Sunday, Sep 26, 2021

Making Peace with Enemies

Near the end of Shishah Sidrei Mishnah (Uktzin 3:12), we are informed, “Hakadosh Boruch Hu did not find a vessel to hold blessing for the Jewish people greater than shalom, as it says, ‘Hashem blesses His nation with shalom’” (Tehillim 29:11). The Jewish people, writes the Bais Halevi, possess a unique capacity for unity, as a consequence of our singular relationship to Him: “Yaakov chevel nachalaso” (Devorim 32:9).

Hashem divided the nations into seventy, and assigned to each its own guiding angel. Only the Jewish people fell directly under His Providence. And because we alone are the direct outgrowth of the one true unity, Hashem, we, too, have a capacity for achdus.

And to the extent that achdus is lacking, our connection with Hashem is lacking and His Name is diminished in the world. The long exile in which we remain, as a consequence of causeless hatred for one another, is the ultimate chillul Hashem and diminution of Hashem’s glory in the world.

In the midst of the Nine Days, culminating in Tisha B’Av, which marks the destruction of both Botei Mikdosh, it is particularly appropriate for each of us to do what we can to increase true ahavas Yisroel and to lessen all strife and machlokes between us.

I don’t have a cosmic solution to all expressions of machlokes and disunity, but along the way, I have discovered at least a few hints of eliminating a good deal of petty discord and increasing harmony and ahavas Yisroel. The first of those is to try to judge and react to others as we do to the person whose visage stares back at us from the mirror.

My mother, may she live and be well, has been in hospital for two-plus weeks, which entails a rotation among her plentiful descendants in Eretz Yisroel, of whom I am the first. I have many times arrived 15 to 30 minutes late for my assigned shift. I never arrive late unarmed with excuses and justifications for my tardiness. And I am always confident that these will be accepted by my siblings, children, nephews and nieces with understanding and sympathy. Yet, lately, I’ve begun to notice that when the situation is reversed, often within a period of 24 hours, my approach is completely different. If I’m not immediately relieved at the end of my shift, my phone is instantly out, as I prepare to call the next person on duty to find out where he or she is.

We expect – even demand – that others divine our personal history, know our hot buttons, and understand our idiosyncratic sense of humor. But when it comes to judging others, we quickly forget that we are often in the position of someone who starts a novel in chapter three without knowledge of the characters’ backgrounds.

Yet, by extending to others nothing more than the lenient judgment we extend ourselves, we can enrich our relationships and make our lives much more pleasant. “For the upright of heart, there is gladness.” And the Targum of “upright of heart” is those “whose hearts are full of explanations [in evaluating others].”

Gladness follows. There are few experiences more rewarding than turning a formerly tense relationship into its opposite. I know because I can think of two such relationships that have evolved over a number of years into just the opposite. In at least one of those cases, my former adversary always referred to me as “my brother” by the end of a prolonged project lasting many years.

The key is to not lock into judgments of others, but rather to constantly re-examine past evaluations. I, for one, am always delighted when someone whose judgment I respect speaks highly of a third party about whom I may have formed a negative opinion, often based on very slender evidence and a very partial perspective.

It is always good to keep a few things in mind. People are complex and cannot be reduced to a single trait. In addition, they change, and we change. And usually, that change is for the better as we mature. Context makes a great deal of difference. The person with whom you would choose to be stranded on a desert island is unlikely to be the person who would be your first choice to be next to you in a foxhole. Just because something did not go well between you in one context does not mean that there are not other contexts where you could work successfully together.

A few years back, a certain fellow commented loudly about a recent column of mine that it was “nonsense, like everything you write.” Not long thereafter, I inadvertently sat in a seat in shul that he had temporarily vacated – not his makom kavuah – and received an earful about “taking other people’s seats.”

Less than a week after that second incident, I was going into the doctor’s office to pick up a few prescriptions, when I saw him getting out of a cab assisted by the driver and looking pretty shaken. When I came out of the doctor’s office a few moments later, he was sitting on the curb. My first impulse was to walk by, but I overcame that and asked him if there was anything I could do to help and what had happened to him. He was waiting for his wife, but we chatted for about five minutes until she arrived. At that point, I started walking away. I had only gone a few steps when he called out after me, “I’m sorry about what happened in shul.”

