See You Next Fall

Are you able to have a nice trip?

I think of myself as an adequate ice skater. I am proficient enough to go around the ice with my family and enjoy it. My ankles still turn in and my feet ache afterward, but my skill level is satisfactory enough for my occasional ice endeavors. There is one thing I aim not to do. I dread falling. The bump. The sting of the ice on my hand. The awkwardness of others seeing me go down. I skate and and I try very hard not to slip. Despite my trying, I often slip at least once a session.

Recently I went ice skating (in the summer!) with some of my family. As usual, I was trying not to fall. For most of the time I was successful. And then…plop…I hit the ice.

When I got back up, I noticed that I felt a degree of freedom. I was able to skate faster, have more fun, and be more relaxed. Soon, I fell again. This time I laughed at myself. “Falling is not so bad,” I said to myself. “ It’s also normal for many novices. And it doesn’t hurt too much. Besides, who is really watching me?” I continued.

As I contemplated my skating, I observed that when I was assiduously trying to protect myself from falling, I couldn’t enjoy the ice to its fullest. Part of my attention was focused on staying up. I couldn’t appreciate skating while I was also concentrating on not falling.

When I reflected on my ice skating experience further, I reached new appreciation of an age old Jewish tradition that elevates failing and falling. The verse in Micha (7, 8) states, “Let my enemies not delight over me because I have fallen – I have risen.” The simple meaning of the verse is that the speaker is exhorting his enemies not to rejoice over his decline, because he already bounced back. But the seminal work Shaarei Teshuva (Gate 2, 5) quotes a tradition from the Sages to interpret the verse differently by splitting it. The second part is is its own statement, “Because I have fallen, I have risen.” The speaker in the verse means, “Had I not fallen, I would not have reached the heights that I did.” In its new interpretation, that meaningful statement is a clarion call to look at failures as facilitating improvement instead of providing setbacks. It is an important mandate to normalize failure and use it as a catalyst for religious growth.

My experiences on the ice helped me with an additional perspective and deeper understanding of, “because I have fallen I have risen.” When I was distracted by trying not to fall, I couldn’t allow myself to be fully involved with the skating experience. Protecting myself was the inverse of immersing myself. But once I fell the first time, I allowed my defenses to dissipate. Had I not fallen, I would not have been able to embrace a fall as an event that I should expect. When I slipped, the wall began to crumble. I didn’t need to skate an Olympic 10, I was just going to enjoy the ice. Had I not fallen, I would not have been able to rise to the occasion of enjoying the experience. I would have still been protecting myself instead of immersing myself.

As we skate through life, we might dread failure and falling. Yet, If we unduly focus our energy on propping ourselves up and not allowing ourselves to fall, we might be stifling our accomplishments. Thomas J. Watson understood this as he charted his path to success in founding IBM. He coached the world, “if you want to succeed, double your failure rate.” If you are exceedingly cautious about falling, your energy is being used for protection and perfection instead of rising and realizing. That seems like a pretty slippery situation to slide into.

Drive Slowly In The Passing Lane

This too shall change…if you help.

King Solomon elicited a challenge from his subordinates. He dared them to create jewelry that could both relieve sorrow and temper mirth. Most that heard the challenge saw it as insurmountable. Yet, one loyal servant thoughtfully produced a ring with simple phrase, “gam zeh yaavor – this too shall pass.” These words are both simple and brilliant; they pithily summarize the temporary nature of most experiences. King Solomon was overjoyed and handsomely rewarded his insightful subject.

When one is experiencing the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, or any feeling in between, it can be helpful to recall that many strong emotions are short lived. Even a situation that is prolonged will probably will not last for one’s entire life. “Gam zeh yaavor” provides a reminder that difficulties often blow over and opportunities don’t always remain.

Although King Solomon, or any other Jewish leader, is not actually recorded as having coined that phrase, its phenomenal ability to express a deep philosophical idea made it attractive to leaders such as Abraham Lincoln (here, in closing) and led to widespread use. Most would probably expect it to be found somewhere in Scripture or in Rabbinic literature, although it does not appear in any classical Jewish source. (For more on its origins and use in Jewish and non-Jewish sources, see this brief article by Dr. Shnayer Z. Leiman.)

Yet, sometimes “gam zeh yaavor” can provide an inappropriate allure. It can shield us from acknowledging and appreciating the facts and the feelings of the present. We can misconstrue “gam zeh yaavor” to endorse an attitude of ignorance and irresponsibility in the face of struggle. If we find ourselves in difficult circumstances, it can be significant to appreciate the gravity of the situation, explore means of ameliorating it, and move in that direction. It can be powerful and helpful to fuel ourselves with the knowledge that adversity usually blows over. At the same time, it is pragmatically and emotionally important to take the bull by the horns, analyze our responsibilities, and act to change our current reality.

This duality was personified by the behavior of Admiral James Stockdale, the highest ranking American to be held hostage in Vietnam. He was subjected to extraordinarily difficult prison experiences, and finally regained his freedom after eight trying years. Stockdale explained that he took a two-pronged approach to his life in captivity. On the one hand, he realized that he needed to remain brutally aware of his current reality. His life was next to meaningless to his captors and he needed to exert extraordinary effort just to remain alive. He had to have his wits about him and appear reasonably obedient to the guards. He had to exercise constant vigilance and devise his own methods of physical survival. At the same time, he hoped and imagined that one day the war would finish. He fostered confidence and optimism that he would survive and be united with his family. This dichotomy became coined “The Stockdale Paradox.”

Stockdale’s tempered optimism allowed his to survive his brutal imprisonment and return home. He eventually became a lecturer at the Hoover Institute at Stanford and was also nominated as a vice-presidential candidate. He was able to hold the beauty and sweetness of hope, yet did not allow it to shake his full awareness of the brutality of his reality.  That balance is essential to thriving in life. Optimism can sometimes obfuscate reality, and realism can sometimes eclipse hope.

This dialectic approach also distills the basis of most psychotherapy. One usually needs to appreciate some aspects of his current reality to make therapy meaningful. It is important for him to acknowledge an impediment so that he can reach out and so he can internalize the discussions he has with is therapist. At the same time, he can usually most effectively engage in the psychotherapeutic process armored with hope that his situation can change.

There is great wisdom in realizing that “gam zeh yaavor.” There is also great importance in being aware and mindful of a current situation and its demands. Combining future perspective while embracing current reality can sometimes seem to take the sagacity of no less than King Solomon.

Hard To Swallow: Controversies Over the Kashrus of Contemporary Toothpaste

Does your smile reflect halacha?

May this special post be an iylui neshama (merit for the soul) of my dear mother, Mrs. Joan Maybruch, Yocheved Pesha bas Hillel a”h, on her yahrzeit (date of passing).

Is Kosher Toothpaste A Paradox?

Toothpaste is on a very short list of items that many people put into their mouth without a concern for kosher supervision. This is a curious phenomenon, because commercially made fluoride toothpastes contain glycerin. Glycerin is a syrupy, sweet liquid that can add both texture and taste to the paste. There are many sources for glycerin; some are vegetable and some are animal. Manufacturers frequently alter the type of glycerin they use based on the market price. That means that many products that have glycerin as an ingredient might contain a non-kosher meat byproduct, which is prohibited.

There are two angles from to explore this question. Firstly, toothpaste is not eaten altogether. It is just used in the mouth and expectorated. Does that pose a kashrus concern? Secondly, toothpaste is a non-food. Is there a need to be concerned about its kashrus?

Tasting a Non-Kosher Food Without Swallowing

The first issue, if brushing with toothpaste is considered eating, hinges on a century-old debate. The Talmud discusses an ancient practice of smelling the scent of wine with one’s mouth, without touching the actual beverage. Abaye prohibits smelling non-kosher wine and Rava permits it. Rava maintains that fragrance alone has no substance and cannot be considered non-kosher (reicha lav milsa hi). The Rivash (Responsum 288) notices that the Talmud stops short from allowing one to actually taste the wine, even if it would not be swallowed; it only permits smelling it. This implies that putting a non-kosher food in one’s mouth without swallowing it is prohibited.

The Rivash is curious as to why tasting non-kosher is prohibited, after all it is not full-fledged eating? He advances two possibilities. First, he suggests that it might go along the lines of the prohibition of eating miniscule amounts. Although halacha only exacts punishment for eating a specific amount of prohibited food, less than that is also included in the prohibition. This is termed chatzi shiur – less than the requisite amount. Similarly, the Rivash suggests that when one puts non-kosher food in his mouth, he is doing part of the act of eating, and it is prohibited. Chatzi shiur usually applies to eating small amounts, here it applies to a small part of eating. The Rivash then rejects that possibility. He highlights that the Talmud (Yoma 74a) explains why eating less than the requisite amount is still prohibited. If one would keep on doing the same act of eating, it can become a full-fledged violation of halacha. Therefore, even ingesting less than the punishable amount of a forbidden substance is prohibited, lest he continue. In contrast, putting something into one’s mouth without ingesting it cannot become a full prohibition. It requires a new action – swallowing – for it to become a prohibition. Since the act of tasting itself is not the same as eating, the Rivash shies away from saying that the Torah would prohibit tasting as a part of eating.

