Ruining Lives, One WhatsApp at a Time


yatedRabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

For some reason, people in our world perk up when there is a crisis. If you can convince them that there is a crisis, they will drop what they are doing and form Tehillim groups to daven for the crisis to go away. They will form coffee klatches to get together and seek solutions to the crisis. That is because our people are basically good, fine, caring and loving. When there is a tzorah, everyone galvanizes into action to help out.

There is an old problem that is worsening with the passage of time and the advancement of technology. It has reached crisis proportions. We don’t care about each other’s feelings. People hurt others all day. Most probably do it subconsciously, but there is a fair number of people who simply can’t fargin others.

The story of Yehudah and Tamar in Parshas Vayeishev bears an important message. Tamar was prepared to be burnt alive rather than embarrass Yehudah. Sparing Yehudah from humiliation took priority over preserving her own life.

Rashi points out that this story is the source of the Gemara in Masechtos Sotah (10b) and Bava Metziah (59a), which teach that it is preferable for a person to throw themselves into a fire rather than cause public embarrassment to someone.

Tosafos in 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 commandments are explicitly written in the Torah, while halbonas ponim is not, but it has the same requirement as the three cardinal sins.

Tosafos takes the Gemara very literally and rules that publicly humiliating a person is as severe as killing him.

When we learn the Rashi in this week’s parshah, it has to affect our behavior. We can’t learn that Rashi and then go and WhatsApp an insulting remark about someone. We have to internalize that embarrassing people is as serious a crime as murder. This is one of the things we have to be prepared to die for, rather than commit.

Yet, this lapse of middos is not uncommon in our interactions. We often speak hurtfully to people in public without realizing what we are doing. We get caught up in the urgency of the moment and trample on other people’s feelings. We think that what we are doing is more important than anyone’s feelings. We think that it is fine to shame them if it will help our cause.

Being sensitive to other people’s feelings is not merely good manners. It actually defines who we are. By not being thoughtful, people can be guilty of committing an act that is equivalent to one of the cardinal sins.

What lies behind the impulse to become incensed with – and lash out at – others? Often, it’s nothing more complex than feelings of outrage that someone actually has the nerve to oppose me, to show me less than total compliance or submission. Such feelings arise from egocentricity brought on by a failure to learn Torah properly.

The posuk (37:24) says that the brothers hated Yosef and threw him into an empty pit, which lacked water. Chazal teach that the pit lacked water but contained poisonous snakes and scorpions (Rashi, ibid.). The Vilna Gaon (Mishlei 17:1) teaches that it is known that water refers to Torah. A person who is lacking in Torah is consumed with bad middos. The Torah causes us to act refined and properly, with kindness and consideration.

Far be it from us to judge the actions of the shevotim and the way they dealt with Yosef, but we can derive lessons from the way the Torah depicts their relationship and how they behaved with each other. We study the opening pesukim of the parshah and learn that Yaakov loved Yosef more than his other sons and had a special cloak made for him. The brothers, we are told, hated Yosef because they saw that he was loved more than they were.

Yaakov sent Yosef to seek out the peace of his brothers, yet when they saw him coming, they plotted his demise. Upon Reuvein’s urging, they didn’t carry out their plan, but they dipped his cloak in blood and threw him into the pit until they were able to sell him into slavery. They brought the cloak home to their father and told him that a wild animal had killed his beloved son.

The Vilna Gaon (Even Sheleimah) writes that the parshiyos of the Torah that come after the story of Yaakov and Eisov hint to the period of ikvesa diMeshicha. Rav Elchonon Wasserman posits that the Vilna Gaon is referring to the period in which we now find ourselves. Yosef refers to the Torah. What befell him will happen to the Torah and its causes before the arrival of Moshiach. Just as he was hated, Torah and Bnei Torah are hated. Just as he was hated, the Jewish people are hated. Just as the nations of the world hate us and libel us, so do those who hate Torah fabricate stories about those who fear Hashem and walk in His path.

Rav Elchonon Wasserman (Kovetz Maamorei Ikvesa DiMeshicha, Maamar Maaseh Avos Siman Labonim 7a) writes that the perpetual cycle of fabricated blood libel charges that have dogged our people throughout the exile is an outgrowth of the act of dipping Yosef’s cloak in blood.  

Because the brothers hated Yosef and sold him to Mitzrayim, the Jewish people were enslaved in Mitzrayim (Shabbos 10b, Tosafos there).

