Weekly Torah Commentary – Behar May 9, 2014

BEHAR Leviticus 25:1 0 26:2

On two occasions in this week’s Torah portion, we are instructed not to afflict our fellow Jew.

In the first instance, the Torah states: “When you sell an item to one of your people or buy from one of your people, a man should not afflict his brother.”

A few verses later, the Torah seemingly repeats itself: “Do not afflict your people and fear your God, because I am HaShem, Your God.”

There is no redundancy here: there are two different types of onaah (affliction); the first verse refers to onaat mammon – affliction relating to money. The second relates to onaat devarim – hurting someone else through our words. In general the Rabbis do not compare two specific Mitzvot and say that one is greater than another; however, in this instance they compare the two means by which we afflict one another. At first glance one might think that causing financial distress to someone else would be the more severe offense because of the very real loss incurred by such an ‘affliction’, whereas hurting someone else verbally does not cause them to lose something tangible.

Or does it?

Our Sages teach us that the greater sin is hurting another person with our words. There are three reasons given for this conclusion.

Firstly, the phrase ‘fear your God’ is included in the verse that commands us not to hurt others with our words, but it is not included in the commandment regarding hurting another financially. One commentator points out that causing financial harm to another is quickly noticed and recognized. However, it is easier to hide one’s true intentions when harming someone else verbally for when we do, we are actually showing that we are more concerned about our own feelings or opinions than those of others and we forget that God knows the true motivations of our hearts. Therefore, the verse says, ‘fear your God.’

Secondly, causing financial distress to another person harms their property, but causing verbal distress is far worse because it damages the person’s very being, specifically his or her emotional well-being – the damage done by a careless, a thoughtless or an angry word can penetrate to their very essence. A well known psychiatrist tells of a highly respected man in his fifties who came for counseling because of a traumatic childhood experience. An elementary school teacher once humiliated him in front of an entire classroom by calling him “an absolute idiot.” That single experience damaged him so deeply that it stayed with him for the rest of his life.

Thirdly, if someone steals money or property from another, he can repair the damage caused by returning that which was stolen.

However, when we harm someone else with words, those words can never be taken back. It is a common occurrence in relationships, especially in marriage, that a few insensitive words have long-lasting damage and that damage can only be healed through sincere repentance on the part of one who spoke and the recipient’s choice to forgive. Following an act of forgiveness, it then becomes essential for the one who was offended or harmed by hurtful words to purpose in his heart to let go of the offense. You may have heard the phrase: “I’ll forgive but I’ll never forget.” Those words ALSO constitute a violation of the commandment not to cause harm because they deeply damage the one who speaks them!!
To say we forgive and then hold on to the experience allowing resentment and bitterness fertile soil to grow within our own emotional person is just as – if not more – damaging to ourselves than the intial hurt caused by the other person’s unkind words to us. To do this requires our firm commitment to follow another commandment of the Torah: “You shall be holy as I am holy.” When God forgives our sins, the prophets tell us, He “remembers them no more.”

It is very clear how serious this issue is and, admittedly, it is a very difficult Mitzva to observe faithfully. We are constantly involved in conversation with other people and it is very easy to hurt their feelings through a thoughtless or unkind statement. And, because all of us tend to speak so much we forget how serious a sin it is to hurt other people’s feelings.

One technique to help us be more careful of this mitzvah is to remind ourselves frequently that in the very beginning of Beresheit/Genesis, we read how God created the entire universe with the words of His mouth. “And God said, Let there be….and there was…”

Our words are more powerful than we usually realize. We are made in His image and likeness, it says in Genesis. His words created all that we see and more. Our words are also creative. The question we must ask ourselves is this: What am I creating with my words? A beautiful, harmonious world? Or a destructive and painful one?

In Tune with Torah this week = it behooves all of us to frequently examine ourselves with regard to this particular commandment and to regularly seek God’s help in the use of this magnificent power he has entrusted to us – the power of speech.

Shabbat Shalom

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