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Responding to Insults

May 9, 2009 | by Rebbetzin Feige Twerski

How to respond when the mud starts to sling.

A reader writes:

Dear Rebbitzen Twerski,

How should a person respond to insults? I have read that a good way to treat an insult is as if it never happened, to disregard it completely, and not to share the incident with anyone. In the same article, I've read that insults somehow serve as atonement for our sins.

I would appreciate it if you explain further how one should respond to a situation when a loved one is insulted in my presence.

Thank you for you time.

Rebbetzin Faige responds:

Lashing back when we are verbally assaulted is almost a reflexive act. The ability to control a hurtful retort under these circumstances is seen by our sages as an act of almost superhuman discipline. Their comment is that "the world would not exist but for the merit of those who hold their tongues (and shut their mouths) during an argument."

"The world would not exist but for the merit of those who hold their tongues during an argument."

The following anecdote is one of our family's treasures. On one occasion, my father-in-law, of blessed memory, attended a Jewish city council meeting. Many heated issues were discussed and the evening soon disintegrated into angry denunciations and accusations flung in all directions.

By the time it was over, my father-in-law, Rabbi Twerski, was the only one who had remained silent despite the barrage of caustic remarks directed at him. The following morning, a senior rabbi, who had been at the meeting, wondered how it was that Rabbi Twerski was able to exercise such remarkable self-control while everyone else succumbed to such unbecoming behavior. Rabbi Twerski responded that his self-control derived from his desire to eat dinner.

Seeing the perplexed look on his colleague's face, Rabbi Twerski explained he knew that had he come home and reported to his beloved wife that he had taken part in a nasty and insulting battle of words, she would have reacted by saying, "You stooped to their level. No dinner tonight!" It was a simple matter of valuing my dinner, he modestly concluded.

Our reaction to situations would be tempered and defused if we would realize that most often it's not about us -- it's the berater who has a problem and, indeed, we should not get sucked in or "stoop to their level."

There is a wonderful story of Rabbi Chaim Chezkia Medini, the "Sdai Chemed," (known by the name of his scholarly work). In his elder years, he recounted that when he was a young man, he was of average accomplishments, studying in a Kollel (post graduate learning institution), funded by a philanthropist. One of the other students, a malicious fellow, who had a gripe against the Sdai Chemed, contrived to defame him.

He paid the cleaning woman of the Kollel to accuse the Sdai Chemed in front of all the students of propositioning her. The entire Kollel was aghast and the Sdai Chemed was mortified.

The philanthropist, however, believed in the Sdai Chemed's innocence and refused to dismiss him. Nevertheless, his reputation was sullied.

A short time later, the cleaning woman was fired from her job. Ironically, she came to the Sdai Chemed, contrite over what she had done, and asked his assistance in getting the philanthropist to reinstate her in her job. She promised that she would publicly admit her treachery and expose the perpetrator.

The Sdai Chemed, in relating the story, shared that he was sorely tempted to accept the offer, to expose the source of the evil plot and be vindicated. He knew, however, that drudging up the whole incident would cause a chillul Hashem, a profanation of God's name. He vacillated back and forth between the sweet taste of revenge and vindication on the one hand, and the greater transcendent good of the Kollel on the other.

Finally, he called in the woman and told her that he would advocate on her behalf on the exclusive condition that she would never reveal the ugly conspiracy that had transpired. He was willing to bear the shame, blameless though he was, rather than subject Torah scholars to public disgrace.

The instant he decided to set his own personal interest aside, wellsprings of learning opened up for him.

It was at that moment, the Sdai Chemed concluded, that an amazing thing happened. The instant he decided to set his own personal interest aside, wellsprings of learning opened up for him. He felt his mind expand so much so that precincts and sources of insights and illumination totally unavailable to him, heretofore, became easily accessible. That decision was the watershed that launched him towards becoming the great scholar that he indeed became.

Despite feelings of victimization when we are the object of derision and insults, it is more than compensated by feelings of mastery when we take the moral high road and assume a posture of dignity.

In response to the reader's second part of the question, it is true that we cannot stand by when a loved one is insulted in our presence. There is a principle in Judaism: "shtika kehodoa," -- remaining silent is tantamount to agreement and affirmation. However, it is important to deal with a situation effectively.

A counter remark and challenge may provoke more negative statements of proof or support for the original insulting remark. That would certainly be counterproductive. It would probably be best to put an end to the conversation right then and there by insisting, without getting into specifics, that you find the conversation inappropriate.

At a later time, you might want to confront the perpetrator both about the statement and the context. If the insulting party is insensitive and a habitual offender, it might be an exercise in futility even to address the issue. In that case, you and your loved one might be better off just keeping your distance from this person.

The points to remember:

  1. Don't stoop to the other's level
  2. Don't do that which will exacerbate the situation even if the motivation is idealistic.
  3. Rebuke in private.
  4. Know to whom you are talking. Don't waste your time and spin your wheels with people who don't have the capacity to hear you.
  5. Remember that we cannot be responsible for another's behavior but we are always accountable for our own.

In conclusion, consider the inspiring example of our Matriarch Rachel. The Patriarch Jacob loved her and worked seven years for her devious father to earn her hand in marriage. Anticipating that her father might attempt to substitute Leah for Rachel, Jacob devised a secret code between them.

On the wedding night Rachel watched her father put his deceitful plan in place. Unable to tolerate the terrible embarrassment her sister would be subjected to when her response to Jacob's signals would fall short, Rachel revealed the code to her. The painful thought of her sister's shame took precedence over her own happiness.

Our Sages inform us that Rachel had no way of knowing, at that time, that Jacob would proceed to marry her as well. She was prepared to live a life deprived of the man she loved and who loved her, rather than have her sister humiliated. This was considered the ultimate sacrifice, even greater, some commentaries note, than the willingness of our Patriarchs to suffer martyrdom for the Almighty.

Dying for transcendent ideals, although a sublime act, is of a moment's duration. But, the willingness to live a lifetime, day in and day out, deprived of the love and happiness that one might have had, is of the highest order. It is for this reason that the tomb of Rachel has remained for all of time, the hallowed shrine for all of our prayers, entreaties, pain, and yearning.

Mother Rachel remains the symbol of caring. She cared sacrificially then, and she continues to be our advocate in perpetuity. "A voice on high is heard, Mother Rachel is crying on behalf of her children." In response, the Almighty promises that in the merit of her deeds, all of us will eventually (hopefully, soon in our day) be returned to our rightful boundaries, to our homeland.

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