Wednesday, December 01, 2004


By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The drama that takes place between Yehuda and Tamar in Parshas Vayeishev is replete with lessons that, if we absorb them fully, could alter some of the most ingrained patterns of our lives.

Tamar was prepared to be burnt alive, rather than embarrass Yehuda. In her eyes, sparing Yehuda humiliation took priority over preserving her own life.

We know that the reason the Torah recounts events for us is not for entertainment value or to offer historical insights, but to teach us the proper way to live.

Yet week after week, we learn the Parshiyos and barely scratch the surface of the story, much less internalize the lessons they are meant to teach us.

The story of Yehuda and Tamar is a powerful example of how sipurei Tanach impart to us profound lessons in how a Jew is to behave. Let us analyze and study some of the sources to uncover this story’s riches.

Rashi points out that this story is the source for the Gemorah in Sotah 10b and Bava Metziah 59a, that teach that it is better for a person to throw himself into a burning furnace than to cause public embarrassment to his friend.

When we learn that Rashi, we recognize the value of the lesson that it’s not nice to embarrass other people. We think, okay, I’ll be more careful next time. When the opportunity presents itself, I will try not to embarrass anyone. We give it a little thought and we go on to the next story and the next Rashi.

We don’t come close to grasping the enormity of what the Gemorah learns from the tale of Yehuda and Tamar.

Tosfos in Sotah asks that if a person is required to jump into fire rather than humiliate another Jew, then it follows that publicly humiliating another person is on par with the three cardinal sins that a Jew must avoid even at the cost of his life— yayhoraig v’al yaavor; why is it then not listed with them.

Tosfos answers that Halbonas Panim –shaming someone publicly—is not included with the cardinal sins of Avodah Zorah, Gilui Arayos and Shefichas Domim, because those three are commandments explicit in the Torah and halbonas ponim is not.

Tosfos takes the Gemorah very literally and rules that publicly humiliating someone is as severe as killing the person.

Rabbeinu Yonah holds like Tosfos, while other Rishonim, such as the Me’iri in Brachos [43a], Sotah [10a], and Kesubos [77b] differ. Their position is that the Gemorah’s intention is to underscore the seriousness of halbonas ponim, while not attaching the same severity to it as to the three cardinal sins.

With regard to publicly shaming a fellow Jew, the Gemorah in Bava Metzia [49b] says that one who is malbin pnei chaveiro berabim, as well as one who is mechaneh shem lechaveiro – someone who calls his fellow by an embarrassing nickname, are both punished with Gehenom.

The Gemorah asks that if calling someone by a nickname he dislikes and embarrassing someone seem to be the same crime, why does the Gemorah list them individually as two separate aveiros?

The Gemorah answers that the case of mechaneh shem refers to an instance when the fellow is accustomed to being called by that name. Rashi explains that even in this case, when the subject has become immune to the name, if the one using it on his fellow Jew intended to embarrass him, the action still falls under the rubric of mechaneh shem lechaveiro and he is punished for the act.

The Maharasha points out the difficulty with Rashi’s explanation of the Gemorah. If the person is not embarrassed and not pained by the nickname, why should the person who used it be punished so severely?

I was discussing this with one of my sons and he astounded me with his explanation of the Gemorah that answered the Maharsha’s question.

He referred me to the Rambam in Peirush Hamishnayos on Perek Cheilek in Sanhedrin, [DH Veatah]. The Rambam states there that the sins of malbin pnei chaveiro, mechaneh shem lechaveiro and mis’kabeid bekalon chaveiro–reveling in someone’s disgrace, even though they may appear to be minor crimes, are symptomatic of a defective soul. Such a soul lacks shlaimus and is not worthy of Olam Habah.

In other words, the reason a person who humiliates others has no share in Olam Habah and is sentenced to Gehenom, is not that he is being punished for his cruelty to his fellow man. It is rather that through his attempted belittlement of his fellow man he demonstrates his own diminutiveness, and as such is not worthy of a share in the world to come.

The Gemorah in Bava Metzia is teaching a profound thought: If one addresses or refers to someone in a way intended to humiliate or degrade him, even if the person is hardened to the ridicule and no longer feels pained by it, the offender has exposed a source of corruption in his soul that forfeits him his share in Olam Habah.

Often we find ourselves speaking to and about people in a derogatory manner which causes them pain and public humiliation, without giving it a second thought. We say things to be cute and sound smart, and someone else pays the price for our display of humor or genius. We think we are scoring points with our great wit, but what we are really doing is displaying for all to see that we have a defect in our own souls.

We now understand Rashi differently. We know now that Rashi is not speaking allegorically when he says it is preferable to throw oneself into a fire than to make fun of someone, but is quoting a Gemorah. Rashi was not exaggerating the severity of causing someone else pain in order to motivate people to take heed. He was conveying the reality of how harshly the act of halbonas ponim is viewed by the Torah. Halbanos panim is literally on par with retzicha.

When we interact with others, when we speak about other people, we must exercise supreme care not to cause anyone pain. To consider another’s feelings is not just a nice thing to do; to address people properly is not just good manners, it defines who we are. If we want to be Bnei Olam Habah, and have a share in the world to come, we have to mend the defects in our souls. We can start by taking other people’s feelings into consideration.

Taking advantage of other people is not the road to getting ahead. Instead, learn the Parsha week by week and internalize its potent lessons.

We must turn to Rashi to clarify those lessons, and to the Gemorah, the Maharsha, the Rambam… and sometimes even to our own children. We have to be tuned in to the right frequency, with an open mind and a receptive soul. That way we can absorb what the Torah wants us to learn, and adapt it to patch up the holes in our psyches and neshomos.

If we spend some serious time thinking about the world to come and planning what we can do to get there, there are so many messages and guideposts along the way to lead us there. May we all be zoche to Shleimus Hanefesh.


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