You answered me and said, “What you said is good for us to do!”(Devarim 1:14)
As most may be aware by now, the world lost another great Torah leader and giant last week, Rabbi Ya’akov Weinberg, zt”l, Rosh HaYeshivah of Yeshivas Ner Israel of Baltimore. Though, I personally never attended Ner Israel, I did have the wonderful mazel of learning from Rav Ya’akov for years during his frequent trips to Israel and Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem. I even spent three unforgettable and uninterrupted private hours with the Rosh HaYeshivah one Sunday in Canada, when I drove him up north for a seminar at which he was supposed to speak. (The drive up was supposed to have taken only one-hour, but I missed the turn-off due to early morning darkness–and plenty of pre-planned questions. In the end, it took two full hours, and we made it on time for the seminar with only minutes to spare.)
For this reason, amongst the many heart-rending eulogies that have been and will be delivered because of the loss of this great, G-d-fearing talmid chacham, I would like to give over a d’var Torah that I heard from the Rosh HaYeshivah many years ago on this week’s parshah. It happens to be one of the divrei Torah that first drew me to the Rosh HaYeshivah and impacted my own approach to learning and teaching. It was a clear example of Rav Ya’akov’s phenomenal ability to look at a “simple” text and draw out a fundamental and indispensable concept for living a Torah lifestyle. I remember shaking my head and saying, “What a fantastic insight! I wish I could do that!”
I only wish I could deliver it the same eloquent way the Rosh HaYeshivah always did.
If we recall from Parashas Yisro, Yisro’s main contribution to the Jewish peo ple was his suggestion to divide the responsibility of judging the people amongst the many leaders of the nation. This way, Moshe would not have to sit from morning until night judging the people, and the people would not have to wait in line for hours to have their cases adjudicated.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. In fact, no one said anything against the idea, and it was duly implemented. It isn’t until this week’s parshah that we see what Moshe really felt about his father-in-law’s suggestion, and his “flock’s” willingness to follow it:
“How can I carry you as a burden by myself, with the trouble you cause, and your fighting? Appoint wise men of understanding with good reputations amongst the tribes, to become leaders, [I told you].” You answered me and said, “What you said is good for us to do!” (Devarim 1:12-14)
“You immediately decided that it was beneficial to you. You should have really answered, ‘Our teacher Moshe! From whom is it more fitting to learn– from you or your student?’ … But I knew what you were thinking. You thought, ‘Many judges will now be appointed over us; if one does not recognize us, we will bring him a gift and he will show us favor!’.” (Rashi)
“If this is so,” Rav Ya’akov asked us, “why didn’t Moshe mention this when the idea was first suggested?” “Furthermore,” Rav Ya’akov continued, “was Yisro’s idea such a novel one? Had the Jewish people never witnessed a hierarchy of leadership before?”
Then Rav Ya’akov brought a more current example to answer his question and illuminate the eyes of all those there. He told us how, back in the twenties, if someone had come out in favor of abortion, the person might have been thrown in jail; at the very least, he would have been chastised by just about every portion of society. “So how did the attitude change so dramatically to what it is today?” Rav Ya’akov asked.
“It didn’t happen over night,” Rav Ya’akov explained. “It happened because one day, someone said, ‘I’m not looking to say that abortion should be legal … I just want to discuss the issue … to explore its implications and consequences …’ ”
Then there was one of those famous Rav Ya’akov pauses, when you could almost hear his mind changing gear. You knew steam was building up and that the point would reverberate off those walls, and leave an indelible impression on all those there, as it should. (I remember once listening to a tape of the Rosh HaYeshivah on the Holocaust while driving. It was so emotional, so compelling, that I had to pull off the road to listen to the conclusion. It hadn’t occurred to me to take the tape out and listen to it later!)
“Just want discuss the issue? To explore it?! How do you simply discuss an immoral idea? Everyone knows that once you start to talk about it that it is just a matter of time before it doesn’t seem so wrong anymore. (Voice raised somewhat) … Everyone knows that once you discuss something it no longer is taboo, and that it is just a matter of time before it becomes acceptable! That is how abortion became acceptable today … because once, someone only wanted to discuss the idea … to explore it.”
