“What Makes a Good Fight” by Lauren Shaps
Hey to the Chevra,
My husband and I were in Dallas last weekend for a family wedding. I had the extra special pleasure of seeing some of the Dallas city leaders and speaking at the Jewish Learning Center of Dallas for Hudy Abrams’ warm and welcoming JWRP alumnae, the Israelites. The group asked me to speak about getting along with difficult people. In preparing my talk, entitled “Dealing with Dimishers: How to Rise Above the People who Pull us Down,” I realized the Torah is full of difficult people and wisdom for how to cope.
This week’s Parsha, Parashat Korach, is great example. It teaches us about what not to do, how not to deal with conflict. By studying what we shouldn’t do, we learn about how to have a good fight. A "good fight" sounds like an oxymoron. How can a fight be good? The Torah is our guidebook for the realities of life. If we take a closer look we can determine what makes a conflict bad or good.
The Mishna in Pirkei Avot 5:12, tells us that a dispute that is l'sheim shamayim (for the sake of Heaven) will have a constructive outcome, but one that is not l'sheim shamayim will not have a constructive outcome. What are the two examples that the Mishna gives? The dispute between Hillel and Shammai was for the greater good and the dispute of Korach and his group was not.
A good fight requires preparation. The boxer spends hours hitting hard. The army repeats its manoeuvres over and over. The IDF prepares for every act of aggression they can anticipate coming their way. How do we prepare for the battles we face?
Step 1 is to know your goal. The Mishna contrasts the dispute between Hillel and Shammai with the dispute of Korach. What was the goal of Hillel and Shammai? They were both committed to conveying the truth of Torah to their students and to the next generation. They agreed on all but three arguments in Jewish law. Why does the Mishna list them as the model of a good fight? Their arguments were not about their image or reputation, nor were they about power or control. Their disagreements were for the greater good, for a higher purpose, with the goal of seeking and disseminating truth.
The Mishna shows that the Sages were not impressed with Korach because Moses is not even mentioned. The argument wasn't between Korach and Moses. The conflict was within Korach and the complainers who sided with him. The goal of Korach and his cohorts was to massage their own egos and sense of self-importance.
So know your goal. Be honest. Is this conflict necessary for the greater good, or is this a conflict about ego, emotion, winning and knocking the other to the ground? If I know my goal and my goal is good, then what prevents the other person from seeing things my way? How can I disagree with them in a way that will bring us closer together? How can I choose connection without caving? Hillel and Shammai were on the same team. They had slightly different perspectives on how to reach the goal. My kids and I may have different views about what constitutes a clean room. My husband and I could have different opinions about what defines saving money or taking a vacation, but we're on the same team. If I present my opinion while acknowledging the other perspective too, then there's a good chance that we can achieve an outcome that benefits both.
Step 2 is practice your delivery. Convey your acceptance of the other person and their right to see things differently. Sometimes when we get steamed up, we head into the debate armed and dangerous. If we vigorously attack, then what choice does the other person have but to dig in and defend? Each one of us is different and our Creator intentionally formed us that way. My weaknesses may be someone else's strengths and my strengths may be their weaknesses. Each of us will have different wants, needs, thoughts, ideas, desires. The American ideal is the cowboy or the pioneer. We idealize those who are independent, who go it alone. In Judaism we value interdependence, each of us working together towards a higher goal.
In the areas of disagreement, Jewish law goes according to the opinion of the students of Hillel. The reason given is because the students of Hillel, when asked, would first state the opinion of the students of Shammai and only then state their own. Does Jewish law opt for the students of Hillel because they were nice guys with good manners? Perhaps, but perhaps our Sages were teaching us an important lesson in the process. If I don't understand another's view, then how can I be sure of the truth of my position? Often the whole truth is multifaceted and I won't get there without hearing other opinions and approaches. If I am entrenched in my position, I'll miss the bigger picture. If I am truly searching for the truth then I will be open to all possibilities.
Have you ever been furious until you find out some little piece of information that totally takes the wind out of your sails? You've really had it because your friend didn't show up for your coffee date. Then you realize that the clock changed the night before and you were, in reality, an hour late? You were the one who stood up your friend, but at first you had no clue. If I can't hear another's point of view, then I will never fully know the accuracy of my own.
The Torah ideal of a good fight is one that brings each of us to a higher place, a greater understanding, a clearer truth. We won't always agree, but perhaps through give and take, discourse and debate, we will all come to a place of shleimut (completeness) and shalom (peace).
Best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom,