Class Notes - Class #13

We continue this series of mitzvot that govern interpersonal interactions.  In the last class, we saw a prohibition on cursing another Jew, mitzvah #231, a prohibition on giving bad advice, mitzvah #232, and a prohibition on gossip, mitzvah #236.  Our author does not give a great deal of detail in his discussion of these mitzvot.  The goal is to understand the principles so we can apply those principles in our day-to-day lives.


            The source verse for mitzvah #237, Lev. 19: 16, says we should not “stand over the blood of your brother.”  In other words, when we see another Jew in danger of death or physical injury, we should not refrain from helping.  This is a negative mitzvah; it prohibits us from refraining from helping.  Thus, violating this mitzvah is not punishable because one violates it without acting.

The author says the shoresh of this mitzvah is known; society will be more settled and peaceful if people come forward to help each other.  The person who helps now may need help at another time.  This mitzvah encourages us to protect others, even people we do not know personally.  It encourages a sense of everyone being “in it together.” 

The author cites the midrash halachah for examples:  if we see someone drowning, attacked by animals or attacked by bandits, we should help if we can or hire someone who can help.  These are just examples; we can imagine many other parallel cases.  This contrasts with American law, which makes no similar demand unless the potential rescuer has some special relationship with the person in danger.          

            The author provides more information on one of these examples.  This mitzvah requires that we intervene to protect someone attacked by robbers.  That is an example of cases where one person is trying to kill someone else.  This mitzvah requires us to try to stop the potential killer.  The author adds that, if necessary, we stop the killer by killing the potential murderer.

            The author extends the reach of this mitzvah to at least one case of helping to protect someone else’s property.  If someone is being sued over a financial transaction, and someone else has relevant information about the transaction, this mitzvah requires that person to offer testimony to the deciding court.  We might be tempted to stay out of the conflict, but this mitzvah tells us not to refrain from getting involved.

            The author does not deal with many important questions related to this mitzvah.  Must I put myself in danger to rescue someone else?  Must I try even if it appears my efforts will be futile?  Must I help someone in danger of minor injury?  Does it matter if the danger is self-inflicted?  Is this mitzvah limited to cases where the danger is happening in my presence?  If not, does this mitzvah mean I need to donate to every charity that saves lives?  Are there limits to when we kill someone trying to murder someone else?  Does this mitzvah require us to protect other people’s property in ways other than offering testimony in pending cases?


The remaining mitzvot in this series are very closely related to each other; each mitzvah effects the performance of the other mitzvot.  The source verse for mitzvah #238, Lev. 19: 17, says, “you should not hate your brother in your heart.”  There is some emotion that triggers this mitzvah, but the author does not define what that emotion is.  The source verse says “hatred,” but that hatred might include fury or anger.  Once I have that emotion about another Jew, this mitzvah prohibits me from harboring that emotion in my heart.  Either I have to figure out how to get over the emotion or I have to confront the person I hate and try to resolve whatever is causing the hatred.  Otherwise I violate this mitzvah.  Other mitzvot impact how I should go about confronting the person I hate, should I choose to do that, and we will see those mitzvot shortly.

            In order to decide which of those two options to take one needs to do a close analysis of the underlying problem.  I would need to figure out why I feel the hatred.  If I cannot find a good reason, I probably need to figure out how to let the hatred go.  I do not want to confront the person I hate if my hatred has no justifiable cause.  If I do have a good reason for my hatred, I probably want to analyze the situation carefully before I confront the person so I raise the issue that is actually the cause of the problem.  In thinking that through, I may discover reasons why the person I hate behaved in a way that angered me.  Once I understand that behavior, I may not be so angry.  I may own up to ways in which I contributed to the behavior that led to my hatred.  

             The word “achicha,” “your brother,” in the source verse has additional practical significance.  We are prohibited from hating our brothers, but not from hating wicked people.  The author does not define wicked people, but he does say that we are required to try to get the wicked person to change his evil ways before we are permitted to hate that person. 

            The author explains by way of shoresh that sustained hatred strains social connections.  It can lead to violence.  It can lead to betraying Jews to the government, a topic the author discussed in mitzvah #236.  The author says concealed hatred causes worse effects than revealed hatred, although he does not say why.  He also does not mention the corrosive effect of sustained hatred on the person who hates someone else.

