At our December 3rd Saturday Morning Shabbat service, Rabbi Deena looked to "OG Torah Interpreter" Rashi for inspiration in doing the hard work of interpreting even hurtful actions in good faith.
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Produced by Mishkan Chicago. Music composed, produced, and performed by Kalman Strauss.
A couple weeks ago, a friend of mine and I were just chatting, and she mentioned that she was frustrated with her spouse because when she asked for some of his food, his response was “order your own!” and not “here honey, help yourself”. “I mean, grounds for divorce right there!” she joked.
Thing is, my parents are divorced, and while I fully support them making the choices they need to be happy, divorce is hard and painful for everyone involved. Which is to say, she kind of touched a nerve.
I snapped back at her, saying something like “Divorce is a necessary but difficult last step if you can’t live with someone, he just didn’t want to share his fries!” We got into it a little bit with each other; her parents are also divorced, she got defensive, I doubled down on my attack…
A couple days later, I was talking to another friend, and venting about this conversation. He let me have it out for a few minutes, then said, “What’s the MRI here?”
The what? I asked.
MRI. Most Respectful Interpretation. I assumed my friend was being insensitive, but that was definitely not the MRI, and my response to her, snapping at her and shutting her down, was definitely not the most respectful response. Together, we created a circle of hurt: she needed a moment to vent about her spouse, I felt hurt that she was flippant about something that felt personally sensitive, she felt attacked by my response, and so on.
We do this all the time: we make assumptions about other people, their intentions and actions, without applying the MRI. We think we know them, so we often don’t even realize that there’s another way to see the situation. We can’t help it, our nature as humans is to interpret the world around us based on what we know. The question is, how can we get better at making the MRI our first, or primary, interpretation?
It’s hard, I know that. Even famous commentators have a hard time reading the TORAH with an MRI lens.
This week, we see one of my favorite examples of a commentator who can’t find an MRI. As a reminder, we met Lavan several parshas ago- he is Rebecca’s brother, so Jacob’s uncle. He was there when Eliezer came to Charan accompanied by 10 camels full of jewelry and riches, to bring Rebecca to be Isaac’s wife.
Fast forward a few decades of Torah time to our parsha, Jacob meets Laban’s younger daughter Rachel at the well, and falls immediately in love with her. She runs back home to tell her father who she just met, and, now I’m directly quoting the Torah, “On hearing the news of his sister’s son Jacob, Laban ran to greet him; he embraced him and kissed him, and took him into his house. Jacob told Laban all that had happened, and Laban said to him, “You are truly my bone and flesh.” When Jacob had stayed with Lavan for a month, Laban said to Jacob, “Just because you are a kinsman, should you serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?”
Ok. Let’s pretend we don’t know anything about Laban except what I’ve told you, the things that have already happened. What kind of person do we think Laban is?
Rashi, quoting the midrash, sees it very differently. He looks at this verse, and parses word for word:
וירץ לקראתו Laban RAN TOWARDS Jacob thinking that he was laden with money, because Abraham’s servant had come there with ten camels fully laden.
ויחבק AND EMBRACED HIM — When Lavan saw that Jacob had nothing with him, he thought, “Perhaps he has brought gold coins and they are hidden away in his clothes!”
וינשק לו HE KISSED HIM —feeling nothing, Lavan thought, “Perhaps he has brought precious gems, and they are in his mouth!”
ויספר ללבן At which point, Jacob told Lavan that he had come only because he was forced to do so by his brother, and that all his money had been taken from him.
In Rashi’s very not MRI, Lavan is exclusively motivated by money and power, and Jacob sees him this way as well, telling his uncle his story of fleeing after his uncle has given him a thorough pat down.
Lavan turns out to do some sketchy things, like swapping Rachel for Leah on Jacob’s wedding night, and trying to stop Jacob from leaving many years later when Jacob’s shepherding has enriched Lavan greatly, so it’s not like there’s no Torah basis for thinking Lavan isn’t the most upstanding person ever. But at this point in the Torah, I don’t think we have any reason not to think he was genuinely honored to welcome Jacob!
I look at Rashi’s interpretation of this scene, and I see the consequences of not applying the MRI, even when we have reason to believe someone doesn’t deserve it. What if Jacob had assumed his uncle’s goodwill, and we believed that Lavan was indeed excited to see Jacob, and hear news of his sister? How might Jacob’s life have played out differently if this first encounter had been one of respect?
When we don’t apply the MRI to a situation, we cause breaks in relationships; when we do, we can bring a relationship closer. I have been feeling hurt that my friends didn’t check in with me more about my parents divorce, but I also realize I rarely talk about it, or how it makes me feel. Maybe my friends haven’t been asking me because they didn’t want to pry, or push me on something I wasn’t ready to talk about. How could I expect my friend to know this was a sore subject if I never told her so?
In our conversation, my friend was looking to express some frustration with her spouse, and I pushed her away. If I had been able to respond in the moment with the MRI, I might have been able to see what she needed, and I could have offered her support, as well as let her into some of my feelings.
This is, I believe, an act of Tikkun olam, of repairing the world. Our world is full of brokenness, Jewish tradition imagines, brokenness that dates all the way back to the creation of the world. The traditional Kabbalistic story of the creation account imagines that, in order to make room for the universe, God contracted the divine self. Divine light became contained in special vessels, some of which shattered and scattered. While most of the light returned to its divine source, some light attached itself to the broken shards.
Tikkun olam, repairing the world, begins with repairing relationships, because we are all containers for divine light. Tikkun Olam is fundamentally about recognizing our own brokenness and, instead of reflecting it on others, looking for ways to connect with them through it. This goes for so many of the big ruptures: contention over Israel/Palestine, systemic racism, reproductive care, and so much more. But we don’t need to dive right into the big issues; we can practice jumping to and considering the MRI in our personal relationships: with our family and friends, with our co-workers and the person who cuts you off while driving. These acts are not trivial compared to the big stuff, they are vital to the project of putting the world back together. The more solid relationships we build, the more we believe in our capacity to build solid relationships that can withstand disagreement and frustration. Learning to see others actions as respectful and well-intentioned takes practice, but it’s practice we can all do. It’s not too late to return to a hurtful moment and reconsider it.
I called my friend about a week after our initial conversation, told her that it hurt my feelings to hear her reference divorce in a way that felt flippant, and also told her I was sorry she was frustrated with her spouse. She, in turn, apologized for not considering my feelings before she spoke, and we had a beautiful and deep conversation about how I’m doing, and how she is doing. Because I was prompted to reconsider her actions, our relationship grew deeper, and more resilient. I continue to ask myself “What’s the MRI?” whenever I feel frustrated with someone, and I encourage you to try it too. You never know how you might be repairing the world just by looking at someone with a little more respect.