I’d like to talk today about our relationships with our loved ones and the people in our lives, and I’ll start with a quick Hebrew lesson that symbolizes what I want to say.
Let’s take a famous word in perhaps the most famous prayer, the Shema. The word is ve-a-hav-ta; it means “and you shall love.” The vowel under the vav, the first letter in the word ve-ahavta, is called a sheva; it is two dots under the letter, one over the other in a vertical line.
Sometimes, the sheva indicates that you should read ih, as in vih-ahavta.
But the sheva does not always indicate ih; sometimes it is not read at all; it is silent. So there are two dots under the fourth letter in the same word, the vet, but you do not read ve-ahah-ve-ta, you say ve-ahavta.
How do you know whether to read the word ve-a-hav-ta or ve-a-ha-ve-ta?
The easy answer is: You’ve been hearing this word all your life and you just know.
But what if you don’t know?
There are rules that tell us whether to read the sheva out loud or not. For instance, if the sheva is at the beginning of the word as in ve-ahavta, you pronounce it.
There are rules, and if you don’t know the rules, you will make lots of mistakes, and you don’t know how to read.
These two shevas have names.
One is called a Sheva NA – you say the ih out loud.
The other is called a Sheva NACH – it is silent; you do not say the ih at all.
Now let’s turn this grammar lesson into a lesson concerning our relationships.
In life, there are times to be silent, to be a sheva nach. We should be quiet and keep our thoughts to ourselves.
But there are times that we should talk and be a sheva na, times when we absolutely should speak up.
But how do you know? On any given day, we struggle with just this dilemma. We have something to say, we think it would be useful or helpful to say it, but we don’t know whether we should say anything.
It’s like we’re beginning to read Hebrew and every time we see a sheva we have to go through the rules.
How is the sheva pronounced this time?
Do I make a sound, or not?
The command is ve-ahavta, “and you shall love.” But how should I show that love? With my silence or by saying something? What are the rules?
What is my role this time?
Let’s say someone else is driving and you’re riding in the front passenger seat.
If you’re teaching your kid to drive, you should be advising and correcting the driver so that you reach the destination in one piece.
But other times, after your child has become a good driver, you need to just be quiet and let the driver figure it out, or trust the driver to take you where you’re going. Many of us fail to realize this, and furious arguments ensue, which may be more dangerous than anything else. There’s a time to talk and a time to be quiet.
Sometimes, it’s easy to be silent, to be supportive, to smile or applaud or compliment. But other times, you feel the burning need to say something and you cause terrible problems. So I want to think with you today about when we should talk and when we should be quiet.
But first I need to tell you about the immediate reaction I keep getting when I tell people about Sheva Na and Sheva Nach. They very often say: “That’s so helpful. I’m a Sheva Nach, I’m the quiet one,” or “I’m the Sheva Na, I’m the leader.” I’m surprised by this reaction because I would never think this way: I think that we should be quiet sometimes and assertive at other times. Why are people so quick to label themselves? So before I talk about how we talk to each other, I need to say something about this whole idea that we play general roles in life, that we identify ourselves as one kind of person or the other, say, as a Sheva Nach or a Sheva Na.
I understand that very often, life puts you in a role.
You are the Rock.
You are the Glue.
You are always in the middle, the go-between, the Ambassador.
You’re Schlep-along Cassidy, the quiet one who is just happy to be there.
Our families have cast us in different roles, sometimes from childhood on, and we have accepted these roles. But that doesn’t mean we’re always happy about it.
There’s a moment near the beginning of that very touching novel, My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult, where the brother Jesse warns his sister Anna, who is about to tear their family apart:
“Don’t mess with the system, Anna,” he says bitterly. “We’ve all got our scripts down pat. Kate plays the Martyr. I’m the Lost Cause. And you, you’re the peacekeeper.”
And Anna replies,
Anna’s parents had given birth to her in order to provide organs for her very sick sister Kate. And she has been a peaceful, compliant daughter. But now she has come to the point where she wants control over her own body and her own life and she destroys the family’s peace in asserting herself.
That, in very dramatic fashion, is what happens to some of us when we stop playing one role and start playing another. Like Anna, if we mess with the operating system of the family, we’ll break the peace. And that’s what stops us, most of the time. We don’t want to hurt anyone. We don’t want to break the Shalom Bayit, the peace of the family. And yet, we have that right and sometimes we have that need.
A lot of people will talk to me about the roles they play and then say, “But sometimes I can’t be the rock. Sometimes I can’t be the glue. Sometimes it’s just too overwhelming and I need a break from my role. And sometimes I may need to be shaky. Sometimes this “Rock” needs to crumble. Everybody knows me and everybody expects me to act a certain way but sometimes I don’t want to or I just can’t.” Sometimes those of us who are sheva nachs most of the time need to be sheva nas and complain or boorch or yell.
In My Sister’s Keeper, the father notices that his daughter Anna is different at the dinner table and thinks:
This is not Anna. I am used to struggling with Jesse, to lightening Kate’s load; but Anna is our family’s constant. Anna comes in with a smile. … Anna gives us a backbeat, and seeing her sitting there unresponsive makes me realize that silence has a sound.
Anna doesn’t want to play the expected role any more. And she’s right, for we cannot expect a person to play a role every minute of their lifetime.
Sometimes those of us who are supposed to be the cheerleaders and the entertainment and the up people need to be sheva nachs and sit on the side and watch.
Sometimes the system needs some messing up and those who are sheva nachs should assert themselves..
The point is that we all have to be sensitive to the changing needs of the people we care about and stop casting them in these simple-minded roles, as if they’re cardboard cut-outs. People are becoming.
And then there’s this thing called reality, which can change everything. The sheva nach connects its letter to the letter preceding it. So again take the word ve-ahahv-ta. There is a sheva nach under the vet, the fourth letter of the word ve-a-hahv-ta, and so that letter vet is connected back to the third letter hay to make the syllable hahv. When one is a quiet partner, one is part of a unit, a couple. The Hay, the hah in ve-ahahv-ta, is reaching for the vet and without it, is not what it is supposed to be.
But what if life has put you in a place where you are not part of a syllable, where that hay or that resh is nowhere to be found, and you are left to stand-alone? You were the sheva nach, quietly part of a unit, or you were the sheva na who had another letter to complete you, and now the other part is gone and you don’t know how to make a sound. God says “and you shall love” but you no longer know how. You’re lost in space and time, wandering around the piece of paper without a purpose.
And since, at one point or another, one way or another, this will happen to every single one of us, you must prepare for it. You must at least sometimes pronounce your vowel; assert your self. Even those of us who prefer to be sheva nachs must prepare for the day when we will have to be sheva nas and stand-alone.
Your role in life must and will change; you should not define yourself and you should not let yourself be defined by others. The Sheva can be either Na or Nach. We are Shevas, and our roles can and should change.
Now I can come back to the specific situations of our lives. We need to balance our right to be ourselves against the feelings of others.
And we have to struggle it through every time.
Should I say something? Should I be a Sheva Na?
Or should I just keep quiet, and be a Sheva Nach?
Let me give you one set of examples. Every parent of a teenage or adult child struggles with what to say and what not to say. We have opinions or questions about everything because we care so much about our children. Every day, we walk on eggshells, we watch every word we say; we wear beige. And we feel limited. We feel this way because we’re made to feel this way.
Here’s a story on me. So I was a poor young rabbinical student and I took my father out to dinner and laid out my financial plan for the coming year. I was going to have a part-time job that would make this much and I had a scholarship for that much and I needed $20,000 from my father to cover everything else. He agreed to give me $20,000. But when he started to make a suggestion about how I could save some money, I said, and I quote,
“Daddy, that’s none of your business. You don’t really get an opinion about that.”
And he looked at me with one of those looks and he leaned across the table and said, “Oh yes. I have 20,000 opinions.”
If I had done it right, I would have paused earlier in the conversation and said, “Daddy, what do you think? Do you have any thoughts about any of this?”
And then he would have stated his opinion, and I would have ignored his advice, and we would have been just fine.
You see, now that I’m older and on the other side of that table, I know that parents of grown-up children are supposed to play two roles:
Role #1: Parents should be Sheva Nachs, the silent partners who support every decision no matter what, allowing the children to be the vowels of their own lives; and
Role #2. Parents must constitute The National Bank of Mom and Dad.
It’s so hard to be a parent and understand how your role has changed. You go though the transition from being a Sheva Na in your children’s lives to a Sheva Nach who’s not allowed to say anything.
You go from carrying your child down the field on your back to being a spectator on the sidelines with the Gatorade and towels.
But it’s not a total transition, because the National Bank of Mom and Dad never closes, and serves as a constant stimulus package.
Still, to paraphrase my father in current vocabulary: If the government gives 50 billion dollars to a corporation, doesn’t it have the right to say that executives should not get huge bonuses and mega-vacations in Tahiti?
If NBMD, the National Bank of Mom and Dad, is supporting an adult child, doesn’t it have the right to say something about how the money is spent, especially if it’s being wasted?
I had the nerve to say to my father, “Be the National Bank and then be a sheva nach.”
And my father, a little testily but only in response to the way I was acting, said, “Sorry, buddy, but I have the right to talk, not to decide, but to offer an opinion.”
Just to point out that there’s another side, here’s a different story. Just for the record, this story does not involve anyone here and it’s not even about a Jewish family.
A daughter has gone through a rough divorce, has been left with very little; she needs to start over in a positive way. She has wealthy parents who live in a huge house in a fancy neighborhood and are only too ready to help their daughter through this terrible time. The daughter finds a house that is charming, in move-in condition, doesn’t need work, nice neighborhood, in a tranquil place near the water where she can find herself again. Mother comes to see the house and immediately says, “Nothing doing, I veto this, I won’t put a penny towards this house. You deserve more than this.” Daughter says, “Mom, this is perfect for me right now.” Mother says, “Not a dime.” Daughter is devastated.
Where was the mother coming from? She wanted her daughter to have the best, which, translated, meant a fancy house in a fancy neighborhood. She wasn’t thinking about her daughter.
That’s not even Sheva na; that’s just wrong.
Parenthood or age or money does not give one the right to dictate and command. But it should buy you a conversation. I think it buys a right to be on the committee, a place at the table.
Once you’re at the table, the question is how you’re going to offer your opinion. I hear stories about family problems every day, and I find that many of the issues come from remarks that were made in the wrong way. It’s not what was said; it was how and when it was said. And we say, so innocently, “But I was just trying to help!” And we were. But one of the lessons I’ve learned is that people want to be helped the way they want to be helped, when they’ve asked for the help, and not necessarily in the way you want to help them.
You can try to do something constructive, but if you do it in the wrong way at the wrong time and place, it will be destructive. It’s all in the approach.
So I’m a young rabbi and it’s my first Annual report. In previous years, before I had come here, there had been some measure of controversy at some meetings, but things had now become quiet. And so very few people even show up to this Annual meeting because things are okay. In my speech, I try to say that I gather from the small attendance at the meeting that things must be okay. But the way it comes out of my mouth is this: “You see, there are no arguments, and nobody’s here.”
There’s a past president named Eli Solcoff, and he asks to see me the next day. And he tells me, when he comes to see me in my office, that he’s not happy. He had come to the meeting, and I had said that no one was there. He didn’t like being called nobody. He knew what I meant, so I didn’t need to explain, but I did apologize, and I promised never to say something like this again. He was right: If you’re one of the people who does show up, controversy or not, you shouldn’t be made to feel like you don’t count. I should have been thanking the people who were there, not focusing on who wasn’t there. I learned a lesson that day that I’ve tried to live by.
But the big lesson I learned that day was from the way Eli talked to me. He waited till the next day, after he had cooled off. He did it in the privacy of my office. He didn’t stand up at the meeting and let me have it publicly. If he would have done it at the meeting, I would have gotten my back up and defended myself, and it would have been bad all around, and Eli and I might have had a problem from then on. He was not a Sheva Nach; he made a point out loud, but he did it privately, quietly and respectfully. And Eli and I have been close all these years. I learned something because of the way he taught me. I accepted the guidance because of the way he guided me.
So Eli was in the role of parent and I was in the role of child and I got it. You can say something that is Sheva Na but do it in a Sheva Nach manner.
I am not just speaking about the way parents speak to children. I am talking about every kind of relationship we have.
On my good days, I try a method that’s been working pretty well. On big issues, I never just say anything. You know how in the military a soldier will ask his officer, “Permission to speak freely, sir?”
So on the big things, I ask permission to speak freely. The answer might be: “Go ahead.” Or it might be: “Not just now.” I’m showing respect, asking for the right to an opinion. It sets a tone of not pushing, of respect, of saying, “Look this is your decision, but can I kibbitz?” It is bending backwards to keep the conversation civil and ultimately, very practically, I think helps me accomplish more in the conversation.
It’s being sheva na in a sheva nach manner.
Freedom of speech means that you can say anything you want. But it doesn’t mean that you should say anything you want. I hear America screaming based on misinformation and little to no information. There’s Freedom of Speech but there also must be Fairness of Speech based on the truth and the facts and not some rumor you read on the Internet.
In our personal lives, we have that same bad habit, of talking without asking first, of assuming that we know what’s going on when we don’t. We have to be fair and wait to find out where a person’s coming from before we jump. We have to practice fairness of speech.
Just as there are rules in Hebrew grammar, and you can figure out how to read every letter if you know the rules, you can approach each situation in your life if you think about when to talk and when not to talk and how to talk when you do say something.
I have spoken today, on this holy day, in very simple terms, about one of the most basic things in our lives, the way we talk to each other, because I know that when it comes down to it, the way we talk to each other is what we call a relationship, and relationships rise and fall and get close and break up because of the way we talk to each other.
So think about it. Think about the roles you play and how you feel about those roles. You have the right and the need to be different things at different times.
Think again about the word ve-ahavta, “and you shall love.” There are two shevas in that one word. A sheva, a person, can be either nach or na; we alternate depending on the situation just as the sheva alternates depending on the word and its place in the word.
Think about when to be a sheva na and when to be a sheva nach.
It’s not just what you say when you express your love; it’s how you pronounce it.
Because in the end, you will be remembered by the way you expressed the words that made up your life.