The second rationale the Rivash advances for prohibiting tasting without swallowing is that it is simply a rabbinic enactment. The Sages wanted to ensure that a person would not mistakenly swallow non-kosher, so they added a restriction on tasting, too. The Rivash concludes his responsum in favor of that logic. Tasting without swallowing is a rabbinic prohibition lest one come to swallow.

This ruling of the Rivash is codified by the Rama in Shulchan Aruch (YD 108, 5).

Two Are Better Than One

Although tasting without swallowing is prohibited, a fascinating leniency is advanced by Rav Menachem Mendel Krochmal of Nikolsburg (1600 – 1661) in his Responsa entitled Tzemach Tzedek. (This work is not to be confused with the work of Rav Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789 – 1866) who also composed responsa entitled Tzemach Tzedek. Both authors had the same names and both chose the same titles because the gematria of “Menachem Mendel” is equal to that of “Tzemach Tzedek.”)

The Tzemach Tzedek (Responsum 47) was asked about the permissibility of a soaper tasting his soap while it was being made to check the ingredient proportions. The soap contained non-kosher fats, as well as ashes and lime. Although it was not a foodstuff, since it contained non-kosher, it might be prohibited to taste.The Tzemach Tzedek rules leniently. His logic is based on a combination of rabbinic prohibitions which synergize to make it permissible.

Firstly, soap is not fit for human consumption. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 67b) rules that a prohibited food which becomes inedible is no longer forbidden. The Talmud hermeneutically deduces this from the unique phraseology used in the Torah (Devraim 14, 21). It describes that if one finds an animal that died without shechita in his possession, he should give it to a non-Jewish neighbor. The Talmud understands that the Torah is hinting that a non-kosher item remains non-kosher only as long as it is suitable to share with another person. When it decomposes or reaches an inedible state, it is not longer covered by the prohibition of non-kosher. (This is termed nosein taam lifgam.) Although a now inedible food is biblically permitted, it is still rabbinically prohibited. As mentioned, tasting a prohibited food without swallowing it is also rabbinically prohibited.

The Tzemach Tezek rules that those two rabbinic prohibitions combine to create permissibility. While the Sages prohibited ingesting inedible food, they did not prohibit tasting it without swallowing. Full consumption of an inedible food is rabbinically prohibited, but the Sages did not prohibit mere tasting of it. Therefore, the soaper may taste his soap.

Don’t Swallow!

The Nodah B’Yehudah (YD 52) clarifies the ruling of the Tzemach Tzedek. He accepts the permissibility of tasting non-food items theoretically. Yet, he is concerned that if one puts a non-kosher food into his mouth, it is almost inevitable that he is going to swallow some of it. Swallowing non-kosher is a biblical prohibition. Therefore, even if the food itself is inedible, the act that one is doing should be prohibited. How can one allow putting a rabbinically prohibited food in his mouth – if it will result in ingestion of a small amount? Consequently, the Nodah B’Yehudah maintains that when the Tzemach Tzedek wrote that one is allowed to taste an inedible food, he only meant to permit tasting it with his tongue, which will not lead to ingestion.The Tzemach Tzedek concurs that putting a non-kosher food in one’s mouth fully and expectorating it is still prohibited because it is inevitable that he is going to swallow some of it.

The Pischei Teshuva (YD 88, 1) quotes the Nodah B’Yehudah and disagrees. He maintains that when the Tzemach Tzedek permits tasting of inedible food, he even means inserting it fully into his mouth. It appears that the Pischei Teshuva is not concerned about the minute amount a person may swallow. SInce the prohibition of eating inedible food is rabbinic, the Sages did not include ingesting a minute amount while tasting in the prohibition.

In summary, in the view of the Nodah B’Yehudah, one may not put a prohibited food in his mouth, even if it is no longer edible, because it is inevitable that he is going to swallow a bit. In contrast, the Pischei Teshuva maintains that one may put food that is inedible in his mouth completely. Even if he swallows a bit, that is not included in the rabbinic prohibition of eating inedible foods.

