Wednesday, January 26, 2011

THE TOXICITY OF HATRED: PARASHAT MISHPATIM 5771/2011


WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING


PARASHAT MISHPATIM:  2011/5771

THE TOXICITY OF HATRED



         If you see your enemy’s ox lying under its burden, you shall forbear (ve-chadaltah) to pass him by (mei-azov lo). You shall surely release it with him (azov ta’azov imo). (Ex. 23:4).

I have based my translation of this verse on the Jewish Publication Society version. The plain meaning of the text is not obvious. The translator faces a number of problems. The Hebrew verb azav occurs three times in our verse. But it can mean “leave” or “help”. When it is doubled (azov ta’azov), it can mean, “you shall surely help [him]” or “you shall relieve [it with him].”

The Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, resolves the dilemma by making the following comment: “The usage of the word azav in the first clause of the verse is to leave,
 i.e. You may not leave him. The doubled azov ta’azov in the second clause uses the verb azav as azar and simply means, you shall surely help him.”

However, Targum Onkelos, the classic Aramaic rendition of the Torah, which is printed in all standard rabbinic versions of the Torah, and is regularly studied by conscientious students, renders the text radically differently: ”When you see the ox of the one you hate, sagging under its load, and you resist [ve-chadaltah] unloading it, you shall surely let go what is in your heart against him (azov ta’azov imo), and unload with him.”


Onkelos takes the verb ve-chadaltah to be descriptive, rather than prescriptive (“and you are resisting” rather than “you shall desist.”) He thus disagrees with the Netziv, who writes,” It is a positive commandment to desist from leaving him [in the lurch] and to proceed on one’s way”. And Onkelos takes the doubled azov ta’azov as a psychological injunction to definitely let go of the hatred in your heart.

Our understanding of our text is further complicated by a parallel verse: You shall not see your brother’s [achikhah] donkey or ox, falling on the way and hide yourself from them. You shall surely lift {them] up with him. (Deut.22:4). The Sifrei, the midrash halachah on Deuteronomy, rightly raises the following question: “This verse refers only to the ox of your brother [achikhah]. How do we know [that the law applies to] your enemy also? Because it [the Torah] had [already] referenced, ‘your enemy’s ox (Ex 23:4). If this is so, why does the verse [here] have to state achikhah [your brother]? [Obviously, if you are obliged to help your enemy, you are certainly obliged to assist your brother!].

Sifrei’s answer is enlightening. “The first verse teaches us that the Torah was elating to the human inclination to evil,” an explanation echoed in the Talmud (Bava Metzi’a 32b). Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin spells this notion out. “In order to assist him, you must join him in performing the task, and you will have to communicate with him. It is very difficult to talk to one whom one hates, and one’s inclination tempts one to resist helping him. It is for this reason that the Torah comes to command one to transcend one’s evil inclination and to surely help him.”

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin adds a significant observation. The Torah’s injunction to assist one’s enemy comes before the injunction to assist one’s brother. The Torah is reminding us that the person you hate remains your brother. “Do not hate the Edomite [although he has harmed you], for he is your brother. Do not hate the Egyptian [although he brutalized you, murdered your children and enslaved you], for you were strangers in his land.” (Deut. 23:8). While hatred divides you, you are united by your common humanity. You are equally vulnerable to pain and suffering. You may be tempted to overlook and even to gloat over the distress of one whom you hate, but remember that you are also vulnerable, and must overcome that temptation. Rabbi Shemu’el ha-Katan was chosen to add a paragraph to the Amidah prayer precisely because his mantra was, “Do not rejoice in the calamity of your enemy.”


Our text teaches us another vitally important lesson. It is, as Onkelos explained, that hatred is a burden that we are commanded to release from our hearts.  We often imagine that the negative feelings we hold about another person has an effect on that person, that we are punishing him or her for the suffering caused us.  Consciously or unconsciously we convince ourselves that our aloofness and anger will hurt them.  But it rarely hurts those for whom we bear hatred.  It simply ties us to events of long ago and keeps us mired in our misery. 

I have frequently counseled people who remember every single slight that was done to them decades ago and who constantly relive the pain and humiliation of those slights.  The reality is that those they are avoiding have long ago stopped caring while they remain consumed by their bitterness and struggling under the burdens of the hatreds in their hearts.  The Torah wisely counsels azov ta’azov –let it go, let it go.  Relieve your hearts of the burden and the bitterness of your hatreds.  You will be helping yourself far more than the one you hate by resolving your issues with him or her.  Difficult as it may seem, it is better to talk and strive for resolution than to be eaten up by unrelenting bitterness.






