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Intended Consequences

01/06/2022 12:49:38 PM


To get unpunctual people to show up on time, tell them an earlier start time. Thus, when they show up late, they are actually on time. While a little devious, many well-meaning people use this trick, especially for important events. The only downside is that you make the punctual people extra early for events and cause much thumb twiddling. All of our words and actions have consequences. We would be wise to be more intentional when we speak and act. 

While it is certainly a helpful technique to get people to show up promptly, our sages utilize Moses using this strategy for an alternative purpose. In Parshat Bo, the Torah relates the final three plagues of locusts, darkness, and the smiting of the first born. Before the final plague, God warns Moses to tell the Israelites to place blood on their doorposts so that their homes are passed over and spared from the tragedy. When Moses relates this information to the Israelites, he tells them that this final plague would happen around midnight – "כחצות" (Exodus 11:4). The sages of our Talmud find this estimation of time odd. Why does it say “around midnight” instead of saying more exactly, “at midnight?” After all, they reason that as a prophet, Moses had that capacity to know when midnight was so why was he so imprecise with his instructions? (Berachot 4a). The answer the sages give is that Moses gives a rough estimate because he didn’t want the Egyptian astrologers to err and calculate midnight too early. If they were to mess up their calculations, then the Egyptians and Israelites might lose faith in God as midnight might have come and gone without anything severe happening. Thus, Moses says “around midnight” so that people wouldn’t be led astray. 

Whether we give an imprecise time because we want people to be punctual or not, this strategy reminds us of the power of careful planning and the precision of our words. Knowing how others might behave, it is beneficial for us to adapt our words and actions to better be in relationship with them. We must not only say what we mean, but also consider how our words will be heard by others. After all, how many disagreements stem from the other party not understanding the words as they were intended when spoken? As we continue to set out on this secular new year, it is my prayer that we can continue to have insight and intentionality for our words and actions – so that we successfully convey what we mean, and so that we can achieve the desired outcome of our plans. 

Shabbat Shalom 

Sun, March 3 2024 23 Adar I 5784