Prohibited: insults and stumbling blocks

Prohibited: insults and stumbling blocks

Aharei Mot-Kedoshim — Leviticus 16:1-18:30/19:1-20:27

After struggling to find relevant lessons in the earlier parashiot of Vayikra, this week we finally arrive at Kedoshim, the source of many of the Torah’s most important ethical commandments. We read about honoring parents and respecting the elderly, leaving a portion of the harvest for the poor, paying workers promptly, not oppressing strangers, conducting business honestly, and, of course, “Love your fellow as yourself.”

However, it would be a mistake to think that the essential message of Kedoshim is “be a good person.” Rather, our parsha tells us to be holy. How? By obeying the entire complex of commandments contained in it — ritual and ethical, profound and seemingly trivial, rational and incomprehensible.

For example, the Torah teaches, “You shall not curse the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind.” It seems simple enough. Of course it’s wrong to insult someone just because he cannot hear. And placing an obstacle in the path of someone who cannot see it is cruel and could cause serious injury.

This seems so obvious that we hardly need a verse of Torah to prohibit it. And so the rabbis understand that this verse has something else to teach us. The Sifra, an early rabbinic commentary on Vayikra, explains it this way: “Before one who is blind in a matter: Should he ask you: Is the daughter of so-and-so qualified to marry a priest? Do not answer him: Yes she is qualified when she is really unfit. If he comes to consult you, do not give him inappropriate advice. Do not say to him: Go out early when robbers would waylay him; go out at noon that he should get sunstroke. Do not say to him: Sell your field and buy yourself an ass and then by a trick take [the field] from him.”

When someone asks for your advice, you may not mislead him, for he is, in a way, blind. Because he respects your opinion, it will influence his decision. It’s not simply a matter of not acting out of an ulterior motive (that is, because you want to acquire his field) — whenever you are asked for advice, you must consider carefully whether the course you recommend might harm the person physically, financially, or spiritually. In other words, don’t advise your elderly aunt to cash in her CDs and invest her retirement savings in that Internet start-up you heard about from someone you met at a party!

Moreover, the prohibition of “placing a stumbling block before the blind” is not limited to situations in which someone asks for advice. The rabbis understand that it also means you may not tempt someone to do something wrong. The Talmud, in Pesahim, teaches: “Rabbi Nathan said: How do we know that a person should not serve a cup of wine to a nazir (who has taken a vow to abstain from alcohol)?… The Torah says, ‘Do not place a stumbling block before the blind.’” The Talmud also forbids hitting one’s grown son, who might react by hitting back and violating a Torah commandment, and lending money without witnesses (who could attest to the validity of the debt), for this might tempt the borrower to deny he was obligated to repay the loan.

The modern applications of “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind” are obvious: Don’t offer a drink to an alcoholic or insist that a person trying to diet must eat dessert. Don’t threaten to fire an employee unless she lies to a client for you. Don’t put so much pressure on your children to get good grades that they are tempted to cheat.

And what about cursing the deaf? The Shakh (Rabbi Shabbatai ben Meir ha-Kohen, 1621-1662, Lithuania and Poland), a commentator on the Shulhan Aruch, had this to say: The Hebrew word for deaf is heireish — spelled het, reish, shin — and its three letters can be homiletically interpreted as being an acronym for the phrase “hayim ra’im shelha,” your bad life. This teaches us that a person should not bemoan his fate, no matter how terrible his condition and his life.

Some of us have reached the age when aches and pains are common and we do our share of kvetching. Others are dealing with serious illnesses. Some of us have become much more budget-conscious lately, while others are facing real financial trouble. Some of us are annoyed by the demands of family members, while others are alone and lonely. But no life is all bad, any more than any life is all good. With all its problems and disappointments, life is a gift — don’t curse it.

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