THE IN-LAWS: PARASHAT YITRO 5771/2011 5771/2011


                       WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING


PARASHAT YITRO:  2011/5771

INVITED SHIUR: SHEILAH KEITER

THE IN-LAWS



            Parashat Yitro, famous for the recitation of the Ten Commandments, begins with Moshe’s reunification with his family, his wife, two sons and Yitro, his father-in-law.  Yitro hears of what has happened to Moshe and the Israelites and how God delivered them from Egypt.  Yitro praises God and acknowledges God’s greatness.  Yitro then witnesses Moshe’s travails in judging the people.  Disapproving, Yitro advises Moshe to appoint a system of judges to share the burden.  Moshe listens to this advice, and Yitro returns to his own land, Midian. (Exodus, Chapter 18.)

            Over the course of this chapter, Yitro is continuously described as Moshe’s father-in-law.  The text uses the phrase חותן משה, “the father-in-law of Moshe,” to describe or identify Yitro seven separate times in the course of the chapter.  The text uses various forms of the term חותן, father-in-law, another six times within the chapter.  We already know that Yitro is Moshe’s father-in-law.  Why does the Torah feel compelled to describe him thus so many times at this point in the narrative?

            The answer relates to power in the ancient world.  The first line of the parashah tells us that Yitro heard about what had happened in Egypt before he was reunited with Moshe. (Exodus 18:1.)  He knew that with the help of God, Moshe had defeated the world’s greatest power, had liberated an entire nation, had destroyed the Egyptian army, and had recently defeated the Amalakites.  This essentially made Moshe the most powerful man in the world.  In this position, Moshe could have easily deposed the old Pharaoh, made himself king, declared himself a god and exerted tyrannical control over everyone in the region, including Yitro.

            Thus, when Yitro goes to greet Moshe, there is a sense of trepidation.  What is their relationship now that Moshe has accomplished all that he has accomplished?  The first words out of Yitro’s mouth when he sees Moshe are, “I am your father-in-law….” (Exodus 18:6.)  Yitro finds it necessary to remind Moshe of their relationship.

            What happens next is most telling.  Moshe goes out to publicly greet his father-in-law, and he bows before him and kisses him. (Exodus 18:7.)  The most powerful man in the world prostrates himself before his father-in-law.  He then tells Yitro in detail of all the things God, not Moshe, did for the sake of Israel. (Exodus 18:8.)  And this is the point that Yitro needs to hear.  It was not Moshe who defeated the mighty Egyptian empire, but God.  Moshe is not the most powerful man in the world, his power deriving solely from God in Whom all true power rests.  Once Yitro understands this he rejoices. (Exodus 18:9.)  We get the sense that not only is he happy to hear of Israel’s miraculous redemption but that he is also relieved.

            The repetition of the term father-in-law reaffirms this relationship.  Not only is God the source of all power, but power cannot obliterate the natural relationships that exist between people.  Even if Moshe has seen to the defeat of Egypt and become a national leader to his people, he still owes deference and respect to his father-in-law. 

            This flies in the face of the morality of power that existed in the ancient world, and still exists today.  A king was all powerful.  The king claimed either divine right or claimed to be divine himself.  Therefore, he was the law.  Over the course of history, kings and want-to-be-kings have murdered innumerable close relatives, including parents, in-laws, children, spouses and others, in the effort to gain, keep or consolidate power.  The moral rules of familial fealty cease to operate when ultimate power is concerned.

            Our parashah rejects this notion.  Yitro is still Moshe’s father-in-law, perhaps the only father figure Moshe has ever known.  As such, no matter what Moshe has accomplished, no matter how powerful Moshe has become, he owes Yitro respect and reverence by virtue of that relationship.

            Assured of this fact, Yitro has the confidence to criticize his son-in-law.  He tells Moshe that his attempt to act as judge for the entire nation is “no good.” (Exodus 18:17.)  Like many an in-law before and after him, Yitro sees it as his place to offer his son-in-law unsolicited advice.  And Moshe, the man who brought Egypt to its knees, who destroyed the world’s most powerful army, who spoke with God face-to-face and who would receive the law from Sinai, dutifully listens.  This is because Moshe understood that all power derives from God, and as such, it cannot alter the fidelity owed our parents and in-laws.
            

