Hamaayan / The Torah Spring
Edited by Shlomo Katz
Volume XIII, Number 1
27 Tishrei 5759
October 17, 1998
Orach Chaim 2:1-3
Yerushalmi Pesachim 29
The Emperor Hadrian asked Rabbi Yehoshua, “Does the world have a master?”
R’ Yehoshua replied, “Could the world be ownerless?”
“Who created the world?” Hadrian asked, and R’ Yehoshua answered that Hashem did, as it is written (Bereishit 1:1), “In the beginning, G-d created . . .”
“Then why doesn’t He reveal Himself twice a year so that man will see Him and fear Him?” Hadrian asked.
“Because the world could not withstand the brightness of the revelation, as it is written (Shmot 33: 20), ‘For no man can see Me and live’,” R’ Yehoshua answered.
Whereupon Hadrian said, “If you do not show Him to me, I will not believe you.”
Later, at noon-time, R’ Yehoshua said to Hadrian, “Look at the sun and you will see Hashem.”
“What! Can anyone look at the sun?” Hadrian replied.
“Listen to your own words,” retorted R’ Yehoshua. “If you cannot look at one of Hashem’s servants [i.e., the sun], how can you expect to look at Hashem?!” (Yalkut Shimoni)
Seventeen hundred years later, R’ Yisrael Salanter z”l had a similar experience. On that occasion, just after an acquaintance of R’ Yisrael’s announced that he could not believe in G-d if G-d did not show himself, the man’s daughter entered and announced that she had one first prize in a piano-playing contest. R’ Yisrael challenged her, “Show me your skills.”
She retorted, “I just proved myself before hundreds of people. Who are you that I should prove myself to you?”
“Indeed,” said R’ Yisrael, “Hashem has proven Himself countless times. He is not obligated to perform for whomever challenges Him.”
“Elokim said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And Elokim saw that the light was good, and He separated. ” (1:3-4)
Chazal say: Elokim saw that that light was too good for this world. Accordingly, He separated it and set it aside for the use of tzaddikim in the future.
The Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) observes that this is alluded to in the verse itself: “Elokim said, ‘Let there be light'” – i.e., in future tense – “and there was light” – in past tense. This is the light of the future, but as soon as it was created, it was past tense, because it was put away. (Quoted in Itturei Torah)
“In the beginning, Elokim created the heavens and the earth.” (1:1)
The midrash says, “Just as a builder refers to plans when he builds a building, so Hashem referred to a plan – the Torah – when He created the world. Similarly, the Zohar states, “He looked in the Torah and created the world.”
R’ Chaim Soloveitchik z”l (“R’ Chaim Brisker”; 1853-1918) observes: We see through many examples that that which the Torah prohibits is, in fact, bad for the world, and that which the Torah encourages is good. For example, theft and murder are bad; they disrupt civilization. Charity and kindness are good; they promote the effective operation of the world.
One might think that the Torah prohibits theft and murder and encourages charity and kindness because of the effect that they have. Not so, says R’ Chaim. To the contrary, the above midrash teaches that the world was built based on the Torah. Thus, theft and murder are bad for the world because the Torah prohibits them, not the other way around. Similarly, charity and kindness are good for the world because the Torah encourages them, not the other way around.
If so, asks R’ Chaim, what is the purpose in seeking the reason for any mitzvah? Since the Torah preceded the world and was the blueprint for creation, any reason that we might attribute to a mitzvah would, in fact, be a reflection of the mitzvah, not its cause.
In truth, we cannot know the reason for any mitzvah. The Hebrew word for “reason” is “ta’am,” literally “taste.” The most we can hope for is a small taste of what any mitzvah really means. When we think we have discovered the reason for a mitzvah, we actually are saying that we have identified the part of creation to which that mitzvah relates. This, in turn, may give us some understanding of how that mitzvah relates to the Torah in general. However, it is clear that we can never know why Hashem created the world as He did. (Quoted in Torat Chaim p.1)
“The woman said to the serpent, ‘. . . Of the fruit which is in the center of the garden G-d has said, “You shall not eat of it nor touch it, lest you die”.(3:2-3)
R’ Yissachar Ber Halevi Rotenberg z”l (the “Voidaslaver Rav”; 1906-1986) observes that the phrase, “lest you die,” implies a measure of doubt. In fact, there had been no uncertainty in Hashem’s warning (2:17), “On the day you eat of it, you shall surely die.” However, because Chava herself left room for doubt when she spoke to the serpent, the serpent, in turn, was able to convince Chava to eat from the tree.
