Thursday, May 16, 2019



During my late adolescence, I had to make an appearance in traffic court to fight a ticket. My father accompanied me for moral support. After I explained my case about what occurred, the judge asked me for my plea – ‘guilty with an explanation’ or ‘not guilty’. I had committed the infraction, but I felt I had a valid excuse for doing it. So, I naively replied ‘guilty with an excuse’. The judge looked almost apologetic when he replied that once I uttered the word ‘guilty’, even with a valid explanation, legally there had to be a fine and points. I understood that the judge was intimating that I should have pled ‘not guilty’, and then he could have mitigated the consequence, such as dismissing the points.
At the time, I wasn’t aware that traffic court in America is a game, and you gotta know the rules.
A few years ago, during my first trip through a certain town, I received a speeding ticket after being caught by a cop sitting at a speed trap[2]. When I went to court, the prosecutor allowed me to plead guilty to parking at a fire hydrant, which would result in my receiving a fine, but no points. I later realized that almost everyone in that court room was offered the same plea. It was a small village, and I’m not sure if there was more than one fire hydrant in the whole town. If an outsider was watching the proceedings, he probably would’ve wandered why everyone in that court had waited on line to park at the town’s only fire hydrant.  

          At the end of parshas Emor, the Torah relates the tragic story of the blasphemer: “The son of a Jewish mother went out in the midst of B’nai Yisroel; and they quarreled in the camp - the son of the Jewish woman and a Jewish man. The son of the Jewish woman uttered the Name of Hashem blasphemously, and the name of his mother was Shlomis bas Divri.”
          Although the Torah is vague about what occurred, the Medrash[3] relates two possibilities: One possibility is that the mekalel was mocking aspects of the Mishkan and another Jew started arguing with him for being disrespectful. His reaction was to curse Hashem. The other possibility is that the makalel was trying to pitch his tent in the tribe of Dan since that was his mother’s tribe. Some of the other members of the tribe argued that he had no right to pitch his tent on their land, since tribe is paternal, and his father was an Egyptian. When they presented their case before Moshe and Moshe ruled against him, he blasphemed Hashem.
          The father of the mekalel was the Egyptian that Moshe killed in Egypt, which resulted in Moshe’s having to flee Egypt for many decades[4]. The mother of this mekalel – Shlomis bas Divri - was a flirtatious woman[5]. An Egyptian taskmaster forced her husband out to the fields, and then slept with Shlomis. The Egyptian then went to kill the Jewish husband, but Moshe saw the encounter and killed the Egyptian first.
          The Kli Yakar suggests that it is likely that the mekalel harbored a grudge against Moshe for his whole life because Moshe had killed his father.
          It is clear that the mekalel had a difficult life, feeling like an outcast socially and physically. He was the product of the only act of immorality between a Jewish woman and an Egyptian, and he seemed to have no place among the Jewish nation.
          In our society, people often confuse an explanation with an excuse. In a world where people can be acquitted of crimes by pointing to a difficult childhood, or neglectful parents, the punishment of the mekalel seems misplaced. How could they have killed such a person? Shouldn’t they have been more understanding of his difficult upbringing and looked the other way? Doesn’t the Torah promote empathy and tolerance?
          The answer would seem to be that although the makalel’s actions can be understood in the context of his life, that remains an explanation, not an excuse. Cursing Hashem is inexcusable even when a person has a difficult past. Although one must deal compassionately with his fellow Jews and seek to understand them, there are limits that cannot be crossed. As Jews, our foremost responsibility is to Hashem and the ideals of His Torah, irrespective of any other personal challenges.
          Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch notes that there was a more insidious motivation for the mekalel’s actions. When the Torah calls the mekalel the son of an Egyptian man, more than just defining his father’s nationality, it contains the motivation behind his sin. He felt that the culture of Judaism was burdensome, and he wanted to define himself as the son of an ‘ish Mitzri’. He longed for the permissive Egyptian culture and its decadence. In that sense, he was the polar opposite of Moshe, who had initially been identified by Yitro’s daughters as an ‘ish Mitzri’, but had distanced himself, in the extreme, from the lifestyle of the Egyptians. This mekalel longed to return to such a lifestyle.
          Whether the makalel was venting pent up frustration, or if it was a calculated act; it was an inexcusable act. Even in the most difficult of circumstances we are expected to act responsibly and with foresight.[6]

