By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Of course the headline grabbed my eye, a bold caption announcing the arrest of several rabbis. The article described how a group of female clergy from Manhattan’s Upper West Side had been taken into custody after causing a public disturbance.
Their crime? Blocking traffic in protest of a jury decision not to indict a police offer who had contributed to the death of a black New York City resident who was selling illegal cigarettes.
The group, known as Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, have a motto: “I Am Responsible.”
While I felt bad for those misguided souls, I was moved by their choice of motto. The Chiddushei Horim would point out that from the twelve shevotim, we are forever identified by the name of Yehudah. A nation known as Yehudim embodies the middah of the shevet that would give us malchus. Which middah?
Certainly hoda’ah, gratitude, but, as Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l famously pointed out, it’s also hoda’ah, confession. Gratitude is possible when man realizes that he needs help to succeed, in a sense confessing his own limitations.
Yehudah’s hoda’ah went a step further. Rav Chaim Shmulevitz zt”l explains that Yehudah, rather than Yissochor, was chosen by Yaakov Avinu to establish Torah in Mitzrayim because of this middah (Bereishis 46:28). “Ve’es Yehudah shalach lefonov.” Yehudah showed achrayus. When Yaakov didn’t want to send Binyomin down to Mitzrayim, Yehudah proclaimed, “Anochi a’arvenu. I am responsible.”
In this week’s parsha, Yehudah had the courage and strength to announce, “Tzadkah mimeni. I am guilty. Tamar is right. I am wrong.”
In a sense, those aforementioned clergy who were arrested for their public protest were tapping into – though misguidedly – the precious koach of Yehudah, who first coined the motto of the contemporary human rights group when he said, “I am responsible.”
Yehudah’s grace and submission under pressure, despite the consequences, serve as a lesson that endures.
It’s a rule in life that things won’t always go the way we want them to. In our families, communities, schools and businesses, we endure inconveniences and annoyances. Our destiny on a national level has always been dependent upon the whims of our host government.
How we react, however, is our choice.
There are those who immediately begin to shout and scream as soon as things don’t go their way. It rarely helps. In fact, it usually has the opposite effect. The Torah way is to react with discipline and to remain calm in the face of frustration. A person of dignity knows how to control his frustration and maintain respect even in a difficult situation.
As a people, we’ve been maligned, mistreated, stabbed, murdered and libeled again and again. But we don’t riot. We don’t protest. We don’t march in the streets.
It’s an interesting time in America. There is rumbling in the streets, across the United States. There is dissatisfaction with and distrust in the government and the justice system. Here, in the Land of the Free, there is a growl of discontent that grows increasingly louder.
In our community, for example, we are upset about the way people such as Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin are treated by the justice system. He has already sat in jail for over five years after being sentenced to 27. A first-time offender, he is a victim of prosecutorial misconduct, a vindictive judge, and jaundiced stereotypes that impacted media reports and public opinion in the state in which he lived and was judged.
He was charged and sentenced for ten years for violating a law written in 1921 that has never been used since then. The loss amount upon which his sentence was based was arrived at by the judge accepting fictitious testimony of a witness who, it can be proved, lied on the stand. Mr. Rubashkin did not enrich himself through fraud. He was a generous father of ten. His punishment is harsher than sentences meted out to people who robbed others of dozens of millions of dollars. It is more severe than sentences given to all types of criminals, including murderers, kidnappers and bank robbers.
People who have studied the case – and I don’t refer only to those in the Jewish community – have decried what happened in this case. These include prosecutors, judges, lawyers, ethicists, senators, congressman, and lovers of truth and justice across the fruited plain.
Thousands of Jews pray for Sholom Mordechai ben Rivkah every day. Thousands have contributed to help offset his legal expenses. People have worked pro-bono to achieve justice. The best legal minds in the country have worked on the case, yet the injustice persists.
But we work with dignity and focus, within the system. We don’t block traffic or burn stores. That’s not our way. We forge on, confident in the truth of the cause and hopeful that justice will prevail. We are aware, at all times, that there is only One True Judge, and the fate of our friend rests in His Hands.