Thursday, January 20, 2011

HUMAN SPEECH AND DIVINE SILENCE: PARASHAT YITRO 5771/2011

                            WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING


PARASHAT YITRO:  2011/5771

HUMAN SPEECH AND DIVINE SILENCE:ANNOTATED VERSION


The Ten Utterances, the so-called Ten Commandments, are commonly divided into two sets of imperatives. One set, the contents of the first tablet, defines relationships between the individual and God (mitzvot bein adam le-Makom). The contents of the other define relationships between person and person (bein adam le-chavero).

Traditionally, the five Utterances on the first tablet are regarded as being conceptual parallels to those on the second tablet. 

The first Utterance is affirmation of God’s existence. The sixth is the prohibition of murder. Since the human is created in the image of God (be-tzelem Elokim), the destruction of human being is, as it were, a disaffirmation of the divine Being.

The second Utterance commands our exclusive relationship with God. There is to be no other divinity, neither in concept nor in form. Similarly, the seventh Utterance prohibits adultery. Spousal relationships and commitments are absolute and exclusive.

The third Utterance prohibits malfeasance through swearing falsely on the divine Name. Similarly, the eighth prohibits theft, the wrongful acquisition of what does not belong  to one.

The fourth Utterance commands us to rest on the Sabbath day. Just as the Creator rested from the primordial creative enterprise on the seventh day, our observance of the Sabbath is in imitatio dei. We thus act as reliable witnesses to God’s creating and desisting from creating. In this way, the ninth parallels the fourth, It prohibiting bearing false witness.

The fifth Utterance demands that we honor our parents. This imperative is unconditional. We do not choose our parents, and they are not always good to us. We may wish to have other, kinder parents, like some of our friends have. But we are obliged to honor our less than perfect parents. The tenth Utterance’s prohibition of coveting what we think are the superior mates and possessions of others resonates with the imperative of the fifth.

The parallels that I have suggested are superficial and somewhat facile. The literature abounds with more nuanced and complex interpretations, but to summarize them in our limited space would do them scant justice. I shall limit myself to a deeper analysis of just one, perhaps the most obvious—the parallel between the fourth and the ninth.

On its face, the connection is obvious. Both require accurate witnessing—the one in court, and the other in our regular observance of the Sabbath. By desisting from creative activity on the Sabbath, our behavior testifies to our conviction of the divine cessation of creation on the first Sabbath.

However, it is not clear that the nature of our Sabbath rest authentically resembles the Divine cessation of creation. Our Sabbath rest is defined by the prohibition of creative work (melekhet machshevet). This, in turn, is further defined by 39 primary categories of creative activity associated with the construction of the Sanctuary in the wilderness, and the derivatives of those 39 major categories. To be sure, the transfer of fire and the 39 major categories of prohibited Sabbath activities, and the sub-categories of the 39, are scripturally mandated. They are based on the juxtaposition of the imperative of Sabbath observance with the account of the commencement of the building of the Sanctuary and its appurtenances (Ex. 31:12-18; 35:2-3). This work was of the highest importance, since it was dedicated to the service of the Lord. Notwithstanding, it was not to be regarded as being more important than the observance of the Sabbath, and was not to supersede it.

But the creative activity of God did not resemble the activities involved in the construction of the Sanctuary. These were all physical, whereas God created by means of the creative fiat, through speech: “And God said…And God said, etc.” Accordingly, the Divine cessation from creation must have been the absence of speech, silence. Therefore, to bear accurate witness to God’s Sabbath, we should have been  required to desist from speaking on the seventh day.

Why were we not? How can our Sabbath observance more closely resemble God’s first Sabbath? How can we bear witness to God’s Sabbath?

The classical Jewish definition of the human is chai medabber-a living creature that speaks. The Bible describes the creation of Adam as follows: “And He [God] breathed into his [Adam’s] nostrils the breath of life, and he [Adam] became a living soul (Gen.2: 7). The ancient Aramaic rendition of the phrase, “and he [Adam] became a living soul” is:  “And he became a speaking soul.” Our uniqueness as humans consists precisely in our ability to communicate in speech. For God to have required us to stop speaking on the Sabbath would be asking us to surrender our very humanity, to deny the unique gift of verbal communication bestowed on us by God Himself. How, then, can we best approximate God’s Sabbath?

