Stumbling Blocks, the Blind, and Political Correctness — By Ben

This week’s Torah portion has concepts that are real winners. Some of its verses are so popular other religions and even the secular world can be found quoting them. Among these mitzvahs are: love your neighbor as yourself, don’t bear a grudge, and don’t stand idly as your neighbor’s blood is shed. But the name of the parsha, Kedoshim, implies that its commandments aren’t just for those who want to be good, but for those who want to be holy.

Then there’s the mitzvah, “You must not… put a stumbling block before the blind.”

Image by Ulrike Mai from Pixabay

Now of all the mitzvahs that you think would be obvious, not stacking crates in front of the visually impaired would be obvious. And for a parsha that is about going above and beyond, you wouldn’t think this mitzvah would need to be said. Yet here it is. Why?

The Metaphor

Rashi clarifies the scripture saying that the mitzvah shouldn’t just be understood literally. “Before a person who is ‘blind’ regarding a matter, you shall not give advice that is improper for him.” He goes on to basically say, don’t take advantage of someone’s ignorance so you can capitalize by giving them bad advice. This interpretation is far more applicable to the average person.

Many of us are tempted to get ahead in somewhat questionable ways. We might even justify giving a little bad advice here and there. Perhaps the term, “it isn’t personal, it is just business” might sound familiar? As if profiting by deception is excusable because it’s “all part of the game.” So now we understand how it’s a little more relevant.

But remember we’re talking about the realm of holiness. How might a tzaddik, a chassid, or a mensch find themselves putting stumbling blocks before the blind? For that you have to ask yourself, how seriously must one take this mitzvah? If we are really committed to making sure we never cause another to falter, now we’ve got a lot more to think about.

How do we know a person is blind?

When we talk about the trait of chessed, it is usually translated as kindness. However that misses an important element of the Hebrew. Doing chessed isn’t just about doing something nice for someone. It is an act that recognizes the need of another person. Meaning a baal chessed (master of chessed) is actively looking out for the needs of others. When I waited tables, we were trained to refill waters not when guests asked, but when we noticed their glasses were half empty. If we had downtime, we would patrol other server’s sections with water pitchers in hand, on the look out for low water glasses. That’s what a baal chessed does with others’ needs.

Someone serious about not putting a stumbling block before the blind is on the watch out for how the people around them struggle. There is a story about Rabbi Soloveitchik.

A local Jew came to Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveichik with a strange question. “Is it permissible to use four cups of milk at the seder instead of four cups of wine?” Understanding that this was an issue of finances (not health or any other reason), the Rabbi, without even responding, reached into his pocket and told the person “Take these twenty rubles and purchase wine.”

After the Jew had left, a student asked the Rabbi, “Why did you have to give him twenty-five rubles? Five would be more than enough to purchase the required amount of wine.” Rabbi Soloveichik answered, “If he intended to use milk at the Seder, that means he also doesn’t have money for meat [For Jewish law forbids having milk and meat at the same meal], and he probably also doesn’t have money for the other items served at the Seder. I wanted to give him enough so that he could have a complete Seder.”

Quoted from Chabad of Cary

Had Rabbi Soloveitchik not been sensitive to the needs of the poor man, he might have ruled that milk was not sufficient and caused the man great stress in fulfilling the mitzvah, probably causing him to stumble. But instead, he provided for more than the man needed. He went above and beyond.

What is a stumbling block?

Photo by Rachael

When I was a kid in school, my goal was to either be the smartest person in the room or the funniest. The moment I’d hear a teaching that I could think of a contradiction to or some other clever application of the idea, my hand would shoot up. I didn’t really care what the answer was. I just wanted to have the feeling of being smarter. I had no concern for the fact that there were other people in the room who might be struggling with the material and that my overly complicated question might confuse them. Nor did I care that the teacher may be trying to cover more material before class ended (a frustration I learned when I started teaching.)

The point is I was oblivious to the stumbling blocks I was throwing out all around me. Do we really take enough time to consider how our actions affect other people? Or is that just an afterthought? If it’s a thought at all.

Investing in the less advantaged

To properly do this mitzvah, it means we have to not only be sensitive, but we have to invest in those around us. Political correctness has become rather controversial over the last decades. I think the issue is that it is a sort of mandated sensitivity. It’s a short cut to the understanding we should have if we actually cared about a particular group. But if we actually cared about understanding the different members of our society, we’d take the time to get to know them and love them. Sounds like another mitzvah in this parsha. The point is, we shouldn’t just avoid offending or inhibiting those around us, we should learn their blindspots so we can be the extra pair of eyes and have their back. That’s holy.

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