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Home » Sh'lach L'chah, Sukkot

Shelach Valor Of Discretion

Submitted by on June 14, 2009 – 3:10 amNo Comment | 2,913 views

The Shared Etrog

I came across a delightful story related by Dov Greenberg about Israeli Nobel Laureate and novelist S. Y. Agnon. Agnon encountered his neighbor, an elderly Rabbi, in a neighborhood Etrog store on the day before Sukkot. Jewish law ordains that Jews obtain an Etrog (citron fruit) before Sukkot and recite a blessing over it during the festival. The elderly Rabbi informed Agnon that he was prepared to spend a small fortune to purchase a beautiful fruit.

Agnon was surprised when he encountered the Rabbi the next day without an Etrog. I awoke early this morning to recite the blessing, the rabbi explained, but I heard our neighbor’s little girl weeping on her balcony. When I approached her she explained that she had lifted her father’s Etrog against his express instructions and it had fallen. It was now irreparably damaged and unfit for ritual use. As you know, the rabbi continued, our neighbor is a man of short temper who often scolds his children. I have discussed this with him many times, but to no avail. Knowing the terrible punishment she would suffer the young girl was terrified. I quietly slipped my Etrog into my neighbor’s box, the Rabbi told Agnon, and after comforting the child I took the broken Etrog and left.

Agnon, impressed by the rabbi’s story, held it up as a paragon of righteousness and sacred duty. I too was impressed by the rabbi’s thoughtfulness and kindness, but I was disappointed by his lack of discretion; a truly righteous person ought to be more discreet about his noble deeds. Discretion marks the difference between holiness and self righteousness.

The Rabbi could have gently changed the subject or offered a more delicate response. G-d already knew what he had done; there was no need to share it with his neighbor. Holy deeds should be performed for G-d’s sake; not for personal satisfaction or self aggrandizement. Boasting about our good deeds compromises their sanctity and strips them of G-dliness. Rather than glorifying G-d they serve to glorify us and there is no holiness in self glory.

Tearing Down Another

The travesty of this story is magnified when you realize that the rabbi inadvertently raised his own profile by degrading that of his neighbor. The Rabbi’s gentle criticism appeared to have been spoken in compassion, but in truth, was somewhat insensitive.
stepping on others innerstream
Maimonides posits that the supposedly innocent nature of such words makes it very difficult to repent.  “One who takes pride in his colleague’s shame tells himself that he has not sinned, for his colleague was not present. Thus, no shame came [directly] to his colleague, nor did he humiliate him. He merely contrasted his good deeds and wisdom against the deeds or wisdom of his colleague in order that, out of that comparison, he would appear honorable, and his colleague, shameful.”  (2)

The Talmud relates a story about Rebbe, the redactor of the Mishnah, who was visited regularly by Antoninus, a Roman Noble. When Rebbe wanted to climb up on his bed Antoninus would crouch in front of it saying, “Let me be your stepping stool to climb up to your bed,” but Rebbe, declined. (3)

We might surmise that Rebbe declined because he refused to raise himself up on the back of another. Crouching down to serve as a ladder would diminish Antoninus’ noble dignity. Rebbe refused to bolster his own dignity by allowing another’s to be compromised.

I am reminded of a story about a father who saw his wrestling sons trying to throw each other to the floor. The father asked one of the sons to climb up on a chair. When the son climbed up the father remarked, you see, it is possible to pull yourself up without dragging your brother down.

There is no need to disparage another to raise your own prestige. Rebbe understood this well. Maimonides understood this well. Among our own neighbors and friends we must understand it as well.


Moses sent spies to Israel to scout the land. Ten of the spies were convinced that the land was impregnable and that launching an attack against her was folly. (4) The spies were concerned with the well-being of Jewish people and likely did not notice their disparagement of G-d’s Holy Land, but such is the nature of gossip. We never deliberately set out to cause pain; we engage in what appears at first innocent chatter, but by the time the damage is done it is too late to take it back. The pain we cause is rarely deliberate but it is always real.

The spies were punished for, among other reasons, slandering G-d’s land and by extension G-d Himself. (5) It is ironic that they submitted their report in the service of G-d’s people, but in the process, disparaged G-d’s land. Agnon’ neighbor inadvertently did the same. He shared his Etrog to protect the little girl from harm and yet without realizing it caused unnecessary harm to her father. (6)

Unconditional Love

Words are soft weapons and often dismissed, but soft as they are their potency is undeniable. They can damage and destroy, cause agony and pain. With words we can lift each other up and with words we can tear each other down.
We are enjoined to respect each other as we respect ourselves. Just as we would not like to be picked apart by another’s diatribe so should we be concerned about the unintended consequences of our own words. Before allowing ourselves the luxury of speech it is wise to be cognizant of its pitfalls. To review our words before they are spoken to consider the harm they might cause another

Recognizing that ongoing vigilance is difficult to maintain we almost come to expect to slip up on occasion. Fortunately there is a way to fully avoid the gossip trap and that is through the practice of unconditional love for our fellow. We are highly sensitive to our own dignity and rarely engage in self disparaging remarks. When we learn to love others as we love ourselves we develop a heightened sensitivity to the dignity of all and easily avoid the pitfalls of gossip.


  1. http://www.askmoses.com/en/article/158,1995831/Can-One-be-Religious-and-Cruel.html.
  2. Rambam Hilchos Teshuvah, 4: 4.
  3. Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah, 10b. The Talmud concludes that Rabbi Yehudah said, “It is not proper to disparage a king. Antoninus replied, “Would that I serve as a mattress under you in the world to come. Antoninus was likely the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
  4. Numbers chapter 13.
  5. Babylonian Talmud, Erkin 16a. See also Rashi’s commentary to Numbers, 14:37.
  6. The Rabbi was technically not in transgression of Lashon Hara because he shared information already known to Agnon. Nevertheless, his words caused unnecessary harm.

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