The prophet Isaiah suggests the beginning of an answer to this question:” If you turn your foot away from Sabbath rest; from doing what you desire on My holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, making  the holy [day] of the Lord honored, and honor it by not doing what you usually do or [striving] to achieve what you desire, nor speaking [how you usually] speak [me-metzo cheftzcha ve-dabber davar], then shall you take delight in the Lord.” (Isaiah 58: 13-14).

One aspect of our Sabbath observance that is delightful to God is dabber davar, refraining from our usual patterns of speech. This cannot simply mean that we should not use foul language. Foul language is never appropriate. Whatever the societal standard, filthy and vulgar language may not be spoken by Jews. It is forbidden as nivul peh, and is, unfortunately, ubiquitous and “normal” in the media. Nor can it mean avoiding gossip and slander, which are independent prohibitions.

I believe that dabber davar has two implications for Sabbath observance, one negative and the other positive. It prohibits business or work related conversation. Yiddish-speaking Jews would often jokingly introduce this kind of conversation with the phrase: “Nit af Shabbos geret—[We should not really be talking this way on the Sabbath].” If the talk focuses on activities that are not permitted on The Sabbath, the talk is, itself, forbidden. This is the negative connotation of dabber davar.[See: Zohar, Bereishit 34a "This dibbur is called Shabbat...the conversation of the workday weekis forbidden on Shabbat"] 

Positively, dabber davar requires the Sabbath to be sanctified with sacred speech, with words of prayer, singing zemirot [hymns] and the study of Torah. The Sabbath table is elevated from being merely another meal, to a sacred convocation, punctuated by blessings, songs and the involvement of the family in Torah study and exploration. This truly makes “the Sabbath a delight, making the holy [day] of the Lord honored.”

The chai medabber, the creature divinely endowed with speech, cannot be expected to emulate God’s Sabbath by refraining from speaking. But we can do so by transforming the way we speak on God’s holy day.

 This transformation should also impact our working week. The Fourth Utterance, taken literally, declares: “Remembering [Zakhor] the Sabbath to sanctify it.” The sages take the continuous remembering of the Sabbath during the other days of the week as a requirement of ongoing mindfulness of the sanctity of the Sabbath. This is a prerequisite for making it holy on the seventh day.

How can we achieve this end? By infusing the workweek with the sanctity of Sabbath speech. Besides avoiding ugly language, gossip and slander, we should punctuate our days with words of prayer and Torah.

Friday, January 14, 2011

WHAT WE SAY, WHAT WE DO, WHO WE ARE: PARASHAT BESHALACH 5771/2011



                           WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING


PARASHAT BE-SHALACH:  2011/5771


WHAT WE SAY, WHAT WE DO, WHO WE ARE



The Lord is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation. This is my God and I will glorify Him [ve-anveihu], my father’s God, and I will exalt Him (Ex. 15:2).

The Shabbat on which this verse is read is called Shabbat shirah, owing to the centrality of the song of triumph that is its centerpiece. So important is this song to the Jewish people that it was incorporated into the morning liturgy for every day of the year. It is, therefore not surprising that interpretive commentary on all its verses abounds. Indeed, the Torah Shelemah, one of the most exhaustive anthologies of midrashic comments on the Torah, lists no fewer than 18 midrashim on the phrase in our text: This is my God and I will glorify Him [ve-anveihu].

I shall devote this Torah Teaching to just one of them, a comment in the Mekhilta:

Rabbi Yossi says: I shall declare the seemliness and praise of Him who spoke and the world came into being. Rabbi Akiva says: I shall speak of the prophecies and praises of Him who spoke and the world came into being before all the nations of the world. Behold, the nations of the world ask Israel, saying: “‘how is your Beloved different from [other] loved ones, that you dare adjure us’ (Song of Songs 5:10)?  For you die for Him and are slaughtered for Him.” And Israel says [in response] to the nations of the world: “Do you know Him?  Let me recite just part of His praise: ‘My beloved is pure and ruddy, preeminent above ten thousand’ (Song of Songs 5:10). ‘My Beloved is mine, and I am His.’  (Song of Songs 2:17). ‘I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.’” (Song of Songs 4:3).

