Fleeing from Disputes by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen
After Abraham and his entourage returned from their ordeal in Egypt, a dispute developed between Abraham’s shepherds and those of his nephew, Lot. The Midrash tells us that Lot’s shepherds were allowing their flocks to graze on other people’s lands while Abraham’s shepherds would rebuke them for their thievery. At this point, Abraham decided to make a drastic suggestion to Lot. “And Abraham said to Lot, ‘please let there be no strife between me and you, and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen, for we are men who are brothers… Please separate from me: If to the left, then I will go to the right, and if to the right, then I will go to the left.” (1)
The commentaries discuss why Abraham decided to split up with Lot only at this point in time and not earlier. This issue is exacerbated by a comment of Rash immediately after Lot does indeed separate from Abraham. The Torah says that God spoke to Abraham, “after Lot had parted from him.” (2) That seems to be superfluous – Rashi explains that while Lot was dwelling with Abraham, Abraham could not experience Prophecy because Lot’s negative influence kept the Divine Presence away. It was only after Lot left that God spoke to Abraham again.(3)
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz derives two illuminating points from this passage. Firstly, it is clear that Abraham was spiritually hindered by his continued companionship with his nephew to such an extent that it prevented him from experiencing the ultimate experience of Prophecy. Yet Abraham continued to remain with Lot in his efforts to influence him in a positive manner. Rav Shmuelevitz derives from here how important it is to positively influence others even if there is some loss to oneself. However, he then points out that there was one thing that even Abraham could not tolerate – that was machloket (strife), and in order to diffuse the machloket he felt it necessary to separate from his nephew.(4) We learn from here how destructive strife is and how one must go to any ends to diffuse it in order to prevent disputes and the inevitable arguments, bitterness, hatred and lashon hara (forbidden speech) that results from them.
Abraham felt it necessary to separate from Lot but the Midrash points out that he spoke in a very conciliatory way to Lot and assured him that their close bond remained – indeed later when Lot was kidnapped by the four Kings, Abraham risked his life to save him. Indeed, separating in this instance was the way to maintain the peace with Lot, not simply a way of avoiding communication with him.
Sadly, machloket remains a common plague in society, and even effects families. Rav Yissachar Frand told numerous stories of how families were destroyed over issues that simply were not worthy of causing such pain. One of the main factors that prevent disputes from ending is the unwillingness of either protagonist to either make the first move in order to make peace, and on occasion, to even accept the efforts of the other protagonist when they do try to make peace. Such behavior ultimately only causes pain to the stubborn person themselves – the Chofetz Chaim tells the story of a machloket which threatened to destroy one of the protagonist’s lives and result in his family being imprisoned. When his desperate wife implored him to give up this destructive machloket, he replied that he was prepared for himself, his wife and his children to go to prison, as long as he would ‘win’ the machloket! In most cases, there is no risk of a physical prison, but anyone involved in a machloket between family or friends can testify that they are in a kind of emotional prison – unable to free themselves from constant negativity and hatred and constantly anxious about the possibility of bumping into the other person. Surely it is better to be the bigger person and make peace even if one feels the other person was more at fault.
And in truth, if a person is honest with themselves they will realize that they do bare some blame for the escalation of the machloket. The great Rabbi, the Malbim, made this point with regard a machloket that he found himself embroiled in. His beleaguered students asked him how such a terrible dispute could take place, given the Torah’s words with regard to the machloket between Korach and Moses: The Torah tells us: “There will never be like Korach and his assembly.” (5) The students understood that this means that there will never be such a bitter machloket again in history. Accordingly, they could not understand how the Malbim could be embroiled in such a machloket. He explained to them that the Torah’s words that there will never again be such a machloket have a different meaning. The Torah is telling us that the machloket of Korach against Moses was the only one in history in which one side was totally in the wrong and one side was completely in the right. Korach and his associates were totally wrong in their arguments and were fully guilty for the development of the machloket. Moshe, in contrast, acted in a completely correct and justified manner. When the Torah says that there will never be such a machloket again, it is telling us that there will never be another machloket in which one side is totally justified and the other is completely guilty. The Malbim, in his humility, was thus acknowledging that he had to assume some guilt for the machloket he was involved in.(6) The Malbim’s explanation teaches us that anyone involved in a machloket is wrong to believe that he is totally in the right, because the Torah testifies that this cannot be the case.
During the course of a person’s life, it is inevitable that he will come into some form of conflict with other people. When this happens, the person has a vital choice to make: He can validate his own behavior and stubbornly refuse to admit any failing; or he can swallow his pride, be the ‘bigger’ person, and initiate reconciliation. Of course there may be issues that need to be resolved through reasonable dialogue but once a person genuinely commits to making peace he will surely succeed. By taking the peacemaking approach, the person emulates Abraham who did what was necessary to make peace. However, when a person refuses to budge in such incidents, he only succeeds in prolonging and increasing the bitterness. May we all merit to emulate Abraham in making peace.
NOTES1. Bereishis, 13:8-9.2. Bereishis, 13:14.3. Rashi, Bereishis, 13:14, based on the Medrash Tanchuma,Vayetsei 10, and Bereishis Rabbah, 41:8.4. Heard from my Rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits shlita, in the name of Rav Shmuelevitz.
- Korach, 17:5.
- Tallelei Oros, p.303.