We are so accustomed to hearing people condemn each other that we barely pay it any heed anymore. I don’t know if people used to condemn less often or less vigorously, but it certainly feels that way to me. These days it seems that every time someone opens their mouth to speak of others, you can expect a condemnation. People like to pull themselves up by tearing others down.
We all have pedestals upon which we like to sit. Even if others don’t place us on those pedestals, we place ourselves on them. We determine our own virtues and build ourselves pedestals to sit on. This one is honest, this one has integrity, this one is smart, the other is generous. We each shine in some way. But sadly, we also feel that we need to put down others who lack what we have.
If I keep kosher, I get to malign those who don’t. If you are charitable, you get to condemn those who aren’t. I don’t compliment you for your charity or you compliment me for keeping kosher. No, that doesn’t work. We each focus on what we have, and the other doesn’t. Only then do we feel worthy.
It is a condemnation game. I put you down behind your back and you put me down behind my back. Except that we each pretend that no one thinks or speaks ill of us. We imagine that we are unmarred, and only others are corrupt. This one lies, the other cheats, and the other is naïve. We, goes the lie, are perfect.
A Different Approach
There is another way that might not have occurred to many of us, but it is much sweeter and simpler. This is a novel approach. It suggests that the best way for me live is by the values that I live and the best way for you to live is by the values that you live. For example, I don’t talk before prayer when I enter the synagogue, not because I am too holy, but because I am too easily distracted. Another, who has better concentration than I do, can chat amiably and then turn seamlessly to his prayers. Isn’t that possible?
Instead of saying I am righteous and don’t converse with others before I talk to G-d, which leads to the obvious conclusion that others, who do converse before prayers, are less righteous, I can say that my capacity for concentration is lower than theirs, which is why they can and I cannot. In fact, they are fortunate because they don’t need to ignore others to concentrate on G-d. That is a very different way to look at life.
How about this one? Some people give to charity at the synagogue, and others don’t. The easy assumption is that the former are charitable and the latter are not. How about another approach? Those who don’t give to charity at the synagogue gave all their spare change to poor people on the street before they entered the synagogue whereas those who give at the synagogue routinely ignore the paupers on the streets. Isn’t that possible?
This is a much sweeter way to live because it provides us a happier and healthier environment for life. Instead of concocting theories and supporting it with circumstantial evidence that leads to condemnation and negative energy, you get to enjoy a relaxing and life-affirming environment. Rather than using your energy to put others down, you use your creative juices to devise elaborate justifications for the things they seem to do or not to do. This is so much healthier and so much more fun.
It is not only the absence of a negative, it is also the addition of a positive. If you spend your day condemning everyone around you, you have no one to emulate and no motive to improve. You are already the best person in the room and there is no one more worthy than you. Why should you emulate the fellow who never gives to charity or who chats up his friends before prayer? On the contrary, that is someone worthy of condemnation, right?
But if you believe that he chats with others because he can easily compartmentalize and when he commences his prayers he isn’t distracted by his previous conversations, you have something to strive towards. You know that if you engage in conversation, the topic weighs heavily on your mind for hours and you can’t focus. If you see another who can, you have something to aspire to and to work towards. Namely, to improve and increase your capacity for concentration.
If you determine that the fellow who never gives to charity at the synagogue is stingy, you have no reason to emulate him. On the contrary, you should ignore his example. But if you decide that he doesn’t give to charity at the synagogue because he distributes all his change to poor people on the street, you have something to emulate.
Of course, this doesn’t and shouldn’t come at the price of charity at the synagogue. But knowing that another gives to charity in a way that you don’t, gives you the motivation to enhance your giving formula. Bring along two coins, one to give to a poor person on the street, and another to give to charity at the synagogue. You see, thinking highly of others, serves to bring you higher too.
They Didn’t Look
When the Torah describes the plague of darkness, it says that the Egyptians “didn’t see each other, and no one rose from their place.” On the face of it, one wonders about the connection between the two stitches of this verse. They did not see each other, and they did not rise from their place. Not seeing another is indicative of intense darkness. But what does it mean that they could not rise from their place? It sounds like an unnatural heaviness descended upon them and paralyzed them. What has this to do with darkness?
The plain meaning is that it was so dark that the Egyptians lost their equilibrium and could not rise. But on a deeper level, the Torah is offering a deep psychological teaching about togetherness. When the Jewish people left Egypt, they became a nation. The Torah wanted to point out the deficiencies in the Egyptian nation so that Jews would not learn from them.
Though Egyptians lived near each other, they did not see anything valuable in each other. They failed to see one another. The qualities and strengths of the other were right before their eyes, but they were blind to them. They insisted on seeing another’s strengths as weaknesses and another’s qualities as failures.
Because they refused to see anything good in one another, they failed to raise themselves. As we explained earlier, when you identify good qualities in another, you discover a good model to emulate. But if you insist on seeing everyone around you as lesser than you, you have no one to emulate, and you never rise from your station.
This is a primer on how not to be a nation. A true nation is comprised of brothers, who lift each other up and who learn from one another. When you look around the Jewish nation today, you see many factions. In and of itself, this is a good thing. It provides many perspectives and orientations to all things Jewish. The problem is that rather than affirming the plurality of perspectives (I speak of halachically valid perspectives of Judaism), we often place our own group on a pedestal and pull others down.
Before we were even born as a nation, the Torah instructed us on how to behave as a nation. Don’t put others down, said the Torah. See the good in each other. Not only will this serve to bring out the best in others, but it will also bring out the best in you.