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Sunday, 3 August 2014

Dealing with Dimwits


Megillah 22

You know the feeling when you walk into a lecture or class late and you have a question?  Most of us wouldn’t raise our hands.  After all, maybe the lecturer already dealt with that issue before you got there, right?

Not Shloimy.  When I was in yeshiva, Shloimy would almost always come late to shiur (class).  Inevitably, five minutes after arriving, his hand would shoot up and he would ask a question that the Rosh Yeshiva (head of the academy giving the lecture) had already dealt with before he got there.  But Rabbi Lesches would patiently respond to him as if it were the most novel and clever question.

One day, my chavrusa (study partner), Nussy, had had enough and blurted out what we were all thinking, “Mate, if you’d get here on time, you’d have the answers to all your questions!”

The Mishnah states: On Rosh Chodesh (the first of the month) and Chol Hamoed (the intermediate days of the festival), we call four people to the Torah.

The Beraisa teaches: Each reader must read at least three verses.

The Talmud teaches: We do not start or end a Torah reading less than three verses from the beginning or end of the paragraph.

Ulla bar Rav asked Rava: How do we break up the reading of Rosh Chodesh?  The first paragraph contains eight verses, the second consists of two and the third has five.  If we were to break the first paragraph into two readings of three each, only two verses would remain in the paragraph and we do not leave over less than three verses in a paragraph.  If we were to break it into two readings of four a piece, seven verses would remain in the other two paragraphs, leaving us with the following conundrum: We could not read two from the first paragraph and then one more, since we do not begin a paragraph with less than three.  But if we were to read three, only two verses would remain!

Rav says, “Double up.” – Read the same verse twice.
Shmuel says, “Split it up.” – Make a break in the middle of the verse and count it as two verses.

Why does Rav not use Shmuel’s solution?  He feels that any verse that was not divided by Moses, what gives us the right to divide it?
Why does Shmuel not employ Rav’s solution? We are concerned, he says, about the latecomers and the early leavers. 

Rashi explains: If we utilize Rav’s solution of reading the verse twice, latecomers might hear the second reader begin at the third verse and assume the first reader only read two verses.  Similarly, the early leavers might hear the first reader read three verses and then leave assuming that the next reader will only read the remaining two verses in the paragraph.

Listen to the incredible sensitivity of our Sages!  They were willing to design the law to accommodate misunderstandings of people who were lax in their attendance!  Let’s not give the person who came late the wrong impression!  But he came late – isn’t that his problem?  Shouldn’t he figure that maybe he missed something?

Our Sages understood that many individuals lack a certain social awareness.  Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff calls this a problem with middos (character traits)He explains that when we teach children to have good middos, we instruct them in specific character traits, such as kindness and humility.  But the adult version of having good middos is to improve upon one’s “social awareness.”  For some people, social awareness comes naturally, for others like my friend Shloimy or the latecomers to shul, who assume we didn’t read the verse, not so much.

What’s our response to people who lack this social awareness?  Most people would react with disdain, as did my chavrusa, but our Sages bent over backwards to accommodate these individuals and not leave them with any misunderstandings.  Rabbi Lesches would calmly answer Shloimy’s questions without making him feel in any way inadequate for his deficient social awareness. 

Shloimys and latecomers don’t just turn up in the beis medrash (study hall) and beis haknesses (synagogue).   They can appear anytime to anyone.  They’re the people who will enter a conversation at a social gathering and make the most unintelligent comment, because they’ve just arrived, when you’ve just been speaking about that matter for the last ten minutes!  Your initial reaction might be to disregard them, but our Sages teach us to warmly smile and give them the time of day. 


The fact is that the world contains many different kinds of people.  Some show up late, some leave early, some ask ridiculous questions, some just lack basic social awareness.  But they are all children of the Almighty, all created in His image.  Our task is to make them all feel wonderful and to treat them all with respect and honour, despite what they say or do!