One of the things that spurred me on to reading original Jewish sources and to struggle through reading them in Hebrew was noticing how much cultural mores entered into so many modern English-language Torah books and classes—even as so many of them are so inspiring and beneficial at the same time.
Furthermore, each generation has its own blind spots and idiosyncrasies.
And this doesn’t even begin to cover the personal blind spots and idiosyncrasies of the individual speaker or writer—flaws that we all have.
Just to be clear, I never encountered an intentional mixing of Torah and cultural or generational or personal idiosyncrasies. I've always had the impression that people who mix things up genuinely intend to help and feel that the method or idea they're promoting is of very real benefit. People genuinely don’t realize that they’re doing this and, frankly, I don’t think it can be completely avoided.
(Which is why I strongly encourage people to read classical Jewish sources on their own as much as they are able.)
Anyway, a sizable chunk of the today's frum world strongly promotes the idea of maintaining some kind of direct connection with everyone, even the most difficult people. This is encouraged under the noble intention of loving our fellows and so forth.
When "Love Hurts
Innocently borrowing methods from the surrounding secular world, we are encouraged in a variety of either assertive or blasé responses like:
- white-washing truly problematic behavior
- responding from an unrealistically high level (like completely rising above the harmful behavior directed at us—after all, it’s their problem not ours!—and remaining totally unaffected by it, both physically and emotionally) even if we are just regular Joes (or Josephines) and even if we are terribly tired, overworked, sick, etc. (Many people who cannot maintain this level of "saintliness" end up artificially maintaining it through psychotropic medication.)
- “working things out” with people who have no desire (or even awareness of the need) to change or who are so blocked by toxic shame that they cannot even admit they might be wrong in any meaningful way.
- responding assertively (with "I" statements, etc.), but not aggressively ("You twit!")
- writing a nice letter that tactfully expresses your hurt and confused feelings while showing them the benefit of the doubt
- showering them with "love" by listening without talking except for short and agreeable responses, unreserved giving, constant capitulation (after all, they can't help it, so YOU need to be the "mature" one!), etc.
And while the above responses can prove very beneficial when dealing with a basically good-yet-flawed person, they do nothing to curb consistently and intensely problematic behavior.
In fact, utilizing these methods with a consistently problematic person often induces the other person to either make fun of you or become very angry with you.
Either way, things get worse.
And just like the Rav Eliezer Papo predicts below in his 1824 book, Pele Yoetz, I saw very good people who knew better start to manifest the same behaviors they found so hurtful. So what happened to all that lovely patience and understanding they’d invested toward the problematic person?
Yet under the impression that this is an obligation and a mitzvah, many good and sincere people still strive to interact with these compulsively difficult people, despite the emotional toll and the negative personality changes these interactions eventually induce.
Then I found out that (with some halachic exceptions) this is all a big misunderstanding.
What Judaism REALLY Says about Dealing with Difficult People
I discovered that the Sages’ words directly opposed what I was learning in modern-day books and classes.
For example, Orchot Tzaddikim's Gate of Love, says [emphasis mine]:
“Go up a [spiritual] level and choose an eminent person [to emulate]"….Yet one must choose good friends who are amenable to each other in halacha and willing to admit the truth. This is not so when they aren’t good; they ‘gore’ each other with words of provocation, and great is the accusation and hatred and competition. In situations such as these, their absence is good.”
He goes on to explain that it is impossible to avoid being influenced by a bad friend and that one will eventually come to imitate his actions—“if not voluntarily, then out of deference or shame.”
Furthermore, in the very first chapter of Tehillim, David Hamelech exhorts us not to associate with 3 different types of problematic people as (defined by the Malbim):
- Rasha—Sins intentionally against both Man and God
- Choteh—An accidental sinner, one who is pulled by his desires
- Letz—Not proactive either way, doesn’t do any evil, but doesn’t do any good, either. Just pursues wind and nothingness and frivolousness and jokes; doesn’t involve himself with Torah
According to our Sages, the exception seems to be when we could influence such people to fulfill their true potential and improve their character and behavior, then yes, it’s okay to associate with them—with that particular goal in mind.
But regardless of whether we can influence others for the better or not, these same Sages also exhort us to be forgiving, patient, and forbearing when do find ourselves in difficult situations.
They constantly remind us that everything is from Hashem and that any person we meet is merely an agent of Hashem, whether for better or for worse.
When we do need to interact with difficult people, we need to be careful not to respond abusively to an abusive person and also not to shame people.
But at the same time, our Sages are clear across the board that we should avoid people who consistently behave dysfunctionally, as defined by the Sages themselves.
Yes, if we end up dealing with them involuntarily, then we should behave as well as we can. But otherwise, we really aren't supposed to spend time with them.
Yet I thought that perhaps I am misunderstanding something. With so many well-meaning Torah classes and books saying one thing, perhaps I was misunderstanding the classical texts?
Then I read a shocking Kli Yakar.
I’m Supposed to Do What?
As we’ve seen, the Kli Yakar's commentary on the Torah focuses on love and seeing the good and beautiful in everything and in everybody.
Teshuvah is always possible, even on the most unforgivable sins.
In the Kli Yakar Universe, the cup is not only half-full, but it is made of shiny crystal and filled with sparkling water fresh from pure mountain springs—so to speak. Sure, he writes strongly against those who speak lashon hara and also dayanim lacking in integrity. But he’s still got something good to say about everyone, even Achashverosh.
So imagine my shock when in Parshat Metzorah, I read his commentary on Shemot 33:8: "And they looked behind Moshe."
Meaning, people looked behind Moshe to see what faults he was hiding.
The Kli Yakar explains that was the source of the disease ra’atan [ראתן], which comes from the root ra'ah [ראה]—“see” or "look."
Because they are baalei ra'atan, who look and seek out the blemishes of human beings, thus they are struck with a kind of tzara’at called ra'atan. And they [the Sages] said, "Beware of them, not to associate with them to return them from their bad path to show them the path of teshuvah...."
Is the Kli Yakar really saying that we cannot have any contact with fault-finders, not even to help them to teshuvah?
Why doesn’t he make this point with, say, thieves?
Or what about his whole commentary about the Terrible Three Sins committed by the Jews with the Erev Rav and how this shows us that we can always do teshuvah, no matter what?
Are fault-finders really so unredeemable?
....because of the opinion that one who has told about [others' blemishes] has no takanah [rectification]; therefore, there is no associating with them freely.
I mean, he never said this about murderers, adulterers, thieves, occult-worshipers, or wearers of shaatnez.
Where is he getting this from?
The Gemara, apparently.
[Note: I’m not qualified to study Gemara. So I am only going to quote the Kli Yakar, which my husband helped me with. I don’t know how the mefarshim or anyone else interprets these passages.]
While the Kli Yakar considers fault-finding alone as a very bad trait, the people who then go around actually telling others about these faults (whether real or imagined) they have supposedly found are the really, really problematic people...the true baalei ra'atan.
According to the Gemara, ra'atan consists of a tola’at on one’s brain. A tola’at can be translated as a worm or a bug.
Yes, that's right. Blabber-mouthed fault-finders suffer from a brain parasite. No joke.
Protecting Oneself from Ra’atan
Ketubot 77b goes into a very interesting description of how to surgically remove the offending creepy-crawly from the affected brain, with the understanding that this isn’t a realistic option for most.
Surprisingly, the Sages considered this parasite airborne and highly contagious.
As the Kli Yakar states:
And this is the opinion of Rebbi Zera and Rebbi Ami and Rebbi Assi who distanced themselves above and beyond with all kinds of segregation as described there [Ketubot 77].
Further along, the Kli Yakar explains how Rav Alexandri considers fault-finders curable [Avodah Zara 19], but only as long as they have not blabbed about the faults they supposedly found, i.e. as long as they have not engaged in slander.
The Kli Yakar also exposes a blabber-mouthed fault-finder's hypocrisy, particularly when blabbing about the supposed faults of a wise and honorable person.
And this fool who casts suspicion on kosher people knows within himself that this same flaw and blemish that he presumes of his fellow also exists within him and that he, too, lacks the same thing.
Therefore, it says to everyone that he is a fool who projects on to others the same foolishness that he knows he actually possesses.
And he initially concludes that because he does something, then everyone else does it, too.
But the Kli Yakar emphasizes that only Torah learning and only specifically being a talmid chacham can enable one to sit among baalei ra’atan without being harmed.
