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Sensitivity Training

Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19 )

by Rabbi Jared Viders

Huntington, New York. As the usual members (small in number but large in dedication) arrived at shul on Friday afternoon, everyone was intrigued by the "new face" in town. Dovid, it seems, was contemplating a re-location and wanted to check-out firsthand the Young Israel of Huntington before deciding upon his next port of call. As usual, the shul brimmed with a spirit of camaraderie and enthusiasm and, of course, everyone exchanged warm "Good Shabbos" greeting and pleasantries with the newcomer.

The next morning, I enjoyed another uplifting davening with the small and dedicated congregation. Interestingly, I noticed that one particular individual wore a particular sporty-suit - a light and airy suit that stood out somewhat amidst the traditional array of navy, black and charcoal gray suits worn by the rest of us.

"That's a real nice suit," I remarked.

"Thanks. I usually don't wear it that often, but I noticed last night that this new guy, Dovid --- is that is name --, well, anyway, Dovid, was wearing a particularly light-colored suit and I didn't want him to feel out of place davening here with the rest of us. So I thought I would wear it this morning."

Now, did Dovid's decision to wear a light-suit to an out-of-town shul constitute the fashion faux-pas of the century? Were the Huntington fashion police going to blackball poor Dovid's membership application? Would the gabbai refuse to offer the newcomer an aliyah? Of course not. In the grand scheme of things, his tan suit just wasn't anything to write home about. And yet, this one particularly attuned individual assessed the landscape, detected that Dovid might feel somewhat "uncomfortable" and took affirmative measures (i.e., opting for a lighter color suit on Shabbos morning) with the sole purpose of alleviating whatever minor, marginal, fleeting discomfort that might exist. I could have davened in that minyan for a hundred years and it never even would have dawned on me such a sensitivity.

* * *

"You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together" (22:10)

What is the rationale behind this prohibition? The Da'as Zekeinim MiBaalei HaTosfos explains as follows: "Since the ox chews its cud, the donkey will have tza'ar (distress) when he hears the ox eating."

Uh. Come again. I have a field that is in desperate need of plowing. I've got two perfectly adept beasts of burden - Mr. Ox and Mr. Donkey - each of which are perfectly equipped to get the job done. And yet, the Torah mandates that I refrain from utilizing the two of them together because Mr. Donkey may be distressed by the sounds emanating by Mr. Ox's ruminating stomach?!

Since when is Mr. Donkey so sensitive. Buck up Mr. Donkey. Be gritty. Be happy with your lot and don't get so bent out of shape over the anatomical differences between your digestive system (one stomach) and that of Mr. Ox (four stomachs). Keep your ears to yourself and let's get this job done.

The take-home lesson from the above-vignettes and this approach to the prohibition of plowing one's ox with one's donkey is the Torah's heightened cautiousness lest one cause distress to another. We're not talking about catastrophic emotional anguish that would warrant years of therapy and post-traumatic counseling. By virtually all measuring sticks, the "distress" at-issue is relatively minor. Nevertheless, we are expected to remain alert and sensitive (maybe even hyper-sensitive) towards the feelings of others.

Rather than expecting people to be thicker-skinned, more gritty or more flexible, the refined Torah persona perpetually strives to perceive the world from the vantage point of the "distressed." Not to downplay that particular person's idiosyncrasies, quirks and eccentricities, but rather to identify them, respect them and ultimately comport myself in accord with the highest demands of derech eretz lest I run the risk of imposing undeserved distress on one of Hashem's beloved creatures. Lofty levels to strive for - indeed - but strive we must.

Good Shabbos.

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