Parshas Ki Seitzei
Volume 2 Issue 46
by Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky
Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, the chief Dayan (judge) of the Vilna Bais Din,
once met the famous Rebbe, Rabbi Yechiel Meir of Ostrovtze. Though the
Ostrovtze Rebbe was a eminent scholar and renowned tzadik, he was still
extremely humble. Rabbi Grodzinsky asked him to share some Torah thoughts
but the Rebbe quietly demurred, saying he wasn't worthy.
Rabbi Grodzinsky urged him. "They say you are a great man. I am sure you can
tell me something."
"Great man?" questioned the Rebbe. "I will tell you what a great man is."
He quoted the Talmud in Makos 22b that derives the power of the sages from a
verse in this week's reading: "How foolish are those people who stand for
the Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) but do not stand for the Rav. Aren't the
Rabbis more powerful than the Torah itself? The Torah tells us, Deuteronomy
25:3, that there are forty lashes to be meted in case of a serious
transgression, yet the sages interpret the verse so as to mete only
thirty-nine. "The Talmud thus deduces the Rabbis have more power than the
Torah. They therefore deserve at least as much -- if not more -- respect
than the simple scroll."
The Rebbe turned to Rabbi Grodzinsky and asked a cogent question. "There are
quite a number of occasions where the sages reinterpreted the text. They
tell us to wear Tefilin above our hairline, not between our eyes as the text
seems to command. And the other phylactery is placed on our arm not our
hand, though strict textual reading would have us do so.
"In fact, there is even an instance quite similar to the case of lashes. The
Torah tells us to count fifty days of the Omer before celebrating the
holiday of Shavuos. Yet, the Sages reinterpret the number fifty and tell us
to count forty nine. Why is that example not cited to show the power of the
sages? Is the ability to make a holiday one day earlier not a powerful
enough attestation to the hegemony of the sages?"
Despite Rabbi Mendel Kaplan's great stature as a Talmudic scholar and sage,
he still drove his old car, sometimes taking trips that spanned many miles.
He once traveled through the night and stopped in a small town for Shacharis
(morning service). Extremely exhausted from his journey, it took great
effort just to concentrate on the prayers. Immediately after the davening
he was approached by a member of the congregation. "Excuse me, I noticed
that you were sitting while reciting a prayer during which one traditionally
stands up. Why were you sitting? Aren't you supposed to stand during that
Rav Mendel replied. "Are you really worried about me? Why don't you ask me
if I have a place to rest or a place to eat breakfast?"
The Ostrovtze Rebbe explained. "The power of the Talmudic sages was not just
in refining a seemingly literal translation. Their greatness lay in the
ability to read the Torah that says to give forty lashes and through myriad
proofs and interpolations mete one less lash. The greatness of the sages
stems not the just the power of deductive reasoning. That ability constantly
appears throughout the Talmud. It is the power to make life one flog lighter
for a simple Jew -- even a Jewish sinner about to get lashes.
Rav Yechiel Meir turned to Rabbi Grodzinsky. "The greatness of a Torah
leader is not to find more burdens for his followers, but to look for a way
to lighten the existing ones. That is a great man."