Simcha Feuerman
Psychology, Torah and the Daf Yomi

The Toxic Trait of Defensiveness and More Bava Basra 13-16 Psychology of the Daf


Allowing Yourself to Receive

Our Gemara on amud beis discusses the legal position of Raban Shimon ben Gamliel regarding the splitting of a courtyard that was held in partnership but it is too small to divide in half and still retain its function or description, such as each part would be less than four cubits:

If a courtyard or the like was not large enough to warrant division into two, and one of the co-owners said to the other: You take a minimum measure of the courtyard, e.g., four cubits, and I will take less, the court listens to him. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: They do not listen to him.

The Gemara suggests a reason for Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel’s position:

The second owner can say to him: If you want me to compensate you with money for the difference between my share and your share, I have no money to give you. And if you wish to give it to me as a gift, I am not at ease with that, as it is written: “But he who hates gifts shall live” (Proverbs 15:27).

This is remarkable. The ethic of aversion to gifts is so strong, that this person has the right to decline a division of assets that his partner is offering. While technically this is a gift, it is also a favor to the other fellow who is obviously hankering to close out the asset and move on. Yet still, he can object to the proceedings.

Sefer Daf al Daf brings down Otzaros Yehoshua (6:1) that analyzes this ethic in the light of another dispute about gifts in Chulin (44b):

With regard to the verse: “He that hates gifts shall live,” the Gemara relates that when they would send Rabbi Elazar some gift from the house of the Nasi, he would not take it. And when they would invite him, he would not go there. When declining these offers, he said to them: Does Master not desire that I live? As it is written: “He that hates gifts shall live.” By contrast, when they would send a gift to Rabbi Zeira, he would not take it, but when they would invite him he would go. He said in explanation: It is an honor for them to honor me. My attendance is not for my benefit but for theirs.

We see that both Rabbi Zeira and Rabbi Elazar hold that it is proper to avoid taking gifts.  However, they differ in degree. Apparently, Rabbi Elazar was so concerned about the slippery slope and corrupting effects of taking handouts, that he would allow no rationales – even if it benefitted the gift-giver. On the other hand, Rabbi Zeira felt that if accepting the gift also confers a benefit or honor upon the gift-giver, it is not really a gift, but more so an exchange.

Otzaros Yehoshua suggests that this is the same dispute in our Gemara between Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel and the Sages. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says the person may refuse the division of the courtyard that gives him extra, even if it benefits the other person who wants to divide the asset anyhow.  However, the Sages held like Rabbi Zeira that when there is a degree of mutual benefit, the ethic of disdaining gifts cannot be invoked.

While this ethic is admirable, in human relations, there are nuances and ways that any ethic or Torah law can be abused or used to cover for distorted and anti-social aspects of a personality.  There are individuals who tend toward rigidity and emotional restriction. They who cause their spouses and loved ones pain and distress because they do not allow themselves to be vulnerable and accept compliments, love, or even gifts.  It is fair to say that even Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, who holds the ethic also applies when there is mutual benefit, would still draw the line at causing alienation and hurt feelings.  A courtyard is business and only money, but relationships have much higher and personal stakes.

The words of the Maharal (Nesivos Olam, Nesiv Haosher 1.6) are instructive on this point:

The trait of feeling satisfied with simple things is characterized as part of the ethic to completely detest gifts.  As we saw in Chullin (44b), where it is said that Rabbi Zeira refused gifts from the house of the Nasi…

Maharal explains the psychological and metaphysical reasons for this ethic:

A poor person is considered as if he is dead because he receives from others and does not live from his own resources. This cannot be called living; only someone who lives independently can truly be called alive. It is clear that anyone who receives is lacking, and anything lacking is associated with absence. Conversely, someone who does not receive is free from absence, and therefore “one who hates gifts will live.”

In other words, true life comes from emotional independence, save for attachment to God who is the source of all life.  Being craven and dependent waters down this channel for emotional, spiritual and even physical vitality.

Yet, despite this, Maharal goes on to say:

Everything certainly depends on the intention: If someone receives the gift only to honor the giver, it is permitted.

Why does the Maharal go out of his way to make that final point? I believe he knew full well about such personalities who hurt others under the guise of piety, but really are protecting themselves from their own fears of relating and interdependence.  There are times when receiving is really giving.


A Healthy And Whole Person Is In Touch With His Broken Parts

Our Gemara on amud beis tells us about the contents of the Holy Ark:

“Both the second set of tablets and the broken pieces of the first set of tablets were placed in the Ark.”

Why keep the broken tablets in the Ark?  What prominence and lesson do they hold? Tiferes Shlomo (Sha’ar Hatefila) explains, based on a Zohar (III:283a), that the human heart has two chambers.  One chamber represents the aspect of expansion and joy in attachment to Hashem and the Torah, as represented by the whole tablets. The second chamber of the heart, is also attached to Hashem and the Torah, but is connected and in touch with the broken parts; the shame of sins committed.  This is represented by the broken tablets.

A healthy and whole person is in touch with his or her broken parts. This is part of the paradox of humility, self-esteem and narcissism.  According to researchers Bak and Kutnik (“Domains of intellectual humility: Self-esteem and narcissism as independent predictors”, Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, 7/2021), citing the insights of Brummelman, et al. (“Raising Children With High Self-Esteem (But Not Narcissism). Child Dev Perspect, 2020, 14: 83-89”):

Narcissism and self-esteem are conceptually different, though related, phenomena. A key characteristic of narcissism is the belief in being superior, which is nurtured by parents overestimating their child and emphasizing his or her uniqueness. A key characteristic of high self-esteem, in contrast, is the belief that one is worthy, which comes from the parents’ affirmed conviction that the child is simply a valuable and important person. Narcissism is associated with the need to dominate and to treat others as instruments to achieve a goal, while high self-esteem is connected with the desire to deepen relationships with others. Narcissism and self-esteem are formed in the same, quite early developmental period, but they grow from different developmental experiences.

Whether a person has self-esteem or is instead, narcissistic will impact on his or her ability to embody Intellectual Humility. Intellectual Humility is defined as Intellectual humility speaks to people’s willingness to reconsider their views, to avoid defensiveness when challenged, and to moderate their own need to appear “right.” It is sensitive to counter-evidence, realistic in outlook, strives for accuracy, shows little concern for self-importance, and is corrective of the natural tendency to strongly prioritize one’s own needs. (’s,and%20is%20corrective%20of%20the)

In Bak and Kutnik’s research, they compared the trait of Intellectual Humility and its correlation between narcissism and self-esteem, by using validated questionnaires and scales to measure respondents attitudes toward self and others.  (The scales used were: (1) Comprehensive Intellectual Humility Scale and Limitations-Owning Intellectual Humility Scale; (2) Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale; and (3) the Narcissistic Personality Inventory.)  They discovered that persons with healthy self-esteem high Intellectual Humility was positively correlated to self-esteem, while low Intellectual Humility was correlated with narcissism.

Thus, we see that a truly confident person can be humble, while the arrogant person’s deep insecurity hampers his ability to see or learn from others.


The Toxic Trait of Defensiveness

Our Gemara on amud beis laments the sad state of affairs during the Biblical Era of the Judges

And further, with regard to Rabbi Elazar’s statement in the baraisa that the generation of the judging of the Judges was one of vanity, Rabbi Yoḥanan says: What is the meaning of that which is written: “And it happened in the days of the judging of the Judges” (Ruth 1:1)? This indicates a generation that judged its judges. If a judge would say to the defendant standing before him: Remove the splinter from between your eyes, meaning rid yourself of some minor infraction, the defendant would say to him: Remove the beam from between your eyes, meaning you have committed far more severe sins.

The Gemara is describing a toxic relational trait of defensiveness, whereby when a person is confronted about an issue, instead of considering it on its merits, just throws another similar complaint back at the person.  This freezes discussion, reflection, and problem solving and causes resentments in relationships to deepen.  The renowned marriage researcher and psychologist John Gottman considered defensiveness to be one of the most destructive traits in marriage, and  if not corrected, a strong predictor of eventual divorce. Gottman states (“Seven principles For Making Marriage Work” Crown Publishers, Inc. New York):

“Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner.  You’re saying, in effect, “The problem isn’t me, it’s you.” Defensiveness just escalates the conflict, which is why it’s so deadly.”

Many people avoid bringing up complaints when things are going well to avoid conflict, and therefore there is a strong urge to throw all your complaints on the person once they start with theirs.  The angry rationale is, “Well, I was ignoring and forgiving my resentments (obviously not, Ha!), but now that you are bringing up yours, I have twice as many back at you!”

