LEFT, RIGHT & THE POLITICS OF MISCONSTRUCTION
In an era when political opinions are so clearly aggrandized — one is pigeonholed as liberal or conservative, a rightist or leftist — this week’s portion shines a new perspective on right and wrong, and even left and right.
In describing the importance of following the advice of our sages, the Torah uses an interesting expression. “Do not stray from the path of their counsel, neither to the left or to the right.” The Talmud espouses the faith we are to have in the wisdom of the sages by explaining: “Even if they tell you that left is right and right is left, and surely when they tell you that right is right and left is left.”
I was always puzzled by the interpretation. Theological insights into events are subject to interpretations as varied as the eye-colors of the viewers. Even rabbinical conjectures can be objectively understood from varied perspectives and lifestyles. But direction? How can we misconstrue directional accuracy? Either something is right or it is left.
Back in the old country, a notorious miser was castigated by members of his community, for his lack of involvement in charitable endeavors. He was urged to begin inviting the poor to his home. He was even advised of how good the mitzvah would make him feel.
Reluctantly, the next Friday afternoon he gave his son a few coins and told him to buy the cheapest piece of fish. He warned him not to spend more than an amount that would buy the lowest quality fish. He also cautioned him to buy it just before the shop was to close for the Sabbath when the price was sure to be at it’s lowest. He was not to worry about freshness or appearance, just size and price. The son did exactly as he was told and brought back an excellent bargain: a large fish, thoroughly rancid.
Pleased with his purchase, the miser went to synagogue that evening and was proud to invite a pauper to his home. For the first time in memory he had a stranger actually eat with him. True to what he had been told, he really did feel wonderful. The beggar didn’t. His weak stomach could not take the putrid fish and he became seriously ill.
That Monday, the miser went with his son to visit the ailing beggar in the community ward of the local hospital. When the poor soul died of food poisoning, he proudly attended the funeral. He even paid his respects to the relatives who sat shiva at their hovel.
Upon leaving the home of the mourners, the miser remarked proudly to his son, “Isn’t it wonderful that we got involved with this beggar? Look how many mitzvos we have already performed. And it didn’t even cost us more than a few pennies!”
Often, perceptions of right and wrong are discerned, formulated, and executed according to a warped sense of justice. Personal perspectives, attitudes, and experiences greatly influence our Torah-values and attitudes. Political correctness often hampers proper rebuke. Is it that we would not want to offend an overt transgressor or do we just not want to get involved? Does overzealous rebuke stem from our concern for the word of Hashem? Or are we just upset at the individual because we have a debt to settle with him?
When we see a definitive right and left, perhaps we are looking from the wrong angle. It may very well be that our right is the Torah’s left, and the same is true of the reverse.
We are told to follow our sages whether they tell us that right is left and left is right. In a confusing world, they may be the only ones who really know which way is east.
Mordechai Kamenetzky – Yeshiva of South Shore
Text Copyright © 1996 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Dean of the Yeshiva of South Shore.