If our intent is really l’sheim Shamayim, we have to be ready to back down
One of the most powerful memories we take away from the Yamim Noraim is the feeling of unity. We joined together, transcending communal divisions, and davened for all Klal Yisrael. We begged Hashem to grant His people a favorable judgment, and shower His blessings of peace and prosperity upon us. Now, as we begin the new year, we hope the unity will last.
The Yamim Noraim also left us with a firm conviction to be faithful servants of Hashem. This year, we want to do Hashem’s will. No more excuses; no more compromises. We want to live l’sheim Shamayim.
Unfortunately, unity and living l’sheim Shamayim don’t always go hand in hand. All of us are involved in community life. We all want our shuls, our schools, our kehillos, and our neighborhoods to flourish. But we have different ideas on how things should be done.
Sometimes it’s so clear to us that we’re right. We try to show others the flaws in their reasoning, but somehow they still don’t see the light. The dialogue becomes heated, and before we know it, a full-blown machlokes erupts. In matters of lesser importance, we’re ready to compromise. But when avodas Hashem is at stake, we’re unwilling to budge one inch. After all, we have to live l’sheim Shamayim.
That’s how our conviction to live l’sheim Shamayim sometimes undermines the peace and unity of our communities. But if we understood what it really means to live l’sheim Shamayim, it wouldn’t.
Rav Yisrael Salanter writes that people involved in public affairs have two difficult tasks. Number one, they have to work hard to determine the correct approach, what they perceive as Hashem’s will. Number two, they have to be willing to adopt their colleagues’ approach, even if they believe it’s incorrect.
A public institution has to be run one way. If two leaders pull in different directions, they will tear it apart. The leaders of the institution have to be willing to put aside their own perception of the truth, and go with an approach they disagree with. That, says Rav Yisrael, is the will of Hashem.
If we appreciate the depth of this idea, it’s shocking. Rav Yisrael says that we have to work hard to determine the correct approach, what we believe to be Hashem’s will. Then, a sentence later, he tells us that sometimes Hashem’s will is that we adopt an approach we believe is false!
Rav Yisrael is teaching us a major principle in how Hashem’s will is expressed in the world. In halachah, the Torah teaches us to follow the majority opinion. In a dispute between the sages of the Mishnah, the halachah is generally like the rabim. The sage who was “outvoted” is fully convinced that he’s right, that his grasp of Hashem’s will is the correct one. But ultimately, Hashem’s will is that we follow the majority. So in terms of the final halachah, it no longer matters that much who’s “right.” The opinion that is accepted as the halachah becomes Hashem’s will.
Religious institutions, says Rav Yisrael, are like halachah. The leaders have to steer in the same direction. Even if they disagree, they must choose one approach. Even the dissenters have to get on board and continue leading the institution. Even though they disagree with the approach, they have to adopt it.
Years ago, I knew a rosh yeshivah who worked around the clock to raise money for the yeshivah and keep it running smoothly. His devotion was amazing. Though his age was quite advanced, he had an energy and drive few young people could match.
One memorable day, I discovered the secret greatness of the rosh yeshivah. I found out that the rosh yeshivah was totally opposed to the way the yeshivah’s shiurim were conducted. He felt that they didn’t build the bochurim into real talmidei chachamim who could fathom the complex depth of Torah. But he saw that the shiurim were popular. The bochurim found their style engaging. So he kept his opposition secret, and allowed the shiurim to go on as they were. And he went on working night and day to support the very system of shiurim that he passionately opposed!
That’s what Rav Yisrael means. Someone who truly cares about Hashem’s will sometimes will have to accept, and even promote, an approach he disagrees with.
Rav Yisrael’s teaching isn’t a lofty ideal reserved for great people like the rosh yeshivah. If we think about it, we implement it every day in our homes. I’ll explain with a personal example. I am a high-energy, efficient person who wants to get things done immediately. My wife, on the other hand, enjoys living the moment, and allows other tasks to wait. To me, it’s obvious that as soon as you’re done eating your soup, you should get up, take the bowl to the sink, and rinse it. But my wife stays seated and continues the conversation, till the residue dries. A few hours pass by the time she takes the bowl to the sink. Then it takes ten minutes of intense scrubbing to get it clean.
At first, I was frustrated by my wife’s deliberate inefficiency. But over time, I began to see that there’s a method to her madness. She too understands that leaving the bowls on the table makes them harder to clean. But to her, being totally engaged in the family discussion is more important than minimizing work. She simply has a different approach. It’s legitimate, and it has its place. I still think my way is better. But sometimes, I allow the conversation to continue, and let the soup bowls remain on the table.
The “machlokes” between me and my wife is ideological, not just practical. Each approach sends a different message to our children and grandchildren. Every home has a culture, the unspoken attitudes children absorb from their parents. Both parents contribute to the home culture. Sometimes one parent’s way is expressed, sometimes the other’s. But it starts when both parents not only tolerate the other way, but recognize its legitimacy, even though they still think their way is better.
We all do this in our homes. But in community affairs, we often lose our ability to see the other way. We only see our way, so we think anyone who disagrees must be out of his mind. Sometimes the reason is that we think we’re standing up for the truth, for what Hashem wants from us.
But Rav Yisrael teaches us that if our intent is really l’sheim Shamayim, we have to be ready to back down if the situation calls for it. Even when it’s so clear to you that you’re right, you have to work to see the legitimacy of the other way. And sometimes, you even have to join the other side and do it their way. That’s what Hashem really wants.
Avodas Hashem is far greater than we can possibly understand. It has room for different approaches. Leave it to the gedolim to decide if a particular approach is out of bounds. Otherwise, remember that the other person’s intent is also l’sheim Shamayim. Instead of allowing that intent to divide us, let’s use it to unite us. Let’s take our lessons from the Yamim Noraim with us, and make this year a year of emes and shalom together.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 880)
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