two Jews, three opinions


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Fighting Fairly

By Larry Fine

Without positive human relationships, all other asset in the world can not make man happy. No man is an island, no man can live alone. Man was created to interact with other people. No matter how much a person has, with out good relationships between himself and his family, between himself and his friends, between neighbors and fellow workers, he will never be happy.

Yet with all this in mind, each person is different from his fellow man in his character make-up in the same manner that each face is different from the next. With these differences in personalities, differences of opinion are bound to cause friction. What can be done to reduce the inter-personal relationships damage that comes about by inevitable clashes and differences?

The Torah is our guide to good living. It gives us insights into overcoming these very personal opinion clashes, after all it was G-d who created us. It was He who gave us our differing personalities and subsequent opinion clashes. It was He, in His infinite wisdom, who gave us the Torah as a remedy that we may overcome our problems. We need only to open our eyes to the words and our hearts to the teachings of wisdom and understanding that may be learnt from His Holy Torah.

In the Torah Portion of Yethro, Exodus 19:2, the Torah tells us that the Jews traveled from Refedim, a place where they encamped, and came to the Sinai desert, "…and they camped in the desert, and Israel camped there opposite the mountain." Rashi picks up that the verse starts out in plural, "…and they camped" and finishes in the singular, "and Israel camped there". The change of tense from plural to singular is not so apparent in English, but those who study in Hebrew see it immediately.

Rashi explains that "they camped there" is written in single person to teach us that there was unity amongst the Jews but elsewhere they camped (in plural) with arguments and disunity." (See Rashi on this verse)

The sages explain to us that it was here at Mount Sinai that the Torah was to be given and it was the Torah that unified the Jews. Therefore it was here that when the Jews were together with the Torah and with their awareness of G-d then there was unity.

Yet we find earlier in the Torah portion that the when Moses' father-in-law, Yethro, came to visit Moses he saw longs lines of people waiting to be judged by Moses. When Yethro asked Moses the purpose of people waiting in line, Moses replied, "When there is a problem, they come to me and I judge them; between one man and another and I tell them the laws of G-d and of the Torah." (Exodus 18:16)

Now there is a difference of opinion amongst the sages if this portion came before the Torah was given or after. In either case, we find that there were differences of opinions between men right there in the Sinai desert. If so, where is the unity and harmony that the Torah desires and that Rashi says existed at that time?

The answer is simple:

Men will always have disagreements. A disagreement in itself is not an unhealthy phenomenon; disagreements can have positive results if the disagreement is limited to the subject of disagreement. Different viewpoint can bring greater understanding to a problem if it is handled correctly.

As an example if two men argue over what is the better thing to do, whether it is in regards to making money, to deciding the proper halacha, or just about anything. If they limit their argument to the subject matter at hand and do not enter into personalities and past grievances, and instead treat each other's differing opinion with respect, there is little chance that the argument will rupture their relationship. Just the opposite, two partners can grow and expand their business as they express their ideas in a positive manner one to the other. Similarly we find that Hillel and Shamai disagreed in many matters of halacha, yet they remained friends. Why? Because they treated each other with respect.

However, what often happens is that the argument descends into a personality or ego contest. One person (or both) feels his ego is at stake - if he is wrong. Therefore he looks at rejection of his idea as a personal rejection, as a statement of reduced worth of his being.

Worse than this is when the argument includes name calling. "You are such an idiot! Can you not understand anything?" A statement like this attacks the fiber of the person and is rarely passed over without a feeling of being cut down or even worse a counter attack on the other person's personality in even more disparaging words. This kind of argument only brings hard feelings and often causes breakups in the relationship.

The best way to pre-empt this type of behavior is to take the initiative to understand the other's point of view. When the other person disagrees, simply restate what he has said in your words. Like this: "Hmm, so you think that if we do this (at this point re-state his words) that the outcome will be like that, huh?" Now you assume his point of view. He will see that you take his suggestion seriously. He may correct you slightly so that you have a better understanding of what his is saying, so you re-state it again.

Once you understand his view point, you can simply say, "right if we do this (his viewpoint), then the outcome may be like that (show the results), but if we do instead (insert your view on the matter) we can avoid this type of result and accomplish our desired goal easier. What do you think?"

You have shown him you are willing to see things from his angle on an even basis. You have given him the opportunity to do the same. If he is of the decent type, he will pick up on this and point our the negative in your viewpoint. In this manner, both of you gain since your goal is to achieve something.

This is what we learn from the Torah, that differences of opinion are always going to exist. As the famous Jewish folk statement: "two Jews, three opinions." The concept is to learn and grow; but this requires putting your ego on the back fire in deference to achieving a common profit or goal.

G-d gave us our differing characteristics so that we may argue with logic and rationalization and that we may grow by getting more insights when we understand our neighbor's viewpoints. Just as the learning of the Torah is done through argumentative reasoning, so must life be lived by presenting our viewpoints in a respectful manner and analyzing both viewpoints with complete indifference. Only in this manner will we come to the correct conclusion, and in the rare cases when the disagreements continue, still, since we treat the other with respect, we can continue our close relationships in spite of differences.

This is what life is made of: constantly striving for understanding and harmony. We may not always achieve our goals, but if we disagree respectfully we can certainly maintain good relationships with almost everyone.


from the March 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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