It’s not about what happens during the fight; it’s about what happens the morning after. When we get hot under the collar, we sometimes say regrettable things that lead to arguments. It is regrettable, but it is not pre-calculated. It is what happens the morning after that really counts. Do we regret our actions and reactions, or do we double down? That spells the critical difference between good and bad.
Most people peer into the mirror the morning after as the hot-headed discussion plays out in their heads. They cringe at what they said and at how they reacted. They might not be ready to make amends just yet, but within a day or two, they will be ready to apologize and move on.
Then there are the tragic few among us who play a different narrative in their head the morning after. They hear the same words, the same dialectic, but rather than shame, they feel incensed. I can’t believe that person had the audacity to speak to me this way. I should have come down much harder on them. They absolutely deserved everything I dished out and more.
These are the people we should watch out for. These are the people that tear apart the fabric of society. And these people are often us. The fact is that we can hardly run a line through the community and say the good guys are on one side and the bad guys are on the other. We each have a little good and bad in us. We have days with good reactions and days with bad reactions. We must each be vigilant to the bad morning after and correct our course before we veer too far away.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the difference between the two morning after experiences is that one is driven by humility, and the other is driven by ego. When I peer at yesterday’s fight through the lens of my ego, I am further provoked. All I can think about is me. That person tried to take me down a peg. That person tried to make me out to be the villain. This is not a good morning after experience.
Of course, it is shameful to admit my narcissism openly, so I turn around and blame it on the other party. They were being hurtful and mean. They don’t know their place or know how to appreciate others. It is all about them. They are terrible, I am the victim—and an unjustified victim at that. I say all that just to justify my anger, my pique, and frankly, my dishonesty. Rather than taking responsibility for what I said and did, I demand that others take responsibility.
The Long Road
Once we go down this road, it is very hard to pull back. When we commit any other sin, we know we did something wrong, and we can fix it. We can repent, apologize, and resolve to change our ways. When we double down on an argument by demonizing the other person, it is very hard to pull back.
Our ego is on the line. Admitting that we were wrong and that everything we said about the other person sprung from our narcissism or insecurity is embarrassing. Moreover, because it is shameful to admit it, our brains do all they can to avoid facing it. Every time our conscience pricks and reminds us that we are wrong, we come up with new and better reasons to justify our position.
Weeding can serve as a good analogy for this. Suppose the yard is overgrown with weeds and wildflowers, and we set out to clean it. The first few hours are cathartic. Every weed is easily identifiable, and we take pleasure in uprooting them. Then we get to the more delicate weeds. They are still identifiable, but we must work harder and pick at them daintily to separate them from the healthy plants they infiltrate.
Finally, at the end of the day, when our backs are aching, and our fatigue is overwhelming, you get to the chameleon weeds. The ones that masquerade as healthy bushes. Those take the longest time to remove because they are hard to identify.
Uprooting and correcting our negative traits is a similar process. It is easy to identify greed, arrogance, addictions, lust, power-seeking, etc. They are not easy to remove, but at least we know where they are. We can grab them by the stem and pull them up. If they prove stubborn, we can dig around their roots and soften the soil before uprooting them.
Then we reach the long-held feuds, the people we have demonized for decades, the grudges we have never discarded. We are so convinced that we are not at fault. We are so convinced that if we approached the other party, they would reject us. We don’t view them as our faults. We view them as the other person’s fault. These are the deeply embedded and highly disguised faults that we must identify and uproot. That can’t be done in a day. It takes patience, perseverance, and time.
The Long Exile
Our sages taught that the first Temple was destroyed because of major, easily identifiable sins. Our ancestors were guilty of idolatry, murder, and inappropriate sexual relationships. They were exiled from the holy land to Babylon and later Persia. Yet, their exile lasted only seventy years, after which they returned and rebuilt the Temple. All this heavy lifting and correcting was accomplished in seventy years.
The second Temple was destroyed for the sin of unjustifiable hatred among Jews. We call it unjustified because that is precisely what it is, but in our minds, we justify such hatred all too well. This exile has lasted nearly two thousand years. The other sins are heavier, but this one is much harder to correct. It has been nineteen hundred and fifty-three years, and we are still at it. We have still not reversed this trait.
Sadly, there is still bickering and divisiveness in our communities. We still hold perverse grudges and senseless feuds. It is very hard to identify and very hard to uproot. If anyone points them out to us, we push back and are incensed. Every time we double down on our lies, it becomes ever harder to acknowledge the truth. Thus, our exile has been so long.
The Mitzvah to Eradicate Midian
In the Torah portion that we read this week, G-d tells Moses to eradicate the nation of Midian. This ancient tribe is long gone, but the Mitzvah remains relevant and obligatory in a spiritual context. The word Midian in Hebrew is linguistically related to infighting and bickering. The Mitzvah to eradicate Midian is a Mitzvah to eradicate grudge-holding and long-standing feuds. To rid ourselves of unwarranted and unjustified hatred of others.
It is a tall order and a tough task. We have been at it for nearly two thousand years and have still not achieved it. Yet, we have no reason to despair because G-d does not give us instructions that we cannot fulfill. By turning this into a Mitzvah, He obliged Himself to give us the power to succeed. To realize that the enemy is not the other but us.
Rather than panic at this Mitzvah because it is an unachievable goal, we should celebrate it. Because by making it a Mitzvah, G-d took an impossible task and gave us the power to fulfill it. All that is left now is to go out and do it. And may we be successful.
Rabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.