Harvey S. Hecker Character Development Series: Our words are a powerful force to build – and destroy.
#11 Preserving the Peace
Originally published by Rabbi Shraga Simmons on aish.com
In our “rights-based” culture of personal entitlement, we vigilantly protect our share of wealth, power, honor and fame. Anyone infringing on what we justly deserve is met with indignant protest.
Yet do they all these rights ever yield to a higher value?
Rachel is working on a team project, where one aggressive member is usurping power, making unilateral decisions, and grabbing all the credit. Even if he’s doing a fine job, this oversteps boundaries at Rachel’s expense and she deserves to press her rights. Yet confrontation comes at a price. Is it worth the fight?
Are we willing to diminish personal advancement in order to reduce friction?
In weighing this “confrontation cost-benefit,” the Torah equation includes the imperative to “seek peace and pursue it” (Psalms 34:15). When someone treats us unfairly – cuts in line, grabs two pieces where we get none – that’s where the rubber hits the road: Are we willing to relinquish what’s rightfully ours – even diminish personal advancement – in order to reduce friction?
This choice of greater good is called Vitur (Vatranut), literally “giving in.” As the final trait in this character development series, Vitur encompasses many other foundational traits: Kindness, Humility, Discipline, Patience, Compassion.
Vitur is expressed by:
- Going beyond the letter of the law.1
- Not standing on one’s honor.2
- Not pressing one’s rights.3
- Yielding to the wishes of another.4
Or, in the words of my 8-year-old son, Vitur is “when you want something that someone else wants, and you let them take it.”
The choice to forgo one’s rights is no timid, weak decision. On the contrary, restraint through strength is empowering. By conquering the selfish ego, we unleash a far greater inner power: Freedom from the ego dictating my life.
When we overlook annoyances and slights to our honor, we become broader people who tolerate and contain more.5 We then can apply this strength to innumerous life challenges – facing disappointment, financial hardship, or a health scare. That’s why Vitur is same letters as Yoter (“more”) – by giving up, we gain more.6
Actively Pursue Peace
Peace: we sing about it, advocate for it, idealize it, and pray for it as well. Scholars, philosophers, theologians, and each of us are in search of utopian peace. Tikkun Olam – literally, “repairing the world” – gives us license to dream of achieving a perfected world.
Yet peace is more than an ephemeral ideal – it is a proactive, consistent process. When two sides reach out to each other more than halfway, it creates an overlap of interests, a point of mutual desire to accommodate. That is where life’s magic happens.
Mike was involved in a project with a friend where one financial aspect became unclear. The friend explained why he thought that certain funds should accrue in his favor. Then, for the sake of peace, made clear he would not press his claim.
The next morning Mike literally ran to tell tell his friend: “I barely slept last night thinking about this. I agree. The money is yours.”
Mike is the hero of this story because more than right or wrong on the financial issue, his lack of sleep was caused by the mere possibility of tension between friends. His calculation: Guard the peace and choose Vitur. Then run to carry it out.
When is Too Much?
You may ask: If I’m constantly giving in to others, where is the line between “preserving the peace” and inviting abuse?
Vitur is only effective from a position of strength, not weakness.
The answer: It depends. Vitur is not always practical or realistic. If you’ll end up angry, resentful, bearing a grudge, and/or taking revenge, then Vitur is not a good option.
Vitur is only effective from a position of strength, not weakness. That’s why certain situations are exceptions to the rule:
- Don’t be a doormat. Those with low self-esteem tend to become “people pleasers” in the hopes of gaining acceptance. That’s a dead end, because in the long-run, outside validation is never fulfilling. You’ll only wind up resentful from all this “giving in.”
- Don’t expect of others. Apply the trait of Vitur to yourself, but never demand it of others.7 If you try to impose Vitur (“Hey, why don’t you go more than halfway this time!), the entire system breaks down.
Nor may you relinquish rights at the expense of others. For example, if you need money to support your family, you must pursue financial entitlements even in court if necessary.
- Don’t give in to bullies. This is no place for Vitur. As the Talmud says, if someone is coming to kill you, kill him first.8Relinquishing the right to self-defense is suicide.
