A little while back, the people in Karlsruhe, a small city in southwestern Germany, witnessed a scene that left them shocked and horrified. Right in front of their eyes, police pulled a man out of a wheelchair, threw him on the ground, and began striking him! Not only that, but they had a dog frothing at the mouth jumping at them, trying to get at the crippled man from the wheelchair. In this age of technological uber-sophistication it didn’t take long for people to start pulling out cell phones and videotaping the scene. Within minutes the video was being emailed and texted, tweeted and posted, all over Germany by friends, strangers, and news stations alike.
As can be expected, there was quite a backlash from the people who were outraged by what they saw. Some called for a crackdown on police brutality, while others blamed Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany (touted by Forbes magazine as the most powerful woman in the world), for not doing enough to protect the disabled in Germany.
The true story is astounding. A drunk, wheelchair-bound German wheeled himself into a store along with his Border collie. He then set his dog on the people of the store. While his dog was attacking the people, he was verbally abusing them with colorful language, and obloquy, offense, opprobrium, outrage, and odium. Rolling down the aisles of the store in drunken stupor, (and no, he could not roll a straight line), he repeatedly shouted at his dog in French to attack the hapless and innocent bystanders.
(According to Wikipedia, he happened to have just the perfect dog, and I quote: “Border Collies are highly energetic and, as a result, have a tendency towards neurotic or destructive behavior if not given enough to do.” Here we come to a catch-22. This man gave his dog plenty to do, but since it was of the neurotic and destructive nature, does that mean that now the dog has plenty to do, and he will no longer tend to neurotic and destructive behavior???)
A policewoman showed up on the scene and tried to end the fiasco but she too was attacked. By the time police backup arrived, the dog had attacked many people, six of whom had to be hospitalized! To top it all off, when the cops came, this man decided to go down in a blaze of drunken glory, forcing the cops to pull him out of his chair and physically subdue him! By the time this happened there were over 200 bystanders, and some of them were so upset at what appeared to them as police brutality that they began throwing umbrellas at the police!
Now, the 41-year-old man, temporarily wheelchair-bound due to injury, faces prosecution for causing bodily harm, resisting arrest, and verbal slander. The dog was taken to a home. From the Karlsruhe police spokesman, I gleaned this nugget, “Other than that he was drunk, we can’t say what may have motivated the man.” (I think it may have had something to do with unresolved feelings of anger, but hey, what do I know! If you have any other theories please feel free to send them to me and they will be evaluated carefully!)
So what can we learn from this story? The Men of the Great Assembly (a group of 120 Elders, including the last of the prophets and the greatest Torah scholars of the generation, approx 5th century BCE), tell us in Ethics of Our Fathers, “Be deliberate in judgment.” Maimonides, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers and commentators (1135-1204, Middle East), elaborates on this idea. “One who acts irreverently in handing the law, and is quick to hand down a ruling before thoroughly investigating the issue until it is clear as day, is considered a fool, a wicked person, and an arrogant one. This is what in means when the Sages commanded: ‘Be deliberate in judgment.’ ”
Often we make judgments based on our first impressions. This applies to people we meet, events we witness (which are often only parts of a greater event that we did not witness), and things we hear. We use the old Western tactic of, “Shoot first, ask questions later!” Before we even find out someone’s name, we already have an idea of whether we want to befriend them or resent them. Before we even think of the other side’s perspective, we agree with our friend’s side of an argument. We judge people by their looks, their clothes, their cars, and a host of other external factors that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the person, and then we feel that we don’t even need to get to know them, because we already have them, “all figured out.”
During Rabbinical School, I went on a trip to Florida, and had to go to an event. Not having a car of my own in Florida, I borrowed a car from my host. It happened to be a top-of-the-line Jaguar. The funny thing was that I noticed people treating me differently at the event, simply because they saw me drive up in a brand new luxury car. If they would have actually gotten to know me, they would have discovered that I was a teacher living in NYC who could never afford that car, but they had already passed judgment.
