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April 25, 2014 / 25 Nisan, 5774
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The Art of Ignoring – So Safe, So Repulsive, So Dangerous

Homeless person sleeping on a bench in Beer Sheva

Homeless person sleeping on a bench in Beer Sheva
Photo Credit: Dudu Grunshpan/Flash 90

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You’ve been there before- you walk on the street of Jerusalem, and a [so-called] “beggar” is standing on your way, with his outstretched arm, not verbally requesting a few coins.

What do you do?

On the one hand, this is a fellow Jew, and perhaps he is in real need of financial assistance.

On the other hand, he may be a faker, playing the game and “raking it in.”

What’s the solution?

In a more civilized world, I would expect one or the other, or perhaps a permutation of the two extremes above.

But alas, to my dismay, we are not always privileged to live in such a world. Seems to me that the majority of people walking down that sidewalk will tend to just ignore the gentleman and walk right past him, without acknowledging his presence in any significant way.

After all, it’s so safe: you didn’t refuse to give a donation, on the one hand, and you also didn’t put your money in the hands of a potential phony. You just “avoided the situation” by walking right by. Pretending the above reality [i.e.- a beggar on the street] doesn’t exist.

It can be the beggar, the email you received but don’t have a good response to, the phone message you don’t return due to its challenging content, and many more examples. In all the above, the safest route to take is to ignore – to pretend not to have received the email, not to have heard the message, and of course, walk right pass the gentleman.

In a word, you just pretend the above never happened, hoping to will it out of existence.

Just one problem: It does exist.

Let me introduce you to a figure you probably have heard of- R’ Yochanan Ben Zakai. The leader of the Jewish people on the eve of the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash was quite the Tzadik [Tractate Sukka 28a]:

“They said about R’ Yochanan Ben Zakai; NEVER did he speak an idle speech in his life, and never walked 4 amot without [learning] Torah and with Tefillin on his head, and never did anyone get to the study hall before him, and never did he fall asleep in the study hall…and never did someone ever find him doing nothing, but rather he was always sitting and learning… And never did he say “it’s time to stop learning and go home except for the eve’s of Pesach and Yom Kippur…”

Such righteousness condensed into just one man is truly an amazing achievement! Definitely something to aspire to, to say the least.

And yet, this same man did something else…when walking in public [Tractate Berachot 17a]: ”They said about R’ Yochana ben Zakai that never did anyone succeed to offer their salutations to him first, and even the non-Jew in the marketplace. ”

Such a Tzadik, heavily saturated in learning, Torah, Tefillin, Tzizit…and yet said hello to everyone on the street? Even the [not-so-important] non-Jew?

Seems to me that the behavior above is the very basis of being a Jew. As our sages teach [Sifri, Ve'et'cha'nan, paragraph 32]: ”And one shall love the Lord your God” [the second verse of the daily Shema] – make [God] be loved upon the people [of the earth] like Avraham your forefather”

Indeed, Avraham’s conduct was the very antithesis of “ignoring”: Standing in excruciating pain – just days after this over-90-year old man performed a circumcision on himself – in the heat of the afternoon, and out of the corner of his eye, he spots three [unimportant, rather ordinary] people walking.

He had every legitimate excuse in the book to just disregard them:

  • He’s sick
  • He doesn’t know them
  • He’s a busy man
  • He’s no spring chicken anymore.

And yet, despite all of these potentialexcuses, Avraham refuses to ignore them [Beresheit 18:2-3]:

“And he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, three men were standing beside him, and he saw and he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent, and he prostrated himself to the ground. And he said, ‘My lords, if only I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass on from beside your servant.’”

You know the rest of the story, and it’s outcome. The bottom line is simple – he didn’t ignore them!

What would have happened if Moshe would have seen the “burning bush” and just ignored it? What would have been the reality of our lives if, when God called out from that bush with the words “Moshe, Moshe” [Shemot 3:4] Moshe just “pretended not to hear” [as Adam and Chava did, in the aftermath of eating from the forbidden tree, when they "hid" from G-d, Beresheit 3:8] instead of saying [ibid], “Here I am?!” Moshe was far from asking, or wanting, the job of leading the Jewish people from servitude to freedom [see ibid chapter 3-4], and yet he was far from ignoring it; rather arguing back and forth till “convinced.”

And thankfully, when we don’t ignore God, God hopefully doesn’t ignore us; in the words of the Prophet Malachi [3:7]: “return to me and I will return to you”!

And because Moshe didn’t ignore God, we will all read around our Seder tables the extraordinary description of God not exactly ignoring us [Hagadah of Pesach, based on Devarim 26:7-8]:

“So we cried out to the Lord, God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm, with great awe, and with signs and wonders.”

Therefore, it is no wonder that the Torah commands us not to “ignore” a lost-item on the ground [Devarim 22:3]. If an inanimate blue-pen can’t be ignored, and must be returned to it’s rightful owner, dare we ignore each other, live human beings that pass us on the street. We even have a special sin-offering brought for someone who witnessed an event and refuses to testify, ignoring the need to help a fellow Jew [Vayikra 5:1-13]!

But beyond the sources above, we all know that being a Mensch/Derech Eretz came long before the Torah, and basic human edicts should precede the additional obligations the Torah placed upon us [Yalkut Shimoni 247:34, d"h hein haadam]. In reality, ignoring someone you pass on the street, or an email, or a phone message is the epitome of being repulsively low [and perhaps even outright disgusting]. As I heard from my revered Rebbe, Rav Yehuda Amital z”l, Jews each morning say the words: “לעולם יהא אדם ירא שמיים” – one shall always be a man that fear God. My Rebbe explained that back in Europe, the sentence was punctuated thusly, ” one shall always be a man, [and only then a ] God fearing Jew,” and in that order!

As one that has trained and followed Rabbis throughout their careers, I can generally say that Rabbis gain detractors not so much because of their sermons, vision, lectures or the like, but rather when they fail to return phone calls, when they avoid bikur cholim, and when they fail to respond to emails. One can deal with refusal, disagreements, debates and the answer ‘no’, but how should one deal with being totally and utterly ignored?!

And so, in just days, we will be celebrating the 7-8 day Holiday of no Chametz. What is it called?

Well, that depends on who you ask.

In the words of the Torah, the holiday is always called “the Holiday of Matzot” [Shemot 23:15, 34:18, Vayikra 23:6, Devarim 16:16,], while the more famous “Holiday of Pesach” refers to the sacrifice of the “Korban-Pesach” (The Pesach sacrifice on the eve of that Holiday) [Shemot 12:43, 48, 34:25; Vayikra 23:5; Bamidbar 9:2 and 5, 28:16; Devarim 16:1.] And yet, I have not yet met a Jew that says: “Have you begun to clean for the Holiday of Matzot yet”! It seems like we’ve taken the name of the eve of the 7-8 Holidays and expanded it to refer to the entire 7-8 days.

Not to worry- we’re not the “reformers” to blame; the Tractate dealing with the laws of this Holidays is called “Pesachim” and indeed throughout rabbinic literature the name utilized to define this Holiday is “Pesach” [Shevi'it 2:1, Maaser Sheni 5:6, Challa 1:1-2 and many more].

How did it happen?

Explains the famous R’ Levi-Yitzchak from Barditchiv [Kedushat-Levi on the Torah, pp. 79-80 on the verse (Shemot 12:27) " you shall say, It is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord"]:

“I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me”-which means we are emphasizing the praise of God, and God is telling the praise of Israel…as “the Holiday of Matzot” speaks of the praise of Israel…that baked their bread as Matzot [i.e.- we were willing to leave fast, as commanded, and not even wait till out bread has risen,]…and we call the Holiday the name “Pesach” to praise God [i.e.- for passing over the homes of the first-born Jews"]“

In other words, we didn’t ignore God (and thus left Egypt in a haste, with just Matzot in place of bread), and God didn’t ignore us (i.e.- he passed over our homes). As we celebrate this beautiful holiday, eating the very antithesis of disregard/apathy, let’s make a secret vow to stop ignoring the other. With this in mind, it is my hope and prayer that just like we don’t ignore God’s dictates, and God’s creatures on earth, we will not be ignored by God; as in those days down in Egypt. And thus, we will be able to bless, at the tip-end of “Magid”: “Blessed be you G-d…who has redeemed us and our forefathers…”!

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About the Author: Rabbi Yehoshua Grunstein is Director of training and placement at The Straus-Amiel Institute at Ohr Torah Stone.


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