Parshat Behar: One person for the other

According to the Torah, utterances that offend others is forbidden no matter who they are.

Ode Yosef Chai siddur (photo credit: IRANIAN MEDIA)
Ode Yosef Chai siddur
(photo credit: IRANIAN MEDIA)
In Parshat Behar, which we read this week, we find one of the greatest prohibitions in the Torah: The prohibition of wronging another person. Put simply, this prohibits us from offending any person, no matter who they are. The Torah phrases it as such: “And you shall not wrong, one man his fellow Jew, and you shall fear your God, for I am the Lord, your God.” (Leviticus 25:17) The Babylonian Talmud discusses this prohibition at length and determines that any utterance that causes unpleasantness or offense to another is completely forbidden.
They felt so strongly about this prohibition that they declared the following: “He who humiliates another person in public – it is as though he has killed him.
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“He who humiliates another person in public – has no part in the World to Come.
“Better that one throw oneself into a fiery furnace rather than whiten the face of [i.e., embarrass] one’s friend in public.” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Baba Metzi’a, daf 58-59) These directives are unprecedented among the commandments in the Torah. A man might just blurt out an insulting comment to a friend, and there are those who would not even take it to heart, but Judaism sees this as such a serious transgression that the sages of the Talmud state clearly: It would be better to fall into a furnace than to offend another person! Why did the sages feel so strongly about this prohibition? We have to delve deeply into this in order to understand this nowadays, when we live in a reality that makes it seem as though offending someone is completely permissible. We see public figures throw insults at one another, looking like gladiators hitting one another while the barbaric audience cheers them on.
The Internet, which opened the gateways of knowledge for humanity, also allows anyone to denigrate and harm others, sometimes anonymously. And these insults spread quickly and become unstoppable. We have to stop for a moment and think – Does this sort of behavior fit with Jewish moral codes? And the answer is a resounding No.
So, why is this prohibition considered so serious? To aid in our understanding, let us read what the son of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (end of the 18th century, the founder and rosh yeshiva of Volozhin in Russia) said about his father: “He would frequently criticize me for seeing that I do not sympathize with the sorrow of others, and this is what he would always tell me: ‘Man was not created for himself, but to benefit others as much as his strength allows him to.’” (Introduction to the book Nefesh HaChayim – The Soul of Life) This is an interesting concept. Man was not created for his own benefit, but rather to benefit others. The source of this idea is in a verse in the Book of Genesis (1:27) that tell us that man was created “in G-d’s image.” Clearly, the reference is not to an “image” in the simplistic sense, since G-d has no body or image, but the reference is to a trait of both G-d and man.
What is this trait? What do we actually know about G-d? The answer that we know with certainty is that He created the entire world.
Therefore, the trait which characterizes man, for which he was created, is to benefit others, just as G-d benefits the world and all of creation. We now understand why Judaism looks so harshly upon a person who harms another, since he is not only performing an act which is “not nice,” but he is desecrating the “image of G-d” within himself and is not fulfilling the main purpose for which he exists.
This is so significant that it would be better to fall into a furnace, definitely endangering one’s life, rather than desecrate the “image of G-d” and harm another person.
If we adopt this concept and implement it in our lives, we will internalize the idea that we are not here for ourselves, but for others. By doing so, we will be privileged to fulfill our purpose as humans and in addition, our lives will be undoubtedly more serene, more comfortable and far more satisfying.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.