Winning by Rabbi Barry Gelman

nizchuni banai, nizchuni banai

My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me. (Bava Metzia 59b)

I hope these thoughts begin a conversation.

I have been thinking about winning and losing lately. The build up to the midterm elections and their aftermath provide examples of just how far people are willing to go to win.

Personal attacks against candidates and their family members, unverified claims of voter fraud and election tampering are just some of the examples of what candidates and citizens are willing to do.

We know that love and hate can cause people to act in ways that are out of the ordinary or even destructive.  We know this, perhaps, from our own actions, or from watching others. The Midrash (Lechach Tov) and the Gemara (San. 105b) put it well when they state that love and hate corrupts normal behaviour.

במדבר כב, כא ויקם בלעם בבקר ויחבוש את אתונו תנא משום רבי שמעון בן אלעזר אהבה מבטלת שורה של גדולה מאברהם דכתיב (בראשית כא, יד) וישכם אברהם בבקר שנאה מבטלת שורה של גדולה מבלעם שנאמר ויקם בלעם בבקר ויחבוש את אתונו

  • It is stated: “And Balaam rose in the morning and saddled his donkey”(Numbers 22:21). It was taught in a baraita in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar: Love negates the standard conduct of those of prominence. This is derived from Abraham, as it is written: “And Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey” (Genesis 22:3). Atypically, he saddled the donkey himself and he did not wait for his servants. Likewise, hatred negates the standard conduct of those of prominence. This is derived from Balaam, as it is stated: “And Balaam rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey” (Numbers 22:21).

Jewish Law teaches us that there must be other factors that we consider other than getting what we want, even when the stakes are high and the cause noble. Rabbi Soloveitchik makes this point when he talks about retreat regarding sexuality and ultimately claims that the greatest hero is the person who lives in a dialectic between advance and retreat. What is so unfortunate is that people accept this mode of living in their religious life, but not in politics, national, local or communal.

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816 – 1893) uses the episode of Shimon and Levi’s revenge for Dina’s rape to powerfully illustrate how people can go overboard when fighting for even the noblest of causes.

He admits that there was an important reason to punish the people involved in the attack, yet, he also notes this:

:ומ״מ מאש כזה ג״כ יש להזהר הרבה לכוין המקום והזמן. ובל״ז היא מקלקלת הר

“Nevertheless, from such a fire (a righteous cause) one must also be careful to choose the proper time and place otherwise it can lead to great destruction.”

Later in Bereishit, the Netziv adds:

:שע״י כעס נעשה דברים זרים יותר מהנדרש לצורך הענין ובזה יהיה קלקולו יותר מתיקונו

“Because of anger, strange and exaggerated actions are taken, which result in more destruction than repair.”

The Netziv’s marshals a Gemara in Massechet Taanit to make root his approach in the teachings of Chazal.

ואמר רבא האי צורבא מרבנן דרתח אורייתא הוא דקא מרתחא ליה שנאמר (ירמיהו כג, כט) הלא כה דברי כאש נאם ה’ ואמר רב אשי כל ת”ח שאינו קשה כברזל אינו ת”ח שנא’ (ירמיהו כג, כט) וכפטיש יפוצץ סלע

  • And, incidentally, the Gemara relates that which Rava said: This Torah scholar who grows angry, it can be presumed that it is his Torah study that angers him. Therefore, he must be given the benefit of the doubt, as it is stated: “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:29). And similarly, Rav Ashi said: Any Torah scholar who is not as hard as iron, but is indecisive and wavers, he is not a Torah scholar, as it is stated in the same verse: “And as a hammer that breaks rock in pieces” (Jeremiah 23:29).

Yet, the, despite this rabbinic praise of the toughness of the Torah scholar, the Talmud then offers a counterbalance.

אמר רבינא אפ”ה מיבעי ליה לאיניש למילף נפשיה בניחותא שנאמר (קהלת יא, י) והסר כעס מלבך וגו

Ravina said: And even so, one is required to teach himself to act gently, as it is stated: “And remove anger from your heart, and put away evil from your flesh” (Ecclesiastes 11:10).

We are living in a time when we do not appreciate the value of retreat even if the only way forward leads to, as the Netziv noted, more destruction than repair. We pay a high price for this and it erodes our social fabric.

It is interesting that the Netziv did not question the ethics of Shimon and Levi’s actions (as much as we may find their killing of every mail difficult to explain), his point is much more subtle and has nothing to do with legality. The Netziv reminds us that even if we act in accordance with the law , there are still things that we might do for a good cause that are not worth the ultimate price we pay.

We can learn from God who surrendered to the Rabbis in the case of the Tanur Shel Achnai. Of course, God was “right” and has a just cause, yet, He practices retreat for the sake of the greater good.


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