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.

The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat 

Can you embrace both?

Jubilation abounded as Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law, came from his native Midian to join the Jewish encampment in the wilderness. Moshe related to him the details of the miraculous Israelite exodus and the splitting of the Red Sea and Yisro reacted with intense emotion. The Torah uses a unique word to encapsulate Yisro’s feelings – “Yichad”. (It is so distinctive that it is a hapax legomenon – a word that appears only once in Scripture.) Rashi interprets that expression in two ways. Superficially, it is a shortened form of the more common word “chedva,” which means joy. Yisro was overjoyed at the Israelite salvation. (Other commentators suggest that the etymology is from the Aramaic/ Targum – “chadi,” which is has the same meaning. Interestingly, in contemporary Persian, the word “chadi” means happiness and is sometimes taken as a family surname). Rashi then quotes an additional, Midrashic interpretation. The word originates from “chad” – which means sharp.  Yisro developed sharp stress marks on his skin as he heard Moshe’s narration of the decimation of Egypt. Since Yisro originally came from the country of Midian, near Egypt, he felt solidarity with the stricken Egyptians and their downfall pained him.

Rashi frequently quotes more than one interpretation of a word or an idea in his commentary. It can sometimes seem like each explanation is bifurcated from the other. Here, the two approaches espoused by Rashi, one of elation and the other of distress, seem in opposition. Upon further examination, Rashi might be suggesting an integration of both approaches. (This is possibly the truest meaning of how to understand multiple hermeneutical methods, such as peshat – simple meaning, and drash – homiletical meaning. They are meant to be combined and interwoven. A similar observation is made by Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky, Emes L’Yaakov, beginning of Vayigash.) How can that be in the description of Yisro’s emotions?  Did Yisro react with both jubilation and grief?

The Torah is accenting the beauty and complexity of the human experience. On the one hand, Yisro experienced joy at the miraculous salvation of the Jewish people, including his daughter and son-in-law. At the same time, Yisro felt dread and terror at the punishment of the Egyptians. Yisro embraced both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, simultaneously.

We can frequently find Yisro-type experiences in our own lives. Our minds can harbor several feelings about someone or something; these feelings can even be contradictory. We often, perhaps always, experience mixed feelings for a person, situation, or object. We might appreciate some parts and dread other characteristics or facets. For instance, it is common for people to enjoy the financial remuneration they receive from their employment, but not the job itself.  Alternatively, they might appreciate both of those, but bemoan the need to leave their homes or their families.

This can even be true in one’s most close familial experiences and relationships. For example, it might be significant for a child to be in touch with the pleasurable experience of security and nourishment that parents give, as well as the restriction and demands they might place on him. It is natural to appreciate the former and resent the latter. The same can be true regarding other relationships. It might be beneficial to think about the strains of emotions people evoke within us and feel comforted that there are usually webs of them, and they can often seem to be in opposition.

Yet, it can be hard to allow ourselves the reality of all parts of an experience. It might be easier to focus on one aspect of a person or experience than on multiple pieces. It seems more streamlined and simple. The urge to simplify our thoughts and emotions might cause us to think more about one aspect of an experience than another. Sometimes it takes some effort to become in touch with the multiple feelings and emotions we have about someone or something. It is not always comfortable or pleasant, but it might be more truthful.

This might be especially challenging in a world where people portray themselves technologically and usually emphasize one dimension of themselves, and see others that way. When culture encourages choosing who to date or connect with by means of a simple swipe of the finger, it is hard to buck the trend and notice that we usually have multiple feelings about people, not simply likes or dislikes and yeses or nos.

When the Jews encamped around Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, they are described as doing so with singular mind, like one individual. Chazal describe that as “kish echad b’lev echad” – as one person with one heart. It seems redundant – if they were like one person, weren’t they of unified heart? The Torah might be emphasizing that even one individual may have different thoughts and feelings in his heart. The unique nature of the Jewish encampment around Sinai was that they were so singular of purpose there was no fragmentation whatsoever. But that is the exception that proves the rule. We can often experience many thoughts and feelings, “b’ish echad” – within our own selves. It can be difficult and untidy, and complicated – and honest.

Are You Dating While Still in the Freezer?

Relationship seekers may face difficulties, with lessons for everyone.

