Behar-Bechukotai: "Bullying"

It is an old word, and it describes a behavior that has been around since the very beginning of history. Yet the word seems to me to be used more and more frequently these days, and the behavior it describes has gotten out of control.


The word is "bullying," and it refers to a behavior that victimizes others, that abuses them physically, or more typically, verbally. The old adage "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me" is simply not true. Words do inflict pain upon others and often cause long lasting damage to them. Lately, we have read of more than one suicide which was the result of bullying.


Whenever the media focuses on some supposedly new phenomenon, I am contacted, usually by a reporter, sometimes by a constituent, with the question, "What does Judaism have to say about this?" During the past few years, as the public has become more concerned about bullying, I have heard that question many times.


The answer is a simple one. Judaism has a lot to say about bullying. One especially relevant source is in the first of this week's double Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai. "Do not wrong one another..." (Leviticus 25:17) Rashi quotes the Talmud, which states emphatically that this refers to verbal abuse.


Rashi, following the Midrash, provides two interesting examples of how words can be used to abuse another. "One should not," writes Rashi, "tease or taunt another person, and one should not give inappropriate advice to others." The former is an obvious example of bullying, but the latter is a much more subtle example of the damage that words can cause. Misleading a person by giving him advice which does not fit his personal situation is, in the eyes of our Sages, a form of bullying as well.


The Mishnah and Talmud in the tractate Bava Metzia give numerous examples of verbal abuse which all provide insights into the definition of bullying that was adopted by our rabbinic Sages. By analyzing these examples, we learn of some of the forms that verbal abuse takes.


"One must not say to a repentant sinner, 'Remember your former deeds.'" The person who speaks to a repentant sinner this way is guilty of cynicism. He is facing a spiritually motivated individual who sincerely wishes to change. But by confronting him with his past deeds, the penitent becomes discouraged and his idealistic commitment is thereby diminished, if not entirely eliminated.


"One must not say to a sick person that his illness must be a punishment for his misdeeds. He who addresses a sick person in this manner is guilty of both pretentiousness and sanctimony. He dares to presume that he knows the workings of the Divine system of reward and punishment, and, in addition, arrogantly proclaims the message, 'I am holier than thou.'


"One should always be heedful of wronging his wife, for because of her sensitivity she is frequently brought to tears."


How aware our Sages were of the fact that the likeliest targets of bullying are precisely the people who are closest to us. Sensitivity to others must begin with sensitivity to our spouses and family members.


It is apparent just from these examples that our Sages were very familiar with the phenomenon of bullying in all of its diverse forms. They knew that bullying takes many forms, including cynicism, arrogance, condescension and disdain.


They were even aware of the prevalence of abuse within the spousal relationship. This is noteworthy because when I was receiving my graduate education in psychology, the topic of domestic violence was absent from our curriculum. It was much more recently that the gap in my professional education was filled, and the reality of the cruelty which pervades many families became the focus of my clinical work.


In the book of Genesis, there is an example of emotional abuse within the context of a loving relationship. It is so shocking an example that I hesitate to mention it. When the barren Rachel bitterly bemoans her fate to her husband Jacob, he becomes angry with her and says, "Am I in place of God, who has denied you the fruit of the womb?" (Genesis 30:2) The rabbis in the Midrash disclose the Almighty's reaction to Jacob's retort: "Is this how one responds to a person in distress?" The Midrash is teaching us that even the patriarch Jacob was once guilty of a callousness that bordered upon emotional abuse and was held accountable for it.


There is a lesson which we all should take to heart whenever we read about flagrant bullying. It is a lesson which must be learned whenever we encounter any prohibition in the Torah. That lesson is that we are all capable of bullying, and in fact, unless we guard against it, may engage in this practice much more often than we realize, and certainly much more frequently than we admit to ourselves. When the Torah tells us, as it does in this week's parsha, that we are not to wrong another person by abusing him or her verbally, we must not think that this is addressed to some villain or scoundrel. Rather, it is a lesson directed to each and every one of us, and it is a lesson we must learn.