The Kli Yakar also has the following to say about slanderous fault-finders (don’t read it while eating) from Ketubot 77b:
Rebbi Yochanan declared, “Beware of the flies from those afflicted with ra’atan!”
And it is a type of tzaraat.
And it explains there that Rebbi Yehoshua ben Levi attached himself to them and studied Torah, etc.
And it is difficult to understand why Rebbe Yehoshua ben Levi saw fit to rely freely on a miracle.
And it seems to imply that the flies symbolize habitual speakers of lashon hara [baalei lashon hara], who behave as flies in that they rest on every pure place of the body and when they find some putrid place or a fresh wound, they crouch there over that place of abscess.
Likewise, if habitual speakers of lashon hara see any person full of wisdom and glory, they will never relate his positive attributes.
Instead, they look after the blemishes of a person because there is no person on earth who is so tzaddik that he has not sinned in some minor folly.
(This is in stark contrast to the black-or-white attitude common today, in which many people feel that a great rabbi is either a fair target for copious slander OR a perfect human being who possesses no faults.)
The Kli Yakar then surmises that the seemingly airborne contagion actually symbolizes the lying arrows shot far and wide by a slippery tongue.
Ra’atan: The Key Points
- While seeking out the faults and blemishes in others is very bad, the actual telling over of these flaws to others is the seal of doom.
- Ra’atan afflicts either those who seek out the faults and blemishes of others AND tells of them to others, OR it afflicts those who come within proximity of baalei ra’atan.
- Ra’atan is highly contagious—and seemingly airborne.
- The only inoculation against ra’atan is to be a talmid chacham learning Torah at the moment of association with baalei ra’atan—but even phenomenal Sages like Rebbis Zera, Ami, Assi, and Eliezer didn’t risk it.
- It seems that ra’atan is more of a mental illness (or a soul-illness) than a physical illness, although it contains aspects of both
- It is not possible for regular people to help those infected with ra’atan to do teshuvah. (Although we’ll see in Part II that you still have an obligation to inform them of the need and efficacy of doing teshuvah—from a distance)
- Ra’atan is almost incurable—unless you are either a tremendous sage or a brain surgeon.
- Yet you can cure yourself! (We’ll see how in Part II…)
Traits of People to Avoid
Putting it all together (the Kli Yakar, the Pele Yoetz, David Hamelech, Orchot Tzaddikim), you should avoid people (unless you clearly have a good chance of helping them do teshuvah or are a tremendous talmid chacham or a brain surgeon) who consistently display the following behaviors:
- blabbing about others' faults and blemishes (AKA slander)
- attacking ("goring") each other
- causing great harm just to bring themselves minor benefit or enjoyment
- intentional sinning
- meaningless pastimes and conversation
- people who can't control themselves
While any of us can exhibit the above behaviors at times, it's good to avoid people who exhibit these behaviors on a regular basis.
(Part II will discuss how to have a positive relationship with such people without actually hanging out with them.)
Positive Actions Conducive to Spiritual Growth in Relation to Others
To protect ourselves, our Sages advise us the following:
- Avoid problematic people as described above; for unless you are on an extremely high spiritual level, associating with such problematic people will cause you to become like them
- Associate with people on a higher level than yourself
- If there aren't spiritually evolved people around, then become your own best friend (or, in the words of the Pele Yoetz: “…he must be a friend unto himself…”) and associate with Hashem.
Associate with the following types of people:
(Nobody is perfect, but desirable people strive for the following....)
- Honest people
- People who care about what halacha says
- People who seek out the good in others
Now, to be completely forthright, reading about ra'atan and all the rest possibly causes most of us a twinge of uncomfortable recognition.
I mean, what should we do—avoid associating with ourselves?
How many of us truly never relished a juicy piece of gossip—particularly about someone we really resented? How many of us have never, ever slandered someone?
Haven’t most of us—at least once—sought out someone’s faults and then related those faults to others, feeling perfectly justified all the while? Or smug? Or maybe not even giving it a second thought?
And here, we’ve just learned that such people are practically irredeemable.
Except that they’re not.
For hope, teshuvah, rectification, and a cure, please see Part II!
This is my own translation and any errors are also mine.