“That person is a murderer — he’s going to kill dozens of people, if not more!”
“Well, that other person is a moiser! How dare he?”
Rav Shmuel Brudny, zt’l, a rosh yeshiva in the Mirrer Yeshiva in Brooklyn, once explained an essential difference between Chanukah and Purim. He asked why Purim achieved a higher status in terms of spirituality than Chanukah did. Rav Brudny answered, “On Purim, upon which it is stated, ‘Lech knos es kol haYehudim — go and gather all the Jews,’ we demonstrated achdus. Esther gave a message to Mordechai that all the Jews should gather and daven and fast, to assist in nullifying the horrible decree. Klal Yisrael demonstrated achdus. On Chanukah, however, there were many misyavnim, and we were missing this crucial component — we had no achdus.”
Ever since Sefer Bereishis, we, the Jewish people, have always utilized and interpreted tragic events as a means toward introspection. We have questioned why things are happening and what it is that Hashem wants of us.
This column is not going to be about “wearing the mask” or “not wearing the mask.” It will not discuss shuls with “mask sections” and “no mask sections.” It is not going to be about who is right or wrong regarding when to go back to the “normal” we once had.
Rather, it will discuss the nature of our discourse — how we speak about each other.
The term “gadlus ha’adam,” the greatness of man, means that, spiritually, we are on a higher plane than the angels themselves. When the Slabodka Yeshiva first opened its doors in the yeshiva in Chevron, the Alter of Slabodka said as follows: “With our feet, we have already entered the aron ha’kodesh, the palace of the King. Our task now, however, is to remove our minds and hearts from the garbage bin in which they are now situated and to bring them as well into the aron kodesh.”
If this was true in 1924, it is certainly true now, almost a century later.
Murderer? Moiser? To our shock and horror, the two beginning statements were actually declarations by people who were too caught up in the heat of things. They were said about remarkable people — tzaddikim, in fact. And they are terribly wrong. Perhaps the whole reason for this terrible pandemic is to get us to realize that we must stop talking about others in such horribly derogatory terms.
The Gemara in Bava Metzia (58b) states that all the people who descend to Gehinnom arise from there with the exception of three kinds: adulterers; those who affix a pejorative name to another; and one who embarrasses his friend in public. These three never arise. This halachah is stated in Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 228:5) and is nogei’ah, practically applicable. In this case those who made those statements may be violating two out of the three, chalilah, depending upon how public they were when they made the statements.
The Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 3:14) lists these as one of the 24 categories of people that have no share in the World to Come.
In this case, two tzaddikim, whose lives are entirely defined by the chesed and avodas Hashem that they do, have taken positions on opposite poles of each other. To call them murderers and mosrim is a violation of the fundamentals of our Torah and is something that people on both sides of the spectrum have to do teshuvah for.
The holy Chida, in his commentary on Chumash (Parashas Yisro), writes concerning the commandment of “lo sirtzach” as follows:
“It appears in the eyes of the masses that they are innocent of this transgression… [This is not the case, however.] One who embarrasses his friend in public spills his blood…”
Calling someone a murderer or a moiser is also the ultimate insult or embarrassment. Rabbeinu Yonah in his Sha’arei Teshuvah (3:139) explains that embarrassing someone is abizreihu of murdering. He refers to the incident of Tamar and Yehuda and explains that Tamar preferred to be burned with fire rather than embarrass Yehuda publicly. He implies that this is an actual halachah.
Rabbeinu Yonah, citing the Gemara in Bava Metziah 59a, states, “L’olam yapil adam es atzmo l’kivshan ha’aish v’al yalbin pnei chaveiro b’rabim — always, a person should throw himself into a pit of fire rather than embarrass his friend in public.”
We may think that the person is mistaken in his or her take on how to react to the COVID pandemic. But before we label someone a “moiser,” we must ask ourselves the following question. Imagine we are living not in tolerant 21st-century America but in the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth of the 1600s. A Jew engages in counterfeiting local currency. And then someone states that it is permitted to turn in the counterfeiters to the authorities.
Is that person a moiser? Be careful of what you say. Because if you said, “yes” then you have just labeled the Turei Zahav, Rav Dovid HaLevi Segal, one of the gedolei haAcharonim, by that label. And here person number #2 discussed above felt that opening up during COVID, whether he was right or wrong, endangered Jewish life. Heaven forbid that we should label such a person a moiser. It is something for which one must certainly do teshuvah.
The text in our Gemaras (both B.M. 59a and Sotah 10b) is different than that which Rabbeinu Yonah quotes. Our text states, “Noach lo l’adam she’yapil — it is preferable for a person to throw himself etc.” The wording “preferable” indicates that doing so is a stringency rather than a requirement.
This seems to be the indication of the Meiri in his comments on the Gemara in Sotah where he writes, “A person should always be careful not to embarrass.” The indication of his language and the fact that he refers to the throwing of oneself into a pit of fire as a “he’arah,” a suggestion, is indicative that he holds it is just an act of preference — a chumrah, so to speak.
The Baalei HaTosfos in their comments on the Gemara in Sotah, however, pose the question as to why this concept is not listed in the Gemara in Pesachim (25a) among the three sins for which one must forfeit his life rather than transgress. The Baalei Tosfos answer that this concept is not explicitly written in the Torah. The implication of Tosfos is that they agree with the position of Rabbeinu Yonah that it is a full halachic obligation.
There is perhaps a third possibility that we can suggest. Could it be said that our sages are indicating how severe it is to embarrass someone and are speaking in hyperbole? We find that Chazal will occasionally speak in hyperbole in order to bring home the point that this is an action from which we should stay far away.
Regardless of the actual understanding of the Gemara, we need to change and upgrade our method of conversation. We need to follow the words of the Alter when he opened the yeshiva, and implement the lesson of Purim — achdus.
Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.