Are You a Pious Pushover?

Anyone who spends any time in neighborhoods populated by Bible-believing, religiously inclined people, knows that, for the most part, such people are kinder, gentler, more empathetic and more compassionate than the general population.  Sometimes, however, unselfish behavior can morph into unwarranted meekness and timidity.

Here are five questions that might help determine if you have allowed your own goodness to be exploited by others less restrained than you.

  • Do you always deflect adversarial encounters?
  • Is being liked more important than standing your ground?
  • Do you often tell yourself, “I’m just too tired to argue”?
  • Do you frequently resent how “pushy people” seem to get their way and pride yourself on not being pushy?
  • Do you sometimes feel embarrassed after standing firm and ‘winning’?

If you answered ‘yes’ to three or more of those questions, what’s to be done?  As usual, ancient Jewish wisdom points to the Bible for help.  Remember that we learn as much from the flaws of Biblical personalities as we do from their greatness.

My wife, Susan, attends a weekly Bible class she greatly values. In one class, the rabbi  described the patriarch Jacob using the phrase ‘conflict-averse.’  Seeking peace, the rabbi explained, is be a wonderful thing to do most of the time but taken to an extreme, it can lead us down the wrong path. This was a failing of Jacob’s. I would like to impart some of what Susan learned along with some additional truths from ancient Jewish wisdom.

Looking at Jacob in Genesis 32 as he prepares to meet Esau, Jacob has sent messengers and gifts to the brother whom he worries is coming towards him with animosity.  Then he settles down for the night.

On that night he arose, and taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions.  And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. 
(Genesis 32:23-25)

Mystery #1:  After the camp settles down for the night, why does he wake everyone up?

Mystery #2:  Why did God send an adversarial angel to detain Jacob in struggle all the night? (Genesis 32:25-30)

Mystery #3:  When he does meet with Esau, why is there only one camp when earlier Jacob thought of dividing his camp in two so that, if attacked, at least one camp might survive? (Genesis 32:8)

It seems that, at the last minute, Jacob changed his plans. Rather than facing Esau, he contemplated avoiding him. To that end, he has everyone retreat across the river.  In the last minute disorganization, he is temporarily alone and God sends an angel to struggle with him.

By the time dawn comes and Jacob disengages from the angel,  Esau unexpectedly materializes right in Jacob’s path. (Genesis 33:1) God defeated Jacob’s plan to evade the confrontation by keeping him busy through the night and speeding up Esau’s travel.

This was only one example of Jacob’s tendency to avoid conflict. 

Earlier, Jacob who had legitimately purchased the birthright from his older brother Esau, doesn’t question his mother’s decision to trick his father, Isaac, into believing that he was Esau.  While Rebecca acted with prophecy, Jacob was quick to acquiesce in order to avoid confrontation and conflict.

He did the same thing when instead of confronting his deceitful father-in-law, Lavan, and telling him he was leaving, Jacob snuck away.  (Genesis 31:8)

We see the pattern again when Jacob’s daughter Dina is raped.  Rather than plan the necessary retribution, Jacob doesn’t even castigate the perpetrator but merely waits for his sons to return home.  (Genesis 34:5)

Later on, we will see this tendency again. When Joseph recounts his disturbing dreams provoking jealous fury among his brothers, instead of settling things with his sons then and there, Jacob avoided conflict and merely put the thought away in his memory.  (Genesis 37:11)

Similarly, although he knows something is wrong when the brothers show him Joseph’s bloody coat, as we see by the fact that he stays in an active state of bereavement for years, he doesn’t push his sons to tell him the truth. (Genesis 37:34)

From examining each of Jacob’s experiences we see that it is the emotion of fear that underlies his all-too-human tendency to avoid conflict. In fact, Genesis 32:8  states that Jacob was afraid. He wasn’t a coward; his fear was for his family and also fear of harming his brother should a fight ensue. Both concerns were praiseworthy, but giving in to them was not. Throughout his life, had Jacob faced his fears, we could see each event turn out more satisfactorily than it did. 

Sometimes, rather than face the fact that we are unworthily yielding to fear, we deliberately mislead ourselves into believing that we are avoiding conflict on account of our virtue.  While there are certainly occasions on which to yield in the name of peace, we must be on guard not to yield on account of our own fears of conflict.  Most times, avoiding today’s conflict almost guarantees worse and unavoidable strife tomorrow. In fact, ancient Jewish wisdom tells us that Jacob was unnecessarily subservient to Esau when they did meet again, causing his descendants problems.

The best antidote to becoming a pious pushover is to remember that it nearly always results in bigger problems.  Nowhere is this clearer than contemporary news headlines concerning Israel and Islam.  Each time Israel yields in the hope of generating goodwill the problems mount.  Whenever Israel displays firm resolve, the situation improves or at least does not deteriorate. 



