What Will the Neighbors Think?
Chapter 4, Law 2(a)
"Among them (i.e., the twenty four factors which interfere with repentance
listed in this chapter) are five things which lock the path of teshuva
(repentance) before those who do them. They are:
(a) One who separates from the community, since when they repent he will
not be with them and he will not benefit with them in the merits they do.
(b) One who disputes the words of the sages, for his dispute will cause him
to separate from them and he will not know the ways of repentance.
(c) One who makes fun of the mitzvos (commandments), because since they are
degraded in his eyes he will not run after them nor will he do them. And if
he does not do, how will he gain merit?
(d) One who disgraces his Torah teachers, for this matter causes them to
reject (lit., 'push away') and banish him, as Yeshua and Gehazi. And once he
is banished he will not find one who will teach and instruct him in the true
[Note: I will translate the 5th example and the remainder of this law G-d
willing in two weeks' time.]
Last week we began Chapter 4, in which the Rambam enumerates 24 attitudes or
types of behavior which make repentance very difficult. Last week the Rambam
listed four types of sinners who are unlikely to come to penitence on
account of the severity of their sins. This week he lists five more which
"lock the path of repentance" before those who do them. As the Rambam
explains, such people cut themselves off from improvement because they
disassociate themselves from the very sources which might have brought them
Before we look at the Rambam's examples more closely, I'd like to make one
important point of introduction. Many of the sins the Rambam lists here are
much more severe than the Rambam here implies. In fact three of them (1, 2
and 4) were explicitly listed in the previous chapter as potentially causing
their doer to lose his share in the World to Come altogether. One who
separates from the community or takes on the Sages is practically writing
himself off as part of the fold. Yet here the Rambam makes a much smaller
point -- that practically, it will be difficult for such a person to repent.
Thus, the Rambam here is not concerning himself with the severity of such
sins themselves. He addressed that earlier in his work. He is rather
addressing a more limited issue -- that practically, people who cut
themselves off from Israel or its sages will have a very hard time coming to
repentance on their own.
The basic theme of this law is fairly straightforward and needs no great
elaboration. However, there are several smaller issues which require
clarification and which I deal with below.
(a) One who separates from the community: There is a fascinating relevant
statement in Pirkei Avos 2:13.
R. Yochanan ben Zakkai asked his five top students for a single good
practice or quality which a man should embrace, one which will positively
impact on the person as a whole. One student, R. Yehoshua, recommended
acquiring a good friend. Another, R. Yossi, suggested having a good
neighbor. Likewise in 2:14
R. Yochanan asked his students for a bad practice to avoid and the same
students suggested a bad friend and neighbor respectively.
Of the two opinions, R. Yehoshua's good/bad friend would appear to be much
more significant than the good or bad neighbor. Isn't your friend --
meaning, a true friend and confidant -- one who will look you in the eye and
tell you you must improve? Isn't he one who truly cares about you and will
advise and reprimand you for your own good? Our relationship with our
neighbors, by contrast, is far less intense -- we'll wave a friendly hello
to him from our driveway, exchange a few pleasantries at the store, etc. But
that's about the end of it -- unless, of course, he grows into a friend as
well. If so, how could R. Yossi recommend a good neighbor as a better
inducement to personal growth?
The answer is actually something we are all quite familiar with. One of the
strongest, most palpable senses we have can be summed up as "What will the
neighbors think?" People feel an enormously strong -- almost irrationally
strong -- fear of standing out in public. Appearing different, becoming the
butt of everyone's stare is a mortifying sensation. Imagine, say, having
stomach cramps in public. If no one were looking you might bend over, moan,
press down on your stomach, or whatever. But in a public thoroughfare you
will continue to walk as if nothing is amiss. Hopefully no one will notice
those little grimaces you cannot avoid.
This is the basis for R. Yossi's opinion. Take by contrast the example of a
good friend. A friend too can be an enormous stimulant to spiritual growth.
But he'll do it by challenge and confrontation. He'll look you in the eye
and tell you just what you're doing wrong -- if you can swallow his words,
that is. True, you may grow immensely from it, but the rare times it
happens, it will be an exceedingly difficult confrontation, one which tests
the mettle of both you, your friend, and the friendship.
Good neighbors, by contrast, exert the same amount of positive influence
without the confrontation -- for the very simple reason that you will do
almost anything not to veer from the standards they set in the neighborhood.
Let's say you live in a neighborhood in which everyone is Sabbath observant.
