So let's get started.
What's the best way to handle an encounter with a very difficult person or a very difficult situation?
Step 1: Recognize Hashem's Hand in Things, But Be Honest
So let’s say that someone treats me horribly, infuriates me, cheats me or sabotages me, snipes at me with an infuriating little smirk, or runs roughshod over one of my most vulnerable points. Aack.
First of all, I need to at least intellectually recognize that it’s from Hashem. Emotionally, it’s not always possible to do this. But intellectually, yes. And I don’t have to pretend my attacker is a basically good person. If the attack is genuinely nasty, well, Hashem doesn’t use good people to carry out bad missions. Likely, that person has made a series of decisions throughout his or her life that persuaded Shamayim that he or she would be the perfect shaliach for some beneficial harm.
Here are some reasons why Hashem might send an unpleasant shaliach your way:
- To alert you to something similar in yourself that you need to work on - in fact, sometimes you may discover that you were actually the one in the wrong
- To alert you to daven for this unpleasant shaliach who apparently needs your prayers to help them achieve their potential
- To provide you with an opportunity to refrain from responding when insulted, which is a powerful time to make a request for yourself or for someone else (including for the teshuvah of the person who has just unloaded an entire round of verbal buckshot)
- To provide you with an opportunity to NOT get angry so that you can merit whatever money Shamayim would really like to send your way
- To give you yet another opportunity to properly handle a situation you generally mishandle in order to bump you up to the next level of your spiritual growth
- Any combination of the above
Anyway, you can then go to a private place and say, “Hashem, I know this is just a message from You. This person has no power of his or her own. I know You mean this for my ultimate good because You are always Good and everything You do is always Good.....but boy, am I MAD! GRRRRR! I hate this person! She always does this and I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE!!!!!!!!!!”
At some point in all this, it's likely that you'll naturally start thinking about this person and her life, whatever you know about her. And you’ll naturally start talking to Hashem about all the stuff this person has undergone that, combined with her innate nature, has caused her to become the kind of person she has become. You’ll naturally start to see how little free choice she has had. (At times like this, I may even start to realize that had I undergone what she did, I would be even worse – gulp!)
This is all very good. But at this point, it's also important to remember not to justify her toxic behavior. Understanding bad behavior is very different than justifying or excusing behavior that totally contradicts the Torah. Chazal gives us lots of examples of understanding sinful behavior without justifying or excusing it. If her behavior is halachically wrong, then it is wrong, regardless of her upbringing and blind spots. Judaism encourages us to find redeeming qualities, but we never say something is okay when it halachically isn’t.
(A lot of very well-meaning, compassionate people mess up on this point.)
Step 2: Daven for That Person
But now that you are feeling some compassion, you can start to plead on her behalf:
“Hashem, I don’t want her punished. What would that do? She wouldn’t even understand anyway. It would just reinforce her bitterness or feeling that as someone who has a hard life, she can treat people however she wants. Punishing her would just break her down even more. Could you please just help her realize on her own, in a pleasant way, that she needs to change? That she needs to do teshuvah? That she and the rest of us will all be so much happier if she would stop doing _____ and start doing ____?"
(Important note: The Komarna Rebbe has said that davening for the Erev Rav to do teshuvah actually nullifies their power. So if your nemesis has a Jewish soul, your davening can definitely help him or her to do teshuvah and finally become the fabulous person they have always had the potential to be. If they are Erev Rav, then the one holy spark that was holding them up gets sucked out and they are rendered totally powerless. This is described here and more fully here. So either way, you always win when you daven for someone to do teshuvah.)
Maybe, depending on the situation, you'll feel you should also daven for that person to have shalom bayit, nachas from their children, a generous and easy parnassah, and so on.
Then you can start doing some self-introspection.
Step 3: Cheshbon Hanefesh - Bringing It All Home
As stated above in Step 1, Hashem has good reasons for bringing problematic people into our cross-hairs. (And maybe there are other reasons that I've forgotten or haven't come across, in which case you can mention them in the comments.)
So then you can say something like, “Hashem, the very thought that I am anything like this horrible person is making me cringe, but anyway, nothing is hidden from You, so who am I fooling? So here it goes: Am I doing or have I ever done something similar to the horrible, infuriating, ghastly thing she has done to me?”
And you might think of something similar, even if it’s on a much smaller scale than how this person behaved. But Hashem whomped you in the face with this person who exhibits your trait magnified a million times just to make sure you wouldn’t miss it. (“Thanks, Hashem! I can always count on You to get me to clean up my act so that I can eventually – hopefully! – earn the most fabulous eternity possible – I just love You! You're always looking out for me - You’re the Best!”)
And then you can ask Hashem to help you do teshuvah, to overcome this problem, and to forgive you and atone for your sin, and never do it again.
Or maybe you can't think of anything.
Or maybe you did it in a past life and now you just can't remember.
That's okay. You can still say something like, "Nothing comes to mind, but if I have done something like that in this life or a past-life, please forgive me and help me atone for it."
Sort of like in the Bedtime Shema.
It goes without saying that Step 2 and Step 3 can be switched, i.e. you don't have to do it in that order. Hashem will take you where you need to go with this.
Okay, I used an extreme example, like when I am seething with rage. But this emuna method also works for people toward whom you feel ambivalent or even really like.
And it goes without saying that your way of speaking and going through the whole process might be totally different than mine and not at all like the example I described here. Which is what Hashem wants. He doesn’t want us to be the same.
Maybe It All Depends on You?
Anyway, it took me years to realize that even frum-from-birth people might never have been truly davened for. Teachers may daven for their students to be easier or successful for the teacher's convenience or reputation, and not for the student's sake. As another example, it's not uncommon for parents to feel (consciously or subconsciously) that their children are tormenting them, as if the child is making the parent feel bad. Like an enemy. A frum parent may daven for a child in the same way people use lucky charms. Like they’ll say the Shlah’s prayer for good children because that’s supposed to work and what else can they do anyway? "Sighhhhh...."
Or they daven by rote, without feelings of hope or joy or any heartfelt certainty that Hashem is really listening.
Or they’ll daven for the child to just get married already because they want the kid out of the house and settled down and don’t want that unpleasant feeling that “something’s wrong” – whether there is or isn’t something actually wrong. Meaning that they daven for an end to their own pain and not for an end to their child’s pain. (Although it's fine to daven for both.)
I knew someone who’s daughter was single for a long time and the daughter became depressed. But all the mother focused on was her own discomfort and how embarrassed she felt when other people realized that her daughter was isolating herself in her room all the time. She asked Hashem to marry off her daughter, but it was with a lot of bitterness toward her daughter and for the mother's own relief. Even after the daughter got married (to a not-so-great guy), the mother would still speak of that time with a lot of resentment, as if her daughter had intentionally harmed her in some way.
Of course, even this davening still has value as it's better than not davening at all or being an atheist, but it is not nearly as powerful as davening with at least an attempt at proper motivation and self-introspection.
So as mind-boggling as it may sound, you may be the first person to ever really daven for this person and that can have a powerful effect.
A real cheshbon hanefesh is one of the most excruciatingly painful and emotionally exhausting things to do, but it is also the most powerful as far as getting your prayers answered.
No pain, no gain, eh?
Or as the Gemara says, “L’fum tzara, agra – According to the exertion is the reward.”
And I guess that's it in a nutshell.