Twice in parashat Aharei Mot-Kedoshim (well, actually, just Kedoshim) we are told that we must not insult.
First, we must not “insult the deaf” (Lev. 19:14) and later anyone who “insults his mother or father” shall be put to death (Lev. 20:9)
The Hebrew word that is translated in both cases as “insult” is from the Hebrew root Qof-Lamed-Lamed, קלל , which means (among other things) to be light, trifling, slight. In certain verbal forms it might be thought of as “to treat with contempt.” Another use of the root means a curse, or to curse.
In the case of insulting the deaf (which, in context appears right before “or put a stumbling block before the blind”) the sages argue on exactly what it means to treat a deaf person “lightly.” The Rambam suggests that we may be tempted to succumb to being physically violent with a deaf person when we realize our insults are falling on deaf ears, and that is why we should not curse the deaf. I’ve never been quite sure where Maimonides was going here, because there’s an implicit assumption that there may be times when an insult is acceptable, and I don’t accept that, nor do I believe it is what Judaism teaches us. To help redeem what the Rambam says, you can spin it this way: we shouldn’t put ourselves in a position where we know our words will be ignored, because that will just make us upset, and thus we’re more prone to doing something physically violent. There’s some rather practical sense in that. However, I think it takes a great deal of skill in discernment to know exactly when our words might be ignored by another to such an extent.
Better, for me, are what the Talmudic sages say: that, of course, we should never insult anyone, and they further suggest that we should not assume it is acceptable to curse or insult someone just because they cannot hear what we are saying. It’s another “tree falls in the forest” question, and the sages of the Talmud suggest that whether or not your insults are heard, you have done wrong by uttering them. Maimonides focused on consequences of actions, and the Talmud focuses on the actions themselves, which we should not take. In the end, both viewpoints are about potential hurt – to both the one being insulted and the one doing the insulting. Of course, this hardly makes an insult something that is “light” and trifling. This kind of “light” has heavy implications.
When it comes to insulting our parents, one has to wonder if this is a serious enough offense to warrant a death penalty. Of course, one can spin the translation a bit here as well. With only modest license in Hebrew syntax, you can read the text as saying that one who insults his parents will surely die. In other words, by taking the teaching and instructions of one’s parents lightly, or with disdain or scorn, one is likely to wind up dead. When your parents tell you to not cross against the light and remember to look both ways, and you insult them, by taking their wise advice lightly, you certainly do increase your risk of being run over by a car and killed.
It’s funny that something (insults) which can inflict such hurt on both those who utter them and those who they are uttered about/to comes from a root that means “light.” It’s sort of the opposite of the root kaf-bet-dalet – weight, heaviness – the root of words like kavod – honor, glory. Gravitas, if you will. When we do not show “kavod” to someone, it can be as if we are uttering klalim, curses.
In another orthographic oddity of Hebrew, for qof-lamed-lamed קלל there is another homophonic homonym – kaf-lamed-lamed – כלל. Whereas qof-lamed-lamed means light, kaf-lamed-lamed is a root that means complete, perfect, absolutely, everything, all things. Klal Yisrael, the community of Israel, literally, the whole of Israel or everybody of Israel. Klal, meaning rule or principle. Kol, meaning all or everything. (Interestingly enough, Kol, qof-holem vav-lamed, also from the Qof-Lamed-Lamed root, means voice. So our voice is light or slight – yet this “light” thing is enough to create hurt in others by treating them “lightly” or “insultingly.” All from the same root. Ya gotta love Hebrew.)
(And speaking of loving Hebrew – a brief side diversion here. Reb Nachman’s oft quoted “Life is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is to not fear” ends with the word klal, from the kaf-lamed-lamed root. The last part of the sentence, “v’ha’ikkar lo l’fakheid klal” parses out to “and the principle do not dread is all.” Or “and the principle do not dread is rule.” Or “and the principle do not dread is everything” Or it could be “and the principle is do not dread everything” – though admittedly Nachman would probably have used a different word at the end if he had truly meant to say “everything.” That pesky lack of present tense forms of “to be” just makes it so much fun to guess.