Would you get in your car and drive down the block -- even if you couldn't
care less about the Sabbath yourself? You'd be mortified! You'd find
yourself observing the Sabbath and being involved with your community's good
activities whether you want to or not. And of course once you get your taste
of good deeds and Sabbath observance, chances are they will work their magic
on you and you will become a changed human being.
This is why the Rambam lists separating from the community as so strong a
deterrent to repentance. If I do not associate with a community, I am left
on my own. I will become accustomed to myself and all my faults. And I will
be extremely unlikely to better my lot.
(d) One who disgraces his Torah teachers: The Rambam gives two examples of
such students -- one Gehazi ("Gai'chazi" in Hebrew) and the other Jesus. I
know this piques my readers' interests, so I will give a little background
to each of these students.
The Talmud (Sotah 47a and Sanhedrin 107b) states that one should always
"push away with his left while drawing close with his right." Meaning, even
if we must reprimand others, it should be gently, never pushing away the
sinful utterly. One should not, continues the Talmud, do as Elisha did to
Gehazi or R. Yehoshua ben Perachia did to one of his students. In both
cases, the teacher pushed his student away too harshly, causing the student
to be lost entirely.
Gehazi was the personal servant of the prophet Elisha (see II Kings 4, 5 and
8). He is mentioned only a few times in the Bible, once negatively and twice
neutrally. Rabbinic writings paint a much worse picture of him -- as a
coarse and avaricious fellow, one of the very few well-known Jews to receive
no share in the World to Come (Mishna Sanhedrin 10:2).
The incident to which the Talmud and Rambam refer appears in II Kings 5.
Na'aman was the commander of the army of Aram, a Mesopotamian nation
neighboring Israel. Due to a bout of leprosy he went to Elisha asking for a
cure. Elisha's response was that he should wash himself seven times in the
Jordan River. At first Na'aman was furious. He expected something far holier
and more mystical than a bath. Had he wanted a natural cure he would have
been better off availing himself of the hot springs of Aram. He was ready to
storm off, but his servants convinced him to give it a try. He did so and
his flesh became as that of a "young lad."
Na'aman returned to Elisha, attesting that "there is no G-d in all the land
except in Israel," He then offered to pay tribute, but Elisha refused to
accept it. Shortly after, Gehazi ran after Na'aman, saying the prophet
changed his mind and was prepared to accept tribute. (See Talmud Erchin 16a
that Na'aman doubted him and insisted that he swear Elisha sent him.) Gehazi
"accepted" two talents of silver and two changes of clothes, which he
stashed away for himself.
When he returned, Elisha (who of course knew all about it), was indignant.
"Is it time to take the silver, and to take clothes, olive groves,
vineyards, sheep, cattle, slaves and maidservants? The leprosy of Na'aman
will cleave to you and to your progeny eternally!" As a result, Gehazi
forfeited his share in the World to Come.
What was so evil about Gehazi? True, we can see several sins in his behavior
-- stealing, misrepresenting, swearing falsely -- and the Talmud attests to
several other wicked deeds of his, but what was so awful about him that he
forfeited his share in the hereafter?
R. Shmuel Eliezer Eidels (the Maharsha), of 16th-17th century Poland, in his
commentary to the Talmud, explains as follows. There is a deeper thread
running through the story. When Na'aman offered tribute to Elisha, what was
his motive? Very simple. The holy man cured him; he must pay for his
services. This was all the more the case now that the cure was basically a
natural one. The Jordan clearly had curative powers Na'aman was unaware of.
Elisha, for pointing him to an appropriate remedy, deserved compensation no
less than a doctor charging for his services.
The prophet, however, refused to take money. Although the cure came via a
natural source, it was G-d who cured Na'aman. Elisha had no right taking
money for G-d's miracles. The general should rather accept and have faith in
the G-d who healed him. (If so, why was immersing in the river necessary at
all? Because in general G-d does not perform unnecessarily spectacular
miracles. They are generally done via a seemingly natural conduit or chain
When Gehazi returned to Na'aman asking for some loot, this great lesson --
taught to one of the leaders of the civilized world -- was utterly lost --
for a few pieces of silver. The message had now become that Elisha did the
healing and deserved compensation. G-d was out of the picture; a great
demonstration of G-d's power and lesson in Jewish theology were lost. It was
actually the previously unknown curative powers of the Jordan which did it.
Elisha the doctor, who knew of its powers, prescribed the cure and deserved
something in return. And a potentially great moment in world history was
I must apologize -- I didn't get to the Rambam's more intriguing example.
G-d willing next week!
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org