By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman
Yevamos 121 – Roll With the Punches
As an illustration of the halacha that a man cannot automatically be assumed dead if he was lost in an “endless” body of water, the Gemara brings the following maaseh.
Rabban Gamliel was traveling by boat. He saw another boat not far from his own that suddenly broke apart and was swallowed up by the endless waters of the sea. “I was so distraught,” said Rabban Gamliel, “because Rabi Akiva was on that boat!” However, when Rabban Gamliel returned to terra firma, who appeared before him to learn in the Beis Medrash? Rabi Akiva! “I said to him,” continued Rabban Gamliel, “my son, who extracted you [from the sea]?” Rabi Akiva’s answer was as simple as it was astounding, “I came across a piece of wood from the boat [and held onto it], and with every wave that came over me I lowered my head [so that it would just pass me over and not drown me].”
Chazal formulated this behavior of Rabi Akiva into an overarching principle in life: “From here the Chachamim said, if reshaim come upon a person, he should lower his head to them.” Rashi explains this advice in this way: “He should allow the moment to push him aside and not start up with them.” In modern parlance, we would probably call this rolling with the punches.
When I was a teenager I took martial arts for a number of years (no, I do not still practice it). One lesson, my instructor told me to just stand in place when he suddenly delivered a sharp shove to my chest. What happened is that I automatically resisted the push by stiffening my body and bearing down in my place. So, what do you think happened? Of course, the full brunt of the force of the push caused me to almost tip over. “That,” explained my instructor, “is what most people instinctively do when met with a blow, and is the exact wrong thing to do.”
He told me to give him the same type of shove. I did, and the way he reacted to it was very interesting. Instead of effectively pushing back by stiffening his body, he did the opposite. He allowed his shoulder and chest to roll backwards with the force of the push, thereby making the latter practically ineffectual at causing him any harm. “When you roll your shoulder with the impact,” elaborated my instructor, “you are effectively making it that the force of the blow cannot hurt you. Instead, it just kind of rolls past you.”
Don’t misunderstand. Long before that lesson I had learned many maneuvers to block punches and kicks from ever arriving at their intended destination. Obviously, if it is possible to prevent the strike from ever getting to you, that is optimal. Sometimes, though, a hit does get through. Maybe you didn’t manage to block it in time, or it was too sudden to predict. Whatever the reason may be, even someone who is expertly trained in martial arts has to be prepared for the inevitable eventuality that sometimes a blow will manage to penetrate even your best defenses. And when that happens, you have to know what the best way is to deal with it.
People, perhaps men in particular, have a very strong tendency to resist being stepped on or pushed around. When threatened, the automatic, knee-jerk response can be to bear down, stiffen up and enter into a full-fledged stand-off with whatever or whomever it is that we perceive is the enemy in the given moment. What we see from the Gemara about Rabi Akiva, though, is that doing so is more likely to have us drown then prevail. Rabi Akiva, phenomenal genius that he was, immediately realized that if he tries to fight the waves, they will quickly overtake him and his life will come to a close in short order. So what did he do? He submitted to the force of the waves. He bowed his head, as if to express both figuratively and literally, “Ok, waves, you are stronger than me. I give in. I will move out of the way for you and allow you to step on me.”
Rabi Akiva rolled with the waves, and from him we learn how important it is to roll with the punches.
Applying the Rabi Akiva approach with one’s fellow man does require one to take a bit of a blow to the ego. But it can save your life and is therefore well worth the trade-off. Sometimes it can be a matter of saving your physical life in the most literal sense. If you’re chas v’shalom held up in a dark alley, for example, and faced with that classic line, “Your money or your life”, you don’t start playing games and hemming and hawing. You accept the fact that at this moment an extremely threatening wave is crashing at you full force and the only way to deal with it is to submit to it. Bow your head and hand over your wallet. Immediately.
And sometimes it can be a matter of sparing yourself from ruin. One time, terrible reshaim publicized extremely disparaging words about the Brisker Rav. The Rav adamantly insisted to all who would listen to him that no response whatsoever should be published. For everyone else, this was a serious conundrum because the kavod of the Gadol Ha’Dor was at stake, and how could they just remain silent? From the Rav’s point of view, though, it was simple that the best way to deal with it is to just not do anything at all. It can only cause more harm than good.
Throughout life, most of us face numerous confrontations from time to time. Some of them quite serious. If we can somehow manage to block attacks before they get to us and without causing collateral damage, great. But that isn’t always possible. And when that happens, it is extremely worthwhile to always remember the lesson we learn from Rabi Akiva, “If reshaim are coming upon a person, he should bow his head to them.” Roll with the punches. It can save your life.
Rabbi Yehoshua Berman serves as the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Reshet HaDaf in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. In addition to having authored Reflections on the Parsha, Rabbi Berman regularly delivers shiurim on Halacha and Hashkafa, writes comprehensive chazara questions (in Hebrew) for the advanced Daf Yomi learner, and weekly words of inspiration from the Parsha. Rabbi Berman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.