There were hooligans in R. Meir’s neighborhood who vexed him exceedingly. R Meir prayed for mercy for them—that they should die. Beruriah, R. Meir’s wife, said to him, “How can you think this way, inasmuch as it is written, Let חטאים (sins) cease from the land (Psalm 104:35). Is it written ‘Let חוטאים (sinners) cease from the land’? Rather, it is written [i.e., should be read], ‘חטאים (sins).’ Moreover, go to the end of the verse: And the wicked will be no more [meaning]. [If] transgressions cease, there will no longer be wicked people. Rather, pray for mercy on them that they should repent.” [R. Meir] prayed for mercy for them and they repented.
A certain heretic said to Beruriah, “It is written, Sing, barren woman who has not given birth (Isaiah 54:1).” “She should sing because she has not given birth?! Fool! Go to the end of the verse, where it is written, For the children of the desolate shall be more numerous than the children of the married woman, says Adonai. Rather, what is the meaning of, Sing, barren woman who has not given birth? It means: Sing, Congregation of Israel, which is like a barren woman who did not give birth to children like you who are [destined] for Gehenna.”
Beruriah is a fascinating figure. She is the daughter of sage, married to the prominent sage R. Meir, and a scholar in her own right: Beruriah is said to be capable of learning every day 300 laws from 300 scholars (BT Pesachim 62b). In her interactions with her husband, his students, their neighbors, and heretics, she variously shows herself to be intellectually brilliant, compassionate, patient, sarcastic, and quick witted. We see this range of attributes in the two stories above.
On the previous daf (9b), R. Yehudah b. R Shimon b Pazi says that King David would utter a full-throated “Hallelujah” only when he witnessed the downfall of the wicked. In support, he cites Psalm 104:35, a verse that Beruriah also references: Let sinners cease from the earth, and let the wicked be no more… Beruriah, however uses the verse to transform revenge into something understanding that leads to reconciliation.
The first story exhibits both Beruriah’s intellectual acumen, as well as her emotional intelligence. Her husband, R. Meir, is harassed by neighborhood hooligans. We don’t know if these are local punks and petty thieves or (as some have suggested) heretics who challenge his most deeply cherished beliefs. Whoever they are, their behavior so disturbs R. Meir that he prays for their demise. Beruriah’s response to his anger and pain is both clever and compassionate. She affirms his emotional experience, but appeals to his religious values and identity as a sage as the proper response. She further provides a compelling and reframing scriptural argument to steer R. Meir toward a more appropriate ethical response. Beruriah’s argument hinges on an original reading of the first half of Psalm 104:35, commonly translated, May sinners disappear from the earth and the wicked be no more. The word חטאים was written without vowels at this period in history, allowing Beruriah to legitimately parse it as “sins.” She tells her husband that the proper way to read the verse is: May sins disappear from the earth, and [then] the wicked be no more, teaching us that the proper goal is to seek the demise of sins (not sinners) so that there will no longer be wicked people. Therefore, R. Meir should pray for “sins” to disappear, not for “sinners” to die. R. Meir accepts the moral force of her reframing interpretation of Psalm 104:35; he instead prays (a second time) for mercy for the hooligans. Perhaps seeing R. Meir’s dramatically altered approach to them inspired their repentance and, as a result, they stopped sinning. Curiously, the phrase “R. Meir prayed for mercy for them” appears twice. It appears that the first iteration is might be sarcastic. Mercy is the opposite of what R. Meir initially wished for. Alternatively, the first iteration of “mercy” might be euphemistic, a reflection of how deeply distasteful the Rabbis found R. Meir’s prayer. The second iteration of “prayed for mercy for them” is, in dramatic contrast, genuine. Unlike the first instance, the second is happily effective.
The second story presents another side of Beruriah. Here we taste her sharp tongue and quick wit. The heretic quotes the first half of a verse from the prophet Isaiah that says the Jewish people’s suffering at the hands of Babylonia following the destruction of the First Temple (586 B.C.E.) is metaphorically like the situation of a woman unable to have children. Yet, shockingly she should sing for joy. In her laser-guided retort, Beruriah points out that the remainder of the verse (that the heretic did not quote) upends his argument by assuring Israel that God, the “husband” who seems to have “divorced” his “wife” Israel will, in time, reverse Israel’s present situation. This likely reflects the historical expectation of liberation and restoration that the Persian Empire afforded Israel after it conquered the Babylonian Empire (539 B.C.E.). Once again, Beruriah’s clever interpretation proves its power to reframe, here transforming the heretic’s ridicule and condemnation into God’s hopeful promise to Israel.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Beruriah imaginatively interprets two verses that are key to resolving two difficult situations. Do you find her technique helpful? Have you encountered interpretations of people’s words or deeds that reframed a painful or contentious situation, helping to foster reconciliation?
- Beruriah refocuses R. Meir’s animosity toward the hooligans themselves to a larger concern about the effect of sins in the world. How might you use refocusing constructively in your life? We often experience the words and behavior of others as insults and slights. Consider an example from your own life and how you might reframe it as Beruriah teaches us to do.
- How do you imagine R. Meir’s behavior and communication with the hooligans changed as a result of Beruriah’s teaching? Can you imagine a conversation between them before and after Beruriah’s reframing? Have you ever noted a time when your change in attitude toward someone resulted in a change in their behavior?