middot truth stories holding back

holding back

Written by  rebbetzin malkah

art-holdingback"Who are they," he [Herod the Great] said, "who teach, 'From the midst of thy brethren thou shalt set up a king over thee, [stressing the word ‘brethren’]?' The Rabbis!"

He[Herod] therefore arose and killed all the Rabbis, sparing, however, Baba b. Buta, that he might take counsel of him.

He placed on his [Baba b. Buta] head a garland of hedgehog bristles and put out his eyes.

One day he [Herod] came and sat before him and said: "See, Sir, what this wicked slave [Herod] does."

"What do you want me to do to him," replied Baba b. Buta.

He said: "I want you to curse him."

He replied with the verse, "Even in thy thoughts thou shouldst not curse a king."

Said Herod to him: "But this is no king."

He replied: "Even though he be only a rich man, it is written, 'And in thy bedchamber do not curse the rich' and be he no more than a prince, it is written, 'A prince among thy people thou shalt not curse.'"

Said Herod to him: "This applies only to one who acts as one of ‘thy people’, but this man does not act as one of thy people."

He said: "I am afraid of him."

But, said Herod, "There is no one who can go and tell him, since we two are quite alone."

He replied: "For a bird of the heaven shall carry the voice and that which hath wings shall tell the matter."

Herod then said: "I am Herod. Had I known that the Rabbis were so circumspect, l should not have killed them. Now tell me what amends I can make."

He replied: "As you have extinguished the light of the world, [for so the Rabbis are called] as it is written, 'For the commandment is a light and the Torah a lamp',go now and attend to the light of the world [which is the Temple, of which] it is written, 'And all the nations become enlightened by it.'"

Some report that Baba b. Buta answered him thus: "As you have blinded the eye of the world, [for so the Rabbis are called] as it is written, if it be done unwittingly by the eyes of the congregation, go now and attend to the eye of the world, [which is the Temple] as it is written, 'I will profane my sanctuary, the pride of your power, the delight of your eyes.

Herod replied: "I am afraid of the Government [of Rome]."

He said: "Send an envoy, and let him take a year on the way and stay in Rome a year and take a year coming back, and in the meantime you can pull down the Temple and rebuild it."

He[Herod] did so...    It used to be said: He who has not seen the Temple of Herod has never seen a beautiful building.  --Talmud, Bava Basra, 3a-4b

This story is amazing in that like David did when King Saul entered the cave, Bava Basra did not take the king's life (David could have by taken the king by knife, Bava Batra could have taken him by words.)

This story, however, perhaps needs some distilling.  Herod, a most unpredictable and complex king, found reason to slay 300 Torah scholars (rabbis) during his time.  Either due to paranoia or personal conflict, he found that these scholars should be taken out of commission (even Hyrcanus the High Priest) permanently except for Sameas (also known as Baba ben Buta).  He kept Baba ben Buta as his only counsel, albeit after he blinded him. This may have been what the Talmud Bavli Bava Batra was referring to when it said that he had all the rabbis murdered--all the rabbis of the Sanhedrin. Perhaps the person Josephus refers to as Sameas was Bava ben Butra himself, as the Talmud relates. Amazingly, the Hebrew word samea means blind.

As Herod slips into another paranoid, guilty cycle, he seeks to find out what Baba ben Butra thinks of him. He dons poor man's clothes and approaches Bava ben Butra in this guise.  He questions him continually, hoping that Baba will slander him as king.  But alas, Baba ben Butra is faithful, noble and does not slander.  Perhaps he wishes deep down inside himself to speak of what the king is or isn't, but he doesn't reveal this truth.  Instead, he shows honor and holds back.  It is then that Herod reveals himself in tremendous guilt and repents for having killed the rabbis.

As a way for Herod to make shuva for having killed the rabbis and snuffing out the light of Torah, Baba ben Butra (according to the Talmud, Bava Basra) tells Herod to rebuild the Temple.  Indeed, it is glorious and an honor to Hashem, and no one has seen a beautiful building unless they have seen the building of Herod.

do we have such restraint

What is so challenging about this story is Baba ben Butra's amazing restraint.  He was supposedly blinded, lived through his peers being slaughtered, and yet he had nothing defaming to say about King Herod.  What is it about Baba ben Butra that makes him a tzadik?  Even though he could have spoken truth, he chose to keep the name of the king high, though he understands not the reasoning behind the king's actions. How many of us would act with such nobility? What did Baba have to lose?  He already lost his sight.  Death might have been a welcomed act considering he had to live through the horror of losing 300 peers.  However, whether we agree with his decision to not slander the king, the one result that stands out as righteous is this:  King Herod repented of his transgression and brought glory to the Temple and Hashem because of it.  While 300 worlds might have been lost, we can't imagine how many were born due to the restoration and beautification of the Temple.  One right doesn't make up for 300 lives, but certainly God looks favorably upon the building of His Holy place.

the duel of silence and truth

This story speaks to us of hidden possibilities shrouded in the most mysterious situations.  Who would have thought that the beautification of the Temple would come about after the massacre of 300 rabbis?  While we try to implore logic to this world and all its happenings, there is one thing that we can be sure of: speech has power as well as silence.  The middah of truth had to be under restraint; for if Bava had spoken his mind, the outcome would have been very differnt.   Before we speak or choose not to speak, remember that honor is one of the greatest gifts we can give to our fellow man, as well as the ability to make shuvah. Let us not be quick to condemn but rather allow space for return.  Hold back and allow the Divine to shine the light of truth on the ways of all and lead us back — whether or not anyone is deserving of such an honor.

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