This concept is important to teach our children as well.
In 2013, 15-year-old Ethan Couch, killed four people while driving under the influence. Shockingly, he received no prison time because, due to his family’s great wealth, he was said to suffer from “Affluenza”, an inability to understand that actions cause consequences.
“Affluenza is not about wealth. It is about a generation of parents who want to make their children so "happy" that they fail them miserably. Let's face it, it's so much easier to say yes and throw money at your kid than saying no and meting out consequences. But loving parenting also includes teaching your child this monumental rule of life: You make things happen. Whatever you do kiddo, there will be a reaction; story of our lives. The sooner we let our children in on this life principle, the healthier they'll be.”[7] 

One of the components necessary to be successful in any endeavor, is the ability to take responsibility, and to fess up to shortcomings and failures.
          Successful people recognize the critical difference between an explanation and an excuse. An explanation accepts full responsibility, while an excuse places blame, and minimizes liability, in order to avoid consequences. Explanations can be pivotal to reaching goals; excuses sabotage those efforts.
          Children often blame others in order to shift the blame away from themselves. The problem is that many people never mature from that juvenile approach, and spend their lives blaming everyone else for their problems and challenges. They are the greatest victims of their pedantic self-indignation.
          Shirking responsibility temporarily relieves feelings of shame, guilt, and fear. But in the long run, not recognizing where one could have better, robs a person of the ability to grow and improve.
          Conversely, all great accomplishments are the result of the efforts of individuals who are willing to take responsibility. This is true not only in society and the physical world, but in the world of spiritual accomplishment as well. In fact, the entire transmission of Torah is the result of the incredible tenacity, resilience, and acceptance of responsibility of Rabbi Akiva. After losing twenty-four thousand students in a short time period, Rabbi Akiva would have been justified in giving excuses why he could not go on. Rabbi Akiva understood however, that if he did not begin again the transmission of Torah would end. Rather than offer excuses, Rabbi Akiva told his new students an explanation:
          “Rabbi Akiva said: If you have disciplines in your youth, produce disciples in your old age, for you do not know which ones will endure, these or these… Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand students from Acco to Antifros, and they all died during one period. Why? Because their eyes were pained, these to these. In the end he produced seven students[8]…. He said to them: “My sons, the first ones died because their eyes were pained from one to the other. Pay attention that you do not act as they did.” They stood up and they filled all of Eretz Yisroel with Torah.”[9]
          The holiday of Lag Ba’Omer celebrates the eternity of Torah, a result of the unbroken chain of its transmission. At certain points in our history it seemed like that transmission was in danger, but during those times were always individuals who assumed responsibility and ensured that Torah would never be forgotten.
          Two of these great heroes were Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Both suffered tremendously during their lives and both could have offered excuses why they could not go on. The fact that they persevered and continue to feel responsible to teach Torah had a perpetually vital effect upon the Torah world.  
          Lag BaOmer reminds us that being part of an eternal chain comes with a heavy price tag. Building eternity does not have room for excuses, justifications, or exemptions.

          “The son of the Jewish woman uttered the Name blasphemously”
          “Pay attention that you do not act as they did.”

Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW
Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – Heichal HaTorah
Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor

[1] The following is the lecture I gave in Kehillat New Hempstead, Shabbos KodAlthoiugh tesh parshas Emor 5776
[2] Where the speed limit suddenly drops
[3] Vayikra Rabbah 22:3
[4] see Rashi Shemos 2:11
[5] Her name ‘Shlomis bas Divri’ alludes to the fact that she ‘made peace’ (shlomis) and was chatty (divri) with men
[6] This explanation was based on an essay by Rabbi Maury Grebenau
[7] “Affluenza” by M. Gary Neuman, Huffington Post
[8] One of those students was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai
[9] Bereishis Rabbah 61:3


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