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Sometimes we are surprised at people's reactions to the things we say. Often we say something a bit offensive, intending, for good or bad reasons, to hurt the other person a bit, yet we are totally shocked at his reaction, which seems to be way out of proportion. If we want to understand this and other enigmas in human relations we always have to bear in mind a major rule: We must always analyze people according to their preferences; not according to ours. One who lives a life of accounting, not one based merely on instinct, will find that this rule is applicable and helpful in many situations.

In this week's parashah, we are told that Lavan the Swindler succeeded to get Ya'akov Avinu angry. "Then Ya'akov became angered and he argued with Lavan; Ya'akov spoke up and said to Lavan, 'What is my transgression? What is my sin that you have hotly pursued me? When you rummaged through all my things, what did you find of all your household objects? Set it here before my kinsmen and your kinsmen, and let them decide between the two of us'" (Bereishis 31:36-37).

It seems a bit strange. Ya'akov suffered for twenty years at the hands of his conniving uncle Lavan. After forcing him to work for seven years, Lavan fooled him into marrying the wrong daughter. He changed the rules of their agreement one hundred times. Yet Ya'akov accepted his lot patiently and never lost his temper. Suddenly the Torah tells us that Ya'akov got angry and argued with Lavan. What was so unusual that ticked him off now?

The same thing we find with Moshe Rabbeinu. He suffered so much from the troublesome Israelites and we even find him "loosing his cool" sometimes. Yet the only time the Torah describes his reaction as getting very angry is during the dispute with Korach and his camp, as it says (Bemidbar 16:15), "And Moshe was very angry and he said to Hashem, 'Do not turn to their gift-offering! I have not taken even a single donkey of theirs, nor have I wronged even one of them.'" Why did he get so angry just then?

The answer, I believe, is that everyone has good and bad characteristics. If you insult someone, and question his personality, he may or may not get insulted and if he does, there are various degrees of offense he may feel. But people who work on their character usually have one specific thing which they succeed in perfecting and really excel in. If someone suddenly attacks them in that particular area, questioning their soundness, they are extremely hurt and angry and totally fly off the handle.

Ya'akov was the epitome of the Attribute of Truth, as it says (Michah 7:20), "You will give truth to Ya'akov." He was able to take all of Lavan's treachery until he had the audacity to question his integrity and call him a thief as it says (Bereishis 31:26-27,30), "And Lavan said to Ya'akov, 'What have you done that you have deceived me and led my daughters away like captives of the sword? Why have you fled so stealthily, and cheated me... Now -- you have left because you longed greatly for your father's house; but why did you steal my gods?'" This was too much for Ya'akov to bear and he got very angry and lashed out at his uncle for doubting his honesty when he had actually dealt with him way and beyond his obligations.

The same applies to Moshe who was the epitome of Humility as it says (Bemidbar 12:3), "Now the man Moshe was exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth." He was able to bear all of the insults hurled towards him until Korach had the audacity to accuse him of haughtiness as it says (ibid. 16:3), "Why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of Hashem?" This hurt Moshe very deeply and he became extremely angry and asked Hashem to fight his battle for him.

By the way, it is interesting to note that Lavan, who was a professional swindler, accused Ya'akov of being dishonest and Korach, who was arrogant and wanted positions of honor, accused Moshe of being haughty. This is consistent with the rule of the Sages (Kiddushin 70a) that he who faults others accuses them of his very own faults.

The lesson is that we have to be extremely careful of others' feelings. Even when we do want to hurt someone a bit, we hardly ever want to shake him to the core. If we are surprised at people's reactions sometimes, it is because we didn't take the time to consider their particular sensitivities. If we take note of their special characteristics we will know that these are red lines which should not be crossed. For rarely does someone deserve to be insulted so strongly.

But if we are discussing human relations, there really is a much better method of getting desired results from people than by insulting them. I once read in some book that if one is sitting on his horse in front of his fields and suddenly notices a stampede of bulls heading towards them, the worst thing he can do is face them head-on and try to stop them from proceeding. They will only trample him to death before they destroy the fields he is trying to protect.

The correct method is to turn around and start riding with the herd, but at their head, this way he can assume the position of their leader and can swerve to the left or the right, with them following him until they avoid his fields completely!

Similarly, when one is dealing with a stubborn person, the worst thing he can do is argue with him for he will only become more and more defiant. The smart, and only, way to persuade him is to show understanding and agree with his views and attitude, no matter how foolish they may be, and thus, after gaining his confidence, he can be swayed, ever so slowly, into doing what is best for him.

You say you haven't the time or the patience to play games and would rather call a spade a spade? Well, just consider that the other method will take much more time, cause everyone much more aggravation and, in the end, prove to be ineffective, maybe even counterproductive, and a total waste of time.

Human relations are difficult to cope with, but the Torah is full of important lessons which, if followed, will make us truly happy in this world and the World-to-Come.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel