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How to sweeten a sour mood

A restaurant owner recently noted a troubling trend among customers. They’re losing their tempers a lot quicker than they used to. It’s gotten to the point that every week he has to ask somebody to leave for rude behavior.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this data-point is how unsurprising it is. And, of course, urging people to just cheer up doesn’t help. Given all that’s wrong or getting worse out there, asking somebody to lighten up can convey an indifference that itself comes across as rude behavior.

Where can we turn for help? This week’s portion of Torah, which is immediately followed by the Festival celebrating the gift of Torah at Mt. Sinai, introduces the Book of Numbers. It contains a lot of disorderly behavior. The deeper into the book we get, the worse the unruly behavior gets. Murmurings devolve into rebellions. Complaining becomes altogether common. But tucked inside all this wilderness turmoil is an interesting formula for failure-management.

It asks the Children of Israel to take failures personally. Why? Because externalizing them, outsourcing battles with unyielding external forces “out there” won’t help you strengthen your core. Doing battle only “out there” with stubborn wrongs may actually infect your core. If you’re not careful, you may find yourself consumed by outrage, even defined by it. By contrast, the Torah’s advice is to wage battles “in here” to strengthen you for threats “out there.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes how being “victorious against destructive and dysfunctional drives” within us, can enable us to be victorious against whatever external threats come our way. The battles we carry out “in here” are more painful. But they yield more fruit. They keep us from getting weakened by what’s bombarding us.

One more point: you’re not alone when working on your core “in here.” It’s not some soliloquy. It’s more rhythmic. It hums inside you like a beach ball toss on a sunny afternoon between your soul and its Source.

The best biblical illustration of this splendid circuitry is found in Ruth’s choice. We read it on this weekend’s Shavuot Festival. Ruth goes against the norms all around her. Her commitment is one of lasting loyalty. “Wherever you go, I will go…your people shall be my people, and your God, my God” (Ruth 1:16).

It’s noteworthy that another word for a person who is coldly unkind is ruthless. That is, they lack Ruth’s kindness.

The next time you’re in line for coffee, if you detect a sour mood of the person standing behind you, and if you’re fortunate to have the capacity to do so, pay for their drink. In so doing, you may become a reminder that the stronger we are “in here” the more capable we are “out there.”

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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