Rabbi Avi Weinstein

The Gates of Wounded Feelings

In Uncategorized on August 4, 2009 at 1:28 pm

The saga of the cop and the Harvard professor created an opportunity for yet another referendum on race in America. Widely regarded as a tempest in a teapot, why did it captivate the attention of so many? The Talmud has an answer.

One of the most well know Talmudic Aggadot, is the showdown between R. Eliezer Ben Hurcanus and the Sages, where in spite of all evidence to the contrary Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion is thwarted and the sages prevail, even though a heavenly voice supported the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer. The epilogue for most readers occurs when Elijah the Prophet is found wandering around the marketplace and when asked what God was doing when the sages rejected His opinion with a prooftext from the Torah, He answered with a smile, “My children have defeated me, they beat me!”

This, however, is not the end of the story, nor is it the primary purpose of the editor of this chapter. Later on, Rabbi Eliezer, who was punished with a ban for being so defiant, took it so personally that a third of the wheat in the world was destroyed by the pain expressed from Rabbi Eliezer. Furthermore, it was Rabbi Eliezer’s pain that brought on the demise of Rabban Gamliel.

What is learned from this?

“All the gates to God have been locked except for the gates of wounded feelings.” (Bava Metziaya 59b)

The grievances of a working class Cambridge cop and a black, public intellectual, once again, opened the gates of wounded feelings, closing temporarily, the gates of the health care debate, the unemployment crisis and the billions of bonuses enjoyed by bloated deadbeat bankers. Instead, the nation’s attention is preoccupied with the drinking habits of our nation’s leaders as the media plumbs the socio-economic subtext of an arrest that shouldn’t have happened.

The Mishnah in Perek Hazahav in Bava Metziya reminds us how devastating hurt feelings can be. The myth of “sticks and stones” is not something that ever made sense in Jewish tradition. Hurting someone with language is as tangible as cheating them financially. As the Mishnah states:

“Just as one can cheat a person in financial transactions, so too, one can cheat him with language alone.”

For a look at some of the relevant verses, and the Mishnah that unpacks the potential destructive nature of language, click here.


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