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July 28, 2014 / 1 Av, 5774
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‘Did You Add Salt to a Wound?’

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Just days ago on Yom Kipper, The Day of Judgment, Jews gathered as one in shuls, shteibels and temples and desperately and profusely promised Hashem that we would reform our ways and improve our behaviors and actions towards Him, our Father and Creator, as well as towards our fellow man, who, being made in His image, is deserving of our respect and compassion, and of being treated as an equal, no matter their social or financial status, age or gender.

Our prayers were saturated with sincerity, our pleas- passionate and pure. This time, we would amend our not so pleasant ways. Nothing motivates the determination to improve oneself than the fear of Divine Retribution. The knowledge that teshuvah – repentance and remorse and regret for less than stellar behaviors, attitudes and activities – can postpone, even cancel a stern, life-altering judgment is the best fuel to ignite an unwavering commitment to change.

And many of us are making a conscientious effort to keep our promise to be kinder, more ethical and more tolerant, both as Jews and human beings. But within weeks, ingrained bad habits will free themselves from the restraints we so self-righteously encased them in, and reclaim their turf in our flawed personalities.

So how do we prevent that regression? How do we fortify our resolve to self-tikkun in a way that will help ensure that on the final Day of Judgment in the Heavenly Court, our neshama will be headed “north” not “south?”

It is generally accepted that one of the questions people will be asked on That Day will revolve around business ethics. We will be asked if we were honest in our financial dealings with others.

Perhaps one question that we should expect to be asked of us is, “Did you rub salt into a wound?”

“Rubbing salt into a wound” is an expression that has come to mean adding tzaar – emotional hurt – to someone who already is in great pain and distress. It actually is based on a practice centuries ago when slaves, captured enemies or prisoners of war were lashed either as punishment or as a way of making them talk. Many were further tormented by having salt rubbed into their open, bleeding wounds, causing excruciating pain on top of the pain they were experiencing from the whipping.

(Baby-boomers no doubt remember all too clearly the intense pain that would have us howling and jumping out of our skin when iodine was dabbed onto a skinned knee or cut or scrape to prevent infection. The cure was worse than the sickness. Only much later did soothing, antibiotic ointments become available.)

Of all the “bad” behaviors we indulge in, whether through misguided “kindness” or deliberate maliciousness, enhancing the pain, grief or hopelessness of someone who is hurting mentally, emotionally or spiritually is especially harmful to the recipient – it is like rubbing salt in an open wound.

When I say,” kindness,” it is because there were times when salt was rubbed into an open wound to prevent infection and promote healing. Nonetheless, the resultant agony was just as horrific as when it was done out of pure cruelty.

So many people are what I call the “walking wounded.” Young and old, wealthy or poor, married or single; pillars of their community or barely visible in the crowd, no one is spared from torment, loss, loneliness, fear, self-doubt or the inevitable emotional battering and trauma that comes from being a breathing, sentient human being.

Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, children, teachers, rebbeim, acquaintances, friends, bosses, colleagues, even strangers like a bus driver or store clerk can deliberately or inadvertently, via “good” intentions, salt a wound.

This is clearly evident in the story of Penina and Chana, who became the mother of Shmuel Hanavi. In Shmuel 1 chapter I, verse 7, we are told that a man, Ephraim, had two wives, Penina who had many children, and Chana, who was infertile. Penina would torment Chana about being childless, but the Midrash says she did so out of kindness, to spur Chana to daven with more kavanah, and garner Hashem’s sympathy – but all it did was make Chana feel worse, so she did not even want to eat.

However, I believe that all too often “salt” is “rubbed in” because of brutal mean-spiritness or abject callousness, as when bullies gang up on a classmate who they perceive as being weaker physically or socially. Even teachers are guilty of bullying behavior, humiliating kids who have fallen behind, or who are socially awkward or not academically inclined. Clueless parents belittle their offspring who do not live up to their expectations, comparing a child with a prettier or more accomplished sibling. The child already is crushed by his/her awareness of not “measuring up.”

Pointing out the sibling’s, cousin’s, or classmate’s superior achievements enhances the pain and sense of worthlessness the child is submerged in already. Ditto for the husband or wife who finds fault with just about everything his/her spouse does or does not do.

And then there are those who are neither good intentioned nor evil. They are just so thoughtless and insensitive that they nebach must be chronically stupid. How often has someone come up to a childless couple, wanting to know when they are going to give their parents nachas, as in “My son got married a few months after you did and his wife is expecting their third child…”

Older singles constantly endure insensitive and demeaning remarks about their status. “Oy, my cousin was a beauty like you, and smart too; she had aleh mayles (had everything going for her) and she’s 55 and never married. Such a bitter mazal.”

Or the patient who is struggling to overcome a vicious illness who is told several times by different people how so and so had the same thing and was told she/he was cured, and then a year or two later, had a recurrence and subsequently died. How helpful is it for the sick person’s hope to be deflated?

It seems at times that people have a compulsive need to give the vulnerable a “shtoch” – a verbal jab that undermines a person’s equilibrium or peace of mind.

The trick to getting your foot in the door in terms of Gan Eden is to think before talking. People might be enduring major traumas or disappointments or heartache in their lives – and a careless word can add excruciating hurt to a very vulnerable wound.

If you feel the need to say something, try being positive or uplifting, Especially if the recipient is obviously are on what I call the “C list”- as opposed to the “beautiful, successful “A listers” who are on everyone’s invite and/or shidduch list.

Encourage play dates with your child’s not so popular classmate – being left out will only increase his/her loneliness; give a compliment to the single who is a not considered pretty or handsome – everyone has something about them that is special. – and most importantly, speak quietly and calmly to whoever you have dealings with – no matter how angry, exasperated or disgusted you are by someone’s behavior or actions. I have seen spouses yell, insult and denigrate each other in shul, even as guests at someone’s Shabbat table.

Yelling at another adult or screaming at a child and making them feel worthless is a huge chillul Hashem, because that individual is His creation and by lashing into them, you are saying G-d created a flawed entity – that The Master of the Universe made a mistake.

Make it a habit to be aware that on your personal Yom Ha’din, you may be asked if you “added salt to a wound.” Whether you meant well or indulged in a pathetic need to push someone down in order to feel better about yourself, the Heavenly Court will judge you by the amount of pain you inflicted on someone already saturated with it.

With this possibility as a guiding light, the tikkun you so fervently vowed to work on will likely come to fruition.

May all our prayers be accepted and may we experience a year of contentment and peace of mind.

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