The Ability to Say No; or, Setting Divine Limits
By Rabbi Ephraim D. Becker
Issue No. 2
December 1, 1997
A reader writes:
The question on which I would like guidance deals with when we should act
harshly towards others. Clearly there are times when strong action is
needed. The story of King Saul's not killing the Amalek comes to mind. It
is relatively easy to know that we should not act when influenced by great
anger or other strong emotion (though not easy to do). However, the ego is
often subtle as your recent posting indicated. It is when my actions would
directly affect another in an apparently negative way that I am most
hesitant to do anything. And there are times hesitancy is not good, and
adequate time for contemplation not available.
When I feel like taking strong action against another person, how can I
know that my own desires are aligned with the desires of G-d?
Thank you for sharing your excellent question. I'll try to address some of
the underlying issues that relate to your question (rather than serve as an
on-line counselor). First a word of background:
G-d is understood as having performed both the Exodus from Egypt
(representing pure caring and loving-kindness) as well as having given us
His Law (representing the "musts" and "must nots" in our lives). These two
aspects of G-d, we declare daily (in the Shema) as a matter of faith, are
not disparate, but rather are parts of the same One. Strict justice always
appears to be at odds with limitless loving-kindness and there are
religions which had such difficulty with the Torah concept of G-d's Oneness
that they separated a loving god (perhaps calling him a son) from the
strict god (perhaps calling him a father) and then struggled to work out
an amalgam between the two. It should not surprise us, then, that this
unity requires effort to understand and to replicate in our own lives.
It's not easy to say NO (setting limits, abiding by convictions) when that
response would seem to undermine another part of our being, the desire to
satisfy the needs of all of those around us, particularly those about whom
we care greatly. The issues involved in resolving the apparent
1. Clarifying the Mandate. If I don't know what is really obligatory (and
what is prohibited), then I'm probably imposing mandates by whim. Ditto if
I don't know what my true abilities and limitations are. If I do not
continually struggle to know the difference between the statement "I don't
want to" and the statement "I cannot," then I am likely to be imposing my
will based on societally conditioned responses that have little to do with
2. Clarifying the Need. Our understanding of another person's needs is
always approximate. I might go so far as to say that my understanding of
_anything_ pertaining to another person (their meaning, their feelings,
their rationale, their stress) is, at best, approximate. If I stop
expending effort to clarify their need (either because I'm assuming that I
already know it, or because I do not care enough to keep on trying), then I
have lost the connection with that person. My "no" will then be painful
evidence of the emotional break with that person. However, my "yes" isn't
any better in that case, if you think about it, since I've just said "yes"
and hid behind my "goodness" to shield my lack of caring!
3. Empathy. Empathy is the choice to share the feelings of another
person. While granting that I cannot fully know the feelings of the other,
I can strive to share with a certain "blank check" approach, "I wish to
share whatever you are experiencing, even as I may never come to know what
that feeling is." Empathy (the choice to try and share the feelings of the
other) needs to be distinguished from sympathy, which is basically my need
for your stress to go away.
The keys, then, in relating to your question can be summarized as follows:
As I become clearer about my obligations and limitations, and as I grow in
my understanding of your needs, I can elect to, or refrain from, filling
your apparent need without forfeiting my sharing the stress which my "no"
G-d cares, knows the mandate, and shares the stress associated with
upholding that law. We are called upon to replicate, if by successive
approximation, His attributes. I must act in the best way that I can at
the moment I am asked, and then utilize time for reflection to consider the
route I am taking towards imitating the Divine.
What I have written here is necessarily brief as this is not a book, it is
an e-mail posting on a matter which requires much thought. I look forward
to your questions to provide additional clarification.