VA’EIRA Rabbi Moshe P. Weisblum January 28, 2006/28 Tevet 5766
My dear friends,
How do we deal with difficult people? As early as infancy, we encounter conflict. A baby wants something, cries out, and the mother says, "Yes or No." Sometimes Mommy stands firm, other times she relents. Still, there are times she figures out an equitable compromise. As a child grows, there are more struggles to contend with between friends, siblings and classmates, parents, strict teachers and school principals. Rabbi Ya’akov Solomon said: "a wise parent knows when to oversee and when to overlook."
Oftentimes, it is not just a person who is difficult, but also the situation itself. Think about doctors who have to deal with complicated policies and insurance forms or have to contend with malpractice issues while trying to give quality care. Sometimes, so much aggravation to help an ill person or multiple visits to get at the root of a health problem. It is the same thing with lawyers, who may go through years of litigation trying to reach a reasonable settlement or win a trial. What about the pressure of unreasonable defendants, demanding plaintiffs while wangling through a complicated court system dealing with judges or jurors? It is a spider‘s web filled with fines and legal sanctions, to determine whether someone is guilty or not. Also in business, the headaches regarding the ups and downs of sales, profits and competition.
The fact is that at some point in life, we all encounter brutal situations and obnoxious people. So, how do we deal with people who are stubborn and unrelenting?
I always come back to the same answer. Our Torah. The living Torah is a decisive manual for proper conduct in our daily lives. The Torah is very explicit about handling difficult situations. Some situations simply do not allow for compromise.
Acts of terrorism appear on the front page of every newspaper these days. Terrorism is nothing new in world history. In this week’s biblical chapter, we recall how Pharaoh decreed that every male baby be drowned in the river. Pharaoh was a classic, traditional terrorist. Is compromise recommended when dealing with the archenemy of the Jewish people?
We see from the Torah reading how honest and forthright G-d is while dealing with a terrorist. G-d shows us precisely how to do it. Moshe and Aaron are specifically instructed to give Pharaoh a warning and stop his evil behavior. From this, we learn that G-d always gives a warning first before inflicting a punishment. If it is not heeded, then consequences occur. In this case, Moshe and Aaron are to tell Pharaoh, EXACTLY what plagues will befall Egypt if Pharaoh fails to "Let my people go."
G-d sent the legal team of Moshe and Aaron to represent the Jewish nation and negotiate directly with Pharaoh. Remember, Moshe was 80 years old and Aaron was 83. These emissaries of the Hebrews were seasoned elder statesmen whose task was to go into enemy territory in order to obtain a fair and just resolution. Imagine these two men going to confront Pharaoh in his court, and mediate with their fine points of litigation. Egypt was the largest and strongest empire. Its riches were beyond measure. Its army, by far, massive and fortified, reported to the most cruel, stubborn dictator. Moshe and Aaron put aside their fear and trepidation and focused on the goal, winning the case. United with a well-planned strategy, they were determined to break down Pharaoh until he relented and freed the Jews. They were going to tell Pharaoh, "Let my people go. Stop all the suffering. Enough already!" Or else…
Let us look at the Pharaohs that exist today. While I was walking for an hour on my treadmill, watching FOX and CNN News, the face of the new Iranian president appeared on the screen. Proudly he proclaimed his intentions and threats to wipe Israel off the face of Earth by nuclear means, G-d forbid. This week the Palestinians elected a Hamas majority over Fatah. Hamas is the terrorist arm of the Muslim Fundamentalists, who openly declare the destruction of Israel.
I heard many prominent leaders respond with vows "We will never negotiate with terrorist." I laughed because I remember a time, not too long ago, when Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, a man with blood all over his hands, was in a similar situation as he entered politics. I vividly recall the politicians and communal leaders boasting that they would never deal with that terrorist. Several years later, these same people shook hands and kissed Arafat as he was hailed a hero and received the Nobel Peace Prize.
How many world leaders will step up and recognize Hamas for who they are? How many who claim never to deal with terrorists will be shaking hands and posing for the media with them in another six months? Who will maintain their high morals and who will compromise them? Politics is often a dirty business. What seems on the simplest level so absolutely right and wrong may soon be muddled in politics. How will we as individual citizens or leaders handle the situation? We should know how to manage difficult people and situations. Just look at the similarities between the world of terrorism and Pharaoh of ancient Egypt.
First Moshe and Aaron expose Pharaoh’s true character when they catch him in a lie at the river while he goes to the bathroom and embarrass him when he claimed he was above nature and did not ever need to use a lavatory. Then Moshe and Aaron confronted him directly and gave him adequate warnings but Pharaoh refused to listen. Thus, pressure was applied, the first plague of Blood. Pharaoh soon relented, but just for a short while before continuing his reign of terror. Therefore, another plague, frogs, followed. Again, he relented. These patterns continued, each time the plagues growing more severe. Pharaoh would give his word, and then revert back to his evil, torturous ways. Is such a person ever trustworthy? It wasn’t until the final, tenth plague, the killing of the first-born that finally hit Pharaoh where it hurt, his own child. Pharaoh was also first born, so this plague would have meant his death.
There are several lessons we learn here. First, what goes around comes around. It was originally Pharaoh’s decree to kill every male child. However, it was G-d’s plague to kill the first-born child that finally broke Pharaoh down. Dealing with people who are sneaky, unremorseful and full of empty promises requires a strong backbone. G-d shows that applying pressure, from gradual to intense, is the proper technique to deal with ruthless people. Start with truthful exposés and make them public, then legal sanctions and move onto stiff penalties. The pressure increases with each subsequent violation.
On a strategic level, we learn the importance of knowing the nature of the enemy, its goals and objectives. It is important to be steadfast in your convictions and not cave in, even under horrible duress. Terrorism cannot and should not be prey to compromise.
Resolution may take a long time, like the legal system where cases often take years to settle. Yet only with perseverance and acute focus, battles are won. Why did G-d put in so much effort when it could have easily been done with one fatal blow?
G-d wants us to know that sometimes things take time and don’t work out right away. Don’t be deterred. Don’t give up. You know when you are doing the right thing. Stay strong in your convictions. With determination, we can prevail over our enemies. As we have clearly proven repeatedly throughout our history, by staying resolute on the instructions given us through Torah we can hold hands in harmony.
May G-d give us clarity and the strength to achieve the right path and victory in life. Shabbat Shalom.