David was excited to attend the training he was sent to for work. The room was filled to capacity when he arrived, and although he was on time there were only a handful of seats remaining. He managed to grab a seat at one of the front tables and was grateful that at least he had a place to put his books and write. Others who were even a moment late were confined to chairs without any tables in the back of the room. As the instructor warmed up his crowd, he mentioned that everyone should get to know the person sitting next to them, as they were going to be working very closely together over the next three days. David recognized the person sitting next to him since he once had a run-in with him a few years back, and had tried to avoid him as much as possible. Many of us may have found ourselves in a similar situation to David. I remember in school having been matched with a chavruta who was a total mismatch. Others have been assigned to a project with someone they just could not work with.
In Parshat Ki Teitzei the Torah prohibits a farmer from threshing a field with an ox and donkey simultaneously. The Ibn Ezra explains the reasoning for this prohibition as follows. Hashem has mercy upon all of His creations. These two animals are not accustomed to each other. The donkey is a far weaker animal than the ox and will therefore suffer physically if forced to carry a burden with the stronger ox. The Sefer Hachinuch adds that every creature has an affinity for its own kind, and becomes uncomfortable around creatures different from it. The same is true when it comes to human beings. Not all people can work with each other. Each individual has their own temperament, personality and style. While the Torah encourages us to be respectful of one another, there are limits. We as individuals are urged to learn about our own limitations in this area. If there’s a certain type of personality that brings out bad qualities within us, we ought to shy away from interacting with that person, if possible. While we may not always have an option in the work setting to choose who we associate with, we do reserve this right when it comes to our social interactions. Instead of forcing ourselves or others into awkward or inappropriate situations, it is important to be upfront and honest with ourselves before engaging in any activity that may cause us to act uncharacteristically.
What about when we have no choice but to engage with someone who really rubs us the wrong way? Is there anything we can do in order to avoid confrontation with someone whose behavior is detestable to us? I suggest that all we can do is be aware of our own inner feelings when exposed and in the presence of the aforementioned individual. We need to internally vocalize what bothers us about their presence and why we are set off when interacting with them. The more we become in tune with our own feelings, the more inner strength we will harness to behave accordingly.
The month of Elul is a time when we are urged to focus on our own self-development. It is a time when, hopefully, we become acutely aware of ourselves on a deep and powerful level, strengthening our character so that we can tolerate the company of any person sitting next to us.
Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler is rabbi of Congregation AABJ&D in West Orange, NJ, and is a psychotherapist (LCSW) in private practice. Rabbi Zwickler can be reached at [email protected]