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Letting go of being right

Rabbi Goldenberg is mediating a quarrelling couple in his study at home. When the wife finishes her tirade against her husband, the rabbi strokes his beard and says, “You’re right”. Ten minutes later, after the husband completes his harangue, the rabbi sways back and forth and remarks, “You’re right”. 

Unable to contain herself, the rebbetzin, who has overheard the entire conversation from the kitchen, marches into the study and rebukes her husband: “Yankel, the husband and wife have not agreed on anything, their viewpoints are polar opposite, how can you suggest that they are both right?”

The rabbi smiles at his wife and replies, “You’re right too.”

Unlike the well-intentioned rabbi, most of us are more likely to insist, “I am right!”.  We hold strong beliefs we are convinced to be correct. We develop complex confirmation biases to prove the justice of our causes. The atheist and the Talmudist believe equally in their ideologies. The yeshivah student is as convinced as the IDF soldier that he is protecting our People. 

When “I am right” collides with “I am right” neither can be correct. 

The Omer period reminds us how dangerous it can be to insist we have a monopoly on truth. Over this period, we mourn the tragic loss of 24,000 budding scholars, the students of the famed Rabbi Akivah. Despite their wholehearted study of Torah and dedication to its values, they treated each other disrespectfully. Talmudic scholars have locked horns for generations without compromising their friendship, but these rabbis lacked the mutual respect that should balance intellectual sparring. 

What makes the story mysterious is that they were disciples of the man who taught that the love of every Jew is the bedrock of Judaism. You wonder how students of someone who preached love could lack empathy. 

Rabbi Akivah was an intensely spiritual person with a fiery dedication to G-d. When the Romans outlawed Torah study, he risked his life to continue teaching it. They eventually arrested him and sentenced him to a gruesome execution. Rabbi Akivah was unfazed. As they raked his flesh from his body, Rabbi Akivah reassured his students that he had prayed for this opportunity. Every day he read the Shema, Rabbi Akivah wondered if he would be privileged to love G-d with “all his soul” by being forced to return it due to his commitment to Judaism. 

 Rabbi Akivah transferred his unwavering conviction to his followers. Like their rabbi, they wanted to cling to Torah at all costs. Admirable as that is, it became their undoing. Each student diligently dissected his teacher’s messages uniquely, convinced that his was the ultimate interpretation of the Master’s words. When his colleague offered an alternative insight, he hunkered down, insisting: “I am right”. Unable to consider another view, they refused to respect someone who, in their view, corrupted their mentor’s teachings.  

Lag Baomer celebrates the end of the plague that ravaged Rabbi Akivah’s students. It also marks the yartzeit of the most famous survivor of the epidemic, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. 

Rabbi Shimon was a mystic who had little care for materialismFor twelve years, he hid in a cave to elude the Romans, who had placed a price on his head. Rabbi Shimon thrived in the seclusion of that grotto, developing a deep understanding of Jewish law and spirituality. When he reentered society, he felt repulsed by people’s obsession with wealth and disregard for the Torah. Rather than criticising the populace, he returned to the cave for another year to learn to appreciate their perspective. The ascetic Rabbi Shimon emerged as one of the most relatable rabbis of his time.   

Lag Baomer is the holiday of Jewish unity. It expects little of us religiously. Sit around a bonfire, and you plug into Lag Baomer. Join a joyous street parade, and you enter Lag Baomer mode. 

Lag Baomer runs deeper than simple feel-good communal events. The day challenges us to remember what happens when we insist we know The Way. It invites us to share fireside chats with people who look and think differently from us. It dares us to listen without judgment. Lag Baomer healed the wound of Rabbi Akivah’s fractured students, and its lesson can heal our nation. The only time we can be sure we are right is when we admit that perhaps we were wrong about someone we criticised.  

About the Author
Rabbi Shishler is the director of Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton, South Africa. Rabbi Shishler is a popular teacher who regularly lectures around the globe. he hosts a weekly radio show in South Africa and is the rabbi of Facebook's largest Ask the Rabbi group. Rabbi Shishler is also a special needs father. His daughter, Shaina has an ultra-rare neuroegenratove condition called BPAN. Rabbi Shishler shares Shaina's story and lessons about kindness and disability inclusion on his other blog, "Shaina's Brocha" and through lectures and Kindness Cookies teambuilding workshops.
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