When we think of the word רע – which is often translated as ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ – we generally presume that we are talking about the actions and attitudes of another. For example, today’s daf (Ketubot 46a) quotes Rabbi Natan who asserts that the biblical prooftext teaching us about the punishment given to a defamer is Devarim 23:10 which states: וְנִשְׁמַרְתָּ מִכֹּל דָּבָר רָע – ‘and you should guard yourselves from any דבר (thing) that is רע (bad/evil)’ – where the word דבר is understood to allude to דיבור (spoken word), and the word רע refers to the bad/evil words of the defamer. As such, we learn from this verse that we should protect ourselves from others who are bad or evil.
Yet, as the Gemara then proceeds to note, this verse is interpreted very differently by other scholars – such that Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair – basing himself on the juxtaposition of this verse to Devarim 23:11 – applies it to an individual who ‘should not think improper things by day and become impure at night’. What this means is that, in contrast to Rabbi Natan, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair wishes to teach us that each of us can, at times, think thoughts which fall within the category of רע which should, as best we can, be avoided.
As such, by contrasting these two interpretations, our Gemara comes to remind us that while it is easy for us to label others as being ‘wrong’, it is also important for us to accept that we all have ‘wrong’ thoughts, and that we should do what we can to battle those wrong thoughts so that they do not materialize into wrong actions.
And this is why, as I explained in my commentary to yesterday’s daf, we must engage in the process of ‘Tikkun HaMiddot’ because, as the Vilna Gaon writes in his Even Sheleimah 1:1, כל עבודת השם תלוי בתקון המדות – ‘Our entire service of God depends on [the efforts we make in] the rectifying/repairing of our character traits’.
And by doing so, not only will we be clear to ourselves in identifying and in establishing boundaries regarding those around us whose words or actions are רע, but we will also be able to identify those thoughts and traits within us that we must work on as well.