Parshas Devarim begins with a cryptic list of place-names that don't seem
to connect with each other. Some of the places don't even exist (Lavan,
Tofel, Di-zahav - see Rashi). Rashi explains that the common denominator
among all the 'places' mentioned is that they allude to sins committed by
the Jews during their 40 year journey through the desert. The last two
places mentioned are Chatzeros and Di-Zahav. Rashi explains that
Chatzeros was the name of the place where Korach led his rebellion
against Moshe's leadership. Di-Zahav, he explains, is not a place name,
but means "an abundance of gold," which led to the creation of the Egel
Ha-zahav, the Golden Calf. Chronologically, the sin of the Calf took place
before that of Korach. Why does the Torah reverse their order?
This week marked the fourth yortzeit of the Bobover Rebbe zt"l. Those
who had the privilege of having been in the Rebbe's company will not
soon forget the beauty of the Rebbe's every movement. Were it not for
having known the Rebbe, it might be difficult to believe what one reads
about past Torah giants - that they never moved their bodies in any way
without thinking of Hashem. The Rebbe was recognized not only for his
great sanctity and tremendous love for mitzvos and Torah, but also for
his unequalled mentschlichkeit - he was a person that even gentiles who
came in contact with him loved.
At the Rebbe's shiva, a woman came to visit. From her appearance, it
was obvious she was not an observant Jew. The Rebbe's daughters
wondered what her relationship with their father possibly could have
been. "I lived in the West Side of Manhattan," she began, "when your
father came to live there in the early 1950's. To tell you the truth," she
said, "I'm no great maven on Rebbes, so I'm not going to tell you about
how holy your father was, though no doubt he was a holy man. But do
you know why I came to the shiva? Because in my whole life, I've never
met more of a mentsch than your father. Even though I wasn't religious,
he always treated me with tremendous respect, and never made me feel
like less of a Jew. I used to look forward to seeing your father just
walking in the street - he had such a way about him. I may not be a
maven on a Rebbe - but I'm a maven on a mentsch."
A Bobover Hasid from Brooklyn once hired a black painter to paint his
house. Noticing a picture of the Rebbe in the Hasid's breakfront, he
remarked, "You know - that's my Rabbi." The Hasid was intrigued; it
wasn't every day that a man like this had a Rabbi - never mind a Hasidic
"Do you want to know why? I'll tell you. That Rabbi - Rabbi Halberstam -
once hired me to paint his dining room. When I arrived in the morning,
he greeted me with a warm 'Good morning!'. Then he asked me if I had
eaten breakfast. Actually, I hadn't, and I told him that I didn't have
time.'You can't work all morning without eating something - let me fetch
you something to eat.' Can you believe it - the Rebbe made me breakfast!
"Once I had eaten, I began plastering the walls. At some point, the
Rebbe came over to inspect my work. 'Your work is excellent,' he said,
'almost too perfect. Please, don't work too hard to make it perfect -
there's nothing wrong with a few small rough spots here and there.
Now, thousands of years ago, we had a temple - the Holy Temple (Bais
Ha-mikdash). There everything had to be totally perfect - it's was G-d's
house on earth. But for my house here - pretty good is good enough.
Thank you for your hard work.'
"Now another time," he continued, "I was hired to do some work by
another Rabbi. He didn't bother asking me if I had breakfast. When he
came to inspect my work, he found a spot that had been plastered, but
was not perfectly smooth. He began ranting and raving, 'Is this what I
pay you for? It's not smooth! Do you call this plastering?' I promised him
I would smooth it out, but that wasn't enough. He made me do the
whole room over from scratch, and stood over me as I did it. 'You may
be a Rabbi, but you're not at all like my Rabbi,' I told him when I left. I
don't know if he understood what I meant, but he sure was shocked."
Chazal (our Sages) say, "Derech eretz kadma la-Torah." Roughly
translated - being a mentsch comes before keeping the Torah. This is not
to say that we should all abandon our Yeshivos and study halls and enrol
in finishing schools. But if our Torah study and observance is not
accompanied by, and proceeded by, proper attention to our character
and the way we deal with others, then it calls our study and our motives
Rabbi Chaim Vital asks: If derech eretz is so important, why doesn't the
Torah address it by making it a mitzvah (one of the 613 commandments)
to have good manners and work on one's character? He answers: Were
derech eretz to be a mitzvah, it would imply that it's a mitzvah just like
all the other mitzvos. In truth, it's much more. It's a precondition to
observing the Torah - a person lacking in basic mentschlichkeit can't even
begin to study and connect with the Torah!
The sin of the Golden Calf was grave - the gravest. There is no sin worse
than Avodah Zara, the sin of idol worship. But Korach's rebellion went
beyond sin. Their lack of respect and appreciation for Moshe, and the
brazen way they spoke and their refusal to speak with him even when
he belittled himself by pursuing them in hope of forstaying the conflict,
demonstrated that they lacked the most basic Jewish character traits of
humility, respectfulness, and sensitivity. They could never be leaders of
men - they weren't even mentschen.
Perhaps this is why the Torah switches the order, placing the Korach
rebellion before the sin of the Calf, in deference to the dictum that good
character, which Korach and his fellows were lacking, must be attended
to before one can aspire to delve into the deeper and more intellectually
challenging areas of Torah study.
The first Beis Ha-mikdash, say Chazal, was destroyed principally as the
result of idol worship. The second Beis Ha-mikdash, whose rebuilding we
still await, was destroyed as a result of one Jew hating and mistreating
another. The first Beis Ha-mikdash was rebuilt after 70 years of exile,
during which the Jews ceased to serve idolatry and repented from their
ways. The second one still lays in ruin after two millennia of waiting and
anticipation. Perhaps Hashem awaits our rededication to derech eretz
kadma la-Torah - to treating one another with respect, courtesy, and
Have a good Shabbos.
****** This week's publication has been sponsored by Mr. Yosef
Marmorstein, in memory of his father R' Avraham Yehudah ben R' Yosef
HaLevi ob"m. ******