Friday, April 25, 2014

Cursing The Deaf In A Fit Of Road Rage

Towards the beginning of Parshat Kedoshim we find the prohibition against placing a stumbling block before the blind. Less famous is the beginning of that verse (19:14) “Do not curse the deaf.” There is a difference of opinion as to the meaning of this verse, and why the Torah singled out the deaf for mention in regards to this prohibition.

Ramban suggests that the Torah frames these interpersonal obligations in terms of when it is most likely to be violated. For instance, we are mandated not to oppress any fellow Jew, yet the Torah framed this prohibition in reference to widows, orphans and strangers because they are most vulnerable populations. Similarly, it is prohibited to curse any Jew, and the Torah framed this prohibition in connection with the deaf, because people are more likely to curse the deaf with a sense of impunity.

The Rambam in his Sefer Hamitzvot explains otherwise. He explains that the real reason that cursing someone is prohibited is because of the negative impact that cursing has on the perpetrator. From his rational perspective the Rambam is most concerned about the damage that such behavior has on the person doing the cursing. Speaking is such a way is vile and base, it will turn that person into a coarse and insensitive human being.

We need to keep in mind both of these perspectives. We need to be careful how we treat all people, and be especially sensitive to those who are most vulnerable. At the same time let us remember the Rambam’s perspective the next time we feel like cursing out the driver in front of us in a fit of road rage. That person will not hear what we say, s/he will be deaf to our curse. But such speech and behavior will nonetheless have a negative impact on us- so is it really worth it?

Friday, April 11, 2014

The TWO Factors involved in getting to Carnegie Hall

The beginning of Parshat Acharei Mot describes in detail the intricate Yom Kippur service in the Temple. Part of that service involved two identical goats: one was slaughtered and offered in a normal manner; the other “scape” goat was sent into the wilderness and thrown off a cliff. The Torah states that the Kohen would send the scapegoat out with the “ish iti”.

Rashbam suggests that the word Iti is related to the word “eit”, time or more specifically frequency. The Ish Iti was a person that frequently traveled the wilderness. He knew his way around ad was therefore perfectly suited for the task of leading the goat into the wilderness. 

Rashi quotes the Medrash that the Ish iti was a person designated for this role from before Yom Kippur. The designation is so important that the Talmud (Yoma 66b) states that if the Ish Iti becomes ritually impure, he nonetheless enters the Temple Courtyard to perform his assigned duty.

Perhaps we can combine the two opinions to teach us a lesson that can apply to each of us. Achievement is a combination of preparation and frequent effort. Hashem may give us a certain talent, but it is up to each of us to identify that talent and then cultivate it to our maximum capacity.

Each of us must be an Ish Iti, finding our G-d given talents and then cultivating those talents to the best of our abilities. Just as the Talmud in Yoma seems to indicate, no one can replace us, and if we do not cultivate our talents then not only will we be missing out, but the entire world will be lacking as a result.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Bloody Bird That Gets Away

Our Response to the Misfortune of Others Part 2 
The Bloody Bird That Gets Away

At the beginning of Parshat Metzora we learn about the purification process of the Metzora. One part of the process entails two birds: one is slaughtered and its blood is collected into an earthenware vessel. The second bird is dipped into the blood of the first bird (mixed with a few other ingredients) and then sent free. 

Rashi notes the appropriateness of using birds that chirp in the purification process for a Metzorah, who may have been afflicted due to his slanderous speech. But that is not the only unusual aspect of this ceremony. Why are two birds taken, only for one to be let free? And why is the freedom-bound bird first dipped in its peer’s blood?

To me, this teaches important lessons about how we react to the events around us. When we hear or see people dealing with difficulties, it may be that we can’t do anything to alleviate that suffering. But it nonetheless must impact us. Just like by this bird, seeing the blood of others must leave us bloodied. 

At the very least our flight away from the difficult situation must be combined with empathy. Just as the bloodied bird flees but not before being impacted by its surroundings, so too must we. As humans we are naturally protective of our lives. But our lives are only fully lived if we are not being protective of our humanity as well, which includes empathy for others.