Of course, we could get into the oddities of English. Consider the word “light.” Do we mean “not heavy” or do we mean “that mysterious wave-particle duality our brain perceives when it impacts our eyes” or do we mean a fixture or source that produces light” ? It’s a pretty safe bet, by the way, that light exists, even when it is not perceived, just as sound does when there’s no one around to hear it. And just as insults can hurt, even when hurled at a deaf person. But I digress.)
Insults, when uttered, demean the person who utters them as much as they attempt to demean the person about whom they are uttered. Yet the category of action that the JPS editors and other scholarly bodies translate as “insult” seem to actually represent an entire class of actions – and failures of action. Simply to treat the words and suggestions of another “lightly” is a form of insult. We would all do well to remember this. Far too many conversations these days are “across” each other, rather than true communication-which requires listening and consideration. Yes, a lot of that we can blame on our quest for efficiency, and our over-programmed lives which we believe don’t leave us the time required for each and every interaction and conversation we have with another human being to be fully mutual. In a very Buberian sense, in many of our conversations, the other party with whom we are conversing really is an object to us, an it. Our goal often seems to be to get whatever it is we want from this person in the least amount of time and with the least amount of effort possible. Well, when you put in least effort, you get least result.
Now, I’ll happily admit that I think I might be far less productive in my work if every little encounter and conversation were truly at a level where both parties were listening intently and considering what the other has to say. Yet I ask myself if that is truly the case. Sometimes we look for efficiency in the wrong place – most often assuming it is to be found in the dimension of time. Might it not be just as efficient if we spent our precious time in the precious act of treating every other human being as a human being, and not as an object? Is this not how true community is created? And is not true cooperation among members of a community sort of the ultimate in efficiency? We can be “efficient” and loving/caring at the same time.
Then again, maybe efficiency isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In all things perhaps we need to seek out that “stop and smell the roses” attitude. Imagine if Moshe has been “too busy” to listen to the sage advice offered to him by his father-in-law Yitro, or he only listened with half and ear?
If we accept the idea that taking the thoughts/words/ideas of another lightly, or viewing them as having no import or value is an insult, then I suspect we all spend a lot of time insulting others. Not a good way to live, nor to operate a society. We may think it a matter of small import to not pay full attention to another-but that is, ultimately, a very selfish and self-centered attitude. (Looking at these words ten years later, in our present political circumstances they seem oddly prescient.)
We must remember that while the root of insults may lead us to believe they are matters of treating others lightly, we can’t say that insults do not weigh anything. In deed, they are quite a weighty matter, and they can do a lot of damage. So, giving or receiving, don’t treat insults (and I use the word in its broadest definition here) lightly. Those insults might (hopefully, will) come back to trouble you.
I read my words and thoughts from 2007 again now in 2017 and my head is spinning. I fear that insults have become so commonplace we have started to accept them as normative discourse. We ought not allow this to be the case. Not that I would wish harm to anyone, but there is a certain poetic justice if Insults do come back to trouble and plague those who so callously and willingly dispense them. Additionally, now is a time when we especially might want to not insult others by treating them and their views lightly. If there was ever a time when understanding each other mattered, this is it. We must not stand idly by as insults and invective are hurled about. We should not tolerate hateful speech, bigotry, prejudice, hate against anyone. While the liberal side that I align myself with has been guilty of misuse of speech and abuse through words, including insults, from my perspective the present administration, both in the executive and legislative branches, have lost all restraint and use insult deliberately and purposefully and we must not allow this to ever become normative.
But let’s end on a lighter note. If an insult-er you be, may it be G”d’s will that you won’t have to wait long for the weight of your insults to come back along the way and weigh you down while you’re eating your whey. That was pretty cheesy and I think I’ve milked that enough. (Now go and think about what variant sentences involving “cursing/insulting the whole/everything/all” might sound like in (Biblical) Hebrew. If you’re into altogether amazing alliteration it’s quite fun.)
©2017 (portions ©2007) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on this Parasha: