Minimize ego and feel joy

“I don’t recall Prime Minister Begin writing a personal check, although it wouldn’t have surprised me.” Elyakim Rubinstein told me when we were recently together in Jerusalem. We were recalling efforts in the 1980s to help Avital Sharansky afford the high phone bills she was incurring to garner international support for imprisoned refuseniks like her husband. Then he told me another story that made an impression.

“I didn’t agree with this particular government official on any issues and I didn’t care much for being in his company” Ely said about a political adversary. “And there was a situation back then where an aging woman faced soaring medical bills. I wrote a check to help. But that guy wrote a much more generous personal check to help the woman.” I responded, “This sounds all-the-more impressive, given your general distaste for the guy.”

Can people whose views we find repugnant, do or say things that are redeeming? Of course. Yet even posing such a question points to how hard it can be for us to think so. 

When it comes to considering hard feelings, God’s Torah is listening. It’s actually listening rather well. Among this week’s portions, we find the establishment of Cities of Refuge. They exist to harbor those who are guilty of accidental manslaughter. The passage qualifies unintentional killing, done without malicious forethought, as done by someone who “does not wish a person any harm” (v’lo m’vakesh ra’ato) (Num. 35:23). These cities are populated around hard feelings. They prevent vengeance from relatives of the deceased. They provide support for those broken by guilt.

By introducing them, the Torah helps cities make a comeback. Earlier on, they had earned a poor reputation. For example, nothing good happened in Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet sometimes crowds can be sourced for good.

Listening to your feelings is a good exercise. Particularly after your emotions have simmered from their boiling point. Listen for them. Like the low-gossip of muffled thunder. When you reacted rashly to that driver who cut you off, was it because you were on edge? Or was their making-you feel invisible, totally worthy of your rage?

About this Hebrew month of Av, which features our calendar’s saddest day on the 9th of Av, the sages say “Entering Av invites a minimizing of joy.” I prefer to also read this phrase as a suggestion. When we minimize, that is, when we do the opposite of self-inflating, we find doing so to be a source of joy. When you take up less real estate, when you’re thinking less about you, you might just discover some things that are patiently waiting to be met.

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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