How often do we the respect and honor due every single human being. Every one who walks the face of the earth was created in the image of G-d and carries within him the Divine Spark. Therefore, when we insult any human being we are really insulting the Almighty Himself, which is the worst of all sins.
Unfortunately, because we are all fallible, even great men, learned and wise may sometimes slip, so we must always be on our guard. The Talmud illustrates this for us in the following story.
The Ugly Man
Rabi Elazar the son of Rabi Shimon was a great man and scholar. He learned day and night and the fame of his Torah teachings spread throughout the land.
One day, after spending a period of time with his rebbe in the town of Migdal Eder, he took his leave and set off for home. He was in a wonderfully happy mood. His heart was singing and he was joyful as he contemplated weeks spent in Torah and study.
As he rode on his mule along the banks of the lazy river he was filled with pride in his achievements and he pitied the average person who could not learn the wonderful secrets of God’s Torah. In fact, his heart was filled with too much pride.
He soon came alongside a traveler who was walking in the same direction. As Rabi Elazar rode past wrapped in his thoughts, the stranger called out a greeting.
“Peace be unto you, Rabi.”
Rabi Elazar looked down from his mule and perceived that the stranger was truly the ugliest man he had ever seen. Without thinking he answered disdainfully: “How ugly are you! Are all the people of your town as ugly as you?”
The man turned a deep red from shame, and answered, “I do not know about that, but I suggest that you go with your complaint to the One who made me. Yes, I suggest that you go to the Almighty and say: ‘How ugly is the utensil that You have made.’”
Rabi Elazar immediately realized that he had committed a grievous sin. He was a God fearing man and he knew that at all costs he must beg forgiveness.
Jumping down from his mule, Rabi Elazar prostrated himself on the ground before the man and cried, “You have humbled me. I beg of you to forgive me for my foolish words.”
The traveler, however, far from an understanding person, was in no mood to be mollified. He was still too angry and insulted.
“No,” he answered. “I will not forgive you! I will not forgive you till you go back to my Maker and tell him these words: ‘How ugly is the utensil that You have made.’”
It was here that Rabi Elazar showed the greatness that lay within him. Instead of getting on the mule and riding off, he continued walking on foot after the man and humbling himself. All the way he pleaded with the man to forgive him.
The man, however, had a hard heart and refused. Down the long road, all the way to the city, passersby we astonished to see the ugly man followed by the great and famous rav pleading for forgiveness.
Soon they could see the first buildings of the city ahead. The entire population had turned out eagerly to welcome with joy their famous rebbe, returning to teach and guide them.
Imagine their shocked surprise and consternation to see him walking wearily after a simple stranger!
“Welcome Rabi Mori,” they cried out.
The stranger looked at them and asked: “Who is the one whom you call ‘Rabi?’”
“Why, the man who walks behind you,” the people replied. “He is the great Rabi Elazar, the son of Rabi Shimon.”
“If that is a sage,” exclaimed the man, “may there not be many more like him in Israel!”
The people were shocked and angry.
“What do you mean? Why do you say such a terrible thing about a great sage in Israel?”
The man told them the whole story about how he had greeted Rabi Elazar and how the sage had shamed him.
“This is why I said what I did.”
The people, however, said, “We understand why you said what you did but despite that, forgive him for he is a great man of Torah.”
The man thought for a while and finally relented.
“Very well. For your sakes I relent and will forgive him. But I insist on one condition: he never accustom himself to do such a thing again.”
Rabi Elazar immediately entered the Beis Midrash and spoke these words:
“At all times shall a man be as soft as a reed and let him not be as hard as a cedar.”