Constructive Confrontation

I remember having a conversation with a chashuve Yid on a topic we didn’t see eye-to-eye on. After we discussed it for around a half an hour, I apologized to him for taking away from his time.

“Don’t apologize,” he told me. “The time wasn’t wasted. Discussing things with people who don’t agree with you, but are open to hearing new points of view, is the only kind of conversation that is actually productive.”

His point is actually that of a Gemara (Bava Metziah 84a). When Reish Lakish was niftar, Rav Yochanon sought to fill the void of his departure by learning with Rav Elazar ben Pedas. But, in contrast with Reish Lakish, who would ask 24 questions on every halachic statement Rav Yochanan made, Rav Elazar ben Pedas brought a proof. “Uhtoo lo yadana d’shapir kaamina — Do I not then know that what I am saying is correct?” he said. “I don’t need someone to affirm that I’m right. I need someone to challenge my assumptions, so that I can better reach the truth.”

It’s perhaps for that reason that Shlomo Hamelech tells us (Mishlei 9:8) “Al tochach letz, pen yisna’eka, hochach l’chacham v’ye’ehavehka — Don’t rebuke a fool, for he may hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you.” Rebuke is, by its very nature, confrontational. It challenges the listener’s very self; it questions his actions and the way he lives his life. A fool hates this —he seeks only affirmation. But a wise man understands that it is this confrontation that helps him grow.

The world we live in (try as we might to isolate ourselves from it) is rife with letzanus. Everything that is inherently valuable is denigrated, while the denigration of that which is meaningless and counterproductive is the only thing that’s truly off-limits anymore.

We also see the manifestation of these wise words of Shlomo Hamelech play itself out on college campuses across the country. In the places where modern day paganism rules the day, and any idea of virtue is soundly rejected in the name of “freedom,” students are coddled and protected with “safe spaces” where they don’t have to worry about being “triggered” by ideas and arguments that might touch on students’ “vulnerabilities.” (Those are all terms that proponents of safe spaces use themselves.)

These places, where the spirit of letzanus is strongest, simply can’t put up with having to deal with anything in conflict with how people feel. And when the dean of students at the University of Chicago wrote a letter (rightly) pointing out that academia warrants the challenging of one’s biases and assumptions, more than 150 members of the faculty signed a letter disavowing his stance. Because it’s the one thing that can’t be tolerated.

It’s so extreme that students at Yale University demanded a dean resign because he wasn’t sufficiently understanding of the need to shield them from anything confrontational. They ultimately got what they demanded.

Al tochach letz, pen yisna’eka.

What we need to realize is that which a chacham realizes — that tochachah, and confrontation, is a good thing, a tool we can use to get better. Shying away from everything challenging doesn’t only not help us, it goes against what the Yemei Harachamim are all about.

Teshuvah, done properly, is not easy. In Shaarei Teshuvah, Rabbeinu Yonah lists no less than 20 different “ikarim” that are required for a teshuvah sheleimah. Some of them, like yagon — grief (3) bushah — shame (6) and hachnaah — humility (7–8) are quite unpleasant. Still others, like sheviras hataavah —breaking desire (9) chipus d’rachav — searching for His ways (11) and heyos chataso negdo tamid — carrying one’s sin in front of him at all times (18) are challenging.

But we have to do them.

In the beginning of Shaarei Teshuvah, Rabbeinu Yonah compares one who doesn’t do teshuvah to someone who was in prison when some of the other prisoners dug a tunnel and escaped. This fellow, however, chose to stay behind and remain in prison. The tunnel, he says, is teshuvah, and those that don’t take advantage of it are choosing to remain in prison.

Rav Elya Ber Wachfogel, shlita, explained this allegory beautifully. Why, he asks, does this prisoner choose not to escape? Why is he remaining in prison?

The reason for this, he answers, is because the tunnel that is typically dug in an effort to escape a prison isn’t the most comfortable of tunnels. So this prisoner only thinks that it’s more comfortable for him to stay in his cell than spend time in the tunnel — not thinking of the freedom that is life at the end of the tunnel.

When we choose not to do teshuvah because it is too hard, he explains, we are doing just that. What we need to do is squeeze into this tunnel, and get a little banged up. But from that we end up so much better off than if we just remain in our cells — unwilling to challenge ourselves so we can experience true freedom at the other end of the teshuvah “tunnel.”