Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Dramatic Lessons

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The drama that takes place between Yehuda and Tamar in Parshas Vayeishev carries timeless lessons that, were we to actually absorb them, would transform our dealings with our fellow Jews.

Like all the sipurei Tanach, this drama was not intended for our entertainment, but to spur us to study and grow. The story of Yehuda and Tamar is a paradigm of narratives in Tanach about our forbears that are intended to demonstrate the high level of moral conduct expected of a Jew.

Tamar came close to being burned alive and was spared only when Yehuda admitted, “Tzadkah mimeni.” With the help of Rashi, who draws on the teachings of Chazal, we discover that Tamar was prepared to remain silent rather than embarrass Yehuda, even to the point of taking her secret to the grave. We begin to understand why the story was recorded for posterity, and how it speaks to us in our own day and age.

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

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 arises, I will try not to embarrass anyone.” And then we go on to the next story and the next Rashi.

Shouldn’t we pause for a moment and try to absorb what the Torah is telling us? That a person is better off jumping into a burning fire than causing someone else embarrassment? It’s an amazing concept when you think about it. This is not a metaphor; it’s meant to be taken literally.

If we took it seriously, we would be so much more careful about our interactions with other people. How many times do we poke fun at other people to display our genius? How often are we guilty of turning someone else into the target of our brilliant wit? Yet, here the posuk teaches us that such conduct is reprehensible - so much so that a person should be prepared to end his life rather than bring shame to someone else.

Apparently, we don’t come close to grasping the extent of this teaching.

Tosafos in Sotah asks that if a person is required to jump into fire rather than humiliate someone, 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, then, is this commandment not listed with the others?

Tosafos answers that halbonas ponim, shaming someone publicly, is not included with the cardinal sins of avodah zorah, gilui arayos and shefichas domim, because those three are explicit commandments in the Torah and halbonas ponim is not.

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

Rabbeinu Yonah holds like Tosafos, 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 Metziah (58b) says that one who is malbin pnei chaveiro berabim, as well as one who is mechaneh sheim lechaveiro - someone who calls his fellow by an embarrassing nickname, are both punished with Gehennom and a loss of his share in the World to Come, Olam Habah.

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

The Maharasha points out a 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?

Several years ago, I wrote on this topic and quoted an answer to this question from my son Yitzchok Elchonon.

He referenced the Rambam in Pirush HaMishnayos on Perek Cheilek in Sanhedrin, (D”H Veatah). The Rambam states there that the sins of malbin pnei chaveiro, mechaneh sheim lechaveiro and miskabeid bekalon chaveiro - reveling in someone’s disgrace, though they may appear to be minor crimes, are symptomatic of a defective soul. Such a soul lacks sheleimus 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 Gehennom is not merely a punishment for his cruelty to his fellow man. Rather, through his attempted belittlement of his fellow man, he reveals his own degenerate character, and as such is not worthy of a share in the World to Come.

The Gemorah in Bava Metziah 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.

With this in mind, perhaps we can understand the p’sak of the Rambam that there is a prohibition to be malbin pnei koton, embarrass a minor. Even though the target of your ridicule is but a child, the fact that you derive pleasure from mocking him indicates a flaw in your soul.

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 self-promoting behavior. 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 that 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 ponim is literally on par with retzichah.

To consider another’s feelings is not just a nice way to behave. 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.

The ends don’t justify the means, although we make all kinds of cheshbonos to justify our actions. Often, people do what they know to be incorrect, justifying it as necessary in order to pursue a higher goal, such as to generate support for Torah or for a specific organizational cause. They fall back on flimsy rationalizations. They say they will only do it “this one time.” They say it’s not really so wrong; they say it brings in money for the institution. They say a lot of things, trying to legitimize their actions. It might sound convincing to some people; it might even sound convincing to themselves. But they are wrong.

In truth, one’s purpose in this world is not to win a popularity contest; a person’s scorecard in the game of life is determined by what he is prepared to suffer for. If someone is ready to sacrifice himself in order to do what is right, if he is prepared to relinquish gains even though it means sustaining losses, that is the measure of success.

If earning the respect of other people through honesty means is more important to a person than being admired and loved, that person will succeed in gaining immortality through his actions. If you can put your negios aside and break your own tendency toward arrogance, then you are deserving of being the grandmother of Moshiach.

If you cut corners and play games with the truth, then you may look as if you’ve come out ahead, but it will only be fleeting and temporary. Some flashes of honor and attention may come your way, but none of it will last.

How can one climb to success on the back of his fellow human beings without a pang of conscience? How can he sleep at night knowing that his success is tied to someone else’s pain?

Taking advantage of other people is not the way to get ahead and stay ahead. We get ahead by plumbing the depths of the parsha week after week and internalizing its potent lessons. Rashi and the Rishonim clarify those lessons for us, as do the Gemorah, Tosafos, the Maharsha, the Rambam…and sometimes even our own children.

The language the Gemorah uses in its exposition of Tamar’s righteous behavior is interesting. Chazal say, “Noach lo l’adam l’hapil es atzmo…” I spent a lot of time wondering about the use of the word noach, which means that it is good for a person to conduct himself this way. Shouldn’t it rather say, “Chayov adam” - that a person is obligated to behave in this way, to throw himself into a fire rather than cause someone embarrassment?

Perhaps the answer is that it is, indeed, noach, good, for a person to behave in this manner. If a person wants to be an adam, if he or she wants to accomplish something real and lasting with their life, he or she won’t succeed if their actions involve hurting someone else. Their motives and efforts have to be pure if the achievement is to endure.

One is indeed obligated to make certain his actions won’t cause pain or embarrassment to others, but such conduct is also noach lo, it is beneficial to the person himself. It is noach lo and noach l’olam, good for the person and good for the world, to be prepared to pay the ultimate price rather than bring discredit and dishonor upon an innocent person.

Rav Shach quotes the Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 85:10-11) which states that in her remarks, Tamar was speaking with ruach hakodesh and was referring to the malchus, Sanhedrin and Moshiach, which would eventually be born out of her union with Yehuda. He makes the point that, in other words, Tamar was hinting that were she to be put to death, with her would also go up in flames Dovid Hamelech, the Sanhedrin and ultimately Moshiach himself. She was prepared to forgo all of these spiritual merits if they came at the price of embarrassing Yehuda.

It is unlikely that we will ever be called upon to pay the price that Tamar came close to paying, but nonetheless we should all remember the lesson she taught us. We should know that if what we are doing is not pure and will afflict agony or aguish upon someone, we shouldn’t do it. If we are prepared to forgo fleeting fame and success in order to preserve the dignity of our friends, in the end we will be eternally blessed and remembered with respect.

The memories of those who choose expedience over ehrlichkeit will be long forgotten in the ash heap of history along with their ill-gotten gains.


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