Sticks and Stones: Insults and How We React To Them

Why can’t we all just get along? Sometimes, it seems that all we do is engage in bickering and insult, both overt and subtle. There are those who believe that the nature of such engagement is “hardwired” into our social structure. Community, the very thing we laud as Jews, is, according to these sociologists and psychologists, the necessary cause of our insulting behavior to one another. To them, society is, by definition, a hierarchy and hierarchy demands a constant struggle for stature.

Building ourselves up often also requires tearing someone else down.

We all experience insult. We all endure the various “slings and arrows” in the various relationships we engage in. Some insults are easily shrugged off. What do we really care if someone in a grocery lines mutters something at us? Perhaps we are bothered but that bother is generally short-lived. But there are other insults that we seem incapable of shrugging off. These insults, whether uttered by a teacher, a family member or a colleague stay with us long after their “expiration date”, causing us to seethe, to stew, to rehearse responses never to be delivered; causing us to avoid, to shun, to criticize to alter our behavior; causing us to be irked, unhappy, troubled; causing us to be rougher with others. These insults even make us more prone to deliver insults ourselves!

We all know people who have spent hours, months, years and lifetimes to nursing the insults they’ve received. In the process, they’ve diminished their enjoyment of life, even their health.

We cannot control those who would insult us – for whatever their reasons, whether to provoke, to control, to bully – we can only control how we react to the insult. And sadly, most of the time our reactions do not speak nobly of us.

None of us should suspect that insults exist only in the interactions of our personal lives. We need only tune in to the current “debates” among those seeking the Presidency of the United States to appreciate that insults are everywhere.

What can we do about this seemingly endless cycle of insult, recrimination, and anger?

* * *

Not long ago, I was studying a passage in the daily daf in Masechet Gitin (37b) when I came across a passage which also appears in tractate Shabbat 88b. As I stared at the words of the passage, I felt myself transported to a different time and place. The words before me, with their powerful and profound message, brought to mind my grandfather’s comment on this passage. My grandfather, Rabbi Bezalel Zev Shafran, authored the renowned Shelot U’tshuvot R’baz. It is a Sefer my father often counseled me and my siblings to study, telling us “teayenu ba’sefer shel saba”, to “…look into Saba’s sefer”.

I was such a small boy then, no more than nine or ten years old. I could hardly make sense of the deep, intricate discussion and analysis that animated this wonderful halachic volume. But never mind how young I was, or my siblings were or how confusing the passages sometimes seemed. My father told us, “Look into saba’s sefer” and he clearly knew that we would find something, some nugget, some treasure that even a young child could grasp. And he was right! Every time I turned to my grandfather’s text, I did come across something that I could understand. In fact, one such passage was the very passage that I’d come upon not long ago when studying that passage in Masechet Gitin.

As my eyes read the words they moistened with emotion as my thoughts returned to that young boy I’d been, reading my saba’s sefer. I could hear again my father’s voice, teayenu ba’sefer shel saba. And once again, I was reading this wonderful passage that had made such sense to me even as a young boy. This Talmudic passage taught a lesson for life, even more, a lesson of survival in a cruel world, in which we are surrounded by many insensitive, insecure, and cruel humans.

“Our Rabbis taught: Those who are insulted ne’elavin but do not insult, hear themselves reviled shomeim cherpasan without responding, act through love and rejoice in suffering, regarding them the verse states: ‘But they who love Him as the sun goes forth in its might’ Judges 5:31”

In commenting on this Talmudic passage, my grandfather notes, “Why the double language?  Why, “those who are insulted but do not insult” only to repeat (in form and idea) “hear themselves reviled without responding” .

Aren’t these speaking to the very same people and lesson, they who are insulted but do not respond in kind?

To address the question, he delved deeply into the psychology of life. He explained that there are times when one is insulted, demeaned and humiliated, and the insulted one remains stone silent; he gives no response at all, not so much as a peep to the one who insulted him. However, his silence, my grandfather notes, does not necessarily suggest that he is generous of spirit, or blessed with the most beautiful human attributes. It could very well be the insult stuns him so that he is rendered silent, left to seethe, to seep and to stew in his anger and silence.

There are other times when one who is insulted knows only too well how evil the one piling on the insult is, he knows just how despicable the insult is and he feels he simply must respond… and yet, he holds his tongue. He accepts the abuse heaped upon him with silence and grace. This reaction is a sign that the insulted one is of noble character, that he is high up on the ladder of hishtalmut (wholesomeness).

Thus, when we are first taught about those who “are insulted but do not insult (ha’neelavin ve’einan olvin) we cannot be certain that their non-response comes from a noble place or from a frightened, defeated place. However, those who “hear themselves reviled” (shomeim cherpasam) hear all of the abuse heaped upon them. They know how to respond. Indeed, they are capable of giving back in kind to those who heaped cherpa upon them. Yet, they do not. They einam meishivin – they do not respond. Their non-response, rather than being a sign of weakness is a sign of strength; it is the ultimate indicator of their character. They are the ones who “act through love and rejoice in suffering”!

It is in praise of those possessing such fine character that the passage goes on, “…they who love Him as the sun goes forth in its might.”  Why? Why this verse from Judges with its comparison to the sun?  Because the insulted one who does not respond – even with a justifiable reason to respond – is compared to the sun which did not respond to the moon’s complaint and unfounded challenge that “…it is not possible for two kings to rule with one crown (light)”!

Certainly the sun could have easily –and effectively – responded, “Moon, you do not possess independent light. You shine only by the light which you receive from me.” But the sun remained silent, and for her discipline and grace she was not only undiminished, but also rewarded with increased light. So it is that the one who is insulted and who remains silent will ultimately be undiminished by their silence; ultimately he will emerge better, stronger, with a more powerful light. It will be his abusers who will be humbled, just as the moon was diminished and humbled by her unwarranted complaint. So it is that we praise the one who withstands insults not with silent scorn but with silent grace, with silence and forbearance, with patience and humility. Such a one is as those who are [ha’shtika b’shaat meiriva siman al shoresh tov], silent when confronted and challenged, [which is] an indication of good roots.

Teayenu ba’sefer shel saba.

I brought my handkerchief to my eyes and dabbed the moisture from them. No longer a young child but an older man, I can still hear my father’s voice and still learn from my grandfather’s teaching, a teaching understandable to a child and to an old man. As I closed that day’s daf, I reflected on the eternal question my grandfather was asking me, “Do I still remember and do I still identify with the sun?” Not an easy question…