Thinking About What We Teach
Not every popular story is true. And not every popular story even makes sense.
Just because stories about beloved historical figures are repeated, doesn’t mean that their events actually happened. And it definitely doesn’t mean that we should accept their lessons. Here’s an obvious example I happened to notice (and write about) some years back.
Olomeinu was an established magazine which for many decades aimed to inspire and educate Jewish children through the medium of Torah values. Because of its well-established reputation in the Orthodox community, many thousands of children (and their teachers and parents) must have read this particular back cover story and innocently absorbed its bizarre messages. And that’s a problem. Only Olomeinu itself was - while they still existed - in a position to even attempt to properly undo the damage they’ve caused, but I felt the need to register at least a token protest.
Just to be clear, I am convinced that these events could never have taken place, and claiming that they did can only blacken the reputation of a fine rabbi.
In the story, the rabbi and his followers exerted significant pressure on the traveling merchant to abandon his family and hometown for the coming yom tov (perhaps depriving them of the mitzva of esrog). Since their goal was clearly to acquire the esrog for their own use (one has not fulfilled the mitzva on the first day without having made it his), they would seem to have ignored nothing short of one of the Ten Commandments. Here’s how the Rambam codifies it:
משנה תורה גזילה ואבידה א:ט
כל החומד עבדו או אמתו או ביתו וכליו של חבירו או דבר שאפשר לו שיקנהו ממנו והכביד עליו ברעים והפציר בו עד שלקחו ממנו אף על פי שנתן לו דמים רבים הרי זה עובר בלא תעשה שנאמר לא תחמוד.
Anyone who desires his fellow man’s slave or house or tools or anything else he could acquire from him and, through friends, urges and (applies) pressure until he (is able to) acquire it, even though he pays (the owner) a great deal of money, he has transgressed this prohibition, as it says (Exodus 20:14) “Do not desire.”
But rather than stopping there, the rabbi then instructed his followers to blackmail the poor traveler into giving back the very “payment” in exchange for which he’d agreed to stay in the first place (which, if one assumes that a flesh and blood “guarantee” of a particular position in the Next World is worth anything, would constitute a second count of לא תחמוד)!
Perhaps you will argue that goal of teaching the fellow some moral lesson, “justified the means” of, for all intents and purposes, robbing him twice. Halacha thinks otherwise.
“Do not steal” even (if your goal is only to) torment (the victim and you intend to return the property later). “Do not steal” even (if you are only stealing for the victim’s benefit, so you will have an excuse to pay him) a fine of two, four or five times (the value of the theft). (Tosefta Bava Kama 10:15)
But that’s far from the only problem.
Since the merchant was now separated from his home and family and, according to the story, in need of meals, no matter how wealthy he might have been, he is considered legally poor:
A wealthy man traveling from place to place who runs short of cash and lacks food may accept charity funds and, upon his return home, need not repay them. (Shulchan Aruch Yore Deah 253:4)
So now, when they refused their victim food and a place to stay, the townsfolk fell badly afoul of these Torah laws:
If there will be among you a poor man, one of your brothers…do not harden your heart and do not clench your hand (by not giving to) your brother the poor man. (Deut. 15:7-8)
And it was Sukkos…
The festival of Sukkos you should make for yourself for seven days, when you have gathered (produce) from your barn or from your winery. And you will rejoice on your festival, you and your son and your daughter and your slave and your maidservant and the levi and the stranger and the orphan and the widow who are in your gates. (Deut. 16:13-14)
The Torah obviously wishes us to be especially sensitive to the needs of our unfortunate and disadvantaged neighbors during the festivals. The followers of this rabbi, in stark contrast, saved up their greatest cruelty for just such a time.
But there’s more. Besides (unwittingly) encouraging open disregard for Torah Law, the Olomeinu story champions a most corrupting approach to mitzvos. Think about it. The rabbi was frustrated in his attempts to acquire an esrog and, at least as far as he is portrayed by the story, was determined to do “whatever it takes” to ensure that he will be able to perform the mitzva over Sukkos.
That’s an interesting attitude. Whatever it takes.
Blackmail a man into letting you use his esrog? If that’s what it takes.
Transgress Torah mitzvos? If that’s what it takes.
Prevent a man from being home with his wife and family over the yom tov? If that’s what it takes.
Possibly prevent all the people in this man’s town from doing the very same mitzva? If that’s what it takes.
Advise your trusting followers to ignore the mitzva of tzedaka? If that’s what it takes.
Defraud business associates and investors in order to maintain Torah institutions? If that’s what it takes.
Defraud government programs through fraudulent claims for which you aren’t legally eligible? If that’s what it takes.
Riot, burn garbage bins and engage in violent behavior to ensure that things are done just the way you want? If that’s what it takes.
I’m sure that this was not the Judaism that Olomeinu really wished to promote.
Thanks for reading B'chol D'rachecha! Subscribe for free to receive new post.
Any chance you could make posts listenable?
The story, while silly and ahisorical, has a very different message and is really innocent.
1. Nobody coveted the man's esrog. They wanted him to stay for yom tov to share the esrog with them and they made it worth his while.
2. They refused him hospitality to bring out his greatness to serve as a limud zchuz for Kllal Yisroel.
3. At the end he got what he had been promised and more.
The message of the story is that a yid was willing to give up his olam habo for performing a mitzvah here and now. Snd that is Ahavas Hashem and avodah leshma.