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Torah Attitude: Parashas Yithro: Cartoons, free speech & jihad
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 decades, the world has become victim to Muslim extremists who terrorize any society that opposes their beliefs and interests.
Don't shame the stones
At the end of this week's parasha 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 creature has 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."' When G'd gave us His Torah, as related in this week's parasha, He chose us as His nation and accepted us as His children. That is why we regularly refer to G'd in our prayers as "our Father, our King". In the Torah, G'd instructs us 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 nations … 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, since everyone was created in the image of G'd.
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 way cartoons poke fun at public figures or different groups. Although it may be justified to use a cartoon to expose corruption or other negative situations, there are some greater general problems.
Not poke fun
Cartoons often abuse the freedom of speech that we are blessed with in the Western world. Freedom of speech is the ability to voice an opinion without being censored by the government. However, this in no way entitles a person to poke fun at a fellow human being or his belief. As Jews, we must utilize every opportunity to strengthen our appreciation of the laws of the Torah that elevates us to a higher standard in our daily lives. As King Solomon says (Mishlei 3:17) "Its [the Torah's] ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace." The Torah clearly instructs 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 positive commandments. Obviously, the same applies to the written word and cartoons.
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. Obviously, 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.
The Torah instructs us to be extremely cautious when we address our fellow humans not to embarrass them. In Parashas Behar it says, (Vayikra 25:17): "And you shall not cause grief one to his fellow". Rashi quotes the Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) that 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 them with respect. As it says (ibid 19:17): "You shall reprove your fellow and you shall not bear a sin because of him." Again, Rashi quotes the Talmud (Erchin 16b) that explains that the Torah indicates that if one reproves in a way that embarrasses the other, it is considered a transgression. As Jews, we are responsible for each other. This obligates us to reprove each other and make sure that everyone does 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.
Throughout the ages, many wars have been waged in the name of religion. Until recently, Catholics and Protestants fought 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 "infidels". In the last few decades, the world has become victim to Muslim extremists who terrorize any society that opposes their beliefs and interests. The recent murders of both Jews and non-Jews in Paris, as well as the last few days' beheadings by ISIS, is a stark reminder how low human beings can fall when they cloak their barbarism in idealistic doctrines that they use to justify their behavior as savages and wild animals.
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 and unites to rid us from any kind of terrorism. We can only hope and pray that this happens soon and 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 notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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