Category Archives: issues of morality or ethics

Vo’eschanan – Little Sins Fuel Bigger Ones

The Kotzker Rebbe likely meant it as a poignant joke when he reportedly remarked that the reason the Ten Commandments had to be both seen and heard (Chazal describe the revelation at Har Sinai as a synesthetic experience – e.g. Yalkut Shimoni 299) was that the word “lo” in lo signov would clearly be seen written with an aleph, not a vav.

That is to say, the commandment is to be understood as “Do not steal,” not “Steal for Him” – which would imply that, for a holy cause, theft is a virtue.

But the Kotzker certainly intended his quip as a serious lesson: Lofty ends don’t justify forbidden means.

If a Jew should “bend the rules” with regard to business or governmental dealings, he is guilty of gezel akum.  Even if his intention is to benefit a charity or Jewish institution.

Hopefully, we all realize that. But when, on occasion, we have read of some such liberty-taking, it behooves us to consider the fact that even those of us who would never consider doing such a thing ourselves might have reason for introspection.

Because a fundamental concept in Judaism is the idea of arvus, that all Jews are intertwined, that we are all responsible for one another. And so, if a Jewish thief exists, it is the “fault,” in a sense, of us all. That’s why we say “Ashamnu…” – “We have sinned” – in first person plural.

That outright Jewish violator of “Do not steal” may have been empowered by our own, less blatant, thievery. Like gneivas daas, stealing another’s mind (misleading him); or gezel sheina, depriving another of sleep; or what Chazal consider to be “stealing from a poor person,” namely, not returning a greeting (Berachos 6b).

Many are the understandings of nachamu nachamu ami – the repetition of the word for “be comforted” in the haftarah of Vo’eschanan. But, considering that the word nechama can mean both comfort and change of heart (as in Beraishis 6:6), perhaps the repetition reflects, too, the fact that our repentance from small transgressions have an effect on preventing larger ones. 

And some comfort surely lies in that fact.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vo’eira – Nobody Will Get Stoned

Slight divergences between the Torah’s words or phrases and Targum Onkelos’ rendering of them are often laden with meaning.

One such seemingly minor change is in the Targum’s translation of Moshe’s words: “Were we to slaughter the deity of Mitzrayim in their sight, will they not stone us?”

Moshe, of course, was replying to Par’oh’s suggestion that, if the nation’s Jews needed to have a festive gathering, they could hold it within Egypt’s borders. Moshe responded that, since animal sacrifices would be part of the celebration, and Egyptians worshiped sheep, the suggestion was a non-starter.

The Targum renders “will they not stone us?” as “will they will not say to stone us?”

Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, zt”l, in Mei Marom, observes that Par’oh could certainly have posted soldiers to protect the Jews celebrating in Egypt. And so Moshe couldn’t really have expressed a fear of being attacked. He was expressing instead a refusal to get people upset.

How much there is to learn from this about middos, Rav Charlop muses. “Even when it comes to the greatest mitzvah, one should not do it in a way that causes others pain, even if there are no real repercussions.”

Obviously, there are mitzvos that might in themselves upset others; they must be performed all the same. But when a mitzvah or minhag might cause pain or outrage to some – kapparos in some public places is an example that comes to my mind – concern for the feelings of others are not something to be ignored.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran