Rabbi David Etengoff
Dedicated to the sacred memories of my mother, Miriam Tovah bat Aharon Hakohen, father-in-law, Levi ben Yitzhak, sister-in-law, Ruchama Rivka Sondra bat Yechiel, sister, Shulamit bat Menachem, Chana bat Shmuel, Yehonatan Binyamin ben Mordechai Meir Halevi, Shoshana Elka bat Avraham, Tikvah bat Rivka Perel, Peretz ben Chaim, Chaya Sarah bat Reb Yechezkel Shraga, the Kedoshim of Har Nof and Pittsburgh, and the refuah shlaimah of Mordechai HaLevi ben Miriam Tovah, Moshe ben Itta Golda and the safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world.
Our parasha contains a passage that has gained considerable fame due to its inclusion in the Haggadah:
And you shall call out and say before the L-rd, your G-d, “An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there with a small number of people, and there, he became a great, mighty, and numerous nation. And the Egyptians treated us cruelly and afflicted us, and they imposed hard labor upon us. So, we cried out to the L-rd, G-d of our fathers, and the L-rd heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the L-rd brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm, with great awe, and with signs and wonders.” (Sefer Devarim 26:5-8. All Bible translations The Judaica Press Complete Tanach)
The recitation of this Exodus-themed passage constitutes the mitzvah of Mikrah Bikkurim (the Declaration of the First Fruits), and is performed when we fulfill the commandment of bringing the Bikkurim to the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) in Jerusalem. The Rambam (Maimonides, 1135-1204) formulates it in this manner:
The 132nd [positive] mitzvah is that we are commanded when bringing Bikkurim to make a proclamation regarding the kindness that G‑d has bestowed upon us. Namely: How He saved us from the early difficulties [forced upon] our patriarch Ya’akov and from the slavery and afflictions of the Egyptians, to thank Him for all this, and to ask that He continue His blessings forever. The source of this commandment is G‑d’s statement, “You shall then make the following declaration before G‑d your L‑rd: ‘An Aramean tried to destroy my ancestor....’” until the end of the entire section. This mitzvah is called Mikra Bikkurim. (Sefer HaMitzvot, translation, Rabbi Berel Bell, with my emendations)
According to the Rambam, Mikra Bikkurim may be conceptualized as “a proclamation regarding the kindness that G‑d has bestowed upon us.” How was this proclamation performed? At first, the mavi Bikkurim (individual bringing the Bikkurim) was obligated to read the declaration cited above, plus two more verses, in the original Hebrew. If, however, he was unable to do so, the Kohane would read each word aloud and the mavi Bikkurim would repeat after him. Over time, many people ceased to bring Bikkurim because they were embarrassed to engage in this rote repetition. At that juncture, our Sages ruled that going forward, the Kohane would read the passage, and all mavi’ei Bikkurim would repeat after him — including those who were capable of correctly reading it themselves. In this way, everyone would feel comfortable when bringing the Bikkurim to the Beit HaMikdash, and no one would be embarrassed by their illiteracy. (Mishnah Bikkurim, III:7, according to the explanations of Rav Ovadiah Bartenura and the Tifferet Yisrael)
This Rabbinic enactment to prevent the embarrassment of the unlettered among the mavi’ei Bikkurim is in consonance with the Torah prohibition that forbids us from humiliating one another, that is, “melavane p’nai chaveiro b’rabim” — the public embarrassment of a fellow Jew. The Rambam codified this halacha in his Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot 6:8:
… it is forbidden for a person to embarrass a [fellow] Jew. How much more so [is it forbidden to embarrass him] in public...it is a great sin. Our Sages said: “A person who embarrasses a colleague in public does not have a share in the World to Come.” Therefore, a person should be careful not to embarrass a colleague - whether of greater or lesser stature - in public, and not to call him a name, which embarrasses him, or to relate a matter that brings him shame in his presence. (Translation, Rabbi Eliyahu Touger)
Not too surprisingly, many sources in Rabbinic literature give voice to the seriousness of this aveirah (sin). By way of illustration, we find the following well-known statement in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): “Rabbi Elazar of Modi’in would say: ‘One who...humiliates his friend in public — although he may possess Torah knowledge and good deeds, has no share in the World to Come.’” (III:11, translation, Rabbi Yosef Marcus) Then, too, Talmud Bavli, tractate Babba Metziah, views this sin as the equivalent of engaging in forbidden relations:
All those who go to Gehenom will eventually arise — except for three [whose behaviors are so reprehensible] that they go down to Gehenom and never arise, and these are they: One who is physically intimate with another man’s wife, the melavane p’nai chaveiro b’rabim, and the person who gives their fellow Jew a pejorative [and destructive] nickname. (58b, translation and brackets my own)
It is crucial to note that the Talmud’s statement, “they go down to Gehenom and never arise,” is applicable only if a person steadfastly refuses to engage in the teshuvah (repentance) process. For as the Rambam teaches us, “nothing can stand in the way of teshuvah:”
When does the statement that these individuals do not have a portion in the world to come apply? When they die without having repented. However, if such a person repents from his wicked deeds and dies as a Baal-Teshuvah [penitent], he will merit the world to come, for nothing can stand in the way of Teshuvah. (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah III:14, translation, Rabbi Eliyahu Touger)
We are nearing the end of Elul and the onset of the Selichot period (Penitential Prayers). Both of these events remind us of the need to spiritually prepare for the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe), and redouble our efforts to connect with the Almighty. This is most surely the time for us to try to act toward others as we long to be treated — with chane, v’chesed, v’rachamim (grace, kindness and mercy). It is comforting to know that if we have failed to do so, even if we have committed the serious sin of melavane p’nai chaveiro b’rabim, we should never lose hope. As the Rambam assures us, if we undertake heartfelt teshuvah, the Holy One blessed be He will surely forgive us. V’chane yihi ratzon.
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