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I Keep On Trying to Change People

I Keep On Trying to Change People

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Dear Rachel,

I suffer from quixotic syndrome. I’m always trying to change the world and get people to act the way they’re supposed to.

I shush women in shul (how can you talk in shul?) and men at weddings (seriously, you’re having a private business conversationAren’t I right, after all? during the most important time in a young couple’s life?); I get incensed when people cut ahead of me in line (and more incensed when service people allow this to happen) and frustrated with injustices done to me or others. I know for the most part that it never really helps and often makes people dislike me, but it’s an automatic reaction, like an English teacher correcting someone’s grammar.

And aren’t I right, after all? Aren’t there some things that are just plain wrong to do? And doesn’t Judaism teach tikkun olam, the effort to change the world for the better?

Sincerely,

Pursuing Justice


Dear Dulcinea,

You obviously have a strong sense of justice, of right and wrong, and that’s admirable. There are many laws in Judaism that involve being fair and just, even in ways that the average person wouldn’t think of. For example, it isn’t permissible to ask a salesperson the price of an item you don’t intend to buy because this gives her the false impression that she might make a sale.

But while I commend you on your sense of justice, here’s my advice: Slow down. It says in the Torah, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”1 Why the repeated word? Because justice should be pursued justly.

The Torah also tells us, “You shall reprove your fellow, and do not bear a sin because of him.”2 In other words, there’s a way to correct someone. Don’t do it in a way that will embarrass him, and it must always be done for his good. You need to reprove privately, gently and gradually, pulling the person close to you rather than pushing him away. In fact, if you reprove in public and thereby embarrass the person, not only have you not accomplished anything, you yourself have transgressed a biblical prohibition.3 And embarrassing or antagonizing another definitely won’t make him want to listen to what you have to say. (It’s also important to keep in mind that unless you see someone clearly violating a biblical prohibition—as opposed to a positive commandment—you aren’t required to rebuke someone unless you know that individual will listen.4)

So here are some suggestions to help you make the world a better place in a better way:

Don’t Carry the Weight of the World on Your Shoulders

While it’s difficult to see injustice, rudeness and unfairness, there’s no getting around the fact that there’s a lot of it in the street, the workplace, and even (and maybe especially) in the halls of government and justice. You can’t possibly hope to deal with all of it. Pick one area, one battle, one cause that’s important enough for you to fight for, and then think of the most efficient way to contribute to this area. For example, if you see someone being treated unjustly in your workplace, you can try to influence your co-workers to act more kindly towards her. It’s commendable to seek to ameliorate the ills of society, but you have to do it in the most effective way possible and only in the amount you can handle.

Protect Yourself and Others

Avoid situations that set you off and will likely result in an altercation. For example, visit shops at times when there’s less likely to be long lines. When you’re at shul or an event, position yourself in a place where you won’t be disturbed by other people. Depending on the situation, you can even distract yourself by listening to music, saying psalms or checking email on your phone at times when overhearing other people’s conversations or activity will draw you into some kind of disagreement. You know that old saying about avoiding talking about politics and religion? It’s good advice. If you know your opinion won’t be listened to, avoid a subject where you feel compelled to give it. Talk about other things.

Associate With People Who Have Similar Values

Find a shul that doesn’t tolerate banter during services. Stand with a group of friends who are quiet during a chuppah. Patronize places of business that treat their customers respectfully and expect customers to do the same. Choose to work in an ethical environment where people’s rights are respected. Deal with organizations that operate on logic. We can’t change other people, but we can choose the type of people to associate with more often than we think.

Tone Down Your Emotions

It’s much easier to accept criticism or intervention when it’s not being offered on a tidal wave of emotion. If you try to make your point quietly and succinctly—“Excuse me, I believe it’s my turn”—instead of haranguing the person for inconsideration, you’re more likely to achieve the end you want. This goes even for emotion-laden topics like religion and politics. State your point calmly and quietly. King Solomon said that the words of the wise are heard when spoken calmly.5

Be the Change You Want to See in the World

The best way to influence others is to inspire them with your own impeccable behavior. If you don’t like it when people cut in in line, don’t only patiently wait your turn, let others go ahead of you. If you don’t like when people talk disrespectfully in shul or at weddings, model attentive and respectful behavior. Always present the paradigm of how you want others to act. Maybe not everyone will imitate your behavior, but some will definitely take note of it.

Wishing you tulips as well as windmills,

Rachel

Footnotes
3.
See Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orech Chaim 156:8.
4.
Shulchan Aruch Harav 608:4.
5.
Ecclesiastes9:17.
Rosally Saltsman is a freelance writer originally from Montreal living in Israel. Click here to email Rosally.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Susan Levitsky May 3, 2017

“Excuse me, I believe it’s my turn”
Whenever I have tried that, the salesperson almost always says, "I already started waiting on him." Some people go through life pushing ahead and it always works because nobody is willing to confront them. "I only want to ask a question." So do I. Wait your turn, but they butt in any way.
"If you don’t like it when people cut in in line, don’t only patiently wait your turn, let others go ahead of you."
Exactly how is this going to help? Letting someone in ahead of you is also letting someone in ahead of everyone else behind you. Call out the transgressors; people who go through life pushing people aside because they feel more important and entitled. Even if they don't feel any sense of embarrassment because they are so self-important, at least they won't always get their way. Reply

M. Diane Flushing, NY May 4, 2017
in response to Susan Levitsky:

Good morning Ms. Levitsky!
Something I like to consider when I feel I want to teach someone about cutting in line or making me wait "unnecessarily" is that, the three or seven minutes (or more) I am going to wait in line because of the butting-inner, may be the same minutes I need in order to avoid an automobile accident, or meeting up with some other truly unwanted occurrence.
I also sometimes think that perhaps my L-rd, who can and does use all sorts of teaching tools, might be tweaking my capacity for being patient, which I generally think I have under control (but which I might be able to improve). Maybe those two ideas might work for you next time as they do for me. Several times, I even told the person cutting in line that they may be saving my life and I thanked them. Reply

M. Diane Queens, NYC May 2, 2017

When I count the Omer, I see Sefira's name and think of her.
This is good advice which is given. Better we spend more time fixing ourselves than worrying about others. Sometimes, when we worry about what others have or have not done and what they should or should not do, they have already done or avoided those things. Instead of making snap judgments, we should ask the person or look and see before complaining. What if the man in the movie theatre had an urgent medical problem and was asking his friend how best to deal with it in that moment? Would the 'no talking in movie theatre" rule apply? There are always exceptions and explanations. We should all work on ourselves and not be so judgmental. Reply

Sydney May 2, 2017

This one was for me... we mean well... x Reply

jim dallas May 1, 2017

a night scene by sefira...what an amazing contributor to a cause.. glad she is on our side!
and you rosally...what a fine presentation and advice by Hashem....couldn't be better!
thanks to you both...and Hashem! Reply

Anonymous UK April 30, 2017

A promotion put me in charge of a number of staff. It was daunting but I made my set of principals and kept to them. Any rebuke was made in private and in my cool blood. It was not discussed with the others, only occasionally with my superior. As far as possible I kept the tone to discussion tho' I did not pull my punches when straight talking was required. I was courteous throughout and I always concluded by commenting on something positive in the person I was reprimanding. It took time but eventually I won their respect and they were happier with one another. I had learned a great deal from bosses, good and bad, with whom I had worked in the past, and also by bringing the principles of my faith to practical use in my everyday life. The wisdom expounded in the scriptures and in the teachings of the great sages is not simply 'pie in the sky', it can be a guide to coping with the complexities of living in the real world. Reply

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