This part of the Midrash takes literally the phrase: This is my God and I will glorify Him [ve-anveihu]: I shall glorify Him with peons of praise. It is significant that Rabbi Akiva is one of the authors of the dictum.  The Talmud (Berakhot 61b) records his unutterably painful martyrdom and his amazing declaration of faith as an illustration of the imperative: “We are required to praise Him when evil befalls us, just as we praise Him for the good.” (Berakhot 54a). Rabbi Akiva’s declaration of praise in the face of unjustifiable suffering recalls the immortal words of Job: “Even though He slay me, in Him shall I trust” (Job 13:15). Truly of Rabbi Akiva could the Midrash declare, “ For you die for Him and are slaughtered for Him.  And his declaration of faith, his praise of God while staring death in the face, served as the precedent for countless Jewish martyrs in centuries to come. Thus did they accept death:  It is our duty to praise the Master of all beings, to ascribe greatness to the One who formed the works of creation.”(Daily Prayer book).

Clearly the point of this part of the Midrash is that we glorify God through what we say. The second part of the Midrash makes a different point: Rabbi Yishma’el says: Is it possible for creatures of flesh and blood to enhance the beauty of their Maker? Surely [the word] ve-anveihu [we shall adorn Him] must mean: “We shall adorn Him with mitzvot. I shall make for Him a beautiful lulav, a beautiful sukkah, beautiful fringes, and beautiful prayer[s].”

The second exposition of our text agrees that it is important to glorify God with words of prayer, praise and gratitude. But words alone are insufficient. According to Rabbi Yishma’el, Jews are judged, not by what they say, but by what they do. Expressions of faith alone are inadequate. Judaism has no official catechisms. The Jewish imperative is a leap of action rather than a leap of faith. We are defined not by orthodoxy, but by orthopraxy.  The Midrash is even more nuanced. Our faith practices glorify God through the intentions that inform our actions—when we perform mitzvot enthusiastically rather than reluctantly, maximally rather than minimally. Rabbi Yishma’el reminds us that authentic spiritual practice is more than merely behavioral discipline. It requires the commitment of our hearts, minds and funds.

Rabbi Yossi Ben Durmaskit adds a third dimension to our text. Expounding the word ve-anveihu of our text, he indicates its resonance with the Hebrew root naveh [sanctuary]. He says: “Make Him a beautiful sanctuary, since the word naveh clearly means the Temple.”   Rabbi Yossi Ben Durmaskit cannot simply be echoing the view of Rabbi Yishma’el, who had already described the beautiful appurtenances of worship. What Rabbi Yossi Ben Durmaskit must be saying is this: “How do I glorify God? I do so by providing Him with a beautiful dwelling place, as is written in Scripture: Let them build a sanctuary for Me, so that I shall dwell in the innermost part of themselves [be-tokham].”(Ex.25:8).

Rabbi Yossi Ben Durmaskit agrees with Rabbi Akiva that we can glorify God with what we say. But praise can become mere lip service. He agrees with Rabbi Yishma’el that we can glorify God with what we do.  But punctilious observance can degenerate into empty, self-righteous religious behaviorism. What matters most to God is who we are. Do we emulate divine qualities in the way we live and relate to others? Do we project godliness? Have we become a personal sanctuary for the divine Presence? Perhaps Rabbi Yossi Ben Durmaskit had an additional interpretation of our text in mind. The word ve-anveihu resonates with the phrase ani ve-Hu [I and He]. God is glorified when we are transformed by living in His presence.

The three interpretations of our text are by no means mutually exclusive. Rabbi Akiva is correct. Words are of vital importance. They can comfort and validate. They can express our noblest sentiments. But they can also hurt and destroy, blame, shame and enflame. How we speak to God matters greatly. How we speak to one another is no less important. Kind words are a balm to wounded souls. Ugly rhetoric can turn people into monsters, incite to mayhem and murder. Declaring that “we have those with whom we disagree in our crosshairs” can actually place them in the crosshairs of the weapons of the deranged.

Rabbi Yishma’el is also correct. Words of kindness not translated into deeds of kindness are cheap. Validating words without validating actions mean very little. Hypocritical utterances are far worse than silence. The broken promises of politicians seeking votes are all too well known.

And Rabbi Yossi Ben Durmaskit is correct. We glorify God by being the best we can be. Who we are is a function both of what we say and of what we do.


