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Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: Remove the blasphemer to the outside of the camp, and all those who heard shall lean their hands upon his head - The entire assembly shall stone him. And to the Children of Israel you shall speak, saying - Any man who will blaspheme his G-d shall bear his sin. And one who pronounces blasphemously the Name of Hashem shall be put to death, the entire assembly shall surely stone him; proselyte and native alike, when he blasphemes the Name, he shall be put to death. And a man -- if he strikes mortally any human life, he shall be put to death. And a man who strikes mortally an animal life shall make restitution, a life for a life. And if a man inflicts a wound in his fellow, as he did, so shall be done to him. A break for a break, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; just as he will have inflicted a wound on a person, so shall be inflicted upon him. One who strikes an animal shall make restitution, and one who strikes a person shall be put to death. There shall be one law for you, it shall be for proselyte and native alike, for I, Hashem, am your G-d. Moshe spoke to the Children of Israel, and they took the blasphemer to the outside of the camp, and they stoned him to death; and the Children of Israel did as Hashem had commanded Moshe" (Vayikra 24:13-23).
Hagaon Reb Ya'akov Kaminetsky zt"l once told us that for many years he could not understand this passage in the Torah and, although he searched all of the Commentaries, he could not find anyone who dealt with his simple question.
The Torah taught us a story of an angry man who vented his fury on Hashem and blasphemed His Holy Name. He was arrested, and Moshe waited to hear his punishment pronounced by Hashem. When Hashem finally instructed Moshe to have him stoned to death, in the middle of the parashah, before the Torah finishes the story by telling us that the Children of Israel did as Hashem had commanded Moshe, the Torah adds the laws of one who strikes mortally or wounds another person or an animal. "What," asked Reb Ya'akov, "do those laws have to do with the situation at hand? How did those laws creep into this passage?"
Rabbi Shlomo Rotenberg z"l, famed Jewish historian and author of Toldos Am Olam, used to say: "One who wants to comprehend incidents in Jewish History properly must use his imagination. Visualizing the scene, as if he were actually there, witnessing it, will help him understand things he might not have realized otherwise."
Similarly, Reb Ya'akov said that he grasped the answer to his puzzlement when he envisaged what must have occurred at the time of the event. Hashem had taken the Children of Israel out of Egypt, after having inflicting their oppressors with plagues and drowning them in the Sea. Hashem had chosen the Jewish People among all of the Nations of the world and given them His precious Torah which even the Ministering Angels coveted. Hashem provided them lovingly with Manna from Heaven and water in the desert and fulfilled al of their needs until they were lacking nothing. Suddenly, an ungrateful person, whose father was an Egyptian taskmaster, had the audacity to blasphemies the Holy Name of He Whom everyone loved with heart and soul. What must have been the initial reaction? Undoubtedly, there must have been spontaneous rioting and a great uproar as people dealt the sinner mighty blows. The zealots among them probably vent their anger on his possessions and animals too. Most probably, the policemen who arrested him had to save him first from the lynch mob that surrounded him.
Therefore, when Hashem told Moshe Rabbeinu how to punish the sinner, He also, at the same time, reprimanded those who took the Law into their own hands and He declared that they are just as guilty as he is for they, too, disobeyed the precepts of the Torah and are to be punished accordingly. Consequently, Hashem described the punishments which should be meted out to those who kill or wound people or animals.
Reb Shalom Shvadron zt"l would often complain about those self-appointed "Guardians of the Torah" who mix into affairs that are none of their business and should be dealt with solely by the Rabbis and the great leaders of the generation. As an example, he would tell the following, inspiring story which took place during World War I.
At that time, the Land of Israel was ruled by the Turks, who made Jewish existence here very difficult. In addition, the War caused tremendous hunger and the Jews in the Holy Land found it extremely difficult to survive. However, if a Jew did have money somehow, he could purchase basic needs from the Arabs.
In Jerusalem, at the time, lived a religious, upright Jew, who was a mohel (one who performs the rite of circumcision on others) by profession. Somehow, this Jew managed to acquire a Gold Napoleon coin which was worth a fortune. He stored it on top of a closet at home, and relied on it as a last resort in case of dire need. The price he could get for it, if he ever decided to sell it, would be enough to feed his entire family for at least half a year. But, for the moment, he and his wife knew that the coin should not be moved from its spot.
However, one day their young son noticed a shiny coin on top of the piece of furniture. Without hesitation, he climbed up and took it down. He was not old enough to differentiate between coins; he only knew that whenever he gave one to the local grocery man, he would give him a handful of candies and sweets in return. Feeling very lucky to have noticed the coin before his parents did, the boy ran to the store and came home with a nice supply of treats.
That evening, the mohel came home and noticed, to his horror, that his precious coin was missing. He immediately questioned his wife if the situation had become so bad that she had felt that she had to sell the Napoleon. When his wife denied all knowledge of the matter, they both called their son who readily admitted that he had taken the coin. When they asked him what he did with it, he told them happily that the grocery man had sold him a handful of candies for it. Totally shocked, the mother raced to the store and bombarded the storekeeper with accusations, calling him a thief and a cheat; one who takes advantage of children who don't know the value of currency.
