Like the last several Torah portions, Ki Tetzei is comprised entirely of mitzvot, commandments. Most of these mitzvot are bein adam l’adam. They address our relationships with each other: relations between husbands and wives, children and parents, brothers and sisters, neighbors, customers, proprietors, friends in our communities, and those whom we don’t so much care for, the poor among us, citizens, as well as resident aliens. Several mitzvot address compassionate treatment of animals.
We live interconnected lives, supporting and depending on vast networks of people on a daily basis. The Torah teaches us that how we conduct these relationships is of ultimate importance.
Being Jewish is not limited to a set of cultural practices and rituals. Just as important is our system of mitzvot, which is undergirded by an ethical system that treasures the inherit worth and equality of every human being, as well as the accountability that each of us bear for our decisions and actions.
It is just over two weeks until Rosh Hashanah. We are halfway through the month of Elul, which means that we should be taking stock of our lives, conducting a cheshbon nefesh, a self-examination. A big part of that self-examination should focus on our relationships with each other.
The mitzvot in the Torah portion deal primarily with specific events that occur between people, including dealing with misbehaving children, divorce, using honest weights in business dealings, fulfilling vows, and so on. When we take a step back, we see that each individual interaction that we have with one another is a manifestation of our overall relationship.
According to family systems theory, as described in the book Generation to Generation by Edwin Friedman, relationships exist under a condition of homeostasis. There is a balance between us, with each of us playing a set role. It might not be a healthy balance, by the way.
Homeostatic relationship systems don’t like to change, but they are dynamic. If one person in the relationship draws near, the other is likely to pull away, often unconsciously, in order to maintain the balance of the relationship system.
This is the time of year, however, when we have the opportunity to take a good, and hopefully honest look at ourselves and ask how we can be better. We examine our relationships with the people in our lives: husbands, wives, partners, children and parents, siblings, friends, and coworkers.
But because our fundamental relationships are homeostatic, it is really hard to make a difference.
Let’s think about the following single aspect of our relationship with one person who we care about. Consider how we speak to that person – specifically, how often we say something positive compared to how often we say something negative.
What is the ratio? Let’s be honest. One to one? One compliment for every criticism. Three to one? Ten to one? Or maybe it’s something like one positive statement for every three negative statements.
It might be difficult to estimate for ourselves, but we have got two weeks before Rosh Hashanah to gather some data. That should be enough time.
A 2004 study looked at a group of sixty leadership teams at a large information-processing company. It was trying to determine which factor made the biggest impact between the most and least successful teams. The conclusion was that the ratio of positive comments to negative comments within members of the team was the greatest determining factor in their success. They divided the teams into three groups. The average ratio of the highest performing teams was 5.6 – that is, nearly six positive comments for every negative comment. The ratio of the middle group was 1.9 – about two to one. And the ratio of the lowest performing teams was 0.36. In other words, team members criticized each other almost three times as often as they praised one another.
This should not be surprising to us. Most people tend to dwell on the negative rather than the positive. Receive a performance review with ten positive statements and one critique, and the only one we pay any attention to is the negative comment.
This is not only true in the workplace. The number one determinant in predicting the likelihood of a married couple getting divorced is the ratio of positive to negative comments that the partners make to one another. The ideal ratio? Five to one. For marriages that end in divorce, the ratio is .77 to one – about three positive comments to every four negative ones.
I suspect that the language we use with one another is more likely an indication of the state of a relationship rather than its cause. But, I also believe that conscious adjustments to how we speak with one another can have a beneficial impact on the underlying health of a family, a marriage, or a friendship.
Make the effort to be more positive, even when it does not feel natural, or does not come easy to us. In the moment, it will certainly make a difference for the other person, and probably also for ourselves. Over time, it can also change the relationship itself.
Let me offer a few examples. It does not have to be complicated: Start with household chores:
• Thanks for setting the table, doing the dishes, taking out the trash, and so on.
• Thanks so much for working hard to provide for our family. It must be stressful to carry that burden.
• Wow. The house was so clean when I came home today. It was nice to walk in the door to that.
• You really kept your cool when our daughter had her shouting tantrum. I could not have remained so level-headed. I’m glad you were there.
• Good job for going to the gym today.
• This morning, you worked hard to get everything done so that you could be out the door on time. It helped make things really calm in the house, and helped me start off my day on a good note.
Even the superficial things matter.
• I like your shirt.
• Those pants look nice on you.
This might seem obvious, but I wonder if we take advantage of every opportunity to say something nice to the people in our lives.
After all, there is a lot that holds us back. Anger, for one. When we are mad at someone, the last thing we want to do is compliment them for doing something nice. We want to punish them.
We also take each other for granted. We do not always recognize the stress that another person is experiencing. We often fail to notice the effort our family member has made to vacuum the house, make dinner, or take the kids to school.
But it is those small statements we make that communicate “I care about you. I am happy that you are in my life.” It feels good to receive them, and it feels good to make them.
That is my challenge to us for the next two weeks. Pick one person in your life. Count the number of positive statements you say to that person and compare it to the number of negative comments. Calculate the ratio. And then find more opportunities to give that ratio a bump upwards.