            To understand mitzvot #239 and 240 we need to read the source verse carefully.  Lev. 19: 17 begins with the prior prohibition on hating another in one’s heart, and then continues, “you shall certainly rebuke you co-national and not bear sin because of him.”  The mitzvot in this verse are inter-related.  If I hate someone and cannot or will not let that hatred go, I need to confront that person and try to get the wrongdoer to change behavior.  The final clause of the verse is subject to several different interpretations.  If might be giving a reason why I should confront the wrongdoer:  if I could get the wrongdoer to improve his or her behavior and I do not do so, then I am partly responsible for any further wrongdoing the person does.  Or it might be explaining how I should rebuke the wrongdoer:  I should try to get the wrongdoer to change behavior but I myself might be sinning if I do not handle that rebuke as I should. 

Mitzvah #239 requires that we try to get another Jew to change his or her wrongful behavior if our intervention might be successful.  Mitzvah #240 prohibits our embarrassing others, especially embarrassing someone in an attempt to get that person to change his or her wrongful behavior.  The plethora of self-help materials we are all familiar with shows how difficult it is to get people to change behavior. In the shoresh of mitzvah #240 the author emphasizes the great anguish that people experience when they are shamed.  Our author gives seemingly contradictory advice:  Keep nagging the wrongdoer to change behavior, but only if nagging has a reasonable chance of helping and only if our nagging does not cause embarrassment.  The author plays this out in more detail.

The midrash halachah looks at the repetitive language in the source verse, which says, “hocheiach tochicah,” “you shall rebuke rebuke.”  That sort of repetitive Biblical language is a form of emphasis.  Here it is understood to emphasize one’s obligation to try to get a wrongdoer to shape up; I nag the person as many times as it takes, even a hundred times, until the wrongdoer is ready to resort to violence. 

But I am limited to nagging the wrongdoer without hurting or embarrassing the wrongdoer.  The author says I start by speaking softly and gently, and holding the conversation in private.  I should not call attention to the issue in public, or leave the person angry and embarrassed.  If that quiet conversation is not effective, I might have to publicize the matter even if that is embarrassing. In mitzvah/essay #240, the author says there is less concern for publicizing the bad behavior if that behavior violates a mitzvah between a person and God rather than between one person and another person.  (The author does not tell us how to tell the difference between those two types of mitzvot, and there are many close cases.)  If the person is violating a mitzvah between a person and God, I might publicize the bad behavior, embarrass the person in public, even condemn and curse the person.

 But only if that is likely to lead to better behavior.  If the proposed intervention isn’t going to get the wrongdoer to change, my job is to keep quiet.  Nothing good will come from a hopeless intervention.

This rubric means that, when someone is behaving badly, we need to think carefully before we decide how to react.  First we have to be sure the person really is behaving badly.  The person might be doing things that seem bad to us, but we might not know all the relevant facts or understand the situation from that person’s point of view.  Then we need to figure out how we might intervene effectively without embarrassing the person.  If that doesn’t work we might consider stronger intervention, but only if that intervention has a reasonable chance of success.  If there is no reasonable chance of success, we are wrong if we try to intervene. 

The author reflects this conundrum as he articulates the shoresh.  If someone has hurt me or treated me badly, and I approach that person quietly and appropriately in private so that the person understands what he or she has done wrong, and then the wrongdoer apologizes, everyone is better off.  If I do not approach the person and try to resolve the problem, and instead I continue to be angry, things are likely to get worse when I encounter the person in the future.  By way of example, the author cites the story of Amnon and Avshalom that appears in 2 Samuel 13.  Amnon, son of King David, raped his half-sister Tamar.  Avshalom, Tamar’s full brother, found out about the rape. Tamar took refuge in Avshalom’s house, where she stayed for two years.  Avshalom did not confront Amnon during that time.  Instead, he hatched a plot to kill Amnon, which he carried out two years later. 

There is a real double bind here.  If we do not intervene when intervention might be effective, we bear some of the blame for the wrongdoer’s bad behavior.  If we intervene successfully and the person repents, God will credit us with having helped that happen.  But if we hurt someone in an ineffective attempt to get the person to behave better, we are at fault.

The prohibition on embarrassing someone goes beyond situations where someone is trying to get someone else to correct bad behavior.  Rather, we are prohibited from shaming or embarrassing other Jews.  Again the author gives a Biblical example, the story of Tamar and Yehudah in Genesis 38.  (This is a different person with the name Tamar.)  The story assumes rules about male family members being required to marry the widow of other family members, and those rules are not entirely clear.  Tamar was married to one of Yehudah’s three sons.  Tamar’s husband died, one of his brothers died and the third brother was too young to marry Tamar, so Yehudah told Tamar to return to her father until the youngest brother grew up.  Tamar apparently thought Yehudah should have married her himself.  She set herself up as a prostitute when Yehudah was passing by.  Yehudah did not recognize her, and she ended up pregnant with Yehudah’s child.  When Yehudah found out that Tamar was pregnant, he assumed she had had sex with an unrelated man and declared that she be killed.  Tamar defended herself by showing Yehudah the personal items he had left with her as surety for the payment he owed her.  Thus, she let Yehudah know that she was pregnant because of his encounter with her, but she did so without embarrassing him in public.  (The story also credits Yehudah, who owned up to the situation when confronted with the evidence.)