“Do you think for one second that Moshe didn’t know how to appoint officers to share the leadership … or that the Jewish people never saw a hierarchy of leadership before? Do think for one moment that G-d, if He wanted the Jewish people to live and learn as Yisro had suggested, that He would not have told His greatest prophet ever?!”
“No! It was not like that. It was not like that at all. Rather, as Moshe tells them now … at this point, ‘You already wanted what Yisro suggested before he ever brought it up!’ But who would have dared to suggest to the great and awesome Moshe Rabbeinu that he hand over some of his authority to people lesser than himself? Who would have ever–ever!–suggested to the greatest, the humblest man ever to walk the face of the earth–that he wasn’t wanted anymore?! Not me!”
“That is why they were so grateful to Yisro! That is why they so quickly jumped at his suggestion and so readily followed his advice! Once HE, Yisro, the righteous convert … the father-in-law of Moshe Rabbeinu himself, suggested the change, the proverbial ‘cat was out of the bag’ … the hole in the wall was made! There was nothing more to say … there was no turning back. What was once off-limits was now a possibility, and maybe even acceptable! So, Moshe was quiet, and he reluctantly acquiesced …”
“That is a tragic mistake that mankind has always made, and apparently, continues to make. When it comes to immoral issues, there is no room for discussion … no room for exploration! That is the first stage to acceptance, even if it takes 40 years to come to that point … but come to that point they will … and have.”
The Rosh HaYeshivah then continued to bring more examples to support his point, all of which made his argument even more compelling. And as always, he expressed himself eloquently, as only the Rosh HaYeshivah, zt”l could do. His approach to Torah, his dissemination of the word of G-d, and his very being made one feel fortunate to have access to such greatness. He was one of the few teachers that I, personally, could listen to over-and-over again–even if it was the same material being taught just the day before.
By those who had the good mazel to “sit at the dust” of the Rosh HaYeshivah, zt”l, and learn, he will be very sorely missed. For those who did not have that opportunity, they may never know what they missed.
My personal and sincerest condolences to the family of the Rosh HaYeshivah and all of his talmidim: HaMakom yenachem eschem besoch she-ar aveilei Tzion v’Yerushalayim.
These are the words which Moshe spoke to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan in the desert, in the plain opposite the sea … eleven days journey from Chorev to Kadesh Barnea by way of Mt. Seir … (Devarim 1:1-2)
At first it sounds like merely a location, a way of pinpointing exactly where Moshe delivered his farewell address to the Jewish people, just before his death. However, as Rashi points out, Moshe is about to give reproof as well, and knowing this, each word takes on added, albeit subtle, significance.
For example, there is the “eleven days journey” that the Torah mentions. On this, there is the following very deep explanation:
“Eleven psalms were forgotten after Moshe’s death, and these are the eleven Negative Forces of which there are eleven, the underlying basis of the ‘eleven days journey.’ The Midrash goes on to say that this corresponds to the eleven tribes that Moshe blessed before his death, in order to weaken these forces which are known to the Kabbalists as the underlying concept of the eleven curtains [in the Mishkan], the eleven spices in the Incense-Offering, the eleven verses that begin with the letter ‘nun’ and end with the letter ‘nun’ corresponding the eleven Negative Forces which cause forgetfulness … which is why the eleven psalms were forgotten …” (Yalkut Reuvaini in the name of Asarah Ma’ameros, Devarim 13)
Normally, a desert is fraught with danger–it is not a human-friendly environment, to say the least. However, for the Jewish people, most of the physical dangers were not an issue, since the Clouds of Glory enveloped them and protected them from all such hazards.
