The next time a rabbi does not return a call as quickly as you think he should, or does something odd or even wrong, consider the following story:
It was a board meeting of a shul (synagogue) in a mid-sized community in the Midwest. A member rose to address the board.
"Mr. Chairman, I wish that I didn't have to ask for the floor, but an issue has come up that has to be discussed. I'm sorry to tell you that it concerns the professional actions of our rabbi. As you know, I am chairman of the committee dealing with the plans to renovate the Talmud Torah building. We are faced with a very tight construction deadline to have the building ready for the new school year. Last Monday evening I called the rabbi to review the architect's drawings in order to begin construction. He wasn't home, so I left a message for him to call me at my office in the morning. I told his wife that it was important. I didn't hear from him.
"When he didn't call me by noon on Tuesday, I called the synagogue office. He wasn't there, either. What made things even more annoying was that his wife said that she wasn't sure where he was. She couldn't help me. 'Yes,' she told me that she had given him my message of the night before. I didn't hear from the rabbi all day Tuesday. He finally called me late yesterday. When I asked him why it took him more than 48 hours to return an important call, he said that he couldn't tell me. He said that it was a confidential matter.
"Mr. Chairman, I don't want to sound bossy, but it seems to me that if a board member of some standing, I might add asks the rabbi about his activities, that board member deserves a better answer than that. I want to offer a resolution that this is the feeling of the board."
The rabbi sat in silence. He looked at the speaker with some discomfort. His eyes bespoke disappointment, but no regret.
The chairman, who had listened intently, lifted his head from the papers in front of him and responded.
"I appreciate your comments. They do credit to the dedication that has marked your many years of service to the congregation. I don't think, however, that it requires such a radical step. I am sure that the rabbi will take due note of the point you have made."
The board member then asked: "Mr. Chairman, thank you for your kind words. Perhaps the rabbi would tell us now, in the presence of the board, why he was unavailable for so long."
The rabbi shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table and clasping his hands in a tight grip. He showed no indication of speaking.
The chairman, taking his cue from the rabbi's silence, interjected: "I don't think this is the time to discuss this. Perhaps at another time we might include it on the agenda. I am sure that the rabbi will be happy to meet with you without further delay and complete your work on the building plans. Why don't you fix a date as soon as we adjourn this evening?"
The board member said nothing but flashed his sharp disapproval. The chairman heaved a private sigh of relief because he knew where the rabbi had been. On Monday evening the rabbi had been in the local jail.
For almost two days the rabbi had been working without stop to rescue the chairman of the board from a terrible humiliation. On Sunday the chairman's thoughtless 16-year-old son had agreed to take some unsavory school mates on a jaunt in the family car. The trip, which began as a high-spirited adventure, quickly deteriorated with a wild ride complete with bad women and worse liquor. By the time their escapade was over, the chairman's son was sitting in the county jail.
The chairman, a man with a fine reputation in both the Jewish and general community, was aghast when he was contacted by the police. He was concerned with both extricating his son from the arms of the law and preserving his good name in the community. He turned to the rabbi for assistance. The rabbi spent the next two days using his considerable influence to remove the name of the young man from the police blotter. This required discreet meetings with a series of public officials.
To assure total confidentiality, and to remove all distractions, the rabbi worked from the chairman's home. To the great relief of the chairman and his family, the rabbi was successful in shielding them from public embarrassment. His reward for his efforts was the prospect of a board resolution of censure.
The chairman, the beneficiary of the rabbi's assistance, did not explain or defend him.
The rabbi was left with a bad mark and a bitter taste.
From "Orthodoxy Awakens: The Belkin Era and Yeshiva University", by Victor B. Geller, pp. 36-37. (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)
"Mishpatim," the name of this week's Torah portion, means "ordinances." This portion is the classical source of Jewish civil and criminal law damages, murder, manslaughter, theft, custodians of property, loans, the judicial process.
One of the laws listed here is verbal abuse. Exodus 22:20-22:
"You shall not taunt or oppress a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not cause pain to any widow or orphan. If you [dare to] cause him pain . . . for if he shall cry out to Me, I shall surely hear his outcry."
Taunting in Hebrew, "oppressive words" means verbal abuse. Bullying. Excessive teasing. Making a person feel bad. Highlighting a person's failings, or inherent deficits, or misfortunes, or bad looks, or familial disgrace, or awkwardness, or foolish remarks.
People rarely taunt someone without cause. They respond to something a person is doing or has done to call attention to himself. A rabbi, who, after all, is always supposed to be available and never supposed to ignore anyone, leaves himself wide open for remarks by his silence.
In response, synagogue members may have felt the right to have the proverbial field day.
"Rabbi, where were you?"
"Rabbi, why aren't you answering?"
"Rabbi, please, don't be rude."
"Rabbi, do you have anything to hide?"
I omit rougher variations.
Keep in mind, the rabbi's behavior is not something that he may later explain. His apparent rudeness, or dereliction of professional duty, is something that must remain on the record.
He is a prime candidate for verbal abuse, and can do nothing about it only others can, by remembering the Torah's injunction against verbal abuse.
Obviously, the story of this rabbi is just an example. Anyone can do something inexplicable, yet have an excellent reason not to explain it.
"You shall not taunt or oppress . . . " That is: Do not act on your negative judgement of another person.
Ethics of the Fathers already warns against judging others unfavorably, which applies even without acting on a negative judgment. The point of the verse in this week's Torah portion is not to misbehave verbally.
What about the limitation in the verse not to taunt strangers? Is it only strangers who should not be taunted? Clearly, the law against verbal abuse applies universally.
Why would the verse apparently limit it?
The verse says not to taunt a stranger because "you were strangers in the land of Egypt."
Although the actual survivors of the Egyptian slavery soon died out, the intent of the law is for all who followed the survivor generation. They, too, need to feel the pain of slavery.
In fact, the Torah is filled with references to slavery as a primal reference point for all Jews. Sabbath, for example, is "in remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt." All Jews are supposed to feel what it was like to be a stranger in Egypt. There is no limitation in the verse.
Rashi, the foremost commentator, amplifies: If you feel justified in taunting a "stranger" the Other remember, you, too, are "the Other." Your ancestry is no better than the stranger's. Each Jew must consider himself a stranger in Egypt to learn a lesson in humility and equality.
A more technical comment by Rashi: The verse seems limited to strangers for the simple reason that slavery in Egypt was the only possible context for the generation that actually received this message.
The Torah is so exercised about verbal abuse that it takes a rare step: It leaves a verse incomplete. "If you [dare to] cause him pain . . . !" If you dare, what? The Torah does not say. No consequence is listed. The verse is an expression of disgust: How low, how mean, to inflict pain verbally.