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  Playing with Fire from
The Gift of Speech
Refining the way we speak: An inspiring blend of stories, laws, and insights.

By Rabbi Shimon Finkelman 

Other Available Chapters
The Benefit of the Doubt 

Playing with Fire

One Chanukah, the yeshivah which I was attending invited a respected talmid chacham to address us at the annual Chanukah mesibah (festive gathering). How surprised I was to hear this talmid chachamquote, of all people, a professional football coach!

The coach’s name was Vince Lombardi and his statement was, “Winning isn’t everything -- it’s the only thing.”

The speaker mentioned this not to compliment Vince Lombardi, but to contrast the way a Torah Jew views the world, and the way society at large looks at things. In the gentile world, power and strength are measured by one’s ability to dominate over others. If you and I engage in competition and I come out ahead, then I am a “success” and you are a “failure.”

The Torah, however, has a very different view of things. True strength is not measured by who wins the game or who wins the argument. The Torah teaches that what is truly important is inner strength, how well I can control myself. “Who is truly strong? One who controls his yetzer hara.”

If I win the game and I ridicule the loser, then I am the real loser. If I lose the game and I tell my teammate whose error let the winning run score, “Forget about it; it could have happened to anyone,” then I am truly a winner.

So, Mr. Lombardi was more than a bit mistaken. The correct motto is:

“Winning isn’t everything -- doing what is right is everything.”

The Real Enemy

Our Sages teach that “there is no vessel that can contain blessing like [the vessel] of peace.” On the other hand, there is nothing as destructive as machlokes (dispute and strife). The Chofetz Chaim writes:

For Jews to feud with each other is a dreadful sin that is often accompanied by other sins: lashon hara, sinas chinam (senseless hatred), ona’as devarim (causing hurt through words), embarrassing someone, seeking revenge, bearing a grudge... At times, strife leads to chillul Hashem (desecration of Hashem’s Name), a very severe sin.

A great Rosh Yeshivah once discussed the yetzer hara which some people seem to have for taking sides in an argument. What is it, this rosh yeshivah wondered, that pulls these people into the quicksand of dispute, which can destroy friendships, family peace and sometimes, whole communities?

To answer this question, he drew an analogy to America’s preoccupation with professional sports. What is it that drives millions of people to spend countless hours listening to or viewing “their team” perform? What do they stand to gain from seeing their team win? If their favorites go on to win the world championship, will they show appreciation to their loyal fans and share their championship paycheck with them?

The source of “sports-mania,” explained this talmid chacham, is an urge to emerge triumphant from competition. If Mr. Jones roots for the Carolina Southerns and the Southerns win, then in Mr. Jones’ mind, he has won.

This very same urge is what drives people to take sides in disputes and engage in mudslinging, protesting and all the other shameful activities that dispute brings with it. When a person takes a side in a feud and his side prevails, then he sees himself as a winner.

But as we have explained, this is contrary to a very basic quality which every Jew should possess: self-control. We should seek to conquer the real enemy -- our own yetzer hara -- and bend over backwards to make peace even when we know that the other side is at fault.

Eight days before he passed away, R’ Moshe Sherer shared his very last Torah thought on this earth with a young man who entered his hospital room to wish him “Good Shabbos”:

As we all know, three times a day, every Jew takes three steps back at the conclusion of Shemoneh Esrei and says, “Oseh Shalom (May He who makes peace)...” We bow to the left, to the right and then forward as we say these words. Why must we step back and bow?

This, explained R’ Sherer, is to teach us that there is really only one way for a person to truly achieve peace among people. He must “step back,” meaning, he must drop his personal interests and not cling stubbornly to his personal viewpoint. Instead, he must concern himself with what is truly good for everyone and he must strive to understand the viewpoint of his adversary.

But merely stepping back is not sufficient. After he has convinced himself to think openly and objectively, he must take action for the sake of peace. He must turn to the left, to the right and to the center, each time “bending,” that is, compromising a little.

Humble yourself and compromise, for only then can you achieve true peace.

Real Strength

From the great gaon and tzaddik R’ Moshe Feinstein, we can learn the meaning of true inner strength.

Once, R’ Moshe issued a psak (halachic ruling) which caused somewhat of a stir in the Torah world. There were great poskimof that time who disagreed with R’ Moshe’s ruling, but they were careful to do so in a manner which showed their tremendous awe and respect of R’ Moshe. One rav, however, attacked R’ Moshe’s decision in a manner which bordered on disrespect. R’ Moshe knew of this, but did not respond.

The following summer, R’ Moshe and this rav vacationed in the same area in the Catskill Mountains. A new mikveh was built in the neighborhood and before it was used, R’ Moshe was asked to inspect it to make sure that it was built according to halachah. R’ Moshe agreed -- on one condition. Since the other rav was also in the neighborhood and it would be beneficial to have his endorsement as well, it was only right, said R’ Moshe, that he should be asked to accompany him on the inspection.

Someone present could not believe his ears. “That rav...?” he asked incredulously. “But he had the nerve...”