Some Yeshivos mandate a moratorium on dating for new students. Students that enroll are not permitted to date for the first several months of the zman (semester). Since a student’s dating ability is suspended until that restriction expires, this is colloquially termed “the freezer.” For students that began studying in the winter zman (semester), “the freezer” opens in the middle of Shevat. Soon, newly dating men and women are going to join their already dating compatriots in facing formidable challenges. These difficulties are encountered by many dating individuals but are compounded by perceived Orthodox sociocultural norms and expectations. The struggles include developing emotional intimacy during the dating process and sharing some of one’s vulnerabilities.

Generally, many dating individuals find it difficult to create an emotional connection with each other during the dating process. In most subcultures within Orthodoxy, this connection is more elusive. Many frum (Orthodox) daters maintain that they are not to socialize with members of the opposite sex unless it is “for tachlis” – for the express purpose of trying to get married. Since the beginning of a dating experience between two people is not yet solidified as a relationship, many daters perceive that a cap still exists on their conversation interaction. This often curbs a person’s ability to share meaningful feelings about himself or his life experiences.The hesitation to have conversations about one’s thoughts and feelings fosters the very feeling that there is no emotional intimacy present between the two daters. One or both of the daters will usually express that he or she is “just not feeling it.” There is ample reason for that. Since few conversations revolve around expressing and exploring each other’s thoughts and feelings, it suggests to the daters that the relationship might not be headed toward marriage. Consequently, they do not give themselves sufficient license to open a discussion about their feelings or thoughts. This stifles the creation or development of emotional intimacy and might make one or both of the daters reluctant to continue dating that person. One might no longer be encumbered by the Yeshiva “freezer,” but proceeds to date with an emotionally cold dating method.

A common way that many try to jumpstart their relationship consists of board games or cards that list questions that one can use to cultivate the desired intimacy. In my post, Emotional Intimacy: It’s Not In the Cards,  I discussed that that approach is often not effective. I then elaborate on ways one can free herself from the emotional freezer.

In addition, many dating individuals are reluctant to discuss anything that might highlight their vulnerabilities, foibles, or mistakes. Part of this hesitancy is not unique to dating. Most of us find it hard for to come to terms with our own shortcomings. We sometimes see them as unique deficiencies that highlight that we are personally inadequate. It might be even harder for us to discuss them with another person. Including them in a dialogue gives life and words to those failings, which makes them more real. But daters face an additional inhibition. Society can create a false notion that the more one is removed from faults the more others will desire him. If he discusses some of those on a date, he sees it as possibly ruining his prospects of that individual acquiescing to continue dating him.

It might be worthwhile for daters – and for all of us – to think more about acknowledging our vulnerabilities and imperfections. Having those is a badge of honor – they are the unique hallmarks of being human. All humans make mistakes, have personality deficiencies, and have faults. Ironically, giving voice to those features about ourselves can be endearing. Most daters – and most people – find that the more human and real a person is, the more they want to know him.

As the dating environment welcomes its newest recruits, it might be significant for all daters to consider how their withholding of discussions of their emotions and thoughts might be inhibiting their ability to date successfully. In addition, it might be helpful for those beginning dating, those that are dating for a while, and everyone, to consider the value and truths of our own shortcomings. They are real, endearing, and very human, allowing us to thaw out in life, and live out of the freezer.

Emotional Intimacy: It’s Not In the Cards

Magicians don’t reveal their secrets, but here’s the secret to relationship magic.

Thirty Six Questions

In an article that went viral last year, Mandy Len Catron described how she found love by using research from a scientific study on developing emotional closeness. The study (Aron, et al., 1997), first published nearly two decades ago, used 36 questions and a period of gazing into each other’s eyes to create a connection between two people. They took turns asking each other a probing question, such as: “Would you like to be famous? In what way?” and “For what in your life do you feel most grateful?” The article that describes how Catron successfully created strong feelings with her friend became one of the most read New York Times articles of the entire 2015, and gave rise to apps, card games, books, and clubs that utilize similar questions.

Similarly, in some Orthodox Jewish circles, it has become popular for women and men to use cards with exploratory questions during their dating process. Toward the beginning of a relationship, daters sometimes try to determine if they are a match for each other by asking questions that address emotional aspects a person. Another way that dating pairs use those questions is if they have been dating already but do not feel that they are developing an emotional connection. They try to jump-start a relationship by using inquisitive questions similar to the ones suggested in the study and printed on cards.