Furthermore, conceding to bullies only emboldens them further. That’s why the Torah prohibits meeting excessive demands in ransom situations, in order not to encourage further acts of extortion.9 Pushing back against unfair aggression is a form of “pursuing peace” – by preventing harm to others.
Sarah was overcharged by a contractor. When she questioned it the response was an angry tirade. Sarah doesn’t feel like arguing and it will be easier to just pay it. Yet she must also consider the moral obligation to resist and not be complicit in this bully’s next victim.
On a global level as well, backing down from redlines and pacifying terrorists (often under the guise of “concessions for peace”) is a dangerous short-term strategy. Bullies (like children) always want everything their way. The inevitable result – born out repeatedly and painfully by history – is that conceding to bullies is what Winston Churchill called “feeding the crocodile in the hopes he eats you last.”
Our natural instinct is to “watch out for number one.” Here are some practical ways to break through to Vitur:
- Imagine you arrive at an intersection (with a 4-way stop sign) one second before another car. Vitur says: Even if you’re in a hurry, let the other person go first. Stop for a moment, breathe deeply, and appreciate the power of exercising this high degree of self-control.
- Kids can also learn Vitur at the dinner table when everyone is hungry. Teach them to sometimes let others take the first portion – even a younger sibling!
- Don’t stand on every right and honor. Look for opportunities to “let go.”
- Don’t be strict if you lend something and it gets ruined.
- When measuring amounts, give the margin of error to the other person. The sage Rabbi Nechunya Ben Hakana attributed his long life to “doing Vitur with my money,” which the Talmud explains he would always round up the grocery bill and pay a bit extra.10
Ideally, a Jewish court is where all parties discover mutual truth.
Let’s say you’ve been wronged, treated unfairly or the victim of damage. The first step is to gain objectivity: Take a step back and see yourself as a “third person.” What advice would you give a friend in the same (upset) situation?11
If you’ve been wronged, kosher response options include:
- Press the claim in court. Ideally, a Jewish court is where all parties discover mutual truth. In reality, however, a court case is often seen as confrontational. One side might ratchet things up, opening new cans of worms, and the next thing you know there’s war. As such, going to court should be regarded as a final, “nuclear” option.12
- Relinquish the claim. Put aside your personal rights for the sake of peace – Vitur.
- Seek a win-win scenario. The middle ground is neither relinquishing nor fully pressing your claim. Instead, communicate peacefully and offer your best compromise solution.13
Dan is having difficulty with aggressive neighbors who are actually claiming a piece of his backyard. They brazenly occupied it, no questions asked. The law appears clearly in Dan’s favor, but all attempts to nicely ask the neighbors to stop have been rebuffed. Dan is getting increasingly resentful and has even considered revenge (which the Torah does not allow). What’s his solution?
In this particular (true) story, Dan felt that relinquishing his claim was not a viable option. Giving up those property rights would create the untenable position of greatly limiting Dan’s use of the surrounding space, and also limit his future ability to sell. (Dan was further wary of empowering bullies.)
In this case, with repeated compromise offers summarily rebuffed, going to court is probably Dan’s best option. It is fully acceptable for a mature, civilized member of society to press his own rights, while respecting the rights of others. [Should Dan win his ownership claim outright, he could go beyond the letter of the law and offer the neighbors a strictly limited use of the space – a magnanimous act of peacemaking in the face of such brazenly unfair treatment.]
Stop Keeping Score
We tend to measure and keep an accounting of the pain and frustration people cause us. We also tend to measure injustices and imbalances in our relationships (“I always call her, she barely calls me”). The Talmud says that anyone Ma’avir Al Midosov – willing to overlook being wronged – has his own transgressions overlooked by God.14
This is not hocus-pocus, nor an issue of reward or punishment. Rather, the idea that “God treats us the way we treat others” is a natural result of our behavior – i.e. mirroring back the same measuring stick we use on others.
Put down the measuring stick and let things slide.
