I vaguely recall a father recollecting a Shabbat experience wherein his three year old son was pounding his two year old daughter. After being duly admonished and receiving his requisite lecture, the boy knowingly responded: “Abba – we don’t hit on Shabbat?” The kid had figured it out; hitting his sister was a Shabbat prohibition. He could hardly wait for havdala.
A classical verse from our parsha [Vayikra, 19:14] evokes similar muddled inferences.
You shall not curse a deaf person and before a blind person you shall not place a stumbling-block; you shall fear your G-d, I am Hashem.
And what if the fellow is not deaf?
Rashi, [based on Sifra] presents the classic Midrashic approach: The general prohibition of cursing is derived from a verse in Mishpatim [Shemos, 22:27]. Here, the Torah wants to qualify the prohibition by limiting it to the living. On some level, the deaf person is barely or least alive(1). Thus the Torah warns: you may not curse anyone who possesses a human neshama; by delineating the outer limits, the Torah exempts one who curses the dead(2).
Ramban is not fully satisfied. Let the Torah say it straight. If the sole point is to limit the prohibition to the living, why couch it in ambiguous halacha-speak? Rashi’s midrashic approach does not seem to teach why the Torah chose the deaf man, davka as the target. Ramban thus shares two notions:
.. the Torah is speaking about a common case because an individual will curse the deaf person and will place the stumbling block in front of the blind, because he doesn’t fear them, for they do not know and they will not understand. And therefore, the Torah says at the end of the pasuk, “be fearful of God” because God sees the hidden.
Why choose the deaf? Simply put: He is the likeliest of victims, the one who will never know he is being compromised. Thus, in the same verse the Torah prohibits the stumbling block for the blind, the common denominator that they are both easy targets. The classic phrase veyareita m’elokecha, one that appears five times in the Torah is the veiled warning reminding the Jew that even if your victim doesn’t know, God does.
Perhaps more significantly, Ramban also teaches:
.. the Torah mentions the deaf person .. even though he will not hear nor be upset by your profanity, the Torah still prohibits cursing him. [we do not even need to express the prohibition for those who will hear that will be embarrassed and become very angry].
Here the Torah chooses the one who will not suffer shame nor bear embarrassment. If the Torah prohibits cursing him, how much more so the one who hears and will suffer. From the Torah’s lone example, we can derive a general principle.
One glaring point still needs clarity. Forgive me for this obvious question. Placing a stumbling block in front of the blind, metaphorically and literally is prohibited because the victim is negatively affected; When cursing the deaf, no psychological, emotional and physical harm has been done. Ostensibly we are dealing with a classic “victimless” crime. So, why is it forbidden to curse the deaf? On this point, Ramban remains mysteriously silent.
I suspect that the sensitive reader might be angry with the question and would instantly posit [at least one of] four notions:
- He might find out. In Solomonic language: the bird of heavens will carry the voice
- Metaphysically, words create realities. Beware the power of an uttered curse, no matter the source. [cf. Shach, 19:14]
- Rationally, words create a climate with implications that go well beyond the present
- The curser will develop a penchant for the behavior. [cf. Rabbeinu Bechayei]
I agree with all four, but none qualify as intrinsic reasons; they are all, shall we say worthy secondary notions. All actions beget consequences. The inappropriate word creates distance between parent and child, husband and wife, friend and friend. But that’s not the point here.
It is the incredible yesod of Rabbeinu Bechaye that we must consider, for he teaches that in every act of sin, we are the ultimate casualty.
Every morning, we speak of the neshama tehora – the pure soul, the vehicle of connection with God, one that allows us entrance into the deepest places and the most sublime feelings. Yet, we decide what to do with the soul. We are the repositories of the neshama. God says: Beyadcha aphkid ruchi – in your hands I give you the great surety. Use it as a vehicle of connection between you and I.
When we engage in sin, independent of the target, we are the greatest victim – for we have created a chasm between Man and Creator.
On occasion I interface with the student who feels wronged because he took the test honestly, a lone ranger in a classroom of deceit. Now, Rebbe, I will suffer – because I did not cheat. (Of course, he will never turn in the cheaters – but that’s for a different discussion). What does one say to that student? I have tried many approaches:
- “Cheaters never prosper?” – Oh really, look – he got into a great college
- “Eventually, it will catch up to him – he’ll cheat on his taxes and go to jail” – That’s probably not true and even if it is – that’s in twenty years. Where’s the justice now?
- “After 120 years, he’ll have to speak to God”. Now, I have to wait even longer
The only thing to say to the student (and ourselves) is to sit him down and look him straight in the eye and declare: I don’t know what will be with the future – but one thing I can tell you is that those cheaters have to wake up tomorrow morning and recognize that in the deepest of places, they have sullied their soul and that work needs to be done. You my dear student can go to sleep with the same neshama tehorah you woke up with.
Would you want to give that up? Would I?
1. This is not meant as a politically incorrect statement. Cf. Kli Yakar who explains the midrash based on the principle that one who cannot hear is unable to function in society [cf. Bava Kamma 85b – cheirsho, nosein lo demei kulo]. It could also be we are talking about obligation in mitzvot and the subject of the Torah is the deaf-mute – who is not liable for mitzvot.
2. There is still a cherem placed upon one who speaks against the dead.
Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.