The fate of unarmed black victims falling at the hands of the police has become a cause célèbre across the nation. The media and our elected officials have been saying that there is a fundamental problem when people don’t feel that they are fairly represented by a justice system created to provide liberty and justice for all. The president paid homage to the ideal of “making sure that people have confidence that police and law enforcement and prosecutors are serving everybody equally,” commenting on a common sentiment amongst people that there is inequality in the way laws are enforced in this country.
So people march in cities and towns across the country, highways are closed, bridges are blocked, tunnels are inaccessible, and stores and cars go up in flames. The president invites police officers, civil rights activists and politicians for a day of meetings at the White House to examine the flawed nature of the justice system.
Hearing the president’s words and seeing an opportunity to present our case, I took the initiative and wrote him a letter. I reasoned that if the spotlight is shining on judicial abuse, perhaps our voice would finally be heard.
Like Basya, who extended a hand that was lengthened by Heaven for her to realize her goal, I tried to do my bit of hishtadlus.
“Along with millions of Americans,” I wrote, “I was very touched by your words in Chicago as you spoke of the necessity ‘to make sure that law enforcement is fair and is being applied equally to every person in this country.’
“You spoke of ‘the frustrations people have generally,’ stating that ‘those are rooted in some hard truths that have to be addressed.’ And you promised that ‘those who are prepared to work constructively, your president will work with you.’
“You said, ‘I believe in law enforcement and a lot of folks in city halls, and governor’s offices across the country, want to work with you as well.’
“Mr. President, I applaud you for having the courage to address the suppressed concerns people have felt for many decades, indicating that you are prepared to rectify the wrongs.
“You said that ‘being American doesn’t mean you have to look a certain way or have a certain last name or come from a certain place. It has to do,’ you averred, ‘with a commitment to ideals, a belief in certain values, and if any part of the American community doesn’t feel welcomed or treated fairly, that’s something that puts all of us at risk.’
“Mr. President, I write to you because many in my community feel that Mr. Sholom Rubashkin was singled out and treated unfairly in the state of Iowa. A successful businessman, he and his family worked hard to realize the American dream. They worked hard to establish a kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, and succeeded in enhancing the local economy and revitalizing a corner of the state.
“He was indicted on thousands of immigration-related charges. Those charges led to subsequent bank fraud allegations, for which he was found guilty and sentenced to 27 years in prison.
“Dozens of Congressmen, 6 former Attorneys General, 86 former federal judges and senior justice department officials and 27 former circuit and district judges, as well as the country’s most prominent legal scholars, have written letters and columns highlighting the injustice, yet Mr. Rubashkin remains incarcerated in a medium security prison.
“Mr. President, we have worked through the system to expose the injustice of the Rubashkin case. Tens of thousands of people across the country and around the world donated money to pay for expert legal counsel to pursue avenues that would lead to an examination of what went wrong, why this man was judged unfairly, and why he received an overly-harsh, unprecedented sentence.
“Advocates of justice are frustrated by their inability to realize any results through peaceful methods and legal avenues. Mr. President, you have so eloquently expressed how we feel. We turn to you and ask if you would take an interest in this case and direct the Justice Department to meet with former officials of that department who have taken on this case and explore what can be done to rectify this wrong.
“Many have staked their reputations on this case and labored hard to achieve a fair and just sentence. Thus far, they have been unsuccessful.
“Mr. President, I appeal to you to give them a hearing and demonstrate that the American dream is still alive. Show one and all that justice can prevail and that there can be equal liberty and justice for all.”
Thus far, my letter hasn’t been acknowledged or responded to. I hope and pray that it has an affect.
In the story retold in this week’s parsha, pertaining to Yehudah and Tamar there is a lesson for us in the way Tamar dealt with the situation as well. She would have rather been burnt alive than embarrass Yehudah. In her eyes, sparing Yehudah from humiliation took priority over preserving her own life. This is essentially the way we are to conduct ourselves, especially in golus.
Rashi points out that Tamar’s behavior is the source for the Gemara in Maseches Sotah (10b) and Bava Metziah (59a) which teaches that it is better for one to throw himself into a fire than cause public embarrassment to another person.
Tosafos in Maseches Sotah asks that if one is required to jump into fire rather than humiliate another person, then it follows that publicly humiliating another person is equal to the three aveiros a Jew must avoid even at the cost of his life. It is yeihoreig ve’al yaavor. Why, then, is the sin of humiliating a fellow Jew publicly not listed with the three most severe aveiros?
