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LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP

by Daniel Lasar    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers 2:13) Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel states that one is deemed to be following the proper path when he considers the consequences of his actions.

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In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers 2:13) Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel states that one is deemed to be following the proper path when he considers the consequences of his actions. Perhaps one of the most serious areas of conduct to which we must focus our attention is the avoidance of embarrassing another person. The Torah states, "you shall reprove your fellow and do not bear a sin because of him" (Leviticus 19:17). This may be understood to mean that despite the injunction to rebuke another for his misgivings, one is forbidden to do so in a manner which will cause him public embarrassment.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 11a) relates that one day while giving a lesson in the Beit Midrash (Study Hall), Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi found it difficult to teach because of an odor of garlic that permeated the room, and he asked that the student who had eaten the garlic to leave. The respected Rabbi Chiya, whom the students knew had not eaten the garlic, arose and exited the room. Catching on to the rabbi's strategy, the rest of the students got up and also left. Thus, the person who actually ate the garlic did not have to endure such an embarrassing situation. The following day, Rabbi Yehuda's son rebuked Rabbi Chiya for causing the cessation of the lecture. Rabbi Chiya replied that it would have been a far greater sin to put another person to shame. During another of Rabbi Yehuda's lectures (Talmud Shabbat 3b), one of the students asked a question totally unrelated to the topic at hand. Rabbi Yehuda proceeded to answer the question and then returned to the subject matter of the lecture. Afterwards, Rabbi Chiya explained to the student that by asking such an unexpected question, Rabbi Yehuda could have become confused and been unable to answer properly. This conceivably could have led to the great teacher's embarrassment.

We see a similar idea expressed in this week's Torah portion of Shoftim in which the Torah teaches that in wars designed to expand territory, certain categories of people were excused from fighting. Three general categories are given: Someone who had prepared a new home, but had not yet moved in; one who had planted a new vineyard, but had not yet benefited from its fruit; and a man who was engaged, but had not yet married his wife-to-be. Rashi, an 11th century French commentator, points out that these people are excused from combat because it would be especially tragic for them to be unable to fulfill their plans were they to die in battle, only to have another man take the soldier's house, vineyard, or wife. Ramban, one of the leading Torah scholars of the Middle Ages, explains that the reason these men are sent home is because they would surely be unable to concentrate on the battle, and would thus be counterproductive in warfare.

There is an additional category as well: One who is "fearful and fainthearted". The Talmud (Sotah 44a) quotes two opinions concerning the make-up of this category. The first holds that this refers to the person who is literally afraid of combat. Perhaps his cowardice would be contagious and thereby infect other soldiers, in addition to causing his own unproductiveness. However, another side opines that this category refers to a person who had committed a sin and is concerned that he will not receive Divine protection, or that others may be punished because of his transgression; such a person would hurt the war effort. Rashi and Ramban both point out that this individual was included along with the other three categories so as to prevent his being embarrassed upon returning home. In this way, onlookers would not know for certain if this man was fearful and fainthearted, or simply on his way to inhabit a new home, enjoy his vineyard, or marry his future wife.

We can learn from this the Torah's acute sensitivity towards human feelings -- how much moreso should we carefully scrutinize the potential ramifications of our own actions! It is a grave sin to embarrass another. A thoughtless comment, a simple facial gesture, or a mere change in intonation can all have disastrous consequences. Therefore, it is imperative that we thoroughly explore the consequences of our future conduct by taking into consideration the feelings of those around us.

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Daniel Lasar is a second year student at Emory Law School in Atlanta.

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