20 thoughts on “Are You a Pious Pushover?”

  1. Thx u Rabbi
    Yr words of wisdom came right on time.I just spoke in love how i feel about a financial issue with my husband instead of saying its ok God will make a way .You & your wife have enormous insight.thx u for sharing

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      I’m happy it was a timely teaching, Guardiola,
      And it sounds as if your husband accepted your loving words

  2. Dear Rabbi, your article about being a pious pushover has been the most insightful thing I have read. It flashed back memories of a recent situation where I made a poor decision out of wanting to placate someone who was trying to pressure me into a decision for a job offer I did not want to take and it had consequences I had to deal with for the next year or two. It is often best to go through the short term pain of confrontation or saying NO than it is to suffer the long term consequences.

  3. Dear Rabbi Lapin,

    I loved every single word that your wrote – except one. “Snuck” I believe the more correct word is “sneaked”, although “snuck” has become more and more prevalent over the years. Please don’t contribute to the demise of proper English! LOL (Said only half in jest. I really hate the word “snuck”!)

  4. Bryan Edward Bunkley

    Greetings Rabbi,
    In Numbers 10:8-10, God gives a lasting ordinance that two silver horns must be sounded before battle and over the burnt offerings. Then God will remember Isreal by both deliverance from enemies and accepting offerings. Why does He need reminder of his children’s needs. Also, is your incite relevant to us Christians?

    Bryan E. B.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Bryan E.B.
      Fathers like hearing the words “Daddy, come here I need you”. They also appreciate hearing a thank you. Our Father in Heaven is no different.
      We try to make certain that our insights and teachings are relevant and even useful to all who wish to enhance their relationships with family, friends, God, and their money.

  5. Thank you, RDL, for the Scriptural clarity! Oh my goodness, this TT is so well described. I have learned about cowardly versus courageous behaviors. I have thought of some people behaving as cowards, but more appropriately I think that those few people instead have behaved with good intentions resulting in major problems. This truth also points out that, not only does Isreal suffer when it’s generous, the world suffers from the effectiveness of lies that are told about its people. We must have mutual trust in one another, in a moral code, to survive together. Islam, generally and unfortunately, covers up its heinous anti-LIFE attitudes; its people kill each other in the name of its cause.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thanks for writing LJ-
      It is not generosity that invites abuse but unrealistic understanding of human nature. Fear also does its bit as I explained in the Thought Tool

      1. Dear RDL, thanks for clarifying the difference of generosity versus an unrealistic understanding of human nature. I realized that I’d written about people I know in a personal situation when I wrote that I thought folks were not being cowardly but that they had taken unwise actions resulting in major problems. My two comments were disconnected. I’m sorry to have confoundingly mentioned those separate thoughts – personal situation and, Israel and Islam – together.

  6. Martin Kostalek

    this is an incredible topic indeed. Especially in my christian background. We are all taught in our churches to be mild, tempered, suffer the through hardships because at the end, Jesus will make things right. As the result, I find myself in an constant conflict with my peers.
    My reasoning is that for every miracle to happen, a little bit of human effort is needed. God is more often than not a multiplier there, not the entire force. The same story comes by to fight injustices at work and at the public life. Do I overlook a plot to make my project and myself look bad when in fact the mistakes originated elsewhere? No, the conflict is needed. Do I need to accept my kids to join the climate strike at school? No, the conflict is needed! The school administration needs to be confronted. As well as they need to confront their superiors afterwards.

    This is a reason why the christians are often absent from politics and high business positions. You have to fight, face conflict and see and repel low level tricks in your way. As a result, there is little religious representation on higher places (not mentioning the secularists, there is of course aplenty).

    Thank you for this thought tool!

    Martin, Czech Republic

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Wonderful hearing from you Martin, all the way in the Czech Republic. (another pin in my map)
      So encouraging to hear that your children don’t automatically join the mindless and propagandistic climate strike at school.

  7. Many people use the term (bible believer) , but have no correct understanding of a bible, but can only hold one. Just look at the mass confusion of people about religion.

  8. Thanks very much Rabbi Lapin for the this brilliant writing on the story of Jacob from the Holy Scripture, the Bible. I see myself in the five counts mentioned above, and truly thought that that was the best way to live, being kind and not wanting to make anyone feel bad even when they wrong me. So as a result, I have always been the victim and even overlooked in many situations.

    Thanks once again.

    Harrison Cole

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thanks for your kind words, Harrison,
      We hope your victim days are now behind you

  9. Thank you for this wisdom that came at just the right moment for me. I am a Catholic but have had a great desire to learn Judaism . I believe there is much to be learned from it and enjoy your writings very much!

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      I’m so pleased we fill a need for you, P Morrison,
      We write for Jews and Christians of all persuasions.

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