The Torah Podcast Transcript
019 – How to Roll with the Punches – Respecting the Disrespectful
Great Stories – Rav Shach
I want to start out with a story about Rav Shach. It says that Rav Shach was a very heavy smoker. He couldn’t stand being without a cigarette. He actually held that the smoking helped him learn, because it helped him to concentrate. He smoked for many, many years.
One time though, he had to go through a very serious operation, and the doctor instructed him to stop smoking. After the operation, Rav Shach asked the doctor if he could start smoking again. The doctor said, “If you’ve already stopped, it would be better not to begin again.” This was before smoking was known to be dangerous to your health. But the doctor knew that it was dangerous to his health, and he told him that it’s better if he stops. Rav Shach said, “If smoking is dangerous for my health even slightly, I will stop completely.” He took the pack of cigarettes that was on top of his shelf over there, and threw it away very forcefully. At that moment, he made a total decision to stop smoking. He claimed from then, he had no desire to smoke. He didn’t miss it at all. He used to tell this story to demonstrate that nothing can stand in the way of a man’s will. It may be very difficult to make a true decision, but once you make it, it’s possible to stick to it and change your habits.
Torah Portion of the Week – Balak
This week’s Parsha is Balak. We know it says that King Balak sent for Bilam who was the greatest prophet among the gentiles, to come and curse the Jews. It’s written that when Bilam received the first set of messengers from Balak, the verse says, “Go back to your country, for God has refused to permit to go with you.” He sent them back and refused to go with them. Rashi explains there that the first set of messengers were not high ranking enough to associate with him. The Ohr haChayim explains, the verse says, “Who are these people with you?” For Hashem told him, “Are these people worthy of being with you?” The Ohr haChayim goes on and says, “For God was concerned with Bilam’s dignity.” We also see that he killed a donkey, Bilam’s donkey, on the count of Bilam’s dignity. Basically, he learns out the Rashi in the Chumash there that God actually was concerned with the dignity of Bilam. This is simply an absolutely amazing idea. How could it be that God cares about the dignity of one of the biggest reshaim, evil people that ever lived in the word? The Mishna in Pirkei Avos says, “Those who have an evil eye, an arrogant spirit, and an insatiable soul are pupils of the wicked Bilam.” He was known as Bilam ha rosha, Bilam the wicked one. How could it be that God cared about his dignity? Let’s get rid of this guy, kill this guy. Put him down. This is a person who planned Israel’s destruction. Where was he going? He was going to curse the Jewish people. The Gemara in Sanhedrin says, “He lived with animals.” How could it be someone who’s so immoral, so evil, so bad, that we are supposed to respect him? Not only that, but God killed Bilam’s donkey just so Bilam wouldn’t be embarrassed. The donkey rebuked Bilam. The donkey said, “Am I not your she-donkey that you have ridden for me from the inception to this day? Have I not been accustomed to do such a thing? He said, “No.” He couldn’t answer. What happened is, Hashem opened up Bilam’s eyes and he saw the angel in front of him. He realized that the donkey was right. The donkey could see the angel. The donkey was right, so Bilam had nothing to say. The donkey rebuked him and Bilam had to be quiet. Because of this, Rashi explains, the Midrash explains that Hashem killed the donkey, just so people wouldn’t say, “Hey, that’s the donkey that rebuked Bilam.” But this donkey could have been a tremendous kiddush Hashem, sanctification to Hashem. First of all, the donkey spoke. People would have said, “Wow, this is unbelievable. Look at how great is Hashem. He can even make a donkey speak.” Also the Midrash in Bereishis Rabba explains that the donkey could have been a tremendous source to strengthen people, because when they would have seen the donkey they said, “Wow, Bilam couldn’t even answer to this donkey. All the more so, what are we going to answer on the Day of Judgment, where God rebukes us, and we see that we’re wrong.” People would have done teshuva just by seeing that donkey. But still, God killed the donkey. Why? For the honor of Bilam
What does Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz learn from this? He says, “Even the most low and decadent individual is not to be humiliated more than necessary. Man is created in God’s image, and it’s so great that we have to have extreme care not to even have a little bit of degradation to even someone as wicked as Bilam.” This is unbelievable. We don’t even come in contact with people who are like Bilam. So, how much more so, we have to give honor to our colleagues, to our friends, to our family. Even people who go against us, we have to give them honor. How much more so. It’s also true in general, if God-forbid a man lives with an animal, the halacha is the law is that we have to kill that animal that people shouldn’t go around saying, “Hey, that’s the animal that so-and-so lived with.” To do that, you have to get a whole Sanhedrin together of 23 judges, just to kill the animal. We do that all, just so this guy who lives with animals, that he shouldn’t be embarrassed. This like 180 degrees of what we think, of how we should treat people. We have revenge against every guy who says something, gives us a dirty look, doesn’t say hello to us in the morning. The Torah’s concept of honor is so much greater than we can possibly imagine.
