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eJudaism: 45 - Nelson Mandela, The Sages, Shavuot (Part 5)

05/31/2022 07:00:00 AM


Michael Greenfield

Our Sages truly understood human foibles. Math? Not so much. The 10 Commandments includes at least 12, and that's not even counting the one that's just a statement. But we do have 613 mitzvot, right? Let's put it this way - we already ordered the stationary, we're not changing the house number.

What we can all agree on is that no one has ever fulfilled 613 of them. Some are understood to be impossible, some only apply to certain people, and some mitzvot that pair well together like Don't Steal and Return That Which You've Stolen - well, I just don't see how you can get credit for both.

But the complexity of the count is sometimes tied to what's most beautiful about the very best of them. Like nesting dolls of ethical law, some are most valuable when you have the whole set. Leviticus 19:17 says, You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart; reprove your kin, but incur no guilt on their account. According to Sefer HaChinuch, the book with the Big List and the commentary of the Sages, this verse paints a triptych of interpersonal behavior.

Mitzvah #238 is the prohibition to hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Hating them openly isn't really the goal here since that violates other mitzvot, but this is specifically about the secret animosities we carry around. Sefer HaChinuch warns that something's gotta give at some point, but perhaps Nelson Mandela captured the problem best by looking inward: "Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies."

Mitzvah #239 is the obligation to reprove your kinsfolk when they don't act properly. Instead of drinking that poison, try gently sharing what's gone wrong with the offender. This is just kindergarten 101. The Sages and your kindergarten teacher wanted us to help each other become our best selves, and sometimes that means telling someone that they're getting it wrong. Best case scenario according to the Sages? They repent, you both hug, l'chaim!

The Torah understands that you're feeling empowered right now. But before you send that flurry of texts, there's a caveat. Mitzvah #240 is the prohibition to embarrass your kinsfolk lest you incur guilt on their account. Embarrassing someone because you're commanded to reprove them is like stealing something so that you can return it. Except it's worse. According to Sefer HaChinuch, there is no greater suffering than humiliation.

What if your kinsfolk aren't really big on self-improvement? That's on their head, but the Torah's got you covered in the very next verse (Leviticus 19:18 gives us Mitzvah #241: No Revenge and Mitzvah #242: No Bearing Grudges). Imagine the world in which we all spent time trying to master just those three mitzvot from that single verse of Torah. There's a reason they're called Sages, and there's a reason we count 49 days in anticipation of receiving the Torah.

Sun, May 26 2024 18 Iyyar 5784