Tosafos answers that halbonas ponim, shaming someone publicly, is not included in the cardinal sins of avodah zarah, gilui arayos and shefichas domim, because those three are commandments that are explicitly stated in the Torah and halbonas ponim is not. Tosafos takes the Gemara very literally and rules that publicly humiliating a person is as severe as killing him.
Rabbeinu Yonah holds like Tosafos, while other Rishonim, such as the Me’iri in Masechtos Brachos (43a), Sotah (10a) and Kesubos (77b), argue. Their position is that the Gemara‘s intention is to underscore the seriousness of halbonas ponim, while not attaching the same severity to it as the three cardinal sins.
Whichever view we follow, it’s clear that publicly disgracing a person is described by Chazal in the most grave and severe terms. What is the lesson for us as it relates to the current debate in the country and what does it have to do with the way we advocate for causes that are dear to us?
What we learn from this is that sensitivity isn’t merely good manners or proper conduct. It’s the core of our personality as Yehudim. It’s the definition of who we are. Someone who loses himself and insults others publicly reveals his neshomah’s lack of refinement. This is far more serious than a temporary lapse of mentchlichkeit. Without intending it, one may be guilty of committing an act that is equivalent to one of the cardinal sins.
Sensitivity is the essence of a Yid. It is the defining middah of a talmid chochom.
A Jew once stopped Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt”l on the streets of Vilna and asked him for directions. Rather than just telling him how to go, the gadol invited the Jew to join him on a long walk to the other end of the city until they reached this fellow’s destination. “Here it is,” said Rav Chaim Ozer, parting from the unfamiliar Jew.
One of Rav Chaim Ozer’s talmidim wondered what his cheshbon was. “The rebbi is so busy with learning, chessed and askanus. Why couldn’t he merely give the directions and go on his way?”
Rav Chaim Ozer explained: “When the person asked for directions, I detected a hint of a stammer, a speech impediment that made it difficult for him to speak. I reasoned that if I would give him directions, there would be a good chance that along the way he’d have to ask directions from someone else, as often happens. Since it is humiliating for him to speak, I would be causing him pain and embarrassment that could be avoided by walking him myself, sparing him the need to speak more than necessary. Of course it is docheh whatever other activities I would be engaged in.”
Chazal say, “Kol hako’eis ke’ilu oveid avodah zarah – One who becomes angry is like one engaged in avodah zarah,” for he has shown that the Torah does not control his actions and behavior. A ben Torah always acts in a way that preserves his pride and the respect of the Torah. He doesn’t just speak and scream. His words are measured and clearly considered before leaving his mouth.
The Chashmonaim stood for dignity. They fought with pride and courage for their right to serve Hashem. We honor their lesson and legacy as we light the Chanukah menorah, ushering in eight days of simcha. When we stand before the menorah and perform the same act Jews have been performing for two thousand years, it does something to our soul and profoundly touches us.
The mitzvah is supposed to be performed in the doorway, facing the street, yet in times of danger, we forgo that display and place the menorah in a place that it is only visible to us and our families. As a people in golus, we take pride in our ideal and principles, yet do so in a manner that does not contribute to engendering hatred towards us. Neither should we be making statements that are unwise and imprudent.
We behave differently. We are conscious of the effects of our actions. We are to always be in control of our actions and words. We don’t riot, we don’t demonstrate, and we don’t ever give up. We perform our hishtadlus, as the Maccabi kohanim did. They were unqualified to do battle and were outnumbered, yet they remained kohanecha hakedoshim, even in battle, even when they were maligned, mistreated and singled out for punishment. That is why in the tefillah of Al Hanissim, we make a point of mentioning that the victory was brought about “al yedei kohanecha hakedoshim.” Yes, they fought when there was no other choice, but they maintained and protected their essential core, that of kohanim, progeny of the oheiv sholom verodeif sholom.
A talmid was once driving Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l home from yeshiva when they encountered a large demonstration by young Jews. The protesters held a placard that read, “Never Again.” Rav Moshe was visibly upset by the brash slogan. “We don’t know or decide what will happen, Hashem does. He decides and we respond.”
We are a different sort of person. There are those who wish to portray the Chashmonaim as muscular warriors, recreating them to suit an agenda. In truth, they were kohanecha hakedoshim, holy tzaddikim who utilized whatever kochos were needed.
