’t good for corporations and it certainly isn’t good for people either.

When it comes to receiving the Torah, we must humble ourselves, create the space to take it in and learn, at times, to focus on our collective identity rather than our individual identity. As Marianne Williamson says, “When the ego steps back, the power of God steps forward.” But when it comes to living the Torah, we must stand tall and be counted and know who we are. We are created and yearn to reach our highest possibilities. Being a light unto nations and repairing the world is simply not a job for wimps. 

The paradox is that we must always be simultaneously embracing both sides of the coin if we are to understand either side of the coin, and that is a lesson, not just in preparation for Shavuot, but for any time of the year.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. Write down five things that take up the majority of your time on a daily basis. Now, write down five things you would do and focus on if you had the time. This week, cut out ten minutes of each day to focus on one of those five. By the end of the week you will have spent more than an hour on something you find meaningful that you had previously not made time for.
  1. Think about someone or a situation that silences you–where you feel you had no say or that no one would listen to your opinion. How does that make you feel? Now write down what you want to say to that person or in that situation. Can you think of some practical ways you can begin to get that message across and reclaim your voice?
  1. We all struggle with our ego at times. And more often than not, it leads to avoidable problems. Where in your life could you use more humility? What do you think would change if you could lessen your ego?