Brushing With Toothpaste

This dispute has direct relevance for using toothpaste. Toothpaste contains abrasives, such as hydrated silica. This substance renders the toothpaste on the whole a non-food item. If it would contain animal glycerin it still would be rabbinically prohibited to eat, like any other food that is nosein taam lifgam. Yet, it would not be biblically problematic.

Consequently, it falls into the dispute between the Pischei Teshuva and the Nodah B’Yehudah. In the view of the Pischei Teshuva one may put it into his mouth and then dispose of it. Even if it is inevitable for him to swallow some of it, that minute amount was not prohibited by the Sages. However, according to the Nodah B’Yehudah, putting non-food items in the mouth past the tongue is prohibited. Therefore, one might not be able to use toothpaste that contains glycerin. Since toothpaste is a non-food that is rabbinically prohibited, he may not brush his full mouth with it because it is inevitable that he is going to swallow some.

[It is curious that Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank (Har Tzvi Responsum 95, where I first encountered the citations of many of these sources) writes that brushing teeth with prohibited toothpaste should be permissible even according to the Nodah B’Yehudah. Since one expectorates, even the Nodah B’Yehudah would allow it to be fully in the mouth. Yet, that sentence appears to be difficult to swallow. The Nodah B’Yehudah unequivocally rejected having non-kosher in the mouth beyond the tongue. He reasoned that one always swallows a bit. Consequently, Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank’s stating that even the Nodah B’Yehudah would agree that toothpaste may be used seems to go against the thrust of the Nodah B’Yehudah’s words.]

Rocky Ground

The second perspective that one can explore to allow using toothpaste containing glycerin is the rule of nullification. Halacha states that if a non-kosher substance is mixed with a kosher food, the mixture may be eaten if there is a ratio of 60:1 of kosher to non-kosher (Shulchan Aruch YD 98). That ratio does not usually exist in toothpastes. Even if it did, glycerin is intentionally added to the paste for taste and body and its effect on the mixture is noticeable. Therefore, it falls into the category of products that impact their mixtures (milsa d’avida l’taama) and is not nullified even after 60, as codified by the Shulchan Aruch (Rama YD 98, 8).

Yet, Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky (recorded in the footnote to Emes L’Yaakov YD 103) used an intriguing and novel idea to permit toothpaste with glycerin. He states that in most cases of halachic nullification, a proportion where the kosher food is in a simple majority to the prohibited food is permissible. There is no need for a ratio as large as 60:1. Halacha only demands a proportion of 60 in order to obliterate the flavor of the non-kosher food. If it would not give flavor, the simple majority would suffice.

Rav Yaakov maintained that in non-food items, a simple majority is always sufficient. Since it is a non-food, the addition of flavor by the prohibited food is irrelevant. Therefore, there is no need to have a 60:1 ratio. A simple majority of kosher to non-kosher is enough to permit using it.

Consequently, Rav Yaakov would say that as long as toothpaste is less than 50% glycerin, it is permissible. Since it is a non-food item, it only needs a simple majority to nullify the glycerin.

Not Too Abrasive

There are different approaches regarding if Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky’s fascinating leniency applies to contemporary toothpaste. When Rav Yaakov issued his ruling, there was a large amount of abrasive (originally calcium carbonate) in toothpaste. Toothpaste was mostly tiny pieces of mineral rock, with some glycerin, water, and other ingredients added. Rav Yaakov even refers to toothpaste as “stone.” In the toothpaste of Rav Yaakov’s day, the abrasive alone was enough to outnumber the glycerin; it was a direct majority in proportion to it. In that toothpaste, Rav Yaakov maintained that since it is mostly abrasive, there was no need for a proportion of 60.

More recently, the American Dental Association advocated severely reducing the amount of abrasive in toothpaste. The abrasive (now commonly hydrated silica) is much less prominent as an ingredient. It usually takes up no more than 20% of the volume of the toothpaste and does not have enough volume to halachically counteract the glycerin. Yet, aside from the glycerin and abrasive, the toothpaste contains halachically and gastronomically neutral ingredients such as water, fluoride, and flavorings. The volume of all the other ingredients compared to the glycerin is still greater than 50%, even though the abrasive alone does not outweigh it. Since the abrasive does not outnumber the glycerin, but the ingredients combined still do, may one use Rav Yaakov’s leniency that non-foods needs a simple majority?

