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A Chance To Do Better

12/30/2020 07:40:44 AM


I was once taught that when being critical of others, it is better to associate the problem with their actions and not with their entire being. Rather than label them as annoying, one should instead should name the specific act that they are doing as annoying. Instead of calling them a liar, it is better to point out that they chose to lie. What is the practical difference in having such an approach? By labeling the person as embodying that negative attribute, it precludes the possibility of change. An annoying person can’t help but be annoying, a liar can’t help but lie. However, by placing the problem on the action and not the actor, then it more readily allows for the possibility of change. After all, if a person chose to lie or to act annoying, then surely that same person can choose to act differently the next time.

Our commentators notice Jacob employing a similar tactic during his final blessings to his children during this final portion in Genesis. In Parshat Vayechi, Jacob’s children present themselves before him, and he offers each a piece of his mind. While the majority of what he has to say to his children is positive, his words are a little harsher for his firstborns. After berating Reuben, the eldest, Jacob turns his attention to the second and third oldest, Shimon and Levi. Recalling how these two sons paired up and slaughtered the town of Shechem in retribution for the town’s leaders’ debasement of their sister’s honor, Jacob recognizes the zeal within them. Untamed, such passion can be a disservice to the family and thus Jacob curses their anger. But the commentators point out that the curse isn’t directed at the individuals, but rather at their anger! This implies that it’s not that the children themselves that are cursed, but rather their propensity for that feeling. This leaves room for the children to correct their behavior and make different choices moving forward.

As 2020 comes to an end, we look forward to the new opportunities of the year ahead. Many will sit down and write New Year’s resolutions, and imagine how their habits and behaviors can be better in the year ahead. Like the Jewish New Year, January 1st invites the potential for change, which is only possible if we acknowledge that we are people who are capable of such change. This past year with all of its challenges has presented us with “ample” time to reflect on our lives and our actions. Yet, none of our actions are set in stone, and we always have the opportunity to transform any cursed actions into blessings. By the end of the Torah, the tribe of Levi will transform their zeal into a blessing as the priestly classes will come from their ranks. So too, it is my prayer that we can reflect on our habits and ensure that its not our actions that define us, but we who define are actions. 

Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year

Fri, June 14 2024 8 Sivan 5784