Embarrassing Moment, Eternal Consequences

“These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan, through the wilderness, in the Aravah near Suf, between Paran and Tofel, and Lavan, and Chatzerot, and Di-zahav (Devarim 1:1)

Rashi: Because these are words of reproof and he is enumerating here all the places where they provoked G-d to anger, therefore he suppresses all mention of the matters in which they sinned and refers to them only by a mere allusion contained in the names of these places out of regard for Israel.

In the last 36 days of his life, Moshe Rabbeinu addressed the Jewish people with parting words of rebuke. He opened his remarks with a list of places where the people camped during their 40-year sojourn in the desert. Some of the names, however, are unfamiliar and were not listed in last week’s listing of 42 encampments. Rashi explains that they are not the actual names but rather hints referring to the places where the people angered Hashem. If Moshe intended to deliver words of mussar, why did he conceal the real names? Wouldn’t it have been more effective to openly mention the places of the people’s transgressions? Rashi explains that Moshe was sensitive to the possibility that the people might become embarrassed at the mention of their poor behavior and so he only mentioned “gold” rather than the calf, etc.

The Midrash Yalkut Shimoni (Remez 938) reveals an additional insight that would explain Moshe Rabbeinu’s unusual behavior. The Midrash says: “Moshe Rabbeinu said, ‘If I should deliver the rebuke clearly, I will embarrass them, and I won’t merit a share in the World to Come; therefore, I will merely hint at the incidents.’” Astounding! The leader who took his people out of Egypt, who miraculously led them through the sea, who ascended to Heaven to bring down the Torah and who prayed for them at times of crisis was afraid he would lose his share for eternity because he might say something that might embarrass someone!

The truth is, we should not be surprised at his uneasiness. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (3:11) states: “And the one who embarrasses his friend publicly… even though he holds Torah and good deeds in his hand, does not have a share in the World to Come.”

A Rabbi opened an institution in Yerushalayim that veered slightly from the path of our true masoret, resulting in concern to the Gadol Hador, Harav Shach. Although the Rosh Yeshivah was past 90 years old, he troubled himself to travel from Bnei Brak to Yerushalayim to see the Rabbi.

When Rav Shach entered, the Rabbi’s wife quickly served some tea and sweets to the esteemed sage. Rav Shach quickly started conversing with the Rabbi. He asked about his family. He inquired about many unrelated issues. It was totally out of character for the Torah giant to engage in small talk, but so it went for 20 minutes. Then, surprisingly, the Rosh Yeshivah told his companion that he should pull up the car because he was ready to return to Bnei Brak.

On the way back, the puzzled driver asked, “Kevod Rosh Yeshivah, I don’t understand. We traveled all this way to give the man rebuke and we left without a word towards that goal.”

“How could I do so with his wife by the door?” Rav Shach replied.

“Well,” the driver said, “I could have asked the Rebbetzin to give the two of you a few private moments.”

“Don’t you think she would have insisted on knowing why we came?” Rav Shach countered. “He would surely have been embarrassed.”

Unfortunately, too many people are lax in avoiding embarrassing others. A quick barb, a passing insult or a mean comment, they feel, is not so bad. Yet, the Torah considers it “spilling blood.” The Gemara (Sotah 10b) says, “It is far better for a person to cast himself into a fiery cauldron rather than insult and embarrass a friend publicly.”

During these nine days, when sinat chinam — baseless hatred — is on our minds, each of us should resolve to work on showing respect to our friends and neighbors, especially in a public forum. With our behavior leaning towards fostering unity, we can prompt Our Creator to transform days of sadness to weeks of happiness and salvation speedily and in our days. Amen.

Shabbat shalom.

Tizku l’nechemat Tzion!