By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman
Kesubos 70 – Same Words, Different Meaning
As far as his wife is concerned, it’s completely straightforward. He has an obligation to provide for her, he caused all the trouble by forbidding her to benefit from him by force of a neder (either when they were still engaged when it could take effect, or in a manner of “use your earnings to provide for yourself”, as the Gemara explains); so, of course, he needs to find a way to deal with this problem. Namely, by making a general announcement – to no-one in particular (see Tosafos) – such as “whoever will provide for my wife will not lose out by doing so”.
But in the case of a regular, old mudar hanaah, person A who took a neder upon himself that he will not get any benefit from person B, it’s a bit more complex. The Gemara cross references this case from Maseches Nedarim, wherein person B wants to help person A – we’ll call them Reuvein and Shimon – because Reuvein does not have what to eat. Or he cannot afford to pay for workers to fix his broken wall, and so on.
So what can Shimon do? He goes to a shopkeeper or masonry expert who knows him well, and says the following, “Reuvein is forbidden to get benefit from me by force of a neder, and I do not know what to do for him!” The shopkeeper or worker gets the point, and – trusting Shimon because he knows him well – goes ahead and provides Reuvein with the service he needs, and then returns to Shimon for payment thereof. Legally, this is allowed because, strictly speaking, it is the shopkeeper or worker who is deciding to help Reuvein of his own volition (it’s similar to the way the heter of a Shabbos Goy works [where the heter is applicable]).
From an ethical point of view, though, one cannot help but be struck by the exceptional magnanimity of the Shimon in such a scenario. After all, if Reuvein made a neder to not get any hanaah from Shimon, not only could Shimon justifiably think, “Well, that’s his problem!”; emotionally, it would make a lot of sense for him to take such a stance, seeing that Reuvein dealt him such a sharp insult. Making a neder to not get benefit from someone is another way of saying – very demonstratively – “I so much cannot stand having anything to do with you!”
And yet, there are such Shimon’s in the world. People who – despite the fault of others’ in having gotten themselves into their own troubles, and despite the thanklessness and maybe even nastiness that they get from them – their focus is one thing and one thing only: how can I help this person? That is the only thing that concerns them.
I remember reading in the Artscroll biography of R’ Moshe Sherer that when he first started getting really involved with klal work, his superior – the legendary Mike Tress – took a momentary leave of his generally jovial demeanor to impart what he considered a very serious message to his new protégé: “When you put your whole self into something and work really hard to help someone, be happy if they do not spit you in the face.”
That was it.
In other words – if I understood the point correctly – if you want to be successful in klal work, do not expect any gratitude. On the contrary, do expect that people will often be upset at you for not doing more, or in the manner they wanted. Consider yourself lucky if you do not get spat upon!
And the stories of the degree to which Mike Tress and Rabbi Sherer extended themselves are the stuff of legends. They didn’t just give it their all, they did much, much more. Way beyond the call of duty. Because helping others and doing for Klal Yisrael was all that mattered to them. Even if someone would have deeply insulted them and put himself into a situation which would make it ostensibly impossible for them to help him, they would find a way to make it work. Because they really cared that much.
It’s hard to avoid thinking that such people are blessed with a particularly sublime soul and born with a propensity to being very giving individuals. Still, maybe there is something we regular people can take out of this – aside from raw inspiration, that is – to help us also take a step in this beautiful direction.
Indeed, perhaps there is.
The manner of expression that the Shimon in the case over there in Nedarim employed is, “Reuvein is mudar hanaah from me, and I do not know what I can do for him.” Note, that he did not say, “Reuvein vowed to not get benefit from me.” Instead, he said, “Reuvein is mudar hanaah from me.” Although that may seem like a slight textual nuance, there actually is a big difference. If you say, “Reuvein took a neder to not get hanaah from me,” you are, to a great extent, focusing on what he did to you. “Mudar hanaah”, on the other hand, is a description of Reuvein’s current situation; just that it so happens that the subject from whom he is mudar hanaah is you. But that is not at all the focus of your statement. It is more like a technical detail that you have no choice but to take into consideration because of your desire to help him and the legal block standing in your way from so doing.
Another way of saying this is, “It is his problem, not mine”.
It’s funny, isn’t it? This is the exact same expression someone could use to justifiably excuse himself from making any attempt at helping Reuvein. “What do you want from me?! Reuvein had the chutzpah to make a neder to not get any hanaah from me, and because of that he is stuck; and now you want me to bend over backwards to help him?! Well, that’s his problem; not mine!”
But from the current vantage point – the Mike Tress and Rabbi Sherer type of point of view – Shimon is employing the exact same words, just that they carry a completely different meaning. “I am not upset at Reuvein for what he did. He is mudar hanaah. It is his problem, not mine.” In other words, instead of feeling insulted and upset over the nasty message Reuvein effectively sent him, Shimon chooses to focus on feeling compassion for Reuvein’s plight. “I don’t know what got into him. Maybe he’s having a really hard time with something in life which caused him to lash out. I don’t know. But, whatever is, I don’t take it personally because I know that it doesn’t reflect at all on me as a person. I just feel bad for him that he could do such a silly thing, and even worse that it has gotten him into such a bind.”
When someone does something or says something that could potentially get our tempers flaring, we have a choice to make. We could take the insult personally – perhaps justifiably so – and be upset and angry about it; or we could choose to focus on how that person must really have a problem if he could do something like that. Whether his problem is inherent or circumstantial. The main thing is that it is his problem, not mine. I just feel so bad for him, and wish there was something I could do to help him (sometimes you can’t). Granted, it really is a tall order to try to adjust our outlook to this form of thinking. But, ultimately, it is the person himself who stands to gain the most from gradually doing so, because his own internal world becomes that much more calm and pleasant. And he becomes so much more compassionate and giving.
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.