This quickness to judge is not only unfair to the people we judge, but also to ourselves. If we stop for a moment and think about all the rash judgments we’ve made, we will notice that the vast majority of them are negative. These judgments preclude us from friendships that are killed before being given a chance. They turn us into irascible people whose default mode is criticism. They also make us arrogant, as we think that we know best, before even investigating a bit further. Lastly, people who see us acting out on our rash deductions deem us foolish, because they know the whole story and see so clearly that we are missing it.
So let’s try to reserve judgment until we look at every angle, examine all the perspectives, and explore every approach. Let’s hold on to our umbrellas, and hold back our criticism until we know the real deal. Oh, and here is my free advice for the week: Stay far away from wheelchair bound drunks with neurotic dogs and unresolved anger!!!
Parsha Dvar Torah
According to American law, if you were to stand at the edge of a pool doing nothing while watching someone drown, you have committed no crime. Even if you stand impassive while he’s screaming for help and there is a life preserver lying by your feet, you could not be prosecuted. The Torah however specifically prohibits this, “You shall not stand idly by the blood (life) of your fellow (Lev. 19:16)” The Torah sees humans as having responsibility for one another, and mandates it as law.
Interestingly, in the next verse, the Torah tells us that we also have a responsibility to help someone who is struggling spiritually. “You shall surely reprove your fellow,” (Lev. 19:17). Not only does the Torah require us to help people who are making moral missteps, but the Torah also gives us clue on how to successfully do so.
“Reprove not a scorner lest he hate you; reprove a wise man and he will love you. (Proverbs 9:8)” Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz, otherwise known as TheShelah (1564-1630 Prague/ Safed), tells us that this verse does not necessarily refer to two different people, but rather to two ways of correcting someone. “Reprove the scorner” means that if you call him a “scorner,” i.e. if you point out his negative habits, he will hate you. “Reprove a wise man” means that you call him “wise” or point out his otherwise good qualities that make his behavior unbecoming, and he will love you!
Some even read this into the continuation of the verse in the Torah that tells us to reprove others: “You shall surely reprove your fellow; [but] you shall not bear a sin on his account.” Reprove someone, but not by bearing down on him with the weight of everything wrong he ever did. One of the people who had the greatest effect on my life was a Rabbi who, regardless of what I was going through, would always point out my best qualities and encourage me to live up to the potential he saw in me.
The Chofetz Chaim (1838-1933) was once traveling throughout Europe to sell his books, when he stopped at a Jewish inn for the night. As he sat in the corner of the dining room waiting for dinner, he saw a sorry sight. A big burly fellow barged in, sat himself down at a table and demanded a huge meal. He was gruff with the waitress, made rude jokes at the people at neighboring tables, and cursed loudly when anyone said something that was not to his liking. When his meal came, he noisily wolfed it down without reciting any blessings, washed it down with a big mug of ale, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
The Chofetz Chaim began approaching him, when the innkeeper intercepted him. “Don’t even attempt to talk to him. That guy was a cantonist, conscripted into the czar’s army at age seven, and he was not let out until twentyfive years later. People have tried to change his ways, but he’s stubborn. It seems he missed the stage of developing his manners or his Judaism.”
Unperturbed, the Chofetz Chaim pulled up a chair and said to him: “Is it true that you were a cantonist, drafted into the czar’s army for 25 years?” The cantonist grunted in affirmation. “You must be such a holy individual! I can’t imagine what it took for you to retain your Jewish identity. Countless times they must have beaten you for not converting to Christianity! You never even had a chance to study Torah and yet you held on! You’ve been through the worst of conditions and yet you stayed strong! I wish I would have the merits you must have! I wish I could have your portion in the World to Come!”
