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The Power of Positivity

Written by d fine

It is a really short sedra this week; with 40 psukim, it’s more of a rugby score than the usual cricket score. But as one of my [short] friends used to say to me, good things come in small packages. This week, we are simply going to re-stress a bit of advice that we mentioned two weeks ago, finding new impetus and depth to it from our sedra and beyond. The Chofetz Chaim quotes a midrash [1] that if one speaks good and positively of other people, the angels will speak good of you to HaShem. We said that this is a great way to build up towards Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, when we are looking for HaShem to show mercy and good favour to us in judgment. In fact, on Wednesday it was the Chofetz Chaim’s yartzheit, which makes this idea a more meaningful and pertinent undertaking. This idea of stressing the positive has several expressions in the Torah and Chazal.

First, to our sedra. Although the following is true of the sedras of Bechukosai and Ki Savo too, the first time I noticed it was in our sedra. I am referring to the fact that whenever Bnei Yisrael are given blessings and curses for followingHaShem’s Mitzvos or not (respectively), the blessings are always put first. In our sedra this is apparent in the pasuk (30;15) ‘See I have placed before you today life and good, and death and evil.’ When the Torah is informing us that we have a choice of how to live our lives, we are given the good and positive options first. Similarly, the next two psukim follow this pattern – they first describe that if we ‘cling’ to HaShem and His Commandments we will prosper, and only then do they briefly describe our (not so positive) fate if we betray HaShem. Perhaps the best example of this is something the midrash picks up on about parshas Shmini. The Torah gives the signs of a Kosher animals as split hooves and chews the cud. The Torah then gives four animals which only have one of the two signs and are thus non-Kosher. In each of these four cases the Torah first mentions the positive sign that the animal does have, and only then mentions that it does not have the other sign and is thus not Kosher. Thus, even the epitome of ‘treifness,’ the pig, is described in the following light: ‘And the pig, for its hoof is split…but it does not chew the cud – it is unclean to you’ (Vayikra 11;7). From the fact that the Torah goes out of its way to first mention the positive qualities of even the pig before prohibiting in, we can see the importance of finding the positive in others even if we might think they possess much negative characteristics.[2]
There are several things to be gained from looking at someone in a positive light from the start. Firstly, this helps put things into perspective. Often, little issues turn into big fights, (especially in families) and the tiniest misdemeanour can spark of barrages of anger. If we first looked at the positive in others, we would probably reinterpret their ‘heinous crime’ in a more innocent light, and at the very least we would realise that they are not ‘fully evil from head to toe;’ they have positive things about them too and it is not worth creating world war three over someone finishing the milk. In fact, I was told about a husband who wrote a list of all the positive qualities that his wife possessed. Each night just before returning home, he reads over this list so that if he comes through the door and steps into a ‘madhouse,’ he knows to put it all into perspective and be happy at his wife’s positive aspects. Focussing on others’ positive aspects fosters an appreciation of others and consequently removes bad middos like hatred or jealousy of others, for you begin to acknowledge that others deserve whatever good they get due to their positive aspects that they possess.

Another very important point is touched on by the need to stress the positive in a person even when the message one is conveying is ultimately negative (ie the pig example). The gemarra [3] says that the way one relates to others should be one of ‘the left hand pushes the person away and the right hand draws them near.’ This means that the focus is on bringing others close to you (symbolised by the stronger hand) and acting positively towards them. The small minority of one’s efforts, symbolised by the weaker left hand, go towards pushing someone away; ie telling them when they have done something wrong that they must correct. This means that (and it is much more effective this way) when telling someone off, the correct approach is to say ‘this act is below you,’ ‘you are too good to do that.’ People are much more likely to listen to you when you focus on their positives that way, as opposed to ‘don’t do that’ or other phrases with completely negative connotations. This is especially true of children – focussing on their positive aspects and then explaining why what they have done does not match up to this positive is much more effective than just shouting at them. This way, they still feel loved; that the right hand has drawn them closer.

