Latest update: June 18th, 2012
About a month ago, we began the Passover Seder by asking “the four questions,” which led to a narrative explaining how the Jewish people were freed from Egypt. We are now in the midst of a forty-nine day process of spiritual growth in which we prepare ourselves to receive the Torah.
Unfortunately, this period of anticipation has also been marked by tragedy. We recall the plague which killed 24,000 of Rabi Akiva’s students, a consequence of their lack of respect for one another that hindered their ability to transmit the Torah to the next generation.
We also mourn those Jews who perished during the massacres of the Crusades, which were particularly harsh at this time of year. These events were the result of severely fractured relationships which lead to the destruction of the 2nd Temple and left us vulnerable to such tragedies.
Sadly, unlike our freedom from Egyptian slavery, the bondage of disunity and insensitivity towards each other remains. As we approach Shavuos, perhaps a different set of “four questions” can lead us out of the pain that has imprisoned us for so long:
1) Do I Strive To Feel The Pain of Those With Whom I Disagree?
Sometimes we are so consumed with the validity of our position in a dispute that there is little room to see either the perspective of another or the emotions behind it. Beneath the substance of an issue may lie a frightened coworker fearful of losing a job; a vulnerable spouse projecting childhood fears onto his or her partner, a distraught community activist wondering how her vision for the future is endangered by opponents to her project.
Even in facing broader societal issues, these feelings can be present. Can the secular Jew angry at what he perceives as religious coercion understand the pain of an elderly rabbi who has spent a lifetime working to maintain a tradition he knows is the will of G-d? And can this same rabbi feel the pain of the secular Jew growing up in a totally different social context where it is axiomatic that one should be able to do as he pleases as long as no one is hurt. Do the “hawk” and the “dove” arguing with one another over issues of how to protect Israel see the underlying ideals behind each other’s position?
This first question doesn’t ask us to change ourselves or the other in regards to the substance of an issue. As Miriam Kosman has written in a recent article for The Jerusalem Post:
“(W)e can’t even begin to move towards each other before acknowledging that an ‘other’ exists—and an ‘other’ by definition, has a different perspective. Hearing the other doesn’t mean we will ever agree with each other. It just means we can begin to fathom the internal integrity of how the other person grasps the world, how his life and worldview are based on his own set of values and insights. It means we do not automatically dismiss and deride but try to discern the grains of truth and consistency that invariably exist, buried though they might be under a wrapping that is unfamiliar to us.”
2) Do I Strive to Feel My Own Pain?
Much of the emotional baggage which exacerbates a conflict comes not from the other person, but from within oneself. For example, if we come at someone with a barrage of angry and sarcastic remarks, it could simply be a form of protection from a harsh inner critic threatening to accuse us of being too stupid, naive, lazy, etc. if we “lose” the argument.
What if we could replace this critic with a more compassionate inner voice that was more accepting of our circumstances and limitations?
For example, imagine a single parent called in to meet with her child’s teacher concerned about his behavior. Even before the meeting, the parent is already blaming herself for not spending enough time with her child because of her need to work and make ends meet. She chastises herself for not going back to school so she can get a better job. She compares her cluttered home with that of her meticulous neighbor and feels like a failure. With this state of mind, would it be a surprise if the mother lashed out at the teacher, her child, or both? Her sense of self is so depleted from the relentless critical self-talk, she can’t bear to feel even worse when hearing the teacher’s comments.
But what if this same parent validated herself for all the positive things she was doing to stay afloat under a very trying set of conditions; if she could give herself the same emotional support she would offer a close friend in a similar situation? With a greater sense of self-compassion, would it be unrealistic to think that this parent would now respond to the teacher and her child in a more calm and reasonable manner? Of course, a certain amount of self-evaluation is necessary. But too often this gets out of control and leads us to a place of anxiety and fear, and a greater likelihood that our words will create toxic relationships with others. Ironically, this damage could be more harmful and enduring than the mistake we made in the first place.
3) Can We Make Peace With Our Lack Of Control Over Other People?
It is true that we can legitimately make efforts to convince someone of our perspective. But do we recognize that ultimately the choices someone makes are not in our hands? Many of us believe that G-d is running the world, but find it difficult to accept this as we try every which way to control others so that reality conforms to our wishes.