What is the antidote?  What if you are frustrated and really believe you are right and your spouse is wrong?  (Seriously, don’t we all feel that way?).  Keep in mind this one rule: You do not have to agree with someone to take what is said under consideration.  If your spouse brings up a complaint do not counter it with your own complaints. Instead listen and consider it on its own merits. Own what you did wrong. If you do not believe yourself to be wrong, clarify your intentions without referencing the other person’s sins or misdeeds. Ask if that clarification resolves the issue or there still are other concerns.  Make sure that once a complaint is voiced it is taken seriously and considered with fresh eyes.  If you ultimately disagree, make sure that you are at least able to see it through the other person’s eyes and convey compassion and respect for why the person feels upset.

Just as you must wait many hours between fleishik and Milchiks, so too you must wait between your spouse’s complaint and yours.  You could have brought up your complaint at any time, but you did not. Now, that your spouse chose to bring up something, do not throw all your complaints at him or her. Wait your turn.


No One Dies From A Question

Our Gemara on amud aleph discusses some of Iyov’s complaints and confusion regarding his seemingly undeserved suffering and calamities:

“The earth is given into the hand of the wicked, he covers the faces of its judges; if not he, then who is it?” (Job 9:24). Rava says: Job sought to turn the bowl upside down, that is to say, he alluded here to a heretical thought, as he said that the earth is given into the hand of the wicked, indicating a lack of providence.”

The G”ra (Maor Hagadol quoted by Sefer Daf al Daf) explains Iyov’s intentions in a more positive light by way of a parable:

There once was a king who was known to have a tyrannical temper, ordering the deaths of loyal servants who made even the most minor mistakes. One time his loyal Butler, spilled a small drop of soup on his lap while serving him. Immediately, the Butler turned the entire bowl upside down onto the king’s lap. Predictably, in a rage, the king ordered his execution. However, the king’s curiosity got the better of him. He had to meet with the Butler one last time and ask him to explain his uncharacteristically insolent behavior. The king asked him, “I can understand that you might have accidentally spilled a small drop on me, but why did you then proceed to overturn the entire bowl?“ The Butler answered, “Your Majesty, I did this for your honor. Your temper is well known, and therefore, I realized that I would be executed even for that small drop. If I allowed that to happen, it would reflect poorly on the king, as most people would have sympathy for my case, and regard the king as irrational and cruel. In order to protect his majesty, I decided to spill the entire bowl on you so that my execution would be justified.” Upon realizing the wisdom and loyalty of this butler, the king relented and overturned his conviction.

So too, the Gr”a suggests that Iyov could find no justification for the injustices that he experienced. He saw this as a desecration of God’s name, and therefore figured that he must intensify his transgression in order that people would not doubt God’s integrity.

The Gr”a was not one to say trivial vertlach, so while this is very clever, what does it actually mean theologically? After all, is God a tyrannical impulsive king that requires Job to cover for Him? Does He really need any favors from Iyov?

I believe that the Gr”a was hinting at a deeper idea. What the Gemara meant to say is that Iyov was a man of deep belief and conviction. He could not wrap his head around the injustice that he experienced, and he believed somehow, despite his strong belief in his innocence, there must be some answer and some vindication for God. But Iyov could not mince words – too much was at stake. For the honor of God, the truth must come out. In other words, the Gemara is saying that true, it is problematic that Iyov raised questions that indicated heretical thought, ideas like perhaps, “God does not know what’s going on in this world.“ Or, “God has no interest in finding out about his creations once he created them.“ Yet, the reason that Iyov raised these questions and struggled with even heretical ideas and solutions is because he believed in God, and ultimately wanted to have a relationship with God, even though he did not understand yet how to work out what was happening to him and what it meant.

This is an important distinction when it comes to questions of faith. There are questions that come from cynicism and a wish to disprove religion to justify one’s own freedom from moral obligations and guilt. However, there also are legitimate questions that one must ask and need to explore (perhaps with discretion to trusted advisors) in order to have an authentic relationship with God.

The Gemara is filled with hundreds of pages of mind-boggling contradictions and challenges raised by later generations of sages regarding prior teachings. All of these questions are not regarded as heretical, even though some of them are left unresolved. Why is that? The answer is, there is a tacit understanding that there is a belief that there must be an answer, even if an answer has not yet been found. As the Yiddish saying goes, “No one dies from a question.”

About the Author
Rabbi, Psychotherapist with 30 years experience specializing in high conflict couples and families.
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