A few months ago, I wrote a post about the concept of “makom kavua” (one’s assigned seat in shul), and when I thought the concept did and did not apply. Someone emailed me that in his shul, a second person – let’s call him Jim – told the first person in a very aggressive manner that Jim was entitled to sit in a particular seat while attending a shiur even though from a halachic perspective, he had no right to the seat because the concept of “makom kavua” does not extend to situations other than prayer. I advised the first person that if this seat was so meaningful to Jim, then it might make sense for the first person to simply not sit there. The first person then asked me whether that was the appropriate thing to do because then Jim will feel that he can bully him whenever Jim wants. Jim is bullying him about a seat to which he is not entitled and, in the future, he will feel comfortable to bully him about other things.
This question made me wonder more broadly about the following issue. On the one hand, the Gemara in Masechet Taanit 25b praises Rabbi Akiva for being “ma’avir al midotav,” for turning the other cheek and wiping away any hurt because of something that someone did to him. On the other hand, if we simply wipe away the hurt done to us, then aren’t we simply encouraging the perpetrator to continue to bully us?
In general, bullying is the deliberate use of an actual or perceived power imbalance to harm another, either physically, emotionally or through social exclusion. Bullying behaviors typically happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once. Most types of aggressive, rude or negative behavior are not bullying; rather, they are instrumental aggression. Very often, as a side effect of instrumental aggression, someone will be hurt.
How do we respond to this type of aggression? The first line of defense is self-control, to be able to manage our own emotional responses, to understand why the aggressive behavior is triggering us. Why we are we so upset that the other person wants his seat? Are we making the assumption that his demand is personally directed at us? Is this assumption false? How are we responding to the other person? What are we saying and, more importantly, what does our body language convey? Are we working hard to ensure that our response defuses the situation instead of exacerbating a power struggle?
In the particular case just mentioned, if someone for whatever reason feels passionate about sitting in his seat and I don’t feel that passionate about it and I am not going to change his mind about his emotional connection to his seat, then I don’t think that there is a purpose to fighting about it. In this instance, I am ultimately not being harmed because there are certainly many other seats available. If the person is aggressive in a way that actually harms me or can potentially harm me, for example, if there are no other seats available, then I am certainly entitled to protect myself. Additionally, if this seat issue is simply one example of how this other person will utilize an actual or perceived power imbalance to exhibit aggressive behavior against me, then I must form a response that protects me from escalating aggression. But from my personal experience, I have found that often we can find ourselves in situations where someone has acted aggressively to achieve something that we don’t really care all that much about, but we feel it’s not fair that that person has acted aggressively and gotten away with it. In other words, it is the injustice that bothers us more than the actual offense. In an instance like the one that I described where there’s no long-term ramifications to this person’s behavior, that is where the Gemara’s dictum of being “ma’avir al midotav” would apply. It really involves recognizing that the behavior is not directed personally at me; rather, it is a reflection of the emotional state of the aggressor. Simply put, it’s just the way that that person acts and I will likely not be successful in trying to change him. Of course, in an instance of an actual pattern of bullying, a different approach would be warranted. But in my experience, this is thankfully rarely the case.
I received a beautiful text from someone last week. She wrote, “I have gradually begun to develop rachmanut (compassion) towards my brother. He is argumentative and condescending, and lacks insight into his behavior. It’s liberating to finally feel compassion instead of anger.” Indeed, it can be very liberating to be the kind of person who will work hard to wipe away the hurt and transform feelings of anger into compassion when dealing with others who may exhibit instrumental aggression.