Hatred bred hatred, and hatred led to the Jews being driven into exile. Until we unite in brotherly love with each other and are thoughtful and mindful of each other’s concerns, we will remain in exile.

Last week, a wedding in Yerushalayim was attended by some 20,000 people. A tragedy brought people together. Jews came from all over to say that we are brothers and netzach Yisroel lo yeshaker. It is easier, perhaps, to come together in a time of tragedy or overwhelming joy, but difficult to maintain that unity in our daily life and in times of strife and division. We must strive to achieve that goal. We will not be redeemed if we WhatsApp hateful and spiteful comments about other Jews around the world. We will not be redeemed if we blog hatefully against people we disagree with. We cannot be led out of golus if we seek to embarrass each other, even if we believe we are correct. We can disagree, but we must do so with dignity and grace. Petty infighting is still a rule in our communities, rather than the exception. That’s regrettable and must be stopped. We really can all get along, if we only tried, if we only respected each other, if we only loved each other the way the Torah commands us to.

All too often, when someone is successful, people feel threatened by his success rather than fargining him. People mock him and send around uncomplimentary comments and factoids about him. While previously, a person had to really work hard to get a rumor going about someone, now, thanks to modern technology, it is quite simple and instantaneous. You send the comment to your group chat, and everyone on that chat sends it to everyone on their respective chats, and before you know it, the whole world is enjoying the story you made up out of thin air. In fact, doing so has become the latest sport. It’s a churban. It’s a crisis.

Technology is a blessing, but it can also be a curse. People can learn Torah from each other in ways they never could previously, and people can gain much knowledge due to the research available with a few clicks of the fingers. At the same time, this ability can be used to cause eternal damage. People’s attention spans are now measured in milliseconds, and the ability to cause harm is grossly enabled. We rush to judgment without knowing the facts. We speak without having what to say and send off angry messages without foresight. Everyone reads a bogus story and becomes an instant expert, spouting off irresponsibly on serious matters with grave consequences. We send around stories about other people without giving it a second thought. We think before we speak, but we don’t hesitate to ship off “hock” to our buddies without considering if we are hurting someone.

We spread lies across the stratosphere in crisis proportions.

When we speak of the dangers of the internet, the ability to swiftly condemn a person to international shame for no reason other than his success in any field of human endeavor is a major concern. The ability to cause international machlokes via blogging should concern us. Can’t we sit down and work things out? Does every duel have to be fought in the reshus harabim in front of people who enjoy the festival of chillul Hashem?

In a way, sending comments and stories to chat groups is more egregious than the shameful reporting of blogs and irresponsible websites. As bad as they are, muck-raking bloggers skate on thin ice, knowing in the back of their minds that they can be sued for defamation for posting fictitious, libelous information. Worse than them are anonymous posters and people who send out bogus stories to chat groups, with no accountability whatsoever. People are drawn to these groups and sites, passing along their drivel and treating it as gospel, as long as someone is besmirched or mocked.

We have to find the ability to appreciate what we have and to rid our souls of jealousy. We have to find comfort with what we have and not judge ourselves in comparison to others. Every person has different challenges. Some are public and others are private. Nothing is as it seems superficially. While it may appear that the other person is more blessed than us, we have no idea what demands he faces and the challenges and setbacks he must confront in his life. We have to be considerate of his feelings, treating him as we would a beloved brother.

If a baal kriah makes a few mistakes while reading the parshah, we don’t have to pounce on him with glee. We should be mindful of the effort the fellow devoted to preparing the laining and that he has feelings. If something needs correction, it should be done lovingly.

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was visited by an anxious bar mitzvah boy and his father with long, sad faces. The boy had prepared for his big day and mastered the haftorah for his bar mitzvah parshah, eager to lain it in shul.

They told the rov that the boy prepared the haftorah of the parshah for the week of his celebration. To their utter consternation, they had just realized that a special Shabbos fell out that week and a different haftorah was called for. It was too late for the boy to learn a new haftorah. What were they to do?

Rav Shlomo Zalman ruled that the bar mitzvah boy could recite the brachos and read the haftorah he had so diligently prepared. After davening, he said, the other haftorah should be read. Rav Shlomo Zalman engaged in some small talk about where the boy and his father live and daven and offered his mazel tov wishes. The overjoyed father and son left his humble apartment joyous, with a weight lifted from their shoulders.

