The Jewish Response

by | Jul 10, 2009 | 0 comments

At this time, during the three week period before the Ninth of Av, when so many afflictions have befallen the Jewish people, I want to suggest to you an outlook appropriate for the period.

Let me begin with a true story from the Six Day War. As you may know, many areas of Jerusalem were being shelled, including Mea Shearim, which contained a number of yeshivas.

One of these was the famous Mir Yeshiva, whose members had to spend their time in a bomb shelter. You can be sure that they were not spending their time playing bridge or backgammon. They were praying, and learning, with great concentration, with the sounds of explosions around them all the time. The shelter contained a number of people other than the members of the Yeshiva, and one of these, a woman, suddenly cried out: “L-rd of the universe! I have been married and divorced, and during my marriage, my husband treated me terribly for many years, abusing me and humiliating me in public. But now I’m prepared to forgive him, and I pray that You, L-rd, will then, similarly, forgive the Jewish people for whatever sins of theirs are causing this present suffering!”

The Rosh Yeshiva of Mir Yeshiva, Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, one of the great Torah scholars of his generation, overheard this, and exclaimed: “If we get out of this alive, it will be on this woman’s merit!”

Now I want to quote from today’s parsha, from the section dealing with the offerings for various occasions (a section which is usually glossed over in favor of the more exciting parts). Concerning the offerings for the New Moon, it says: “… and one he-goat for a sin-offering to the L-rd” (Num. 28:15).

Now on no other occasion, in connection with sin-offerings, does the Torah use the phrase “to the L-rd”. Why does it do so here?

The Gemara (Chulin 60) asks this question, and gives an answer in the form of the following aggada, which also explains an apparent contradiction in Parshas Bereishis: “And G-d made the two great lights: the great light to rule the day, and the small light to rule the night” (Gen. 1:16). How did two great lights suddenly change, halfway through the verse, into a great and a small light?

The Gemara explains that originally the two lights, the sun and the moon, were of equal greatness. But the moon complained to G-d, saying that either she (the moon), or the sun, should be diminished, since there could not be two equal kings under one crown. G-d then said: “Very well, make yourself small!” The moon complained again: “Why should I have to diminish myself, just because I had a smart idea?” G-d then offered the moon, in compensation for her smallness, the consolation that she would be present all the time, even in the daytime, whereas the sun would not be present at night. But the moon was not satisfied with this: who would notice her during the day, anyway?

Eventually, after further negotiation, it was agreed that, as a consolation prize, only for the New Moon would the description of the sin-offering incorporate the phrase “to the L-rd”.

Now I want to quote another Gemara (Yoma 23a), to the effect that someone who is insulted in public, but does not retaliate, or who is humiliated but does not retaliate, or who is satisfied with his lot, is like the sun in its going out. What does this mean?

The Daas Zekeinim makes a connection between this Gemara and the previous one quoted, as follows. What was the sun doing all the time that the moon was complaining? He remained quiet, even though the moon, in asking for one of the two lights to be diminished, was clearly referring to the sun, and thus humiliating the sun. The sun, by not responding, was merited to remain large.

In fact, we can add that that is why G-d responded to the moon’s request by saying “Make yourself small!” instead of “I shall make you small!” The moon made herself small by her spiteful behavior!

Similarly, we can say that that is why someone who does not return an insult is like the sun in its going out — at sunset, the sun bows out to the moon like a gentleman, and so remains big!

Let us be clear about this. I am not suggesting that you should become masochistic, letting other people bully you without fighting back, or (if you will pardon the expression) turn the other cheek. The point is that someone who does not live by Torah values may be reactive, that is, he may react to other people’s insults in kind. Someone who bases his life on Torah, however, does not have to react to anyone. He has his own standards and values, which are secure, and no-one on earth can dislodge him from them, least of all someone who is low enough to insult him.

He would not normally insult someone, so why should he suddenly let his standards slip for such a person?

In fact, someone who responds to an insult is committing a bigger sin than the original person, since he is also violating the mitzva against taking revenge!

There is a true story about the Chazon Ish, the great Torah scholar and Rosh Yeshiva, which I read in his biography (Peer Hador).

While he was out walking one day in Vilna with some of his students, they were taunted by a group of hecklers on the sidewalk.

Everybody ignored the hecklers, except for one of the students, who got into a shouting match with them, and eventually got the better of them. Later, after they had left the scene, the Chazon Ish said to this student: “You are not a Ben Torah!” Startled, the student asked: “What would a Ben Torah have said?” “Nothing!” replied the Chazon Ish.

A Ben Torah would not have responded to the taunts more politely, or more deeply, or more cleverly — he would not have responded at all!

It is my hope that all of us should avoid diminishing ourselves by trading insult for insult, and in this way we may shine like the sun.

By Rabbi Yaacov Haber

Rabbi Yaacov Haber has been a leading force in Jewish community and Jewish education for over forty years. He lived and taught in the United States, Australia and in Israel. He is presently the Rav of Kehillas Shivtei Yeshurun, a vibrant community in the center of Ramat Bet Shemesh, Israel, and serves as the Rabbinic guide to many of its wonderful organisations.


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