The Importance of Not Shaming People

Many of today’s online netizens sometimes seem to be inordinately focused on publicly shaming people. We wait until someone does something wrong, or says the wrong thing, and then many of us enjoy aggressively shaming the “offender” via an online lynching.

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shoftim (which was my bar mitzvah parasha) reminds us of the lengths we should go to not to publicly shame anyone.

In discussing which members of the Nation of Israel were exempt from going to war during biblical times, it is noted:

Then the officers shall speak to the people, saying, ‘Who is the man who has built a new house and has not inaugurated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man will inaugurate it. And who is the man who has planted a vineyard and not rendered it profane? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man will render it profane. And who is the man who has betrothed a woman and not married her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man will marry her.” (Deuteronomy, 20:5-7). 

These verses teach us some interesting concepts, such as the extreme importance of setting a good foundation during the first year of marriage. But the next verse adds an interesting layer of intrigue that sheds new light on the previous verses, according to Rashi (a medieval French Rabbi and author).

The officers shall add in speaking to the people and say, “Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, and let him not melt the heart of his brothers, like his heart.” (Deuteronomy, 20:8). 

In commenting on this verse, Rashi refers to the thoughts of Rabbi Yossi HaGelili, whose work was compiled in the Mishna. Rabbi Yossi indicated that the “fearful and fainthearted” refers to one who is scared he lacks Divine protection because of his previous sins.

Rashi writes that the Torah provides excuses, or subtext — returning home for a new house, a vineyard or a wife — to “cover up” for those who avoid going to fight because of their sins. “One who sees him returning, says, ‘Perhaps he built a house, or planted a vineyard, or betrothed a wife.'”

Amazing. The Nation of Israel needed as many able-bodied people as it could muster when going to war. And yet Rashi notes that the first three categories of men who were exempt from war were created to avoid shaming potential soldiers who were afraid to fight due to their sins.

Shaming someone is a SEVERE violation of Jewish law and ethical conduct: “It is better that a person throw himself into a fiery furnace than shame his neighbor in public. (Baba Metzia 59a).” And yet shaming seems to be a primary form of communication in today’s online culture (which is increasingly the dominant culture for many people).

Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion, should remind us that just like some people were exempt from biblical wars, maybe we don’t need to declare war online every time someone does or says something that we don’t like.

Not shaming people will make us happier by strengthening our existing relationships, helping us avoid the stress and tension of unnecessary conflict and boosting our self-image (one who is constantly critical of others can’t help but turn that gaze on him/herself).

Shabbat SHALOM!

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