Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Sisterly Sensitivity

My commentary on this week’s haftorah is based on personal hardships I had to face. These difficulties strengthen my emunah that any suffering we need to endure are only tests for the sake of perfecting our character and becoming more sensitive and loving towards others. The importance of developing this sensitivity and compassion is the main theme of the haftorah reading.

Haftorat Vayeishev
Amos 2:6-3:8
The Connection between the Haftorah and the Torah Reading
This week's haftorah opens with an allusion to the sale of Yosef by his brothers, which is the main theme of this week’s Torah reading. “So said Hashem, ‘For three transgressions of Israel, I will turn away punishment, but for the fourth I will not turn away punishment, because they sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes’” (Amos 2:6). According to Radak, G d was willing to withhold punishment for the three cardinal sins –  indecency, idolatry and murder, but not for injustice done to the poor. The Midrash explains this verse as referring to the sale of Yosef, the righteous. The brothers sold Yosef for 20 silver pieces (See Bereishit 37:28), with which they each bought a pair of shoes (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 37). Against his collective brothers, Yosef was weak. Therefore, their taking advantage by having the upper hand is unforgivable to Hashem, who warns us numerous times in the Torah against mistreating the deprived.

Stepping on the Weak in Order to Achieve Personal Goals
Perhaps the emphasis on “selling the righteous for a pair of shoes,” symbolizes how the brothers “stepped” emotionally on Yosef, completely disregarding his feelings. Moreover, the Hebrew word for shoes, “נעלים-na’alayim” also means lock. The brothers totally locked their hearts and desensitized themselves to Yosef’s pain. This is what the brothers themselves realized during their teshuva (repentance) process in this week’s parashah, “Truly, we are guilty concerning our brother, for observing the pain of his soul, when he pleaded with us, but we would not hear, therefore this distress came upon us” (Bereishit 42:21). Whereas, the brothers may have had good reason to sell Yosef, their lack of sensitivity to his feelings is unforgivable. Also today, some people, in their zeal to accomplish their important goals, do not always hold themselves back from stepping on those who are at a disadvantage, in order to climb their ladder of success. They may brush off their offense as being an insignificant mistake that inevitably happens when one has to act fast. However, is it not more important to start on the right foot and with derech eretz (ethical behavior) than to step on the feet of others, in order to start right away?

Hashem Defends the Lost Dignity of the “Weaker” Sex
In my years of running a Torah institution for women, I have experienced discrimination in the political and financial arena, where women’s power is often externally weaker. The prophet admonishes the Jewish people for taking advantage and stepping on those lower down on the social ladder, and eliciting Hashem’s punishment to an even greater degree than the three cardinal sins. Rabbi Dovid Siegel explains that the mistreatment of orphans, widows, and the poor can never be overlooked. Since they cannot rely on their financial or political power, they are compelled to place their total trust in Hashem. Therefore, Hashem immediately responds to the injustice done to them, defending their lost dignity. As women, we do not have to play political power-games in order to accomplish our goals. When we keep silent about the injustice incurred against us, in order to avoid machloket (dispute/dissension), while trusting in Hashen’s retribution, we will reap immediate eternal reward.

Sisterly Sensitivity
“They anticipate the dirt placed on the head of the impoverished” (Amos 2:7). The prophet rebukes the Jewish people, for insensitivity towards injustice. They would discriminate against the underprivileged and even drag the poor through the dirt when they refused to accept their unjustified treatment. This kind of behavior and attitude is totally inexcusable. In life, we often need to make conscious choices which may be good for one but not for another. Hurting someone else by our choice, may at times be unavoidable. However, when forced to make such a choice, where pain is caused to someone else, then we need to generate empathy and show our utmost sisterly sensitivity. Unfortunately, people – even women – do not always have the emotional maturity to take moral responsibility for the outcome of their choices. Rather than admitting that they are causing their sister pain, and being ready to face this pain with a sincere loving hug, it is easier to just smooth over hurt feelings and make believe they don’t exist, or that they stem from the other person’s personal problems. They may not realize that by accusing their sister of being wrong to feel slighted, being oversensitive, or negative, they are dragging the “poor” through the dirt, while rubbing salt into an already open wound.

The Impact of Lost Sensitivities
The emotionally mature approach is to acknowledge the hurts we inflict in others by our choices. This acknowledgment will bring us to sincerely apologize for causing this pain, realizing that in a certain place, an injustice was done. Rabbi Dovid Siegel explains that the brothers’ lack of sensitivity towards Yosef’s pain, unlike all other sins, could never be overlooked. The greatest scholars of Israel, the ten holy martyrs would suffer inhuman torture, and be brutally murdered in atonement for this offense (Midrash Mishley, Parashat 1). The fact that the torturous death of the ten martyrs remains the most tragic personal event in Jewish history, teaches us the impact of not only our actions, but also the way we carry them out. Even when harsh measures are justified, we must carry them out them with proper sensitivities. As difficult as the balance may be, we must open our hearts, feel for our Jewish sisters, and show them the proper dignity and compassion they truly deserve. The more we work on this, the more we prepare ourselves for the day when, Hashem will circumcise our hearts to love Him with all our hearts (Devarim 30:6).


  1. Thank you for that dvar tora. I found it especially meaningful now since I'm going through something similar. I finally feel I've found a potentially very successful way to give what I have to am yisrael, and someone is trying hard to keep me in the pit!

  2. I'm so sorry to hear that someone is trying hard to keep you in the pit. I bless you to be able to get out of the pit speedily. I'm sure Am Yisrael needs what you have to offer. What kind of pit do you feel you are in? Why would someone want to keep you in that pit, and how did you get in there to begin with? Everything is from Hashem,and no person has the power to keep any of us "in the pit." Rather than blaming someone else, it always helps to look for messages from Hashem of how to grow from the situation we are in. I advice you to speak directly with the person whom you feel is trying to keep you "in the pit". Is this person really doing this, or perhaps it is just your projection? In your conversation, it may be helpful to incorporate some of the teachings I wrote about in my commentary, which was not about Yosef being placed in the pit, but rather about developing spiritual maturity and sensitivity. The commentaries on the haftorah speak about the importance to acknowleding the pain we sometimes cause others, even when our actions are justified. When we develop this kind of sisterly sensitity and emphathy, we may even be able raise ourselves from "the pit" by sincerely apologizing for the pain we have inflicted in others.
    With Blessings of the Torah & The Land,
    Chana Bracha Siegelbaum

  3. This piece resonated with me...compassion and empathy and not demeaning or hurting one intentionally is very important to me. More so, because I too have experienced not only the disappointment of the negative aspects that you pointed out that women do to other women; but I have been in a sense sold as Yosef also by supposed loved ones as well in past. I kept my emunah and bitachon and called to Hashem in all His mercy and have grown deeply on many levels...and so I thank you for this dvar torah.

    Shabbat Shalom.

  4. Dear Anonymous,
    Thank you for sharing your personal hardships with me. When we speak/write from our heart, the message enters into other hearts as well. I wouldn’t jump to conclusion about others hurting you intentionally. Most people do not intentionally want to hurt others, its just sometimes unavoidable. However, I’m calling for more than not hurting others intentionally. I recall a story told by Nechama Leibowitz Z”l, when I attended a shiur in her home: “A woman was stepping on another woman’s feet in the bus, and exclaimed, ‘I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to step on your feet’. The person being stepped on replied, ‘Of course not, I didn’t expect you to purposely step on my feet!’ Nechama Z”l explained how Hashem requires of us, not only to not purposely step on others but to purposely avoid stepping on anyone’s toes.

    I’m sorry to hear that you feel you have been sold as Yosef by supposed loved ones. It is great that rather than blaming the other person, you called out to Hashem, and that you grew deeply in so many ways from the experience. It always helps to pray for the person that you feel treated you unfairly. Sometimes, we may feel a certain way due to unfortunate misunderstandings. Perhaps she had reasons for the way she treated you? Through a conversation from your heart, where you share your hurt feelings perhaps your relationship could be repaired.

    Hashem wants our heart, we go through these difficulties in order not only to develop our relationship with Hashem but also with other people. If you have reached a place of forgiveness for the other person, perhaps you can help her grow as well as yourself through expressing your feelings honestly to her. In our refinement process we aspire not only to act correctly but also repair our words and feelings in order to reach the level of Ahavat Chinam – unconditional love, so we can B”H heal our personal block that prevents the Temple from being rebuilt.
    Hatzlacha Rabah!

    With Blessings of the Torah and the Land,
    Chana Bracha Siegelbaum

  5. chana bracha...thanks for the words of caring but no my perception of being sold as yosef and being hurt intentionally was exactly that and not as one would hope an unintenional slight. there was malace and these past loved ones made no secret of their intention to hurt me and derived pleasure from it. perhaps one day, i may tell you the story. the person who wrote to you about someone trying to keep them in the didn't really validate that because the evil that people can do to others (especially jews to other jews,husbands, children,members of the kehilla,etc.) has not been your reality (and Baruch Hashem for that and you are indeed blessed) but I can empathize with this person because I too know exactly what it is to be 'thrown in the pit' by past loved ones whose hearts turned to stone.

    I want to tell this woman to look to herself and to Hashem. Don't let others define you, belittle you and otherwise lie in that pit....kick and scream and pray but those others...they are not self keeping you down in the pit...they think they are the winners...BUT please realize they are not...Hashem will deal with them and you do not need their validation. Daven that they will do teshuva and see how they have wronged you but DON'T hold your breath...Live...Choose life despite what others wish for you. I've been there and in some ways still have some serious estrangements from the aftermath...but I know that as high as the price that I paid...Hashem is protecting me from further pain even though I daven for one of my 'pursuers' who helped and was unduly influenced to believe that I deserved it. I read tehillim and there are portions especially in Psalm 31 that deal with the pain that others inflict...knowing full well what they are doing and Hashem in his mercy will help us grow especially when we place our complete faith in Him and ensure that we will not descend to the depths of the 'serpents in our midst'.

    Chana Bracha...there are people that wish to inflict pain on others and who are not satisfied until they feel that they have stepped and stomped on their matter what their rational...they feel entitled to do this. They have no fear of G-d, they are so full of themselves and their ego rules and some of them delude themselves and call themselves religious. I know of what I speak and I also feel badly for the writer who also wrote to you identifying herself as one that was thrown into the pit...I crawled out, scratching and kicking but I kept my dignity and held strong to my complete trust in Hashem! I urge every woman who has been hurt, abused, victimized in any way to understand that she has great worth in the eyes of Hashem and to have and to cultivate it within herself and don't let anyone steal it from under your feet, no matter what...CHOOSE LIFE!

  6. Thanks for a wonderful blog! I just found it through a friend's recommendation. :-)

    I have recently felt the same as the other posters: rejected and treated with cruelty that was out of line. I approached to try to repair and was rejected with cruelty. There is much more to this than I could or should post here. Still I understand that it is all from Hashem. All hardship is a tikkun so that we can repair what we need to and grow in rich ways.

    So, even though it's been and continues to be a very painful aspect of my life (and it is only one aspect in a very blessed life!), I am growing so much from it. I am learning how to set my own boundaries and better yet, to walk away from the nastiness. While we treasure peace, we don't have to sacrifice ourselves to someone else who doesn't understand that concept. And, by the way, my issue is with someone who is not religious though they consider themselves righteous. This stuff is in every walk of life.

    In the Garden of Emmunah, Rav Arush teaches (from a Gemorah?) that even a dog knows that if his master beats him with a stick, it's not the stick doing the work, it's just a tool. So when we have someone else who is cruel on purpose, we have to know that he is just a stick in Hashem's hand. WE are the ones that need to rise, protect, correct, and heal from that process.

    Big blessings to us all for healing and bright growth.

  7. from: New Anonymous person
    What happens when the abusive person is an orphan? It happened to me that I had her over my house, and she started flipping out and getting extremely angry. She was extremely intelligent, a genius. The only one who could help her was a rabbi who she called her brother. Not really help her, but be there for her. Because she really had serious problems from being in a non-Jewish orphanage. I asked her to leave, only b/c I was afraid it would get worse, and then she threw something. I felt really bad. And I couldn't apologize b/c no matter what you would say to her, she would turn it around. Bottom line: we need to seek out Jewish orphans and help them.