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by Rabbi Yisrael Pesach Feinhandler
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You shall not afflict any widow or orphan.0nce a poor person entered the home of Rabbi Meir Lehman, the Rabbi of Mintz, and pestered him with incessant demands for money. The Rabbi gave him a sizeable donation which was really more than he could afford. But the poor person was not satisfied with that and asked for more. The Rabbi finally lost his patience and asked the man to leave him alone. With that the poor man left the house.
However, after several minutes Rabbi Meir's conscience began to trouble him. He felt that he had not treated the poor man with sufficient respect, that his incessant demands were most likely a result of his desperate situation, and that his suffering was what had made him speak to the Rabbi with such rudeness.
He immediately sent some of his students and family members to find the man and ask him to return, but they were unsuccessful. Then Rabbi Meir himself went out into the street to search for him, but he too was unable to find him.
For many months the Rabbi worried over the fact that he had been unable to ask forgiveness from the poor man. He felt miserable because he had not had more patience and had perhaps caused the poor man anguish by embarrassing him.
About a year later, the same man returned to Mintz to the house of the Rabbi, and this time he was received with open arms, as though he had been eagerly expected. The Rabbi, with tears in his eyes, asked forgiveness from the poor man, who had completely forgotten the incident and was taken by surprise by the Rabbi's behavior. Of course he immediately forgave Rabbi Meir, who compensated him generously.
From then on the poor man became accustomed to staying at Rabbi Meir's home for several weeks every year, while the Rabbi took care of all his needs. During his annual visits he would be treated with great honor by the Rabbi.
Rabbi Meir felt obligated to make the stranger as comfortable as possible in his house, and to be careful not to cause him distress. This sort of sensitivity is also vitally important with regard to our spouses.
"You shall not afflict any widow or orphan."l We can learn from this verse that there is a prohibition against afflicting only a widow or an orphan, but from where can we learn that the prohibition applies to every person?
"Since it is written, 'you shall not afflict' at the end of the verse, this alludes to the fact that everyone is included," says Rabbi Yishmael. [As the Zayis Raanan explains, the idea is that in Hebrew the verse reads "Any widow or orphan you shall not afflict" and since the words "you shall not afflict" are written at the end of the verse, it implies that you shall not afflict anyone.]
Rabbi Akiva says, "Every widow or orphan who is in danger of being afflicted Is referred to in the verse, 'If you shall afflict him.'" This applies whether it is much torment or only a little. Another explanation is that an offender is not implicated until he afflicts once and then repeats the affliction.
Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel and Rabbi Yishmael were taken to be executed. Rabbi Shimon said to Rabbi Ylshmael, "Why am I am being killed? I do not understand for what sin G-d is causing me to be executed."
Rabbi Yishmael said to him, 'Did it ever happen in your life that a person came to ask a halachic question or to be judged concerning a monetary matter, and you made him wait until you finished drinking the cup you had started, or until you put on your shoes or your jacket? If so, you were transgressing what the Torah says: 'If you shall afflict,' as this law applies whether it is much affliction or little."
When Rabbi Shimon heard this he said to Rabbi Yishmael, "You have comforted me in my anguish since I now understand the reason why I am being punished by G-d."
why did the Torah forbid afflicting any person, while only explicitly specifying a widow or an orphan? Why is even a little affliction forbidden? What did Rabbi Shimon mean when he said that he could not understand why he was being executed? How could Rabbi Yishmael claim that Rabbi Shimon's death was the result of such a petty thing such as finishing a drink before answering someone's question? And why are three types of activities mentioned which would prevent a person from answering a question immediately?
Rashi explains why our Sages say that the Torah forbids afflicting anyone, even though the Torah only wrote explicitly about afflicting widows and orphans. People like to pick on those who cannot fight back. When widows or orphans are afflicted, they are unlikely to retaliate, since they are already suffering and their spirits are low. Therefore, the Torah uses them as likely cases of victimization. And so, although we are strictly forbidden to afflict anyone, the verse stresses the point that especially those who are weak, such as a woman or child without a husband or father to protect them, should not be harassed.
Even a small amount of harassment exposes an underlying problem which can in no way be overlooked. For afflicting someone means that you are utilizing another person's suffering for your own enjoyment. The Torah therefore does not tolerate even the slightest deviance from kind and considerate behavior towards others.
When Rabbi Shimon remarked that he was suffering because he did not know why he was being executed, he revealed his greatness. Ordinary people are full of wrongdoings that it would not be difficult to find many reasons for being punished. Only G-d's mercy saves us from the penalty we deserve. But Rabbi Shimon was such a great tzaddik that he legitimately could not imagine what he had ever done wrong. We can only aspire to be on such a high level.
Rabbi Yishmael claimed that the reason for rabbi Shimon's execution was that he had let people wait until he had finished drinking before he answered their questions. To display that depth of concern for others would require a very high level of commitment to showing chesed towards other people. Why should Rabbi Shimon stop drinking because someone asked him a question? The answer is that a person such as Rabbi Shimon, who is on such a tremendous level, can be expected to be entirely devoted to others. Even though waiting for someone to finish can hardly be defined as affliction, when a person is on such a high spiritual level, causing even a little discomfort to others is considered to be a sin.
From this it is clear that G-d could justify punishing Rabbi Shimon for such a sin because of his high spiritual level. Such a concept is explained in the saying of our Sages that G-d is careful in judgement of the tzaddiklm to within the thinness of a hairbreadth. 2 Although we might marvel that someone on such a high level as Rabbi Shimon could be punished so severely for such a minor fault as keeping someone waiting, we must realize that this is really a hint to us, who are on a much lower spiritual level, just how careful we must be in our treatment of others.
"Rabbi Yishmael said to him, 'Did it ever happen in your life that a person came to ask a halachic question or to be judged on a monetary matter, and you made him wait until you finished drinking the cup you had started, or until you put on your shoes or your jacket?"' Not finishing drinking a cup is a discomfort, since the drink can become cold. And how can a person comfortably answer a question without putting on his jacket and shoes? To walk around barefoot is quite uncomfortable, and it would seem that the person asking would be decent enough to allow the Rabbi to put on his shoes before answering. Going without a jacket is not respectable for a Rabbi, and the person who comes to ask him a question would not want to embarrass the Rabbi. Nevertheless, the Rabbi is asked to disregard all discomfort and embarrassment and to have in mind only the convenience of the person who needs his services. That is the level of self-sacrifice expected of him.
The three things mentioned here indicate what a person should be prepared to sacrifice for others. Foregoing the cup represents going hungry or thirsty to help others. Not putting on shoes represents general discomfort, and being without one's jacket represents the embarrassment that a person should be prepared to undergo in order to help others. To relate this to marriage, our Sages say that a person should always be careful to honor his wife. 3 Saying things to torment one's wife is expressly forbidden. The reason for this is that your wife loves you more than anything in the world, and when you say something that hurts her, it is as if you are destroying her whole world. She believes in you and trusts you, and her greatest ambition in life is to make you happy and content. When you say things to torment her, you are being worse than cruel to her; you are betraying her trust and love.
Therefore a person must think carefully before he says anything to his wife. One should never say such insensitive things as: "The food tastes terrible today." "Why do you look so sloppy?" "Why is the house such a mess?" "I can't stand being with you!" "Get lost!" Statements such as these are like shooting an arrow through your wife's heart. Even if you feel like saying something like this, do not! The damage that you can cause to your marriage with one thoughtless remark might take quite a while to repair. If you really are angry, excuse yourself and go for a walk or into another room until you calm down and can speak rationally and without hurtful words.
Remember the three things we learn from the midrash that a person should be prepared to endure in order to be of service to others: even if you have to suffer hunger, embarrassment and discomfort, you should do so in order not to hurt anyone. How much more so this willingness to sacrifice applies to your own wife!
1. Sbemos 22:21
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network