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz continues and he says that not only that, that you have to give honor to evil people, but you also have to try with all your effort to rectify their wrongdoings, to save them. He brings a proof from this week’s Parsha. We know that the donkey’s mouth, his ability to speak, was created on Erev Shabbos bein hashmashos, just before Shabbos before the sun was about to go down, at the time of creation. It is a very, very special creation. Why did God create this ability for the donkey to speak? Chazal tells us that it was for Bilam. The donkey was there to help Bilam, who happened to be one of the greatest gentiles that ever lived – in terms of his potential for greatness, they say he was a navi, prophet, like Moshe Rabbeinu. God made a special creation just to bring him back to the right way. How much God cares about every human being, no matter how disgusting they are. Simply speaking, Bilam really did have the potential to be a very great man. It happened to be that he went off on the wrong way. He brings a second proof from an unfaithful wife, a woman who cheated on her husband. In such a case, she has to drink the mei sota. They put the name of God in cup of water, on a piece of paper into a cup of water, and she has to drink it. When she drinks it, if she cheated she’s going to die. In order to prevent her from dying, they shlep her around from place to place until it exhausts her. The Gemara in Sanhedria says, “She is harassed continuously, and moved from place to place in the Temple courtyard, for the purpose of causing her to confess, to be saved from a horrible death.” The Sanhedrin again comes together in order to scare her, that she can confess. What do we care about her? This is a woman who cheated on her husband, the lowest of the low. No, we do care about her.
So, from all these cases we see an unbelievable idea against what’s called the sefara chitzona, the normal way of thinking. We have a Torah idea here. The idea is, that we have to give kavod, honor, even to the most evil people in the universe. We have to try to help even the most wicked people. We have to try to help them to come back to God. I was thinking about this, and I said, “This doesn’t make any sense.” You have a Gemara in Yoma in 23a that says like this. “Any scholar who does not avenge himself and bear a grudge like a snake, is not a real talmid chocham,” he’s not a real scholar. In other words, of course we’re supposed to take revenge. What do you mean, “Give kavod to Bilam? Give kavod to Arafat? Give kavod to Saddam Hussein? What’s going on here? Where’s the justice? Where’s the righteousness? Where is standing up for human rights.? Where’s the idea of destroying the wicked? But no, no, no. That’s not what it says. If you look in the Rambam in Hilchos Deios Chapter 2 halacha 3, it says there that, “The way of the righteous to be offended but not to offend. To hear insults, but not to reply. To act out of love, and rejoice with suffering.” No. You’re supposed to just eat it. If someone’s nasty to you, someone insults you, you’re just supposed to accept it, and act out of love and rejoice with your suffering. This is what the Rambam says.
Not only that but the Rambam in Shemoni Prachim wrote that it says that Dovid haMelech and Eliyahu haNavi got themselves into trouble with their anger. Even though Dovid haMelech’s cruelty was only manifested against idol worshippers and heretics and he was merciful with the Jewish people, nevertheless, God said, “Because of this imperfection he was not raui, fitting, to build the Temple.” You see, Dovid couldn’t build the Temple because he had a little bit of cruelty. And Eliyahu ha Navi had a problem with anger, it says here. But he directed his anger towards heretics. Because of that, he was not fitting to be a leader, and he wasn’t fitting to emulate. He was too much of a zealot. So you see, you can’t use your justice. You’re not allowed to do these things. What does it mean that a talmid chacham has to bear a grudge like a snake, and if not he’s not a real talmid chacham? On the other hand, the Rambam says in Hilchos Deios that someone who takes revenge, he violates the Torah prohibition.
The Meiri in Brochos says like this. “It is proper for a person not to question God’s conduct. When a person experiences suffering or calamities, whether financial or physical, he should examine his own deeds. If he unable to discover anything which would justify his suffering, he should ascribe the suffering to neglecting Torah study. It is important to understand there is no such thing as suffering without any sin to justify it.” Our sages knew that there is no smoke without fire. In other words, if somebody does something bad to you, that’s because God decreed it against you, and you have to accept it. The Meiri continues and he says, “The prosperity of the wicked is to deprive them of a reward in the World to Come, just as the ox is fattened before the slaughter. Sometimes events occur because of collective influence of society, rather than the individual judgement. When the orchard is watered, all the trees benefit.” So, according to 99% of what our Rabbis are telling us, and what the Torah says, we cannot take revenge at all. And we have to give honor to wicked people, and we have to try to help wicked people. But the question still remains, where’s the justice? Where’s the righteousness? Where’s standing up for right and wrong? And what does it mean that a talmid chacham has to, must, take revenge? What does it mean, in next week’s Parsha we see that Pinchas killed Zimri. We know that Moshe Rabbeinu wiped out the reshaim, wicked ones. He killed nations. And Dovid Hamelech also fought and killed. How do we draw the line between taking revenge and standing up for what’s right, and sitting back like the Rambam says, that the way of the righteous is to be offended and not to offend, and to hear insults but not to reply.
I believe the answer is like this. The question will be, when is your ego, personal self-involved? When do you know that you are so pure and so righteous that you can lash back? How do you know that standing up for human rights and standing up for the right thing and going out into the street and screaming, how do you know when that’s a personal thing, a personal vendetta or really leshem shemayim, really for the sake of God? That’s the split. If a person, it says a talmid chacham, a talmid chacham has to take revenge – only a person in a very, very pure, very, very high level who checked himself out a thousand times is allowed to take revenge. Even some people say that the talmid chacham, the explanation over there is, that he shouldn’t take revenge. Other people should take revenge for him. Or he should just keep it inside of his heart, and this way God Himself will punish.
So where do we put these feelings of righteousness, the feelings of right and wrong, the feelings of doing the right thing, of the truth has to come into the world? Where will he put that? The answer is, we put it into God’s hands. What did Dovid haMelech do when Shimmi Ben Geiri threw rocks at him? He said, “It’s from Hashem.” We have to assume that justice will happen. But it doesn’t have to be by our hand. There’s a God in the world. Like the Meiri said, “Maybe these reshaim, these evil people, are just like the ox getting fattened up to go to slaughter. Why do the evil people have good in this world, and the righteous suffer? We don’t see the whole picture. We see one or two generations. We don’t know what happened back three or four generations. We don’t know what’s happening now, what it’s based on. And when bad things happen to us, people curse us, people disrespect us, we have to be righteous. We have to give them back honor. I’m not saying it’s easy. But if we really believe in God we have to say like the chinuch says. Consequently, there is no reason to seek revenge. It says it was not the tormentor but God who caused this to happen because of our sins.
The Chofetz Chaim said, “He should give thanks that he was given an opportunity to atone for his sins. When he fully understands that he has received great benefit from his suffering, it becomes very easy not to seek revenge or hold a grudge.” And this is the true Torah perspective on how to handle evil, and how to handle evil people. We have to give respect to everyone. Even to an Arafat, even to a Bilam. I know these are hard words, and I’m not saying these things are easy. But this is what the Torah says, and it doesn’t mean later that they won’t be killed, and that God won’t take care of them. God will take care of them. But are we on the level, are we so pure that we can say that it’s through us that we’re going to destroy this person? Now, I’m talking about a very high level. We’re talking about really evil people. What about our day to day basis? We’re not dealing with people like that. We’re talking about your co-worker, we’re talking about your wife, your kids. How much good they have, how much good they do. How can you feel you need to destroy them? The kid acts out, therefore…what? He should be killed? No. Chazal tells us you have to work hard to try to bring them back. Your wife, your spouse disrespects you, God did it. He used her as a messenger, or used him as a messenger. So, why are you stonewalling? You don’t talk for a week. Why are you dumping responsibility and being cruel, blaming, complaining, retaliating? Stop taking things so personally in a sense that they did it to you specifically, but the truth is that God did it to you specifically. Forget about them. What are you supposed to do instead? You have to start to communicate. You have to give respect back. You have to talk it out. You have to have rachmanus, mercy. A person goes off the way, a kid puts a tattoo on him, who knows what? Rachmanus, they don’t understand. They’re lost. I know that I’m talking about a very high level of existence, but this is the higher life podcast.
