Rabbi Monique Mayer – 02 August 2019
“Open the space between the match and the fuse”.
This helpful phrase I learned from my teacher, Alan Morinis, who in turned learned it from his teacher, Rabbi Yechiel Yitzhak Perr. Rabbi Perr was a master of the Jewish ethical practice of Mussar, and the phrase is often used in the context of practising the quality of patience, enabling one to avert anger and its consequences. What does “opening the space” look like? As we feel ourselves becoming impatient — say, in a queue or with a friend who is late — we notice and acknowledge that we are feeling impatient, like “Ah, I’m feeling impatient” or “This is impatience”. The moment we shift from feeling the impatience to observing it, we open a space between the match (the event) and the fuse (impatience), creating the opportunity for a different outcome. My teacher, Rabbi David Jaffe, also says it helps to ask ourselves, “in this moment, what would a patient person look like?”. Approaching situations in this way — by acknowledging the feelings and introducing a question — can de-escalate emotions that might cause us to act in negative or destructive ways. So, if I feel myself getting frustrated because my bus is stuck in traffic, I say to myself, “Wow, I am really feeling impatient right now. (Take a breath.) What can I do about this situation? (Nothing.) What could I do in the meantime?” Asking myself these questions, help me move from frustration to finding a way to make good use of my time. After all, I can’t make the bus go faster or my friend show up any quicker. So, I might pull out a book to read make a phone call or a to-do list, or simply open my eyes to the people and life around me. By naming my impatience to the event and reframing, I am able to step back from emotion and focus my energy more productively.
I was reminded of Rabbi Perr’s teaching of “opening the space” when reading this week’s Torah portion. Cities of refuge designated to enable those who inadvertently kill someone to seek safe harbour from relatives or friends who may seek vengeance, in spite of the death being an accident. Ideally, the system provides a cooling off period — the aggrieved family cannot attack or kill in retaliation, and the perpetrator is safe until the law can determine the proper course of action. This idea of putting distance between two parties — one who committed an unintended grave action, and the other who wants retribution — embodies the concept of opening the space between the match and the fuse. In truth, in such extreme circumstances, the anger of the aggrieved may never dissipate or will only do so after a very long time. We might feel that way when someone has injured us so badly that we continue to hold onto our anger, even though doing so leaves us empty. As the Talmud says “An angry person is left with nothing but anger” (Kiddushin 41a). Opening the space between the match and the fuse will not soothe our woundedness, but it may shift our thinking enough to step back from our emotions and find a way to respond and focus our energies in more positive, life-affirming ways.
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