No and yes

Last year, I celebrated 30 years as a rabbi. (For the record, I was the youngest in my class.) It was a big number that didn’t feel particularly special or holy. This year, the 31st anniversary of my ordination, feels more significant to me. In gematria, 31 converts to לא or “no.”


The word “no” has become increasingly meaningful to me. As a newly-ordained rabbi, holiness and success seemed to be all about “yes.” What could be done and embraced and accomplished? What more could be taken on and pursued? Which of my students and readers would say “yes” to the classes I taught or to the books I wrote?

With more experience under my belt, the word “no” is more alluring.

This is not because I have become jaded or lazy about doing, embracing, accomplishing, and touching people’s lives. On the contrary, the opportunities seem richer now, and the stakes in these troubled times may be even higher.

For all of us, every “yes” uttered implies a “no” to other priorities. A people-pleasing or ego-boosting “yes” that is not part of a true calling may mean that a God-pleasing “yes” is affirmed belatedly — or not at all. Saying “no” to a tertiary priority is sometimes the only way to say yes effectively to what matters most.

We are now counting our way to Shavuot, when the Israelites shouted their acceptance of the Torah: “We will do, and [then] we will understand!” It was, in many ways, the ultimate “yes.” Yes, I agree to accept the Torah — even before I have heard it, and certainly before I understand it.

Yet in accepting the Torah so enthusiastically, our ancestors embraced many no’s.  There are 365 “thou shalt not” commandments and only 248 “thou shalt’s.” In enumerating the positive and negative commandments to B’nai Mitzvah students, I will often ask if the number of “thou shalt nots” rings any bells. Usually, they note that it is the number of days in the year. The implicit message is: if you want to live a holy life, then every single day you will need to say “no” (to yourself or to others) about some temptation.

Among the most alluring temptations are choices that aren’t wrong per se, but are not the highest and holiest use of your time and talent.

First, do no harm. (No.) Then, offer help and healing. (Yes.) First, remove detritus and obstacles from the path before you and from the soul within. (No.) Then, forge a way forward. (Yes.)

248 doesn’t stand out as a significant number today. In the ancient world, however, it was just as resonant as 365. 248 was considered to be the total number of body parts, including all organs, sinews, and bones. So, holiness means using every part of you (the thou shalt’s, which require full body-and-soul engagement) and all your time (which you must protect with a lot of no’s and thou shalt not’s).

To stand at Mt. Sinai and shout out our “yes!”, we first had to say no to slavery, no to fear, no to idolatry, no to victimhood, no to giving up and returning to Egypt.

What will you say “no” to — and mean it? What will get your full-throated “yes” – with follow through? Please visit RabbiDebra.com and let me know.

About the Author
Debra Orenstein, rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel in Emerson, NJ, is an acclaimed teacher, author, and scholar-in-residence. She is editor of Lifecycles 1:Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones and Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life (Jewish Lights). A seventh generation rabbi, she was in the first rabbinical class at The Jewish Theological Seminary to include women. She earned a Certificate in Positive Psychology and teaches online at RabbiDebraOrenstein.com
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