Stop Barking and Start Listening

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – January 25, 2012

In the Torah section of Bo, we approach the final end to the Egyptian enslavement of the descendents of Israel.  The Al-Mighty G-d, L-rd of the Universe, stretched out his arms, as it were, slapped the Egyptian slave masters with ten devastating plagues and embraced the offspring of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, about to lead them out of decades of persecution.

As the climax to this episode comes to a conclusion, Moses foretells the final plague and notes (Sh’mot 11:6-7), “There shall be a great outcry in the entire land of Egypt, such as there has never been and such as there shall never be again.  But against all the Children of Israel, not a dog shall whet its tongue.”  The Egyptians suffer for their actions, but the children of Israel enjoy blissful serenity.

As regards the aforementioned verse, a wistful anecdote is cited (Yisrael Yosef Bronstein, VeKarata L’Shabbat Oneg, p. 86) concerning R. Yaakov Krantz, known as the Dubnow Maggid (1741-1804).

One time, the Maggid came to a particular community, and, as was his custom, asked to speak in the synagogue.  The community members, who were not the most upright Jews, agreed, but under one condition.  They had heard of his fabulous parables and stories and would love to hear them, but without any mention of verses from the Holy Scriptures.  They did not want to hear verses from the Holy Scriptures.

In answer to this unusual request by this community’s members, the Maggid said he can respond with a parable.  Once upon a time, a teacher went for a walk with his students in the city’s nearby forest.  As they approached the forest, the teacher turned to his students and said to them that if, perchance, they are attacked by dogs, they should not panic.  Rather, they should immediately say the verse: “But against all the Children of Israel, not a dog shall whet its tongue.”  Saying this verse is a wondrous remedy that wards off attacking dogs.  As fate would have it, only a few minutes later, a number of dogs appeared and ran to attack the teacher and his students.  The teacher immediately ran for cover.  His students, seeing their teacher run, ran away too.  When they came to safe ground, the students inquired of their teacher why he did not say the verse.  To this query, the teacher responded:  “You are right my dear boys, but what am I to do if the dogs did not allow me to say a verse.”

Indeed, it is very hard to have sufficient composure to make lofty or serious statements when being barked at.

Worthy of note is a comment by R. Isser Zalman Meltzer in his Even HaAzel on the verse (Sh’mot 2:13), “And he [Moses] went out and behold two Hebrew men were fighting, and he said to the wicked one, ‘Why do you strike your fellow?’”  R. Meltzer points that when two descendants of Israel fight among themselves while savage hate and animosity to them abounds around them, where any Egyptian could claim a license to beat one of their brethren, then that entails tremendous short-sightedness and wickedness, such that Moses could not stomach.

The great medieval luminary Maimonides declares in his halakhic work Mishne Torah (Deot 6:3): “It is commanded of all to love every single one of Israel as himself, for it says, “Love your fellow as yourself’.  Therefore, one must speak positively of him [his fellow Jew] and care about his wealth as he cares about his own wealth and desires his own respect.  And one who takes honor by deriding his fellow has no share in the World to come.”  Even when one sees legitimate fault in his fellow’s behavior, Maimonides emphasizes (Mishne Torah, Deot 6:7-8), “One who chastises his fellow whether regarding something between the two of them or between his fellow and G-d, he must chastise him in private and speak to him softly. …It is forbidden to embarrass him and certainly not in public.  So have said the Sages, ‘One who embarrasses his fellow in public has no share in the World to Come.’”

There is a rather well known story told over by our Sages about a certain Kamtza and Bar Kamtza (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 55b, 56a).  Once a certain individual hosted a gala dinner and asked to have his friend Kamtza invited.  By mistake, someone with a similar name, Bar Kamtza, whom he did not like, was invited.  Seeing Bar Kamtza at his dinner, the individual was incensed.  Despite Bar Kamtza’s pleading and begging to be left to stay at the dinner, he was barked at and summarily shamed and banished from the event.  Our Sages tell us the hatred exhibited towards Bar Kamtza, symptomatic of the general narrow minded hatred that reigned among Jews at the time, led to a chain of events that eventually cost the Jewish people their Temple, the Bet HaMikdash (see Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9b).

Upon examining the aforementioned story, one may notice that the Sages do not even hint at whether the individual was at all justified in his dislike for Bar Kamtza.  That does not matter!  What is evident is that the manner in which he denigrated and embarrassed Bar Kamtza, like the two of Moses’ brethren who fought in the midst of rampant hatred, was uncalled for and reprehensible.  The situation could have been handled with much more diplomacy.  Even Bar Kamtza’s offer to pay the dinner’s host was rejected.  The host refused to listen to even a word spoken by Bar Kamtza which, in the end, triggered only further animosity and unthinking behavior.

When barking reigns, by way of verbal abuse, mud-slinging and unbridled hatred, as we see happening to this very day, no room is left for positive discussion, correction or improvement.  In light of our Sages’ condemnation of narrow minded hatred and the catastrophic consequences that can arise, does anyone think that barking derogatory epithets at our fellow Jew who may have wronged one of us will bring a solution to any problem?  Or do we not care about a solution to the problem?  And if a small sub-group of a given section of the population does something wrong, does that justify condemning the entire section?  And if someone has a certain bad trait, even reprehensible, does that mean that the person has nothing positive to offer?  Or are we so consumed with hatred for those that we choose to deride that we have no interest in their positive traits?  Is anyone of us so perfect and lofty that we cannot see the good in our fellow Jews, similar or different, the least of whom our Sages say (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 57a) is full of merit like the seeds of a pomegranate?  In light of this statement of our Sages and Maimonides’ declaration above, does anyone of us have a right to look at any group of our fellow Jews as so evil that they deserve nothing but abject derision?  Must we inflate our view of the facts and deflate the other’s so that matters explode and go out of control and innocent people, who may look like or talk like the ones who wronged us, are caught in the cross-fire?  Are we so myopic, content with the cliques that we are a part of, that we are content with our own narrow minded self-satisfaction and have no interest in the overall good?  Can we not disagree civilly and listen to and tolerate differing views?

We must stop barking and start listening!  Only through dialogue can we bring about any solution to problems among us.  Even if we have a legitimate gripe, hanging out our dirty laundry for everyone to see and slinging mud at one another will not solve any problems.  All such behavior will do is bring embarrassment to all of us, especially as hatred for Jews reigns all around us by non-Jews who claim a license to attack Jews, their homes and their possessions – in Israel and all over the world.  Narrow minded hatred led to the destruction of our Temple, the Bet HaMikdash.  Is it not time that we put a stop to this behavior that only serves to magnify the hatred of both sides of the given altercation and brings derision from those around us?  Is it not time that we stop barking and start listening?