SALT - Motzaei Shabbat, January 12, 2019

  • Rav David Silverberg
          The haftara for Parashat Beshalach is the famous story told in Sefer Shoftim (4-5) of Benei Yisrael’s triumph over the Canaanites under the leadership of the prophetess Devora, and the song of praise sung after the battle by Devora and Benei Yisrael’s general, Barak.  Devora and Barak conclude this song with the prayer, “So shall all Your enemies be destroyed, O Lord, and those who love Him shall be like the sun going out in all its might” (Shoftim 5:31).
            The Gemara (Gittin 36b, Shabbat 88b) famously comments that the phrase “those who love Him” in this verse refers specifically to those “who are insulted but do not insult, who hear their shame but do not respond…”  Such people, the Gemara comments, are worthy of resembling “tzeit ha-shemesh bi-gvurato” – the brilliant shine of the sun.
            The Sefer Ha-chinukh (341) cites this famous Talmudic passage in his discussion of the prohibition of ona’at devarim – causing people emotional harm through hurtful words (Vayikra 25:17, as understood by the Gemara, Bava Metzia 58b).  According to the Chinukh, the Gemara refers here to an especially high standard of piety, as opposed to the strict letter of the law.  As far as the strict halakha is concerned, one is not required to remain silent in the face of insults.  When the Torah forbids verbal insult, it refers to initiating such speech.  But if a person comes under verbal assault, he is, strictly speaking, permitted to respond in kind in order to defend himself.  However, the Gemara teaches that there is a higher level of “ne’elavin ve-einan olevim, shom’in cherpatam ve-ein meshivin” – keeping silent in the face of verbal abuse, remaining unaffected and undisturbed, confident in one’s worth and importance even when others insult him, and thus feeling no need to respond.
            The question, however, arises, why is a person who achieves this level compared specifically to “tzeit ha-shemesh bi-gvurato,” the powerful shine of the sun?  Why is this an appropriate analogy for an individual with the strength and self-assurance to ignore insults and hurtful comments?
            Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, in his Mussar Ha-mishna (Rosh Hashanah 1:2), suggests that the Gemara here refers to the sun’s capacity to trigger the growth of vegetation.  When a person conducts himself with the kind of dignity, composure and piety described in this passage, he inspires other people.  Just as the sun’s rays inspire the growth of delicious produce, similarly, exemplary character inspires the growth of other people’s characters.  While it may be true that, as the Sefer Ha-chinukh writes, the Torah cannot expect every person to remain silent in the face of insults, such a person has the opportunity to be like the sun, to help people grow by setting an inspiring example of dignity.  If a person responds with anger, although he has not done anything wrong, he has not accomplished anything constructive, either.  But by remaining silent, and abstaining from angry reactions, he can leave a deep impression on the people around him, thereby shining like the sun and bringing a bit more “light” and positivity into the world.