With this attitude, when our car breaks down we scream at the mechanic who had said it was fixed. We miss a deadline at work and curse the colleague who wasn’t able to complete his part of the project on time. We fall behind on our bills and berate our spouse for what seems to be wasteful purchases.
Deep down we know such responses rarely improve the situation and can hurt anyone from a casual acquaintance to those we love the most. But it’s hard to control our anger when events do not turn out the way we wanted.
Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, M.D. has worked with thousands of alcoholics and other addicts. In his commentary on the Haggadah, From Bondage to Freedom, Rabbi Twerski maintains that to some degree we all face the challenges of the addict in some form or another, and can benefit from the advice given to those involved in the 12-Step programs designed to treat such addictions.
In the so-called “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous, an oft-quoted passage speaks of the power of acceptance in dealing with difficult people and events:
“(A)cceptance is the answer to ALL my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation –some fact of my life—unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in G-d’s world by mistake…Unless I accept life on life’s terms I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and my attitudes.”
In light of the above, while we may continue to hope that people or circumstances can change for the better, we can also pray for what Rabbi Binny Freedman has called “the miracle of acceptance.”
4) How Badly Do I Want Peaceful Relationships?
Responding to the first three questions in a constructive manner is difficult and can take a fair amount of time and emotional energy. To follow Hillel’s dictum to “love peace and pursue peace” is easier said than done and requires a genuine commitment and continuing motivation. As Rabbi Zelig Pliskin notes in his book, Harmony With Others: Formulas, Stories and Insights:
“A question to keep in mind is: If I had an intense love of peace, what would I be willing to say and do?…So before getting involved in a quarrel, ask yourself: Compared to my ultimate purpose in life, how important is this?… Will I regret that I did not quarrel when I look back at my entire life?”
Consider how we might act if we or a loved one was ill with a serious disease. We would scour the Internet for relevant information. We would spare no effort to find the most qualified doctor for treatment. We would pray from the depths of our heart to G-d to grant a healing. All of this would force us to expend significant time, energy, sweat and tears which would flow from our deep desire to have a positive outcome.
Unfortunately, when it comes to peace making, we may spend more time searching for the best smart phone or watching a movie.
If we really value peace, we could read one of the many books and articles on the subject. We could talk to a rabbi, therapist or trusted friend about ways to ameliorate a tense situation. We could seek out our adversary and try to find common ground, or at least reduce the acrimony that is destroying the relationship. We would think and think again of how to express criticism and conflicting viewpoints in a humane and empathetic way. Perhaps most of all, we would pray for the wisdom and strength to actualize our commitment to peace.
One story which answers the above four questions in a beautiful way is found in biography of a humble rabbi who lived in Israel and was a source of comfort to prisoners and countless others in need of his compassion and concern. Rav Aryeh Levin truly embodied the title of the book, A Tzaddik in Our Time.
The author, Simcha Raz, tells of an owner of an ice-cream store with a long line of customers waiting to make a purchase on a hot summer Friday afternoon. However, Shabbat is gradually approaching and Rav Levin feels an obligation to preserve its sanctity. Of course, he could have ignored the issue by disassociating himself from Jews who didn’t share his beliefs. Or he could have delivered a stern lecture to the owner chastising him if he kept the store open.
Instead, the rav sat down inside the ice cream store and kept silent. He tried to identify with the difficult challenge the owner faced. When the owner eventually came to the him and inquired why he was sitting there in Shabbos garb so close to sunset, Rav Levin simply said, “You are certainly facing a great trial and temptation. Nevertheless,
Shabbos is Shabbos.”
The owner did shut down his store before Shabbos and later told Rav Levin, “I realized that you knew and felt just what I was thinking and feeling, and yet you felt pain for the sake of Shabbos. Then I thought in my heart: A Jew like that must not be made to suffer pain.”
One can only wonder how free we could be if we were able to respond with such sensitivity to others. If so, our response to this set of four questions could lead us to a promised land of genuine unity amongst the Jewish people.
Gary Tolchinsky works at a consulting firm in New Jersey. He is a graduate of Columbia Law School, where he studied mediation and alternative dispute resolution. He is on the Advisory Board of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry and is founder of the website jewishbooksforpeace.org. He can be reached at email@example.com
About the Author: Gary Tolchinsky works at a consulting firm in New Jersey. He is a graduate of Columbia Law School, where he studied mediation and alternative dispute resolution. He is on the Advisory Board of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry and is founder of the website jewishbooksforpeace.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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