Seeing the good in yucky people

Guest post by Rivka Levy

The foundation of Jewish unity is to look for the good points in our fellow Jew.” – Rav Ofer Erez

Over the years, few things have challenged me more, or more consistently, then Rebbe Nachman’s teaching that we should try to see the good in our fellow Jew. The first time I read this, over a decade ago, I kind of dismissed it outright.

I was so ‘stuck’ in a mindset of judging other people harshly, while justifying all my own bad middot as being 100% understandable and even worthy, that this teaching kind of went in one ear and out the other.

But if you’re tenacious about following Rebbe Nachman’s path, and following his advice about doing hitbodedut, or talking to God, for an hour a day, then sooner or later you come to realize a few difficult home truths about yourself.

Telling yourself some home truths

Like, you have a really bad temper, and you frequently use your rage fits as a way of controlling other people around them, and scaring and manipulating them into doing what suits you, even if it’s not actually the best thing for them.

And then you come to realize other things, too, like you’re really jealous of other people, and their good fortune, and that you hate a whole bunch of people on really the flimsiest of pretexts. After this has carried on for a couple of years, you wake up one day and realize that

hey, I’m actually not a tzaddik!!

Which is a pretty wild thought, let me tell you. And then, after you start to realize that you’re actually not always acting in such a nice way, and you start trying to make some effort to get to grips on your negative character traits, the yetzer hara finds another way to trip you up: it starts showing you all the terrible bad that exists in all the people around you, too.

Wow, so many people are so yucky!

True, you always knew they were a little eccentric, highly-strung, intense – just as you used to excuse your own issues with nice words like this. But now that you’re finally coming to grips with your own bad behavior, God starts showing you all that bad stuff in other people, too.

And this is where the yetzer hara can really pull a huge move on you. You start thinking to yourself that these people must be erev rav, and not really Jews, to be able to act in such cruel, callous, selfish and mind-bogglingly awful ways. And if they’re not really Jews, then

hey, Rebbe Nachman’s teaching to look for the good in our fellow Jews doesn’t actually apply to them.

Believe me, I had years of stupid arguments with my yetzer that went along these lines and for years, I was convinced the yetzer had a point. How many times could someone stab you in the back (and in the front…) and you’re just meant to smile and look for their good points?!?

There has to be a limit…

I mean come on! There has to be a limit to this teaching, to this idea that even the most ucky people contain good points, and that identifying them will actually help them to make teshuva.

Unluckily for my yetzer, Rav Ofer Erez explains this whole concept so well, and so convincingly, that a couple of years ago I realized a couple of things:

1) Azamra, the practice of looking for the good in others applies to every single person out there, even the ones who are really acting like the most evil ‘erev rav’ types you can imagine.

2) God really wants me to do this, especially for the bona fide psychos out there.

Can I pretend I was thrilled when I realized this?


I was actually pretty annoyed and upset as it’s so much easier to just give up on difficult, annoying, upsetting people. But once I realized that God wanted me to look for the good – especially in these types of people – and also, that there would be a price to pay in my own life if I didn’t, what could I do except try my best to give God what He wants?

Looking for good points doesn’t mean we excuse psycho behaviour

Let’s be clear that looking for the good in people doesn’t mean you excuse all their foul, selfish, obnoxious, horrible behavior. I am still very clear about what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t.

But how my approach has changed now is that I don’t automatically write someone off as being an unfixable psycho just because they twisted off my windscreen wiper when I dared to park in a space they decided was ‘theirs’.

In that moment, during that action, they are unquestionably evil nut-jobs.

But once I calm down (and get a new windscreen wiper…) I start thinking about how they turned into such a crazy person, and God pops the idea in my head that they must have been through some terrible trials in life to be acting this way.

And then, peace reigns

And if I’d been through anything like that, then I probably would be acting even worse than they are. And then, I notice how this same person fetches a child’s ball for them, or helps their elderly mother to walk up the road (at an impossible slow, patience-stretching pace), and I see that despite their psycho behavior, they really do still have some good in them.

And then I stop hating them (so much….) And stop glaring at them (so much….) and wishing they’d move away from the neighborhood (so much….) and peace reigns.

And God looks down, and sees this little patch of Jewish unity, and thinks to Himself:

Man, I need to give these people the geula already.

Or at least, that’s what I hope is happening, because if the redemption doesn’t come soon, I may yet turn into the neighborhood psycho myself.




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