Did you ever think that honesty might be overrated? Do we really need to know every last little detail about each politician, actor, or athlete who captures the media’s attention?
More to the point, have you ever been approached by someone who begins a conversation by saying, “Can I be honest with you?” You know what’s coming — and you know you aren’t going to like it. In the service of “honesty,” people feel free to say horrible, nasty, critical, humiliating things to one another.
Well, aren’t we supposed to be honest? Doesn’t the Torah say, “Keep far from a false matter” (Shemot 23:7)? It’s true that lying is prohibited in most cases, but that doesn’t mean you are required to tell someone everything you think is wrong with her — from wardrobe to profession to approach to child-rearing — for her own good. In fact, this type of “honesty” probably violates Jewish law.
In this week’s parasha, the Torah says, “This is the ritual of the purification offering [brought by someone who has committed an inadvertent sin]: the purification offering shall be slaughtered before the Lord, at the spot where the burnt offering is slaughtered: it is most holy.” The Yerushalmi asks, “And why is this so [that both are slaughtered in the same place]? In order not to embarrass the sinners.”
The Torah Temimah (Rabbi Baruch Epstein, 1860-1942, Russia) comments, “The matter is explained according to what is written in Sotah 32b: Why did they establish that the Amidah should be said in a whisper? In order not to embarrass those who commit sins [so that others will not hear their confessions]. In a similar vein, the Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) says, “A tanna recited before Rabbi Nahman bar Isaac: He who shames his fellow man in public is as though he shed blood. Rabbi Nahman replied: Well put! Because we see ruddiness depart and paleness take its place [in the face of the person who is humiliated].”
This is, of course, a homiletic statement, not a legal one — the one who causes the humiliation will not be tried and executed. However, it conveys just how seriously Jewish tradition takes the sin of public humiliation. The Talmud explains how funeral practices were established in order to prevent embarrassing poor families. The laws of tzedakah teach that ideally both the giver and the recipient should be anonymous. You may even have heard that the reason we cover the challot at the Shabbat table is so that they won’t be embarrassed because the Kiddush over the wine takes precedence.
And so the Torah teaches that the purification offering and the burnt offering were to be slaughtered in the same place so that no one would be humiliated.
In a few weeks, families will gather for the Pesach seder. At many of these tables, there are certain “cute” or “amusing” stories told year after year while the subject of the story squirms in embarrassment. Do you think it might be time to stop telling them?
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.