Monday, March 23, 2015

Parsha Tzav: How to Address Others' Misdeeds

There are some who can't help but derive pleasure from the misfortune of others in what psychologists call Schadenfreude. Not only that, there are also some who try to one-up others by making others' misdeeds apparent while deflecting their own. After all, it's much easier to point out everyone else's faults than one's own faults. What does this have to do with this week's Torah portion?

While describing the sacrificial system, G-d makes the following directive in the Torah: 

And G-d spoke to Moses saying: "Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying: 'This is the law of the sin offering. In the place where the burnt offering is slaughtered shall the sin offering be slaughtered before G-d; it is most holy.'" -Leviticus 6:17-18

The Jerusalem Talmud (Yevamot 8:3) states that the sin offering and the burnt offering were conducted in the same place in order to save sinners from embarrassment. With this policy in place, one does not know whether the individual was making a donation in the form of a burnt offering or an actual sin offering. The aforementioned Levitical text ends up being used as a prooftext for the Sages to institute the halacha that prayer, particularly when one's sins are confessed, be recited silently because it avoids the embarrassment for those who wish to confess their sins to G-d during prayer (Talmud, Sotah 32b). What R. Zelig Pliskin teaches in his book, Love Your Neighbor, is that the verse ultimately illustrates the lesson that "we must be very careful not to cause someone embarrassment or discomfort because of past misdeeds (p. 228)." 

Perhaps this sagely advice is incorrect. It is possible that by airing your dirty laundry in public, it would provide people with an incentive to to behave better in the future. Using the stick could very well work better than the carrot. However, not only is this assumption un-Jewish in nature, but it also ends up being a counterproductive approach. 

Ego makes it difficult enough for one to admit their shortcomings, never mind actually doing something to overcome them. If one is operating in a system that publicly humiliates people for erring, the most probable incentive is that one would become even more prone to hiding one's wrongdoings instead of confronting them. This perverse incentive would create a community of fa├žades and moral devolution. If publicly embarrassing others is not the way to go, then what is?

I think the approach needs to be twofold. The first has to do with mentality. "There is no individual on earth so righteous that he doesn't sin (Ecclesiastes 7:20)." As tempting as it is to think that we can perform optimally 100 percent of the time, the truth is that we all have our off-days. Whether intentionally or not, we all make mistakes. Pirkei Avot gives sound advice when approaching others' misdeeds, such as "judge the entirety of a person in their merit (1:6)" and "don't judge someone until you have been in their place (2:4)." To quote King Solomon again, "a just person may fall seven times and rise (Proverbs 24:16)."

If we are to love our neighbor like we love ourself (Leviticus 19:18), we would want individuals to treat us in a loving manner with regards to our mistakes, which brings me to my second point. Rebuke is a necessary component of love, which is why rebuke is juxtaposed with love (Leviticus 19:17). "Love not accompanied by criticism is not really love (Genesis Rabbah 54:3)." Even so, there is a certain way of going about it. First, make sure that you're not guilty for the same wrongdoing. As the Talmud opines, "Correct yourself before correcting others (Bava Batra 60a-60b; Bava Metzia 107b)." Even if you are not guilty of the same wrongdoing, there is something to be said for doing it lovingly, patiently, and in private (Rambam, Hilchot Da'ot, 6:7), all of which increase the probability that the individual will change their behavior. 

While it's true that the sacrificial system is not currently instituted, the sacrificial system can still teach us basic, yet important, lessons about the human condition. With the right type of encouragement, we can both preserve human dignity and continue to foster the very sort of constructive character development that was one of the primary intents of the sacrificial system all those years ago.

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