Two major American Kashrus organizations, the Orthodox Union and the Chicago Rabbinical Council, maintain that Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky’s leniency would not apply anymore. They explain that because many of the other ingredients in toothpaste are easily ingestible and the non-food abrasive does not directly outweigh the non-kosher glycerin, Rav Yaakov would no longer say that a simple majority against the glycerin is sufficient.

One might cogently advance a different approach. Although the direct ratio of abrasive to glycerin has greatly changed, toothpaste is still fundamentally a non-food. The addition of even a small amount of silica, a mineral rock, should still warrant categorizing toothpaste as a non-food item. Since it is a non-food, it would governed by Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky’s principle that in non-foods a simple majority outnumbering non-kosher is enough to permit it. The abrasive and halachically neutral ingredients in toothpaste together may be considered a simple majority against the glycerin, rendering all toothpaste kosher.

Which Tube To Use?

In conclusion, toothpaste is a non-food, which still might be rabbinically prohibited. Yet, there are at least two reasons to permit toothpaste even if it contains animal glycerin:

  • One does not swallow toothpaste but expectorates it. In the view of the Pischei Teshuva one may put a non-kosher non-food fully into his mouth. Yet, the Nodah B’Yehudah disagrees because one will inevitably swallow some.
  • Toothpaste itself has a simple majority of kosher ingredients that can nullify the glycerin. Although the usual proportion that is necessary to nullify non-kosher taste is 60:1, Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky maintained that in non-food items a simple majority is sufficient.

Whichever toothpaste you use, I hope you have a lot to smile about!

What’s Black and White and Read All Over?

Is anything really “simply stated?”

“Don’t shoot the messenger!”

“It’s not my fault. I just work here!”

Life experiences might have demonstrated to you that when someone says those excuses, he is usually slithering out of his own responsibility. Curiously, for the ill-fated spies that went to explore the Land of Israel, that claim seems to have had veracity. The Jews in the wilderness, led by Moses, had dispatched them. The spies were deployed to research and report the physical nature of the Land of Israel and how easy or difficult it might be to conquer its inhabitants. When the scouts came back, they reported truthfully. They described the land as bountiful and its residents as strong, formidable opponents who were battle-ready. When the Jews assimilated the account of the fortitude of the Canaanites, they felt dejected and hopeless. They mourned their lot and dreaded fighting battles for Israel that they might lose.

G-d punished the Jews for being fickle and having lack of faith. Surprisingly, the spies got penalized too. Something appears unfair. The Jews’ outlandish behavior demonstrated that they were skeptical of Divine assistance. Why were the spies punished? They reported back what they saw. Don’t shoot the messengers!

This question has been addressed and readdressed by commentators through the ages. The Ramban advances an extraordinary approach. At first, the spies faithfully reported facts back to the Israelites. They described the agricultural abundance of Israel and its succulent fruit. They also related truthfully that the current inhabitants were strongly armed and well prepared for battle. Their description was not only truthful, it was responsible. It was their job to report about the land and its people, and they did as they were charged.  The spies would have been negligent if they omitted the description of the Canaanite nations as robust and substantial. They conveyed the information as they saw it. Yet, the foible of the spies was the word that they added to their communication: “efes,” which means “zero,” zero chance and zero possibility. They added that they saw no odds for the successful conquest of Israel. “No way!” they exclaimed. “The nations that are there are too strong.” The spies conveyed to the Jews that they had absolutely no opportunity to ascend to Israel.“ It is impossible to enter the Land!” they proclaimed. “Disregard any previous positive information. There is absolutely no possibility that we will succeed.”

According to the Ramban, the spies were culpable for simplifying their situation. They took a complex reality and saw it as binary. If the question was, “Can we succeed or not?” the answer the spies gave was a resounding “No, not a chance!” The fundamental error of the spies was that they did not allow themselves to see ambiguity and complexity. For them, the situation was black and white. The case was open and shut.

A more truthful response would have taken into account the components of the situation. They might have considered the different aspects of their combat. They might have posited, “The current inhabitants are strong. We also have an army. We have a large population. We might need to devise strategic methods to fight. We have Divine protection. G-d has provided miracles for us during our Exodus.” They did not allow themselves to see the equation as complex. Instead, they looked it at with a simplistic vantage, “The enemy is robust, so we can’t succeed.”

