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Torah Attitude: Parashas Behar: Everyone is more worthy
The Torah prohibits buyers and sellers from deceiving one another. The Torah prohibits hurting a fellow Jew verbally. We may not inquire regarding an item if we have no intention to purchase it. We may not send someone on a wild goose chase. We are prohibited from reminding both the "ba'al teshuva" and the convert of their past. If someone is afflicted with pain and suffering, we should not say that the pain is a punishment for his misconduct. Verbal abuse cannot be reversed. Verbal abuse dishonours G'd. The prophet Eliyahu disguised himself as an ugly stranger to test a rabbi. In the world to come we find that the ones who were "seated up front" in this world may be "seated at the back" there, and vice versa. The Alshich and the Ramban in his letter to his son teach proper conduct. The Torah attitude is that we should look at every person as being more worthy than us.
Deceiving buyers and sellers
In this week's parasha, it says, (Vayikra 25:14) "When you make a sale to your fellow or make a purchase from the hand of your fellow, do not do injustice to one another." A little further in the text it says, (Ibid 25:17) "A man shall not do injustice to his fellow, and you shall fear your G'd…" An obvious question arises from these two verses. Why is this prohibition of doing injustice repeated one verse after another? Rashi quotes the Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) that explains that the first verse prohibits a seller to overcharge for his merchandise. Likewise, the buyer may not accept valuable merchandise for less than its value, if the seller is not aware of its real value.
Verbal damage - no intention to purchase
The second verse instructs us not to upset a fellow Jew through our speech. The Talmud (ibid) mentions a number of examples. A person may not inquire about the price of merchandise that he has no intention to buy. For example, we may not inquire about the price charged by one merchant in order to get a lower price from another merchant, or to confirm that we paid a good price for something we already bought. Obviously, there is no problem to shop around and make inquiries to find out who sells a certain item at the best price. For in this instance there is a real possibility that one will purchase the item from any of the vendors.
Wild goose chase
The Talmud continues to explain that we may not give misleading advice to each other in jest, or for some other reason. This includes sending someone on a wild goose chase.
Ba'al Teshuva and converts
Likewise, we may not remind someone of his past. This especially applies to a secular person who became a "ba'al teshuvah" or a convert. We have to be very careful not to refer to their lifestyle before undertaking their commitments to Judaism. In regards to the convert, the Torah wants us to be especially cautious and adds an extra prohibition, as it says: (Shemos 22:20) "You shall not do injustice or oppress a convert …"
Pain and suffering
Furthermore, says the Talmud, if someone is afflicted with pain and suffering, we should never suggest that the pain is a punishment for his misconduct. The Sefer HaChinuch (para.338) explains that anything that would hurt or upset the feelings of others is included in this prohibition. The Sefer Yereim (para.51) takes it a step further and says that even to make someone uncomfortable by showing a disparaging or similar expression is included in this prohibition.
We see here the high standards the Torah expects of us. No other judicial system would deal with any of these cases. The truth is that it goes even further. Not only does the Torah prohibit this conduct, but the Talmud (ibid) teaches that the prohibition of hurting someone else verbally is more serious than harming the person financially. The Talmud offers three comments in this connection: (1) in regards to the prohibition against verbal abuse the Torah says, "And you shall fear your G'd". That in itself indicates the seriousness of the offence; (2) when you hurt someone verbally, you hurt the person, whereas when you hurt someone financially you are "only" hurting his assets; and (3) verbal abuse cannot be reversed. Once the damage is done, no apology or excuse can fully reverse the damage. On the other hand, in most cases financial damages can be reversed through compensation.
The Alshich gives an additional reason why the Torah concludes this prohibition with the words "and you shall fear your G'd". He explains that we must be aware that if we hurt another person verbally, we are not only showing disrespect for that individual, we are also being disrespectful to G'd. For every Jew has a Divine spark. And when we address another person we actually address his Divine spark as well.
The Rabbi and the ugly stranger
The Talmud (Taanis 20) relates a story about a certain Rabbi who was returning home from his mentor. He was in high spirits after learning so much Torah. On the way, he met an extremely ugly person. Our sages explain that this was really the prophet Eliyahu in disguise who had come to test him. As they met, Eliyahu greeted him. However, in his elated mood, the Rabbi did not return the greeting. On the contrary, he said, "You ugly person. Are all the people in your town so ugly?" Eliyahu answered, "I don't know, but why don't you go to the craftsman that made me and tell him what an ugly vessel he produced." Immediately, the Rabbi realized that he had sinned. He lowered himself from his donkey, and prostrated himself in front of the stranger. He begged him for forgiveness. Eliyahu said, "I will not forgive you until you go to the craftsman who made me and tell him what an ugly vessel he produced." All the way to town, the Rabbi walked behind the stranger. As they arrived at the town, the townspeople came out to honour the Rabbi. Eliyahu asked, "Who are you honouring?" They answered, "The Rabbi who is travelling behind you." He said, "If this is a Rabbi, may there not be many like him." "What happened," asked the townspeople, and Eliyahu related the events to them. The townspeople begged Eliyahu to forgive the Rabbi because he was such a great scholar. Eliyahu agreed to forgive him on condition that he would never repeat this kind of behaviour. After this experience the Rabbi felt he had to make a public statement to show his remorse. He gave a lecture where he spoke about how a person shall always be humble and soft like a reed, and not arrogant and hard like a cedar tree.
The world to come
The Alshich elaborates on this subject and writes that a person should never feel superior to anyone. Only in the World to Come will we find out who is really great and who is not. As the Talmud (Pesachim 50a) says, "In the world to come, the ones who were seated up front in this world may be seated at the back, and vice versa." The Alshich relates that a certain individual honoured everyone he met and always felt that others were more worthy than him. He explained his conduct in the following way: "If the other person is younger than me, he is likely to have fewer sins than I. If he is older than me, he is likely to have more merits than I. If he is a greater scholar, I must honour him for that. If I am a greater scholar than him, then my wrongdoings are more serious than his, for he was not aware of the pitfalls as I was."
The Ramban, in his famous letter to his son, teaches him a similar way of conduct. He says, "If you meet an affluent person you must honour him for his virtues. If you are more affluent or smarter than him, you have to realize that your obligations are greater."
This is what our sages teach, "Be exceedingly humble in front of every individual" (Pirkei Avos 4:4-12). Look for the positive in every person and consider him more worthy than you. With this kind of attitude, we will never hurt or do any injustice to each other.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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