This is a crucial point in and of itself. Rabbeinu Yonah writes [4] that a prerequisite for not sinning is realising one’s worth and value. If one focuses on someone else’s positive side when correcting them, this enables them to realise their worth and potential, and the automatic result is that they will feel that doing wrong is indeed not fitting for someone of their potential calibre. This is one explanation of an interesting gemarra.[5] The gemarra says ‘one should always view himself as half full of mitzvos and half full of sins; if one does one mitzvah, happy is he, for he tipped the balance to mitzvos. If he does one sin, woe to him for he tipped the balance to sin.’ And the gemarra continues that one should always view the world as half sin half mitzvos, such as that if you do a mitzvah, you have tipped the scales of the world to be majority mitzvah. What is the meaning of this gemarra? The gemarra said that one should always view themselves (and the world) this way. This means that if one were to get up in the morning and murder, steal, and bow down to an idol before doing any mitzvos, one is to still view themselves as 50-50. How can that be; when this person woke up he was 50-50, and now he has done three terrible sins and no mitzvos – yet the gemarra still says he is to view himself as 50-50? The answer is that point of the gemarra is to teach us that one is to constantly view their next action as the one which tips the scales, ie to value each action that we do because it matters and it creates effects. This is Rabbeinu Yonah’s message – that understanding one’s importance and valuing one’s deeds are a prerequisite for doing the right things in life.

This also touches upon an interesting explanation of an event in the Torah. At the end of parshas Shelach Lecha, we have the incident with the mekoshesh, in which a man is found deliberately desecrating Shabbes and is put to death as a result. Immediately after, we are given the mitzvah of tzitzis. The Tanna DeBei Eliyahu [6] explains the connection: after this person was punished, Moshe entreated HaShem and said that the reason the mekoshesh found it possible to sin was that he was not wearing tefillin (one may not wear tefillin on Shabbes). Therefore, HaShem gave the mitzvah of tzitzis as a reminder of His mitzvos, even to be worn on Shabbes. Now, in order to punish this man with death, two witnesses had to come up to him immediately before he sinned and warn him that the act which he is about to do carries with it the death penalty, and the man must respond ‘I am doing it for that.’ This had to have happened with the mekoshesh, otherwise he would not have received the death penalty. If the fear of being put to death did not deter this man from sinning, how would wearing tefillin have helped? The answer is precisely the point which we have been discussing. The warning of death is a negative motivation, and was not enough to stop this man’s sin. Wearing tefillin, on the other hand (and on the head!), would have been a different kind of motivation – it would have enabled him to look up for a moment and notice that he is a child of HaShem and has the important job of doing mitzvos in this world. It is this positive realisation of self-importance that would have caused the mekoshesh to automatically disassociate himself from sin. Rabbi Twerski [7] puts it in parable form: a person who buys a brand new Porsche will drive it extra carefully to make sure they do not scratch it, whilst someone who drives an old banged-up car will not be as careful. If one viewed themselves with such importance as the new expensive car, then they too would be careful to treat themselves properly and not get any spiritual scratches on themselves.

So in summary, we have seen the importance of focussing on the positive in terms of both seeing others in a favourable light and enabling you and others to appreciate their self-worth. In trying to put into practice the Chofetz Chaim’s advice of speaking positively about others, one should remember not to complement someone in front of another who is likely to respond by saying negative things about your subject.

HaShem should make us new Porsches this year!

Good Shabbes!

1 The midrash is in Mishlei 11;27. It is brought towards the end of perek 5 in Chovas HaShmirah

2 Heard the midrash on Rabbi Frand tape. The Kli Yakar has a different (and opposite) explanation as to why the Torah mentions the positive qualities of the pig and his ilk.

3 Sotah 47a

4 Sha’arei Avodah. I have not seen it inside but have heard it quoted.

5 Kiddushin, bottom of 40a and continues on to 40b

6 Quoted in the Or HaChaim Bamidbar 15;37.

7 ‘Angels Don’t Leave Footprints’

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