William Hamilton


You know how to relate to those you disagree with. But what about those you agree with? 

What happens when your friend is more upset about a crisis than you are? When they’re running a high emotional-fever and your temperature is too close to normal. Not being as upset as they are can escalate into newfound friction. Why aren’t you more troubled? Don’t you see what’s at stake? 

This week’s portion of Torah includes a tutorial in de-escalation. The anger ignited by the sin of the Golden Calf is valid. Shortly after making God’s will clear at Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments, the people flagrantly violate the first two of them. God is ready to destroy them and Moses smashes the Tablets. So how are things walked-back from the brink? 

First, Moses reminds God of the larger plot with an urgent reminder of promises made to the patriarchs. After venting his own rage at the mountain-bottom, Moses returns up to go deeper with God. What follows is the most intimate divine-human conversation in the Bible. God’s forgiving, graceful essence is revealed. The key Hebrew word, as Rabbi Eli Kaufner brilliantly points out this week, is chen, meaning grace or favor. It’s most essential to God. It’s also most reciprocated among people. When somebody does you a favor, you impulsively become interested in returning one in kind. 

Reinstating someone’s dignity is the formula for de-escalation. Period. Full-stop. Then, if you want to move in a more favorable direction together, you can act favorably. 

Use your calm to serve them. If you want to get something better out of a visit, listen for their best argument and ask them to teach you more about it. If you want to help them, use your calm to admire their enthusiasm and excavate for the sources of their anger and fear. Either avenue will serve to reinstate their dignity, de-escalating tension. 

The next time a friendly cup-of-coffee turns testy, do yourself and your friend a favor for the sake of more favorable outcomes.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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