R' Elazar b'Rebbi Shimon rode his donkey along the riverbanks, traveling from his yeshiva to Migdal G'dor, his hometown. He was extremely happy, and self-assured having learned so much Torah. Suddenly, he met an exceptionally ugly man.[1]

"Shalom alecha, Rebbi," the man greeted R' Elazar b'Rebbi Shimon. R' Elazar b'Rebbi Shimon however, instead of greeting him in return, scolded him.

"You -- good for nothing -- how ugly you are! Are all the people in your town as ugly as you?"

"I don't know," answered the man, "but maybe you'd like to tell the Craftsmen who made me, how ugly is Your work!

R' Elazar b'Rebbi Shimon immediately realized that he had made a bad mistake. He got down from his donkey, and bowed down before the man.

"Please, forgive me," he begged.

"First," answered the man, "tell the Craftsmen who made me, how ugly is Your work. Then I will forgive you!"

The man walked off, with R' Elazar b'Rebbi Shimon tailing humbly after him. They came to Migdal G'dor, R' Elazar b'Rebbi Shimon's hometown. There, many people came out to greet the great scholar. "Shalom alecha, Rebbi, Rebbi, Mori, Mori,"[2] they called.

"Whom are you calling Rebbi, Rebbi," the ugly man asked them.

"The person who walks behind you," they answered.

"If this is a rabbi," he exclaimed, "may there not be too many of them in Yisrael."

"Why do you say this?" they asked.

"Do you know how he treats people?" he answered, and told them the story.

"Even so, forgive him, for he is a Torah giant," the people requested.

"For the sake of this town I will forgive him," the man responded, "as long as he promises never to act like this again."

R' Elazar b'Rebbi Shimon then entered the shul and the people assembled there. "A person needs always to be as flexible as a reed," he taught them, "and not hard like a cedar." This, says the Gemara, is the reason, the common reed is used as a quill to write the Torah, tefillin, and mezuzos.

(Taanis 20a)


[1] The ugliness referred to here is not simply a physical attribute, but rather an inner ugliness, a spiritual ugliness, which R' Elazar b'Rebbi Shimon could see surfacing through.

Some versions of this story read that this was really Eliyahu HaNavi in disguise, coming to rebuke him for his arrogant attitude. Rashi

[2] Mori, translates to my master/teacher.

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