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Hashem is very strict concerning our relations between Man and our fellowman. We should never forget that 6 out of the Ten Commandments are about that. And mitzvah after mitzvah throughout the Torah we are instructed to love our fellowman, to help him as much as possible and certainly not to harm him in any way. We are told that we must forgive and forget, never bearing a grudge even in our hearts. The Ramchal, in his classic Mesillas Yesharim, states that the prohibitions against revenge are “easy, only for the celestial angels,” not for human beings. It seems, then, that when it comes to caring for another person, the Torah demands that we exert super-human energies.

The more one studies the intricacies of the Torah’s mitzvahs shebain adam lechaveiro (between Man and his fellow-man), the more he cannot help being amazed at how it delved into the deepest psychological emotions of the human psyche and commanded us accordingly. There are many situations in which we would surely feel that “no harm was done,” and, strangely enough, even the victim himself might agree. Yet, the Creator of Man, Who knows him better than he knows himself, recognizes even the inner pain he himself may not be conscious of and forbids us from causing it.

In this week’s parashah we are taught, “If a man shall steal an ox, or a sheep, and slaughter it or sell it, he shall pay five oxen in place of the ox, and four sheep in place of the sheep” (Shemos 21:37). Why does the thief pay less for a sheep than for an ox? Rashi brings the words of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai who said, “The Omnipresent has much consideration for the honor of His creations; when an ox, an animal that can walk by itself, has been stolen and sold or slaughtered, in which case the thief had not to degrade himself by carrying it on his shoulder, he has to pay fivefold restitution. However, in the case of a sheep, which he had to carry on his shoulder, he has to pay only the fourfold, because he was forced to degrade himself by carrying it.”

The Alter of Kelem points out that one who is used to doing something, doesn’t usually feel shamed or degraded by it. Besides, he says, a thief, in general, has a strong personality as is not embarrassed so quickly. So the robber who carried the sheep on his shoulder, as he escaped the scene of his crime, most probably was not at all humiliated by it.

We may wonder then, why does the Torah decrease his punishment by one fifth? If someone were to ask the thief himself whether he felt disgraced by what he had to do, he would most probably not even understand the question.

The answer is that the Torah does not deal only with the person’s conscious feelings, but even with his sub-conscious. Somewhere, very deep down, underneath that rough exterior, lies a sensitive soul which feels terribly degraded by the fact that he had to be a public spectacle, running through town with a sheep on his back, and, even though he brought this discomfort upon himself, Hashem, Whose mercy knows no bounds, pities him and reduces his punishment by an entire fifth!

My Rebby, shlita, once told us an amazing explanation of a story in the Talmud (Semachos 8). It is related there that when the Nasi (Prince), Rabban Shim’on ben Gamliel and Rabi Yishmael were taken out to be executed by the wicked Romans, Rabban Gamliel was crying. When Rabi Yishmael expressed his surprise that such a great man would react this way before being martyred for Hashem’s sake, the Nasi explained that he was lamenting because he was being killed like one who has murdered or desecrated the Shabbos. Rabi Yishmael suggested that perhaps once when he was sitting at a meal and (or) sleeping, a widow came to ask a she’elah (a halachic question) and his servant told her that he was sleeping. If so, the Torah tells us (in this week’s parashah), “You shall not cause pain to any widow or orphan. If you cause him pain…My wrath shall blaze and I shall kill you by the sword, and your wives will be widows and your children orphans” (Ibid. 22:21-23).

The Rebby asked; If, perhaps, the widow had to wait awhile to get an audience with Rabban Gamliel. Do you think she minded? On the contrary, she probably bragged to her friends that she had the opportunity to be in the palace of the Prince of Israel for an extended period of time! Why, then, should Rabban Gamliel be killed for causing her pain when she felt no anguish at all?

The answer is that, just like with the one who stole a sheep, Hashem deals with one’s inner feelings too, and there He searches for even the slightest discomfort. And if this discomfort was caused by someone, then he is responsible for it and will be punished accordingly.

That is why when Moshe Rabbeinu hesitated to accept the mission to save the Children of Israel from Par’oh, as much as it hurt him to see his brothers and sisters in pain, because he was afraid that his older brother Aharon would be slighted that the mantle of leadership was taken from him and given to his younger brother instead; Hashem assured Moshe that Aharon would not mind and said, “Behold, he is going out to meet you and when he sees you he will rejoice in his heart” (Ibid 4:14). It did not suffice to tell Moshe that Aharon would not be upset, for perhaps, deep down, inside, he would feel somewhat affronted. But Hashem, Who can examine even Man’s innermost feelings testified that “he will rejoice in his heart,” he won’t have the slightest objection to Moshe’s appointment and will even be delighted to the core. Only then did Moshe agree to be Hashem’s representative to Par’oh and take His people out of bondage and lead them to the Holy Land.

How careful we have to be, then, not only not to upset someone externally, but even internally. How cautious must we be of other people’s slightest sensitivities, feelings which they themselves may not even be aware of. We must think and rethink our words and our actions before they get out of our control, and be certain that they will not upset anyone, even in the most minuscule way.

I remember some advice Rabbi Varshavchik zt”l once gave me when I got my first job in a sleep-away camp. “Be careful not to step on his toes,” he said, referring to the owner of the camp. Then he corrected himself and said, “No, actually that’s not enough. Because if one day you’re not careful, you will, then, step on his toes indeed. A better suggestion is that you give him unlimited honor. That way, even if one day you won’t honor him properly, but at least you surely won’t step on his toes.”

If we honor Hashem’s creations, He, in turn, will honor us in this world and the world-to-come.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel