When reading authentic Torah literature, you must strive to understand what THE AUTHOR intends to convey—and not how well it matches up to your preconceived notions.
(Just like everybody else, I had & still struggle with preconceived notions. Reading authentic Torah literature helps me trash the false notions & internalize the true ones.)
Meaning, you must read these old classics with an open mind, a mind open to a completely different way of thinking—even if it contradicts social mores & popular wisdom in your society (including the sciences...especially the social sciences).
Doing this stretches & expands your mind, leading to true inner growth.
But as long as you seek to affirm your own ideas, you remain stuck.
(Again, speaking from personal experience here...)
What Do Torah Sources Say about Dealing with Difficult People?
Why did he say that? What did he mean by that? The author is a tzaddik with tremendous compassion & scholarship, so he must be right. If I don't like or understand something he says, the contradiction lies in me, not him. So what is he REALLY trying to convey? Not what I think he's saying, but what he REALLY means!
This led to shocking discoveries.
For example, almost every modern-day article, book, or shiur I encountered on ahavat Yisrael & sinat chinam emphasized the importance of maintaining a connection to others, being friends with everyone, NEVER reject others, do not allow distance, and so on.
But what to do with unhealthy people who hurt you?
The modern-day very well-intentioned frum writers & speakers exhorted: Love them! Give them the benefit of the doubt! Focus only on their good points! Continue to spend time with them as they wish! Distance is bad—connection is good!
But if you ever found that too painful, the advice quickly turned against you:
- "You need to develop a thicker skin."
- "Why take what they say/do seriously?"
- "You need to understand them more."
- "You need to focus on their good points."
- "You need to judge them even MORE favorably."
- "You need to pity them because of their background & stuff they went through."
By the way, some of the above IS true & good solid Torah advice.
For example, you should give the benefit of the doubt (unless doing so is harmful).
And yes, people can truly be stunted by their dysfunctional experiences.
You may also certainly feel pity for awful people (as long as it's healthy pity that does not lead you to enable their awful behavior).
Yet in contrast, dealing with a truly damaging person only by focusing on the good aspects & giving the benefit of the doubt usually does NOT remedy the problem.
Such people instinctively take advantage of your generous attitude toward them.
And if the person is truly bad & INTENTIONALLY hurts others, you're actually NOT allowed to give them the benefit of the doubt. On the contrary, the halacha commands you to suspect them EVEN when they do GOOD.
(And I've personally seen this in action. The good they do is usually a ploy to cover up unwholesome motivations.)
However, even if the person doesn't realize the harm they're doing and suffered through a terrible childhood, etc., that doesn't mean you should spend time with them.
It also does not make their forbidden behavior okay or permissible.
And THAT was the big chiddush.
Many speakers & writers (with genuinely good intentions) promoted ahavat Yisrael as staying "connected" to fellow Jews, no matter how emotionally & spiritually unhealthy they were.
(This was my experience, anyway. Yours may have been different. Not literally every writer or speaker did this, but most did.)
They portrayed the problem as lying within the sufferer—as if the crux of the problem lay within your attitude and not the attitude of the person with the bad middot.
(This remains an integral belief within American society—the idea that YOU are in control and that YOUR attitude DECIDES everything. Where is God?)
Again, sometimes it is true—the problem DOES lie within the negative attitude of the sufferer. He or she is the root cause of their own problem.
But what about when that's NOT true?
Delving into mussar & the Kli Yakar revealed a very different attitude—one I initially found shocking because it contradicted the popular material presented as the Torah ideal.
One of my first run-ins with the truth happened via the Kli Yakar.
I wrote a post on the discovery here:
That's the sur m'ra (turn from the bad) aspect of dealing with difficult people.
The aseh tov (do good!) aspect appears here:
All this completely revolutionized my thinking on this topic.
As I continued reading classic Torah sources, I discovered the Kli Yakar's approach tied in to a common thread among the classics.
Here are some examples:
Gate of Love:
"And he must be careful to avoid the companionship of people who are not respectable, so that he will not learn from their deeds, and he must always separate himself from cynics and scoffers."
If the person lacks basic decency, the Orchot Tzaddikim says DON'T hang out with him.
Because he'll influence you badly.
The scoffers & cynics in the original Hebrew are the classic moshav leitzim—a crowd of leitzim. Many translate leitz as scoffer, mocker, or cynic. An additional interpretation comes from the Malbim: a leitz is also a person who speaks empty words & just shoots the wind.
Yes, in the paragraph above this one, he exhorts us to find the good points in every person.
And you can do both.
You can (1) identify a person as a leitz or not hagun AND (2) also recognize the good that person possesses.
Some people suffer an impossible time doing both, but it's worth trying because all the Torah sources insist we do.
Yep. That's right. They insist.
Likewise, it states in the same chapter:
"And similarly, a friend who will take from you whatever he needs and cause you much harm for the little benefit he will gain from the transaction — quickly turn away from such a friend."
He exhorts us to actively seek out the presence of people who are wise, honest, humble, and patient—people "from whom you can learn things that will bring you to the Service of God."
In other words, you should do your best to seek out better people while avoiding lesser people—cynics, scoffers, empty chatterers, exploiters, and manipulators.
Of course, you should not be mean to them or denigrate them behind their back. No lashon hara allowed. You should not be rude or snobby toward them.
But definitely avoid them as nicely as you can.
Fortunate is the man who did not walk in the counsel of the wicked, and in the way of sinners he did not stand, and in the company of leitzim he did not sit.
Sinners/chata'im are often defined as unintentional sinners—Malbim specifies one pulled by his desire (in other words, he doesn't really mean it, but lost control of himself).
And the leitzim are the scoffers, cynics, and mindless chatterers.
Rashi indicates one leads to another (meaning, if you don't walk with them, then you won't stand with them, and if you don't stand with them, then you won't sit with them).
In other words, David HaMelech himself advises us to keep our distance—and he apparently considered that advice so important, it appears in the very first verse of the entire Tehillim.
H/T to Rivka Levy who first brought this particular point to my attention in her writings.
Yet one must choose good friends who are amenable to each other in halacha and are willing to admit to the truth.
This is not true about people who are not agreeable – they attack each other with cynical words, and great is the prosecution, animosity, and competition.
In situations such as these, their absence is preferred.
At the same time, these same Sages warn against hating these undesirable people.
And that's a wonderful goal for which to aim: Identify & avoid—yet don't hate.
It takes practice, but one can train oneself to look objectively at a person and say,
"This person is warm & friendly toward small children, but tends to be cynical with adults, and shoots verbal barbs at me in every conversation. That's too bad. I hope she'll change, but in the meantime, I'm going to steer clear of her."
In the chapter entitled Love of Friends/Ahavat Re'im, the Pele Yoetz details how you can be a good friend.
Rav Miller spoke copiously on the importance of associating with a "good neighbor" and avoiding a "bad neighbor.":
And as recently as Parshat Devarim 5781/2021, the Bitachon Weekly wrote:
L'katchilah, Navardokers believe in keeping away from nisayonot.
Avoid people who are always testing you.
In your own life, there are always plenty of nisayonot available from a parent-in-law, sibling, spouse, child, etc.
Don't look for more trouble.
I personally know people overwhelmed by dealing with a difficult spouse, parents or in-laws, children—yet out of the desire to rebuild the Beit HaMikdash with ahavat Yisrael, they continued to spend time with emotionally unhealthy people.
Some people focus so much on excusing bad behavior & bad middot, they don't notice how bad the person is.
Also, these unhealthy types pick up on the fact that you’re blaming yourself for their bad middot and they enjoy taking advantage of this.
Because they cannot see how bad the person is, they cannot think to avoid the person, and thus remain with the person and are indeed badly influenced without even realizing it.
And they sometimes end up hurting other people because of this blindness—including causing harm to their own children, both because of being influenced negatively & also exposing their children to this kind of person.
Along these same lines, Bitachon Weekly for Parshat Shoftim states on pages 4-5 the vital necessity of associating with friends who elevate you, not "friends" who denigrate you:
Some of them can pull you down; they need to be avoided.
Others inspire you or you inspire them.
This is why we have Mezuzahs, Tzitzis, and Tefillin; all to help us focus on the true reality of life:
Ein Od Milvado. [There is none but Him.]
[Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Sefer Ahavah, Tefillin-Mezuzah-Sefer Torah 6:13].
- Remind you of your love for Hashem (we all have this at soul-level, even if we aren't consciously aware of it)
- Rouse you spiritually
- Maintain an awareness of how you utilize your time
- Keep your daat intact
- Follow the path of the upright
In contrast, problematic "friends" tend to pull you down & confuse your daat.
They definitely do not inspire you to feel love for Hashem or feel His Love for you.
Some do remind you of the technical halachic path, but not beyond that of a frum robot.
They certainly do not help you follow an upright path of inner self-improvement. Instead, as stated, they drag you down inside, influencing you to feel hopeless, failing, gloomy, stupid, angry, or soiled with toxic shame.
In other words, a friend needs to exert over you the same positive & uplifting effect as mezuzot, tzitziyot, tefillin, and other holy objects that nurture your neshamah.
The Mixture of Good & Bad
Yes, that's true. It does.
Unfortunately, this dichotomy led to many frum Jews thinking that psychology helps more than Torah.
In this particular case, the problem was the authentic Torah view wasn't presented in full by many of the frum outlets.
Meaning, they emphasized judging favorably, love, etc., without emphasizing the importance of avoiding people who cause you pain & drag you down with their middot.
In other words, the frum material generally focused on the aseh tov without the sur m'ra.
But even with psychology's idea similar to the authentic Torah approach, other problems arise.
The pop psychology approach mixes in a whole lot of other ideas that don't fit in with Torah sources.
For example, these same sources exhorting us to avoid people of lesser character also explain the importance of using difficult to people as messengers from Hashem—and often explain this in the same chapter they exhort us to avoid them.
(BTW, this consistent juxtaposition of the two ideas means something.)
Furthermore, in pop psychology, you are usually assumed to be in the right.
Meaning, your feelings are the ultimate decider in your life.
So you are good & the person bothering you is bad.
(Having said that, not all therapists guide people in this way. Especially frum therapists are likely to provide more balance.)
Pop psychology also says to either avoid or assert yourself with difficult people.
There's little to no encouragement toward cheshbon hanefesh, seeing the nisayon as a tikkun, seeing it as from Hashem, digging out the message, objective examination of the entire situation (to see if & where you're wrong or contributing to the dysfunctional dynamic—although if the psychology does encourage this, then you will likely discover you're labeled as co-dependent, which comes with its own set of issues), and so on.
This is why, in the non-Jewish/secular world, you'll notice that people who undertake therapy tend to become more self-centered, more judgemental, less connected, less flexible, and more rejecting than they were before therapy.
Yes, they're often happier because they prioritize themselves over everyone else—and therapy taught them to do so without guilt.
So they live how they want without feeling bad about how their behavior affects others.
Yet, as noted above, a frum therapist could certainly help you see a problematic person as a tikkun, dig out the message, and so on.
And there are some very valuable, genuinely helpful frum therapists out there.
But it all depends on the frum therapist and how much he or she brings Torah hashkafah & mussar into their therapy.
In order for them to bring in Torah hashkafah & mussar, they need to learn it.
If they don't learn it, then how can they know it?
And does the frum therapist maintain a learning schedule of mussar?
For example, does he or she regularly learn Chovot HaLevovot's Gate of Trust? Rav Eliyahu Dessler's Michtav MiEliyahu? Orchot Tzaddikim? Rashi on Mishlei? Rav Moshe Chaim Luzatto's Mesillat Yesharim?
And that's really good.
But a non-Jewish or non-religious psychologist will not know these ideas.
How Outside Influences Creep In
Why did this happen?
Maybe for the following reasons...
Anglo society has been moving liberal for a long time.
Even the most horrific crimes don't deserve the death penalty, according to an increasing number of citizens.
Society & media encourage us to gaze into the abusive background of the most savage & unrepentant criminals in order to empathize & try to "heal" them.
So even though frum speakers & writers do not go to that extent in their feelings, it seems like they were still influenced by the approach of excusing everything due to a good enough sob story.
Also, from knowing some of them and/or the way they described themselves, some had a tendency toward a certain elitism & emotional immaturity, and it could be they unconsciously felt a need to overcompensate, which led them to overdoing it with connecting & being good friends with everybody, no matter what.
(Okay, many of us have those tendencies, but some have them more. Not bad people, but just struggling with those particularly tendencies like we all do.)
In addition, it's very exciting when giving the benefit of the doubt leads to an amazing truth initially hidden in the situation.
It's also exciting when changing your attitude toward someone really does reap reward in the relationship.
Because it works so often & so miraculously, it's easy to get caught up in the "connect" stories while forgetting the "avoid" side of the equation.
Opening the Mind Leads to More Beneficial Openings
When I first came across these sources (particularly in Kli Yakar, Orchot Tzaddikim, and Pele Yoetz), I thought I must be misunderstanding them because it contradicted so much of the material presented in the English-speaking frum world.
But as I examined them again and again, I realized what these authentic sources were saying.
And I found these sources validating.
And opening my mind toward their exhortations to davka avoid difficult people helped open my mind toward their very challenging exhortations for dealing with difficult people, such as:
- seeing their good points without whitewashing or justifying their bad behavior
- using their hurtful behavior as a message of self-introspection
- using their hurtful behavior as a tikkun
- and so on.
They also emphasized the importance of still seeing even a bad person's good points—even as you recognize them as bad & avoid their company.
(That's another big idea that can be emotionally difficult in practice. But it's undeniably there in authentic Torah sources.)
And while I'm still frustratingly far from where I'd like to be (and from where I think I should be), I'm very grateful to have this solid authentic Torah guidance of TRUTH...so that I'm not as hopelessly lost & misguided as I would be otherwise.
And the above is why I so strongly encourage people to read the original sources on their own—even if one can only manage a paragraph or a page a day (or even one per week—it still helps!).
For a related post: