Selected Sermon/Article
2000-08-07 Devarim by Rabbi Ze'ev Smason
Do not embarrass others
It once happened that a rabbi was delivering his drasha, when a congregant in the back of the shul turned his head to the side, put his hand to his ear, and said, "Louder." The rabbi raised his voice somewhat and continued with his drasha, which wasn't particularly interesting. After a few minutes, the man in the back again said, "Louder!" The rabbi strained even more and continued on, but by now his drasha had become quite boring. The man in the back of the shul again said, "Louder!" At this point, a man in the front row couldn't stand it any longer and yelled back to the man in the rear. "What's the matter, can't you hear?" "No,", said the man in the back. "Well,", said the man down front, "move over, I'm coming back to join you!"

There are very few of us who can deliver criticism effectively, without hurting the feelings of others. If we're truly honest with ourselves, we'll admit that we sometimes use a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel in pointing out mistakes to the 'other guy', and in the process, alienate strangers, friends and relatives.

In the first verse in this weeks Sedrah, we see a listing of several places that Bnai Yisrael travelled to during their 40 years of wandering in the desert - but no further mention is made of the significance of these locations. Rashi points out that Moshe Rabbanu desired to list various places that Bnai Yisrael committed mistakes against G-d. Why, Rashi asks, didn't Moshe also specify the mistakes that were committed?

While on the one hand Moshe desired to deliver rebuke, he merely hinted to the various mistakes, rather than spelling them out in black and white out of a concern for Bnai Yisrael's dignity and honor. A central principle of of interpersonal communication is taught us by the Torah - even when giving rebuke, avoid embarrassing people, honor them, and be careful with their dignity.

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz explained in his book Sichos Mussar, that this applies not merely to the congregation as a whole, but even to wicked individuals. The Medrash explains that Bilam's donkey died immediately after rebuking his master, which we read about several weeks ago in Parshas Balak. Rashi explains that had the donkey lived, people would have pointed to it as the creature who rebuked Bilam - who was unable to respond. G-d was concerned about Bilam's honor, so therefore, He killed the donkey.

Think about this, ladies and gentlemen - who are we discussing here? Bilam!! A man who distinguished himself as a true paragon of evil, who sought to curse and destroy the Jewish people. Nevertheless, Bilaam's honor took precedence.

Rabbi Shmuelevitz points out that it's not only the honor of great rabbis that should concern us, but even of rebels and wicked people. So much more so should we be careful to avoid publically condemning and publically embarrassing the vast majority of the people we know - people who are basically good, but on occasion make mistakes.

Embarrassing others publically carries risks. William Howard Taft was once in the middle of a dignified political speech, when a wiseguy heckler threw a head of cabbage on stage. Taft turned to gaze down at the cabbage, and announced "Ladies and gentlemen, I see that one of my opponents has lost his head!"

One area that many of us need to work on, in terms of issuing proper rebuke, involves children. Some of us might be extremely careful not to hurt the feelings of others...but take broad liberties with our own children, as if their feelings don't count. Criticising them in front of other adults, and even in the presence of their own siblings should be avoided, if at all possible.

Care in protecting the dignity and honor of others is quite relevant to this time of year. In several days, we'll reach Tisha B'Av, the day on which both Temples were destroyed. The Second Temple was destroyed, as many of us know, because of needless hatred between Jews. In the conclusion to the well known passage that describes the events that led to the destruction of the second Temple, the gemara in Gittin says, "Come and see the incredible power of embarrassment, for the Holy One, Blessed be He, helped Bar Kamtza, and He destroyed His House and burned His Temple."

Benjamin Disraeli once said, "It is much easier to be critical, than to be correct" Let us learn to be extremely careful with the honor of all others, and treat them with dignity and respect....and in that merit, may we merit to see the rebuilding of the Bais HaMikdash (Temple), speedily, in our days.