The rear wall of the massive room was lined with eager participants. Although the maintenance staff had set out hundreds of chairs, it wasn’t nearly enough to accommodate all those in attendance. Just the opportunity to be in the presence of the many prominent rabbis seated at the dais was enough to draw a substantial crowd to the annual Agudas Yisrael Convention.
“…and it is therefore incumbent upon all of us to make this a priority in our own communities!” the speaker at the podium thundered. Everyone in the room sat in rapt attention, as the elderly rabbi eloquently described a matter of vital importance to the Jewish people.
The rabbi’s voice rose to a crescendo. “No one should underestimate the significance of the contribution that he or she can and must make in this area!” With great passion, the rabbi waved his hands for emphasis as he spoke, and… knocked his dentures out of his mouth!
The stunned silence that blanketed the room lasted all of a second, and then was quickly replaced by… laughter! Hundreds upon hundreds of pairs of eyes remained fixed on the podium, as hundreds of mouths broke forth in nervous laughter. The irony of the situation made it too difficult for even the most noble of attendees to control their laughter.
Everyone, that is, except for two people. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky sat in their seats, the looks on their faces identical to the way they had been before the speaker’s faux pas. Because, when it came to the dignity of another person, losing control just wasn’t an option.
Did the people in attendance commit a sin by laughing, or was it considered oness (a forced act)?
Answer of Rabbi Avigdor Nebezahl, shlita:
Those who laughed committed the sin of being malbin pnei chaveiro b’rabim (embarrassing another in public). It is not considered an intentional sin (meizid), but it is considered an unintentional sin (shogeg). We see that it is not oness because Rabbi Feinstein and Rabbi Kamenetsky succeeded in controlling their reactions. Therefore, the others in attendance could have controlled themselves, as well.
Contrast the above story with the following story:
One Purim, a man came to Rabbi Feinstein’s house, and made a number of attempts at adding to the Purim festivities. Efforts to produce music from the fiddle that he brought with him made all those present long for ear plugs. The jokes that he told had a similar effect. There was one other person in the room, however, who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself. Rabbi Feinstein’s uproarious laughter brought a broad smile to the face of the aspiring entertainer, who continued his fiddle playing and joke-telling with gusto. After the man had left, someone asked Rabbi Feinstein how he could possibly have laughed. “Laughing at someone’s jokes is gemilat chesed” Rabbi Feinstein explained.