According to Sefer HaChinuch, Parshat Kedoshim clocks in with 51 mitzvot, more mitzvot than almost any other Parsha; only Re’ai (55) and Ki Tetzeh (74) have more. This week I would like to examine two particular mitzvot, which appear together in Perek 19, Passuk 14.
Lo tikallel heresh, v’lifnei iver lo titen michshol, v’yareita melokecha ani Hashem.
Do not curse a deaf person, and do not place a stumbling block in front of a blind person, and you shall fear your Lord, I am Hashem.
The juxtaposition of these two mitzvot in the passuk is of course not coincidental. It would appear that the Torah is stressing that even the weakest, or perhaps especially the weakest members of society should not be taken advantage of. We have a responsibility to proactively avoid taking advantage of those who may be least likely to be able to protect themselves.
The fact that the passuk talks of cursing a deaf person is not meant to limit the application of this prohibition to deaf people alone. We know that there is a separate prohibition to curse leaders and other members of the Jewish people (see Shemot 22:27). Ramban, after quoting the Midrash Halacha as well as the gemara in Sanhedrin (66A), suggests that the simple reading of the passuk is not limiting the prohibition to cursing a deaf person. One might have imagined that due to his impairment, in any event a deaf person won’t realize that he is being cursed. Therefore perhaps cursing him would not be a big deal. By referring to a deaf person, the Torah in fact broadens the applicability of the law from non hearing-impaired people who would hear the curse and be offended, to deaf people, who I might have thought would not be included in the prohibition.
There is a second element that is apparent from a simple reading, says Ramban. Both deaf and blind individuals are particularly vulnerable to those who would curse or trip them because they can not easily identify their tormentors, who thus act with impunity. This sad reality provides the context for the closing words of the passuk, “and you shall fear your Lord, I am Hashem”. The scoundrel may be able to hide his deeds from his victim, but not from Hashem, who is all knowing.
Our analysis of the passuk thus far, and the connection that we have made between the two mitzvot that it contains, are based upon the simplest reading of the passuk, namely that the deaf man was cursed by his fellow, and a physical stumbling block was placed in front of the blind woman. While the first part of this equation is relatively straightforward we all know that this explanation of the second half of the passuk is neither the only possibility nor even the preferred one. Rav Elchanan Samet, in his essay on our pasuk (Iyunim B’Parshat HaShavua First Series pp 78-93), surveys four different interpretations to the second half of this passuk. While the focus of his essay is very different from ours, this survey provides us with an excellent overview of the possible interpretations.
Rav Samet begins with the simplest reading of the passuk (the one that we have used thus far), meaning that our blind woman is actually blind and the perpetrator has placed a physical stumbling block in front of her. The second possibility is that our “blind” person is not actually blind, but despite not being visually impaired does not see the actual stumbling block and therefore trips on it. In this scenario the basic parameters of the explanation remain the same, but our definition of a blind person has been expanded to include an individual who is not visually impaired, but is still “blind” to the obstruction that has been placed in her way.
Rav Samet then continues on to two other explanations which are more metaphorical. The first, and most familiar, is that our passuk is not referring to physical sight at all. Rather, our blind person is an individual who is unknowledgeable in a given area, or perhaps does not fully understand the implications of a certain situation. The stumbling block is also not a physical one, but rather a metaphorical one, in this case poor advice or misleading or false information, intended to take advantage of the victim’s naivete or ignorance. This approach is most familiar to us because it is the one adopted by Rashi(19:14), based on the Midrash Sifra (2:13).
Interestingly, while the Midrash provides three examples of this behavior, Rashi only quotes the final one. The three examples are:
If someone asks if a certain woman is a permissible match for a Kohen (i.e she is neither a chalilla nor a divorcee) and the respondent answers yes, even though he knows that she is in fact forbidden to a Kohen.
Someone asks for advice and the respondent intentionally gives bad advice
Unsolicited, a person advises another to exchange one possession for another (the example in the Midrash is to sell a field and use the profits to buy a donkey) in order that the person making the suggestion can acquire the field for herself.
The difference between these three cases provides insight into the differing mindsets that a person might have when transgressing this sin. Rav Samet notes that in the first case, an argument can be made that the respondent is trying to help the woman get married, even at the price of causing the Kohen to sin. In the third case, the goal of the person making the suggestion is to enrich himself at the expense of the owner of the field. But it is the second case that while most disturbing also comes closest to the simple meaning of the passuk. As with the first two explanations, the motivation of the sinner seems to be pure malice, nothing more and nothing less. As unnecessary as it sounds, the Torah is warning against maliciously harming someone else, simply because you can.
The fourth possibility that Rav Samet suggests is that one is prohibited from enabling someone else to sin. The most famous example of this is found in the Gemara in Avoda Zara (6B) where the Braita tells us that it is forbidden to provide a nazir with wine. In this scenario the nazir knows that it is forbidden for him to drink wine, but nonetheless the gemara insists that if someone helps him to sin she transgresses the prohibition of Lifnei Iveir. But why? Why should the nazir be considered blind when he is aware of the prohibition? Rav Samet answers that as a result of his uncontrollable desire to drink wine the nazir has blinded himself to the consequences of his actions. It therefore becomes incumbent upon the other Jew to do everything in her power to prevent her fellow Jew from sinning. This also explains Tosofot’s position, codified in Shulchan Aruch (Avoda Zara 151), that if the Nazir has another way to obtain the wine, then the other Jew no longer is forbidden to give him the wine that he asked for. Once the goal of preventing a Jew from sinning is no longer attainable, the obligation of Lifnei Iver longer applies.
On the one hand, this fourth possibility seems to be the most distant from the simple meaning of the passuk. The “victim” is in no ways innocent, but is actively looking to sin. His counterpart, far from maliciously attempting to harm him, is at worst an enabling bystander. Nonetheless, Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch demonstrates that it is very close to the mark. Up until now, we have focussed on the damage that the “villain” is causing to the “victim”. Rav Hirsch, however, suggests that the passuk is not merely warning us against harming another person. Much more importantly, the passuk is charging us with the responsibility to look after another Jew. In the words of Rav Hirsch:
(the passuk) “warns us against carelessness in word or deed through which the material or spiritual well being of our fellow men could in any way be endangered. By Iveir is understood not only the actual blind, but also those who are, in any way, spiritually or morally blind, dazzled by passion or ignorance. So not only anybody who actually places a stone in the path of a blind man, but also he who deliberately gives wrong advice…who gives the means, or prepares the way for wrong to be done…so that people could come sin unknowingly…who in any way…actively or passively assists or furthers a person in doing wrong…transgress this prohibition. Thus, the whole great sphere of the material and spiritual happiness of our neighbor is entrusted to our care.”
The Torah, says Rav Hirsch, is not only interested in prohibiting us from harming someone else. We can be so much greater than that! Rather we should be actively concerned with the wellbeing of our fellow man, and look for ways to enhance that wellbeing. Far from merely discouraging us from being scoundrels who sink to the basest of instincts, the Torah calls on us to enable others, and to enoble ourselves.