Agreeing to disagree

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I am struck by the dispute 2parallel that as the year 2015 is about to come to a close, the life of Jacob in our Torah reading is coming to an end. When Jacob calls Joseph and his sons to his bedside to bless them, he utters Chapter 49 of the Book of Genesis, commonly referred to as “the blessing of Jacob.” Unlike the blessing Jacob gives to his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe, what he says to his sons in this chapter is not always positive – and yet the message combines candor with civility.

It has become fairly common for Americans to make resolutions as a new year approaches. Rabbi Avi Weiss, senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale New York, recommends that each of us resolve to find one person in our community with whom we disagree, to connect with that person, and to really learn how to listen to that person. Weiss stresses the importance of feeling the unity of the Jewish people—despite our differences. Only by connecting with and really hearing others (even those with whom we disagree) can we be a strong community.  That is precisely how Jacob could bless all his sons, even though they didn’t always agree.  He saw who they were and accepted those traits and unique differences.  So too must we sometimes respectfully agree to disagree – but always remember that we are part of one family.

Watching the Presidential debates, I have observed an enormous amount of arguing back and forth. Some of the verbiage is, in my estimation, unbecoming for Presidential candidates — language that is hurtful, malicious, vindictive, vengeful and cruel. Our Jewish tradition recognizes that there will be always be disputes and disagreements in life. Even Abraham, in challenging Divine justice, argued with God when he learned of God’s intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.  But proper arguing is best accomplished without treating your opponent unkindly. Using obscenities and words that show a lack of respect and decorum is not the way to make a point.

I have had my share of arguments in my own lifetime. Experience has taught me that some ways of arguing can actually be beneficial and productive — and make the experience civil and enlightening for both parties. Here are my picks for proper and ethical arguing:

  • Be truthful
  • Be slow to anger
  • Never purposefully try to embarrass someone
  • Practice humility
  • Be a good listener
  • Be open to hearing the other’s opinions
  • Avoid petty squabbles
  • Try to end every discussion in a peaceful manner – you can agree to disagree
  • Don’t be malicious
  • Use words to advance your argument but not hurt your adversary
  • Know your place
  • Give someone the benefit of the doubt.

One of my favorite recommendations comes from the rabbinic advice book Ethics of the Fathers 5:17: “Every dispute that is for a heavenly cause will ultimately endure.”

In the coming year may all of our arguments be for a heavenly cause, and may we always conduct our disputes with respect. Like Jacob, may we always acknowledge our differences while remembering that we are all part of humanity. Wishing you a new year of blessing, peace, health and happiness.

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Anonymous

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You are walking in a mall, or on a street, and you notice a person (likely a tourist) who has that panicked look of “where am I going?” She is completely lost and doesn’t know which way to turn. What would you do? You could literally change the course of this person’s day with a few kind words and some assistance.

In the story of Joseph (Genesis, Chapter 37) we read the interesting incident in which Jacob sends his son Joseph to find his brothers.  Joseph sets out and he gets lost.  Along comes a nameless man who finds him meandering aimlessly around in a field, and he asks Joseph, “What are you looking for?” Joseph tells him that he is searching for his brothers and to paraphrase the man’s response, he says, “They went that-a-way.”  We never hear of this man again. Yet if Joseph had never met him, he never would have found his brothers. He never would have been sold into slavery. The family would not have followed him into Egypt. There would have been no Exodus. The history of the world would have been so different! Could that man have known how his chance encounter changed history? Do we ever know the consequences of the little acts of thoughtfulness we perform?

And so it is worth asking, “Who is that man?”  Without doubt the Bible intentionally leaves the man’s name out. This small act of kindness is the same small act that I hope any one of us might choose to perform in similar circumstances. We hold a door open for a person entering a store behind us. We offer a homeless person your leftovers bag from the restaurant. You cook a meal or do a load of laundry for a friend who is going through a difficult time. You walk by a car with an expired parking meter, and put money in it. You give a lost tourist directions.

The nameless person in the Bible offers a most important lesson. All of our actions will bear consequences. Each of us has the power to determine the course of history. We can change the course of a person’s life with a simple act. That nameless man could just be you!