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Healthy Concern


He used to say: ‘Do not disparage anyone, and do not discriminate against anything, for there is no man that has not his hour, and there is no thing that has not its place.


In Ben Azzai’s second statement in Pirkei Avot, we are enjoined to “not disparage anyone, and do not discriminate against anything.”  A belittling and mocking disposition is unbecoming to one who is pursuing virtue. Formulated in the positive, we should look for the good in all people and in all things. Value and respect others. Find the redemptive value in all things and events. Every person and every thing, explains Rabbi Yosef Yavetz is created by God with a purpose and a function. Moreover, Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin contends that each person has at least one unique talent that makes them unique. It is up to us to discover and reinforce that skill instead of ruminating on a pessimistic perspective. 


Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, in his Sefat Emet, takes the idea one step further. Even someone who openly performs wicked deeds should not be disparaged in totality.  Rabbi Alter distinguishes between critiquing negative actions and vilifying the person’s total identity. Likewise, in the therapeutic context, Dr. Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) argues that it is irrational to totally evaluate a person negatively. Every person is a mixture of positive and negative traits and actions. Critiquing behaviors is appropriate, while evaluating the entirety of being, is not.


This is not just relevant to judging others but is relevant to our self-assessments as well. Rabbi Shlomo Kluger suggests that included in Ben Azzai’s “Do not disparage anyone” includes a warning not to disrespect oneself An honest self-critique of actions is warranted and essential for repentance, but a total denigration of the sense of self (i.e. I am a failure, worthless, evil…) is psychologically dangerous and religiously inappropriate. 


Rabbi Ovadiah Bartenura suggests an alternative explanation of the Mishna, which could be seen at first glance as encouraging neuroticism: 

“‘Do not disparage anyone’: by saying, ‘What can he do to harm me.’ ‘And do not shun anything: Make distance from anything that one should be concerned about. Do not say, ‘It will stay far and there is no reason to worry about it.’” 

Rather, you should be concerned that someone may harm you or a dreaded event may transpire. The message, however, is not to be paranoid, but to “be prepared,” to quote the Boy Scout motto, for possible eventualities that may cause harm. 


As advocated in REBT by Dr. Ellis, a healthy level of concern is often the proper response to potentially negative outcomes. This stands in contrast to an overly laissez faire attitude towards harm, as well as an unhealthy, obsessive anxiety.  The nuance, at least in the interpersonal realm, is encapsulated well by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm’ phrase in this context: “suspect and respect.” Since “people are capable of the greatest folly and greatest nobility,” we need to at the same time admire and honor others, as well as be cautious and guarded.  


Rabbi Samuel de Uzeda understands the word “thing,” davar in Hebrew, in “and do not discriminate against anything” as referring to the importance of treating speech, also davar, seriously.  Dr. Binyamin Ziv connects the Mishna to the work of marriage therapist and researcher, Dr. John Gottman, who was able to analyze interaction patterns of spouses and identify with uncanny accuracy which pairs of people would eventually get divorced. The “four horsemen of the apocalypse” - the four behaviors that foreshadow divorce - are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. While all problematic, the single greatest predictor of divorce is contempt, which is when “we treat others with disrespect, mock them with sarcasm, ridicule, call them names, and mimic or use body language such as eye-rolling or scoffing. The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless.” With Dr. Ziv’s reading of the Mishna, Ben Azzai is strongly advocating for avoiding interacting with others, especially those we are closest to, with contempt, as this behavior undermines healthy relationships.   


Blending the commentaries together, Ben Azzai is advocating a nuanced approach to the complexities of life. Ideally, we should find the benefit in everything and everyone. At the same time, a pollyannaish view is unwarranted. We need to be self-protective. Yet, this concern needs to be healthy. This is accomplished by avoiding (1) unhealthy anxiety, (2) completely denigrating the self and others, and (3) feeling or expressing contempt. Through this balanced approach, we could prevent personal harm, leaving space for opportunities to appreciate the social and spiritual benefits with which we are blessed. 


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