William Hamilton

Thinking Highly

“When somebody asks Ken for something. He thinks hard about the request. Then he works really hard to try and figure out how he can possibly say yes.” This was a toast somebody made to Ken on his special birthday some years ago. I can’t think of a nicer way to describe a genuinely kind human being. 

This ideal feels so tender. And, yet, if you’re like me, it can often seem sadly remote. Daily demands, some more urgent than others, criss-cross through our heads. Attempted fraud and scams invade our inboxes. Other less-than-pleasant interactions with others let us down. Mostly, we’re just trying to get through the day in one piece. 

Moses can’t but take personally the attacks that demean his motives in this week’s portion of Torah. Korah and the other ring-leaders aggressively try to degrade his integrity. Our attention is drawn to their earth-swallowing punishment (Num. 16:32-34). But the portion also offers a terrific formula for de-escalation and recovery. 

It features four elements: 1) reinstating dignity, 2) restoring self-esteem, 3) standing taller, 4) helping others rise. 

First, when Moses defends himself before God, “I didn’t take a single donkey from them. I didn’t do any of them any harm” (Num. 16:15), a fellow-learner from our community wisely suggested this week that he was speaking for himself, to himself. He needed to reinstate his own dignity out loud and before God. Next, it’s not only what you think of yourself, but also how you’re feeling about yourself (16:28). Thirdly, he is instructed, elevate (hay-ro-mu) from the midst of this bottom-feeding mob (17:10). Lastly, an injunction, still alluded to today with the removal of challah from bread loaves, named for elevation (terumah) is put in place. That is, we stand taller by serving others to help them rise.

One of the morally handsome aspects of that toast to Ken, had to do with the positive assumptions he brings to those seeking his help. He assumes their sincerity. He gives their requests the benefit-of-the-doubt. Thinking highly of others doesn’t come freely. It does get earned. And even if it lapses, and then slips, it can still rally. 

May each of us think hard and work hard for ways to say yes and may we merit the trust of others whose help we seek. 

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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