William Hamilton


“Of course being a better person matters. What’s more important than that? You know, I think we all care about who we’re becoming and how we’ll be remembered.” A fellow-learner from our community had this to say during a discussion last week. Then somebody else chimed in, “Actually, maybe sometimes there is something more pressing than bettering myself. Sometimes fitting in and feeling cared for is more important.” 

Beautiful. It was such a powerful point. The rest of us nodded slowly and smiled with agreement. 

Fitting in. Adhering to the norms of being a neighbor on your street. Or the way you walk into a diner party, or visit somebody at a rehab facility. Honoring norms signals you get it. You fit in. Habit-formation guru James Clear said so in a conversation this week with Adam Grant,“The desire to belong will often overpower the desire to improve.” 

Belonging. It has always mattered because it has always been necessary. As human beings, we can’t sustain ourselves entirely by ourselves. 

People not only learn how to do things by imitating others – I personally enjoy riding shotgun with a skilled practitioner. Watching is my favorite learning-mode. But it’s also true that people stick with a habit or a belief because their relationships matter to them. And why shouldn’t they? 

Just try to imagine what would happen to your relationships with your trusted friends and family if you were to suddenly switch political parties. It might become unbearable. Well, with trust currently at a low point, why on earth would we expect anyone to put the trusting relationship they do enjoy at risk if they didn’t absolutely have to. 

This dynamic is about much more than being lemmings or blindly following the herd. The most precious settings we can know are settings where our loves and our loyalties are active. 

The second of this week’s portions of Torah opens with Balak, the Moabite King, hearing about what Israel did to the Amorites. But he didn’t hear about what the Amorites did to Israel. The People of Israel had pleaded with the Amorites to not turn violent. They bent over backward to try and avoid conflict. It was the Amorites who rebuffed their hopes and attacked (Num. 21:21-24). Gripped by fear, Balak hires a prophet to curse and debilitate Israel. It never occurs to him that letting them pass nonviolently is an available option.

Too many of the public interactions that command our attention are unpleasant and ugly. Yet in our personal lives we know better. We know how much we rely on other people to hold up a mirror for us that provides a better view of who we are when we get things right. Having trusted-others handy when we need them can make all the difference.

Six months ago we were inside, around fireplaces, sharing traditional meals and making New Year’s resolutions. This coming week, we’ll watch fireworks, and go outside for picnics and pastimes. May togetherness enable us to lift each other’s spirits into a more hopeful summer.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
Related Topics
Related Posts