Rav Shmuel Dovid Warshavchik zt”l would often talk to his talmidim at Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yaakov Yosef (RJJ) about his own rebbi, Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l. He would tell them how his rebbi had been in America in 1938 when the fate of European Jewry was all but sealed. It was widely assumed that Rav Elchonon would remain on the safe shores, but the rosh yeshiva insisted on returning to his talmidim.
Rav Elchonon explained that a rebbi and talmidim belong together, and leaving his talmidim alone in dangerous times would be compromising his essence as their rebbi. Rav Elchonon knew there was a good chance that he wouldn’t survive, and he was certainly aware of the halachos regarding shemiras hanefesh. However, he understood that it is not up to man to make calculations. Man is to follow the Torah. Once he concluded that his own achrayus was to return to his talmidim, he traveled with menuchas hanefesh and tranquility, ultimately giving up his life with incredible dignity.
As we read of Tamar and think of the Maccabim, we must remember that we heed an ancient creed. We are not shortsighted or short-fused. In the face of indignation, we maintain our dignity. In the face of injustice, we work with justice to achieve fairness. We don’t obliterate the truth in the pursuit of our aims. Tamar was prepared to die rather than cause Yehudah public embarrassment. That is a very high level of dignity, which the Torah demands of us.
The sensitivity and respect inherent to our make-up means that not only do we conduct ourselves with dignity, but we also appreciate the dignity of another.
Rav Moshe Mordechai Shulsinger zt”l related that when his uncle, Rav Velvel Chechik zt”l, was hospitalized, Rav Moshe Mordechai went to visit him. Rav Velvel, a talmid of the Brisker Rov, asked him to wait a moment as he toiled to find the energy to rise. He eventually donned his robe and mustered the strength to leave his sickbed and receive his visitor out in the hallway. Every time another visitor came, Rav Velvel did the same thing, leaving his room to speak with his guest.
His nephew finally understood. Rav Velvel’s hospital roommate was an irreligious Israeli, who, for whatever reason, had no visitors. Rav Velvel realized that every guest he received caused pain to his roommate. He had too much respect for his fellow man to sit surrounded by caring friends, while the fellow two feet away seemed to have none.
In pain and suffering, and away from home, this talmid chochom still exuded compassion and sensitivity, the core maalos of a Yid.
This past Sunday, I attended the annual dinner of the Telshe Yeshiva in Chicago. The dinner marked the fiftieth yahrtzeit of Rav Chaim Mordechai Katz zt”l, who providentially found himself in this country together with his brother-in-law when the gates to their native Lithuania were closed. Their families, their talmidim and the entire town of Telshe perished at the hands of the accursed Nazis.
Rather than bemoan their fate and give up, they resolved to rebuild in Cleveland what was destroyed back home.
Through dogged determination, strong will, chochmah, binah vehaskeil, and with much siyata diShmaya, they succeeded in creating an oasis of Torah in the Midwest.
They didn’t become embittered. They never lost hope and resolve. They maintained their dignity and spirit. And thanks to them, many thousands have benefitted by leading Torah lives.
They, and those like them, paved the way for us in this land, as they followed the lessons taught by the avos, the shevotim, and good Jews throughout the ages.
What we have is a testament to that type of dignified strength, which endures in all times, good and bad, dark and lonely, sad and glad.
We have it within us. If we take a moment to analyze the situations of those around us – the neighbor who needs help with parnossah, the cousin who needs a shidduch, the friend who can’t get his child into school, the person who can benefit from us writing a letter for them – our natural sensitivity and achrayus will direct us to do the right thing.
When we live with achrayus, caring for and pleading on behalf of other Jews, we enjoy a special chein in Shomayim. When we daven for others, our tefillos become more welcome in Heaven. A parent rejoices when one child defends another.
The Tiferes Shlomo says that Hashem desires and appreciates the voices of those who defend other Jews. “Hashmi’ini ess kolech.“ Hashem invites us to make our voices heard. Why? The Tiferes Shlomo offers a beautiful explanation on the next words: ki koleich areiv. Areiv literally means sweet, but it can also means a guarantor. When our voices call out for arvus, responsibility and dedication to others, they are especially sweet in Heaven.
Because what Yehuda said so many thousands of years ago rings true today.
We are responsible.