The term "passive-aggressive" was introduced in a 1945 U.S. War Department technical bulletin, describing soldiers who weren't openly insubordinate but shirked duty through procrastination and willful incompetence. It went on to become a descriptor of a personality trait in the general population and later made it into the DSM as a psychiatric disorder. Passive aggression is characterized by an obstructionist or hostile manner that indicates aggression, yet the aggression is expressed in non-assertive, subtle or indirect way.
In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, we are introduced to the passive aggressive relationship of Isaac and Rebecca. The story is very clear that their fraternal twin sons are quite different and both parents seem aware of the positive and challenging qualities of their children. But, there is no evidence that any discussion ever took place regarding this topic. Instead, both Isaac and Rebecca determine a course of action that they think will result in the most positive outcome. While the story says that Isaac favored Esau and Rebecca favored Jacob, in the end, it is pretty clear that they both felt that Isaac had what was needed to inherit his father’s blessing. Yet, neither talks about this with the other. They revert to passive aggressive actions in order to manipulate the desired outcome. Rebecca instructs Jacob to masquerade as Esau in order to deceive his father, and Isaac, though he knows it is Jacob standing before him, goes along with the charade. Rebecca is set-up as the deceitful wife, but is she really completely to blame? Is it probable that Isaac wanted the same outcome, all along, but just wasn’t direct with regard to his desires? In the end, what did this type of communication get Isaac and Rebecca? Though Jacob did become Isaac’s inheritor…he had to leave town in order to save his own life. And, Esau became so acutely angry that he was alienated from his brother for many, many years. In the end, all relationships in this family unit were negatively affected because straight forward communication was avoided at all cost.
So, how can we ensure that we cultivate authentic relationships, without passive aggression, with our family, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances?
First, we can cultivate Kavannah or awareness by looking carefully at the relationships where we have difficulties. Is there an underlying power struggle happening? What role might we be taking to gain power and control in the situation? Would it be possible to take responsibility for your part in the dynamic?
Second, consider Emet your place of truth. Be honest with yourself and contemplate why you have decided to act in a certain manner. When you hone in on your truth, you are much less likely to be deceptive in your interactions.
Third, communicate through Ha-d’var or words. Talk about your feelings clearly and directly. Communication is the key to unraveling passive-aggressive dynamics which are built upon lack of clear expression. Expressing previously unarticulated emotions dissolves much of the negative tension of dishonest relationships.
In his book The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz instructs that the First Agreement is to be impeccable with our word. He says that your word is your power to create and your ability to create is a gift from God. Impeccable is from the Latin and means “without sin.” Ruiz says that if we adopt the first agreement and become impeccable with our word, any emotional poison will eventually be cleaned from our mind and from our communication in our relationships. And, by committing to being impeccable with our word, we are, essentially, eliminating the possibility of interacting in a passive aggressive manner.
Just imagine if Isaac and Rebecca had embarked on an honest conversation regarding their children. What if they agreed to cultivate their children’s strengths and to act as a team in attempting to bring out the best in their sons? And, what if they communicated this, together, to their offspring? Certainly they would have had a much better chance of avoiding dysfunction, deceit and animosity in their family unit.
And so, I ask all of you to consider using this upcoming Shabbat to practice Kavannah, Emet, and Ha-d’var. By following these guidelines we each can work towards becoming impeccable with our word as we interact with community, family, and friends, ensuring healthy and honest interactions.