One of the best pieces of advice I ever received at a leadership seminar was to stop using the word “but.” How often do we hear (or say) “I like your idea, but….” or “You are absolutely correct, but….” Such language conveys that we really disagree with the other’s opinion or at least believe we have a superior perspective.
In place of “but,” the presenter suggested the language of “and.” For example, “Regular attendance at our temple’s religious school is the foundation of a strong Jewish identity, and parents today place a great value on sports.” Or, “I know you want to go to the movies with your school friends and your grandparents are also expecting us for dinner.” By taking out the “but,” we move away from a culture of judgment or blame to a conversation of investigating possibilities. We respect the view of others and invite continued dialogue. In the examples above, we acknowledge parents trying to provide both Jewish and athletic experiences for their children, not as valuing one over the other. Talking to our teens about their social life, we avoid accusing them of choosing friends over family. The language itself allows both halves of the sentence to be embraced and calls for creative solutions in an ongoing conversation.
In this week’s parasha of Shelach L’cha, the majority of leaders sent to scout out the land of Canaan return and report in Bemidbar 13:27 that it is flowing with milk and honey. They go on in v. 28 to state that the cities are fortified and the inhabitants are powerful. These are facts. How they communicate the facts makes all the difference, for they add one simple phrase in the middle – efes ki. This little connector translates as “however” or “but.” The Hebrew word efes – used in modern Hebrew as the number zero – has a sense of canceling or zeroing out what came before. That is just what the scouts were intending – to dissuade the Israelites from entering the land. They succeed in sowing panic among the people and in the end our ancestors spent forty years in the wilderness waiting for a more courageous and confident generation to grow up.
Our American Jewish community faces many challenges and we live in a time of amazing creativity. Too often we hear the rhetoric of “efes” that enlarges our fears and plays into our feelings of helplessness about the future. There are those who count the obstacles instead of imagining opportunities.
This past week, the Union for Reform Judaism’s Board of Trustees officially elected Rabbi Richard Jacobs as its next president, to take office in 2012. I have known Rabbi Jacobs for many years. He is a man of faith and scholarship. He is well respected for his ability to encourage creative thinking, explore options, balance multiple perspectives, and articulate an inspiring vision rooted in the highest values of Torah and Judaism.
This is good for Reform Judaism and the entire Jewish world. In every generation we stand, as did the Israelites in this week’s parasha, poised to enter another stage of Jewish life. We must have the courage to move into the unknown without fear. Our Jewish leaders – from all walks of Jewish life – assist us when they paint us a picture of a Judaism flowing with milk and honey along with the obstacles we must overcome. In my rabbinate here in Bergen County at Temple Beth El of Northern Valley, I hope that in my best moments I have been such a leader. I am grateful to all those who have been examples of this style of leadership, especially my amazing colleagues of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis and the passionate staff of the Synagogue Leadership Initiative of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. As I move on to Jersey City in a few weeks, my wish for all of us is that we hear God’s voice calling us to cultivate a permanent optimism about the future of Judaism and the Jewish people. Keyn y’hi ratzon. May it be so.