Here are a few examples:
In the Gemara (Nedarim 66b) the tale is told of Bava ben Buta who was one the greatest of sages. In that period, Aramaic was the spoken language in Eretz Yisroel, but there were many differences between the Babylonian dialect and the Israeli one. One Jew, of Babylonian origin, immigrated to the holy land and married a woman of simple, extremely naïve character.
Two weeks after their wedding, he asked her to prepare him some lentils for lunch. In Babylonian Aramaic, “a few” is referred to as “two”. So, he told her: “Please make me two lentils.” When he arrived home for lunch, he found two lentils on his plate. Literally. When he asked her what that was meant to be, she replied innocently – “…but you asked for two lentils!”
The next day, when he thought of asking her again to prepare him some lentils, he reconsidered. This time… he thought to himself, I shall ask her to prepare me a “griva” (a very large portion). He was certain she wouldn’t go to too much trouble, but would prepare him enough for him to dine on. But when he returned home, he discovered that she had, again, taken him literally and had prepared him a griva — a huge quantity of lentils.
A few days passed and the husband turned to his wife with a new request. He asked for botzini, which mean watermelons in Babylonian Aramaic, but in the dialect of the holy land it meant clay candles (oil holders). When he arrived home at noon, he found two candles resting on the table.
He was quite worked up. These constant glitches in communication were getting on his nerves, so he told her in Aramaic: “Zilei tevrei yathon al reisha d’bava”— go smash them above the entrance. His meaning was that as he has nothing to do with them, she might as well go smash the candles on the doorpost.
His wife tried to understand what he was saying. In her dialect, there was no such word “Bava”. But then she recalled that there was one Rabbi, who served as a Dayan and a judge, called “Bava ben Buta”. The woman went to the courthouse and saw him sitting in on a halachic dispute. She approached him and shattered the clay oil holders on his head..!
Our Sages tell us that instead of getting angry, the Rabbi asked her calmly: “My daughter, why did you do this?” She replied: “This is what my husband told me to do.” He said: “You have done what your husband asked of you, may Hashem grant you two sons like Bava ben Buta.” And, indeed, the two sons she was blessed with grew into two outstanding Torah sages.
What a phenomenal level of character perfection! A Torah sage of great renown, is sitting, immersed in Torah, when a woman appears suddenly and breaks two clay candles on his head. Not only is he not furious, but he strives to understand her motive and even blesses her for her efforts to keep her husband happy!
Another story, from sages of more recent generations, is told of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter.
A young man was interested in studying to become a ritual slaughterer. He knew that obtaining certification from the famous Rabbi could be his entry ticket to an established career. Unfortunately, this same young man didn’t possess a very refined character. He set out on the train to the town of Salant. At the end of his cabin sat a plain, elderly man who was studying from a book. Somewhere along the way, the man asked the elderly Jew to close the window, as the cold air coming in from the outside was disturbing him. Despite the fact that the young man was just as capable of doing so himself, the elderly gentleman rose, closed the window, and returned to his book.
A few minutes later, the young man addressed the elderly gentleman a second time. Now the cabin was too stuffy — could he open the window again? Without another word, the elderly man rose and reopened the window.
Throughout the entire journey the young man troubled the gentleman with his bothersome requests, treating him with an air of utter disrespect.
When they reached their destination, throngs of people were crowding the kerb. All the Jews of the town were waiting for the train to draw in to the station.
Alighting, the young man asked passers-by what they were waiting for, and he was told that their beloved rabbi, Rabbi Yisroel Salanter was returning on this train from his trip to Paris — having travelled to inspire the Jewish community of France. To his great surprise, he discovered that the elderly gentleman whom he had repeatedly inconvenienced was none other than the great Rabbi Yisroel Salanter — the one he wanted to ask for certification!
Over the next few days, he remained cloistered in his hostel, too embarrassed to venture out. After a while, he thought to himself: “The Rabbi is known as a saintly man. If I have come all the way, I should at least approach him and see whether he might agree to provide me with the certificate, despite my behaviour.” When he entered the Rabbi’s study, he burst into tears, and apologized profusely for what had taken place. “I wasn’t aware that you were the honorable Rabbi…”, he said.
“Know then,” replied Rabbi Yisroel. “I already forgave you on the spot. But you, on your part, must take care to work on your middot. Apart from that — is there anything I can help you with?”
“Yes!” he answered, fearfully, “I have come all this way to ask you for certification so that I can work as a ritual slaughterer — a Shochet.”
“Fine. I’ll test you right now.” It didn’t take long for the Rabbi to realize that the young man was a total ignoramus, and didn’t know a thing about shechitah.
The Rabbi turned to a local Torah scholar and asked him to train him. He then made sure that the young man would participate in the Mussar lectures that he gave, so that he grew in character while learning for his desired certification.
Rabbi Yisroel was asked why he didn’t simply send the young man on his way the moment he realized he was so inadequately trained for the job? “It is precisely because of what had taken place between us that I wanted to be sure I harboured no inner resentment toward him and that I was completely clear of prejudice. That is why I did more for him than I would have done for others!”
We see here to what extent the Sages of former generations exerted themselves to free themselves of any trace of flawed character traits.
A story is told of one of the Sages, that when he visited a certain community, he was hosted by the wealthiest resident of the town, who placed a room at his disposal on the top floor. During the night, the Rabbi woke up and felt a sudden craving for some tobacco. He got up to look for his snuffbox and then realized that it was in his cloak’s pocket — which had been left in the lobby on the ground floor. He decided to go down to get it, but waivered. “Am I such a glutton, that I can’t conquer my desire for some snuff? Should I go down all those stairs in the middle of the night, just to get a pinch of tobacco? It’s unnecessary! I’ll go back to sleep!”
He sat back down on his bed, determined to return to sleep, when another thought struck him. “Who can say whether the reason I’m not going downstairs for that tobacco is truly because I wish to conquer my desires. Perhaps it really stems from laziness, and I am just coming up with a whole load of excuses to avoid exerting myself…?”
He rose again, then sat down quickly and asked himself: “But perhaps the notion of laziness is only an excuse I am providing myself with so I can happily surrender to my craving…?”
He continued debating the matter internally for some time, until he decided to act. He left his bed, went down to the first floor and located his snuffbox. He raised it, then put it back down on the table and returned to sleep. This is how he managed to overcome both his craving and his laziness in one fell swoop.
This is the kind of character building that typifies those who have become our leading Torah Sages throughout the generations.
Happy is the man who follows in their footsteps and learns from their ways. The man who manages to sculpt his inner landscape, through toil and grit; who perfects himself in a balanced, precise manner, so that he attains the exact form of excellence Hashem preordained for him — he will be content in this world and the next.
Adapted from ‘Man and His Universe’ by Rabbi Zamir Cohen. Coming to you soon in English