We were having dinner with friends recently when the husband turned to me and, in response to a comment I’d made, said something extremely critical of me. I was a little taken aback as was my husband who immediately had his dukes up (figuratively of course), ready to defend my honor. I quickly recovered my composure and resumed my meal as if nothing had happened. My husband, relieved, got down off his white charger and continued eating as well.
How were we able to diffuse a potentially tense situation and keep the friendship alive?
For starters, we had recently had a conversation at home about how to deal with insults. Each of my children, without batting an eye, quoted to me the statement of our Sages that says the Almighty loves those who are embarrassed and don’t embarrass back (I don’t even want to think about many thousands of dollars in day school tuition that cost!). So I had that idea in mind. To my kids, that reaction was instinctive and obvious; for me it required some work.
I knew I wasn’t the real target.
I also knew that this friend was going through some personal challenges. I was able to quell my oversensitivity and ego (an admittedly rare occasion) and recognize that I wasn’t really the source of his frustration. I knew I wasn’t the real target and so I didn’t feel compelled to speak up in my defense or otherwise assert myself.
This experience is actually a fairly common one (no, not my ability to quash my ego needs). Frequently the wrong person bears the brunt of another’s frustration. For example, one spouse (we’ll call him the husband) may have had a long day at work -- a project didn’t go well, there was an accident on the freeway and he ate lunch too many hours ago. When he finally arrives home, fatigued, frustrated and famished, he discovers that dinner won’t be ready for another half hour. He lashes out at his wife, demanding that dinner be prepared on time in the future.
While not defending her husband’s behavior, the wise wife refrains from screaming, “You sexist pig! How dare you?” and brings out some crackers and cheese to tide her husband over. Maybe later, when he is sated, she suggests more effective forms of communication. She's able to do this because she knows she's not the real cause of her husband’s aggravation.
And while I am not on the level of those who understand that every insult operates as an atonement for past misdeeds and are therefore grateful for the opportunity provided, I can step back and examine whether there is any truth in the criticism. Is there something I could learn from it? Does it highlight a way in which I need to grow? Honesty requires that I examine myself to see why I had even the smallest role in provoking this reaction.
I’m definitely going to be more careful about what I say in the future and probe a little deeper into my character in an effort to root out any trace of the suggested flaw.
When the Jewish people are attacked from the outside, we need unity.
There are many other reasons not to respond to insults -- not to give anyone else power over you or your emotions, not to lower yourself to their level, because their opinion doesn’t really matter to you, because you were created in the image of the Almighty.
But perhaps one of the most important reasons of all, especially right now, is that when the Jewish people are attacked from the outside, we need unity. We need to strengthen our sense of togetherness, to build bridges with each other and not create further wedges. Too much is at stake.
This is the time to repair relationships, to mend fences. It is a time to pretend you heard wrong (maybe you really did!) and to let bygones be bygones. Most people don’t think so carefully before they speak so it’s a mistake to take their words too seriously.
The Almighty loves us to be quiet in the face of insults because, like all parents, He wants His children to live in peace and harmony. I think I could swallow a few insults in order to give my Father in Heaven that nachas.
Maybe if all just do our small part, if we don’t fight insult fire with insult fire and instead work on building closer relationships, the power of our love will turn back any future flotillas.