By this time the hardened veteran was crying like a baby, and kissing the hand of the Chofetz Chaim. The Chofetz Chaim continued, “There are just a few things you probably need to work on, but if you could improve in those areas, there would be no one like you!” After this, the man who was previously never affected by the years of people rebuking him became a changed man. For years he remained a close student of the Chofetz Chaim, and truly lived up to his true potential. We may not let people drown, but we don’t help them when we knock them down. The only way to truly help someone is to lift them up and out of their difficult situation!
This week’s parsha, Kedoshim, starts off with G-d telling Moshe to tell the Jews “You shall be holy, for holy am I, Ha-shem your G-d.” I could write volumes on this statement alone but then you would all put me on the “Block- Spam” list so I’ll keep it simple. This is G-d’s way of telling us to stay away from excess even in things that are allowed. Even though there is plenty of kosher wine, and good USDA Grade A Angus steaks, that doesn’t mean that we should sit all day drinking wine and eating steaks. Even within that which is permitted to us, we must learn not to overindulge, not to constantly focus on fulfilling our physical desires as that takes us away from pursuing spiritual growth.
The Torah then enumerates so many fundamental laws that Rashi says that “most of the essentials of the Torah depend on it (this Parsha).” Included in them are keeping Shabbos, honoring your parents, not serving idols, being honest in your dealings with others, paying your workers on time, not giving bad advice, leaving certain parts of your harvest in the field for the poor, not perverting justice in favor of the rich or poor. (O.K. lets take a deep breath and we’ll dive right back in!) The commandment to love your fellow like yourself, the requirement to save your friend from physical harm, and to give him reproach in a way that will save him from spiritual calamity. The prohibition against gossiping, taking revenge, bearing a grudge, and hating your brother in your heart. This portion concludes with the words “I am Ha-shem!” because many of these things cannot be discerned from the outside, such as hating someone in your heart, or giving someone bad advice, so Ha-shem says I am G-d and I know what you’re thinking!
Immediately after the above laws, many of which seem to be moral laws that we as a thinking society would probably institute anyway for the preservation, the Torah brings the laws of Kelaim. Basically, you can’t wear clothes made of wool and linen, you can’t mate two different animal species together, nor plant mixed seeds in your field. These mitzvos seem to have no apparent rationale.
The reason the Torah juxtaposes these two types of commandments is to show us that just like we keep the laws of Kelaim solely because G-d commanded it, so to we should keep the laws that we think are moral solely because G-d commanded it. Human morality is flippant. The “great” Greeks and Romans on whose civilizations our Western world is modeled, killed children on childbirth for the crime of being female and justified it. Some cultures sent elders out into the wilderness to die when they became too old, and justified it. In order for us to be able to really say something is right or wrong, in order to have an absolute morality, it has to come from G-d, who would be the only One who could classify things as right or wrong and everyone would be bound by it. By definition, some parts of it we will understand and some parts we won’t as He is divine and we are human. This is the message of the unfathomable laws of Kelaim coming right after such simple laws as don’t cheat, steal, and take revenge.
The torah continues with more mitzvos including not eating from the fruit of a tree for the first three years, then consecrating its fruit on year four, and only on year five is it yours to enjoy as you please. The prohibition against indulging in sorcery, believing in lucky times, getting tattooed, cutting yourself to show sadness over someone’s death, or totally shaving your head (hence the mitzvah for men to have peyot, or side locks), or of shaving your beard with a razor are also found here. There are some more laws still in this incredible Parsha, but alas, the candle is beginning to dim, and the hour is late, so I’m going to have to sign off here. Let’s try to take one or two of the many lessons in our Parsha and integrate it into our lives, and we will surely find our lives enriched, enlivened, enthused, enervated and energized!
Quote of the Week: Friendship will not stand the strain of very much good advice for very long. – Robert Lynd
Random Fact of the Week: 1995 was the first year Americans used credit cards more than cash.
Funny Line of the Week: Help Wanted – Psychic – you know where to apply.
Have a Tremendous Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham