By Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky
Long before social media, texting and phone calls, we had regular face-to-face conversation. The stakes were high with face-to-face conversation because substantial disagreement could lead to physical altercation. Those involved in conversation would attempt to measure their words and strive to reach an amenable conclusion. Handshakes and kisses and hugs might even conclude the dialogue.
Two sages were exemplary of such interaction. Abaye and Rava lived nearly 1,700 years ago in ancient Babylonia. They knew each other’s likes and dislikes and even one another’s way of thinking and philosophical outlook on life. Still, the two sages disagreed on almost everything. In fact, the Babylonian Talmud preserves each of their disagreements, and with six exceptions, the opinions of Rava were always the accepted conclusions. And yet, there was never bitter discourse or a broken relationship.
Why? One might consider part of one of Abaye’s favorite maxims: “One should always strive to be on the best terms with their siblings and their relatives, and with all human beings, irrespective of faith background, in order that one is both beloved above and below.”
But that is not really what I think compelled the civility between the two. Abaye regularly had his children in mind: “What is heard from a child’s mouth in the street is merely a repetition of what the child has heard from their parents.”
Abaye (actually a nickname, meaning little father) was worried about how his children might emulate his actions, his words, his composure. How could he rear his children to be deferential and humble if he was not? How could he speak truth to power by overpowering what he speaks? This is what strikes me as not only fascinating, but all the more poignant today.
I want my children to know that I speak up and out for what is important to me, what I believe will help shape the world in which they will grow. But I want them to know I do so with open candor and respect. I do so not with angry emails or screeds left on Facebook or Twitter. I do so with open and honest attempts at dialogue. And as best as I can, I seek the face-to-face.
That is one thing that is terribly wrong with society today. We simply yell — and often in the virtual and digital space. And that’s on both sides of the political aisle. We may have a reflex to respond right away and just “get the words out,” but that eventually amounts to direct and indirect attacks on each another. It does not effect change, and actually serves as a catalyst for the same reactions in those (like our children) who might be listening.
Instead, we can channel our reactions to face-to-face engagement by openly and directly reaching out to our elected officials. We can sit down together and dialogue. We will still have our voice heard, and in some cases, we may even come away with our opinion slightly changed.
Because relationships matter — irrespective of whether we agree or disagree. We can participate in a world where those with whom we dialogue are not threatened by us and we are not threatened by them.
Knowing such discourse is a real option allows me to act and speak civilly, to keep from “acting out” on social media, even when I really want to. Knowing that my children will be learning from my actions, knowing that others will see this as an example, I realize my deepest goal is not simply for me to shout and have no one listen. My goal is to make a difference and leave the world in a better place than I found it. Abaye and Rava did just that.
Today, in such a divisive world, we might jump to the conclusion that Abaye and Rava would end up buried on opposite sides of the Earth. Not so. Traveling to Israel today, one can visit the final resting place of both, buried in the same cave. The way they lived is how they rest for eternity. We should only be so lucky.
Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky is a senior rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.