Healing and Sensitivity
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
If you will listen — aikev — to these judgments and observe and do them ...
If you will listen to the easy mitzvos that people tend to trample on with
their heels — aikev — (i.e., not take seriously) …
Tisha B'Av behind us, we are now into the seven weeks of consolation, which
will walk us up to Rosh Hashanah, b"H. In a sense, the Three Weeks prior to
and including Tisha B'Av, and the seven weeks that follow Tisha B'Av, seem
so different from each other; they seem to represent two entirely different
Jewish moods. The former seem to deal more with a millennia-old historical
issue, whereas the latter deals with the here-and-now: Judgment day is
coming; how good were you last year, and what will you get next year? They
are, of course, two sides of the same coin, and of course, this week’s
parshah explains how. Indeed, the very title of the parshah — Aikev — sums
it all up in one word, which translates as "heel", but given its deeper
meaning, it could just as easily translate as, "heal". The key operating
word here is sensivity, which success in this world, in the true sense of
the word, depends upon. True, without sensitivity, one can become the
richest person in the world, or the most brilliant physicist, or even become
a leader of people. However, if he wants to be known for more than his
wealth, brilliance, or leadership qualities, he is going to have to be
sensitive. Then a person has a chance to be given the ultimate compliment:
he or she is a great person.
The Talmud states:
A person does not sin unless a spirit of insanity enters him. (Sotah 3a)
However, what the Talmud really means to say is: A person does not sin
unless he becomes insensitive. Insensitive to what? Insensitive to the
of life, insensitive to his potential, insensitive to the damage his
behavior causes, and insensitive to the cost of sinning. The Talmud is saying
that no matter what the sin, it is, in the end, just not worth it, and if you
can’t see that, then something is missing from your perspective that denies
you the ability to avoid wasting your life.
That is the answer to "eichah" about which we spoke with regard to
Shabbos Chazon (Parashas Devarim). How did things ever get so bad? How
did you take the good life, and toss it away for a spiritually decrepit life?
How does anything that was once so right become so wrong over time? The
answer: desensitization. Desensitization is the downfall of any person, or
society for that matter, for it allows people to become spiritually rotten to
the core, until society as a whole collapses under its own spiritual weight.
It is to this that aikev in this week's parshah refers. No matter what the
mitzvah, one must deal with it very seriously, for each and every mitzvah is
the word of God. If people can "step" all over a mitzvah, then it means they
have become desensitized to Torah and mitzvos, and above all, to God
Himself, as the mishnah says:
Be careful with a "minor" mitzvah as with a "major" one, for you do not
know the reward for the mitzvos. Consider the loss incurred for performing
a mitzvah compared to its reward, and the reward received for
sinning compared to the loss. (Pirkei Avos 2:1)
For, it is God Who determines the reward for mitzvos, and for us to decide
on our own which mitzvos matter to us and which ones do not, then
we are ignoring what God Himself might think of them. What's worse is that
we are assuming that we understand the Divine mind, so-to-speak, enough
to make decisions that really belong only to God, a very dangerous path to
Hence, the seven weeks of consolation are more like seven weeks of becoming
re-sensitized to what counts the most in life, and how best to
achieve it on a consistent basis. They are for becoming re-sensitized to the
need to become re-sensitized, and it will be our level of success for which
we will be judged on Rosh Hashanah, and which we will work on improving
during the Aseres Yemai Teshuvah — the Ten Days of Repentance.
What should we be doing to succeed?
There is a story about Rav Saadya Gaon (882-942 CE) that makes the
point, one upon which each person can build.
The story is told of how Rav Saadya Gaon used to travel from town to
town to speak to the Jews of various different communities to spiritually
strengthen them, and to answer any halachic questions that might have
arisen. Exile, at that time, had been new to the Jewish people, and having
been spread out thin, the ability to clarify halachah was not as easy as it
used to be, or as it is today.
However, it was also before the time of printing presses and cameras, so
it was not uncommon for so great a man to not be known by his face
amongst the masses of Jews across the Diaspora. This had clearly been the
case when the Gaon arrived at an Inn to take a room in the town before
which he was to speak the next day.