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Thursday, January 6, 2011

EXPRESSION AND REPRESSION PARASHAT BO 5771/2011


                    WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING


PARASHAT BO:  2011/5771

EXPRESSION AND REPRESSION


And Moses said: Thus says the Lord: About midnight I shall go out into the midst of Egypt, and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, to the firstborn of the maid who sits behind the mill, and all the first born of cattle. And there shall be a great crying out throughout the whole land of Egypt, the like of which never was and the like of which shall never be again.  But against all the children of Israel no dog shall whet his tongue, against man or beast that you shall know that the Lord distinguishes between the Egyptians and Israel. (Ex. 11:4-7)

Our text describes the final and most dreadful of the ten plagues.  The outcry, the weeping and the wailing were terrible. “There was no home in which there was nobody dead.”  But our text includes a strange detail:  “And unto the children of Israel no dog shall whet his tongue against man or beast.”  Amidst the crying and the wailing of the bereaved Egyptian families and the bellowing of the dying cattle, only the dogs were silent.  Why didn’t they bark?  Surely one might have expected them to respond to the anguish of the families with whom they lived by joining the sounds of sadness and desolation.  There are countless stories of canine grief reactions to the death of their carers.   The unusual, eerie silence of the dogs requires explanation.

The sages of the Talmud do offer an aggadic explanation of this anomalous phenomenon:  “Our rabbis taught:  When dogs weep [it is because], the angel of death has come to town.  When dogs frolic [it is because] Elijah the prophet has come to town.” (Bava Kama, 60b).

According to this exegesis, the dogs were silent because they were conflicted.  On the one hand, they empathized with the unutterable pain of their caregivers, and were instinctively driven to respond in kind to the walling and weeping, by themselves howling.  On the other, they intuited the supernatural dimensions of the apocalyptic event.  Millions of people were celebrating their freedom and the end of their dehumanizing subjugation.  The main thoroughfares were alive with men, women, and children preparing to leave the house of bondage, and exulting in the experience of divine salvation.  The divine Presence was manifest. Apparently the dogs were aware of and sensitive to the magnitude of the joy, and felt impelled to express those feelings with yelps of delight.  But because they were torn by conflicted emotions and could not decide whether to respond to loss and grief or to triumph and exaltation, they were struck dumb.

This rabbinic aggadah can be understood on various levels, ethical, spiritual and psychological, and should not be taken literally.

 In his Introduction to The Guide of the Perplexed, Moses Maimonides (Rambam) writes:   “All the sages, possessing knowledge of the Lord, God and discern the truth, when they aimed at teaching this [profound] subject matter, spoke of it [the deeper meaning] only in parables and riddles…Hence an ignorant and heedless individual might think that they [these parables] possess only and external [literal] meaning, but no inner one. 

Similarly, the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Judah Loew writes in his Introduction to his classic defense of aggadic literature, Be’er ha-Golah, that aggadic and midrashic statements conceal profound truths. Indeed the more apparently far-fetched the statement, the greater its inner truth and the more important the message it conveys.

 Understood in this light, the aggadah of the muted Egyptian dogs has contemporary relevance. On one level, the sages taught that absolute neutrality is only appropriate for dogs.  Human cognitive gifts and ethical instincts and training demand appropriate responses to even the most painful ethical and ideological dilemmas. Things are seldom black or white.    We are able to see some validity in both sides of the dilemma, and we are thus forced to make difficult, often agonizing, decisions.  To take no action, to remain functionally neutral, to avoid tough issues is not an option for responsible human beings.  Perhaps dogs can remain neutral; human beings are obliged to take uncomfortable stands

There is another powerful lesson concealed in our rabbinic parable.  One can also argue that the silence of the dogs was not an instance of conflicted neutrality, but was simply a reflection of their inability to express the turmoil they were feeling.  According to this interpretation, only dogs can be permitted to silence their emotions.  When humans are uncomfortable with expressing their feelings, or frightened of sharing their emotions, they effectively deny a major aspect of their humanity.  Humans are defined as much by affect as they are by intellect.   Parents who tell their sons: “men don’t cry” are teaching them that repression is more appropriate than expression.  Tragically, however, “the stiff upper lip” response to hurt and pain is the source of much neurotic dysfunction. The pain is often directed inward, and experienced somatically. What cannot be expressed in words is expressed in pathologies of the digestive or pulmonary systems—or in recurring night terrors and paralyzing flashbacks.

According to the sages, the human being is a chai medabber, a living being capable of verbal expression. Deliberately stifling the expression of one’s feelings is dehumanizing. It is an assault on the essence of one’s personhood. People who are not permitted to make themselves heard, who are afraid to share their feelings, feel diminished and invisible. 

This is what we can learn from the parable of the muted dogs of Egypt.  To experience disappointment, suffering and pain is inevitable. To repress those feelings is dangerous and demeaning. And to ignore or mock the expressed feelings of others, particularly of those who admire and depend on us, is unworthy, and, sometimes, unforgivable.