Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses a dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and the sages regarding if a husband can preemptively nullify a vow in advance.  Rabbi Eliezer argues (I am skipping some lomdishe details) via kal v’chomer that if a person can annul an existing vow, certainly he has the ability to annul a vow before it even starts.  However, the sages refute this kal v’chomer with the following observation:  Although one may purify an object by immersing it in the Mikvah, one obviously cannot preemptively immerse something in advance to prevent it from becoming impure; there are no vaccinations for impurity. Basically, the rabbis are illustrating that the Kal V’chomer is flawed, because though a non-event is technically weaker than something extant, it is not always possible to overpower something that doesn’t exist yet.

In any case it is a fascinating concept, what can be preempted and what cannot.  Often, people preface what are about to be offensive comments with, “no offense, but…”  Of course, those are often followed by the most offensive and hurtful comments.   When I am working with couples, sometimes one might say to the other, “You really are not going to like ot hear this…but..”  

Yet, there is something decent about warning a person before you say something that might be hurtful.  In fact, it is an explicit Rashi from last week’s parasha:

Yehuda prefaces his argument to the ruler of Egypt (his yet to be recognized brother, Yosef) with the following statement (Bereishis 44:18):

וַיִּגַּ֨שׁ אֵלָ֜יו יְהוּדָ֗ה וַיֹּאמֶר֮ בִּ֣י אֲדֹנִי֒ יְדַבֶּר־נָ֨א עַבְדְּךָ֤ דָבָר֙ בְּאָזְנֵ֣י אֲדֹנִ֔י וְאַל־יִ֥חַר אַפְּךָ֖ בְּעַבְדֶּ֑ךָ כִּ֥י כָמ֖וֹךָ כְּפַרְעֹֽה׃ 

Then Judah went up to him and said, “Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be angry with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh.”

Rashi notes on the phrase “do not be angry”:

ואל יחר אפך. מִכָּאן אַתָּה לָמֵד שֶׁדִּבֵּר אֵלָיו קָשׁוֹת: ואל יחר אפך

AND LET NOT THY WRATH GLOW — From these words you may infer that he spoke to him in harsh terms.

One may wonder, if Yehuda was about to speak in harsh terms, of what use is it to say, “Do not be angry”?  We must concede that the rabbis did believe there was a value in warning someone that you might say something offensive, and that it could mitigate some of the anger.  The truth is, we can intuitively agree that people do better when they have some warning before something distressing occurs. So then, why is “No offense, but…” so utterly annoying and well, offensive?

The answer is, it all depends on the emotional subtext.  Humans are terrible at reading thoughts but excellent at reading emotions.  That is, it is relatively easy to read the emotions that show on a person’s face, and there is even something called micro-expressions, where an emotion flits quickly on the face, and a perceptive person at least unconsciously perceives it.  The actual thoughts that are attributed to these emotions are often hugely mistaken, which is why it is important to ask questions and not jump to conclusions. For example, a teacher or parent might correctly perceive a child as anxious or nervous when responding to an accusation.  The assumption is he is nervous because he is lying, when in fact, he may be telling the truth and simply nervous that he is being accused.  But since people perceive emotions accurately they are mistakenly confident that they also a reading the underlying thoughts correctly.  In any case, back to our example.

One can sense if the warning is just some passive aggressive wind up for what is about to be an insult.  The person can tell if you really care, if you genuinely do not want to hurt the person, but still feel you must say something, or if you are just paying lip service.  It helps to also phrase things carefully, such as, “This is what it seems like from my end and/or what it feels like on my end, perhaps this is another side to this story that I do not see.” While Yehuda did not do exactly that, you will note that he starts with a compliment (“You are like Pharaoh”), and then summarizes and effectively validates Yosef’s actions by describing the turns of events.  Only at the end does he make his plea, and it is an emotional one.  He states that, he simply cannot come home without Binyamin and see his father’s pain.  There were subtle criticisms in his statements, especially according to the midrashic readings (see Rashi throughout), but on the whole it was gentle and spoken from an emotional appeal without being heavy on the criticism.  

In real life, you can do the same:

  1. Start with a compliment
  2. Describe the situation in relative neutral terms so that the other person feels validated and follows the story so far
  3. Explain what the emotional stakes are for you and what you need. 


Translations Courtesy of Sefaria, except when, sometimes, I disagree with the translation cool

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