It is common to think that a major aspect of the sin of the Jews and the spies was that they did not trust in G-d and his ability to follow through on his commitment to bring the Jews to the promised land. It was more basic than that. There was nothing to begin to trust G-d for. In their minds, entering Israel was an impossibility that warranted no further discussion. To the contrary, in their immature simplicity, they might have seen entering Israel as prohibited. If there was no possibility for success, waging a losing battle would be suicide. Jewish law demanded that they did not enter!

Life is complex. We might have a desire to simplify our situations, our interactions with others, and our thoughts. Yet, most often there are shades of grey and webs of complexity instead of the black and white we pine for. Many errors in religion and relationships have their roots in unjust simplification of a complex situation. It is easy to see one’s specific religious practice as correct, with all others lacking. In certain situations that might be true; in many others it is a cry of simplistic judgement where more complexity is warranted. In relationships, it is so tantalizing to aim to isolate wrong from right and correct from incorrect. On might gain from observing that almost never – since Creation – is there a relationship disagreement where one party is absolutely wrong and the other is absolutely right. Human relations and human relationships are sophisticated and multifaceted. It is easy to simplify, but that is often not truthful.

Developmental psychologists note that adolescents often think in black and white terms. As they begin to be exposed to life and its experiences and their minds develop, they tend to passionately see circumstances and positions as simply wrong and right. As one matures, he ideally departs from this more simplistic tendency, and begins to appreciate life’s complexities. It has been stated that most extremists are either young or unintelligent. It can be easier to be an extremist, but it might not truly reflect life’s intricacies.

Similarly, Korach rebelled and desired to serve in the Tabernacle like Moses and Aaron. He shamelessly demanded that he be given a chance to serve. Korach was guilty of the same error as the spies. He oversimplified. Korach didn’t allow himself to appreciate the complexity of laws, of societal differentiation, of different strokes for different folks. He passionately desired to work in the Tabernacle and rebelled. He died because of his undying dedication to simplicity.

If some of life’s greatest sins and mistake come from using binary, simplistic thought, then the converse is also true. One of the greatest strides one can make psychologically, religiously, and in relationships, is to appreciate the complexity of most situations and experiences. It can be enriching, gratifying, to embrace life’s complexities. It’s not simple, but neither is life.

Oiling a Change?

Shift into “How” with a resounding question mark.

Do you know how to change your car’s motor oil? I don’t. When the indicator light is on in my car, I bring it to a mechanic. He changes the filter, puts in new quarts of oil, and usually attaches a clear colorform-like sticker to the top left of my windshield.

I don’t know how to remove the oil, dispose of it, or replace the filter.

But there’s one thing I am sure of. As long as I keep on saying, “I don’t know how to,” that will still be true.

What if I decide that I want to be independent of the gas station and do my own oil changes? I might explore how to do it. I could research it online, ask a handy neighbor’ s advice, or watch a mechanic several times. Perhaps I would do all of those.

A powerful shift would take place as I journey from being unaware to accomplishing. I would go from saying, “I don’t know how to change the oil,” to “How do I change the oil?” Instead of making a statement, I would begin to ask a question. When I would make that shift, I would be speaking volumes. By changing from a statement to a question, I then allow myself to entertain the possibility that I can do it. My sedentary nature becomes activity when I change around a few words and I go from declaring that I don’t know how to to inquiring how to.

Sometimes the most significant transformations in life are represented by moving from a statement to a question. When you ask “How,” you are digging yourself out of the quagmire of helplessness to vistas of possibilities. That shift is the key to any successful endeavor, change, or accomplishment.

When you say “I don’t know how to,” the punctuation is a period. The sentence is over. There is nothing more to discuss. Intervention, learning, or change can only begin to happen if you append an inquisitive, somewhat mischievous hook to its top. It turns into a question mark. One might say that the goals of teaching and psychotherapy are to put that crooked mark on top of the period.

Consider trying this exercise. Next time you find yourself stating “I don’t know how to” do something, change around a few words. Cut of the first three words, “I don’t know,” and begin your sentence with “How.” That seemingly small word shift opens up a universe of possibilities. It dramatically declares to yourself that there are ways for you to do it. Even if you don’t have the requisite skills, knowledge, or acumen, you are indicating that it’s something that you can theoretically accomplish.

