Silence is Golden: Exhibit Strength by Remaining Silent When Challenged

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By Rabbi Fred V. Davidow

Parshat Beha’alotcha

Rabbi Judah the Prince (135-217 C.E.), the chief editor of the Mishnah, was once delivering a lecture when suddenly the reek of garlic caused him to cover his nose with his hand, and he let out a very loud “yuck!”

Someone in the audience had eaten a large amount of garlic, and the disgusting odor made the rabbi lose his composure. Judah vociferously demanded, “Whoever ate that garlic, get up and leave!”

Rabbi Hiyya (ca. 180–230 C.E.), a chief disciple of Judah, stood up and started making his exit. Many others, upset that Hiyya was suffering embarrassment, followed him out. Judah’s lecture had been spoiled.

The next day, Rabbi Simeon, Judah’s son, confronted Hiyya and berated him for upsetting his father and ruining his lecture.

“God forbid that I would ever cause your father a problem!” Hiyya responded.

“You can’t deny what you did,” Simeon answered. “It was you who stood up when my father demanded that the one who had eaten the garlic leave.”

“I stood up only to avoid the public humiliation of the person whose breath was bothering your father. Since I already have a high status among the rabbis, I was willing to accept the embarrassment of being publicly singled out like that. Imagine, though, if the person who had eaten the garlic was a rabbi of lesser stature than I. That person would have been deeply humiliated, and likely would have become an object of mockery.”

(This story is an elaboration of Talmud Sanhedrin 11a, as recounted by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in Words That Hurt, Words That Heal.)

Public shaming is called by the rabbis “whitening of the face,” because when one is publicly embarrassed, blood drains from the face and the skin looks pale. Telushkin cites a teaching of Rabbeinu Bachya (1255-1340) that “it would be better for a person not to have been born at all than to experience these seven things: the death of his children in his lifetime, economic dependence upon others, an unnatural death, forgetting his learning, suffering, slavery and publicly shaming his fellow man.”

The first six events are heartbreaking. No parent ever fully recovers from the pain of burying a child. Becoming totally dependent on others or becoming a slave is degrading. To be cut off before one’s time leaves much unfulfilled. Suffering can come in many forms. Forgetting one’s learning — to have one’s memory erased by dementia — is like a living death. These experiences can happen to a person through no fault of his own. Rabbeinu Bachya did not write, “being publicly shamed,” but publicly shaming another person. The latter is an example of being an agent and not being the passive victim of a random event. It is a pathetic lot in life to be a mean person who takes pleasure in publicly shaming another.

In Baba Metzia 58b it is written, “He who shames his fellow man in public is as though he shed blood.” Thus public shaming can not only cause one’s face to turn white, it can also lead to one’s unnatural death.

Admiral Jeremy Boorda, born to Jewish parents, served as the 25th Chief of Naval Operations from April 23, 1994 to May 16, 1996. On the latter day, Boorda committed suicide before a scheduled appointment with journalists who were investigating his wearing of two combat ribbons with a “V” for valor. When the Navy informed Boorda that he was not authorized to wear them, he removed them from his uniform. The investigation was instigated after Boorda had actually stopped wearing the ribbons.

Ironically, the journalist who started the investigation was also a highly decorated veteran of the U.S. military, but he himself had worn one ribbon that he was not authorized to wear. This journalist’s actions publicly shamed Boorda and led to the shedding of his blood by his own hand.

In the Torah portion for this Sabbath Miriam and Aaron tried to humiliate Moses publicly. Miriam and Aaron were being small-minded and wanted to pull Moses down so that they could lift themselves up. They were like a person who can make himself feel good only by lessening the value of someone else. But Moses did not crumble. Moses did not react by exchanging insults publicly with his sister and brother. In fact, Moses did not utter a word. He remained silent in the face of derision. How was the silence of Moses a sign of his humility? How did he keep Miriam and Aaron from putting him in a one-down situation?

Perhaps we can understand the silence of Moses through a lesson from a Zen story called the “Gift of Insults.”

There once lived a great warrior. Though quite old, he still was able to defeat any challenger. His reputation extended far and wide throughout the land and many students gathered to study under him.

One day, an infamous young warrior arrived at the village. He was determined to be the first man to defeat the great master. Along with his strength, he had an uncanny ability to spot and exploit any weakness in an opponent. He would wait for his opponent to make the first move, thus revealing a weakness, and then would strike with merciless force and lightning speed. No one had ever lasted with him in a match beyond the first move.

Much against the advice of his concerned students, the old master gladly accepted the young warrior’s challenge. As the two squared off for battle, the young warrior began to hurl insults at the old master. He threw dirt and spit in his face. For hours he verbally assaulted him with every curse and insult known to mankind. But the old warrior merely stood there motionless and calm. Finally the young warrior exhausted himself. Knowing he was defeated, he left feeling shamed.

Somewhat disappointed that their old master did not fight the insolent youth, the students gathered around him and questioned him. “How could you endure such an indignity? How did you drive him away?”

“If someone comes to give you a gift and you do not receive it,” the master replied, “to whom does the gift belong?”

Like the old master in the Zen story, Moses did not make a move. He showed his strength by remaining silent. He did not let himself be dragged into a mud-slinging contest. Miriam and Aaron tried to publicly shame Moses, while he, refraining from offering a clever retort, remained as humble as ever and gave no heed to the unjust insults lodged at him.

Rabbi Fred V. Davidow is the chaplain at Glendale Uptown Home. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

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