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Parshas Yisro

What to Answer!

By Rabbi Label Lam

The Midrash Aggadah records the following exchange: “The wicked Tornusrofus asked Rabbi Akiva, “For what reason is the name of the Holy One mentioned in the first five of the Ten Commandments and not in the latter five?” Rabbi Akiva went to the Palace of Tornusrofus and in particular to the room designated for his weapons of war and there he showed him his entire magazine of armaments. Then he went with him to his bathroom, and Rabbi Akiva asked him, “Why do you not put here some of you weaponry?” Tornusrofus answered, “It would be a disgrace to put them in such a disgusting place!” Said Rabbi Akiva, “So it is with the first five commandments which is an honorable context but the latter five that speak of murder, adultery, theft, false testimony, and lusting, The Holy One Blessed Be He, did not want His Name to be directly associated with them…”

We can learn not only from the content of Rabbi Akiva’s answer but by the style of his reply. “Answer the fool according to his foolishness…” King Solomon, the wisest of all men advises in Mishle’. It’s a daily challenge that comes with the territory for those of us who darn the garb.

I was entering a prison to visit and a guard asked me, “Why do you guys where hats and dress like that?” I pointed out to him that the identifiable difference between a prisoner and guard is just a piece of cloth. You have a couple of stripes on your gray khaki shirt and the prisoners wear beige khakis. Everybody wears a uniform of some kind. Even those who think they don’t wear a costume of non-conformity manage to dress alike. Yours uniform says, “You’re a guard!” Mine declares, “I’m a guard, of a different sort!”

A man I was seated next to, at a local Simcha, started to lecture loudly about evolution. Everyone sat politely, without reacting. Then he turned to me and said, “I don’t expect you to agree because you are religious!” I told him, “I’m not as religious as you!” He answered me, “I’m not religious!” I insisted, “Every Jew is religious! You happen to be religious about evolution. I was not preaching to you but you were sure trying hard to convince or convert me and my friends! You’re even more religious than I am.”

A Russian Bubby went looking for an apartment for her daughter in Russia and had to face an Anti-Semitic Communist party bureaucrat who promptly accused her of having killed his lord. She challenged him, “Why didn’t you stop me?” He retorted, “I wasn’t there!” Then she told him pointedly, “Neither was I!” She got the apartment!

A Chassidic friend of mine was on a plane to Israel and was eating his kosher meal while carrying on a casual conversation with the secular Israeli gent seated next to him. He offered to share his meal or to try to get him a kosher meal too. The man refused with the reply, “I’m a Jew in my heart!” As the plane ride and the conversation continued, the topic turned to politics and things got heated. The Israeli asked my friend with full animation, “Why don’t you serve in the army?” The Chassid insisted he was in the army? The fellow was extremely skeptical and when pressed the Chassid confessed, “I’m in the army - “in my heart!”

The Mishne insists, “Know what to answer to a heretic!” We need not always answer but is it important to know “what to answer” and to know that there is “what to answer!”

Text Copyright © 2006 by Rabbi Label Lam and



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