R’ Moshe interrupted him. “I must have the rav accompany me.” And he did accompany R’ Moshe.

Someone without the midos (character traits) of R’ Moshe might have been happy to see the rav excluded from the mikveh inspection. “Wonderful,” he might have thought, “now, that rav will be put in his place. Everyone knows that both of us are staying in this neighborhood. When the announcements of the mikveh’s opening are posted, bearing only my endorsement, people will realize whose opinion is really valued! I will emerge from this dispute victorious!”

Of course, such thoughts never entered R’ Moshe’s mind. To the contrary, as a tzaddik who loved peace and pursued it, he insisted on according honor to a person who had acted improperly towards him.

R’ Moshe was a man of true inner strength.

In the Way of Moshe

In fact, the lesson of how to act when we are wronged can be learned from none other than Moshe Rabbeinu. The Torah relates, in great detail, the shameful rebellion led by Korach, Dasan and Aviram. That rebellion was not the first time that Dasan and Aviram had opposed Moshe. In Egypt, they informed on Moshe to Pharaoh, causing Moshe to flee the land and remain separate from his people for many years. In the Wilderness, it was Dasan and Aviram who left over manna from one day to the next after Moshe had instructed the people, in Hashem’s Name, that nothing was to be left over (except for the extra portion which fell on Friday in honor of Shabbos).

Yet when Korach rejected Moshe’s plea for peace, Moshe sent a message to Dasan and Aviram in the hope of convincing them to abandon their dispute before it was too late. From here, our Sages derive the lesson, “One should not keep up a dispute, for Moshe went after them to restore harmony with words of peace.”

In his introduction to Sefer Chofetz Chaim, the Chofetz Chaim writes that a person who is involved in a dispute and speaks lashon hara about his opponent has also transgressed the commandment “that he not be like Korach and his assembly.”

Our Sages compare strife to fire. A fire that rages out of control can cause untold destruction. And so it is with strife. When a dispute is not settled quickly and with the two sides showing respect for one another, the situation is likely to get out of hand. Outsiders join the argument and lashon hara spills over into the streets. Ultimately, the dispute can engulf an entire community and permanently shatter the peace and harmony that once reigned.

The Only Solution

“Altman’s Appliances”* was busier than ever. Mr. Altman was a fine gentleman with a sterling reputation, and for the most part he had surrounded himself with workers who had helped him to build his business.

One day Eli, a salesperson who had been with the store for two years, became involved in an argument with a customer. It was not the first time that the hot-tempered young man had argued with a customer, but this was by far the worst. The two had come close to blows when a quick-thinking worker, who decided to escort the customer out of the store, saved the day.

After closing time, Mr. Altman called Eli in. “You know, I’ve spoken to you many times about controlling your temper. What happened today is inexcusable. Had the argument continued any longer, the police might have been called in. The chillul Hashem was horrible. I’m sorry, but you cannot work here any longer. I will provide you with up to a half-year’s pay until you find another job.”

Eli wasted no time in informing his close friend, Shlomo, of the news. Shlomo had been with the store since its opening and Mr. Altman relied on him for many things. Shlomo knocked on his boss’ office door and entered to plead Eli’s case. But Mr. Altman would not budge. “His behavior with the customers is shameful and I’ve spoken to him about it many times. He has six months to find a new job; I’ll pay him his full salary all that time should he remain unemployed.

“The matter is closed.”

Shlomo was upset. He felt that his loyalty and excellent performance of many years entitled him -- and his friend -- to special consideration. And he was not afraid to speak his mind -- he knew that Mr. Altman needed him.

“You may be the captain of this ship, Mr. Altman, but you’d be nowhere without your crew. And frankly, I feel like jumping ship right now.” Shlomo turned and left.

Tzvi, another longtime employee, happened to be outside the office, and since the door was ajar, he had overheard the conversation. He was shocked by Shlomo’s words and attitude and he told him this in no uncertain terms.

“I cannot believe that you spoke to Mr. Altman like that! First of all, he is considerably older than you. Secondly, you and I both know what a wonderful boss he’s been all these years. I understand that Eli is your friend, but...”

Shlomo cut him off in mid-sentence. “I didn’t ask you for your opinion, Mr. Know-It-All. Stay out of my business!”

The next day, after he had calmed down, Shlomo apologized to Mr. Altman. But he steadfastly refused to speak to Tzvi. When Tzvi wished him “Good morning,” Shlomo simply ignored him. When their paths crossed on a business matter, Shlomo spoke only the absolute minimum. This situation continued for a few days.

Tzvi was extremely upset. It is very unpleasant working side by side with someone who refuses to speak with you. A few other workers who were friends of Shlomo were acting cooly towards Tzvi, though they were speaking to him. Tzvi felt that he could not continue this way indefinitely. And he did not want to quit and search for a new job.

He knew that he had done nothing wrong. If anything, Shlomo should have apologized to him. But that was not going to happen. Knowing Shlomo, he might very well ignore him for the next forty years.

Tzvi decided that there was only one solution to the problem. He approached Shlomo privately and said, “I’m sorry for what I said the other day. I was only trying to be helpful.”

It seemed that Shlomo had been waiting for an apology. “That’s okay,” he quickly replied. “Let bygones be bygones.” And that was the end of the matter.

* * *

Once, a middle-aged man fell ill and underwent tests. The diagnosis was not good; the man had a life-threatening growth which required immediate surgery. The man told his family members, “I’m not going through with this surgery. I suffered enough under the Nazis; I will not subject myself to this sort of surgery and its aftermath.” The man agreed to consult R’ Avraham Yitzchak Kohen, the late Toldos Aharon Rebbe of Jerusalem, whose guidance he often sought.

The Rebbe listened patiently as the man expressed his anguish and fears. When he finished, the Rebbe asked, “Am I not correct that it is now many months that you and R’ ____ are embroiled in a bitter feud?” The man replied affirmatively. “Well,” continued the Rebbe, “the time has come for you to make peace. I realize that you feel that you have been wronged and it will be very hard for you to humble yourself and approach him in a gesture of peace. Nevertheless, you must do it. In this merit, you will be fine and will not require surgery.”

The man did find the Rebbe’s instructions extremely difficult to carry out. Nevertheless, he approached his adversary, apologized, and was successful in bringing the feud to an end. Later, he returned to the doctor and had the tests repeated. To the doctor’s amazement, there was no trace of a growth. The man received a clean bill of health.

Sign of True Love

Machlokes (strife) is so dreadful that the Chofetz Chaim found it necessary to caution children that if their parents are involved in a dispute, they should not take their parents’ side and join the fray. For example, even if a son is certain that his father is right, he should not take his side. It is quite possible that his love for his father will blind him so that he will not recognize the truth, for a parent and child are like a single soul. Even if a father orders his son to join him in the dispute, the son must respectfully refrain from doing so. Our Sages derive from a Torah verse that a parent should not be obeyed when he or she instructs a child to sin.

In a situation where a father has a high regard for his son’s opinion, it is a mitzvah for the son to seek to make peace between his father and the other party. In fact, there is really no greater help that a child can offer a parent than to extricate him or her from the flames of dispute.

In the Chofetz Chaim’s yeshivah in Radin, a major dispute concerning curriculum arose among the talmidim, which threatened to permanently destroy the peace and harmony that had existed in the yeshivah until that point. The yeshivah administration attempted to hide the matter from the aged Chofetz Chaim, out of fear that the news might affect his health. However, the Chofetz Chaim learned of the dispute and he felt broken over it. Despite his frailty, he made his way to the yeshivah where he delivered a two-hour address on the destructiveness of strife. At one point he cried out, “What do you think, that I too will join the fray? I would sooner close down seventy yeshivos than join a group of baalei lashon hara.”

The Chofetz Chaim succeeded in resolving the dispute.

Sound Advice

R’ Yitzchak Koledetsky writes of his father’s rebbi, R’ Shabsi Varnikovsky:

R’ Shabsi was taught by his rebbeim that at a time when a dispute erupts in the community, even a dispute l’shem Shamayim (for the sake of Heaven), there is great danger of speaking the forbidden. The only solution, then, is to refrain from becoming involved in the dispute, to flee from it as far as can be, for the danger is great.

At such times, one should be especially careful to avoid taking part in group conversations, for there is a strong yetzer hara (evil inclination) to speak out against the other side. Every day there will be new developments which involve lashon hara and rechilus, and it is virtually impossible to avoid transgression.

It happened that a dispute erupted in a certain city to which a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim was preparing to travel. The Chofetz Chaim warned his talmid in strong terms not to spend the night there, for he would very likely become entangled in lashon hara and rechilus.

My father, R’ Shachna Koledetsky, of blessed memory, would add that experience has shown: Those who become entangled in machlokes (strife), though their intentions were l’shem Shamayim, ultimately crossed the bounds of what is correct and proper, may Hashem save us from this.

My father would caution us to stay far away from strife. He would forbid discussion of such matters in our home, in keeping with the verse, “One who guards his mouth and tongue guards his soul from troubles.”

Seek Peace

David HaMelech declared, “Seek peace and pursue it,” to which our Sages comment, “Seek peace today and pursue it tomorrow.”

The Chofetz Chaim explains this with the analogy of a wagon which is pulled by thick ropes. No matter how thick the ropes are, if they are strained day after day, year after year, they will eventually tear. Similarly, if a peacemaker does not succeed in his first attempt to settle a dispute, he should not give up. Ultimately, his words will accomplish something. Even if he does not settle the quarrel completely, he may succeed in making it a more civilized disagreement, or he may convince some of the “minor players” in the feud to make peace among themselves. In this way, he will have saved them from the bitter results of strife and will be worthy of the great reward for those who make peace, of which our Sages say, “The fruits are enjoyed in this world, while the primary reward remains intact for the World to Come.”

*Names and circumstances in this story have been changed. The basic idea is true.
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