Positive experiences begin by changing “I don’t know how” to “How do I?” The boring period becomes an exciting, daring and perhaps impish question mark. That phraseology and bold punctuation mark is the harbinger of being able to achieve.

I still don’t know how to change my oil. I am complacent with keeping that as a statement. But if I want to, or to oil any other change, I would need to make a word shift. I would discard the “I don’t know” and begin with “How do I,” ending with a question mark that hints that a world of possibilities is dawning.

Creation, Individuation, and a Nation

What are your relationships like?

A beautiful newborn lies in his loving mother’s arms. He silently sleeps as his mother marvels at the tranquility on his sweet little face. After a while, he wakes up with a tiny yawn. He stirs and then starts crying. Mother senses that he is hungry and tenderly nurses him.  As she does, she thinks about the special and unique connection that she is creating with her precious baby.

Baby sees it differently. He doesn’t see a relationship between himself and his mother. He simply sees mother as part of him. He is hungry, and he is then fed. He needs cuddling and is held. Developmental psychologists suggest that for the first period after a baby’s birth, he thinks that he is the same person as his mother. His mother is part of him, and he is part of her. He’s unaware that she provides food and care for him. He just sees her as an extension of himself.

As baby matures, he gradually learns that his mother and he are not the same. She can feed him, or not feed him. She can satisfy him or frustrate him. This astonishing realization can provide baby with a sorrowful awakening to the realities of life. He is alone and dependent on the world for survival. Although he tries to control that world with his cry, he is not always successful. The world might respond to his needs, and it might not.

From that epiphany and on, baby begins a lifelong journey of psychological differentiation. He starts comprehending that he has a unique existence that is not connected to anyone else. The journey of individuation continues for years, and perhaps throughout one’s life.

Years later, this differentiation can include the individual becoming aware of his own sense of self in a deeper way. He can become aware of his own thoughts, feelings, and emotions. He comprehends that the ideas are in his mind and not shared by anyone else. Many people might even disagree with his concepts or thoughts. In a more profound sense, differentiation means understanding that he himself is responsible for the ideas in his head. Even if others have created experiences, shared connections and conversations, or given presentations that have impacted him, the thoughts in his brain are the products of his own processing. It is also his choice to try to alter or dismiss them if he chooses to do so.

Psychological individuation can be very significant for a person. Individuation brings with it a sense of responsibility and ownership of oneself. Perhaps it is the only way to fully exist. If one is psychologically tethered to his home and his early influences, he is not really an adult, but a grown child, connected to his early caregivers by a psychological umbilical cord. He is not his own person with independent thoughts and desires.

Despite the beauty and power of individuation, the mind craves the safety and security of its early existence when it was one with Mom. It deeply desires the comfort of childhood where one’s caregivers’ ideas were one’s own. The process of differentiation connotes greater and greater separation from one’s parents. Leaving psychological home and moving further on that path can be dreadful and bitter.

It is possible that relationships that one develops through life partly imitate the original parental connection. Peer relationships such as marriage or friends can partially echo the longing for caregiver connection. They can provide comfort to an individual whose mind silently mourns home. When one connects with a spouse, associates, or acquaintances, they can partly take the place of parents in one’s mind.

For example, it is often significant for each spouse to care for and responsible to the other. Sometimes a spouse can demonstrate an intense and consistent need to be taken care of that stresses the marital relationship. This might be a manifestation of that spouse’s wish to recreate a parental relationship in her marriage. If the latent wish to recreate a parental connection becomes prominent enough that it upsets a relationship’s functioning, it should be thought about and analyzed closely. Perhaps this is a simple meaning of the Torah’s description of marriage when it describes Adam and Eve, “one should leave his mother and father and join with his wife and they will be one flesh.” The Torah is describing the psychological differentiation that is necessary to create a peer marriage rather than a recreation of the parent – child dynamic.

The same analysis might be important in peer relationships. Connections with friends can be an important aspect of life. At the same time, if social groups usurp one’s individuality, it might be important to question that friendship or peer group. In some friend groups among adults, one can find it hard to be accepted if he engages in a certain mode of dress, style, or religious practice. One often obliges because that social circle is significant to him. Is that a peer group or a recreation of a desperate need to connect with others that are representing one’s parents? When Chazal relate that the Jewish people surrounded Sinai to receive the Torah “like one person with one heart,” it seems to be describing a powerful peer relationship where everyone was accepted and there was little hierarchy.

As we approach Shavuos, perhaps it is worthwhile to examine our relationships. Do they echo the beauty of Matan Torah, “like one person with one heart?” If they do, they might be very worthwhile to invest in further. If not, perhaps there are changes that one might consider as he becomes an individual, with the freedom and power that it produces.

Do You Hear What I Am Saying?

How the simply audible becomes deeply understandable.

Amidst the melodious clamor of the beis medrash, two chavrusos animatedly discuss a fine Talmudic point. One man asserts his analysis. The other counters; he comprehends the idea in a divergent way. They argue repeatedly and volley their opinions as they become more entrenched in their perspectives. An intellectual tug of war comes alive between them. One becomes more and more convinced that he is correct. The other has no doubt that his understanding makes the most sense. Then, in their spirited discussion, one begins to see a grain of truth in his colleague’s approach. He stops the conversation, closes his eyes and re-contemplates the logic. His brow furrows as he weighs the pros and cons of his partners assertions. He begins to see how it can make sense. Perhaps his friend’s point is on par with his own thinking. Maybe it is even more valid. In a valiant effort to now partially capitulate, the chavrusa offers one of the highest verbal accolades to his intellectual adversary: “I hear what you are saying.” With that brief phrase he virtually embraces his studymate and acknowledges that he is beginning to see merit in his assertion.

The socioculturally unique usage of that phrase has its etymology in Yiddish. There are two words that describe the word “hear.” The first sounds like its English counterpart, “hehr,”  and simply means to “hear.” A more intense version of the word is “derhehr,” which means to hear intensely. In common use, the word “hehr” might be used to connote audibility, that one can physically hear. In contrast, the word “derhehr” indicates intensive listening, or understanding. The verb “derhehr” became so synonymous with understanding and comprehension that it is used as a noun also. One may say, “I have an interesting derhehr,” meaning an understanding or thought. To make matters a bit confusing, the word “derhehr” sometimes becomes shortened back to “hehr,” too. The result is that the word “hehr” – hear – can mean to physically hear or to deeply understand. Do you hear what I am saying?

These two Yiddish words also highlight a powerful truth about conversations and relationships. When one talks to another, the speaker desires one thing over all else – a listening ear. The talker has an intense thirst that his conversational partner can quench. He does not want to simply be heard – hehr. He wants to be derhehred – understood. He passionately wants the other to comprehend his words and his thoughts.

Speakers do not necessarily desire that their listener concur with them. They fervently desire that the other person digest what they are saying, even if he disagrees with it wholeheartedly. Speakers want to be derhehered.

If you are in the role of the listener in a conversation, what might stop you from derhehring the other? True listening entails focusing on the speaker instead of yourself. When someone else is talking, that point of the conversation focuses on him, not on you. Even if you are the subject being discussed, the speaker is usually expressing his thoughts, his feelings, or his emotions – not yours. When you listen, your “I” takes a back burner to the “I” of the talker.

When Moshe Rabbeinu recounts the giving of the Torah, he states (Devarim 5, 5), “I stood between G-d and you.” A Jewish witticism highlights that Moshe is hinting that too much focus on the “I” can separate between one’s self and his connection with Divinity. Interpersonal relationships function similarly. If one feels an overwhelming need to protect his “I,” it can create a large divide in a relationship and prevent him from listening and understanding what a speaker is saying.

Yet, it can be very difficult to put your desire to express yourself on hold and listen to a speaker’s perspective. This is because you probably have your own thoughts and view about what he is saying.Whether you agree, concur with part of what he is saying, or completely disagree, you might feel emotions well up inside of you, eager to be voiced. When you are triggered it can be difficult to contain yourself. The speaker’s need to be listened to seems to pale in comparison to the need you feel to air your reaction.

You might find it difficult to listen for another reason, too. You might feel psychically petrified that the speaker will conflate your listening with agreeing. If you listen to what he is saying with an open heart and a free mind, you can give him the impression that you concur. That might weaken your approach in his eyes. Even worse, if you truly listen, you might be intellectually seduced by his words to accept some of his points. If you do not protect yourself, you might become a traitor to your own convictions!

Listening is the foundation of profound relationships. It means changing a simple “hehr” into a deep “derhehr.” That often takes practice and conscious effort because it entails temporarily stifling your “I” to give the speaker the opportunity to share his thoughts and words. Sometimes being aware of its importance and why it can be so hard can help you embrace this formidable challenge.

Do you hear what I am saying?