The Hebrew word Middot means both a character trait and a measurement. Ma’avir Al Midosov thus means both to “conquer one’s character traits” and also to “bypass measurements” – i.e. not keeping score vis a vis others. If we can put down the measuring stick and let things slide and give others a free pass, we similarly ensure that God will not judge our shortfalls strictly.15
You and your wife disagree about where to go on vacation. She loves the mountains, and you love the beach. She loves the north, and you love the south.
The obvious solution is: One year in the northern mountains, the next year on a southern beach, and so on. Yet a relationship built on Vitur is not necessarily “one for you and one for me.” The righteous person says: “What’s mine is yours.”16 Rights to property rights, rights to honor, etc. are temporal in this world. By “giving away” our rights they achieve immortal status.
Stretch as far as you can past the halfway point. Tossing out the scorecard and going “beyond measurements” is the key to any peaceful relationship. In marriage it is crucial. Some have the custom of a “Shalom Fund,” a special account from which small mistakes or idiosyncrasies are paid, to reduce the family friction. When the great Rabbi Steinman was asked for the three most important pieces of marriage advice, he replied: “Vitur, Vitur, and Vitur!”
Torah helps train us in Vitur by mandating the cancelling of financial debts once every seven years.17 By foregoing debts that we’re otherwise perfectly entitled to collect, we loosen our emotional bonds to wealth, becoming more flexible and forgiving when any conflict may arise.
Where Magic Happens
The trait of Vitur is at the very core of Jewish peoplehood.
Millennia ago, the Jews erected an idol in the Holy Temple, and God sought to destroy Jerusalem. The souls of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs pleaded with God to spare the Jews from permanent exile. Abraham offered his merits, but God said that would not suffice. Isaac, Sarah, Jacob, Moses and others presented their merits – but none would suffice.
Rachel was willing to give up her dream of marrying Jacob.
Rachel’s soul then presented itself before God. “Master of the Universe,” she began, “I waited seven years to marry Jacob. When the wedding day finally arrived, my father schemed to switch me with Leah.18 I overcame my own feelings and was willing to give up my dream of marrying Jacob. I allowed a competitor into my home. If I was able to do so, then certainly You, God, should not be strict about the idolatrous ‘competitor’ in Your home.”
Immediately, God’s compassion was aroused and He told Rachel: “In your merit, the exiled children of Israel will one day return to their homeland.”19 And we see that promise fulfilled today.
The Talmud says that the exile from Jerusalem was caused because people pressed their legal rights, without going beyond the letter of the law.20 We now understand why: The perfected global vision that Jerusalem represents can never flourish until we’re willing to reach out more than halfway.
Selfless acts of giving in, even if you’re 100% right – is of mankind’s greatest achievements. The deeper we can imbue the trait of Vitur into ourselves and our children, the better the world will be.
And should we worry that all this Vitur may somehow cause us to lose out on life, consider the awesome pleasure generated by such kindness and compassion: You get to live in the peaceful world you create!21
1. Tosefos Yom Tov – Sotah 9:15
2. Torah Temimah – Deut. 33, fn. 69
3. Talmud – Chullin 134a
4. Netziv – Mashiv Davar 3:10
5. Mrs. Dina Schoonmaker
6. Maginei Shlomo – Ketubot 98b
7. Talmud – Baba Metzia 107b
8. Brachot 58a
9. Talmud – Gittin 45a; Yoreh Deah 252:4. In one famous 13th century case, the beloved Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg was taken captive and imprisoned in France. When Emperor Rudolf demanded the Jewish community pay an exorbitant sum for his release, the rabbi forbade it to be paid, then spent his final seven years in prison.
10. Megillah 28a
11. Talmud – Shabbat 127b; Likutei Maharan – Torah 136
12. Talmud – Pesachim 4a; Midrash Chizkuni – Lev. 24:11; Torah Temimah – Genesiss 49, fn. 29
13. Deut. 6:18; Talmud – Bava Kama 100a
14. Rosh Hashana 17a
15. Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky
16. Talmud – Avot 5:13
17. Deut. 15:1
18. Genesis ch. 29
19. Jeremiah ch. 31; Genesis Rabba 82:10; Pesikta Eichah Rabbasi 24
20. Bava Metzia 30b
21. Orchot Yosher – Rabbi Chaim Kaniefsky