Lazer Gurkow

Mind games

Too many people like to play mind games. They won’t be upfront and tell you that they are in hospital, but then they’ll complain when you don’t visit. They won’t tell you that they are in crisis, but will complain that you didn’t ask. They talk in riddles and ambiguities and expect you to decode it. If you get it wrong, they lambast you for being simple or uncaring.

I believe most of these games are played out of insecurity. People are afraid to put themselves out there and tell you about their problems. They fear rejection; they fear that you might not respond with empathy and they can’t live with that. They will interpret it to mean that you don’t care about them; they will assume that they are unimportant to you, and they don’t want to risk that. So, they protect themselves by not telling you the truth upfront. They will hint it to you, and hope you understand.

When we describe the problem on paper, it seems obvious that keeping the information from their friends and hoping their friends will know enough to help them anyway, seems ridiculous. But in real life, we convince ourselves that it can and should work. When our best friend fails to show up on our doorstep after we hinted in the most ambiguous way that they might be needed, we fume.

We act as if we are angry with them, but we are not. We are angry with ourselves for not having the courage to be upfront. It’s not pleasant to admit this truth, so we camouflage it and project the blame on others. The more stupid and careless I can claim they are,  the more innocent I will appear to be.

We all know someone like this. And, if we are honest with ourselves, we can admit that we too are guilty of this on occasion. It is a product of insecurity, but the ramifications are immense. When we accuse others of something they haven’t done, we will either lose their friendship or destroy their equilibrium. Either way, we end up behind.

Don’t Enter

After Aaron’s sons entered the Holy of Holies unbidden, G-d appeared to Moses and instructed that no one may enter the Holy of Holies, except for the High Priest on Yom Kippur. A prominent Rabbi asked the following question: There are many laws in the Torah that have exception rules. For example, a man may not marry his brother’s wife, but in the case of levirate marriage, it is required. A fire may not be kindled on Shabbat, but for the sake of the sacrificial offerings, it was required. These exceptions rules are not usually outlined in the biblical text. They were all received by oral tradition. Why is this exception rule built into the text?

He explained that so long as the subject is academic it is okay to speak in veiled sentences that are elucidated in further conversation. Academic texts are often dense, brief and difficult to navigate. It is intended that way because it is a summary of the theories and arguments that are presented in class or discussion format. Should a novice attempt to read the text without the benefit of the discussion, he or she would likely fail to understand.

However, when it comes to interpersonal relationships, clarity is vital. One cannot speak in riddles and expect to be understood. When the question is whether you are welcome to my home or not, I need to be upfront. I can’t leave it up to you and then complain when you crash my home at an inopportune time. On the other hand, if my friends know that to enter my home, they must await my invitation, I must issue that invitation and not just expect them to show up when it is convenient for me.

Be Upfront

It is important to be upfront with our friends so we can be sure that they understand precisely where we stand. If we bear a grudge against something they said, we must be upfront and say so. The Torah prohibits bearing grudges and the Torah prohibits hating another in our hearts. Even if we think that we would rather not talk about it and simply steer clear of that person in the future, if we cannot free ourselves of the resentment, we must share our complaint with that other. Resenting another in our hearts is simply not an option.

We are also expected to behave in a manner that does not lead others to the wrong conclusions. We are responsible for our behavior so if we behave in a way that is deliberately vague and misleading, we are responsible for the impressions that others form.

Jewish tradition teaches that Torah sages and community leaders should be circumspect in everything they do. Should they shop in the store and run out of money, they should not accept the kind offer of the proprietor to extend the groceries on credit. This, because a bystander might not hear the conversation, but see them exit the store without payment and suspect them of theft.

Similarly, Torah scholars are required to take extra pains to dress properly. Their clothing must not be too long or too short, to dirty or too ostentatious. Such behavior, even if it is for good reason, can lead others to denigrate the Torah. A charity collector may never make change for a large bill from smaller bills out of the charity box. This, because another might see them take the money but miss seeing them put in the larger bill and suspect them of theft.

We can’t walk on eggshells around people, constantly second guessing ourselves and wondering what others are thinking. But we can do our best to be upfront and avoid misleading others whether deliberately or inadvertently. When it comes to interpersonal relationships, the Torah encourages us to aim for clarity. Don’t create impressions that lead others astray. Be upfront and your friends will thank you for it.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at