Tolerance of Difference

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – June 5,2012

Towards the end of the Torah section of Beha’alotkha, after Miriam, with her brother Aaron’s consent, spoke disparagingly about Moses for distancing himself from his wife Tziporah, G-d rebukes them saying (Bamidbar 12:8), “Why did you not fear to speak about My servant, about Moses?”  In his commentary on this verse, Rashi explains that G-d said, “It would have been wrong to speak about My servant even if he was not [as righteous as] Moses.  Additionally, it would have been wrong to speak about Moses [being as righteous as he is] even if he were not My servant.  All the more so if Moses is My servant, and the servant of a king is a king.  It is not without cause that I love him.”

The aforementioned can be further clarified by an anecdote concerning the great Chassidic leader R. Yaakov Yitzchak HaLevi Horowitz (1754 – 1815), known as the Chozeh of Lublin and involving the eminent author of Ketzot HaChoshen, R. Aryeh Leib HaCohen Heller (born 1745), a staunch opponent of Hassidism (see Sholom Smith, A Vort from Rav Pam, pp. 175 – 177).

One month, in the town where R. Heller served as rabbi, a number of the Chozeh’s followers publicly performed Kiddush Levana (sanctification of the new moon) after the latest prescribed time by Jewish law.  When R. Heller criticized their violation, these individuals brazenly shamed and scoffed him, upon which R. Heller excommunicated them for 30 days.  Forced to leave town, these individuals went to Lublin to cry to the Chozeh about their treatment, but, to their surprise, when they asked for an audience with the Chozeh, he refused to meet with them until their excommunication terminated.

Once their excommunication ended and they were permitted to meet with the Chozeh, he berated them for shaming R. Heller.  Quoting the above comment of Rashi, the Chozeh asked what it means that Moses was worthy of respect even if he were not G-d’s servant?  “If he wasn’t G-d’s servant, would there be an obligation to honor him?”  His followers stood dumb-founded, puzzled by the question and unable to answer.

The Chozeh said that Rashi’s comment can be understood in light of an anecdote (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 34b) concerning the Tanna R. Chanina ben Dosa who came to study with R. Yochanan ben Zakkai.  When shortly afterwards, R. Yochanan ben Zakkai’s son fell ill and he asked R. Chanina to pray for the child’s welfare, R. Yochanan’s wife was surprised, asking, “Is R. Chanina greater than you that you ask him to pray for your son?  Are his prayers answered and yours not?”  R. Yochanan responded, “R. Chanina is like a servant before the king, while I am like a minister.”  Rashi explains that, while he may have a much higher position, a minister only can access the king with an appointment or when summoned by the king.  On the other hand, a servant is always in the company of the king and can make requests of him at any time.  This is why R. Yochanan asked R. Chanina to pray to G-d for the child.

The Chozeh concluded that it is a similar situation with regards to R. Heller, who is a minister of G-d and one of the great Torah leaders.  While R. Heller may not see things exactly the same way as the Chozeh and other Hassidic leaders, he is still deserving of respect and is to be treated with dignity.  “We Hassidim,” the Chozeh continued, “may consider ourselves servants of the King, but that does not permit us to be rude and disrespectful to such a great man who is like Moses, even if he is not My servant.  A person has to tremble in the presence of such a great Jew, even if his way of life and service to G-d differs from ours.”

The Chozeh’s followers understood his rebuke and his message and returned to R. Heller to apologize.

Indeed, among us, different individuals choose different ways of serving G-d, and we may even have legitimate reasons for disagreement, but we must all show tolerance and respect for another.  The alternative is senseless and unproductive strife – sinat chinam – as a result of which our Bet Hamikdash was destroyed and remains unbuilt to this day.  We must show tolerance of difference and respect for another.  This is the message of the Torah.  This is the message of G-d.