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Why is diversity and tolerance important? Why is it so essential in the Torah? What causes it and how can we achieve it?

Earlier this week I was speaking with a teacher at a local school. Since I have done some teaching in the past, he asked me if I had any suggestions for simultaneously keeping the children engaged and involved, while also maintaining order in the class.

I told him that I like to think of teaching a class like driving a car. When learning how to drive, one of the tips your driving instructor is likely to have told you is that if, God forbid, the car skids off track, do not attempt to jerk it back to the proper direction with a sharp right angle turn. This is likely to exacerbate the problem and send the car completely out of control. Rather, 'go with it'. Instead of jerking the car out of the skid, manage the skid. Focus on avoiding hitting anything off road, and slowly guide the car back on track.

A classroom is the same. If things get a bit rowdy, don't try to bluntly enforce 'law and order'. Rather 'go with the skid'. Did one of the kids say something that made everyone laugh in middle of the lesson? Instead of outright admonishing him or her, laugh, mildly acknowledge the joke, then maybe say something like 'you know what, there's actually a funny story I heard in connection with what we're learning', and guide the class back to the lesson.

Why is this an advantageous approach? Because it empowers the teacher, or the driver, with the realization that the correct way forward is not always straight. Even if a challenge presents itself to you, it is still possible to achieve your goal or reach you destination, by including the challenges you face along the way in the long path to success.

In this week's Torah portion we read about the Ten Plagues the struck the Egyptians when they refused to free their Jewish slaves. The seventh plague was a storm of fire-filled hail. While the powerful hail storm destroyed nearly all trees, most soft plants and growth survived the storm. It was precisely the 'weakness'of the soft plants that enabled them to weather the storm and emerge unscathed.

Similarly, the Talmud (Tractate Taanit page 20a) writes that one should be 'soft like a reed, not hard like a cedar tree'. In other words, we should be tolerant, accepting and open to the opinions, lifestyles and even appearances of others. Not only will we bolster others in the process, we'll also strengthen ourselves. Through finding the good in people that are very different or even opposed to us, we'll wind up learning things from them that we'd never have learned otherwise. It won't water down our own identity, but on the contrary. It'll strengthen our unique sense of identity and purpose.

Tolerance and diversity are so crucial in Judaism because of the Torah's founding principle: belief in one God. This doesn't only mean believing that there is only one creator, but also that the creator is everywhere, in everything. God is truly 'One'. From the Torah's perspective, being open minded actually stems from a very 'narrow' vision of the world. Is there a person whose views are opposed to ours? God made that person, and endowed him or her with the gift of life, and for that reason alone they should be respected. Is there a challenge that presented itself? Let's find a way not only to overcome the challenge, but to find the spark of goodness within it that we can benefit from.

If God is everywhere, then he's in every person, every country, and in every positive event and in every challenge.

He's on the road, but he's 'off-road' too.

 

Rabbi Avrohom