Daf Yomi Nazir 49
When David initially became the king, he was only accepted by his own tribe of Judah. The other tribes crowned Shaul’s son, Ishboshes, as their king. Heading David’s army was Yoav, while Avner was the commander of Ishboshes’s troops. One day, however, Avner and his king had a falling out and he decided to switch loyalties.
You can imagine David’s joy at this turn of events, and he welcomed Avner with open arms. Not so happy, though, was Yoav, who still harbored major animosity towards Avner, for he had killed his brother, Asahel. And so as soon as he had the opportunity to speak with him in private, he feigned comradery and began to engage him in a halachic discussion.
When a man dies childless, the Torah requires his brother to marry the widow. If they do not wish to proceed with the union, they perform a ceremony called chalitzah, whereby she removes his shoe and spits, declaring, “Thus shall be done to the man who does not build his brother’s house.”
“What if she has no arms?” Yoav, seemingly innocently, inquired of Avner. “How would she remove his shoe?” Avner started to lean over to demonstrate how one would perform the ritual with one’s teeth, but as he did so, Yoav thrust his sword into him, mortally wounding him.
After the passing of Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda said to his students, “Don’t let the students of Rabbi Meir enter here. They are critical. They do not come to learn Torah; they come to undermine my halachic teachings.”
The Rosh explains: He felt that their goal was simply to cause pain.
There are two approaches to engaging in discussion and debate. The right way is to come to the table with a sincere, open mind and be prepared to listen to what the other person is saying, giving their position due consideration. The wrong way is to come with the goal of destroying them.
Yoav had no intention of engaging in any real halachic discussion with Avner. He was merely looking for an opportunity to murder him. Rabbi Yehuda felt the same way about the students of Rabbi Meir. His sense was that they were belligerent and had no intent of coming to seek Torah wisdom. Their motivation was to attack, criticize, undermine and ultimately cause pain and distress to the teacher and the listeners.
We’ve all witnessed people like that. They come to a lecture or shiur with no objective to learn anything. They think they know it all already. They sit in the back doing their very best to demonstrate their lack of interest in the speaker. Until they raise their hand (if the speaker is lucky) and begin to poke holes in the material and show how much more they know.
While most of us are not like that guy, sometimes we might fall prey to such behaviour in our personal relationships. You might be upset at your spouse. You tell them you want to talk about what happened. But you’re not really listening to them. All you’re doing is criticizing, undermining their position, and trying to show you’re right.
That’s not called engagement. That’s called causing pain. Your aim when you enter into the discussion must be to truly engage with the other person. Whether it’s your spouse, your child, your parent, your colleague, or your neighbour, the first thing you need to do is listen to them. Then you need to imagine for a moment that you are in their shoes and do your very best to understand where they’re coming from. The second you sense that you’re saying something simply to criticize and undermine them, you have to ask for a time out so that you can cool down and be able to start engaging rationally once again.
Your job in this world is to build people up, not cut them down. Sometimes we deal with difficult people, but if the Almighty has sent them your way, then He’s challenging you to find a way to engage with them as well. May you merit being the one who always seeks to understand the other person’s position and engages with everyone rationally and empathically!