The Positivity Challenge

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29 Aug 2018

The alarm goes off and the kids jump out of bed. They put on their uniforms, which are laid out carefully on their beds, eat breakfast while chatting with each other about what they are looking forward to that day and head out to the car excitedly, while holding onto their neatly packed backpacks. On the ride home, each wants to share their story about their day: the teacher they liked, the classes that were exciting, what they did for recess.

That lasts for one day. The first day of school only.

By the second day, there are groans when I wake them, frustration when they lose their shoes (didn’t we figure out a system for shoes last year?!) and reminders to take bags with cereal to eat in the car because we are now too late for a leisurely breakfast at the table. The ride home is replete with complaining about the classes they found to be boring, the activities they did not want to do at recess and my four year old son having a screaming fit because my daughter is kicking the back of his seat and he wants ice cream NOW (in other words, he is exhausted because he is getting adjusted to life without his badly needed nap). I have spent my day putting out fires at school and while I am trying to just focus on being positive for the kids, the kvetch-fest in the car is the straw that broke the Imma’s back. By the time I emerge from the car, the look on my face can best be described as frazzled. Or in other words, just done.

I’m sure that many can relate.

As we enter the second half of Elul, the need to prep for Rosh Hashana feels ever more pressing. I think about Slichot which will start this Motzai Shabbat, Rosh Hashana which will follow shortly (and my menus which are still unplanned) and Yom Kippur, ten days later. I think about the al chets I will hit my chest for, the sins I will confess. Recently, I listened to a class by Michal Horowitz and she pointed out just how many of the al cheits have to do with speech. Certainly a disproportionate amount. For the sin of lashon hara, for the sin of arrogant speech, for the sin of leitzanut- mockery, the list goes on and on.

Certainly many of us go into this time period with an awareness that we need to work on how we speak. We have machsom l’fi programs; sign-ups for an hour-free of lashon hara or Shabbos tables free of negative speech. We have classes on the dangers of lashon hara, we even have a mitzvah mentioned in last week’s parsha to remember daily how Miriam spoke lashon hara about Moshe and how she received tzaarat for it (imagine what we would look like today if we still got tzaarat for speaking lashon hara!). And yet, for some reason, here we are again, facing that same sin. And all of the other sins having to do with speech.

After countless attempts to watch my tongue, I have decided to quit working on lashon hara this year and have decided to tackle another approach instead. And that is, trying to have an ayin tova, a positive eye. Michal Horowitz in a different shiur quotes the following phrase from Tehillim, which warns of the evils of negative speech: “Mi HaIsh HaChaftetz Chayim, ohev yamim lirot tov? Nitzor lishoncha me’ra u’sfatecha mi’daber mirma…”, which is loosely translated as, “Who is the person who loves life and days of seeking good? Guard your tongue from speaking evil and deceitful words”. But she offers a novel interpretation, which involves a slight change in punctuation. Move the question mark, she says and instead the phrase will read: “Who is the person who loves life? Look at the good; watch your tongue from evil and deceitful words”.  

The key, she argues, is not the tongue, but our eyes. Do we view the world with a negative eye? Like the Jews in the desert, are we forever complaining despite the fact that food falls from the skies? Do we look at each other, judgmentally, with another one of the al cheits, tzarat ayin– an evil or prying eye? Are we always looking for the bad in people, in situations? Do we find ourselves, like our children, focusing on the bad things that happened during the day rather than noticing the positive?

Last year, getting tired of the kvetch-fest on the way home and the way the negativity rubbed off on each other, I made a rule. My kids could each tell me anything they wanted to about their day but they had to start off by sharing something positive that happened. I had to follow the rule, as well. There were days that my kids, hungry and grumpy, had difficulty finding something positive to relate but that was the rule and I insisted until they found something to share. There were days when I felt hurt, angry or frustrated by things that had happened during my day but I also had to find something positive to share. This tradition carried on into this year and it has become something my kids expect and something that is important for them and for myself. We also sometimes start our morning ride by sharing what we are looking forward to that day.

To be clear, there is still kvetching that goes on. We are all tired after a long day at school/work and this is normal. But I believe that this exercise has taught us to aspire to be positive people.

We do this not just because I think it’s the right thing to do to have an ayin tova but because I believe this will make us happier and more productive people. More than a busy day, it is negativity that tends to drain us. People who note the positive are happier people. They are people who are not inclined to speak badly of others because they don’t notice the bad. They are people who are focused on improving themselves rather than looking at others, which is a good use of our time because after all, we can only control our own actions, not others’. 

And so this year, I am embarking on a positivity challenge. To try to find something good in everyone I see and every situation I encounter. To notice the good traits of those around me rather than become frustrated with their bad traits. At the end of the day, to stay focused on the good events rather than be caught up on the bad. This is surely not easy but I believe it is the route to success of so many of the al cheits of which I am guilty for this year. Does anyone want to join me?

Ariela Davis is the Director of Judaics at Addlestone Hebrew Academy and the Rebbetzin of Brith Sholom Beth Israel, the historic shul of downtown Charleston, South Carolina. She writes and speaks about issues related to Israel, the Holocaust and Jewish thought. She can be reached at

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.