Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz – Frame of Mind


Operation Inspiration

We often say that someone isn’t in the right frame of mind for something. For example, Chazal tell us not to try to calm someone down in the heat of their anger. Not only won’t it work, you’re likely going to make things worse. They may get angrier because they feel you’re not validating their feelings.

Sometimes people are afraid and that causes issues. I recall a story of a little boy who climbed out of a window onto a ledge. Actually, I recall two stories like this. One boy had a towel around his neck like a superhero’s cape and thought he could fly, while the other one merely thought it was a cool place to sit. Either way, in both cases, the parent calmly called the child to come inside. Had they yelled, the child might have gotten frightened and fallen chas v’shalom. That peaceful speech was the difference between the child coming back in safely and a possible tragedy. (No word on how calmly the parent spoke once the child was back INSIDE the house!)

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The idea behind this is that when a person is in a situation, their mind tends to see things according to the situation. If they’re angry, everything upsets them. If they’re afraid, such as when the parent yells in fright, they might see the situation as frightening and do something foolish.

Our frame of mind tends to become our frame of reference. We see things not as they are, but as we are. As the saying goes, “When all you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail.” If your only tool is a hammer, everything you meet is going to get pounded. But not always is the frame of reference correct.

Some years ago, I wrote about a former subscriber to my weekly Parsha Sheet (to subscribe e-mail info@JewishSpeechWriter.com and put Subscribe MO in the subject) who was a Jewish American soldier killed in Baghdad. When the e-mail bounced back I had a sickening feeling and when I researched I found that Maj. Stuart Wolfer had been the victim of indirect fire and died on April 6, 2008.

A few years after his death, I encountered his name on an ATM in an advertisement for a program that remembered fallen soldiers. There’s more to the story but suffice it to say that I found a remarkable Torah insight in the circumstances of his tragic death and the seemingly out-of-context reminder.

Shortly after speaking to his mother and relating the incident, I was driving and noticed that the license plate frame (hence the title of this article) on the car in front of me had a five-pointed star on it. What are the odds of speaking to this woman and then seeing a car with a U.S. Army star on it? Maybe she was also a soldier’s mother! I followed the car until I reached a red light at which point I was able to see that the star simply referred to the leasing company which had some star-related name. I was disappointed but I learned a lesson.

The reason I saw an Army Star was because my brain was focused on that reality. It was so clear to me that it was an Army star because that’s what fit into my frame of mind. It reminded me of a short story I’d read called “The Cross of Lorraine.” The Cross of Lorraine is a vertical line with two horizontal lines crossing the upper half, one of them being smaller than the other. It was used on coats of arms in the Middle Ages, and in the 20th century became the symbol of Free France, meaning not under the Nazi regime.

In the story, a young French boy is trying to offer a landmark for where he had been taken and says that they stopped at the sign of “The Cross of Lorraine.” The people he was speaking to searched the entire road he’d been on but could not find one. Finally, someone suggested that the boy had not seen an actual Cross of Lorraine, but something of similar shape which he associated with his home country as his only frame of reference: the stylized logo of Exxon gas.

When we look at things, we should realize that we’re not fully objective. We see things through the lens of what we’ve experienced and come to expect, but not necessarily what they really are. When a fellow in shul with a pink-striped shirt paused to join a discussion about a difficult Ramban, someone said, “I can’t figure you out!” It seemed incongruous to him that a fellow who didn’t look like a Yeshiva guy could be studying Torah. But it was only his own reality.

When someone does something extremely nice for someone else and we wonder what their ulterior motive is, we’re putting that act in our own somewhat cynical frame of reference and we may block out some important pieces of the puzzle. So often we’re sure we know what we’re looking at but we’re wrong because our outlook is skewed by our biases.

What I learned that day is to be ready to accept that things may not be as they seem; to be aware that my vision is not complete. It also taught me that if I aim to see good in people and things, that’s what I’ll find. If I look for Hashem, then I’ll see the yad Hashem much more often.

So let’s try to ensure that we’re framing everything in life in the most positive way and then we’ll be able to get the whole picture, and enjoy the view a lot more.

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