Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Where the Maccabis Are

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Recently, I was standing on the side of a large wedding hall speaking to someone, when a man came charging out of the kitchen bellowing at us to move, stating that we were in the way of the waiters carrying their trays to and from the kitchen.

Like most people, I don’t appreciate being yelled at. I asked the screamer to please speak politely. He became angrier and shouted roughly, “Move! Get out of here!”

“Why do you have to scream?” I asked him. “Couldn’t you just let us know that we’re in someone’s way? We’d be happy to move!”

The man raised his voice even louder, flinging insulting words at us. I tried again, asking him why he was screaming. Why couldn’t he speak like a mentch? Instead of getting a grip on himself, the fellow lost it, hollering so loud that I was afraid he would get violent. We moved away before he totally lost control.

I feel very bad for a guy who apparently reacts to annoyance or inconvenience by shouting at people. I would venture to say that we have all met individuals who fit this description, who think nothing of embarrassing people in public by exploding at them. Imagine going through life making a spectacle of yourself by constantly dumping on others that way.

If these individuals would possess the self-discipline to remain calm in the face of frustration, they could accomplish their goals and at the same time preserve their dignity. They would be healthier physically and emotionally. Even more important, learning to control their anger and treat people with respect would make them better Jews.

The story of Yehudah and Tamar in Parshas Vayeishev has an important message for us on this subject. Tamar was prepared to be burnt alive, rather than embarrass Yehudah. In her eyes, sparing Yehudah from humiliation took priority over preserving her own life.

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

Tosafos in Sotah asks that if one is required to jump into fire rather than humiliate another person, then it follows that publicly humiliating another person is equal to the three aveiros a Jew must avoid even at the cost of his life. It is yeihoreig ve’al yaavor. Why, then, is the sin of humiliating a fellow Jew publicly not listed with the three most severe aveiros?
Tosafos answers that halbonas ponim, shaming someone publicly, is not included in the cardinal sins of avodah zarah, gilui arayos and shefichas domim, because those three are commandments that are explicitly stated in the Torah and halbonas ponim is not.
Tosafos takes the Gemara very literally and rules that publicly humiliating a person 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) argue. Their position is that the Gemara’s intention is to underscore the seriousness of halbonas ponim, while not attaching the same severity to it as to the three cardinal sins.

Whichever view we follow, it’s clear that publicly disgracing a person is regarded by Chazal in the most grave and severe terms.

Yet, this lapse of middos is not uncommon in our interactions. We often find ourselves speaking to people hurtfully in public, sometimes without even realizing what we are doing. We are caught up in the urgency of the moment, and we trample on other people’s feelings without being aware of it.

Being sensitive to other people’s feelings is not merely good manners; it actually defines who we are at our core. One who loses himself and insults others publicly reveals his neshama’s lack of refinement. This is far more serious than a temporary lapse of mentchlichkeit. Without intending it, one may be guilty of committing an act that is equivalent to one of the cardinal sins.

What lies behind the impulse to become incensed with and lash out at others? Often, it’s nothing more complex than feelings of outrage that someone actually has the nerve to oppose me, to show me less than total compliance or submission. In a manner characteristic of little children, we are sometimes blinded by our immediate needs and forget that we are not the center of the universe. Such feelings arise from the egocentric notion that everyone was created to service us.

Chazal therefore say, “Kol hako’eis ke’ilu oveid avodah zarah - One who becomes angry is like one engaged in avodah zarah.” For he has demonstrated that the Torah does not command his devotion. He worships instead his own importance, his own impulses and desires.

Chanukah is a time when we are all on our best behavior. The joy of the day brings those good spirits and good feelings to the surface. As we light the menorah, we usher in eight days of simcha. When we stand before the menorah and perform the same act Jews have been performing for two thousand years, it does something to our soul and touches us in a spontaneous way.

When we utter brachos thanking Hashem for performing miracles for our grandparents, it causes us to revisit our priorities in life and to consider the things in life that are of lasting importance. We suddenly become less petty. Our preoccupation with nonsense shrinks. When a Jew realizes that everything he has comes from Hashem, and all that transpires is ordained by Him, he resists the urge to fume and rant when all is not exactly as he wishes it to be.

The lights of the menorah signify the eternal essence of the Jew and the indomitable power of the Torah. Engaging in the mitzvah of ner Chanukah opens the door to a higher dimension, where one can draw the spiritual strength necessary to rise above frustration and disappointment, and to bend one’s nature to do Hashem’s will.

Our challenge is to maintain that simchah and peace of mind all year round and to always be conscious of the fact that Hashem cares for us and for all of Am Yisroel at all times. Were we to be mindful of that reality and of the fact that mitzvos elevate and brighten our lives, we would more often be besimchah, far less vulnerable to outbursts of anger and irritation.

On Erev Pesach, we use a candle to search for hidden chometz, for Chazal teach that a ner lights up the crevices where chometz may have fallen and remained hidden throughout the year. In the same manner, the ner we light every night of Chanukah in the darkness of golus possesses the ability to penetrate the cracks in our neshamos where melancholy, sadness and anger reside. The tiny flames purge us of the undesirable middos caused by these negative emotions.

Every Jewish heart has the ability to be compassionate, humble and unselfish. One who accomplishes his obligations and fulfills the role for which he was created finds the pachei shemen which light up his life with mitzvos and maasim tovim.

They are the people whose lives make a difference in their own immediate circle and in the broader community. They are the ones who are kind and considerate to their family members and employees, who spend their days and nights raising money for the needy, visiting the sick, supporting Torah, comforting the abused, supporting the ones at risk, and making the world a better place.

They are the Maccabis of every generation, the role models and true heroes worthy of our reverence. They keep the light of Torah and chessed alive. And they prepare the world for Moshiach. May we merit his arrival in our day.


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