Does It Work?

Most dating couples that use the cards find them to be of little help. Similarly, there are reports of individuals and groups that have tried to use these questions on a large scale, such as in a sizable gathering of potential daters, to no avail. What happened? Were Arthur Aron and his colleagues mistaken? Is the research ancient and no longer applicable?

The answer is a stroke of irony. If you understand how to use the cards, then you don’t need to use them. The cards and questions aim to help people create an emotional connection. An element that leads to creating this connection is for two people to share some of their thoughts about themselves and some of their feelings. If two people are open to sharing in that way, specific cards or questions are not usually necessary.

Not Feeling It

It might be said that facts happen all around us, but feelings are what we live. Facts include the actual experiences that we have, both by ourselves and by interacting with the external world. Feelings are what those experiences mean to us and how we interpret a specific interaction. For example, “the sun is shining” is a fact; “therefore it’s a great day for me to go running” is a feeling. Yet, since feelings involve making your personal meaning out of the facts around you, they can not usually be summarized in a brief sentence.

The key to creating a connected relationship with another person is for each to share both facts and feelings with the other. (In this regard, it is sometimes helpful to separate the term “feeling” from the term “emotion.” Emotions can be understood as mood reactions to the facts and the feelings, “since it is a nice day and I can go running, I will feel happy.”) For example, consider the following two scenarios:

Scenario 1:

Avi: It’s such nice weather.

Shani: Yes. The weather is really beautiful.

Avi: Look, the sun is shining…

Shani: …and there is barely a cloud in the sky.

Avi: It’s such a pleasant temperature.

Shani: Yeah, and it’s not even humid.

 

Scenario 2:

Avi: It’s such nice weather.

Shani: Yes. It is beautiful. What do you like most about this weather? (reaching for a feeling)

Avi: I enjoy the pleasant temperature outside. It makes me feel like swimming. (expressing a feeling)

Shani: Swimming? That sounds interesting. Do you swim often?

Avi: Only in the summer, but I love going swimming when I can.

Shani: Really? Is there a specific place you like to go?

Avi: I usually swim in my neighbor’s house. He is so generous. He always let me use his pool.

Shani: That sounds so nice of him!

Avi: Yes. It’s one of the things I really like about my community. There is a sense of camaraderie and friendship in the whole neighborhood.

Notice how, in this brief example, when Avi and Shira only stay on the plane of facts, there is very little connection. They merely “swap facts.” If the conversation continued, they might both think, the dreaded “Oh well; nice person, but there just wasn’t any chemistry.” On the other hand, when Shani probes for a feeling, and Avi shares some of his feelings, the conversation takes on a whole new dimension. Instead of the conversation remaining about the weather, it becomes a medium to explore a little bit about who Avi is, including a pastime he enjoys and a bit of his opinion on his neighborhood. If the conversation were to continue, Shani would probably discover more about Avi and feel connected to him. A way to summarize this is:

Fact + Feeling = Emotional Connection

The Cards in Your Hand

The cards and questions that dot the dating horizon have a goal of bringing up subjects for a couple to discuss that are going to induce them to expressing some of their feelings. Yet, unless a person is both aware of the importance of expressing feelings, and ready to express them, the cards will do little good. Many people respond to the probing questions their partner asks them from the cards with simple facts, which leaves the couple with the relationship as flat as things were previously. In sharp contrast, if the couple understands the importance of expressing feelings, then specific questions or cards are usually not important. Once they are disposed to exploring and sharing some feelings, many of their conversations will build an emotional connection without needing the cards altogether.Ordinary topics of conversation provide wonderfully fertile ground for each of them to explore and express feelings. Cards or a list of scripted questions might be helpful or beneficial, but only if the daters are both primed to expressing and discovering feelings.

Consider expressing more of your feelings to a person you want to connect with. We experience facts, but live feelings. When you combine both, F+F, you will find your relationships deeper and more rewarding. Emotional intimacy – it’s not in the cards. It’s in the feeling.

 

References

Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R. D., & Bator, R. J. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and some preliminary findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin23(4), 363-377.