Ta'anit 16 - 22
In the Eye of the Beholder
The (“ugly”) man said to Rabbi Elazar,"If you have a complaint about my appearance, go and tell my Maker how ugly is the utensil He made.”
This sharp reply came from a man whose appearance was disparaged by the great Torah Sage Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, as we are taught in a well-known and enigmatic story on our daf.
Here is the story, in brief, that we learn in a beraita: Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was returning home from a long period of Torah study and was quite pleased with himself for having studied so assiduously. He met a man who was very ugly. The man approached Rabbi Elazar and spoke to him in a (seemingly) degrading manner. The man told the Tana, “If you have complaints about my appearance, go tell my Maker how ugly is the utensil He made." Rabbi Elazar realized that he had spoken wrongly and pursued the man with pleas for forgiveness. Yet, the man refused to be appeased. The Tana and the man eventually reached Rabbi Elazar’s city and the ugly man told the townspeople what the Tana had done to him. Only then, when the townspeople begged the man to forgive the great and holy Tana, did he finally agree to forgive him.
Some commentaries explain that Rabbi Elazar was in fact justified in speaking to the man as he did. Why? The way that the man addressed the great Tana could be viewed as showing a lack of respect for the Torah and for the Torah scholars who embody it. The Tana’s intent was to point out that this lack of honor was “ugly” and perhaps was indicative of the lack of respect for the Torah in the man’s city as well. However, instead of the man thanking the Torah Sage for this rebuke of love, he took it as a personal insult and was deeply offended. Rabbi Elazar felt responsible for the man’s emotional pain and took every measure possible to appease him and receive forgiveness.
Other commentaries, however, explain that Rabbi Elazar was actually not justified in his speaking to the man in an insulting manner. These commentaries understand his insults as resulting from the Tana feeling even a microscopic degree of forbidden haughtiness. He was correct to feel great happiness for his superhuman efforts in Torah study, but he had no right to feel any haughtiness and self-importance as a result of his accomplishments. Hashem gave us the Torah and gave Rabbi Elazar the opportunity to study the Torah as he did. Torah study — especially for a Torah scholar of his great stature — should be purely for the honor of Hashem and His Torah, and not for any feeling of self-aggrandizement. When he was called out on his inappropriate, insulting words, Rabbi Elazar realized his misstep and went to extraordinary lengths to seek forgiveness.
Accordingly, Rabbi Elazar said at the end of this story: “One must always be as soft as a reed and not unyielding like the cedar.” The Maharal of Prague explains the meaning of this teaching in the context of our story. Even when one has “grown tall” in the heights of the Torah, he should be careful to act like a tall reed and not like a tall cedar. A reed bends with humility even as it grows taller, unlike a cedar that gets stronger in its rigidity as it grows taller. This is an important lesson to internalize for anyone who studies the holy Torah. As it raises a person up to great heights, the Torah scholar must become even more flexible and humble.
Another approach to understanding Rabbi Elazar’s harsh words is based not on the concept of haughtiness but rather on the need for a person to have a correct perception of Hashem’s creation. The primary aspect of Torah study is to see the value of all His creations, by shining the light of the Torah on them. A person might look at the world outside of the Yeshiva and see it as full of ugliness and negative qualities. Unfortunately, the Tana had this outlook in this story and therefore spoke in a negative way to the “ugly” man. However, the purpose of connecting to the Torah is exactly the opposite — to see the beauty of everything in existence in Hashem’s creation.
- Ta'anit 20a-b