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Parshas Yisro (5777)

The Lesson of the "Humiliated" Stones

“You shall not ascend with steps upon My altar, so that your nakedness will not be uncovered upon it“ (Exodus 20:23).

Rash”i quotes a Midrash that explains the rationale the Torah gives for the commandment to build a ramp for the Altar in the Tabernacle as opposed to steps:

“Because [as opposed to a ramp] the steps require you to take wide steps. And although this is not actual exposure of nakedness, for it is written, “And make for them linen pants’ (Exodus 28:42) [thus the priests’ private parts are covered anyway], nonetheless, taking wide steps is close to exposing nakedness, and if you take wide steps you are humiliating the stones of the Altar. These words imply an important lesson: Now, if regarding these stones which do not have the perception to care about their humiliation, the Torah says, ‘Since there is need for them, do not treat them in a humiliating manner,’ in the case of your fellow man who is in the image of your Creator – and cares about his humiliation – how much more so must you treat him with sensitivity and respect.”

This is just one of many places where the Torah reminds us of the importance of not humiliating our fellow man. How fortunate are we to have such a Torah which displays such a sensitivity toward the feelings of others!

Many of you are familiar with the Jewish law that the challos (loaves of bread) on the Shabbos table must be covered during the recital of Kiddush over wine. One of the main reasons for this is as follows: Ordinarily, when one plans to eat bread and drink wine, he should first recite the blessing for the bread and eat some bread, and only then recite the blessing for the wine and drink the wine. This is because bread is considered to be more prominent than any other food or drink. On Shabbos, however, we recite Kiddush and drink the wine before eating the challah (i.e. bread). We therefore cover the challah during the recitation of Kiddush, so that the challah should not be “humiliated” when it “sees” us bypass it and give precedence to the wine.

Here, too, it should be obvious that we are not concerned about the “humiliation” of the challah per se. After all, challos don’t have the perception to care about their humiliation. Rather, this law stands as a reminder that if we care about the “feelings” of the challah, how much more so must we be careful not to hurt our fellow human being who does have feelings and cares about his humiliation and embarrassment!

There is no shortage of stories which relate to the actions of Tzaddikim (righteous individuals) whose character traits were guided by the Torah and whose sensitivity to their fellow man was acute.

Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski ZT”L (1863-1940) was a great Torah scholar, leading posek (Halachic authority), and spiritual guide of his generation. He would often spend his summers in Druskenik, a resort town near Vilna, taking long health walks in the forest. Each time he would be accompanied by a group of students and a rabbi seeking his counsel. They were once walking when a young man with a speech impediment came over to ask directions to a certain place. One of those who accompanied Rav Chaim Ozer was about to give the directions, when Rav Chaim Ozer suggested that they walk with the young man instead. It was a not-so-short walk and completely out of their way. The other rabbi asked Rav Chaim Ozer why simply giving the directions would not have sufficed. The sage replied, "That young man has great difficulty speaking. The directions are far from easy to follow. He would therefore have to stop a few more times to ask people for directions. I am sure that as a result of his speech impediment he finds it difficult to ask something of others. By accompanying him to his destination, we made certain that he would not have to ask anybody else for directions."

Wow! What a beautiful illustration of what it means to be sensitive to the needs of others, and to avoid causing them humiliation!

Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ZT”L (1910-1995), one of the greatest Torah scholars and Halachic authorities of our time, married Chaya Rivka Ruchamkin, the daughter of Rabbi Chaim Leib Ruchamkin, in the year 1929. The beautiful relationship that existed between Reb Shlomo Zalman and his wife was revealed by his astounding words at her funeral in 1983: “Although it is customary to ask forgiveness from the deceased,” he said, "I shall not do so. Throughout our entire marriage (54 years!) we never offended or hurt one another. We conducted our lives according to the Torah, and I have no reason to ask her forgiveness."

The truth is that the mitzvah to be sensitive to our fellow man and to avoid causing him embarrassment and humiliation goes even further than we might think. It even applies to dead people, as illustrated in the following true story that was related by the Chasam Sofer:

It was in the time of Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (1555-1631), also known as the Maharsha, a renowned rabbi and Talmudist famous for his commentary ‘Chidushei Halachos’ on the Talmud, during his tenure as rabbi in Ostrow. A certain individual, who was notorious for the evil he had perpetrated, died. This man, albeit Jewish, did not act in a manner becoming a Jew. Nonetheless, as often occurs, he wanted to die as a Jew even if he had not lived as one. As the deceased was being prepared for burial, one young man, a student in the Yeshivah, went over and bopped the deceased on his nose. The members of the Chevra Kadisha (sacred burial society) who were performing the Taharah (washing and purification of the body) had a good laugh. That night, following the burial, the young man who had committed the humiliating act had a dream in which the deceased appeared and summoned him to a Din Torah (“lawsuit”), before the Heavenly Tribunal.

The next morning, the young man spoke to his father and shared his fears with him. His father told him not to worry. It was nothing. The deceased apparently did not agree with the father, because he appeared again - and again, demanding the young man's presence before the Heavenly Tribunal. It reached the point where the young man became gravely ill as a result of the anxiety caused by the recurring dream. He was brought to the Maharsha, who had him go to sleep in his own home, with instructions that the Maharsha be called to his bedside as soon as the dream repeated itself.

A few hours after the young man fell asleep, he awoke screaming, gripped by a deathly fear. The Maharsha was immediately notified. When he arrived at the bed where the shaken young man sat trembling with fear, he immediately asked the "deceased”, "Why are you bothering this young man?" The "deceased" replied that he had been humiliated by him. "But you are a totally wicked person. Your entire life was focused on committing evil. What do you expect from this young man?" the Maharsha asked.

"It is not true. I was not totally evil. I once saw a Jewish scholar fall into the river, and, as he was about to go under, I jumped in and rescued him from certain death. As a result of this incident, we established a relationship and became good friends. I even secretly supported him and his family. Thus, when I arrived in Heaven, I was treated with the utmost respect. Indeed, one would think that I was a devoted Torah sage. No sins were recorded against me, because one who saves a fellow Jew is considered as if he sustained the entire world. Furthermore, since I supported a Talmid Chacham (Torah scholar), I share in his Torah achievements. I am also considered a scholar. Yes, I certainly have the right to demand recompense for the humiliation which I sustained."

The Maharsha thought for a moment and responded. "In truth, while you have achieved tremendous merit, you still have a considerable amount of un-repented sin that must be accounted for. It can neither be ignored nor brushed away. The Satan is waiting with a record of your life of sin and wickedness. He is being blocked from going forward due to the one life that you saved, but Satan is relentless. He will not halt his indictment of you, and he continues to seek some way to "trip you up." If, through your dogged pursuit of revenge against this young man, you cause his death, Satan will come forward clamoring that there is no Middah K'neged Middah (“measure for measure”). True, you saved a life, but you also will have taken a life. They should cancel each other out, and you should have to answer for your sins. Is that what you really want? I suggest that you acquiesce and forgive this young man before your redress claims you as its victim.” The dream ended abruptly and the deceased was never heard from again.

The lesson of this story is compelling. The Heavenly Tribunal was about to summon the soul of this young man prematurely as a result of the minor humiliation he caused to a dead man! How much more careful we should then be concerning the feelings of our fellow men who are still among the living?!

[Sources: Peninim on the Torah by Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum ]

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