Several years ago, I was running a retreat for rabbis and the most unlikely coincidence occurred. I was working out in the hotel’s exercise facility, and so was the Minnesota Lynx women’s basketball team. I arrived to the exercise room early and none of my rabbinic colleagues had arrived yet. It was just me — and the Lynx. I was on an elliptical machine, and next to me a star player was working with her trainer on a rowing machine. And as this player was rowing furiously, every few seconds, she blurted out, “Ouch, my *ss burns.” When she took a brief break, I politely explained that some rabbis were likely to arrive soon. (And I was very polite, because I was standing at under 5’6”, and she was standing at over 6’ 5.”) I know that sometimes people like to adjust their language in front of clergy, and this player could not have been more apologetic, thanked me for letting her know and then went back to her work out. This time, she changed her complaint to her trainer to, “Ouch – my butt burns.” I was tempted to say, “And can you watch your “butts,” too, but I didn’t because I appreciated her effort and… it was funny.

I thought of the story because in this week’s Torah reading, if there’s one leadership take away, it would be, “Watch your buts, please.” In Biblical Hebrew, the word for “but” is efes (see, for example, Numbers 13:28). In modern Hebrew, the word, efes, means “zero.” How does the Biblical word, “but,” evolve to mean “zero” in modern Hebrew? Because the word “but” can “zero out” many great ideas and possibilities. “But” is a possibility killer.

Anyone who has been around creative ideas already knows what I mean. Suggest something new, or recommend doing something old in a new way, and you can almost predict which people will say something like, “It’s a good idea, but…

we tried it and it didn’t work.”
we’ve never tried it and it won’t work.”
we could do it but we don’t have the resources.”

And I’ve even heard, “We’ve done something like it that was so successful but we won’t be that successful again.”

The history of “but” as a killer word is indeed as old as the Bible. It appears in one devastating example in this week’s Torah portion, Shelakh Lekha. Twelve individuals, not just from the rank and file, but leaders of the tribes, go on a military reconnaissance mission to the land of Canaan. They complete their mission, raise the expectations of the crowd awaiting their report by showing off the luscious fruit of the land, and then dash their hopes by saying, “But the people of the land are fierce …we are unable to mount a successful military campaign because they are mightier than we are” (Numbers 13:23-31). The word “but” leads to a death sentence for an entire generation. They will die in the desert; it will be up to their children to complete the task.

So the next time you’re in a group and someone offers a novel idea, let it breathe like good wine. Before someone qualifies it to a premature death with the word, “but,” try saying, “That’s a great idea and let’s take a few minutes to explore how we could do it.” Look at potential positives first and only then explore potential negatives. You may or may not wind up putting that idea into practice, but you will certainly learn something that can be useful, and you just might have a real success on your hands.

The moral of this story: “When thinking creatively, watch your “buts!”