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Torah Attitude: Parashas Yithro: Cartoons, free speech & jihad

Summary

The Torah obligates us to conduct ourselves with respect and not put the stones"to shame". The Kabbalists explain that the meaning of "man being created in the image of G'd" is a description of our ability to use our intellect to make choices. The Torah clearly teaches us to respect every human being as having been created in the image of G'd. The level of respect shown between human beings today is a far cry from the expectations set out in the Torah for the Jewish nation. Freedom of speech in no way entitles any person to poke fun at a fellow human being or his belief. The Talmud defines four groups of people who will not merit the Divine Presence in the World to Come. The Torah commands us to be extremely cautious when we speak to our fellow humans and not to embarrass them. In the last decade, the world has become victim to Muslim extremists who terrorize any society that opposes their beliefs and interests. The Hand of G'd is directing the hearts of the nations.

Don't shame the stones

At the end of this week's Torah portion it says, (Shemos 20:22-23) "And when you make Me an altar of stones and you shall not ascend upon My altar on steps so that your nakedness will not be revealed upon it." Rashi (ibid) quotes our sages who learn an important lesson from this commandment. The altar is made from stones that have no understanding of shame when someone is revealing their uncovered parts in their presence. Nevertheless, the Torah obligates us to conduct ourselves with respect and not put the stones"to shame". How much more are we obligated not to cause any shame to our fellow beings who were created in the image of G'd.

Image of G'd

This is what the Mishnah says (Pirkei Avos 3:18) "Man is dear for he was created in G'd's image As it says, 'For in the image of G'd, He made man." The Kabbalists explain that the meaning of "man being created in the image of G'd" has nothing to do with the physical features of man as G'd has no physical image. Rather, it is a description of our ability to use our intellect to make choices that affect everything in the world (see Nefesh Hachaim 1:1-5). No other creatures have been blessed with this ability.

Respect every human

The Mishna continues and says, "The people of Israel are dear for they are called 'Children of G'd' ... As it says, 'You are children to HASHEM your G'd.' The people of Israel are dear for a cherished utensil was given to them As it says, 'For I have given you a good lesson. Do not forsake My Torah."' The special situation in which the Jewish people find themselves is due to G'd having taken us as a nation and accepted us as His children. That is why we regularly refer to G'd in our prayers as "our Father, our King". Because of our special relationship with G'd we merited to receive the Torah at the revelation at Mount Sinai, as recorded in this week's portion. In the Torah G'd commands us with a set of laws how to conduct ourselves towards G'd and our fellow Jews. This obligates and elevates us above all other nations. As G'd said prior to giving us the Torah (Shemos 19:5-6): "And now if you listen well to My voice and you observe My covenant, and you shall be to me a special treasure of all the people And you shall be to Me a kingdom of Kohanim and a holy nation." However, the Torah clearly teaches us to treat every human being with respect as everyone has been created in the image of G'd.

Far cry

In the world at large, especially in our modern day society, the level of respect shown between human beings is a far cry from the expectations set out in the Torah for the Jewish nation. In our liberal and permissive society, everyone can dress as they please, talk as they please and do as they please, without any moral qualms of how it affects their fellow beings around them. A case in point is the uproar in the world regarding the cartoons shown in a Danish newspaper last September. Although, in this case, it may be justified to use a cartoon to expose militant Moslem clerics who preach violence and terrorism in the name of Muhammad, there are some greater general problems. On the one hand is the misunderstanding and abuse of freedom of speech that we are blessed with in the Western world. On the other hand are the governments in the Islamic world who utilize any opportunity to enrage their populations against the Western world, who have aided and benefited them to such a large extent in the past.

Not poke fun

Freedom of speech is supposed to be the ability to voice an opinion without being censored by the government. This in no way entitles any person to poke fun at a fellow human being or his belief. As Jews, we should utilize this opportunity to strengthen our appreciation of the laws of the Torah that elevates us to a higher standard in our daily lives. As King Solmon says (Mishlei 3:17) "Its [the Torah's] ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace." The Torah clearly commands us to be extremely careful with the spoken word. For example, the Chofetz Chaim points out that if one is a regular gossiper, one transgresses seventeen prohibitions as well as fourteen obligations.

Four groups

The Talmud (Sotah 42a) defines four groups of people who will not merit the Divine Presence in the World to Come: (1) sarcastic people; (2) liars; (3) flatterers; and (4) gossipers. The common denominator of these four categories is that they use the power of speech to serve their own benefit, disregarding everybody else around them. It is obvious that it does not make any difference whether these four groups misuse the power of communication verbally or in writing. Even a drawing can hurt, as the saying goes: one picture speaks a thousand words. We, the Jewish nation, know only too well the harm and damage done by Anti-Semitic cartoonists.

Extremely cautious

The Torah commands us to be extremely cautious when we address our fellow humans not to embarrass them. As it says, (Vayikra 25:17): "And you shall not cause grief one to his fellow". Rashi quotes our sages in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) who explains that this refers to not hurting or embarrassing people when we speak to them. Even if someone did something wrong, we still have to treat and speak to him or her with respect. As it says (ibid 19:17): "You shall reprove your fellow and you shall not bear a sin because of him." Rashi quotes from the Talmud (Erchin 16b) and explains that the sin the Torah is referring to is if one would reprove in a way that would embarrass the other. That would be considered a transgression. As Jews, we are obligated to reprove each other and be aware that we have a mutual responsibility for each other. We are expected to make sure and help each other to do what is right. However, this does not entitle any Jew to embarrass another. Similarly, from a Torah point of view, freedom of speech definitely entitles the media or any individual to expose evil conduct for the benefit of society but it is not a license to harm or offend others.

Muslim extremists

Throughout the ages, many wars have been waged in the name of religion. Even in our enlightened society, we find Catholics and Protestants fighting each other in Ireland. No one has suffered more than the Jews from these unholy "holy wars". So much Jewish blood has been shed by both Christians and Moslems in their zeal to rid the world of the "infidels". In the last decade, the world has become victim to Muslim extremists who terrorize any society that opposes their beliefs and interests. The Torah warned the world about this even before Ishmael was born. As it says (Bereishis 16:12) "And he shall be a wild man; his hand against everyone and everyone's hand against him." In the Book of Daniel (11:40) we are told about the wars and battles at the "end of days" before the final redemption. It says: "And in the final time the king of South will attack him [king of North] and the king of North will storm back at him." The commentaries explain that this refers to the battles and struggles between the descendants of Esau and Ishmael, the Western world versus the world of Islam. It is about time that the world wakes up to this reality. Till recently, the United States and England stood almost alone in their battle against the descendants of Ishmael. Lately, the nations of Europe have had a change of heart and have finally become aware of the problems they have accepted into their countries. First there were the riots in France and now there is the total disproportionate uproar against an insignificant cartoon.

Hand of G'd

It is not difficult to see that the Hand of G'd is directing the hearts of the nations. This is similar to the time before the exodus from Egypt when G'd brought about a change of heart of the Egyptians, who had until then hated the Jews. As it says (Shemos 12:36) "And G'd gave the people favour in the eyes of the Egyptians." We can only hope and pray that this sudden change eventually will bring about a new epoch when the world will be filled with peace and harmony with the coming of Mashiach.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.


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