How to Handle Toxic People
You, with your words like knives
And swords and weapons that you use against me
You have knocked me off my feet again
Got me feeling like a nothing
This week’s Torah portion has very little narration and story in it and instead outlines numerous mitzvot and laws to keep our society functioning, happy and smooth. The simple fact of life is that disagreements will arise. One party will hurt another and we need a system of laws to govern those situations so justice can be carried out. That is what we get in parshat Mishpatim.
When faced with the intricacies of legal matters, lawyers and Talmudists love this sort of stuff while the rest of us fall asleep. At least until we want to sue someone and then, somehow we find the interest once money and, dare I say, personal vendetta are involved.
A Mishna in Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers gives us options, and things to consider, when dealing with people who can or have wronged us:
Nittai of Arbel says: Keep far from a bad neighbour, do not become connected to an evil person and don’t ever give up on the notion of reward and punishment.
This Mishna offers us advice – on three different levels – to dealing with unsavory people who enter our lives.
The first and optimum choice is to avoid them altogether. This is what is meant by the initial statement, Keep far from a bad neighbour. Some people whom we cross paths with are simply bad news, negative and toxic. The best thing to do is to steer clear of them.
As I often tell my kids when I see them doing something that I don’t like, such as fooling around with something delicate, “Nothing good can come from this.” If you see a guy driving erratically on the highway, don’t try and teach him a lesson. Don’t flash your lights or try to box him out. Let him go on his way and keep your distance so you don’t get hurt by the collateral damage of his recklessness. Don’t engage such people because “nothing good can come from this.”
Every morning we say an important prayer that I would suggest you recite daily: May it be Your will, my God and the God of my forefathers, that You spare me today – and every day – from brazen and shameless people, from a bad person, a bad associate and a bad neighbour… from a difficult trial and a harsh litigant – whether he (or she) be Jewish or not.
From a difficult trial and a harsh litigant. Let’s face it, when it comes to being sued, very little good can come from it. While it is true that legal action sometimes is the only recourse, often in court cases and the like – the best we are trying to do is get back to zero and limit the negative fallout, such as the wasted time, money and energy in divorce proceedings. Nothing is really in the plus side of these situations, and this is what this prayer and the first part of the Mishna are getting at: That first and foremost these circumstances and people shouldn’t enter into our lives and that we need to do whatever we can to that end – including praying for it.
Alas, unfortunately we cannot always avoid negative and toxic people and situations. They may be family members, they may be co-workers or your next door neighbour. That is where the second statement of the Mishna comes into play: Do not get connected to an evil person is telling us that for those harmful people in our lives that we cannot escape from, we need to keep our dealings and relationships with them to a bare minimum.
Be cordial, be businesslike, don’t look to pick a fight, don’t do anything social with them unless forced to because of circumstances, and as the Mishna says, don’t befriend or connect with them in any way, shape or form.
The Hebrew is אל תתחבר “don’t befriend”, the root being חבר chavar which means to link or connect. You might have to share space with these people, but that doesn’t mean you have to share your life with them. Don’t get connected with them beyond what is necessary and keep your distance – emotionally and mentally – even if you cannot do so physically.
And finally we have the third statement of the Mishna that, at first blush, doesn’t seem to fit in: Don’t ever give up on the notion of reward and punishment. But actually it does because the Mishna is reacting to the next level. Those scenarios where we cannot totally separate or partially separate from bad people and, try as we might, they are in our lives and have had their negative impact on us.
We are all the victims of someone else’s bad behavior, bad decisions, evil designs and the like. We have all suffered financially, emotionally, materially or bodily from the rotten choices of rotten people. No matter how much we would have preferred to avoid them altogether (Mishna statement 1) or kept it to a minimum (Mishna statement 2) a sad fact of life is that other people’s garbage has stunk up our lives.
So what are we to do? Hold a grudge forever? If you like. But Jewish tradition tells us that there is a God, there is Ultimate Reward and Punishment and that we should never lose sight of that fact. What goes around comes around, Measure for Measure is built into the fabric of Creation and the righteous prosper while evil withers away.
We certainly see that on a national level with the Jewish people where our enemies have disappeared to the trash heap of history while Am Yisrael continues to grow strong and successful. We should never forget this, and take a lesson from it so we know that even on an individual basis, the good guys come out on top and the toxic, negative people self destruct.
If we have suffered injustice, it will be addressed. Maybe not this year, maybe not next year, maybe not in 10 years – but it will. If not in this lifetime, then certainly in the next. And if it’s any consolation, how often have we seen situations where someone did something terrible to us, we ended up hating them for it and saw nothing redeeming about it at the time, but then years later, in retrospect, saw that it was the best thing that could have happened to us.
Mishpatim gives us rules and regulations to create a just society as best as we can. But it will never be perfect. So the Mishna advises us how to deal with these imperfections, especially with those unsavory people who insinuate themselves into our lives. Stay away if you can. Keep them to a minimum if you cannot. And when all is said and done, never forget there is a Just God who never forgets the evil done to you by another. Take comfort in that.
And I can see you years from now in a bar…
With that same big loud opinion
But nobody’s listening
Washed up and ranting about the same old bitter thing