Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Sermon for my Son, Negotiation of Emotions, Tasks and Relationships

Yesterday my son Nachman celebrated his Bar Mitzvah by being called to the Torah and reading from it. This is an edited version of the Sermon I delivered.

Nachman is still within the first week of being a commanded Jewish man, this is a special time. I remember my own Bar Mitzvah. It was a holy, almost magical moment, when I was acutely aware that everything I did mattered.

Doing Right
I cared a lot then, about doing the right thing then, I still do. This is something I learned from my parents, not from their words but from their example and I hope I can pass on to you. The idea that what matters most is not just to be happy but to do what is right.

Skilled Debater and Negotiator
Nachman, one of your many qualities is your ability to argue a point, whether in the Talmud or in day to day negotiations or debates. It is fitting that the Torah reading this week includes various negotiations. The affirmative argument I propose is that negotiation needs to be conducted in an assertive but gracious and principled, manner, even if you think the other party might not deserve it. In Hebrew this is called, Chein, in English it is called Grace. This sometimes includes searching our own hearts about our motives.  Nachman will need to negotiate at least three important matters as a commanded Jewish man. These include; emotions, tasks and relationships.

Missing/Shrunken Letters
In debating, one strategy is to make it easy for people to follow the arguments. In this talk there is a common thread in that many of my arguments will draw on hints in the Torah text, missing letters or even a shrunken letter in some words. These variations reduce the force of the particular word.

Negotiating Emotion
As you travel on life’s journey you will have many feelings. These will include feeling like taking a break when the task is particularly challenging or boring. Boredom for the 21st century adolescent is of course a dreadful feeling that is only slightly worse than torture. Come’on, get a grip! Seriously, though managing emotions is not always easy.

Restrained Grief
In the Torah reading, we read about a far more serious emotion, grief. Abraham lost his wife and closest collaborator on a mission impossible of promoting belief in one God in a world of idol worship. Abraham cries for Sarah[i]. Yet, there are two strange things about the Hebrew word Livkota, לבכתה to cry for her. One of its letters is in much smaller size than the rest of the word and it is missing the letter Vav. These variations are hint that Abraham as a scholar was restrained in his crying[ii], at least publicly.

Was this a good thing? In this particular case, it is disputed, some opinions praise Abraham for his restraint[iii] while others criticize him for not crying enough to properly honour Sarah[iv]. These opinions teach us that there are times to express our emotions fully and not hold back, but in other situations it is useful to restrain ourselves. It is also not easy to decide when to express emotion and when to hold back. A central idea of Chabad teaching is the concept that the mind rules the heart. Our feelings are “the children” of our thoughts[v]. We are called to think in a disciplined way to guide our feelings, rather than allow our feelings to guide our thoughts.

Grace in Dealing with a Dishonourable Negotiator
With his dead wife still not even buried yet.  Abraham is a model of restraint and grace when he negotiates with the local people for a grave for his wife.  Again we find the theme of missing letters. The seller’s name, Efron עפרון, is spelled without the letter Vav עפרן  , so that it can be read as  Afrn[vi], related to the word for soil as if he was talking with dust in his mouth.  He talked as if he would give the grave away for free[vii], but in the end asked for an outrageous sum of money. 400 huge gold coins that could be used in any country, so it could be passed to any merchant[viii].

Abraham bows repeatedly, he does not show annoyance, or anger, he bows, and he pays without complaint. The opposite of grace, is to begrudge giving anything to another person unless there is absolutely no choice, and then it is given with a grouchy face. Abraham is said to have “a good eye[ix]”, he is generous, and is a class act. There a certainly times in our lives when this is correct approach.   

In negotiating life’s challenges, there are few rules that apply to every situation. While in some cases it is best to bow and give in without complaining, there are other situations where we must stand our ground. We find the servant of Abraham, Eliezer on a mission to find a wife for his master’s son, even refuses to eat any food before speaking his words[x].  He also refuses to accept any delays to his agenda and insists on getting what he set out to get when he wants it. There are times when this is right, particularly when dealing with the untrustworthy Laban who our tradition calls Laban the swindler.

In contrast to Laban, Eliezer himself enjoys the absolute trust of his master, who allowed him to rule all that he owned[xi] and even trusted him with organising the marriage of his son. This is particularly impressive when we consider that Eliezer was a Canaanite who Abraham would have thought of as a cursed people[xii] based on the deeds of his ancestor Canaan the son of Ham.  Abraham clearly puts those matters aside and develops absolute trust in his Canaanite slave.

Negotiation about Tasks
One issue that tests the degree to which young men are trusted relates to negotiating tasks and timing, especially those tasks they would like to avoid. Abraham’s Servant Eliezer's negotiated with him about the task of finding a wife for his son Isaac. Abraham wants his servant to bring a foreign wife from his home country and tribe[xiii]”. Again, we have another missing letter in the servant Eliezer’s response to the request. “Oolai”  אוליwhat if she will not want to come? Eliezer asks, but the word is spelled without the letter Vav, so the word can be read as Alai, אלי- to me[xiv]. This interpreted as a hint that Eliezer was hoping that his mission will be a failure, and instead the match with his master’s son will come to him by marrying Eliezer’s own daughter. This demonstrates the need to be aware of our own motives when taking a position or making an argument in a negotiation. Because Eliezer had such a high level of personal integrity which according to this teaching included introspection, he earns the trust of his master. Abraham gives in to Eliezer and modifies the agreement about the task he assigned Eliezer, which further reflects Abraham’s trust in Eliezer and his flexibility with a person he trusts.

Love Built Over time
Isaac, Abraham’s son and the wife found for him by his father’s servant, Rebecca also needed to negotiate their emotions.  In their case the Torah tells us the sequence of events. First it tells us that Isaac brought Rebecca into his tent and married her and only after that does it tell us that loved her[xv].

They did not fall in love. Rebecca fell alright, off the camel she was riding. One explanation for the fall was that she saw him, a tall confident man walking in a field off the beaten path and she thought he was a gangster[xvi]. She fell of the camel in fright! Not exactly love at first sight. But the Torah teaches us that they actively developed their love for each other by the things they did, said and did not say over many years.

So Nachman, you have been blessed to be surrounded by a loving family, friends and community. If you think about the love you feel for your cute little baby brother Tuvia, and handsome brother Levi, you might notice that your love grows through the loving things you do, the imaginative play, or other ways you help both of them.   The choices you make in doing the right thing by all of them and all the people you will have the opportunity to interact with will determine whether you win or lose the main game of negotiating life as a commanded Jewish man.

[i] Genesis 23:2
[ii] Ner Haskalim manuscript, Pirush R. Y of Vienna, cited in Torah shlaima p. 922,  point 22
[iii] Drashas Even Shuiv, cited in Torah shlaima
[iv] Pirush R. Y of Vienna, cited in Torah shlaima
[v] Tanya
[vi] Genesis 23:16
[vii] Genesis 23:11
[viii] Genesis 23:15-16
[ix] Pirkey Avot 5:19
[x] Genesis 24:33
[xi] Genesis 24:2
[xii] See Rashi to 24:39
[xiii] Genesin 24:3-4
[xiv] Rashi 24:39. Interestingly, although the story is told twice in the Torah (Genesis 24:5 & 24:39), the variation of the spelling only appears in the text when he retells the story after finding Rebecca (24:39) and his conflict of interest is no longer a practical issue. This demonstrates that ulterior motives are very difficult to spot in the moment, but, they could be easier to spot once the situation is no longer practical. (this insight is from Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk)
[xv] Genesis 24:67
[xvi] Chizkuni

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