Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

Stumbling Blocks

Stumbling Block.jpg

Anyone care to deny that society - nay the world - has become more negative, cynical and downright intolerant over the past generation or so? Is there anyone out there who has not seen the growth of victimization?  And mind you, it is most frequently those in the majority who are most loudly complaining about their victimization.  For those of us who are Jewish, we've seen the simultaneous growth of both pro-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric and reality.  And perhaps worst of all, is the breaking of one of the Bible's (both the Hebrew and Christian versions) most oft-repeated imprecations: to not place a stumbling block in the path of the blind. (In Hebrew, the shorthand for this principle is לִפְנֵי עִוֵּר  pronounced leefnay eevair.) Versions of this crucial statement can be found in - among other places - Leviticus 19:14,  Isaiah 57:14, I Corinthians 8:9 and Romans: 14:13-23.  In the various commentaries to the original Hebrew version, the sages stress that the word "blind" is not meant to be taken literally - i.e. without anatomical sight.  Rather, "blind" (in Hebrew, עִוֵר - pronounced eevaiyr)is understood in a figurative sense: one who is uneducated, unlettered or, highly gullible.  It is in this latter meaning - highly gullible - that we see the greatest - and one of the most common forms - of contemporary sin. 

When the leader of a great nation proclaims that anyone or anything that does not agree with him  or points out his or her shortcomings is a lying "enemy of the people," this is tantamount to putting a stumbling block in front of the blind.  How so? Precisely this: many of those  "blind" folk, now armed with the warped worldview of the stumble block maker, will spread their newfound knowledge to other gullible people. Whenever leaders or opinion-makers pull the wool over the eyes of the blind, a segment of society will respond to disagreement with vituperation and vile personal attacks. What we are experiencing is nothing less than the disintegration of civil society.  And to whose benefit?  When bigotry, racism and outright illegality are met with silence and tacit support, what we face is the unraveling of civil society.  Woe unto those who permit such things to occur  . . .  again and again and again.

Over countless centuries, commentators - ranging from the most ancient to the most recent - have greatly expanded the situational meaning of  leefnay eevair to include such prohibited acts as:

  • Selling anything that has the potential of causing harm to others. This interpretation, by the way, comes not from today's anti-NRA crowd, but rather from the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 16a).

  • In the rabbinic text Midrash ha-Gadol there is a commentary on Leviticus 19:14 which, roughly translated, understands leefnay eevair to mean that individuals who “strengthen the hand of sinners” or assist others to commit a misdeed have transgressed the prohibition against “placing a stumbling block before the blind.” One might argue that those remaining quiet in the face of evil, i.e., not blowing the whistle on iniquities, strengthens the hand of wrongdoers.

  • The renowned Bible teacher and scholar Nehama Leibowitz (1905-1997) in her 1983 work Studies in Leviticus, notes: "But the Torah teaches us that even by sitting at home doing nothing, by complete passivity and divorcement from society, one cannot shake off responsibility for what is transpiring in the world at large, for the iniquity, violence and evil there. By not protesting, "not marking the graves" and danger spots, you have become responsible for any harm arising therefrom, and have violated the prohibition: "Thou shalt not put a stumbling block before the blind…"

Just as Leviticus 19:14 teaches an incredibly modern lesson, so too does verse 16.  To wit: to be neither  a gossip nor the kind of person who can stand by and watch their neighbor bleed.  In the first part of the verse we are admonished to " . . . not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people." In commenting on this admonition, the early medieval scholar  Rabbi David Kimchi (known by the acronym "Radak") quoted Psalm 34:13-15 which says:

Who is the person that desires life and loves days, that he may see good?
Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking guile
Stay far away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.

Radak explained that these verses embody both positive and negative precepts governing speech, thought and deed.  "Keep your tongue from evil" means positively do keep from speaking evil of other people.  "And your lips from speaking guile" - that you must not speak one way with your lips and mean another in your heart.  These days we are increasingly witnessing otherwise decent, honorable (though flawed) people being saddled with demeaning nicknames, such as "lying," "little," "low energy" and "Pocahontas," and "Rocket Man."  And to make matters far worse, when the time comes that those who insult need the support of those they once insulted, they show not a hint of remorse . . . and even deny ever having saddled these people with their  hurtful nicknames.  

Although Radak and his fellow scholars lived countless centuries before the Internet (Radak lived from 1160-1235), they wisely likened gossip, tale-bearing and verbal insults to spilled perfume; once the vial is broken, the aroma remained for all to sniff out.  In modern terms, this is likened to the lie or insult which is Tweeted or Facebooked: in all but the most vile cases, the words remain online spreading venom for all time.  Interestingly, another scholar - one who went by the nickname of "The Hafez Haim" - taught that the very listening to gossip poisons the atmosphere and causes hate.  Thus, both the talebearer and the listener are equally guilty of a sinful act.

Verse 16 ends with the words lo ta-ah-mode ahl dahm rayecha, namely," Do not stand upon the blood of your neighbor."  Most commentators - again, from oldest to newest - agree that the text means to teach that we cannot remain on the sidelines of life when people are in danger or being mistreated . . . especially by the authorities.  Indeed, there are currently far too many injustices being perpetrated in the name of "patriotism," "liberty" or "morality."  But simply stated, one person or group's notion of patriotism is another's fear of autocracy; one person or group's profession of what is moral and necessary is another's nightmarish remembrance of things past.  This is where the admonition against sitting idly upon the blood of our neighbor resonates most clearly . . .

For those of us who are Jewish, the New Year, Rosh Hashana begins in in less than a week. Our ten solemn Days of Awe are meant to be a time when we reassess our standing in this world - both in our own eyes and those of our family, friends, neighbors and community - as well as coming to grips with both our successes and failures. May this New Year -5779 - be a year in which we all repair and repave that which is cracked and crumbling.

                                                   !לשנה טובה וּמתוּקה             

                                                                                         (Wishing you a happy and sweet new year . . . ) 

593 days down
867 days to go
63 days until the midterm elections.


Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone