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A Discussion of Messianic Judaism, the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm, and Related Leadership Issues from the Preoccupied Mind of Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD.

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Worst Sin of All - A Sermon for Parshat Behar/B'chukotai

This is a sermon I preached last shabbat, May 12, 2007, at Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue. It concerns a sin in which all of us are too practiced.

Our Torah text this week has the phrase, "v'kashlu ish b'echav" and they shall each one of them stumble over his fellow [Lev 26:37].

Of course, in context, the peshat meaning of this phrase, its simple reference, is to people fleeing from disaster. However, our tradition comments on these words in another way, pausing to consider the meaning of one stumbling over one's brother or sister. The tradition pauses to discuss what it means to cause your brother or sister to stumble.

Rashi comments that the meaning of our verse is as follows: "One shall stumble through the iniquity of another, for all the people of Israel are responsible for one another."
Of course this is in line with what we discussed last week about thinking of ourselves as being related to "klal Yisrael," the community of Israel of all places and all times.

A Reform Jewish authority reminds us, "We, as Klal Yisrael, share mutual responsibility and mutual benefits. Jews feel a bond with other Jews, wherever they live in the world. Kol Yisrael arevim ze baze--All Israel is responsible for one another."

Theodore Herzl said, "We are a people, one people."

Yeshua of course spoke of causing one's brother or sister to stumble, in the context of causing one's brother or sister to sin. In this he and Rashi are in full agreement. Remember Rashi's statement, "One shall stumble through the iniquity of another, for all the people of Israel are responsible for one another."

Yeshua's words are striking: "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck he had been cast into the sea." [Mark 9:42].

In this context and in others, of course to stumble is to sin--to stray from G-d's path.

The matter for our consideration today is to highlight one of the chief ways we cause others to stray from G-d's path; one of the chief ways we are in danger of causing others to stumble. In fact, in Jewish life, what I am speaking of today is considered to be one of the most serious of all sins against others in the community. And what is that?

It is illustrated for us in today's New Covenant reading. When the crowd of men brought to Yeshua the woman caught in adultery, many of us might imagine that the worst sin is sexual sin. We certainly act that way! Let someone be caught embezzling, or gossiping, or shaving his taxes a bit, and we cluck our tongues and move on. But let someone be caught in a sexual sin and we go all to pieces with ourselves. You might imagine that the terrible sin being treated in this passage is sexual looseness. But you would be wrong. No, another, more heinous sins is demonstrated here. And what is that?

Yeshua hints at it when he stoops down to write in the dirt at his feet when the woman is brought to him. Why does he do this? I believe it is because he is embarrassed for her. And here we come to what in Jewish life is one of the most serious of all sins: embarrassing someone, especially in public. The men who brought her to Yeshua were oblivious to the fact that they were committing such a horrible sin. While they were concerned about someone else's sin, they themselves were committing one even more grave.

There is a tremendous lesson here, one that especially needs to be taught this week, at this time here at Ahavat Zion. You see, whenever we undertake to teach about G-d's commandments and the imperative to keep them we risk stirring up the kind of attitude that inhabited these men.

It's what I call being a commandment commando, or perhaps a virtue vigilante.
Years ago I knew a Pastor named Higgs. He was a fine man. He told of having once pastored an independent Baptist church where everything was just so: people didn't smoke, they didn't dance, they didn't chew, the men didn't wear beards and always had their hair neatly trimmed, and the ladies stayed away from ostentatious jewelry, obvious makeup, and short hemlines. You get the picture.

Jim told the story of how one day a young lady who never had been to their church wandered in. Now she didn't know the rules too well. In fact, her hemline was too short. Before she could even sit down, as Jim told it, one of the "saints" in the congregation went up to her and commented on how inappropriate her hemline was. Well, that young lady turned around, went out the door and never came back. Now who committed the greater sin, the girl with the short hemline or the woman who carelessly embarrassed her? The message the scripture today is clear: it was the righteous commandment commando who committed the greater sin.

Our tradition is steeped in the importance of not unduly embarrassing someone. For example, “Torah tells us that Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden for having partaken from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and eaten of its fruit. However, the Torah never tells us what kind of tree it was. Why? Had the tree been identified, people might have said, "This is the tree that brought so much affliction on the world." G-d wanted to spare even the tree the embarrassment of being singled out.”

There are three b'rakhot, blessings, attached to the recitation of the Shema in our service, two blessings before the Shema, and one after. The first one preceding the Shema is said in front of the open ark. The cantor chants, "Blessed Art Thou O Lord, who formest light and createst darkness, who makest peace and createst all things." Just before he says that blessing the ark is open with the Torah exposed to view: before he says the first word, he is supposed to close the curtain of the ark. Why? So he should not demean the Torah by praising something else [the formation of light and darkness] while the Torah is open to view.

Now, if our tradition takes care about showing due respect to inanimate objects, not embarrassing them, how much more ought we to take care lest we embarrass people who are made in the image of G-d?

One Talmudic discussion specifies that if someone has repented of his former sins, you may not recall those sins to him, nor even mention that kind of sin in his presence. You must not remind a convert of her roots outside of the covenant. And the greater the station of the person shamed the greater the sin in shaming him.

A story to illustrate the lengths to which people should go to avoid shaming others. Once R. Gamaliel II said, "Send seven scholars to the upper chamber early in the morning and we will set up the calendar of the year. When he got there he discovered eight had come, and he stated: "Whoever came without being invited must leave." Samuel the Small said, "I am the one who came without permission, not to participate but to learn." Gamaliel said, "Sit down, my son. You may stay, but the Halacha states that only those who have been specifically appointed to the task may participate." In fact, it was not Samuel who had not been invited, but rather another scholar. However, Samuel wished to spare him the embarrassment and stood up himself.

Another story: "At the Passover Seder, one of Rabbi Akiva Eiger's guests accidentally spilled some wine onto the tablecloth. Noticing his guest's embarrassment, the Rabbi discreetly shook the table so that his cup of wine also tipped over. Then he stated, "Something must be wrong with the table. It is not standing properly.

In our adult Bar Mitzvah class we are exploring ways to honor God in Jewish ways. That is good. Many us are becoming zealous to study the commandments, which G-d has assigned to the Jewish people. That is also good. But if we would keep the commandments, and if we would honor the standards of Jewish piety, we must also remember not to play the role of commandments commandos, zealous to correct others. Or as Yeshua put it, being so concerned to remove the speck from someone else's eye that we fail to deal with the beam in our own.

Our tradition reminds us by the way that we are obligated to correct others when they transgress. Lev 19:17 states "Hochach tocheach et amitecha v'lo tissa alav hatah"--"you shall reprove your neighbor or you will incur guilt yourself." I am NOT saying that we should never correct another: that would be very dysfunctional. But there are ways to correct someone when they are transgressing the way of holiness G-d has placed before us. Here are some hints as to how we might properly administer correction.

• We must not simply rebuke the transgressor. We are obligated to teach people the right thing to do before they have occasion to do the wrong thing.
• We must always bear in mind that G-d is a G-d of process. He is perfect, but not a perfectionist. In a couple of weeks we will be celebrating the gift of Torah at Sinai. Does anyone imagine that the Jewish people were flawless in obeying Torah the day after they received it? Of course not! People are in process, and we must learn to accept them as such.
• We must learn hear again the word of Scripture, which states, "The Kingdom of G-d does not consist in food and drink, but in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." This does NOT mean that food and drink are matters of indifference, but rather that they are not the point. Commandment Commandos strain out the gnat and swallow the camel: they correct people for minutiae while they are guilty of a far more grave sin in embarrassing or mishandling them, and later, perhaps, gloating as they proudly tell others of how they had occasion to correct some ignoramus.
• Our tradition states that when we rebuke people or correct them, we must do so in private.
• Even when we do so in private, we must take care not to shame them. The story was told to Rabbi Noson Tzvi Finkel of a person who had rebuked a neighbor sharply, and then stated, "I wasn't able to effect a change in that person, but at least I made his face turn red like a beet." Rabbi Finkel commented, "Our sages explain the verse Leviticus 19:17 states 'rebuke your fellow man' is followed by the words 'and don't incur guilt because of him' to teach us that even when rebuking our others, we are forbidden to embarrass them. Yet you are proud you embarrassed this person!"
• If someone who is easily embarrassed transgresses, you should not rebuke her directly. You should first engage them in discussion of other matters and hit obliquely as possible about the area in question.
• Speak pleasantly and softly to someone when you must correct their behavior and as much as possible present the preferred behavior as being in their best interests. As the Chofetz Chaim said, "If you are sincere in your actions and words, your message will penetrate the most stubborn heart."
• You must take great care not to grow angry when rebuking someone, for rebuke delivered in anger will not be heeded, and the purpose of rebuke should be correcting the other person for their own good and not for your satisfaction!
• Each situation is different, and each person is different, so the manner of admonishing someone or the decision whether or not to admonish someone in a particular case should be evaluated. Sometimes it is better to let matters slide until a more opportune occasion or to perhaps leave the correction to someone else who will be better received.
• Certain kinds of transgressions that are detrimental to the spiritual well being of the entire congregation ought to be handled by the elders or rabbi.
• If someone has sinned against you, it is better that you correct them than that you harbor resentment in your heart.
• It is meritorious to overlook a fault.
• You should draw a distinction between matters of commandment and matters of custom--the former are always more important. Don't sweat the small stuff. By doing so, you might drive a person away from the faith or from the congregation, which is of course a grave sin.
• We should learn to cultivate gratitude for having been corrected.
Above all, we must be careful to not simply become list-makers. Some people have a need to be right, and a need to not be wrong. In many cases this is because of their temperament or the way they were brought up. Such people often have an overdeveloped need to correct others, because this shows others they are wrong while reassuring the corrector of how right she is. These list-makers are always seeking to update their list so that they will have the very best and up to date list of the authentic rules. They are overly preoccupied with rules and have a tendency to relate to rules better than they relate to G-d or to people. Paul spoke of such people who major in the categories of "Do not handle. Do not taste. Do not touch. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility and severe treatment of the body. But they are of no value in checking self-indulgence" [Col 2:23-24]. Elsewhere he speaks of those who hold to the form of religion but in their conduct fail to exhibit its power. They are hung up on the details and oblivious to the substance.

Let's be sure we are a congregation, which avoids embarrassing others like the plague--for embarrassing people needlessly is a plague. Let's seek to promote right practice in the most effective way possible: by setting a good example ourselves and by conducting ourselves in such a manner that we are the kinds of people that others WANT to learn from, rather than being the kinds of people whom other flee from.

It is a great sin to set a stumbling block in someone's way: and humiliating others in the name of G-d is perhaps the worst stumbling block of all.

At 5/14/2007 7:27 AM, Blogger Kefael said...

Very good. This speaks to my heart and soul. We need to practice Torah, before trying to preach Torah. If we don't live it first, we cannot be a witness. Our living the Torah will speak louder than our words on Torah. Thank you for this message.

At 5/15/2007 8:03 AM, Blogger Sue M said...

I have been the shamer, the shamed, and a witness to the shaming of others. I needed to hear this, and appreciate the spirit in which it was delivered.

At 7/15/2007 8:37 PM, Blogger Stuart Dauermann said...

To Sue M. and Kefael,

Many thanks for your kind comments.

Stuart Dauermann


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