Thursday, May 2, 2013

Behar-Bechukosai - The Strange Lesson of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi

In Parshas Behar we read (Leviticus 25:17):
ולא תונו איש את עמיתו ויראת מאלקיך כי אני ה' אלקיכם:
“And you shall not hurt the feelings of one another, but you shall fear your God, for I am HaShem your God.” 
This is the prohibition of onaas devarim - hurting the feelings of another Jew. Torah law prohibits us from causing suffering to our fellow Jews, even just hurting their feelings through insensitive speech.

The midrash (Yalkut Shimoni here, Vayikra Raba 33:1) tells us of an interesting object lesson that the great sage, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, used to bring this lesson home to his students:
רבי עשה סעודה לתלמידיו, הביא לפניהם לשונות רכין ולשונות קשין. התחילו בוררין את הרכין ומניחין את הקשין. א"ל, בני, כך יהא לשונכם רך אלו עם אלו!
Rabbi [Yehuda HaNasi] made a feast for his students, in which he brought before them [cooked dishes of] soft tongues and hard tongues. The students began to choose the soft tongues and setting aside the hard tongues. He said to them, "My sons! So should your tongues be soft with each other!"
It's a cute lesson. In fact, it almost seems too cute. The students of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi were not children. They were all respected scholars in their own right, who were perfectly capable of understanding such a simple concept without using such a dramatic presentation. Why did Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi choose to make his point in such a manner?

The Chofetz Chaim
Perhaps we can understand this by reference to a public letter written by the Chofetz Chaim, R' Yisrael Meir Kagan (d.1933) in which he bemoans the existence of public strife between rabbis and Torah scholars. In the course of the letter he talks about the common tendency, especially with regard to religious disputes, for each side to justify their own behavior and to place the entire blame for the dispute on the other side. However, the Chofetz Chaim writes, this a basic error, for even if, in principle, they are indeed correct in their position, it is virtually impossible for a person to engage in such strife without falling into the trap of improper behavior and, even worse, bringing about a grave chillul Hashem (desecration of the honor of God)

In this context, the Chofetz Chaim discusses the tragic deaths of the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva, for whom we continue to mourn until this day, and he writes:
ואיתא בגמ׳ שעונם היה על שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה. ועתה נתבונן נא, דהלא רק אונאת דברים הוא׳ והוא רק לאו בעלמא ואין חייב על זה מיתה בידי שמים, ולמה מתו? אלא שעי״ז נסבב הילול ה׳ גדול בעולם שתלמידי חכמים רבים זה עם זה ומבזים התורה ומצותיה לעין כל.
ועל זה אני אומר, מורי ורבותי, למה לא נירא מארזי הלבנון, קדושי עליון, שבודאי היה לכל אחד תירוץ בפני עצמו שאין בו אשם, ועיקר האשם על חבירו ולא עליו, ואפילו הכי אנו רואין שתורתן וקדושתן לא הגינו עליהן ושלטה מדת הדין בכולן.
The Talmud states that their sin was that they did not show proper respect for each other. Now, let us consider this. Their sin was only onaas devarim, which is an ordinary prohibition that does not bear the penalty of death by Heavenly decree. So why did they die [for this sin]? Because, when Torah scholars fight with each other it brings about a great chilul Hashem in the world, bringing public disgrace upon the Torah and its mitzvos.
And on this I say, my teachers and rabbis, how can we not be afraid [to engage in strife] when these (i.e. the students of Rabbi Akiva) Cedars of Lebanon, exalted holy men, each of whom certainly could provide a good explanation to justify their actions, and to place the blame entirely on their fellow and not on themselves, and even so, their Torah and their holiness did not protect them, and the attribute of justice was dominant over all of them.
The Chofetz Chaim is pointing out that as severe as the sin of onaas devarim is, there is an even greater obligation upon Torah scholars to avoid such behavior with each other, for such behavior causes the honor of God and His Torah to be diminished in the eyes of the world.

This was the reason for the unusual object lesson of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was the student of the later students of Rabbi Akiva. In fact, the Talmud (Kiddushin 72b) states that he was born on the day of Rabbi Akiva's death. For the generation after Rabbi Akiva, this lesson was far from a an obvious and simple lesson. They had seen, with their own eyes, how the entire world of Torah had been laid desolate  through the deaths of these great scholars. They fully understood how easy it could be to fall into the trap of strife and discord with their fellow rabbis.

They, in turn, conveyed this message to their students; one of the most prominent of whom was Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi. Thus, for Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, this lesson was literally a matter of life and death, both for his students and for the survival of the Jewish people, for the Jewish people can only survive with the Torah. When it comes to these most basic lessons, we use every technique available to us to continually reinforce and internalize them, so that they become part of our very nature and being.

This story of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi teaches us two profoundly important lessons. On the simplest level, it teaches us of the importance of speaking gently to our fellows, especially for Torah scholars. However, it also teaches us that, when it comes to learning the most basic lessons of Torah and mussar (character development), there is no such thing as a "silly" lesson. Any technique that will help us reinforce these lessons, in ourselves and in our children and students, is valid and legitimate, even if it involves making strange analogies from food.

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