What will people think?!
Why do we do what we do? Why do we dress the way we do, speak the way we do, send our children to enrichment activities the way we do, and agree with people we disagree with the way we do? What do people think about what we do?
I think about this all the time — as a reformed people pleaser (See Article)- I know very well the pain of acting for the sake of the acceptance of others. I spent many years untangling the webs of wounds that created these needs — what in me was not being met by my own existence? It was — has been — a painful and beautiful process of unraveling, and also of fortifying — I now know that my actions need to both consider me, the other, and the world together to fully be in contribution. I spend my days surrounded virtually or physically by all sorts of people, with varying motivations behind our shared gathering space, and I can’t help but wonder — why are you here today instead of somewhere else? What has connected you to this space? What do you want to get out of it? Do you care what we think about you?
I have come across a term in my learning that continuously gives me pause. It occurs often in Talmudic conversations about the proper following of laws, and observance of rituals. It is the Aramaic term “…דמיחזי ”, which translates to “it might look like…”. A quick Sefaria search of it reveals no less than 2,366 sources that feature it. In the Talmud, when this term appears, we are looking at a Rabbinic concern that someone may do something that doesn’t look right according to Jewish Law — even if they are. For example — returning a pot to the stove on Shabbat might look like cooking, even if the food is fully cooked. This is an issue because cooking is a prohibited action on Shabbat.
Might look like to whom? Who is it that is watching over us while we act in our private homes? One might think that we are acting in this way so that our intentions continue to be sacred in the eyes of G-d. In reality, there isn’t much discussion around this, more so about the societally and culturally appropriate way in which we are required to act. I find this fascinating — so many thousands of years ago, in the structural formation of society, people were still worried about what others might think of them.
It’s wild. Why do women wear makeup? Why do we do all types of things to our hair so that it will be straight, or curly, or never age? I often wonder if it is for our own sake, or for the sake of our self esteem, as reflected to us by others. As my peer group now is mostly women in their 30s and 40s, I see this conversation happening in real time, in peoples’ minds as they compliment each other, and as we size each other up — ally or someone I need to watch out for? friend or not? influencer or dissenter? It’s very real.
I have thought about this so much that I created an entire lesson around it for my middle school classes — keva vs. kavannah — action vs intention — which one matters more? Do we need both? Can we actually have one fully without the other? In this particular lesson, we focus on the practice of Tefilah — prayer. For students who attend faith-based schools, prayer is a part of their day. They learn it from the very youngest ages, gradually making their way through the prayer books, learning songs, ways to express gratitude and praise, and eventually leading up to a full prayer service once — and then twice per day. I came in to the world of prayer and observance late, not having had the fortune that my children have of going to a faith-based school that teaches love of heritage, identity, and belief with such vigor that it is infectious. I came into the world of teaching prayer having barely skimmed the surface — so for the first few years, my students and I were exploring this question together. Middle schoolers especially are in a time of flux, where they might still be acting in ways that are reminiscent of the rules of childhood, but their minds may be shaping them in ways that feel more adult.
Prayer becomes the container in which these big questions are filtered to -why do I need it? Who is even listening? I am BORED! And yet, when they are shown the subtle ways in which they are in conversation — with the above and beyond, with themselves, with each other — somehow, that kavannah- that intention begins to form.
Action or intention? What matters more — that we are doing the daily prayers when we are supposed to be doing them, following the plan, or that we are finding ways of connecting to the words, the praise, and the gratitude? This lesson continues to evolve with the students that come across it, and I continue to evolve with it. In a sense, we are all evolving with this question every day — is it enough for me to act in ways that others would consider “good”, or do I actually need to have the intention of goodness behind my actions?
Some of us might say — obviously it means more if you are actually intending to be a good person, but others might say — the actions are enough. There is also the very real reality of people who are unable to connect with emotional intention behind action, and have learned to repeat actions that are considered socially acceptable. There are a variety of reasons for why this might be a reality for people: different ways of processing, past trauma, cultural differences, and so on. There are people, right now, in your world, who are doing all the right things, but don’t know why they are doing them. Unless you inquire about it, you will never know who they are. There are also people who turn to the intention of creating good in the world as a salve for their own wounds, and hope might be a salve for the wounds of the world.
Can we have action without intention — and what does it count for? This is a big question in Jewish law, especially when it concerns the observance of holy days and commandments. If we do something that inadvertently breaks a law, and we did not intend to do it, are we as liable as we would be if we intended to do it? If my child breaks a plate because it dropped on the ground, is it the same as if my child breaks a plate because they threw it on the ground? Most of us would say — no, it isn’t — the first instance is accidental, and the second is malicious. Some of us, however, might say that this doesn’t matter — that in both cases, the action was destructive and should be punished.
Is it enough to “just show up?” or do you need to make yourself useful in some way? If we all fly to the Polish border tomorrow to help the refugees, are we helping, or are we straining an already crumbling infrastructure? If we give money, send food, book an AirBnB in Ukraine so that citizens get funds directly — but we don’t post about it — does it still count as showing up?
YES! you will say — as you look around to see if others agree.
I invite us all to examine why we do what we do — how we interact with others, and whether we can find a spirit of generosity towards the people in our lives. There are people around us who are going through the motions, doing the right things, saying the right words, praying correctly — but still searching for how they connect. Next time you are in a room — physically or virtually — with other adults, look around — no really, look around — see the ways in which people are growing in each moment towards deep, meaningful, connected intention.
When I see you, I am seen.