After overcoming the initial astonishment, the grocery man denied the accusations vehemently and insisted that their son had given him a regular copper coin for which he had sold him the equivalent amount of candy. The woman was unmoved by his declaration of innocence and informed him that if he does not return the gold coin to her immediately, her husband will summon him to Beis Din (Jewish court of Law, according to the Torah). When he insisted that he has nothing to return, the mohel promptly called him before the Rabbinical Court.
At the Beis Din, the scene repeated itself. The distraught woman freely poured her contempt upon one who, in her eyes, exploits the innocence of youth for his own advantage, at the expense of the poor families who suffer because of him. The grocery man, on the other hand, insisted that he hadn't the foggiest idea who took her precious coin; he had only been presented with a standard copper one.
The Judges declared that according to the Halacha (Jewish Law), since no one had any witnesses, the grocery man could not be required to pay the mohel. However, this depended upon the store keeper's willingness to swear that his arguments were true; otherwise he would have to pay according to the accusation against him. The storekeeper responded that he has nothing to hide and is ready to take an oath that he did not receive a gold coin from the mohel's son. The circumstantial evidence had long convinced everyone that the grocery man was guilty, therefore all present in the courtroom were aghast that not only did he steal, but he was even willing to swear falsely. Most upset was the mohel who felt that in the Heavenly Court he would be held responsible for causing the storekeeper to swear untruthfully. He decided therefore, that he had no choice but to waive his claim and withdraw his accusation; although this meant suffering a great loss.
But things didn't end with that. The repercussions of the case were overbearing. Everyone was convinced that the grocery man had definitely stolen from a child and was even prepared to swear falsely to retain the loot. He was the talk of the town and he and his family were put to shame. People stopped buying from him and he suffered grave financial losses. "It serves him right," was the response to anyone who dared to defend him. "He should learn a lesson from this and improve his behavior," they all said.
Years later, when the War finally came to an end and the British ruled "Palestine," the mohel received a letter from a young man who wrote as follows: "A few years ago, during the terrible War, I was walking in the street and I noticed your young son with a Gold Napoleon coin in his hand. I thought to myself: my wife, children and I are literally starving; we may even die of starvation, G-d forbid, as many others did, and this little kid is walking around with a gold coin. How could that be? He must belong to some very wealthy family who has lots more coins like these. I could not resist the temptation, and decided that I would "borrow" the coin from him and return the money to you when Hashem would improve my lot. I called him aside, talked to him and played with him, and while he was distracted I switched the gold coin for a copper one. In this envelope I am returning what I took from you, under extenuating circumstances, and I hope you will understand my plight and forgive me."
The mohel's entire body trembled as he realized how true were the words of the Sages, "Judge everyone favorably" - yes everyone - even when he seems to be surely guilty.
After telling this story for years, in Israel and abroad, Reb Shalom was approached by a young man who said that he had heard the story from his grandfather, a great tzaddik (righteous man) who had lived in Jerusalem at the time. However, according to his version, the storekeeper told the Rabbinical Court that although he was innocent, he would not make a holy vow (since the Sages warn against swearing even for the truth) and would pay the mohel the full amount of his claim. However, he asked to be allowed to pay it out in installments. Permission was granted and he complied with the decision.
According to this version, we can surely imagine the hostility many people held for the man who would not back up his claim of innocence and was forced to repay the stolen amount. Therefore they ostracized him and refuse to patronize his store.
But most important are the grandfather's comments which the young man told Reb Shalom. "All three stars in this tragic episode," he had said, "are no longer alive. They surely had to give a reckoning for their actions before the Heavenly Court. Let us try to perceive which of them was punished in Gehinom. Surely not the innocent storekeeper, who suffered so much abuse and monetary loss for nothing.
"And probably not the mohel either. For how was he to imagine such a strange turn of events? Certainly he had reason to suspect the grocery man; especially after the Beis Din demanded a vow of him. Most probably the Heavenly Court exonerated him of all wrongdoing.
"And even the young man who actually took the coin was probably not punished for his actions. First of all, he was in an exasperating situation and may be deemed an ones (one who is forced to act against his will). Besides, he confessed his sin and made retribution in this world, returning what he had stolen.
"But do you know who was punished in Gehinom?" concluded his grandfather in ominous tones. "The people in the street who didn't mind their own business; those who took the Law into their own hands and decided that the storekeeper was guilty and worthy of punishment. Those who spoke lashon hara (slander) incessantly and boycotted his store illegally. Those of them who never repented were punished mercilessly for their terrible sins which caused undeserved harm and anguish to an innocent family!"
Let us learn from this terrifying story to mind our own business and leave judging to the learned Judges who rule solely according to the Torah. Better that we should befriend someone who does not deserve our friendship than we should, G-d forbid, harm someone innocent. If we do this, we will be blessed, in this world and in the World-to-Come.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network