Nevertheless, as we see from the many negative episodes in the desert (eleven altogether), the Jewish people still remained in a state of spiritual challenge. This means that the episode of the spies, that caused eleven days journey to become forty years of wandering in the desert, was not incidental. It was the end result of a difficult battle against invisible, but very real Negative Forces in creation. Forces, according to Torah philosophy, that were created and exist to test our will and faith in G-d. Forces, according to the Ramchal (Derech Hashem), created to allow us to “earn” our portion in the World-to-Come.
Therefore, in a very real sense, all of us have an “eleven-day journey” ahead of us, whose beginning is birth and whose end is death. It is the straight-and-narrow path from spiritual imperfection to personal fulfillment, from selfishness to selflessness, from living in the image of G-d to becoming like G-d Himself. The only problem is, that, below this short journey is a tremendously deep, spiritual gorge called the “yetzer hara”–the evil inclination.
How to safely cross that gorge:
1. Learn the difference between a “weakness” and a “test.” People often say, “This I do well, but that is my weakness. Oh well, everyone is entitled to a weakness.” A better way of saying it is, everyone has a weakness, because that is what we are here to correct, not excuse. Our “strengths” are G-d-given abilities that we are blessed with and with which we are expected to overcome our weaknesses.
2. Pray to G-d for intellectual and spiritual clarity. The Talmud says:
Rebi Shimon son of Levi said: Everyday a person’s yetzer hara overcomes him and wants to kill him … If The Holy One, Blessed is He, didn’t help, a person could not survive! (Kiddushin 30b)
However, one has to acknowledge this reality, and ask for this help as well. Too many people accept their yetzer hara as a mere “personality flaw,” and simply learn to “live with it.” It leaves them blind to its devices, and very soon, their lifestyles are governed by the yetzer hara itself. In the meantime, their whole picture of reality becomes distorted, and they have a difficult time recognizing and responding correctly to Divine Providence.
As our long and difficult history has proven: this is dangerous, very dangerous.
This is where a “Cheshbon HaNefesh” (literally, “Soul-Accounting”) often helps. This means sitting down on a regular basis and evaluating one’s priorities against the Torah’s priorities, and the historical goals of the Jewish people against one’s personal goals. This alone can be a big eye-opener, and a lifesaver for that matter, when history turns a dangerous corner for the Jewish people, as it often has done in the past.
G-d said to me, saying, “You have encompassed this mountain long enough; turn northward.” Command the people saying, “You are to pass through the boundary of your brother, the Children of Eisav, who dwell in Seir, and they shall be afraid of you; be very careful …” (Devarim 2:3-4)
A little merit can go a long way in G-d’s world. Even though Avraham was told that one day his descendants would inherit the nation of Seir as well, still, that promise would have to wait until Moshiach’s time to become fulfilled. It was a right that was forfeited when the Jewish people allowed the golden calf to be built.
However, there is another reason for this. Eisav, for all of his evil, still made a point to take care of his father, a function of the mitzvah kibud av v’aim–honoring one’s father and mother. For this Eisav earned some merit, and his it came in the form of a Divine directive not to go to war against Eisav’s descendants, at least for now.
However, can it be that Eisav did this mitzvah for mitzvah-sake?
The Midrashim and logic tell us, no. So, why then does he warrant Divine patience and protection? Because, continues the Midrash, a mitzvah done in This World for the wrong reasons still warrants reward–in This World. Eisav was getting paid in This World for his years of honoring his father, so that he would not merit to receive eternal reward. For those who do a mitzvah as a mitzvah, there is (primarily) reward in the World-to-Come–forever. However, for those who do mitzvos “by chance,” there is only temporal reward in this temporal world.
This is a very interesting point, and one that a rabbi used to explain the wealth of a certain businessman. Five years ago, he was fabulously wealthy. Today, his wealth defies the imagination, and gets less comprehensible by the day!
“Why is he so rich?” a student asked.
Answered the rabbi, “It is hard to know for sure. But I will say this: This man is very responsible for the spreading of a lot of Torah today, to parts of the world we never knew how to reach, at least practically-speaking. Through his computer software and entrepreneurship, he has greatly affected the Torah world, in a very positive way.”