I know it’s difficult, but at least if we can get a glimpse of it, if we could understand what the goal is…if we could take our egos out of it, that’s the problem. The problem is, we’re taking these things personally. We don’t realize the things are coming directly from God, and therefore we start acting out, instead of doing the right thing. We from our side, always have to do the right thing. We always have to be respectful. We always have to be a mentsch, properly behaved. We have always have to be helpful. And maybe one day when we get to be on the level of a talmid chacham and a great sage, so we’ll have to stand up for the respect of the Torah, because we represent the Torah ourselves. But until then, we have to be kind and we have to be nice, and we have to give respect.
A Powerful Parable
I want to bring a powerful parable from the Chofetz Chaim. He said that Torah commands us to give rebuke, and to reprove our fellow Jew. In other words, if see somebody doing something wrong, there is a commandment to tell him, which you may not find easy to do, simply because he may not listen.
He says, “We shouldn’t give up hope, and we shouldn’t despair.” He wants to give a moshul, parable to explain this. Let’s say a guy had a store. There comes in this customer who we would call a difficult customer. They guy starts asking this, he’s trying to bring down the price. He’s driving the guy crazy. He said, “Would it occur to the storekeeper to get angry? Would he get angry with the customer because he’s hard to please? He wants to pick and choose? He’s bargaining a long time? Should it occur to the store owner, I’m not going to sell to this guy. He’s too difficult. Did you ever see a shop with a sign outside the shop, ‘We only sell to good, pleasant, easy customers. No sales to tough customers.’ He says, “For sure not. You would never find a guy who needs to make money to make a living, to put bread on his table, to act that way. If you want to put bread on your table, you’re going to have to be tolerant. The store owner has to be tolerant, easygoing by nature. He has to use tact and persuasion. He has to speak gently, and patiently, until he prevails on the customer to buy. Otherwise, he’s not going to make a living.”
The store owner and the customer was the moshul. The nimshal, conclusion is, if you want to influence people, if you want to influence people to do good, which can mean a great profit for you because when you help somebody else, you also get zechus for it, you also get merit for it, so if that person who you care about and should care about is acting like a difficult customer, you still have to act properly. You have to be patient and kind, and given honor and not give up on them. And you have to sell them that spiritual product. Eventually, that difficult customer is going to buy something.
Peace in Your Home
Rav Avigdor Miller brings another commandment of marriage, which is do not tell everything. You’re not supposed to tell your spouse everything. In today’s world but not the way of Torah thinking we think, “Yeah, you have to be totally open. You have to tell your spouse every little sin that you ever did in your entire history.” That’s called being close.
He says, “That’s foolish. That’s not the Torah way. Maybe some balei teshuvas, maybe some people who came back to Judaism and did some sins, you don’t have to tell them about every boy you kissed, every girl you kissed. You don’t have to talk about that. It’s going to destroy your marriage. You don’t have to tell them you failed all your math tests. Your spouse is not going to look kindly on that. He doesn’t have to know that.” He says, “It’s stupid. Don’t tell your spouse that you can’t get along with your mother,” he says. “Your spouse is always going to use it in every fight that’s going to come up, he’s going to use it against you. Your spouse will never forget.”
He tells a story here, one time a man said to the husband, “Don’t marry that girl,” and then he told him why. The husband said, “For 50 years he remembered what the guy said to me.” He said, “Chas veshalom, never speak against a spouse, of somebody else also. The spouse doesn’t forget.” Look what he says here, he says, “A wife should never say, ‘I perspire under my arms.’” “Chas veshalom,” he says, “To say such a stupid thing. He has to think she’s all roses. It’s of utmost importance to maintain the illusion.” That’s the Torah perspective. He says, “Not only that, you should never even say anything derogative against your own family. Don’t tell him your brother was kicked out of yeshiva for stealing. Tell him your brother won the prize in the yeshiva, and that your sister was a vale victorian.” These are the things you should say. You should sell yourself to your spouse. Be a salesman, and sell yourself to your husband or your wife. But never say anything derogatory about yourself.”
Okay, that’s it for this week’s podcast, I hope you enjoyed it. Please share it with your friends. I like you to leave comments on the blog. You could also leave voicemail. If you leave a comment by voicemail, I could put you on next week’s podcast. You can ask a question, and maybe I’ll answer it