Seeing the Good in the Other: Some Practical Suggestions

As the media has reported, our enemies are calling for our destruction, God forbid. Two leading sages in Israel, Rav Yosef Sholom Eliashiv and Rav Aharon Y. Leib Shteinman, issued a statement on the dangerous state of affairs. Included in the suggestions of these sages was a call for each of us to strengthen Klal Yisrael – the Community of Israel - through examining one’s conduct and to especially avoid strife and arguments. They cited the tradition that in the generation of King Ahab, when many people worshiped idols, the People of Israel still merited to have some victories over their enemies, as in that generation, people avoided strife and had a sense of unity.  Rav Eliashiv and Rav Shteinman therefore urged that each of us strive to make peace between one person and another. The following letter is in the spirit of their comments:


Seeing the Good in the Other: Some Practical Suggestions

Dear Friends,

According to the Vilna Gaon, a leading 18th century sage, the following verse mentions a basic principle of how people react to one another:


"As water reflects a face back to a face, so one's heart is reflected back to him by another." (Proverbs 27:19).


Whatever expression is on your face when you look into water, that is the expression you will see staring back at you. So too, explains the Vilna Gaon, if you feel positive about another person, that person will feel positive towards you. But if inwardly you feel negative towards someone, even if you do not verbally say anything bad to him, he will have negative feelings toward you.
Thinking about the good points of a person can have a positive influence on the way that person thinks about you; however, in some difficult cases, one may need to engage in this practice for a longer period before any positive change is noticed. In addition, the individual you are thinking about may be unusually stubborn or wicked; thus, he may constantly block out the positive effects of your thinking. Despite the possible exceptions, the above teaching from Proverbs is a recommended guideline for troubled relationships, and Rabbi Chayim Zaitchyk, a noted teacher of Mussar - Torah ethics - tells an amazing story which serves as an example of this guideline:
In the days of Rabbi Chayim of Volozhin (a noted disciple of the Vilna Gaon), it occurred that a butcher became very angry at the rabbi of his city for rendering a decision that the meat of a cow the butcher wanted to sell was not kosher. The decision cost the butcher a great loss. In his rage, the butcher devised a scheme to murder the rabbi! This was very shocking and unusual, as acts of murder were extremely rare among Jewish communities in the diaspora. On a pretext, he had the rabbi travel with him on a lonely road. In the middle of the way, the butcher took out his sharp knife and wanted to kill the rabbi.
At first, the rabbi pleaded with the butcher to have compassion on him. But this was to no avail. When the rabbi saw that nothing he could say would make a difference, he started to mentally focus on all of the positive qualities and attributes of the butcher that he was familiar with. Suddenly, there was an amazing transformation. In the middle of the rabbi's thinking about the virtues of the butcher, the butcher changed his mind. With a strong feeling of love, the butcher - with tears in his eyes - kissed the rabbi and begged his forgiveness.

Even when we need to rebuke others for a constructive purpose, we should first see the good in them. In this way, we can remind them of their potential. For example, if a friend is about to commit an injustice, you should not say, "You must be a cruel and immoral person if you are planning to do this!"  Instead, you can say, "I have always respected your character, but the act that you are planning to do is not in keeping with your own good values, as I shall explain."  I discovered this insight when I came across a teaching which was cited in the name of Rabbi Moshe Alshich, a noted sage and biblical commentator of the 16th century who taught Torah in the holy city of Tsfas (Safed), which is located in the northern section of the Land of Israel. He explains that in order for a rebuke to be effective, we need to address the good and wise part of the person - which is actually his true essence.  He finds a reference to this idea in the following advice of King Solomon:


"Do not admonish the scoffer, lest he hate you; admonish the wise person, and he will love you." (Proverbs 9:8)


According to Rabbi Moshe Alshich, the above verse has the following deeper meaning: There is a scoffer and a wise person within each of us. If you address the scoffer within the other person, he will resent your criticism and hate you; however, if you address the wise soul within him - his true essence - then he will love you for reminding him of his true and good nature. This is universal advice which all people can follow by remembering that the friend one is rebuking is created in the Divine image (Genesis 5:1).
In the spirit of the above teachings, I will share with you a story about Rabbi Aryeh Levin, who was a beloved sage of Jerusalem during the 20th century. He was once walking with his grandson, and he asked the boy the following question: "Is it better to be a hater of falsehood or a lover of truth?" Both are high levels, and the grandson did not know how to respond. Reb Aryeh answered:


"To be a lover of truth is a higher level. Someone who hates falsehood will see the falsehood that exists in every person, and he may come to despise them or even hate them, God forbid. A lover of truth, however, will see the truth in every person, and he will come to honor them and even love them."
There is a bit of truth in each person. The Mishnah therefore teaches in the name of Ben Zoma: "Who is wise? The one who learns from every human being" (Pirkei Avos 4:1).

May we be blessed with a chodesh tov – a good month. And may this month bring us comfort, redemption, and true shalom.

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen

Hazon - Our Universal Vision