Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Torah Protest

I'll never forget the scene; it's one of my strongest memories from my first year in Eretz Yisrael.

We were walking in a non-religious neighborhood in Jerusalem on a sunny Shabbos afternoon. I was with a few friends and one stranger – the ultra-frum brother from Bnei Barak. It was very peaceful, and we were walking silently together, each of us lost in our thoughts about our prospects for the coming year. A car passed by in the street...and suddenly, a horrible scream broke the silence.

"SHABBOS!"

My friend's brother literally screamed at the passing car at the top of his lungs. This was very strange to us Americans, and he must have seen the expressions on our faces (mine was aghast; was this guy nuts?)

He explained, "It's straight in Shulchan Aruch. When a person sees the desecration of Shabbos, he is obligated to protest!" He seemed almost angry at our ignorance.

But somehow, despite the textual proof, this still struck me as strange. Did the Shulchan Aruch really want me to yell like a maniac every time I saw someone break the Shabbos? After all, one witnessed countless acts of borer every Shabbos meal at the yeshiva. Better to avoid non-religious neighborhoods, I supposed, if this guy was correct.

For many years, I was bothered by a statement of Chazal. The Mishna says, "Yehoshua ben Perachyah says: Appoint for yourself a teacher; acquire a friend, and judge everyone favorably" (Avos 1:6).

What precisely was the point? Why did Chazal care if I thought the worst of a person? It's one thing if I harm another physically, or spread tales of his misdeeds. But who am I harming if I simply think – in the confines of my own mind – that another person has committed a transgression?

The answer finally struck me during a shmuez I heard from Rav Reuven Leichter. I don't recall now what he was discussing, but somehow he got on the subject of this Mishna. He explained that each and every thought we have affects us somehow, often in a profound manner. It is not healthy for a person to believe that Jewish people sin. Obviously, seeing another person sin will not directly lead to a sin of my own. Nevertheless, it gets me used to the idea of sinning, and becoming comfortable with the idea of transgression is the first step in the long chain that leads to sin itself.

Chazal didn't say that we should judge others favorably because it really matters to the other person, just as they didn't tell us how to treat Shabbos challah because the challah really cares. Rather, we judge another person favorably for our own sake – to maintain our own sensitivity to the idea of transgression.

This is the reason we protest the desecration of Shabbos. Let's face it – certainly in the story above, and very often in general – the one who transgresses the Shabbos will not be affected by my protest. If I scream it loud enough, it may just have the opposite effect – to turn him further away from Judaism. I protest for my own sake. I remind myself that Shabbos is holy, and must never be desecrated. And these constant reminders (as the Chinuch points out dozens of times) are the source of my strength.

I had indirect confirmation last night of this idea. I spoke to a friend of mine who had just come from a gathering of Rav Elyashiv's students. He heard the following firsthand:

A bochur asked: Should we protest?

Rav Elyashiv answered: Of course. You should turn to your chavrusah and say, "I protest." And your chavrusah should turn to you and say, "I protest." Then, the two of you should get back to learning.

The bochur then asked: What about Friday [the day of the Parade]?

Rav Elyashiv answered: You should get ready for Shabbos.

To me, this represents the real protest of the Torah. Not burning garbage cans, not running wild in the streets. But reminding ourselves that the Torah remains, regardless of what the modern world thinks, the source of morality. If the Torah tells us that some act is an abomination, then that is precisely what it is. And then we return to our learning. It is of course, possible that Rav Elyashiv's dictum has limited applicability. Perhaps he is satisfied that others have protested enough on behalf of the honor of Heaven; I can't say for sure. But I do know that at this time and place, Rav Elyashiv is definitely of the opinion that enough is enough, and it is time to refocus on the truly important things in our lives.

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