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 prayer?”
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.”
Text Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Dean of the Yeshiva of South Shore.
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