Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Love (Sometimes) Conquers All

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

How are we to deal with evil people who want to harm us? How are we supposed to react when we have been wronged by the nations of the world as well as our own brothers?

Yaakov Avinu teaches us the response in this week’s parsha. Eisav, his brother, harbored a bitter grudge against him and sought to kill him, yet Yaakov used every strategy he possessed to avoid a head-on confrontation. As Chazal teach, he davened, he prepared gifts to win his brother’s favor, and, as a last recourse, should all else fail, he readied himself to do battle.

Far from relishing the opportunity to finally confront the man who was seeking his destruction, Yaakov used all his wits to avoid a fight. Though he suspected that Eisav might reject his peaceful overtures, he went out of his way to present his brother with generous gifts and to speak to him in calm, measured words of appeasement.

He could have seized the offensive, allowing himself to be driven by anger or spite. He could have engaged Eisav in debate to prove that the brachos were rightfully his, and that he, Yaakov, was justified in orchestrating things so that he would receive them. He could have shown his brother how the latter’s acts of murder and treachery rendered him unfit to be the progenitor of the Avos.

But that is not the way of Yaakov and the Avos. When peaceful talk can mitigate tension, that is always the preferred route, and hatred and a show of might have no place. Hakol kol Yaakov. Am Yisroel is powerful when it utilizes its gift of speech to pray for Divine assistance and whenever possible, to negotiate differences calmly and peacefully.

People may insult and demean us. They tend to twist our words and read ulterior motives into our actions. They stab us in the back and badmouth us, and inside we are churning. Our urge is to lash back and make them feel ashamed. “How could you say that!” we want to shout.

Yet, if we heed the example Yaakov Avinu set, we will restrain ourselves. Yaakov demonstrated that the way of a ben Torah is to always pursue the path of peace and achdus, even when smaller people would sound the call for war and revenge. When it is possible to achieve the desired outcome without engaging in an argument, that is the course we are to pursue.

This does not imply that we should submit to evil-doers and engage in chanifas resha’im. There are times when we have no choice but to go on the offensive to eradicate sheker. But before we go down that road, we need to be absolutely certain in the justice of our complaint and that there is no alternative to confrontation.

Shimon and Levi earned the eternal wrath of their father, Yaakov, when they unilaterally resorted to violence in order to revenge the terrible wrong done to their sister. Without consulting Yaakov, they wiped out Chamor, Shechem, and all the males of their city.

Both Chamor and Shechem were heinous characters who had engaged in depraved behavior. They certainly weren’t deserving of any compassion. There are undoubtedly times when Jews must battle to protect their interests and maintain deterrence in a degenerate world, where aggression and intimidation threaten us. But war should only be a last resort after all other attempts at attaining justice peacefully are exhausted.

Instead of consulting with their aged father, Shimon and Levi rushed to judgment. They were convinced that the abomination demanded immediate and swift action. It is not for us to judge them and their considerations, but there is much that we can learn from the vastly different response to provocation displayed by Yaakov.

We all know certain people who don’t like us or habitually provoke us. We see individuals who appear to be derelict in their responsibilities and wonder if it is our duty to reprove them. Yet, before jumping to conclusions and rushing to condemn, we must ensure that our perspective is correct and that our planned course of action will yield positive results.

Many years ago, Maran Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l taught me this very lesson. There was resentment at that time against a certain institution that took controversial positions and sought to encroach on territory where it did not belong. I wanted to write an article protesting its actions, but before doing so, I consulted with the Ponovezher rosh yeshiva as to the most effective way to wage this campaign.

His response astounded me. He advised me not to write the article and not to fight that battle. He said that before you get into a public dispute you have to be prepared to win. You have to calmly and rationally review your arguments and make sure that they are ironclad. Then you have to carefully anticipate the arguments that will be arrayed against you and make sure that you will be able to counter them convincingly. You have to consider who will align with you and who will oppose you. You must make sure that you won’t be left standing alone and defenseless against everyone else.

Only after you have thoroughly and honestly examined every angle and are confident of a victorious outcome should you pick up the gauntlet. To engage in controversy if you won’t accomplish anything serves no purpose.

“Now,” said Rav Shach, “let’s examine this issue and see what will happen if you write that article.”

We went through it and, indeed, the article was never written and the confrontation never took place.

Too often, we put people in positions where it is almost impossible for them to do something positive with their lives. It is thus no surprise that they become bitter. They then act out of bitterness and jealousy without considering how their words and actions will come back to haunt them. They fail to consider the repercussions of their hostile words, doing themselves and their cause the greatest disservice.

Our great leaders care deeply about Klal Yisroel and love every Jew. At times, they feel that they must fight to preserve the integrity of our emunah and mesorah. They take up the fight reluctantly only when convinced that the alternative of sitting by quietly is worse. Confrontation is undertaken as a painful last resort to preserve the pach shemen tahor which survives to this day, thanks to the resolute allegiance of the faithful.

Even at a time of confrontation, however, our great leaders don’t act out of anger but out of love. They express their disapproval or condemn specific actions that carry the potential for great harm to Klal Yisroel. But there is no rancor. They offer constructive criticism, crafted sensitively to avoid throwing fuel on the flames. They don’t speak with hate, but with great concern and caring. And they don’t become bitter and vicious.

I just began reading Rabbi Paysach Krohn’s latest book, “In the Spirit of the Maggid,” and found a fascinating story making the point that one must carefully weigh a situation before exposing and condemning a misdeed.

A fifth grade boy came to school one day wearing a fancy new watch. He took it off during recess and left it on his desk. When he returned, the watch was gone. When no one would come foward with the missing watch, the rebbi lined up all the children against the wall and began searching through their pockets to find the culprit.

The rebbi found the watch in the pocket of the third boy in the line. But instead of embarrassing him and turning him into a spectacle, the rebbi continued checking each boy to see if he had the watch. When the search was over, the rebbi announced that he had retrieved the watch and class could resume.

The rebbi didn’t even look in the boy’s direction. He didn’t do anything to betray his secret. Thanks to that rebbi and the consideration he displayed to a contrite boy who, in a moment of weakness, had succumbed to temptation, the boy went on to model himself after that rebbi and, by his own testimony, never stole again.

The way to a boy’s heart and soul is not always with a smack and a yell. A Jew consumed with a loving heart can reach the core of another Jew through an act of quiet mussar. Without even saying one word of admonition, the rebbi’s noble consideration not only straightened out the boy, but provided a living example for the boy to emulate and aspire to in his crucial formative years.

So if you think you have seen, heard or read someone doing something hideous, and when faced with someone’s outrageous behavior, remember that oftentimes a display of love can accomplish more than a flash of hate, calmness can achieve more than anger, and you don’t always need a hatchet to kill a mosquito.


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