Time to put an end to personal attacks (Shabbos 17)

Aharon was aghast. Lying by his feet was the lifeless body of his brother-in-law, Chur. Having stood up to the frenzied mob, he was murdered in cold blood. If he failed to act swiftly, they would continue their murderous rampage and an idolatrous jaunt would soon become a bloodbath.

‘Go and ask your wives for their jewellery,’ he suggested, knowing that such a request would undoubtedly forestall their plans.  Sure enough, the women refused to partake in the terrible act of treachery against God and Moshe.  But that didn’t stop the people.  They ripped off their own jewellery and gathered up their gold and silver.

Aharon collected their wealth and cast it directly into the fire.  Can you imagine the shock on his face when the Golden Calf emerged?  All he had wanted to do was to use every opportunity possible to stop the people from sinning and to delay their iniquitous endeavour.  And yet, his engagement and participation would lead to the impression by many that he was a willing accomplice to their crime.  Far from it.  Aharon’s only shortcoming was his lack of courage to stand up to the evildoers who had bullied him into submission.

Because it’s never easy to stand up to a bully.

הַבּוֹצֵר לַגַּת, שַׁמַּאי אוֹמֵר: הוּכְשַׁר, הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר: לֹא הוּכְשַׁר. אָמַר לוֹ הִלֵּל לְשַׁמַּאי: מִפְּנֵי מַה בּוֹצְרִין בְּטָהֳרָה וְאֵין מוֹסְקִין בְּטָהֳרָה? אָמַר לוֹ: אִם תַּקְנִיטֵנִי, גּוֹזְרַנִי טוּמְאָה אַף עַל הַמְּסִיקָה. נָעֲצוּ חֶרֶב בְּבֵית הַמִּדְרָשׁ, אָמְרוּ: הַנִּכְנָס — יִכָּנֵס, וְהַיּוֹצֵא — אַל יֵצֵא. וְאוֹתוֹ הַיּוֹם הָיָה הִלֵּל כָּפוּף וְיוֹשֵׁב לִפְנֵי שַׁמַּאי כְּאֶחָד מִן הַתַּלְמִידִים. וְהָיָה קָשֶׁה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל כַּיּוֹם שֶׁנַּעֲשָׂה בּוֹ הָעֵגֶל. וּגְזוּר שַׁמַּאי וְהִלֵּל וְלָא קַבִּלוּ מִינַּיְיהוּ, וַאֲתוֹ תַּלְמִידַיְיהוּ גְּזוּר וְקַבִּלוּ מִינַּיְיהוּ

When one harvests grapes in order to take them to the press, Shammai says they become susceptible to impurity, and Hillel says they do not become susceptible. Hillel said to Shammai: If so, why do we harvest grapes in purity, but we do not harvest olives in purity?  Shammai said to him: If you provoke me, I will decree impurity on the gathering of olives as well.  The dispute became so intense that they stuck a sword in the study hall, and they said: One who seeks to enter the study hall, let him enter, and one who seeks to leave may not leave, so that all of the Sages will be assembled to determine the halacha. That day Hillel was bowed and was sitting before Shammai like one of the students. And that day was as difficult for Israel as the day the Golden Calf was made.  And Shammai and Hillel issued the decree, and the people did not accept it from them. And their students came and issued the decree, and the people accepted it from them.

Hillel and Shammai have a legal disagreement.  Hillel questions Shammai’s reasoning.  But instead of explaining his position, he overreacts and threatens to double down on his position.  Hillel cowers to the back of the room and meekly bows to Shammai’s position.  They try to issue a ruling accordingly.  But by that time, Shammai’s students are so zealous about their teacher’s words that they won’t accept the original position he had articulated.  Now they wanted blood.  They would take nothing less than his double-down position.  And until they got their way, nobody was going anywhere.

The Talmud Yerushalmi tells us that they stood there, swords and spears drawn, to make sure that the students of Hillel could not enter the voting ‘pit’, and that their position would win the day.  The Chasam Sofer explains the analogy to the Golden Calf.  Just like Aharon, who was bullied into submission and engagement in the heinous act of the crazed masses, poor Hillel and his students had no choice but to capitulate to the zealots who were fixated on getting their way.  Well, what do you know, when a vote was taken, the students of Shammai were victorious.  Just like the eirev rav – the wayward masses – who led the people to the sin of idolatry, they were successful in their endeavours, which is hardly a success by anyone’s measure.

The truth is that Hillel never really agreed.  Nor did Aharon.  They were bullied into acceptance.  And that’s why the Torah never really blames Aharon for standing at the helm of the sin of the Golden Calf.  Because he had no choice in the matter.  They were standing there, swords and spears in hand.  Had he resisted, he’d have met the same fate as Chur.

Just before Moshe builds the Tabernacle, he gathers the people together, “Vayakhel Moshe.”  Why specifically at that moment did he gather them?  Rabbi Moshe of Pshedvorsk says that one must fast forward a millennium to understand Moshe’s motivation.  The Holy Temple was destroyed on account of ‘sinas chinam’ – baseless hatred between people.  The secret to the Tabernacle’s endurance, explains Moshe to the Israelites, is to be gathered together in unity.

The last few years have seen increasingly unprecedented levels of ill-will, viciousness, and anger, in our society.  Differences of opinion that were heretofore respected and debated have now descended into ad hominem attacks and thoughtless jumping onto the bandwagon of fellow echo chamber members.  Many have the attitude that if someone doesn’t agree with them, they’ll set out to destroy not just their opinions but their right to an opinion and their very reputation.  That’s classic sinas chinam.

If an idea is intellectually sound, you shouldn’t feel the need to bully others into submission to accept your opinions.  And just because they’ve given up trying to defend their position doesn’t make you right.  It just means you were out-screaming them.  When you are comfortable with your own position, there’s no need to delegitimize the other person.  Even if they don’t agree with you, even if you believe they’re outright wrong, it’s okay, they’re entitled to their opinions.  And differences of opinion should never degenerate into personal enmity.

We can never fathom God’s ways.  To suggest a reason for the incomprehensible is blasphemous.  Nevertheless, these dark days must be a time of deep introspection.  We need to ask ourselves how far we would go to be reunited with family members, community members, and neighbours, even if they might have differing political attitudes and worldviews to our own.  When we’re prepared to respect and tolerate and show love, we demonstrate to our Father in Heaven that we’re ready to enter our Tabernacles, the places of communal unity, our synagogues and places of learning.

Now, more than ever, we need lovingkindness in the world.  It’s time we started to listen to one another and respect one another.  May you use this ‘alone’ time for self-introspection regarding the people in your life you might have hurt by your superciliousness, and may you actively seek to mend those relationships, so that we will all be ready to live in peace, harmony, and unity very soon, by the grace of God.

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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