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Saturday, 14 November 2015

First impressions may be deceiving

Daf Yomi Sotah 18


We all know the power of first impressions.  Studies have shown that most people will judge new acquaintances they meet in the first twenty-seven seconds.  Looks, of course, are a major determinant, as is strength of handshake, tone of voice and the shape of your mouth when you smile.  Unfortunately, as the adage goes, ‘You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.’ 

But the more important piece of advice, our Sages teach, is ‘Do not look at the flask; rather what is inside,’ the Talmudic equivalent of ‘Don’t just a book by its cover.’  This advice is becoming more and more challenging to follow, as we live in a world where we are bombarded with imagery of the perfect human being.  It’s no wonder that fewer people are finding their basherte (intended) in this world – we are taught to seek instantly perfect people!

Concerning the procedure for the preparation of the sotah’s bitter waters, the Torah declares, “And he (the cohen) shall inscribe these curses upon parchment and then erase them into the bitter waters.”
Gemara: If he wrote one letter and then erased one letter, and wrote another letter and erased it, it is invalid, for the verse states, “And the cohen shall do to her all of this Torah.” 

Some people approach our Jewish tradition with a narrow-minded, first-impression tactic.  They’ll examine Torah and mitzvos, letter by letter and erase and discard whatever they don’t find conducive to their lives and attitudes.

That is a completely invalid approach, says the Talmud!  You can’t look at our holy heritage letter by letter.  If you want to appreciate Judaism, you must look at “all of this Torah.”  Singling out one mitzvah here or one teaching there, and deciding that you don’t like it is a meaningless exercise.  Only once you’ve taken a good look at the entire corpus of Judaism can you make an honest and sincere decision about your relationship with Heaven.

The same goes for learning Torah.  When you first start learning Gemara, it seems so irrelevant and pedantic.  Only once you’ve started to get a grip on more material do you begin to see the whole picture.  And it’s even true for more accessible parts of Torah like Chumash or Mishnah.  When you take individual “letters” out of context and scrutinize them under a microscope, they don’t make a lot of sense.  You’re liable to give up on your Torah study.  But when you work hard and persevere, eventually everything falls into place.

And of course, it’s the case with the people we encounter in life.  Pirkei Avot teaches that we should not be dismissive of anyone, “for there is no man who does not have his hour.”  Oftentimes, we don’t appreciate people immediately.  We judge them on first appearances.  If we would just take a little time to get to know them and discover the full picture, we would welcome them with open arms!

Especially if you’re at the stage of your life when you are looking for your basherte, don’t fall into the trap of ‘writing a letter and erasing a letter,’ that is, picking people apart trait by trait.  You should be looking at the entire package.  First impressions are important; but if you’re basing your opinion only on the first twenty-seven seconds, you are almost guaranteed to miss your basherte, G-d forbid!


For every encounter in life, make sure you’re seeing the whole picture.  Don’t let first impressions lead you to miss out on important people and matters.  May you appreciate every person you meet, and our holy heritage, by taking a really good look!