This week we start reading the fifth book of the Torah – Sefer Devarim. Literally translated as “the Book of Words,” it refers to the words of rebuke that Moshe Rabbenu reprimanded the Jewish People before he passed away. Just before their entering the Promised Land, our famed leader reiterated their failures and shortcomings during the forty years of wandering in the desert under his leadership.
Sefer Devarim is Moshe Rabbenu’s mussar – disciplinary book. It is replete with ethics, values, character perfection, self-improvement, and how to repent. All of these are relevant not only to that generation, but also to every member of Israel forever.
Moshe Rabbenu’s opening words recall all of that generation’s shortcomings. Yet, he only hinted at them and did not spell them out openly. This was because Moshe was concerned for and cared about the honour of the people.
At this juncture in time, we are mourning over the destruction of our holy Temples, which were destroyed at this time of year, thousands of years ago. The Gemara (Gittin 55b) relates one of the causes of the destruction. There was a person who had a friend called Kamtza and an enemy called Bar Kamtza. When making a party, he told his servant to go and invite his friend, Kamtza. His servant mistakenly went and invited his enemy, Bar Kamtza. At the feast, the host saw his enemy sitting there, and ordered him to leave. Bar Kamtza, trying to protect his honour, begged his host to let him pay for his portion and be allowed to stay, so as not to have to endure the embarrassment of having to leave. However, the host would not hear of it, and even after Bar Kamtza offered to pay the cost of the entire event, his offer “fell on deaf ears.” The host grabbed him and threw him out. Terribly embarrassed and seeking to take revenge, against his host and all those present who did not protest against his unfair treatment, he went to the king of Rome and fabricated a story that the Jews were rebelling against him. Eventually, the outcome of this story was the tragic loss of our holy Temple, when the Romans came and destroyed the Bet Hamikdash. The Gemara deduces from this episode the severity of undermining a fellow person’s honour. Due to their gross negligence in this area, G-d allowed our holy Bet Hamikdash to be destroyed, as a lesson to all.
Why is it, as our Sages teach us, that if one embarrasses his friend in public, he loses his portion in the world-to-come? This is because each person is created in the image of G-d. Hence, if someone else undermines that image, it is as if he is degrading G-d Himself.
Moreover, in many places our Torah emphasizes the obligation to honour our fellow man. The root of this obligation is the requirement to honour the image of G-d in which each person is created.
Whenever I am in the presence of great Torah personalities, what strikes me the most about them is how they treat all the people in their vicinity with utmost honour and respect. No matter what their level, standing or age, everyone is made to feel like “a million dollars.” Last week, my thirteen-year-old daughter wanted to ask a question to a Torah Sage. Not only did he accept her graciously, but he even gave her twenty minutes of his precious time!