One morning recently, I was standing in shul, davening, when I noticed the open siddur of the fellow sitting in front of me. It was open to the prayer of Ahavah Rabbah, recited prior to Sh’ma. It caught my eye because some of the words were highlighted: “Place in our hearts to understand and to discern, to hear, to learn, to teach, to safeguard, to perform, and to fulfill all the words of Your Torah with love.”
I realized that I say those beautiful words every morning, sadly often mindlessly. But when I saw it highlighted, it helped me rethink about the beauty of those words.
As a result, a few days later, I picked one sentence from every paragraph in my siddur and highlighted it. It was surely not to imply that that one sentence is any more important than the others. But when I focused on one sentence that particularly resonated with me, it helped me stay more focused generally on the words I was saying.
In the world of academia, highlighters are an essential component of learning. In their texts, students highlight main points to outline them, in order to make it easier for them to study later.
Highlighting, however, is not just something we do with a fluorescent marker. We mentally highlight things throughout our day, wherever we go, and in whatever we do. In fact, the things we highlight have a tremendous impact on how we relate to and remember things.
There are countless examples of this:
Someone goes on vacation for a few days with his family. When the family arrives at the airport, one piece of luggage is missing, and it takes a few hours before it’s located. Then, when the family arrives at the hotel, their reservation doesn’t come up on the computer and it ends up costing more time and money. On the way to one of their outings, one of the kids throws up all over the back seat of the rental car. Aside from that, the trip was fun and enjoyable.
How he remembers that trip depends on what parts of it he highlights in his mind. He can perceive it as a great trip with a few hiccups along the way. Or he can see it as a mostly wasted vacation, with a few salvageable moments.
Reciting the annual brachah on budding fruit trees at the beginning of spring helps highlight for us the natural miracle of the world’s rebirth all around us. It helps us realize that there is an incredible phenomenon taking place that we should notice and appreciate.
Rabbi Avigdor Miller related that one can gift his friend an entire house without spending a penny. He walks into his neighbor’s house and comments about how beautiful it is and mentions specific things he likes about the house. The neighbor may not have appreciated his entire house. But when he hears an outsider highlight the virtues of his house, he may suddenly have a newfound appreciation for his house. With a few complimentary words, he gifted his neighbor with the house he has already been living in.
What’s unnerving is that the opposite is true, as well. With one sharp, thoughtless comment, we can cause others to become disenfranchised with something they enjoyed or had been proud of. It’s true with stuff and, more profoundly, with relationships, as well.
When dealing with difficult people, especially difficult children, we must train ourselves to mentally highlight their positive character traits and to find those ways in which they shine. That will help us feel less impatient with them.
In the great prayer composed by Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, we pray that we see the attributes of our friends and not their deficiencies. Love and hate are rooted in what we highlight in others. How vital is this idea in marriages!
This concept holds true regarding movements and revolutions, as well. Beginning in the 1760s, American colonists highlighted their protestation against taxation without representation, and used it as basis for their right to cede from British authority.
During the 1700s the Baal Shem Tov saw that the common Jew felt disconnected from G-d. He created the revolutionary movement of chasidus to spiritually engage the common Jew.
My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, notes that the Baal Shem Tov didn’t create anything that didn’t already exist. Rather, he shifted the emphasis of key concepts.
Chasidus made the common Jew feel that he had a relationship with G-d and that his every action is significant to G-d. Prayer was always a fundamental part of a Jew’s avodas Hashem. The Baal Shem Tov also gave t’filah an added primacy and emphasized connection with the tzadik who could raise the common Jew and help connect him with G-d. As a result of being connected to G-d, chasidus emphasized joy and a positive frame of mind.
By highlighting certain components, even at the expense of other components, it created a revolutionary approach that shook the Jewish world.
We cannot choose the events of life or the people in our lives. But we can choose what we highlight and focus on. Those highlights make all the difference in our perception and attitude.