‘In tight times, you have widened my way’

Negative emotions have a ‘narrowing effect’ on our thinking.  Feelings of fear and anger put on blinders as they command our attention.  For example, police detectives are often frustrated by the testimony of those threatened with gun violence. Their description of the gun is precise.  But they can’t seem to recall the height of their assailant or whether he had a beard.

By contrast, positive emotions expand what we’re able to see.  Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson describes how they broaden and build our thoughts and deeds.  Joy makes us want to play.   Interest makes us more curious and creative.  And pride puts us in a broadening mood to want to take on new challenges.

It’s no surprise that these days people are seeing less.  Contempt and outrage tighten our lens.  We’re reluctant to want to see more because so much of that which we do see is deplorable. 

This is particularly true for Jews today.  Contempt for our people continues to advance.  New York Times editor Bari Weiss implored us this week to confront a quickening ‘social health epidemic’ that presides over the cheapening of Jewish blood.  Where to turn?

This week’s portion of Torah specializes in surviving distrust.  It covers twenty years during which Jacob builds his family in the land of his manipulative, possessive father-in-law Laban.  Its setting is saturated with suspicion, resentment, and dejection.  And yet, Leah, Jacob’s first wife who longs for her husband’s love, is somehow able to pivot.  Having named her first three children (Reuben, Shimon, and Levi) to attract the love she yearned for but couldn’t receive, the birth of her fourth son signals a profound shift in her perspective.  Rather than remaining obsessed with what she lacked, she thanked God for what she had.  She named him Judah, proclaiming,“this time I will praise (Judah) God” (Gen. 29:35).  The Talmudic sages were very impressed.  “From the beginning of time, nobody ever praised God as profoundly as did Leah.” 

Judaism itself is named after Judah.  Leah’s pivot can be ours. 

As frightful as our times are, our Jewish people has never had more resources at our disposal – our home and our freedom, our admirers and our allies.  Good people everywhere today thirst for more expansive, counter-voices.  They welcome fresh ideas that widen our ways forward.

“In tight times, you have widened my way” expresses the psalmist (4:2).  Praise is a positive emotion.  It has a vast reach.  May we embrace our responsibility to do all we can to make alarming and ominous times into awakening and opportune times.

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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