Go All Out for Sensitivity
Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Lubochinski succeeded his father as Rabbi of Baranovich, Poland. One of the first issues with which he was faced was brought to him by the community leaders. They requested the rabbi’s permission to fire the elderly shamash (caretaker) of the main synagogue.
The shamash’s work was taxing. He woke while it was still dark to start a fire in the oven in the synagogue so that the early risers who came to learn before daybreak would find the place warm and lit up. Then at the end of the day, he was supposed to assist the late-night learners, providing as many candles as they needed. When the last person left, the Shamash would straighten the benches, replace the books on the shelves, clean the candle holders, wash the drinking glasses, put out the fire, and shovel the coals. How much time remained for him to sleep, until his early wakening? Just an hour or two, no more.
The beadle had fulfilled his position loyally for decades, but old age had taken over. He was no longer agile, and he was nearsighted and short tempered. But the most serious complaint was that after he would lock up the shul at night, he would go home to sleep, and not wake up until after the prayers. The congregants would find the synagogue locked, cold, and dark. This could not continue. They asked the rabbi’s permission to find a new shamash.
They were right. But what would be with the shamash? He had given the community his best years; now they would throw him away because he was no longer useful? This wasn’t just shaming/embarrassing… there was no pension fund, no social security. How would he live? Would he have to beg?
“Talk to him,” the peace-loving rabbi suggested. “Maybe he’ll try harder.”
The delegation shrugged. “We spoke to him, but he’s not neglectful; he just can’t do it anymore. He’s just too old.”
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way. I’ll speak to him.”
The rabbi spoke with the shamash, and the community was happily surprised to see that, apparently, his heartfelt words reached the old man. The early risers, with the rabbi at their head, were once again greeted by a lit up, warm shul. The shamash, nowhere to be seen, had gone back to sleep. The issue of firing him was forgotten.
No one would have guessed that although the rabbi had spoken to him, it was to no avail. The rabbi saw that the elderly man was doing the best he could, and he was filled with compassion. So the rabbi began a new early morning routine. He would get up at two a.m., unlock the shul, set up the candles, arrange the firewood in the oven, fan them into fire, and slip away back home. Then he would return with the first group of synagogue-goers and loudly praise the shamash who had returned to performance.
One night, the shamash couldn’t fall asleep. His clock chimed one, one thirty, two, two thirty. “Well, if I’m up, I can at least fulfill my duties,” he figured. He got dressed and shuffled through the snow, shivering in the frost. When he neared the shul, he was taken aback at the light that shown from the windows.
As long as he was young and able-bodied, the homeless had feared him. But now, look, how they had made the shul their home. What chutzpah!
He was suddenly filled with indignation, which lent him borrowed strength. He ran up to the shul and threw open the door. Yes! He was right. There was a guest running the place. Not only had this vagabond set up candles, he was now at the business of heating up the big oven, just like he owned the place!
“How dare you? This belongs to the synagogue! Put out that fire!”
The rabbi was stooped over the cool logs, coaxing the fire to them. It wasn’t easy work. He heard the beadle’s voice in the background, and froze. If he would stand up, the shamash would see him and know who had been taking care of the shamash’s nightly job. He would see that it was the rabbi himself who was covering up for him, and that would shame him. Rabbi Lubochinski didn’t move.
The shamash was right behind him now, yelling obscenities. Now for sure I can’t get up. He’ll see who he is cursing at.
“Are you deaf?” the shamash screamed, and dealt blows to the part of the rabbi’s body not in the furnace.
Now I really can’t show my face.
Fortunately, the shamash’s strength ebbed away, having not slept yet, and after exerting himself with his anger.
He dragged his legs away, enraged.
Meanwhile, the rabbi’s efforts had taken effect, and the fire caught onto the twigs with a jolly crackle. As the fire spread, the rabbi heard the shamash’s footsteps leaving the doorway, and he drew his head out of the burning oven at the last minute. But his beard was already singed.
He slipped away as stealthily as he could so the beadle wouldn’t see him, and arrived home via a circuitous route. His wife was appalled by the sight of his red face and burnt beard, so he told her the story, with her promise not to share it during the shamash’s life. He wrapped a scarf around his chin as though he had a tooth ache.
Before he left, his wife said, “Yaakov Yisrael, just one question. What would you have done if the shamash had stayed there another two minutes?”
“I don’t understand the question,” the rabbi said gently, turning back to look at her. “Our sages said it is better to jump into a fiery furnace than to shame a fellow man. Surely then I would not have been permitted to leave the fiery furnace.”
Although this story may seem extreme, and certainly not the choice I would make if my face were inside a burning oven, this is our North star, our guide. We are bombarded by the other extreme: of embarrassing others merely for fun, or out of habit.
A high level of sensitivity is displayed in this week’s parsha as well.
In Moshe’s (Moses) last speech to the Jews in the desert, he felt the need to remind them of the big mistakes in their recent history. However, he didn’t want to shame them by recalling their sins, so he found a subtle way to bring up the offensive incidents – by mentioning the place names where they had occurred.
These events that Moshe brought up so delicately happened nearly forty years earlier, and almost all the adults involved were by now no longer alive. So the rebuke was mostly impersonal: a general warning. Why was Moshe being so careful?
We see from this how far we have to go to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings, or impinging on their honor. Our early sages say, that after forty years Moshe wanted to say to the Jewish people, “Remember how you said, ‘Is the Almighty in our midst?’” But then he said to himself, “If I say that, I will shame them. And one who shames another has no portion in the World to Come.”
In a culture where a wise crack is a cool thing, even when it comes at someone else’s expense, we need lampposts of sensitivity to remind us of the appropriate way to behave. To point out that sticking up for a friend’s honor is where it’s at.
Why knock someone down when we can build someone up?