Thursday, April 29, 2010

Standing Up for G-d

Let me tell you a story, something that happened a few weeks ago and ask you what you think. There is a busy professional office here in Yerushalayim where all the employees are dati, many Haredi. Every few weeks a man comes in to bring supplies for the office. He is chiloni. The office keeps hot water and coffee for its guests and workers. One day he came in and the secretary offered him some coffee. Knowing he was not observant, and being haredi herself she said to him, "Yosef let me make a cup of coffee for you...But only if you agree to make a brachah!" Yosef declined saying he did not feel authentic doing that. She then took back her offer and never made him the coffee.

I tell you this story as a backdrop for a question that troubled me in this weeks parsah of Emor.
At the end of the reading, the Torah tells us one of the few stories in the book of Vayikra, the story of the blasphemer. There the Torah tells us that the People of Israel did not know what to do with the man who committed such a heinous offence to G-d. They incarcerated him and waited for instructions from Hashem.

Hashem then gave them the laws that apply to one who blasphemes in detail, including that he gets the death penalty by stoning. Indeed the whole community is mandated to participate in the stoning, "veragmu oto kal haeida".

Along with the laws of the blasphemer, of immediate import to the waiting Israelites, G-d told them other laws. He again told them that killing another person incurs the death sentence. Further, He told them, if one causes damages to a person or to his/her animal he is liable for the costs. Rashi points out that though these laws were already stated earlier in the Torah, they are repeated here because they are here more inclusive, adding more categories of liability.

The question we may rightly ask is why are we given the laws of murder and damages here and now? The people were waiting to know how to dispense justice to the blasphemer. Yes, they got the answer to their dilemma. But why all the other laws now? Why was it important they be repeated and at that time?

I posed this question to a friend I go to shiur with most days. Moshe Tzvi said, "Let me look at some meforshim, commentaries". I said, "No, first tell me what you might say. Then look at meforshim". So he did. And he had a very meaningful explanation, at least to me. Moshe Tzvi said that perhaps Hashem gave these laws here, while the People waited to expedite the sentence of the blasphemer, because it was important that even in carrying out the law, requiring them to stone the offender, the People must not lose sensitivity to the humanity of others.
Yes, they needed to kill the blasphemer. They needed to defend the honor of Hashem. And they all needed to participate in the horrific act of stoning a human being. But even in doing that, they need be careful to not let the kanaut, the zealotry for the honor of G-d cause them to over-ride the care and respect for people and their property.

In fact the Baal Haturim gives a similar response. He saw the law of stoning the blasphemer and protecting the well being of Israelite as related. He quotes the Gemara that teaches anyone who strikes a Jew on the cheek is as if he blasphemed Hashem Himself.

So what does it all mean. Essentially what we are being taught here is that one cannot use their devotion to Hashem as an excuse to in any way compromise one's relationship to His children. Being devout in the mitzvot bein adam lamakom, between man and G-d, does not give license to take liberties in the mitzvot bein adam l'chaveiro, between man and his fellow man. It matters as much to Hashem if we kill or damage another as if we offend Him.

Its hard to overstate the importance of that idea. So often we who are medakdek, meticulous in observing halacha take license with lashon hara, speaking badly of another, especially one less observant. Or we may feel that its all right to harshly criticize someone, even publicly, who is not keeping the Torah in the way its supposed to be kept. We put-down others who we deem less committed than we are. And sometimes we ridicule those who are more observant than us or differently observant. All these things and more we justify because of the intensity of our observance.

Yet the Torah in this weeks parsha is clear. Stone the blasphemer. That's the law. But don't use that as an excuse to take lightly the care and concern for every Jew, especially those who don't live in accord with the standards the Torah sets. Except in the extra-ordinary situation (like the blasphemer), one needs to always care and protect our fellow Jew and his/her well being. That's why the practical laws of the blasphemer and the general laws of damages are given together. Indeed the laws of care and protection are even expanded upon here and made more inclusive than the first time they were given in the Torah.

So what about our secretary in the story with which we opened. Was she right to decline to give her fellow Jew coffee unless he made a bracha? The question may be a halachic one. And one may have his/her opinion. But one thing is clear. If she really felt that holding up the honor of Hashem meant she needed to decline and not do a hesed for Yosef, she at least needed to feel bad about it, and not triumphant! It is not enough to stand up for G-d without feeling the yearning to care for His children, even if in a certain situation the one puts us in conflict with the other.

No amount of spiritual devotion should ever compromise our compassion. On the contrary, genuine spirituality will make us more loving even to the least deserving. And in that real spirituality may be measured!

Shabbat Shalom

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