“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” We all know that the words of this common childhood rhyme are hardly true. Words can be far more hurtful than physical assault.
Many parents have advised their children throughout the ages that the best thing to do when being insulted is to not react, because reacting gives the other person a sense of victory. Indeed, the sages expressed the idea of not responding, not just children, but for all people, and saw it as behavior most pleasing to God:
“They who suffer insults but do not inflict them, who hear themselves reviled and do not answer back, who perform [religious precepts] from love and rejoice in chastisement, of such the Scripture says (Judges 5:31), ‘And they that love Him are like the sun when he goes forth in his might’” (Gittin 36b).
No matter one’s age, walking away from an insult is an incredibly difficult thing to do, especially in public. Consequently, one might wonder why the onus for maintaining peace is placed upon the one who has been insulted. The fact of the matter is that embarrassing another person is likened to murder by the sages. (Read more on this subject here.)
As difficult as it is to walk away from an insult, the sages demonstrate that this is an effort that God himself has had to do: “Who is like You [God], mighty in self-restraint, that You heard the blaspheming and insults of that wicked man* and keep silent?” (Gittin 56b). The Talmud supports this statement by quoting Rabbi Ishmael’s reinterpretation of the verse “Who is like you among the gods [elim]?” (Exodus 15:11), as “Who is like thee among the mute [illemim].”
*A reference to Titus, “ This was the wicked Titus who blasphemed and insulted Heaven. What did he do? He took a harlot by the hand and entered the Holy of Holies and spread out a scroll of the Law and committed a sin on it…” (Gittin 56b).