Parshat Emor (5770)

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“My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”

This is a quote from President Ronald Reagan in August of 1984 as he sat in a radio studio for his weekly broadcast to the nation. It was said before he went on air, as he joked with the sound check crew. Despite this, however, it did come close to causing an international crisis as the recording was leaked to the Russian government. 

I think it safe to assume that politicians across the world watching the unfolding Gordon Brown debacle thought to themselves, “there but for the grace of G-d, go I.” On the campaign trail, meeting lots of hostile voters and under constant pressure, it is only natural to reveal one’s true feelings to confidants in a private setting, they probably all do the same.  The problem here was just that he left his microphone switched on and the whole world has now heard the British Prime Minister calling a lifetime Labour supporter “a bigoted woman.” Not very good for the ratings.

Bigotry is defined by the Oxford dictionary as, “a person who is prejudiced in their views and intolerant of the opinions of others,” and of course there is no one standard for bigotry, and there are many levels of intolerance of others. It is debatable who is now seen by the public as more bigoted, the Prime Minister or the woman he was overheard speaking about.

As we are now just a day before Lag B’Omer this concept of tolerance or intolerance of others is particularly apposite. During the Omer period almost all of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students tragically lost their lives in a devastating plague, which ended on Lag Be’Omer. Our Sages tell us that the spiritual root cause for this great tragedy was that, “lo nahagu kavod zeh le’zeh – they did not treat one another with the appropriate respect.”

As students of Rabbi Akiva, the great Sage who taught that Ahavat Yisrael – Love of our Fellow – is a cornerstone of the Torah, it was totally unacceptable for them to show any form of intolerance of another. They were held to the highest standard – that of their teacher – and so they perished.

Lag Be’Omer is also the day when the great scholar and mystic Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai – author of the Holy Zohar – passed away in Meron, in the north of Israel.

During his life Rabbi Shimon had been under a Roman death sentence, and had to hide in a cave for twelve years where he studied Torah with his son. When he eventually leaves the cave his soul is now so highly attuned to spirituality that he cannot bear to see people working their fields and doing mundane activity. He does not understand why they work instead of studying the Torah – and so G-d sends him back to the cave – until he is more understanding of others who live less spiritual lives, and able to live amongst them.

Patience with others who may have opposing viewpoints is an important Jewish value. We can disagree with an opinion, but we must still stay friends. We can be shocked, horrified and pained by others’ behaviour but intolerance is never the best path to correcting that behaviour. As Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi advises in Sefer HaTanya, the best path to help correct errant behaviour is with love – strong and genuine love of the person whose views we disagree with.

Let us take the message of Lag Be’Omer to heart, and endeavour to be more tolerant and accepting of those we disagree with. Maybe with time, with warmth and with calm dialogue we will bring them round to our way of thinking – bearing in mind the dangerous possibility that after calm discussion and logical debate – we might end up agreeing with them!

Rabbi Zalman Lent, Shabbat Shalom

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