Pessimism on a Stick

As forewarning, I’m procrastinating on getting to the meat of this post. I took a look-see last night to start mulling over this next mishneh, and let me tell you, it was not pretty.

It was, no matter, on my mind this morning when I went to Shabbat services, which is the perfect place for this brief distraction to begin. There’s two things, really, that I’d like to mention–although with all the old faces I saw and the intriguing conversations I had this morning well into the afternoon, my inspiration for excursions is certainly not at all on the low-end, if you get what I mean.

First off, today marked the ninth anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah Torah portion, Parshat Naso. It’s the longest book of the Bible (I can see why they gave it to me), continuing the counting of the Levites, mentioning the sotah (that is, the unfaithful–or rather, presumed unfaithful–wife), various offerings and retributions, the Nazir (aka, the Nazirite, sworn to God to never drink a single drop of wine or cut their hair), and the offerings for the dedication of the Mishkan, the Holy Tabernacle. Of course, none of this has any bearing on the topic, but as I said, I’m procrastinating.

Anyways, today I read the first aliyah (the Torah reading being broken into seven parts and each being called an aliyah), which was a full column of text. And every time I read this parshah, no matter how much experience in public speaking I’ve had so far, I still get intensely nervous looking at all the words. Even when I know them. There’s just so many and it’s overwhelming. What if I forget a word? What if I pass out before I reach the end?

These, my friends, are sometimes my worst fears.

The second was a little subtler. An eight- or nine-year old was leading the Ashrei, and to my amusement, he was wearing one of the blue-and-green tye-dyed kippot made for my Bar Mitzvah. Amidst the irony, I was greatly amused.

And with all my anecdotes exhausted, I guess it’s finally time to get down to business. It’s not a pretty teaching, though, not at all. But here it is, if you dare.

2.3 Another teaching of Rabban Gamliel:

Be wary of the authorities! They do not befriend anyone unless it serves their own needs. They appear as friend when it is to their advantage, but do not stand by a person in his hour of need.

As I said, it’s pretty ugly. And pretty against everything I stand for. Even when I despise someone, I try to give them the benefit of the doubt–and I try doubly as hard to do so when they’re in a position of authority. As a sign of respect, a show of good leadership, a chance to gain hope in the human race again.

This is quickly becoming a trend for this second book of the Pirkei Avot. No matter how hard I try to make sense of some of these, they just seem to stand against my personal beliefs, beliefs that haven’t been built overnight, but over many months and years of life experience and leadership development. But as I had to do last week, if the teaching’s don’t seem to teach, I simply have to look at it from another perspective.

My first step:

au·thor·i·ty [uh-thawr-i-tee, uh-thor-]
–noun, plural -ties.
1. the power to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues or disputes; jurisdiction; the right to control, command, or determine.
2. a power or right delegated or given; authorization.
3. a person or body of persons in whom authority is vested, as a governmental agency.

The authorities are those who have power over each of us, not in a broad sense, but in a very specific, personal, individual sense. People I might call the authorities are my family and friends and bosses, but others might not care for these people and call their authorities their pets or neighbors. It’s all relative.

But certainly this teaching isn’t saying that anyone we give power to will use it against us, is it? At first it may seem so, but since I adamantly refuse to believe this, let’s read it again. I urge you to scroll up if you have to.

Notice how the teaching specifies “They do not befriend” and “They appear as a friend” not that “You become their friend” or “They become your friend” or even “They are a friend.” It is only a matter of appearance, and not willful on your part, either. THEY come into your life. THEY seem to befriend you. And then THEY betray that friendship.

We all know these kinds of people, and with good reason we’re wary of them.

Sadly, sometimes we let ourselves be taken advantage of. We let others who have made themselves our friends have authority over us when we shouldn’t. We let others use us because we think they’re our friend (certainly because we feel like their friend), but when the shoe’s on the other foot, it does no walking and you’re left limping through your own times of need.

It happens. And it sucks.

I had a good friend once who I met at an even better friend’s Bat Mitzvah. She and I began emailing back and forth, talking about all sorts of things. Once she noticed how quiet and soft-spoken I was and told me I needed to stand up for myself more; I acknowledged her with begrudging agreement, but thought nothing of it. Months later, our friendship was rocky. She seemed to use our friendship only as a means to vent about everything going on in her life, but when I got close to doing the same, she went behind my back and told her other friends how needy I was and how immature I was being.

So I whipped out that advice she’d given me and took that step forward to tell her our friendship was over.

It stung, at first, but when she never even wrote me back, I learned I was better off. But since then, it’s happened again. It’s not something we can foresee, it’s not something we can plan for. But when it happens, we have to deal with it.

Sometimes, however, we can see it coming. There’s those people who are insincere, those people who seem superficially perfect, those who are all too happy to be your one-and-only, but only for a moment. And when we see it coming, we should arm ourselves and be wary, for good reason.

I think, however, that there’s not necessarily any harm in keeping a soft guard up with the rest of the people we meet on a daily basis, those who seem sincere, those who really do seem perfect, those who are happy to be there for us. Because sometimes people are convincing. Because sometimes we see more than is really there. Because sometimes we’re all only human and we make mistakes, and they do, too.

I’m not saying get a background check on your classmate or ask for a urine sample from your new neighbor, but it’s worth being a little more discerning in our day-to-day lives. How does that saying go, take things with a grain of salt? I haven’t a clue what salt has to do with anything, but it’s true: Be a little more discerning, be a little more acute with your innate sense of judging the merits of others, and then if necessary, put your walls up, or when it’s fortunate, let them fall down.

Sometimes we’ll make mistakes. But at least we can learn from them, and if they’re a genuinely good person, we can work things out and become better friends in the end.

But there are far too many people with ill-intents out there that we need to be cautious of, so carrying a spoonful of sugar with us wherever we go is pretty stupid if we forget those few grains of salt to go with it. Be discerning. Be wary. Be careful. Because in this world when we’re so easily overcome by those who can do us harm, there’s no need to make ourselves the victim. So be wary, for good reason.


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