Our author ends this pair of mitzvot by emphasizing how important it is not to embarrass someone.  Since violating the prohibition on embarrassing someone involves speech but not action, it is not punishable by a court.  But, the author reminds us, God has many other ways of exacting punishment.

Mitzvot #241 and 242 put a different kind of limit on how we respond when someone treats us badly.  They prohibit taking revenge and bearing a grudge.  The author explains these mitzvot through examples.

The prime example of taking revenge is responding in kind.  Let’s say I ask to borrow something and the proposed lender refuses.  Later the proposed lender wants to borrow something from me.  I might be tempted to refuse; I might want to respond by saying “Why should I lend you something when you refused to lend me something earlier.”  But that would be taking revenge.  If I have some appropriate reason to refuse, for example I am planning to use the requested item or the requested item is broken, that’s fine.  If I do not have an appropriate reason, I should agree to the loan.

The author gives a parallel example of bearing a grudge.  I try to borrow an item from someone and the proposed lender refuses.  Later the proposed lender wants to borrow something from me.  I agree to the loan.  So far so good.  But if I tell the person I am lending it despite the other person having refused to lend to me earlier, I violate this mitzvah because I am bearing a grudge.  But the mitzvah is not limited to behavior.  It also prohibits keeping someone else’s bad behavior in mind.  In that sense, it is parallel to the prohibition on hating someone in one’s heart, mitzvah #238.

In discussing the shoresh of the prohibition on taking revenge, our author repeats a theme we have seen earlier in this series of mitzvot: revenge increases contention, and society is more peaceful with out it.  The author also suggest that when someone harms us, we might focus less on the person who hurt us and more on the possibility that this might be God’s mechanism for sending us what we deserve.  Rather than reinforcing the anger we feel at the person who does us harm, we should wonder what we might have done to deserve being harmed. 

The author illustrates this with the story of King David’s encounter with Shimi ben Gera in 2 Samuel 16.  David’s son Avshalom attempted a coup, and David and those who were loyal to him fled.  On the road then encountered Shimi, a descendent of Saul.  Shimi cursed David, claiming David was responsible for the death of Saul.  One of the fighters accompanying David stepped forward to kill Shimi, but David stopped him.  David said God might have mandated Shimi’s curse, and that God might credit David for refraining from violence.

So far, this series of mitzvot focus on our responses to others who hurt us.  The mitzvot require that we analyze the situation and act carefully and thoughtfully, but with utmost consideration for the feelings of others.  None of these mitzvot requires that we be naive in response to the behavior of others.  We are allowed to consider the rational implications of other people’s behavior.  If someone wants to borrow something of mine, I may not refuse because the person would not lend something to me.  I may not lend but remind the person of his or her prior past refusal.  But I may refuse if the person broke or lost the last several things they borrowed from me.  If I invite someone to visit and the person leaves with my silver candlesticks, I need to find a way to resolve the anger I feel either by forgiving or by confronting the thief.  I may not seek revenge or carry a grudge.  But next time I expect a visit from that person, I am not required to leave the silver tea tray out on the counter.

So far we have mitzvot telling us what we should not do.  Mitzvah #243 sets a positive model for how to treat other Jews: “v’ahavtah l’re’echa c’mocha,” “love you neighbor as yourself.”  The halachic literature does not generally discuss this mitzvah in emotional terms; it is hard to fulfill to have a specific emotion.  Rather, the halachic literature defines this mitzvah in terms of actions: do not do things to others that you do not want others to do to you.  This applies to people’s bodies, emotions and property.  It applies to what we say about someone to other people; the author echoes the Jerusalem Talmud in condemning a person who “derives honor through disgracing” someone else.  (Presumably, if someone does not mind behavior that many other people find objectionable, the person ought to avoid that behavior toward others.)  This mitzvah has a positive aspect as well: God wants us to behave toward others with love, joy and peacefulness.

The author cites Rabbi Akiva’s famous statement that this mitzvah is “clal gadol batorah,” “a great principle in the Torah.”  Our author understands this to mean that, if we treat others the way we want to be treated and avoid harming others we will automatically avoid many prohibited actions.  We won’t steal from others, cheat others, speak badly of others, etc.  By fulfilling this mitzvah we avoid violating many other mitzvot.