A doctor at Tel Aviv's Ichilov Hospital had just told 18-year-old Polina Vallis, one of the teenagers injured three months before in the terrorist bombing at the Dolphinarium Discotheque that killed 21 innocent civilians, that her legs would be deformed for life. Polina had spent a half hour crying on a bench outside the hospital.
Now we were on our way to Jerusalem, where Israel's foremost plastic surgeon had just agreed to give Polina a second opinion, that very day—at no cost.
Unfamiliar with Tel Aviv, I had managed to get us lost en route to the Ayalon Expressway. We were stalled in bumper-to-bumper traffic, approaching a huge intersection where I had no idea in which direction to drive. I lowered my window and asked the driver of the white Renault to my left how to get on the Ayalon.
"Turn left at this light, I'll let you into my lane. Then right at the next light, then right again," he was telling me.
Meanwhile the car behind me, a crimson Subaru, honked to let me know that traffic was moving again. But I had not finished getting the directions. By the time I moved forward, into the left lane ahead of the Renault, the light had turned red.
The Subaru, now on our right, drove up beside us. Its driver started to shout, directly into Polina's passenger seat window, imprecations at us for making him miss the light. I lifted both my palms upwards in a helpless gesture meant to convey that I had no choice; I didn't know which way to go. The driver, a man with graying hair, continued to curse us with agitated gestures.
"If this man knew that the girl he is venting his anger on is one of the wounded from the Dolphinarium, he would be mortified."
Polina, suppressing tears, sat gazing at him in silence. I thought to myself, "If this man knew that the girl he is venting his anger on is one of the wounded from the Dolphinarium, he would be mortified."
Just then there was a tapping at my window. The middle-aged driver of the Renault had gotten out of his car to give us more explicit directions. As I thanked him, I thought to myself: "If this man knew that his kindness was benefiting one of the wounded from the Dolphinarium, he would feel very gratified."
Just then the light turned green, and we each drove off in our separate ways.
The Torah prohibits verbally oppressing a widow or an orphan. (Exodus 22:24) Rashi comments that the prohibition extends to hurting anyone with words; the Torah specifies widows and orphans only because they are the most commonly recognized sufferers. In fact, the commentators explain, all persons suffer, therefore we must be careful in how we speak to everyone.
This insight, that we must refrain from speaking harshly to all because we do not know their inner anguish, is even more relevant today, in our anonymous urban lives, than to the inhabitants of close-knit Biblical villages.
The clerk who acted impatiently with us may be going through a divorce. The upstairs neighbor who turned on his CD player at midnight may have just returned from visiting his terminally ill mother in the hospital. The employee who made a stupid mistake may have just received bad news about a close relative. The friend who's acting inconsiderate may be preoccupied with financial problems of which we have no inkling.
This is not to exonerate anyone for his or her misbehavior. All human beings are accountable for their actions—even under duress. But knowing that our upstairs neighbor just came from his mother's deathbed should affect the tone we use when we ask him to turn the music down or put on headphones.
THE DAY OF TRUTH
Most of our interactions are with people whose private pain is hidden from us. Several months ago aish.com carried an article by Mara Frei Goldblatt. [See: A Different Kind of Independence.asp] Mara had made aliyah from America and was living with her husband Danny and two-year-old daughter Rachel in a small town on the edge of the Judean desert. One night an Arab terrorist entered their house through the sliding glass door, slit Danny's throat, and stabbed Mara, who was pregnant, numerous times, killing the child in her womb. Mara survived, a twenty-something widow with physical and emotional scars to last a lifetime.
In the article, Mara, now remarried with twins, relates an incident which took place in an indoor playground in Israel. An quarrelsome six-year-old boy had jumped on her babies. Perhaps over-reacting from a place of understandable vulnerability, Mara picked up the boy and roughly removed him from her crying toddlers. The boy's grandfather, a veteran Israeli, upbraided her, and an argument ensued. The grandfather let Mara know that she was a spoiled American, who had contributed little to Israel compared to his self-sacrificing generation, who had drained the swamps and fought the wars.
"If only he could see my scars."
As a reader, I was horrified at the image of this man publicly berating Mara, who, as a maimed widow with an orphaned daughter, had probably suffered much more than he had in pursuit of the Zionist dream.
"If only he could see my scars, I thought to myself," wrote Mara. "If only we had the ability to see into other people's background and thus be able to appreciate their position. That's what I really wanted to say to this gentleman and to all the onlookers."
Mara chose to say nothing. In the five years since her husband was murdered, she has struggled to free herself from the self-definition of a victim. So, some time later, she approached the man and apologized for being rough with his grandson. He accepted the apology and walked away, oblivious of whom the object of his calumny really was.
Our sages teach us that our oblivion, our unawareness of the full ramifications of every harsh word and action, lasts only until the day of death. Then every soul stands in judgment and is made to witness, nay experience, the unedited video of his or her own life.
The grandfather of Mara's story will see the scene again, but this time without the space-and-time blinders of this physical world. He will see Mara and the wounds of her body and her heart with perfect clarity, and he will see how his imperious words flung salt onto those wounds.
How will he feel? That is precisely what hell is: the inner inferno of remorse when we realize the full scope of the injury we have wrought. No external fire can compare in burning intensity to the regret we will each feel when we perceive the suffering we ourselves have caused.
We do not have to wait until the day of death to face and deal with all our harsh words, all our abusive actions. God has given us the gift of Yom Kippur, a day that has the potential to wipe clean our slates.
During these days before Yom Kippur, we are bidden to examine our interactions of the previous year: to remember the times we spoke in anger, the insults which seemed so justified, the scathing criticisms we leveled, the sarcastic jibes we uttered against victims whose inner topography was hidden behind the opaque wall of our cognitive limitations.
Logically, there should be no way to eradicate the hurtful mistakes of our past. But teshuva, repentance, is a miracle. If we go through all four steps of the teshuva process [See: Teshuva: Dry Cleaning for the Soul], then on Yom Kippur God grants us the unbelievable gift of atonement. It is as if God presses the "Delete" button, and all the murky mess on our soul's screen disappears.
But the miraculous process of teshuva, of fixing the past as well as the future, can come only when we admit the harm we have done and feel regret for the enormity of the damage. All sin, by definition, damages our relationship with God. All sin, by definition, distances us from realizing our true potential. Interpersonal sins, in addition, hurt other people, usually much more than we had intended to hurt them.
WITHOUT THE ASH COATING
On the morning of the great disaster in New York, my friend Amita was walking from her Greenwich Village home to her office on Wall Street. She started to pass people who had been evacuated from the World Trade Center.
The massive tragedy has left in its wake tens of thousands of mourners across America and the world.
At the moment that the first tower collapsed, to the horror and anguish of everyone who witnessed it, one ash-covered woman cried out loudly. Her husband worked in that building. Amita immediately held her hands and spoke to her in soothing tones: "We don't know anything yet. You work in the other tower, and you were evacuated immediately. You are here safe. God-willing, your husband is safe somewhere else." Compassion was Amita's immediate and instinctual response.
The massive tragedy has left in its wake tens of thousands of mourners across America and the world: bereaved parents, spouses, children, siblings, and friends. In the coming months, they will not be recognizable by an inch of ash when they sit across a desk from you or stand on the other side of a sales counter. How will you make sure that you do not add to their pain with a harsh word? Only by resolving to observe the Torah's commandment to entirely refrain from harsh speech—no matter how justified.
Had the driver of the red Subaru known how vulnerable and distressed the girl in the passenger seat was, his heart would no doubt clench in remorse for his diatribe. The Torah instructs us that all human beings are vulnerable. For this new year, let's earnestly strive to hurt no one with our words.