I love being a rabbi. There is honestly nothing else that better suits who I am, where I stand, and complements my skills and talents. I love the ebbs and flows of the Jewish calendar, how each loss and simcha is an opportunity to support people in need. In truth, being a rabbi is my calling. And yet, one aspect of the job that is often most challenging is that I know that all eyes are on me (and, by default, my family).
Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem speaking in front of large crowds. I like it. I have no problem schmoozing at kiddush — give me a cup of decaf and I am good-to-go for hours. But I do know that whether I have news to share or not, people inevitably find out about my life. I just need to tell one person.
Ask any rabbi what it means to be “caught” wearing jeans in public — or worse yet — a bathing suit! Ask any rabbi what it means to painstakingly write a sermon so carefully because we are not sure how this-person or that-person will react to our stance on an issue. I can’t help, as a rabbi and as human, to just wonder what others are thinking.
But I know I’m not alone. We all go through this. In a world where many post the best images of their lives on Facebook and the like, we always want to show others our best self. We dress for others and laugh for others. And let’s face it, we compare ourselves to others. We sometimes even think we know what others think of us.
In parashat Sh’lach L’cha, we read the story about how twelve scouts were sent to the land of Canaan to see “what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not?” (Numbers 13:18-20). Suffice it to say that these scouts had a lot of responsibility on their hands. And just what did they say in their report when they went back to Moses, Aaron, and the Israelite people?
“We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we…All the people that we saw in it are men of great size…we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:31-33).
There are two parts of this report that I find interesting. First, let us take note of the lack of confidence declared by the scouts and how they judged themselves (in this case, their size) in relationship to the Canaanites, who they perceived as bigger. What prevented the scouts from being confident with who they were? What prevented them from being hopeful and faithful that all would be okay?
Second, as if calling themselves “grasshoppers” was not enough, the scouts then ascribed the feelings of others towards them, claiming that just as they looked like grasshoppers to themselves, they must have also looked like grasshoppers to others. It’s funny how we never hear the voice of the Canaanites, but apparently we understand what they were thinking.
In our own lives, I wonder to what extent working on these two aspects of our lives could lead us to greater happiness.
First, can we rid ourselves of the burden of letting others’ opinions affect us? Instead of dressing, talking, working for others, how about we just do it for ourselves or the greater good of humanity? Instead of worrying or wondering how our decisions will be perceived by others, let us focus instead on how our actions can bring about good in the world. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk said it best by writing what God’s response to the scouts must have been:
“Why are you so concerned about how you look in the eyes of the Canaanites, to the point that it distracts you from your sacred task?”
Second, much like the scouts, we often think we can predict what others think about us. Or, we ascribe a reason why someone did something in general. Sometimes we do this because we are insecure. Other times it’s because we don’t give someone the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps we think they are out to get us — even if they are not. We allow our curiosity to ascribe intent to others that is not even there because we take things personally. This leads us to utter unhappiness.
I invite you to join me in allowing the story of the scouts to be a lesson in how we relate to others. So maybe soon I’ll do something out of character “for a rabbi” because it’s part of who I truly am. And maybe I’ll ponder this: As much as I know that others have certain expectations of me as a rabbi, if I allow those expectations to completely dictate for which issues I stand or what I choose to do with my time, then I would be ignoring the sacred task for which I am called.
Let us muster up the confidence to appreciate the unique soul that each of us is.
Let us not take things personally or worry about others’ thoughts of us.
Let us unabashedly be our true self in pursuit of goodness in the world.
By changing our mentality, by not ascribing intentions to others, by adjusting our expectations, we have the ability to bring about a world for ourselves that is a bit happier. I am the only person who can do that for myself. And so are you. But it all starts with an acceptance that we, too, are ready to change from within.