When You Don’t Know What To Say

The advent of the new Facebook react buttons, ‘love,’ ‘ha, ha,’ ‘wow,’ ‘sad’ and ‘angry’ has expanded our ability to respond to the posts of challah baking (guilty) kvetching (guilty) and kvelling (guilty) that people around the world share every day. And though I found ‘Like’ to be far too limited a response at those moment when the news that was being shared was disagreeable or I had a different point of view, I also valued the limitations of ‘Like.’ As with many formulas, it was particularly useful when I did not know what to say.

Recently, I found out via Facebook that the brother of a friend, a man with growing children had died, still in the prime of his life with so much to give. Reading this post, the words Baruch Dayan HaEmet, blessed is the true judge, slipped form my mouth automatically.

These words passed down by Jewish tradition, affirming God’s righteous justice, in no way captured the complex mix of my shock, my rage at God, my sadness for my friend and her family. On the contrary, they were woefully inadequate. Moreover the sentiment, that God is a just and true judge, in face of what was clearly a life taken too early theologically offensive. And yet, I was grateful that our tradition had given me words to say, as limited and inadequate as there were. Because, while I was feeling and thinking a great variety of things, I did not know what to say.

READ: When Bad Things Happen to Good People

My concern for my friend complicated matters further. Following my cross-country moves, my friend and I were not in regular touch, and I knew nothing of what had led to his death. The custom when visiting the house of a mourner is not to speak until spoken to, so that we can adjust our words to the needs of those closest to the loss. Other than her sadness, there was little in my friend’s announcement. And over the Web, I could not fathom what my friend was feeling, needing or hoping to hear. Into this void, I could not respond thoughtfully or with intention. And for this reason too, I was grateful that our tradition provides us with a formula of what to say.

It would take a few days before I was able to craft a note to my friend to go beyond the formula and even then it was no simple task. I struggled to find the words, which in the end included an admission that the words themselves would be small comfort.

Facebook’s single ‘Like’ button hid behind it a myriad of texture and nuance that the new react buttons attempt to capture –though they too are admittedly limited. Standing behind the many ‘Likes’ of the photo of my newest Purim outfit were likely a range of responses from “awww, how cute” to “seriously, you wore that in public?” But unless more detail was offered I was left to make of them what I would. And that is not always a bad thing.

When is Purim 2016? Click here to find out!

Jewish tradition suggests that upon learning someone is pregnant, we offer the response, b’shaah tovah, may it be at the right hour. In comparison to the expected, mazal tov, which is clearly purely positive, b’shaah tovah is rather more ambiguous. It can capture unbridled joy (for when you are really excited) and the concerns that should come with pregnancy (there are no guarantees). But it also works well when you really don’t have any idea what to say or when your reaction is much less than positive. Similarly, the custom of saying, titchadesh or titchadshi, may you be renewed, when someone acquires a new item of clothing works well both when you love it and when you wonder what they were thinking.

Rote formulaic responses are just that. There are doubtless many who find them trite and meaningless, and they are not wrong. But when we want to, we can find our way around them just as I found my way around the ‘Like’ button when really pushed because it was not enough. And I do the same with traditional Jewish responses, adding to them as need be. But in those moment, and there are many in life, when for reasons good or bad, because there are no words, or because to say nothing is not an option, I am grateful for these formulas.

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