Since then, our interactions have been perfectly friendly. Eliminating him from my very short list of those I would prefer not to see in minyan was a great reward. But the truth is that long before he called out to me, I was already in an elevated mood. Overcoming oneself does that.

Thus far, we have been discussing how to reduce, and hopefully eliminate, the petty frictions between ourselves and others. But the Torah seeks more from us. Upon seeing “the donkey of your enemy bent under its load,” we are commanded to help remove its burden (Shemos 23:5). And the Gemara identifies “your enemy” as one we are entitled – even required – to hate, for we witnessed him committing a sin after being warned that it was a sin (Pesachim 113b). Yet, even that justified hatred has its bounds, and we are still enjoined to provide assistance to him. Were we to fail to do so, Tosafos explains, “our enemy” would only come to hate us, and then are own hatred would increase in a never-ending cycle of “kamayim ponim laponim.” In a recent drasha, the Tolna Rebbe noted a Mwdrash that relates how the “enemy” and the one who aided him were reconciled, which presumably means that “the enemy” did teshuvah as well.

My reading for the Three Weeks this year has been You Are What You Hate: A Spiritually Productive Approach to Enemies by Sarah Yehudit Schneider, an explication of the Kabbalistic teachings of Rav Yitzchok Isaac Yehuda Yechiel Safrin, the Komarna Rebbe, on the subject of enemies.

I first reestablished contact with Sarah Yehudit, after a break of almost forty years since she was a frequent Shabbos guest in our home, in the course of researching my biography of Rabbi Meir Schuster, A Tap on the Shoulder: Rabbi Meir Schuster and a Magical Era of Teshuvah. She was a long-time madricha at Rabbi Schuster’s Heritage House, and he said of her, “Of all our staff in the women’s hostel over the years, Susie has stood out as the person most capable of answering the wide range of questions that have come up.” The sefer comes with an effusive haskamah from Rabbi Moshe Shatz, one of Yerushalayim’s preeminent teachers of Kabbolah, in which he attests to both his decades-long relationship with Sarah Yehudit and to the high degree of accuracy in her writings.

I cannot say that I fully grasped the sefer’s full exploration, but two lessons emerged clearly. First, evil is not something apart from Hashem, chas veshalom. Rather, it creates tests or trials that provide an opportunity to rectify the soul, both individual and the collective soul of Klal Yisroel, and thereby to receive an infusion of Divine light. Good cannot become very good except by encountering evil. Recognition that evil has a purpose is what the Zohar refers to as “giving the Soton his due.”

Second, in this context, we can better understand malicious enemies. They are not an accident. Rather, such an enemy is an inverted form of our own neshamos, possessing shards of our own souls no longer encompassed in our bodies. It is that point of commonality that often attracts our enemies to us. Nowhere is this principle more astonishingly described than in the Arizal’s description of the soul connections between Moshe Rabbeinu, who attained the highest level of Divine knowledge of any human being, and Bilam, the epitome of evil.

How we respond to malicious enemies will vary from situation to situation. Schneider does not suggest that we allow them to trample us, malign us, steal our property, or injure us bodily. (She does counsel refraining from our initial impulse to conquer, obliterate, or destroy them, though in certain circumstances that may be necessary as a practical matter.)

But there is one response that is always appropriate, and offers the possibility of bringing greater Divine light to us, to our enemies, and to the entire world. And that response is to pray for them — just as we pray for ourselves – that they do full teshuvah and recognize the evil of their ways, change them, and recompense their victims to the extent possible. It is written of Rav Yehuda Hachossid that each of his enemies became a tzaddik as a consequence of his tefillos on their behalf.

That message of the power of prayer for our enemies’ teshuvah is perhaps the most powerful takeaway of You Are What You Hate.

In our own day, we have at least one example of that ability to seek the ultimate good for enemies in the person of the late Skulener Rebbe, Rav Eliezer Zusia Portugal. The rebbe was imprisoned by the Romanian authorities for continuing his religious activities under Communist rule. An international outcry eventually resulted in his release, and he was allowed to emigrate to the United States, where he worked strenuously to secure the release of other Jews from Romania. But for no one did he work so hard as for the woman who had informed on him to the Romanian government. When asked why, he had a simple answer: Imagine what pressure and torture she must have been subjected to before she informed.

May we each be zoche to do our part in removing strife from our midst so that we may witness the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh soon in our day.

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