The following drasha was given at the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo on Shabbos VaYelech, 5746 (1986), and transcribed from memory by Jeffery Zucker.
The entire series has been published in a book titled "Reachings" and can be ordered by calling 845-356-8948.
Comments and questions are very welcome.
Moses, in one of his last talks to the Jewish people announces his retirement, and the appointment of his successor, Joshua. He says: "I am 120 years old today, and can no longer come or go" (Deut. 31:2). Later we read "Moses was 120 years old when he died; his eye was not dim, and his natural force not abated" (Deut. 34:7). We seem to have a contradiction here! Why does Moses say that he could no longer move around? Rashi explains that he means: he is no longer was able to maneuver in Torah. In other words, the wellsprings of Torah have been closed to him.
The Ramban explains that this was a miracle. But this seems very cruel! After all, Torah was Moses' whole life. Is this his reward for a lifetime of teaching Torah, that he is prevented from going on with this? The Rambam goes on to explain that this was done so that it would be easier for Moses to give over the reins of leadership to Joshua. But this explanation also presents a difficulty: it is hard to understand how Moses of all people would be so petty as to find it hard to give up his position as leader.
To emphasize this point, let me recount a midrash. On the day of the transfer of leadership from Moses to Joshua, Moses went to visit Joshua in his tent. (This was unusual, for people usually came to Moses as Rabbi.) Joshua saw Moses coming and ran out to greet him. They walked together to the Tent of Meeting, where G-d would communicate with Moses, and Moses made Joshua walk on his right, symbolizing his new position of leadership. In the tent, the holy presence of G-d descended, for the first time, upon Joshua and not upon Moses. When the presence of G-d lifted again, Moses asked Joshua what it was that G-d had told him, Joshua replied "When G-d used to communicate with you did I ever ask you what G-d told you?" When Moses heard this he cried out: "G-d! give me a hundred deaths, but not this feeling of jealousy!" (Yalkut)
This is a remarkable story. We may be sure that if Moses, the humblest of all men, was susceptible to such feelings of pride and jealousy, then so is every person who has ever lived.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Gamla, the leader of the Sanhedrin in the 1st Century, said: "Before I accepted this office, if anyone had suggested it to me, I would have tied him up in front of a lion." (I presume this was a figure of speech!) "But now that I have this office, if anyone were to ask me to step down, I would pour a pitcher of boiling water on him! I learned this from Saul; before he became king he hid from the honor, but afterwards, when David wanted to take it away from him, Saul tried to kill him." (Talmud Menachot 98)
There is nothing more fragile than people's feelings. Here is a true story. A man I know borrowed ten thousand dollars from a friend of his, a multimillionaire. He agreed to repay him after a year. However, when the year was up, he found he did not have the money to repay the debt. But he did not speak to his friend about the problem, since he expected to find the money somehow soon. In this way, one week went by, two weeks, one month, two months, and he still could not find the money for repayment. But he still did not discuss the problem with his friend, since he kept on hoping that the money would turn up somehow.
By now he was too embarrassed to be even in the same room as his friend, since he could not stand the way his friend would look at him (although his friend never even brought up the subject). So he went to pray in another synagogue, and if he was at a wedding at which his friend would appear, he would leave immediately. Even this was not enough to stop his humiliation, since he could not avoid sometimes passing his friend in the street.
Eventually (since the money still did not turn up) he decided that the only thing left for him to do was to leave town. He told this to his Rabbi, who responded: "But why are you leaving?" You have a good job here, a good home, and your kids go to school here!" He then told the Rabbi the whole story, and the rabbi said: "Well, I can't stop you from leaving, if that's what you want, but at least go and talk to your friend!" Well, he steeled himself, and after some sleepless nights he went to his friend's home. Barely able to speak, he began: "You know, two years ago I borrowed ten thousand dollars from you ..." "You did?" the friend replied. "I'll check at the office tomorrow."
The point is this: This man's feelings, although they probably seems idiotic to us, were real enough for him, and it is our duty to be considerate of them. In fact, that is the halacha! According to the Shulchan Aruch, if someone owes you money, and know he cannot repay, you must not embarrass him by asking for it, or even discussing the debt in his presence, or even hinting at it, or even appearing before him, if that will embarrass him! (This is not to fault the behavior of the millionaire in the story, who was a tzaddik.) So concerned is halacha with people's feelings.
The desire not to be to be humiliated is as human as having eyes, a nose, and two ears. It is all in the way G-d made us. We don't find any divine criticism of Moses, Saul, or R' Yehoshua ben Gamla for their all too human sensitivities. What we consider as smallmindedness occurs even among the greatest of us.
At this time of the year, it is important for us to increase our concerns for our neighbors' sensitivities, and we do this by realizing that such sensitivities, even those we consider "mishigassen", are part of their reality, and are our concern as much as theirs.
A wonderful happy New Year to everyone.
Rabbi Yaacov Haber
Rabbi Haber is the OU's National Director of Jewish Education and
the spiritual leader of the OU's Pardes Program
"A tree of life for those who embrace it"
Send comments to Rabbi Haber at firstname.lastname@example.org