May 26, 2024
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Rabi Elazar ben Shimon and the Extraordinarily Ugly Man: Lessons for Potential Abusers and Victims

A Shocking Story

This may be the Talmud’s most shocking story! Rabi Elazar, the son of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, who spent 13 years secluded, learning Torah with his father and later emerged as a foremost authority, severely verbally abuses a disadvantaged individual! Deplorable behavior from such a great rabbi?!

 

Arrogance Precedes Failure

The Gemara (Ta’anit 20a-20b) relates (slightly emended translation from the William Davidson edition of the Talmud):

Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon, came from Migdal Gedor, from his rabbi’s house, and he was riding on a donkey and strolling on the bank of the river. And he was very happy, and his head was swollen with pride because he had studied much Torah.

Already we can anticipate that something is about to go very wrong. Mishlei (16:18) teaches “Lifnei shever ga’on,” arrogance precedes failure.

Interestingly, in addition to intensive learning with his father, he spent time learning from another rabbi. Learning from more than one great rav is incredibly enriching. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein relates that he prospered from his years of Torah study with Rav Yitzchok Hutner in addition to his many years with Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. Yaakov Avinu also studied for 14 years in the Yeshiva of Shem and Eiver after learning with his father, Yitzchak.

Rabi Elazar had learned much Torah with both his father and his second teacher, and he was excessively proud of himself. While one should be proud of his accomplishments, the pride cannot slip into arrogance.

After leaving the second teacher, Rabi Elazar traveled to a prestigious region to become its mara d’atra, halachic authority. It is so sad that a man as great as Rabi Elazar let pride overwhelm him.

 

Awful Abuse

Soon the unthinkable happens:

He happened upon an exceedingly ugly person, saying: Greetings to you, my rabbi, but Rabi Elazar did not return his greeting. Instead, Rabi Elazar said to him: Worthless [reika] person, how ugly is that man. Are all the people of your city as ugly as you?

How could Rabi Elazar act so poorly? The answer is that everyone can quickly slip into horrific behavior. Even a great rabbi can turn “on a dime” into a monster; quite a sobering lesson.

 

The Victim’s Response

Rabi Elazar thought he could get away with abuse in his moment of excessive pride. Abusers typically believe they can. However, Rabi Elazar ben Shimon was in for a huge surprise. Here is what follows:

The man said to him: I do not know, but you should go and say to the Craftsman Who made me: How ugly is the vessel you made.

What a potent and effective response! “I do not know” is a great start. The victim first neutralizes the attack. “I do not know” implies that the question is foolish and enables the victim to take control. The victim positions himself to then go on the attack. Attack he does by framing the bully as insulting Hashem!

The victim’s solid self-esteem enables his strong defense. His powerful self-esteem stems from recognizing that Hashem created him and all Hashem does is good. The victim draws strength from Hashem, a dominant theme of Sefer Tehillim, the ultimate work of Torah psychology.

The victim refuses to accept a quick apology from Rabi Elazar ben Shimon:

When Rabi Elazar realized that he had sinned, he descended from his donkey and prostrated himself before him, and he said to the man: I have sinned against you; forgive me. The man said to him: I will not forgive you until you go to the Craftsman Who made me and say: How ugly is the vessel you made.

The victim will not forgive Rabi Elazar until he confronts “the Craftsman,” which means until he dies. Rabi Elazar sins grievously, and rightfully his victim does not easily let him off the hook.

The victim escalates further by following Rabi Elazar as he travels to meet his new congregants:

He walked behind the man, trying to appease him until they reached Rabbi Elazar’s city. The people of his city came out to greet him, saying to him: Greetings to you, my rabbi, my rabbi, my master, my master. The man said to them: Whom are you calling my rabbi? They said to him: To this man, who is walking behind you. He said to them: If this man is a rabbi, may there not be many like him among the Jewish people. They asked him: For what reason do you say this? He said to them: He did such and such to me. They said to him: Even so, forgive him, as he is a great Torah scholar.

Rabi Elazar ben Shimon chose the wrong person to abuse. His victim turned the tables and made his tormentor severely regret his actions. Every abuser pays a steep price, if not in this world, then in the world to come. The abuser (as in this story), in his arrogance, perceives himself as superior and invulnerable. Our story teaches that abusers are picking a fight with Hashem. Hashem exacts a steep price for horrible behavior.

Rabi Elazar communicates to his new congregants and all generations:

He said to them: For your sakes, I forgive him, provided he accepts not becoming accustomed to behaving like this. Immediately, Rabi Elazar, son of Rabi Shimon, entered the study hall and taught: A person should always be soft like a reed, and he should not be stiff like a cedar, as one who is proud like a cedar is likely to sin. And therefore, due to its gentle qualities, the reed merited that a quill is taken from it to write Torah scrolls, phylacteries, and mezuzot.

Rabi Elazar warns us against overconfidence and letting down our guard. One should never be arrogant as a proud cedar and deem himself invincible. Mishlei (28:14, and see Gittin 55b with Rashi) teaches, “Ashrei adam mefacheid tamid,” one must constantly and vigilantly guard his behavior. Even a momentary lapse can lead to disaster. We must always be humble and kind.

 

Conclusion: Eliyahu HaNavi

Rashi and Tosafot note that the exceedingly ugly man was none other than Eliyahu HaNavi in disguise. Eliyahu HaNavi teaches the vital importance of extending respect to everyone in any situation. Failure to do so leads to horrific consequences. Eliyahu HaNavi also teaches victims to derive strong self-esteem from Hashem and use it to neutralize their oppressors effectively.


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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