Don’t Be Hurtful, Be Flexible
PLEASE NOTE: Because of the timing of the end of Pesach, Behar is the Parasha this week in Israel and next week in the Diaspora.
One of the mitzvot that’s easy to miss is the prohibition of hurting people with words. Within the span of a few verses (from Leviticus 25:14 to 25:17), the Torah seems to command the same thing twice: “lo tonu,” do not mistreat each other. The Gemara (Bava Metzia 58b) clarifies that one of the mitzvot refers to hurting with money (onaat mamon), and the other refers to hurting with words (onaat devarim).
DON’T MINIMIZE, APOLOGIZE
A number of years ago, I researched the topic of apologizing before Yom Kippur. As I went through the early and late sources about when there’s an obligation to apologize and when there’s an obligation to forgive, I expected to find sources saying something like this: “If what you did was so inoffensive that nobody reasonable would be bothered by it, and the person you offended is just thin-skinned, you don’t need to ask them to forgive you.” But I never found any such source. Apparently, Jewish law is so concerned about hurt feelings that even if the other person is being unreasonable, you had better apologize if you want your sins to be forgiven on Yom Kippur.
Too bad there isn’t any advice on how to avoid hurting people’s feelings. Or perhaps there is…
WOW, ARE YOU UGLY!
One of the classic Talmudic stories about hurtful language is the one I cited in my dvar Torah on Parashat Metzora. Once again, we’ll quote the first part of the story and skip the second part. But this time, we’ll add the line that precedes the story and appears again at the very end:
The Rabbis taught: “A person should always be soft like a reed and not hard like a cedar.”
Once R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon was coming from his teacher’s house in Migdal Gedor, riding on a donkey. He was traveling along the bank of the river with a feeling of great joy and a sense of arrogance, because he had learned a great deal of Torah.
A very ugly person happened upon him. The ugly person said: “How are you, Rebbe?”
R. Elazar did not respond. [Rather,] he said: “Empty one – how ugly this fellow is! Are all the people of your town as ugly as you?”
The ugly person responded: “I don’t know, but you should go to the craftsman who made me and tell him how ugly is the vessel that he made.”
R. Elazar knew that he had sinned. He got off the donkey, prostrated himself before the other fellow, and said: “I have pained you. Forgive me!”
. . .
THE JOY OF FLEX
Let’s focus on the moral of the story. (There’s not much ambiguity when the story begins and ends with the same message.) I can understand the value of being flexible (like a reed) and not rigid (like a cedar). But this is a story about insulting someone and hurting his feelings. If there’s a moral, we might have expected it to be something like “Don’t say your nasty thoughts out loud,” or “Ugly people have feelings too!” Why then is the moral, “Be flexible”?
Rabbi Dr. Yossi Ives answers this question in an epilogue to an article called “Informing Our Interventions with the Wisdom of the Sages: Biblical and Rabbinic Inspiration for Fostering Sensitivity Towards Individuals with Disabilities” (p. 69). He points out that according to the Gemara, the ugly guy “happened upon him.” Rabbi Elazar was so preoccupied with his Torah thoughts (or pride at his Torah thoughts) that he was taken by surprise. Shocked by the unpleasant sight of a disfigured face, he blurted something out which he soon regretted.
In this light, Rabbi Ives continues (p. 70), we can understand why the lesson learned by R. Elazar is the importance of flexibility. The problem is not being prejudiced towards people with disabilities per se, but rather having rigid expectations and reacting badly when they are not met. With the analogy to the cedar and the reed, Rabbi Elazar is telling us, “Don’t be fixed in your thinking; be open-minded about people.”
If we go with the flow, we can deal with people as they are (as opposed to how we would like them to be). With this flexibility, we are less likely to blurt things out which hurt people’s feelings. Hence the moral of the story: “Be flexible. Be the reed!”
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