Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27 )
This week's Torah portion teaches us the importance of not embarrassing others even when giving them constructive criticism. Before Joseph revealed the embarrassing fact to his brothers - who didn't recognize him - that he was the one they had wrongly sold as a slave, he made sure to order all of his servants out of the room so his brothers wouldn't feel shamed in front of them. The Torah way is to consider the feeling of others at all times.
In our story, a kid learns a first hand lesson in the value of not embarrassing others.
"...And so, dear ladies and jellybeans, that is the story of how Alexander Graham Bell invented the light bulb. Thank you."
Mike took a deep bow, and with a smug smile on his face, gathered up his audio-visual materials and went back to his seat. As far as he was concerned, his class presentation had been a resounding success! True, he hadn't spent much time preparing. The new video game he'd received as a Chanukah gift from his grandparents had occupied the lion's share of his attention this past week. But even so, he'd brought the house down! He could tell by the expression on his teacher's face that his discussion of the invention of the light bulb had really struck the right note.
Good thing he found that old circuit board his brother had used a few years ago to use as an audio-visual. Okay, a few of the pieces were missing, and he really hadn't had the time to figure out exactly how it worked, but it was still great! The new platinum-selling CD he'd brought and played in the background had really jazzed things up, he thought. He liked it loud and he was sure everyone else did too. He had to shout over it, but so what? These guys were the greatest band ever!
As soon as he returned to his seat, Mike raised his hand to get the teacher's attention.
"Mr. Waldman, could you give me my grade now so I don't have to wait? I know it's just a formality, a good grade is a good grade, but I know my parents will be anxious to hear how I did."
Mike smirked. And so will the rest of the class! he thought. It's obvious that mine was one of the best presentations so far. I'm sure my A+ will inspire the others to copy me.
Mr. Waldman paused a moment, with a thoughtful expression on his face. "Mike, you know that I only give the grades and my comments in private, after class. Come and see me and we'll have a nice chat."
That wasn't what Mike had expected to hear. He was used to getting his own way, and now was no exception.
"Mr, Waldman," Mike goaded him, "are you afraid my grade is going to make everybody jealous? Don't worry, they already are!!"
Mr. Waldman smiled thinly and tried to move on with the lesson. Every few minutes, he was interrupted by a comment from Mike about getting his grade, NOW. Mr. Waldman, an experienced teacher and no pushover, held his ground without losing his cool. Mike started to do a slow burn, and by the time the bell rang, you could almost see the steam coming out of his ears.
"Hey, Mike, you got a minute for me now?" Mr. Waldman called to him kindly, ignoring the fact that Mike had been heckling him for the past 30 minutes.
Mike approached Mr. Waldman's desk. "Sure, Mr. Waldman. There's really no need to be so private with me."
"Mike, you have a great quality of persistence. When you want something, you keep asking for it. At certain times in life, such a quality comes in very handy, and can get you far. But not this time, my friend. I could see that you put a lot of thought into your presentation, and that you wanted it to be enjoyable for everyone. That's another great thing about you. But in order for a presentation to be successful, there is one thing that it must be, and that is accurate. According to your research, Alexander Graham Bell invented the light bulb, but according to mine, Mike, it was Thomas Edison."
Mike froze, in shock. Of course it was Edison! What a stupid mistake! How had he missed that?
Mr. Waldman continued. "Also, when we are using audio-visuals, everything must be in good repair, work well, and most importantly, the presenter must know how to use and operate his materials. You seemed a little rusty on the circuit board, Mike, like you were just looking at it for the first time during your presentation."
Mike blushed a deep red. That was true.
"Lastly, it was very hard to hear you over the music blaring in the background. It was a great tune, what was it? I liked it a lot, and everyone else did too, I could tell. It was a great choice for a party perhaps, but..."
"But not for a presentation on light bulbs," finished Mike. "I get it Mr. Waldman."
Mike looked at his teacher with something like wonder and a new respect. "It's a good thing you didn't give in to me and say all of this in front of the class like I wanted you to," said Mike. "I don't think I ever would have heard the end of it. How did you know?"
"Embarrassing someone in public is like killing him," said Mr. Waldman. "An embarrassed person has no way of defending himself, just like a dead man doesn't. What sort of lesson would you have learned for next time if I would have done that? I'm on your side, Mike. Aiming for the fences, you know?" Mr. Waldman looked at his watch. "You have a few more minutes left of recess. If you want, I'll give you another chance and you can prepare a different presentation. But only if you want to do it."
"Thanks Mr. Waldman. You got it."
"And Mike, there's just one thing I told you that wasn't exactly true."
"What's that?" Mike cringed a little. He didn't know if he could take more bad news.
"That music was awful! Pick something else next time!!"
Q. How did Mike feel at first when the teacher wouldn't give him his grade in front of everyone?
A. He was mad and felt that the teacher was just being mean and not letting everyone see his great grade.
Q. How did he feel in the end?
A. He felt grateful and relieved that that teacher didn't embarrass him in front of everyone.
Q. What life lesson do you think Mike learned from what happened?
A. He saw that even though he had been obnoxious in demanding his grade right away, and his teacher could have easily put him in his place by embarrassing him with all the mistakes he made - he didn't. That showed him how far we have to go to avoid embarrassing someone.
Q. Since Mike was 'asking for it' literally and figuratively, would the teacher have been justified if he had given Mike his embarrassing comments in front of everyone?
A. True, Mike was 'asking for it' but nevertheless our ethical obligation not to embarrass someone is not dependent on the deserving-ness of the recipient, but because it is the right thing to do.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Granted, we shouldn't go out of our way to embarrass someone, but if he is embarrassing himself, need we step in to help him preserve his dignity?
A. Part of caring about others is caring about their reputations and sense of self-esteem. Anything we can reasonably do to help save others from embarrassment is a very great deed.
Q. Do you think it is acceptable to embarrass someone from time to time in the spirit of humor or to make a good joke?
A. Humor is only a positive thing when it doesn't come at someone else's expense. As tempting as it might be, if there is any chance it will embarrass someone, the joke should be left unsaid.