A Different Angle
When defending white collar criminals in court, a high-profile defense attorney once shared that the hardest part of his job is explaining to his clients that they have committed a crime.
Preposterous! Or so we think. Interestingly, the human mind can rationalize almost anything. The average person is certainly not rationalizing misdeeds to a criminal level. However, something that we all grapple with are the mind-games that the yetzer hara plays with each and every one of us. (Kedushin 30B). That voice inside our heads is cunning in neutralizing aveirot.
We may have the following rationalizing thoughts:
It’s not really lashon hara…
This doesn’t really constitute breaking Shabbat…
I only spoke that way because I was angry…
How do we so easily fall prey to the mental gymnastics of the yetzer hara?
To answer this, allow me to take you on a tangent. The answer lies within a story.
Years ago, when I was an earnest student in seminary, I soaked up fascinating Torah classes throughout the day. When the shiur ended after a full hour, I was left wondering where the time went. Classes were dynamic, but also required introspection and the willingness to see things from a different perspective. Sometimes I had to reexamine beliefs I always assumed were true. I recall initially feeling unsettled when learning certain lessons.
The Torah in Deut. 17:8-12 states:
According to the sentence of the Torah which they shall teach you, and according to the judgment which they shall tell you, you shall do; you shall not deviate from the sentence which they shall declare to you, to the right hand, nor to the left.
Even if they tell you that right is left and that left is right (you should listen to the sages) certainly if they tell you right is right and left is left. (Rashi, Deut. 17:11)
One of my teachers explained that if a Rabbi tells you that left is right, we must accept this as fact. This naturally caused an uproar amongst post-high school girls.
However, as an Orthodox Jew, I believe in Hashem, and do my best to follow the Torah’s guidelines, while also recognizing that some mitzvot are more difficult to accept than others. There are answers, and I understand that I am not knowledgeable enough to know all of them. As such, I was resigned to never fully understanding the implications of that pasuk, along with Rashi’s explanation.
Fast-forward many years. My father-in-law, Dr. H. Leon Pachter, shared a Dvar Torah that shed light onto this difficult Rashi.
He noted that Rav Berkowitz from Aish Hatorah raises the very question I grappled with. He asserts that Jews have been trained to be independent thinkers. As a religion, we are taught to ask questions and be truth seekers, and are inculcated with this doctrine from a young age. If a competent Torah authority were to speak before an audience stating an inaccurate halacha, surely someone in the audience would strongly object. This would be welcomed and necessary.
Pirkei Avot writes, Lo habayshan lomeid (2:6). The one who is too shy to ask, can’t learn.
Questioning and challenging ideas is the source of all learning, and Judaism remains vibrant both in practice and learning, because we don’t just blindly accept information.
A beautiful story about Isador Isaac Rabi illustrates the importance of questioning. Isador won the Nobel prize in physics in 1944, and remarked that as a child, he went to public school in the Bronx. Upon returning from school each day, his mother would not ask about his grades or scores. Rather, she would ask, “Did you ask a good question?”
Rav Mordechai Kaminetsky, the Dean of Yeshiva South Shore, shares the following idea. Every word in the Torah is precise. The Torah uses the terms “left and right,” specifically, rather than directions like east and west. Left and right are subjective, as they are based on the direction a person is facing. No matter where a person is standing, left and right never changes.
When a Rav says left is right, it may initially seem backwards. However, the Rav serves as a moral compass, guiding us in a new direction. Rebbeim and scholars can help lead us when we are not objective enough to make a proper choice. Rashi emphasizes that when the rabbis tell you right is left make sure you turn around because your perception might be misconstrued.
A parable illustrates this. There was once a miser who hated giving tzedakah. After much prodding, a community member convinced him to invite a poor man to his home for a Shabbos meal. He agreed, spent minimally on the food. As Shabbos approached, he sent his son to the market to purchase a fish. He said, “Buy the largest fish possible, but do not spend more than a few pennies. I don’t care if it is rotten.” The son arrived home with a large but rancid fish.
The pauper ate heartily in their home. After he left, the miser said to his son, “Wow, I feel so good performing the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim and feeding him a meal.”
Later on, the poor person became ill from food poisoning, and was rushed to the hospital. The miser and his son went to visit him. After they left, the miser said to his son, “Look at what a mitzvah we are now able to fulfill—bikur cholim!”
The pauper’s situation worsened, and he passed away. The miser and his son went to the funeral, and later to the shiva house. The miser exclaimed, “Look at all the mitzvot that came from feeding him this fish! I feel so great!”
We can all see that the miser has the wrong perspective. His feeding the rancid fish to the pauper led to a terrible tragedy, not an accumulation of mitzvot.
Sometimes our perception can be wrong, and we turn right into left. That is where a Rav or mentor can provide clarity to enable us to change our perspective and see that what we think is right is actually left.
Circling back to seminary. Every month, a poster with a different middah we could work on was displayed on the bulletin board. One month, the middah was Shtika, silence. Oh boy, I remember thinking, here we go again. Are we meant to sit like monks in silence?
But after learning about the importance of silence, I realized that taking a moment to think before speaking could help sculpt and refine my words.
There is always another angle to consider. When learning, we must open our minds to concepts that are initially uncomfortable. Sometimes, we rationalize our misdeeds, and we need someone to turn us around onto the proper path and show us there is another way. Having a mentor, teacher, spouse, friend, or family to guide us is essential. An outside perspective can show us that our right is actually someone else’s left. All we have to do is simply turn around to face the other way and see from their viewpoint. With this mindset, we can get one step closer to becoming the best possible version of ourselves.