April 11, 2013
When Saying Nothing is Worse Than Saying “No!”
I try and return every phone call and email that comes to me within 24 hours. Sometimes it takes a bit longer if my schedule is tight or I have not checked messages. Sometimes, I confess, I deliberately do not return a call or email when I suspect that the incoming message is so nasty that to engage the sender would be pointless and toxic to my well-being. I receive such objectionable messages from time to time, usually in response to public positions I take in my writings. Other than these, I believe that each phone call, email and letter deserves a personal response as soon as I am able to do so.
It astonishes me that so frequently the individual is surprised that I call back so quickly, or even at all. Though most people I know do as I do, there are lots who clearly do not, and this is why I am writing today.
If you know people who habitually and/or selectively ignore calls and emails, please feel free to send them this blog, as it is meant for them.
I was taught from early childhood that when someone calls, you return the call. When someone gives you a gift, you write a thank you note. When someone does something nice for you, you express gratitude. This is simple derech eretz (lit. “the way of the land,” a Hebrew expression connoting common courtesy and mentchlechkite).
I believe that not to answer someone’s email, phone call or letter is rude, insulting and unacceptable, even when I am certain that something will be asked of me (e.g. to accept an invitation, to do someone a favor, to give to a charity or good cause, or to arrange a time to talk or meet). I also believe that saying “No” respectfully is always better than saying nothing at all.
There is an ethical principle involved. Judaism holds that if, for example, a beggar says hello and we ignore him we bear the guilt of inflicting upon him shame (bushah). It may be that the beggar offered us the only thing he has to give – a greeting. To deliberately ignore him is, in effect, an insult because such silence denies his dignity (kavod) and diminishes him as a fellow human being.
A story is told of the Chassidic sage Rabbi Meshulam Zusha of Hanipol (1718–1800) that one night he was staying at an inn. A wealthy guest mistook him for a beggar and treated him disrespectfully. The guest later learned about Zusha’s true identity and asked Zusha for forgiveness.
Zusha said, “Why do you ask me to forgive you? You haven’t done anything to Zusha. You didn’t insult Zusha. You insulted a poor beggar. I suggest you go out and ask beggars everywhere to forgive you.”
Zusha’s story raises the issue of how we should properly treat people we perceive as being “other” than ourselves (i.e. the stranger, or someone of a different socio-economic station, nationality, ethnicity, race, or religion).
It is possible to learn much about a person’s character based solely on the way he or she treats someone who is different. Is such a person’s behavior respectful and kind, open-hearted and generous, or is he/she dismissive, rude, condescending, and withholding?
The Baal Shem Tov taught his disciples to imagine that inscribed on the forehead of every man, woman and child is the sign of the image in which God creates the human being – B’tzelem Elohim (lit. “In the Divine image”).
In practical terms, seeing the divine image in“others” means at the very least acknowledging their presence, and returning phone calls and emails promptly regardless of what we imagine to be the reason for the communication. Again, my only exception is when I know that the caller will be abusive and disrespectful.
Not responding is common particularly in Washington, D.C. and Hollywood, places where power and politics define many relationships, and what you do is more important than who you are. It seems to me that this bad habit has become increasingly more common over the years.
Going forward, those of us who are guilty of this kind of behavior might change it, and that all of us should be teaching our children, grandchildren, and students by example that when we receive a communication from another person, the decent thing to do is answer it, even if our answer is respectfully “No!”