"I'm sorry," the Innkeeper said politely, thinking that he was talking to a
common Jew, "but there are no rooms available. The great Saadya Gaon is
coming to speak, and all the rooms are taken already!"
Being the humble man that he was, Rav Saadya did not let on that he
was indeed the great man that people had come to hear, saying only,
"Surely you must have some kind of room for me?"
The Innkeeper, being a kind man, thought for a moment, and said,
"Look, I have a room, but it is not much. But, it has a bed and a sink, and
should suffice for a night, if you want it."
"It sounds fine," the Gaon said, happy to have a place to stay for the
After checking in, the great rabbi bid the Innkeeper "Good Night," and
went to his room where he spent a peaceful night.
The next day, the Gaon addressed the town's Jews, of which one happened
to be the same Innkeeper. However, as the Innkeeper came closer to
the podium from which the Gaon spoke, he could not believe his eyes, and
recognizing his guest from the previous night, his heart sank in his chest. I
made the greatest rabbi of our time sleep in a room that is barely bigger than
a closet! he thought to himself in despair. What kind of sin have I done!
The man could barely contain himself the entire time the Gaon spoke.
However, he had no choice but to wait until the Gaon finished speaking, at
which time the Innkeeper planned to run and throw himself at the feet of the
great rabbi, and beg for forgiveness, which is exactly what he did.
"FORGIVE ME," the man sobbed. "Forgive me, for I did not know who
the Gaon was when I saw him! Had I known," the Innkeeper said through
his bitter tears, "I would have given the great rabbi my own room and catered
to his every need!"
Surprised by the Innkeeper’s profound sense of regret, the Gaon tried to
calm his host down by telling him, "Calm down, my good man," adding
"You treated me with perfect respect, and I was more than satisfied with the
room in which I slept. There is nothing for which to forgive you!" However,
seeing how distraught the man was, the Gaon told him, "But to calm you
down, I will forgive you in any case. I forgive you completely, and with a
Barely satisfied, the man hesitatingly let go of the Gaon’s legs, and made
his way back home, while the Gaon finished speaking to the leaders of the
community, before leaving for his own home town.
Days went by, and it wasn’t long before the Innkeeper put the incident
behind him, trusting that the great Saadya Gaon had indeed forgiven him for
his mistake. However, not the Gaon. Rather than forget the incident, the
Gaon took some very serious Mussar from it, and one night, he could be
heard by his students in the Bais Midrash, while he cried and rolled around
outside in the snow.
Coming to investigate the matter, to see if someone indeed needed their
help, the students were shocked to see their master in such a state. Seeing
their puzzlement and concern, the Gaon recounted the entire story of the
"And then, on the way home, it occurred to me: If this humble man,
upon learning my true identity, was further humbled to the point that he
threw himself at my feet and begged for my forgiveness, even though he had
acted perfectly fine given his knowledge at the time of who I was, how
much more so must we throw ourselves before God, and beg for His forgiveness,
as our awareness of Who He is increases with each passing day,
even though given our previous knowledge, we may have acted fine at the
In other words, and there are many midrashim to this effect, though we
may be content with our present lifestyles and approaches to God and His
Torah, that is, more than likely, only because of our present state of
With a higher level of awareness, our present level of living may become
unacceptable to us, and motivate us to change for the better.
What you don't know, can indeed hurt you. Such ignorance can deny
you higher levels of sensitivity necessary to get more out of life than you are
presently getting, and more importantly, more out of life in the next world,
in Olam HaBah. In that world, we will become fully aware of what we
could have been, and the portion of eternal bliss we could have received,
had we made a point of becoming more aware, and therefore, more sensitive
to the opportunity of life during our lives on earth.
Now is the time to think about this. During these seven weeks of consolation,
the build up to the judgment of Rosh Hashanah, it is time to overhaul
our system, and to upgrade. The Three Weeks were supposed to help us to
realize just insensitive we have become, and the seven weeks that follow
are designed to help us to take Mussar from them, in order to rectify the
situation, while we still can.
When we do that, we transform the "heel" of aikev into "heal", for then
all mitzvos become important to us, which allows us to rectify ourselves,
and the world as well.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Torah.org.