“But did he intend to do that? Wasn’t he just trying to increase his share of the market? Why, he isn’t even Jewish, and probably doesn’t even know what Torah is! Why should be benefit so much?”
The rabbi smiled. “You know,” he began, “our generation is unique. In the past, Jews were self-sacrificing for Torah and mitzvos, because they knew This World was temporary, and that reward in the World-to-Come was all that counted, in the end. However,” the rabbi continued, “today … how many Jews today even relate to the concept of the World-to-Come? For many today, the World-to-Come has arrived! in the form of physical comforts and societal privileges. Ours is a generation that doesn’t relate to abstract pleasure … However, mention one billion dollars, and eyes light up. Mention fifty billion dollars, and people fall backwards in awe! So, perhaps, G-d is talking to our generation, and He is saying, ‘Look! See what a man, who is not commanded to live by Torah, or to teach Torah, or to help disseminate it, receives for doing so, without intention, and only indirectly! Now, consider how rewarded you will be, a simple Jew, who is commanded to perform mitzvos, for doing even the simplest of mitzvos, but for the right reasons! He may be getting his reward in This World; you will get yours in the World-to-Come!”
Whether or not this is the complete explanation for this particular businessman’s personal “mountain” of money, remains to be seen. However, the concept is true, and one has to keep it in mind all the time, especially in this generation.
An ox knows his owner and a donkey, his master’s trough; Israel does not know, My people does not consider. (Yeshayahu 1:3)
This posuk, of course, is one of the main reasons why this Haftarah was chosen for Shabbos Chazon, the one right before Tisha B’Av.
Tisha B’Av is about a nation that strayed from G-d, and of the horrific consequences for doing so. It began first in the desert, when the Jews spied out Eretz Yisroel and rejected the gift that G-d had promised their ancestors. Their cries of fear and disappointment were meaningful to them, but meaningless to G-d, for they were baseless, and costly:
The Holy One, Blessed is He, said to them, “You cry for nothing?! I will make this day one of crying throughout the generations!” (Ta’anis 29a)
Hence, Tisha B’Av is about the dramatic, and often tragic results of mistaken priorities, and of making mole hills out of mountains, and mountains out of mole hills.
But what is the comparison to the ox and the donkey? What do they really know, or understand? Can they choose to rebel against G-d, when they lack free-will? True, Israel is always responsible for rejecting G-d and Torah, but why hold up non-free-will beings as a symbol of loyalty to which the Jewish people can be compared?
Perhaps the answer to this question is implied in the words of Rav Elchanan Wasserman, zt”l:
“And the commandment to believe in G-d? It is a commandment not to allow one’s desires to overcome his intellect so that he will automatically come to believe. In other words, there is no need to struggle to believe. One must simply remove the obstacles that stand in the way of believing. It will then come naturally, of itself… ” (Ma’amer al Emunah;Kovetz Ma’amarim, p. 15)
Yes, we are highly intelligent beings, blessed with free-will. However, it is amazing how easily we use our intelligence and free-will to do, well, the most unintelligent things that literally deny us free-will, like turning our backs on G-d and Torah. It is a mitzvah that forces a person to confront his reality and to make choices–tough, moral choices, which brings out his or her godliness.
There is something very holy and sublime about the simplicity of the animal world, something very godly about the way they simply are who they are. So false pretenses, nothing. They can never become complex like man, which is why they’ll never receive reward in the World-to-Come for being what they were.
However, we, who can become complex, because we do possess free-will, earn our portions in the World-to-Come by choosing to be simple and straightforward, by seeing past the “shtick” of the yetzer hara and society around us. Our intelligence and free-will are tools entrusted to us to be used to remove the obstacles that stand in the way of our loyalty to G-d that–a loyalty that, when all things are considered, is the most natural thing to feel and live with.
This is a very important message of the Three Weeks and Tisha B’Av.
Have a great Shabbos, and may we merit to see this Tisha B’Av transformed from a day of mourning to one of redemption and joy for the Jewish people.