Sunday, April 29, 2007

Acharei Mot - Kedoshim

My experience as a bar/bat mitzvah tutor is that Tazria and Metzora are the most popular b’nai mitzvah Torah portions, but it isn’t because of anything that they contain. It’s only because of the dates on which they are read.

If a young person is lucky, the best date for the ceremony will turn out to be a week or two later when Kedoshim is the reading. This parashah, from which the Reform movement draws its reading for the afternoon of Yom Kippur, comprises what is known as the Holiness Code, one of the most attractive readings in all the Torah.

One often-quoted precept from it is the injunction not to place a stumbling block before the blind. If we read this literally, it describes a nasty practical joke in which the blind person could trip and be injured. But it also commands us not to insult the deaf. Students reasonably ask, why should it matter? The person can’t hear the insult and won’t suffer from hurt feelings.

To understand this, it helps to know that some older translations read “curse the deaf.” If a curse were to be effective, it could do real harm and the victim wouldn’t even know what was happening. Jewish tradition, however, has generally held that human curses don’t have any real effect on the intended victim.

That doesn’t mean that a curse, or anything derogatory that might be said about a person, doesn’t have any effect. While the victim might be willing to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” the Jewish way of looking at this is that bad things harm the person who says them. In Hebrew this is called lashon hara, “evil speech”--something that we’re supposed to avoid even if we happen to believe that it’s true.

Another way of looking at it, one that appeals to children, is simply that it’s unfair. A deaf person, being unable to hear the insult, has no opportunity to defend himself or herself. This isn’t limited to cases of deafness. It would apply equally to a hearing person who, for any reason, might not find out what was said. That’s why verse 19:14 ends with, “You shall fear your God: I am the Lord.” Jewish tradition understands that the harm occurs whether the victim is aware of it or not.

Just as we understand the rule against insulting the deaf to apply to all cases where the person might not find out what we said, Jewish tradition interprets “placing a stumbling block before the blind” much more broadly. On the surface, it’s a stupid joke that no one should play. But we also understand it to mean that we can’t do anything that takes advantage of a person’s ignorance or inexperience.

For example, if someone asks how to get to a certain place, we’re not allowed to give bad directions. We have to give the best directions we can. Of course there is a chance that we’ll be mistaken; maybe we don’t know the route very well ourselves. But, except when the person asking for help intends to do harm to someone else, we can’t deliberately give false information. Even young children can understand that God will know whether we meant to do well or meant to mislead the person.

But does the rule against insulting the deaf, in its broadest application, mean that we should be silent when another person does something that we know is seriously wrong? Verse 18, “Reprove your neighbor, but incur no guilt because of him,” is the relevant proof text for the argument that we shouldn’t be silent. But it says that when we must speak about something that is wrong, we should speak to the person, not behind his or her back.

Religious-school students are often eager--too eager--to share derogatory information about other students with the teacher. Sermons about lashon hara have little or no effect, but we can choose whether or how to respond to it. It’s a “teachable moment” (for everyone involved).

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