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R. Abba had been wronged by R. Yirmiyahu. [R. Yirmiyahu] went and sat at the entrance to [the house of] R. Abba. As [R. Yirmiyahu’s] maid was throwing out [waste] water, some drops landed on [R. Yirmiyahu’s] head. He said: “They have made a trash heap of me.” He recited the following concerning himself: From the trash heaps, [God] raises the destitute (Psalm 113:7). R. Abba heard and came outside to greet him. He said to [R. Yirmiyahu]: Now I need to appease you, as it is written, Go humble yourself that your neighbor be superior (Proverbs 6:3).
Our lives are a web of relationships with family, neighbors, colleagues, co-workers, members of our many social circles and communities—and of course with God. The quality of our lives and our emotional well being is often a function of the health of these many relationships. When an important relationship goes awry, we feel as if our lives are off-kilter, out of balance. We’ve all been on the receiving end of hurtful words that are insulting, insensitive, even unconscionable. Sometimes they were uttered intentionally, the product of animosity or resentment. Sometimes the speaker simply didn’t realize that his or her words were like missiles entering our psyches. Words can hurt, and hurt deeply. Perhaps, as you read this, you can recall something someone said long ago that continues to cause a twinge of pain, or maybe you are aware of the echo of the former pain. On the other side of the ledger, consider the verbal missiles you have launched—whether intentional or inadvertent—that have delivered a fuselage of emotional pain. In TMT #2 we saw that R. Yitzhak want us to use the High Holy Day season with its deadline of Yom Kippur to set to right relationships that have been damaged not only by material wrongs, but also by such verbal missiles.
Teshuvah (repentance) affords us a corrective. The Rabbis give us a formula for teshuvah. Part of the magic of the High Holy Days is that it additionally provides a structure: (1) A deadline for apologizing—Yom Kippur; (2) A communal structure for apologizing—everyone’s doing at the same time; and (3) A spiritual narrative—this is sacred work. But in some cases, the structure isn’t the only solution.
Our story is a brief play in three scenes. In Scene 1, R. Yirmiyahu sets out to do what the Rabbis would have him do: He visits R. Abba to apologize for wronging him.
In Scene 2, while sitting and waiting for R. Abba to emerge from his house, R. Abba’s maid appears and dumps out waste water. This is essentially sewage, and just like in any good sitcom, as she carelessly and mindlessly dumps out her bucket, some splashes on R. Yirmiyahu, whom she somehow has not noticed. R. Yirmiyahu’s response is fascinating. In what tone of voice does he declare, “They have made a trash heap of me”? Is he angry and insulted? Is he laughing at the irony of the mishap and thinking, “Well, this is appropriate payback for what I did to R. Abba.” He chooses a verse from Psalm 113 with which to frame the experience: From the trash heaps, [God] raises the destitute, signaling that he chooses to rise from the uncomfortable, awkward, unpleasant experience without regarding it as an insult. It happened, it’s over. If initially he found humor in the incident, the verse is a clever reflection of the irony he felt. If initially he was angry about having sewage splatter on him, he has quickly “risen above” his anger; this in itself is an act of forgiveness and he is doing precisely what he came to ask R. Abba to do. In either case, it is a beautiful expression of his choice not to be offended.
In Scene 3, R. Abba finally emerges and realizes precisely what has transpired. Perhaps what has happened is the physical embodiment of what he was feeling toward R. Yirmiyahu? In any case, it somehow “evens the score.” All is forgiven as R. Abba notes that perhaps now he needs to apologize to R. Yirmiyahu.
Something unexpected, unpleasant happened here—foul water was splashed on R. Yirmiyahu. It could have made the situation far worse. Imagine R. Yirmiyahu becoming enraged and shouting, “I come here to apologize and reconcile, but you have your maid dump sewage on me, treating me like refuse!” Instead, the opposite happens. Both rabbis want to reconcile and use the unexpected event as the means to do so.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- What role do you think “evening the score” had in the reconciliation of R. Abba and R. Yirmiyahu? Do you think it was necessary? Would they have managed to reconcile had the maid not come out at that moment and splashed dirty water on R. Yirmiyahu?
- We have no evidence that R. Yirmiyahu even apologized to R. Abba. It seems he never used the Rabbis’ formula for teshuvah. Something unexpected happened and he latched onto it as an opportunity. Has this ever happened to you? Could you respond to the situation as R. Yirmiyahu did?
- Whether R. Yirmiyahu’s initial reaction to being splattered with foul water was anger or laughter, the verse he quotes—Psalm 113:7—shows us that he invoked great humility, and not an inconsiderable sense of humor. Humility and humor are wonderful attributes that can carry us far in our relationships and interactions with other people. How have humility and humor served you in your life?
Genuine humility says, “I am capable of doing much more,
and therefore I must.” —Rabbi Eliyakim Krumbein