The joy of being insulted (Shabbos 41)

We’ve all experienced the frustration at missing every other word on a video call, because the line is poor.  When you are on the receiving end of insults, the Vilna Gaon advises that you need to imagine yourself to be deaf and assume that you didn’t really hear right.

King David had a number of children from different wives.  His eldest son, Amnon, developed an unhealthy obsession with his half-sister, Tamar, and eventually acted illicitly with her, without her consent.  Her full-brother, Avshalom, was enraged at such treatment of his sister and vowed revenge.  He eventually orchestrated the killing of Amnon.

David sought to punish his son, Avshalom, and the prince was forced to flee, and went to live in exile at his maternal grandfather’s home.  Eventually, David was appeased, and Avshalom returned.  The prince, however, was not appeased, and he spent the next few years plotting his takeover of the throne.  A charmer of the people, he revolted against his father, who was chased out of Jerusalem.

As he was escaping, he passed by one Shimi ben Gera, who began hurling curses and abuse at the king.  “Go out, go out, you man of bloodshed, you base man!  Hashem is repaying you for all the blood of the House of Saul, in whose stead you have reigned, and has given over the kingdom into the hand of Avshalom your son.  Behold, you are now afflicted because you are a man of bloodshed!”

David’s general, Avishai, was incensed at such treasonous behaviour, and was ready to kill Shimi.  The king stopped him, saying, “Let him be, let him curse, for Hashem has told him to.  Perhaps Hashem will see (the tears in) my eye and Hashem will repay me with goodness instead of curse this day.”

רָחַץ בְּחַמִּין וְלֹא שָׁתָה מֵהֶן — דּוֹמֶה לְתַנּוּר שֶׁהִסִּיקוּהוּ מִבְּחוּץ וְלֹא הִסִּיקוּהוּ מִבִּפְנִים. רָחַץ בְּחַמִּין וְלֹא נִשְׁתַּטֵּף בְּצוֹנֵן — דּוֹמֶה לְבַרְזֶל שֶׁהִכְנִיסוּהוּ לָאוּר וְלֹא הִכְנִיסוּהוּ לְצוֹנֵן

One who bathed in hot water and did not drink from it is like an oven that was lit from the outside and not lit from the inside. One who bathed in hot water and did not rinse afterward with cold water is like iron that was placed in the fire and not placed afterward in cold water.

 The Eitz Chayim explains this enigmatic teaching, as follows.  If a person insults his fellow, the humiliation may feel as if he poured boiling water upon him.  Nevertheless, the one receiving the insult should simply ‘drink’ the hot water, meaning that he should accept the abuse humbly, without responding.  Just like King David, he should view the criticism as coming from Heaven, in order to cleanse and purify him.

If, however, he chooses to retaliate and return the insult, then Heaven’s message of purification becomes ineffective.  It is like he bathed in hot water externally without internalizing the heat of the water.  He has suffered from the heat of his abuser, but the suffering has been pointless.

Furthermore, one who does not respond, and yet burns up inside, says the Eitz Chayim, is like the iron bar that was placed into the fire without the requisite subsequent cooling.  Rather than becoming agitated from the insults, one must strive to feel as if he had just been praised!  That’s the ultimate cooling process.  In fact, the Chovos Halevovos (SB 3) states that the ultimate response to an insult is to turn one eyes heavenward and declare, “Thank you God, I needed that reminder that I’m far from perfect!”

The Tomer Devorah (Ohr Yechezkel 4:90) teaches that accepting criticism with a smile is part of the avodah (Divine service) of emulating God.  The Almighty provides vast blessing for us, and yet we still act contrary to His will.  That doesn’t stop Him providing, He doesn’t get offended.  Rabbi Yosef Hurwitz says that the happiest day for the righteous individual is the occasion when you receive insult and feel absolutely no anger or upset towards your insulter.

We currently find ourselves in the midst of a global crisis that has necessitated our employment of alternative means of communications.  We’ve all experienced the frustration at missing every other word on a video call, because the line is poor.  When you are on the receiving end of insults, the Vilna Gaon (12:16) advises that you need to imagine yourself to be deaf and assume that you didn’t really hear right.  And more importantly, he says, the greater challenge is to avoid repeating the incident to anyone else.  That only opens you up to the next person seeing you in a less favourable light.  They might not appreciate why your abuser had acted out of line, and assume you were in some way deserving of the invective.

It’s not easy to accept insults with love.  But like any trying circumstance in life, the challenge is to view it as a Divine test, sent to refine your character and make you a better person.  May Hashem deem you worthy of purification and may you achieve the level of righteousness where you’re able to thank Him as you drink the hot water!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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