Parashat Aharei Mot-Kedoshim: A lesson learned

In order for an individual to be considered guilty of a transgression, he must be warned - or chastised - before his crime, in order to ascertain that he is committing the forbidden deed with full understanding of its seriousness.

torah scroll 88 (photo credit: )
torah scroll 88
(photo credit: )
"You must surely instruct your colleague, so that you do not bear his sin." (Leviticus 19:17) What is the best way to teach someone a lesson? In order for an individual to be considered guilty of a transgression, he must be warned - or chastised - before his crime, in order to ascertain that he is committing the forbidden deed with full understanding of its seriousness. One of the greatest religio-legal decisors of the past generation, Rabbi Abraham Isaiah Karelitz (known as the Hazon Ish), ruled on this basis that the Jewish community dare not condemn heretics because there are no longer Jewish religious models capable of properly chastising them. His proof-text was a famous dictum of Rabbi Tarfon, who declared two millennia ago: "I would marvel if I were ever to meet someone with the ability to properly chastise. The moment one individual says to another, 'Remove the flint from between your teeth', the other can respond, 'You must first remove the beam from your eyes'" (B.T. Arakhin 16b) Especially in our post-modern society, where almost anything goes and every possible position may be rationalized from the perspective of the individual who espouses it, it becomes increasingly difficult for a religious leader to act as a moral censor. Indeed, is there any way of moving a transgressor to see the evil in his action? I would like to recount two incidents which reflect different (but complementary) methods of "chastisement," and invite the reader to judge their effectiveness. The first is based on the Mussar (Ethicist) Navardok Academy, founded by one of the most outstanding disciples of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, Rabbi Yosef Yozel Horovitz. One of the principles of this "movement" - which emphasized individual character development and had 180 yeshivas throughout Europe before the Nazis destroyed all but one - was "hatava bimkom hakpada," respect rather than resentment, repay insult with heightened consideration. The idea was that if an individual does me a bad turn, the most effective way for him to realize the evil of his deed would be by my behaving toward him with special sensitivity. Hopefully, the contrast would make him realize the folly of his actions. Rabbi Nekritz, a great sage and devotee of the Navardok School, married off a granddaughter. Many Torah sages of the day - rabbis, grand rabbis and yeshiva heads - were present, many more worthy scholars than there were blessings and honors to dispense during the ceremony. All those assembled were greatly surprised when an unknown rabbi was given the honor of intoning the last of the seven nuptial blessings, known as Bracha Aharita (literally, the last blessing). It was assumed that this relatively unknown rabbi must have had some special influence on the bride and groom - but neither had ever laid eyes upon him before, and hadn't the faintest idea who he was. Rabbi Nekritz was frequently asked that evening who his special guest was, but responded only with a silent and knowing smile. It was only after the rabbi had passed away that his granddaughter (who had been the bride) asked her grandmother about the strange guest's identity, and the secret was revealed. Several years before, Rabbi Nekritz and his wife had been invited to the wedding of the daughter of a rabbi they didn't really know. He kept calling and pressing them, so they agreed to attend. They assumed he would arrange transportation, but when he didn't, they got there by bus and train. They were seated with people they didn't know, Rabbi Nekritz was not given any honor during the ceremony, and no arrangements were made to take them home. So when Rabbi Nekritz's grand-daughter was married, he invited that same rabbi - and honored him with the final blessing. A friend of mine, grandson of a Jerusalem holy man who himself is a charismatic educator, was invited, a year in advance, to speak at the graduation ceremonies of a high school in Israel which was named after his grandfather. A short while before the graduation, my friend was hospitalized with pneumonia. He returned home greatly weakened - and the evening of the graduation was cold, windy and rainy. His wife called the assistant principal, asking that her husband be excused. "It would be a desecration of God's name if he doesn't show up. He must come, even if he has to crawl on all fours," she said, not even offering to send (or pay for) a taxi. My friend insisted on going - despite his wife's remonstrations that he rest at home - and set out by bus. The entire trip he thought to himself: "How would my grandfather have taught this assistant principal that she had reacted insensitively? My grandfather would have attempted to provide her with an ideal model of proper conduct." When my friend rose to speak, he said he had to give a brief introduction. He wanted to give a special thanks to the assistant principal, who had arranged for him to speak. He said that when she heard he had been ill with pneumonia, she called to graciously suggest that perhaps in light of the inclement weather he ought to stay at home. When he said he felt he had to come under any circumstances, she had offered to send a taxi. He felt it only proper to thank her for her sensitivity and consideration before giving his address. The audience gave the assistant principal a standing ovation. She called my friend the next day to apologize and to thank him for having taught her an important lesson. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.