There is a story that is often told and it teaches a very powerful lesson. The challenge, however, is recognizing what, exactly, the lesson is — and internalizing it.
One of the baalei mussar awoke, thirsty, in the middle of the night. This presented him with a dilemma. On the one hand, he felt that getting himself a cup of water in the middle of the night might be too much effort expended on a physical desire. On the other hand, he wasn’t sure if the impetus behind that feeling was a real spiritual calculation, or if it may have been partly due to laziness. It is said that he solved this quandary by getting the drink, but not drinking it.
One of the greatest challenges in this world is that everyone has a conflict of interest when it comes to judging oneself. After all, as the Gemara says, “Adam karov eitzel atzmo” — man has a conflict when it comes to himself. And although we always want to do what is right, when we face dark and difficult decisions, we must face the choice between what is right and what is easy. And it is common enough to mistake what is easy for what is right.
Two of the most oft cited justifications for choosing what is easy over what is right when coming across conflict — even in situations where people are being hurt — are not “wanting to get involved” and saying that “there is nothing I can do.” And more often than not, the person who makes such rationalizations means to do what is right — but doesn’t realize that it may be indolence that is more responsible for his inaction.
In the book HaRav MiBrisk (Vol. 1., pp. 334–340), the excuse of “not being able to get anything done” is explained to be irrelevant with a story the Brisker Rav told Rabbi Shlomo Lorincz when the latter expressed feelings of despondency about what, at the time, looked like a losing battle to stop the National Service law for girls in Israel. When Rabbi Lorincz told the Rav that he had exhausted every possible avenue that had a chance of succeeding, the Brisker Rav refuted this attitude and told him a story.
When he was the Rav in Brisk, he had to fight bitterly against those who sought to “modernize.” At one point, there was an effort to establish a choir during the Yamim Nora’im, against his wishes. When he came to the shul, he climbed the steps up to the stage and sent the choir members down. But after he returned to his seat, the person responsible for the introduction of the choir, who was powerful and influential, sent the choir back up to their places.
The Rav again went up to dismiss them, and yet again they were told by this fellow to return. This scenario repeated itself, he told Rabbi Lorincz, tens of times — despite the fact that, as he explained, any reasonable person would have come to the conclusion that there was no point. The last time he went up he realized that this was the absolute last time he had enough physical strength to climb the stairs. And when he reached the top of the stairs, a commotion broke out in the ladies’ section, and the women loudly protested the indignity that the Rav had suffered, effectively ending the choir.
As he explained, “Men muz nisht oiftohn; men muz nohr tohn — We aren’t required to get things done; we are required to do.” Accomplishing is for the One Above; we need only concern ourselves with what we are required to do.
Someone told me about a conflict he had helped to resolve. What was interesting about his story was that there was no reason to believe he should have been able to help get this done. But his approach was that it was not his job to “get it done,” but rather to do whatever he could toward that end. So he and another friend reached out to a third party — who was in a position to influence one of the parties to help bring the matter to a swift conclusion. Despite the fact that the man he reached out to could get out of doing anything as well — by employing the other excuse of “not wanting to get involved” — he got involved, and it was his involvement that ultimately got the conflict resolved.
If it weren’t for people who refused to use the cop-outs of “What can I accomplish?” and “I don’t want to mix in,” this might never have reached a resolution.
The urge to pass by situations where our involvement can have a real, positive impact, while often thought of as being an aversion to machlokes, can at times be misplaced piety and just an offshoot of laziness.
A maggid shiur once made this point to me by asking why the Torah needs to have a passuk telling us “Lo saamod al dam rei’acha”? Would anyone think that it is okay to stand idly by while someone’s blood is spilled? The answer, he replied, is — yes. People generally don’t understand that when someone is being wronged and they demur when asked to get involved because they don’t “want to be involved in a machlokes” that they might just be in direct conflict with this passuk.
In Taam V’Daas, Harav Moshe Sternbuch makes a similar point when he says that there is a reason that the passuk of “Lo seleich rachil” ends with “Lo saamod al dam rei’acha.” While there are many times when people are averse to speaking up because they don’t want to speak lashon hara, they must remember not to do this at the expense of someone else’s blood being spilled. (This idea is actually already made by the Chofetz Chaim himself in a footnote in Klal 3 in Hilchos Rechilus.) At times, it is choosing not to involve yourself in a machlokes that can cause you to become the greatest machzik b’machlokes. If you have the ability to help end a machlokes and you decline, you can end up being yourself a major obstacle to shalom.
Of course, machlokes must be avoided at all costs. But that is not what we are talking about here. Misusing the value of staying away from machlokes to justify standing by idly while someone else gets mistreated is just as intellectually dishonest as staying in bed because you are too lazy to pour yourself a drink, and telling yourself that the real reason is because you don’t want to give in to your yetzer hara. And if the time should come when we have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, we should remember what happened to Iyov, who kept quiet when the Yidden were being tortured in Mitzrayim.
Keeping out of it isn’t always the right thing to do.