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Toward Shabbat: Parashat Miketz

Getting to Yes, the “bible” of negotiation by Roger Fischer and William Ury, has sold over 2 million copies since its publication in 1981. It’s easy to understand why: the book offers clear and effective strategies for reaching agreement, literally for getting to “yes”—and who doesn’t love “yes”? “Yes” is satisfaction and fulfillment, forward motion, pursuing dreams and desires. “Yes” is a greenlight, happiness, possibility. “Yes” is wonderful!

“No,” on the other hand, is not quite as popular. “No” is adversarial: a petulant toddler, a surly teenager. “No” is disappointment, obstacles, thwarted aspirations. “No” is a brick wall. Which may explain why William Ury’s follow up to his worldwide bestseller, The Power of a Positive No, is not as much of a household name. Who ever wants to say “no”?

Yet The Power of a Positive No contains some of the deepest wisdom about the minds and hearts—and even souls—of humankind. Ury notes that many of our motivations for saying “yes” can be deeply unhealthy: we say yes to fit in, to keep up with the Joneses, to avoid conflict and guilt, to be liked, to please. “Yes,” under these circumstances, is not wonderful—it is destructive to ourselves, to our relationships, to society, and to the planet. Ury observes:

…I see people under increasing levels of stress and pressure. I meet…professionals who are being burned out by overwork. I see people struggling to juggle work and family, with a particularly heavy burden on women who work outside the home. I encounter parents who find little quality time to spend with their children, and I find children overloaded with homework and lessons….Everywhere people are overloaded and overwhelmed….The boundaries between home and the workplace are eroding….The rules are also eroding and the temptation to cut corners and bend ethical standards is powerful. Everywhere people are finding it hard to set and maintain boundaries.

The antidote, Ury argues, is what he calls the “Positive No,” which involves a bit of soul searching to identify your true interests and values, setting boundaries based on these values, and learning to hold to them with integrity and kindness. Stating your Positive No then enables a much healthier “yes” to emerge—a “yes” to what is most important to you. The Power of a Positive No was published in 2007, but Ury’s ideas are both prescient and ancient: he articulates a problem that has only intensified in the past 15 years, while the solution he offers is rooted in a practice that is thousands of years old.

Shabbat, the Torah’s beautiful gift, could be considered the original Positive No, a setting of boundaries that creates space for rest, rejuvenation, community, family, and spiritual nourishment. The traditional “nos” of Shabbat—including restrictions on technology, work, use of money—are in fact a “yes” to fulfilling the deeper needs of the soul.

Shemita, the sabbatical year which the Jewish calendar is currently observing, is described in Leviticus as “Shabbat Shabbaton” (the ultimate Shabbat), making it the ultimate Positive No. For a full year we are to let the land lie fallow and rest, abstaining from planting and cultivation. Instead, we are to pick for ourselves what the land produces on its own, trusting in God that there will be enough. In his Torah commentary Sefer Habrit, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer offers this rationale for the shemita year:

[Shemita is followed] in order that [people] should not always be preoccupied with working the soil to provide for their material needs. For in this one year, they would be completely free. The liberation from the yoke of work would give them the opportunity for studying Torah and wisdom….Those endowed with special skills will invent new methods in this free time for the benefit of the world.

In other words, the “nos” of shemita offer us a yearlong possibility for the “yeses” of spiritual practice and human creativity.

I’ve been thinking of shemita as a year to practice my Positive No, and am finding it a rewarding frame. I am trying to pause before saying “yes,” and ask: Do I really want this pair of shoes, or am I unconsciously responding to the pressures of consumer culture? Am I reading the news to be an informed citizen, or am I doomscrolling? If I take on obligations that will cut into precious family time, is it because those are true priorities, or am I saying “yes” because I want the accolades?

Several people I know are using this shemita year to embrace this type of thinking, putting specific checks in place to do so. A friend of mine deleted the Amazon app from his phone. One colleague is not checking social media for at least an hour after getting up in the morning. Another has committed to recognizing that she truly has “enough” by not buying any new clothes this year. Recently, I decided to practice my Positive No with the challenging yet very liberating move of taking email off of my phone. (OK, fine, I didn’t take it off my phone but I hid the app so that it’s pretty inconvenient to check email. But still.) The power of this Positive No has been freedom from the constant psychic stress that I should be responding to messages, and the ability to be much more present with my family in the evenings.

One of the animating questions of our year-long study of shemita is: How can the values and practices of this ancient agricultural tradition be reified in our lives today? For those of us who live in a world of excess and the constant pursuit of more, the Positive No is one answer to this question. As we settle into Shabbat, I invite you to consider taking on a shemita practice for the rest of this Jewish year. What unhealthy “yes” do you want to let go of? What Positive No do you want to affirm?

If you’d like to share your shemita practice, I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a line at shemitapractice@gmail.com. If you don’t hear back right away, you’ll know it’s because I’m not checking email on my phone.

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