Dear Talmidot, Parents and Friends –
1) Faculty Devar Torah – Rav Uri Cohen
2) Mi She-Berach List
Ask Me If I Care
Rav Uri C. Cohen
Flanders: What would the neighbors think!
Lisa: We're the neighbors and we don't think!<1>
There are two opposite middot (character traits) which should be avoided. They are caring too much about what other people think and not caring enough about what other people think. We will describe these two extremes and suggest how to navigate between them.
The first middah is caring too much about what other people think. It is a symptom of an underlying problem, namely lack of self-confidence. How insecure is someone who keeps checking whether their friends will approve of this outfit, this outcome, this outlook? The message is, "My opinion doesn't matter." It's sad, really.
A classic example of this bad middah appears in the famous Gemara which many learn around Tisha B'Av, the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. The relevant part for this devar Torah is the story of what happened when the rabbis realized what Bar Kamtza was doing. He convinced the Roman Emperor to send a korban (sacrifice) to the Beit HaMikdash (Temple), and then he put a mum (blemish) in thekorban. That way, it wouldn't be offered and Bar Kamtza would be able to accuse the Jews of rebelling against Rome. As the curtain rises:
The rabbis wanted to offer it, for the sake of keeping the peace with the government. Rabbi Zekhariah ben Avkulos replied, "They will say, 'Blemished animals may be offered upon the altar!'" [The rabbis] wanted to kill [Bar Kamtza], so that he couldn't go and inform [on the Jews]. Rabbi Zekhariah ben Avkulos replied, "They will say, 'Anyone who blemishes a sacrifice is put to death!'"
Rabbi Yochanan said: The meekness (anvetanut) of Rabbi Zekhariah ben Avkulos destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary, and exiled us from our land.<2>
Normally, anavah (humility) is one of the best middot. Yet here it contributed to what was arguably the worst destruction in Jewish history. What went wrong? Apparently Rabbi Zekhariah ben Avkulos didn't balance his humility with self-esteem, so it was expressed as meekness -- which is incompatible with good leadership. A leader needs to lead, not follow. Caring too much about what other people think is a badmiddah in a regular person, and catastrophic in a leader.
The second middah is not caring enough about what other people think. It is a symptom of an underlying problem, namely overconfidence. How arrogant is someone who blows off everyone else and never considers the possibility that he may be wrong about that person, that position, that path in life?<3> The message is, "Only my opinion matters." It's sad, really.
The source for the moral obligation to care about what other people think is in the Chumash, and we read it every year around this time.<4> Two-and-a-half tribes wanted to settle on the eastern bank of the Jordan. Moshe got upset with them because it looked like they didn't want to participate in Bnei Yisrael's war to conquer the Land of Israel. When they reassured him that they would indeed participate, Moshe responded that only then could they settle where they wanted:
Vih'yitem nekiyim meHashem umiYisrael (You shall be innocent as far as God and as far as the Jews).<5>
According to Chazal, this is not simply a prediction for then ("You will be innocent"), but rather a prescription for now ("You should be innocent"). It is applied in Mishnah Shekalim (3:2) to restrict the kohen who was moving the money that had been donated to the Beit HaMikdash. He couldn't wear shoes or any clothing with pockets or a hem, because people might suspect him of embezzling. (TheYerushalmi adds that a kohen would be disqualified for this job even just for having curly hair.<6>) The mishnah elaborates that if he later became rich, people would say that it was from the embezzled money; and if instead he later became poor, they would say that it was a punishment for embezzling money! The mishnah concludes by providing two verses as support for this concern: "Vih'yitem nekiyim meHashem umiYisrael" and "Umatza chen vesekhel tov be'einei Elokim ve'adam (You shall find favor and a good name in the eyes of God and people)" (Mishlei 3:4).
In other words, you do need to care about what other people think, at least as far as making sure not to create suspicion about yourself. This is easier said than done. The Chatam Sofer comments wryly that the difficulty of Vih'yitem nekiyim bothered him his whole life. He suggests that this is what Shlomo was thinking of when he wrote, "There is no one so righteous on earth that he [always] does good and never sins."<7> Even if someone avoids all actual sin, it is next to impossible to avoid being suspected of sin. It isn't easy, but we have to try.
Now that we've established that it's bad to care too much or not to care enough about what other people think, what exactly are we supposed to do? The answer is to use each middah sparingly, as follows.
When Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai became ill [and was on his deathbed] . . . his students said to him, "Our teacher, bless us!" He responded, "May it be [God's] will that you fear Heaven as much as you fear flesh and blood." The students asked, "That's it?!" He told them, "If only! You should know that when a person sins, he says [to himself], 'Other people shouldn't see me!'"<8>
In other words, you should apply your concern about what other people think to prevent yourself from doing what you know is wrong.
The flip side appears in the Rema at the beginning of the Shulchan Arukh. After he cites the verse of "Shiviti Hashem l'negdi tamid (I have placed God before me always)"<9>, he urges the reader: "Do not be embarrassed in front of those people who make fun of you for serving God."<10> In other words, you should apply your lack of concern about what other people think to motivate yourself to continue doing what you know is right.
As Rabbi Pliskin sums up, the key is to ask your self the right question. Instead of asking "How will people look at me," ask "What's the right thing to do?"
1. The Simpsons, Episode CABF15, “I'm Goin' to Praiseland,” original airdate May 6, 2001.
2. Talmud Bavli, Gittin 56a.
3. The title of the second volume of the memoirs of Nobel-prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman is What Do You Care What Other People Think? In contrast, Robert Fulghum suggests a bumper sticker saying "I may be wrong." See his book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (Fawcett Columbine, 1993), p. 48.
4. The shorter version of the story appears in Parashat Devarim, and the longer version is in Parashat Mas'ei.
5. Bamidbar 32:22.
6. Talmud Yerushalmi, Shekalim, end of 3:2.
7. She'elot uTeshuvot Chatam Sofer, Vol. 6 (Likkutim), #59, citing Kohelet 7:20.
8. Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 28b.
9. Tehillim 16:8.
10. Rav Moshe Isserles, Mapah on Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 1:1.
11. Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, Gateway to Happiness (Jerusalem, 1983), p. 288. This is part of the chapter called Approval-Seeking.
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