We learn from this the importance of being clear and strong in our belief in the truth of G-d’s commands, R’ Rotenberg adds. We similarly find that Noach’s belief was weak (see Rashi to 7:7). As a result, he was unable to influence his generation, and the world had to be flooded. (Yarbeh Torah)
“Sin crouches at the door; its desire is towards you, yet you can conquer it.” (4:7)
The gemara (Berachot 5a) teaches: “One should constantly incite his yetzer hatov/good inclination against his yetzer hara/evil inclination.” R’ Akiva Eiger z”l explains:
We read in Tehilim (118:7), “Hashem is with me concerning those who are my helpers, and I will see to my foes.” One can fight a known enemy, but not an enemy who pretends to be a friend. Thus the verse says, “I will see to those who are my open foes, but I need Hashem to be with me concerning those enemies who claim to be my helpers.”
The yetzer hara is the latter type of enemy; he pretends to be concerned with man’s best interests. Accordingly, man must constantly incite his yetzer hatov against his yetzer hara and never become complacent. (Quoted in Midrushei Ve’chiddushei R’ Akiva Eiger Al HaTorah)
“Kayin spoke with his brother, Hevel. And it happened when they were in the field that Kayin rose up against his brother Hevel and killed him.” (4:8)
The Torah never tells us what Kayin said to Hevel. What did he say?
R’ Raphael Mendlowitz shlita explained: In the previous verses, Hashem rebuked Kayin, “Surely if you improve yourself, you will be forgiven, but if you do not improve yourself . . .” As is human nature, Kayin probably said to himself, “Surely Hashem doesn’t mean that rebuke for me.” Therefore, he shared the rebuke with Hevel, the only other person in the world besides his parents. (From a tape: “Pieces to Peace”)
Known today only to Torah scholars, R’ Abeli was considered in his own time to be one of the greatest living sages. Thus, one of his contemporaries wrote of him, “The great one among the giants who teaches his people Torah and laws; others draw and drink from his pure words which are clarified like light . . . sharp and famous to the ends of the earth.”
R’ Abeli was born in 1762. When he was only 39, he was appointed Av Bet Din/chief rabbinical judge of Vilna, possibly the greatest Torah center in the world at that time. In Vilna, he founded the Ramailles Yeshiva, where, later, such sages as R’ Yisrael Salanter and R’ Chaim Ozer Grodzenski would teach. (Today the yeshiva is in Yerushalayim and is known as “Netzach Yisrael.”)
R’ Abele is quoted in the works of some of his contemporaries, including R’ Akiva Eiger and R’ Avraham Danzig (author of Chayei Adam). Relatively recently, some of his own writings were published. Some stories about him survive as well, two of which are retold below. One of these illustrates his personal humility, and the other, his ability to shed his humility to defend the Torah’s honor.
There was a man in Vilna who had once been wealthy, but who had lost everything. His only pleasure now was sitting in the bet midrash and studying; indeed, he convinced himself that he was a great scholar, and every day he would debate R’ Abeli on some Torah topic.
Once, after such a debate, he said to R’ Abeli, “I see that even you do not understand this subject properly.” The students who heard this were incensed and wanted to eject the man from the study hall, but R’ Abeli calmed them.
“This man has no pleasures in his life except pretending to be a Torah scholar,” R’ Abeli said. “Would you take that away from him?!”
Another time, R’ Abeli was walking outside of Vilna when he saw a Jew plowing with a horse and a cow harnessed together. R’ Abeli politely reminded the farmer that this was a violation of Torah law. The farmer ignored him. R’ Abeli then tried to explain to the farmer how serious the prohibition is, but the farmer continued to ignore him.
Seeing that all else had failed, R’ Abeli told him, “Do you know who I am? I am the greatest rabbi in all of Vilna and I am known everywhere! If you do not listen to me, I will excommunicate you the moment I return to Vilna.” Frightened, the farmer immediately unharnessed the horse.
R’ Abeli died in 1836. (Source: Gedolei Hadorot 530-532)
Sponsored by the Parness family in memory of Anna Parness a”h
Copyright © 1998 by Shlomo Katz and Project Genesis, Inc.
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