Rejecting rejection: Importance of treating everyone with respect

Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum

By Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum, Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Behaalotcha (Numbers 8:1−12:16)

This week’s Parsha starts with Aharon’s getting the mitzvah to light the menorah, but feeling left out when he was not invited to the offerings described in last week’s Parsha. Later, the Parsha speaks of people who feel left out because they missed the Pesach offering. Finally, the Parsha addressed the entire Jewish people, who feel that they were forgotten in the desert with no food.

Feeling left out is a universal emotion. I applaud the schools that have an all or nothing policy for bar or bat mitzvot. A Jew’s entry to mitzvot shouldn’t be built on excluding others and hurting feelings.

A beloved and respected rabbi once related he attended a major organizational dinner in New York. He found his seat, and looked up to see all of the prominent rabbis sitting several tables over, including the other co-director of his institution. He said his tablemates were pleasant enough. One was an exterminator, one a plumber, another was an appliance salesman. His co-director saw him and said, “Why aren’t you sitting with us?” He pulled out his place card that put him at Table 6. The other rabbi reversed the card to show him, “You’re with us, at Table 9.” He sheepishly bid farewell to the exterminator and went over to his peers.

In all three cases in the Torah, the story ends that they weren’t really forgotten, rather they were upgraded.

Imagine you go to your seat in a plane and there’s a guy sitting there. Just as you’re about to get angry, the flight attendant tells you you’ve been upgraded to first class. Until you know what the plan is, you feel displaced.

Rabbi Yisrael Tausig of Jerusalem related a story he heard while waiting in line in Meiron on Lag b’Omer one year. The man next to him told him, “I’m from London, and thank G-d, very wealthy from a successful business. One night, I walked out of my office at around 10 p.m. and heard footsteps behind me, gaining ground on me. Suddenly, two young ruffians pulled out a knife and demanded all of my money.

 “As it happened, I had nearly 15,000 pounds on me. I reacted foolishly, with my gut instead of my brain. I looked the robber in the eye and said, ‘Listen, you look like a decent bloke, with smarts. What do you need the money for?’ The thief responded, ‘Me and my friend want to go drinking, and we’re broke.’ So I said, ‘Here’s 50 pounds. Go drink. Enjoy. You don’t need all of my money.’ The thief took the 50- pound note, and even thanked me. I realized afterwards that they could have killed me, and that negotiating was foolish—but it was done.

“A week later, as I was coming to shul on Friday afternoon for mincha, who was standing by the shul? The two young thugs who had robbed me. I was afraid they’d come to rob me again—or to kill me! The one who had held the knife the previous time walked up to me—and handed me 22 pounds. He said, ‘You gave us 50 pounds to go drinking, but we filled up at 28 pounds, so here’s your change.’

“I was speechless and dumbfounded. He told me, ‘You know, since I was a child, no one ever said a kind word to me. My parents and teachers called me a bum and a failure. You were the first person who had a kind, respectful word. I feel honor-bound to return your change. I’m re-thinking my life, and trying to regain some self-respect. Thank you.’”

Another story: a Jewish school principal came to get a blessing from the Chofetz Chaim, the saintly leader of pre-World War I Jewry. As the man approached the Chofetz Chaim, the elderly rabbi started screaming, “Murderer! Murderer!” The man said, “There must be some mistake; I’m no murderer!”

The Chofetz Chaim replied, “You kicked a hyperactive child out of your school. That child became Leonid Trotsky, who grew up to kill millions of people. Every drop of blood he shed is on your head. And seeing the leadership and organizational skills he had channeled to evil, you could have harnessed all of that skill and energy to improve the world. Who knows what good could have come if you hadn’t rejected him?”

All of us are in a position to reach out for someone who feels forgotten. It could be a relative stranger, a bus driver, a tollbooth operator, or even our own parents whom we don’t call often enough—which brings us to the beginning of the Parsha, “Beha’alotcha et Haneriot.” When you feel excluded and left out, you are—or can be—the person who brings light to those around you.

I often officiate at funerals for people forgotten, in the county morgue, with no one to claim them or even miss them. I always light a candle for them, to remember that they once shed light in their lives.

Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum is Director of The ARK’s Michael E. Schneider Spiritual Enrichment Program.

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