On the appointed Shabbos, the family and friends gathered in shul to celebrate the bar mitzvah. Before laining, everyone was astounded to see an unexpected guest enter the shul. It was the posek hador, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who had walked from Shaarei Chesed. Everyone watched as the father ran over to welcome him.

The humble giant whispered in the man’s ear, “I knew that even though you’re following my p’sak, there would inevitably be people who would give you a hard time. I’m here to make sure that your son can enjoy his bar mitzvah without having to contend with them.”

The great gaon and tzaddik troubled himself to walk to a bar mitzvah to save a young boy he didn’t even know from the possibility of embarrassment.

Rav Meir Tzvi Bergman, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Rashbi, recounted that Rav Asher Lichtenstein, rosh yeshiva of Kamenitz, shared with him a question that he witnessed being posed to the Chazon Ish. A Yerushalmi maggid would speak publicly on Shabbos afternoons.  The regulars knew that he would speak for a long time and would thus make sure to daven Minchah before the talk. A young talmid chochom at the speech watched as the clock ticked and realized that he was going to miss Minchah. Not wanting to embarrass the speaker, he slowly made his way to the exit and found a minyan for Minchah.

Afterwards, his conscience bothered him. What should he have done? The next day, he traveled to Bnei Brak with Rav Lichtenstein to ask the Chazon Ish what the proper course of action would have been.

“What should you have done? You should not have left,” the Chazon Ish declared. “What is the question? Walking out in middle of a speech causes embarrassment to the speaker. Your obligation to daven Minchah does not outweigh the prohibition of embarrassing a person.”

And it’s not only talmidei chachomim, maggidim, bar mitzvah bochurim and important people whose feelings we have to consider. It’s anyone. Even people who are less than perfect.

The Gemara in Maseches Sotah (32b) states that Rav Yochanan related in the name of Rav Shimon bar Yochai that the reason we pray quietly is to not embarrass ovrei aveirah, sinners, who confess their sins when they pray. From here it is evident that Chazal were mindful of the feelings of sinners. All of Klal Yisroel davens Shemoneh Esrei quietly so as not to hurt the feelings of people who behave improperly.

The Ostrovtzer Rebbe would say that the obligation includes even wicked people who would kill innocent women and children. Tamar was prepared to die rather than embarrass Yehudah. Had Yehudah not spoken up, he would have sent a pregnant woman to her death. Even such a person is not deserving of public embarrassment, the rebbe said. While some may quibble with the rebbe’s teaching, if the person you are tweeting or posting about is a fine talmid chochom, or a baal chesed, or an oseik betzorchei tzibbur b’emunah, or even a regular person, there is absolutely no heter in the world to do something to cause him pain.

The obligation of being considerate of other people’s feelings should be natural to us. We would never think of skipping Minchah, yet we humiliate people without a second thought.

It is a crisis. Golus is a crisis and we cannot get out of golus until we solve this. We are pained when we see the Jewish state maligned by the media around the world. We don’t understand why political leaders employ a double standard when it comes to Israel. Yet, when a blog mocks rabbis and frum Jews, there are people who flock to it, not realizing that one thing fuels the other. Enjoying and spreading lies and half-truths is a scourge that must be stopped.

The Vilna Gaon’s talmid, Rav Yitzchok Eizik Chover, writes in a piece published in the recently released Miluei Even on Even Sheleimah, “The main cause of the current golus is the sin of misusing the gift of speech for lashon hora and sinas chinom, which is brought about by bittul Torah.” If we want to get out of golus and bring about the redemption, we have to rid ourselves of sins of speech brought on by sinas chinom. Blogging and sending around inane snippets of information mocking people is included in misusing the gift of speech.

We need to motivate people to act positively, not rip down those who stick their necks out for good causes. We need to encourage people to step up and undertake courageous, selfless acts. Let’s declare that enough is enough. Enough with throwing people under the bus. Enough with airing dirty laundry in public. Enough with making up and spreading lies. Enough with embarrassing people. Enough with acting without thinking. Enough with hurting each other.

It is time to address this awful menace and declare that we’ve had enough. Those who enable or facilitate the disparaging of our people should be called out for it. By standing up for the truth and for the purity of our nation, may we merit the ultimate geulah, at which time we will be spared from the myriad challenges and crises facing us today.

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