I was teaching a class on the story of Adam and Eve and a woman asked: “Why is it that Gd’s 1st command to Adam and Eve is a negative commandment: “Do not eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge?” Why wasn’t Gd’s 1st command positive?” I thought it was a pretty good question—one I never thought to ask.
When I was growing up, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale published his book, The Power of Positive Thinking. In it he stressed the importance of being positive, and it evidently struck a chord in the minds of millions as it became a classic and the 1st of many books making the same point. It’s true. Having a positive attitude about life can make all the difference in the world.
However, the other side of this is that there’s also a great value to the negative. Think about it. It begins early in life. Much of what we say to our young children is negative: “Don’t touch the fire; don’t cross the street by yourself; don’t run there; don’t interrupt, etc.” In the process of growing up, it’s crucial to learn the things that we must not do before we can learn what we should do.
Of the 10 Commandments in this week’s Torah portion, 7 are negative. Of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah, 365—more than half—are negative: “You shall NOT murder…You shall NOT wrong the stranger…Do NOT follow the majority to do wrong…You shall NOT take a bribe…etc.” In the Talmud, Hillel’s version of the golden rule (Shabbat 31a) is phrased negatively: “That which is hateful to you, you should NOT do to your fellow human being.”
The Sages of the Talmud often put their ethical maxims in the negative: “Do NOT separate yourself from the community… Do NOT judge your neighbor until you are in his place…Do NOT say, ‘When I have time, I will study Torah.’ Maybe you will never have time.”
Perhaps Judaism has more no’s than yes’s because only if we accept the limits and the prohibitions can we build anything positive. Only if we learn how to say “No” to destructive impulses and to the temptations around us can we begin to have a moral and meaningful life.
Shabbat is our most precious institution—the very heart and soul of Judaism. There’s poetry and romance and color in the observance of Shabbos—but it all begins with a “No.” As it states in the 10 Commandments (Ex. 20:8-10) we read this morning: “6 days shall you work…but the 7th day is a Shabbat to Hashem and you shall NOT do any manner of work.” Without the prohibitions, Shabbat dissolves and disappears. The love and the spirit of Shabbos are real and deep. But Shabbos starts with saying, “No”—this and that I can’t do on Shabbos or else it won’t be Shabbos.
It could be that the Jewish people have survived because we were the great “nay-sayers” of history. We’ve said “No” to paganism, “No” to tyrants, “No” to pressures of all kinds. Our heroes are people like Mordechai—whose heroism we will celebrate in a few weeks on Purim—of whom it is written: “All the people bowed to Haman, but Mordecai did NOT bow.” And Mattathias of the Chanukah story who said: “Let others serve the king, but I and my sons will NOT.” American history began with a great resounding “No”—“No taxation without representation.”
Often it’s crucial to learn how to say, “No.” A friend once told me that his little boy talked back to his wife. She told him to stop and the boy said, “No, I don’t want to.”
He then told me he pulled his son aside and asked him, “Listen son—you gotta teach me how to do that!”
A guy took a girl out on her 1st date. When they pulled off the road into a secluded area around midnight, the girl said, “My mother told me to say ‘No’ to everything.”
“Well,” he said, “do you mind if I put my arm around you??
“No,” the girl replied.
“Do you mind if I kiss you?”
“N-n-no,” the girl stammered.
“You know,” he said, “we’re going to have a lot of fun tonight if listen to your mother!”
The ability to say, “No” is one of the supreme tests of human character. Often when teenagers come to me for counseling, very often it boils down to this. They know what’s right, but they lack the strength and the willpower to stand up and say, “No” to their peers. And this is what I tell them: “I know it’s not easy to say ‘No,’ but you must if you want to be free to be yourself and have a sane scale of values.”
In the 1960s, when Jewish freedom riders went down South to demonstrate on behalf of civil rights, they were told in advance they might be attacked. They were told that if they were, there were 3 rules they had to keep in mind—all negative: “DON’T strike back if you’re abused. DON’T answer back if you’re insulted. And remember, above all, NO violence.” These were 3 “Nos” and yet, these “Nos” shook the power structure of America.
The 1st Jew was Abraham, who looked at all the wealth and sophistication of Mesopotamia with its rich culture…and because it was permeated with paganism, because it valued bricks and buildings more than it did human beings…Abraham said “No” and left for another land—a land where he would form a new society that would live a different way.
Abraham was called HaIvri (Hebrew), which comes from the word eyver, meaning “side.” Some say that the name stems from the fact that he came from the other side of the Jordan. But the Midrash tells us it was, “Because all the world was on one side, and he was willing to take his stand on the other side.” We are the children of the 1st great non-conformist, and we’ve carried this title with pride.
Nancy Regan in the 1980s implored us to, “Just say ‘No’ to drugs” as part of the War on Drugs. Today, as we face an opioid crisis of epic proportions, perhaps we need to renew that campaign.
In the wake of the #metoo movement that began with the Harvey Weinstein scandal a few months ago, women are finding the courage—thank Gd—to stand up and say “No” to being harassed and treated inappropriately. In reality it began much earlier with the feminist movement of the 20th century with their wonderful suggested slogan to be used when harassed: “What part of the word ‘No’ is it that you don’t understand?”
American society has become terribly non-judgmental. Everything is a matter of opinion. A teacher brings a rabbit into the class and asks the children, “Is it a boy rabbit or a girl?” The children say, “Let’s vote on it!” They don’t understand that some things are matters of fact, not of opinion.
My dear friend and colleague, Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg, teaches Holocaust studies and tells me something even more disturbing. He says that his students are too sophisticated to take the Holocaust deniers seriously. They know that the Holocaust really happened. But when he refers to it as pure unmitigated evil, they say to him, “That’s only according to your point of view. From the point of view of the Nazis, what they did was not wrong.”
The Polish Parliament this week approved a law that prohibits any reference to Polish involvement in the Holocaust—severely hindering free speech and essentially whitewashing the history of the Holocaust. But history has rightly recorded that the Poles were complicit helpers of the Nazis as they turned in their Jews and enthusiastically supported their extermination. In fact, after the war, when Polish Jews were reduced from 3 million to 300,000, many of the survivors were harassed and killed when they tried to return to their homes. We must say “No” to this gross perversion of History. And to that effect, Israel’s Kenesset has introduced a bill that would make such Holocaust denial a crime. It would also cover the legal costs of anyone accused of violating this Polish law.
The truth we all must face is that some things in this world are right and some things are wrong…some things we must affirm and some things we must condemn and say, “No.”
And so, to answer the lady who asked me why Gd’s 1st command to Adam was a “No,” I would have to say that without the ability to say and to hear a “No,” life as true human beings would not be possible. As we stand with reverence and listen to the reading of the 10 Commandments, let’s understand that as important as it is to emphasize the positive and to be positive…it’s crucial in life as Jews and as human beings to appreciate the times when we must just say, “No!” Amen!