There’s a fascinating midrash that shows us the extent of going out of one’s way to facilitate and enhance peace amongst people: There was once a married woman who attended Rebbi Meir’s midrash lecture on Shabbat night, but by the time it was over and she came home, it was quite late. Her husband—very upset at her tardiness—asked her, “Where were you!?” She replied, “I was listening to the midrash-lecturer.” He retorted, “Well, you are not entering my house until you go and spit in his face!”
Through ruach hakodesh, Rebbi Meir perceived what had happened, and devised a plan to pretend he was suffering from an eye ailment. When he later saw this woman, he asked if she could remedy his “eye problem” by spitting into his eye while reciting incantations (which was a commonplace method to heal such eye ailments). In awe of Rebbi Meir, she replied that she doesn’t know how to administer this procedure, but Rebbi Meir insisted, “Spit into my face seven times and I will be healed.” And, in fact, she did so. Rebbi Meir then told her, “Go and tell your husband, ‘you said that I should spit one time, and I spit seven times!’’’
Rebbi Meir’s students asked him, “Rebbi, do we disgrace the Torah this way? If you would have told us (the story about this couple) we would have brought him in, given him lashes over a bench and caused him to become placated regarding his wife!” Rebbi Meir responded, “Let not Meir’s honor be greater than the honor of his Creator, for if Hashem’s Holy Name is erased in water (in the case of the sota) for the sake of promoting peace between a man and his wife, then how much more so when it comes to Meir’s honor!” (see Bamidbar Rabbah, 9:20)
Rebbi Meir was so concerned about the rift between a man and his wife, that he not only allowed the woman to spit in his face once, as per instructed by her husband, but requested she spit seven times—just for the sake of promoting peace between them. We see how much of his personal honor he forgoed for this cause—to the extent of tolerating what seems to be an extremely humiliating act. We see how great an act it is to be willing to sacrifice dignity for the sake of bringing about peace between people.
One could ask on Rebbi Meir’s chosen method of promoting peace: Weren’t his students correct in their theoretical idea? Wouldn’t the peace have been restored by following his students advice of whipping this husband into shape?! Were there no other methods to re-establish the peace other than to endure being spat upon? Why then did Rebbi Meir stick to his guns?
Rav Elya Lopian explains that in Rebbi Meir’s response to his students, he was essentially imparting to them the following: In the case of the sota, Hashem could have “designed” the method to work without His Holy Name being erased. The fact that Hashem allowed His Holy Name to be erased in the sota process, Hashem is teaching that for the sake of peace, it’s—so to speak—worth it to even have His Holy Name erased. Rebbi Meir reasoned that if this is true for Hashem, then surely he should not be concerned about his own honor, and instead be willing to be disgraced—even if he could accomplish the result through some other method. If Hashem did it this way, then even more so Rebbi Meir should do it this way. (Lev Eliyahu, Naso).
Yet, I wondered, although Hashem could’ve accomplished the same result without His Holy Name being erased, the fact that He designed it that way means Hashem is teaching us the lesson that we should be willing to forgo our honor for the sake of peace. If Hashem hadn’t gone to the extreme of having his Name be erased, then how would we have been able to derive this lesson? So why then did Rebbi Meir choose an intervention that disgraced himself if he could have accomplished the same with a different method? Granted, Hashem did it, but Hashem was showing us that we should be willing to go to extremes for peace.Who says man should forgo his dignity if he has an alternative option!?
We can suggest (and perhaps this is the underlying intention of Rav Lopian’s explanation) that Hashem is really teaching us not only to forgo honor for the sake of peace, but that doing so could be one of the most effective ways of promoting peace—even if one could do so without sacrificing one’s dignity. Hashem—by allowing His Name to be erased—is modeling the idea that forgoing honor is the most effective way of ensuring harmony.
Rebbi Meir, therefore, reasoned that if Hashem is showing the most effective way of ensuring peace, then he should model that same method, so as to be as effective. Rebbi Meir wanted to impart the message to that husband and wife that the same way I—Rebbi Meir—drastically lowered myself and forgoed my honor to restore peace, that is how all people—including you and your wife—should be willing to act to extinguish rifts, and allow for harmony to exist and endure.
Often, a rift between people isn’t practical, but emotional—stemming from stubborness on both sides and bruised egos. When one is willing to let go of that and take the high road, it can dispel what the underlying cause of the rift and restore peace.
Binyamin is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchanan, and of Wurzweiler School of Social Work.