During this past summer I had the opportunity to spend a Shabbat with the Yeshiva High School boys at Camp Twin Echo in the Laurel Highlands.
After Shabbat I stopped at the nearby Sheetz gas station to buy a drink for my return home. Behind me in line was a large man, who wanted to know if I was Amish. I responded that I was a Jew, and an Orthodox one at that. As the man took stock of maybe the first Jew he ever met, he remarked to me, “Well then, G-d condemns you!”
I wasn’t expecting such a comment in America in 2016, so I was a bit startled, but noticing a police officer watching our conversation gave me the courage to respond.
I told him that his words were rather offensive. He responded, “I don’t condemn you — G-d condemns you. I am a nice guy, but G-d condemns. You know, each person to his own religion.”
I asked him, “Do you know what my religion believes?” He didn’t.
So I told him: “My religion believes that G-d condemns those who condemn others.”
The Mishnah in Ethics of Our Fathers relates that Hillel the Elder once saw a skull floating on the water. He said to it, “Because you drowned others, you were drowned; and ultimately those who drowned you will drown.”
The Midrash David relates that this skull was that of Pharaoh, who ordered the drowning of the male newborn boys in the Nile.
Hillel saw this skull and, similar to the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov that one should take a lesson from every event that one hears or sees, felt that he should take a lesson in life from what he saw.
So Hillel learned an important lesson: Why did Pharaoh drown? Because he drowned others.
Many great Jewish philosophers explain the meaning of G-d saying that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he will not let the people go to be a punishment in which Pharaoh’s free choice is diminished.
Most people give in when faced with crushing defeat. They apologize, make amends and fix their situation. But with Pharaoh, because of his great sin, G-d hardened his heart, making it harder for him to repent and change his ways. In essence, G-d made it almost impossible for Pharaoh to escape his eternal punishment.
This is what is known as “measure for measure.” Pharaoh condemned Jewish boys to be “drowned” in the culture of Egypt and its god, the Nile. He “drowned” them within this culture, not giving them the opportunity for freedom — freedom of religion or freedom to live.
Ultimately, Hillel teaches us that one who condemns another becomes condemned by G-d. Give another freedom and opportunity, and G-d will open new channels of life and blessing for you. But if one condemns another by forcing him to “drown” under the waters of negative desires, temptations and addictions — or if he condemns another through the pressure of business by overworking him and drying up his time and focus from the truly important things in life — then, Heaven forbid, the channels of opportunity dry up, and the individual drowning others will get stuck himself in a cesspool of his own making.
This man can become the one of whom it says, “He has eyes but they do not see.” He becomes so engrossed in his own affairs that he can’t see the pain of a child or the suffering of the poor. He doesn’t hear the cry of the Shofar calling on each of us to repent and change our lives for the better, and ignores the Chanukah candle trying to brighten the darkness. He becomes numb to the notes of Judaism and deaf to the harmonic sounds of true vibrant life.
G-d condemns only those that condemn others.
The campers related to me later that a man approached their van at the same Sheetz station a few days later. He said, “Please deliver my apologies to the rabbi who was here the other night, and thank him for setting my mind right.”
I guess America in 2016 is still on the right track. We all truly want to be better, and one more person might have just found his way.
Rabbi Elchonon Friedman is the rabbi of B’nai Emunoh Chabad in Greenfield. This column is a service of Vaad Harabanim of Pittsburgh.