THE AMAZING THING is not how corrupt mankind can be, but how God built such levels of corruption into man, and puts up with it for as long as He does. God is completely holy. He is perfection beyond human imagination. And yet all of the evil man has committed and is now committing takes place within God, within all that holiness and perfection. Go figure.
This week’s parsha, surprisingly, addresses the issue, but I will explain this with a story I was recently told. It is completely true, except for the parts I made up. Just kidding. All of it is true.
There was a frum Jew who paved roads in Poland before the war for a living. There was a gentile who competed with him, offering the same work for less money, but doing half the job. Nevertheless, often money talks more than quality, and this threatened the future of the Jew’s business.
In the meantime, the man’s daughter happened to meet a completely secular Jew and they began to secretly date. Eventually, they even secretly married, and the daughter would share her time between her secret husband and her family. But, eventually her father found out and threatened to disown her if she did not leave her husband, which she was not prepared to do.
The father, concerned about the competition and the future of his business, decided to travel to his rebi for advice. When the daughter found this out, she asked to come with her father to ask her own shaylah about her marriage, but the father refused. As far as he was concerned, the rebi would certainly take up his position.
The daughter was relentless, and forced her father to relent. So, off went the two of them together to the rebi…
Once they finally had an audience with the rebi, the man explained his business situation and asked the rebi for his advice. The rebi listened attentively, and after he had heard the entire question, closed his eyes as if nodding off for a few minutes. Then he opened his eyes and told the man to go into partnership with his competition. Confused, the man questioned the rebi but accepted his advice when he saw the rebi was adamant.
At the point, the father wanted to leave, but the daughter insisted on speaking with the rebi, who heard them out.
AFTER THE REBI heard the entire story, he once again closed his eyes for a few minutes before responding. He then told the father that he was to accept the marriage as it was, and treat the couple the same way he was treating his other married couples. Whatever he had done for the other couples he was to do for this daughter and her husband as well.
The father was not happy about the answer to say the least. But he was also a loyal chassid and implemented whatever he was told to do. However, the war came not too long after, and by the time the Holocaust was over, the daughter had lost her entire family, including her husband.
At some point, she was brought to America where she had to restart her life, and did. She lived to an old age and had been able, over time, to accumulate money of her own. She wasn’t all that religious by that time, but before she died, she made sure to donate many Sifrei Torah to different shuls in different communities. The gratitude she felt to the rebi from so many years earlier directed her to do this.
Had the rebi foreseen such a future possibility? Perhaps, but more than likely, not. But in his wisdom, he knew how good can come in the future from what seems to be bad in the present. The father only dealt with the present, which can be very shortsighted. We have to do our best to keep halachah, and to guide our children on the Torah path, but have to be clever about the future when the present doesn’t work out the way we want it to.
That is the secondary point here. The main point here is how potential can be used in two very different directions, depending upon the will of the person. In short, for very good to exist, very evil has to also exist. The greater the potential for good, the greater the potential for evil. It’s the system God created, so He understands and supports it. And He has the patience to wait for the good to emerge, because He knows it will.
The mitzvah of being a nazir follows the halachos of the Sotah. Why? The Gemora says because a person becomes a nazir when they see the Sotah go through her test to determine her innocent or guilt, and he swears off wine. It was wine that led to her sin, so he forsakes wine for at least 30 days.
Is that the only connection? Then why can’t he cut his hair for the duration of the period, and why does a nazir only swear off wine for set period of time, and not for the rest of their life? How does that assure them that they won’t fall prey to the effects of wine later in the future?
Rather, the Torah is showing us that the nazir is what happens to a person when they take the energy that can cause a woman to become a Sotah, and does the opposite, as the following stories shows:
Rebi Shimon HaTzaddik said: “In all my days, I never ate the guilt-offering of a ritually impure nazir except for one occasion. One time, a particular man who was a nazir came from the South and I saw that he had beautiful eyes and was good looking, and the fringes of his hair were arranged in curls. I asked him: “My son, what did you see [that made you decide] to destroy this beautiful hair of yours?”
He told me: “I was a shepherd for my father in my city, and I went to draw water from the spring and saw my reflection [in the water]. My yetzer hara quickly overcame me and wanted to take me from the world. I said [to myself]: ‘Wicked one! Why do you pride yourself in a world that is not yours? [Why are you proud of] someone who will eventually be for worms and maggots? [I swear] by the [Temple] service that I will shave you for [the sake of] Heaven.”[Shimon HaTzaddik said]: “I immediately got up, kissed him on his head, and told him: ‘My son, may there be more who take vows of a nazir like you among the Jewish people!’”(Nedarim 9b)
This idea has implications, but one of them has to do with a different Gemora. That Gemora says that the rabbis prayed for God to remove the drive to worship idols, and were successful (Yoma 69b). People could not control themselves, so the rabbis made it easier by removing the drive altogether.
What the Gemora does not say, but later implies, is that the relief came at a great cost. We may have desire for idols anymore, but we also lack desire for God too. It was the same drive applied in different directions. That’s why even people who keep Torah lack heart when they pray or think about God. Unless a person works hard to love God, it won’t come automatically like it once did. That’s why the Shema commands it of us.
WHEN A PERSON has a bad desire, they either fulfill it or shun it. Some people can’t control themselves. They sin now and feel bad later. Some people become so disgusted that they can barely live with themselves just for having the thought.
There can be a number of reasons for an illicit desire. The Gemora tells stories of great rabbis who almost fell, sometimes saved only because of a miracle. A couple of stories did not have happy endings.
But the idea mentioned above offers a third option. Instead of jumping right in to fulfill the desire, or shutting it down completely, as yourself, “Okay, this is what the energy looks like for a bad desire. What does it look like when applied in a Torah direction? I’ve got the energy, so how can I harness it for good?”
As the Gemora says, the wise person is the one who projects the present into the future to be prepared for it. Why wait until you are overcome with desire and risk falling spiritually. Take some quiet time to recall all your spiritual weaknesses, and match them with something you can do positively with the same energy. It’s better to do nothing than sin, but it is better to do something meaningful than squander that energy.
You see this happen in the life of a ba’al teshuvah, someone who was once secular who had become Torah observant. At first, they loathe everything they did secularly, and turn their back on their past. But after time and spiritual maturing, they begin to realize that a lot of the talents and abilities they developed for secular reasons can also be applied to Torah life as well.
But it has to be pointed out that there is a difference between harnessing an ability for a Torah cause, and just finding a way to continue a bad spiritual habit in a Torah way. Taking on mitzvos does not kasher past sins if they continue into the person’s new lifestyle. If the end result is not holy in some way, nothing has been gained by doing it as a religious Jew.
You can be sure that if a Sotah survived her ordeal, she was a new woman afterwards. If anything, her life moved more in the direction of a nazir than a Sotah, which is part of the teshuvah process for any person turning their spiritual life around. The trick in life is doing it before the situation gets out of hand or too difficult to fix.
Melave Malkah: Ain Od Milvado
NACHUM ISH GUMZU was a miracle worker who could use Kabbalah to get out of just about every predicament, if he wanted. He was called Ish Gumzu because he always said “gum zu l’tovah—this too is for the good” no matter what went wrong.
But even had he wanted to spare himself the fate that actually ended his life, he would have chosen not to. It was a suffering that he had imposed upon himself, and which he saw only as good. Gum ZU l’tovah he said.
The story was that he was once met along the way by a beggar who asked him for some food. Nachum immediately dismounted his donkey to give the man food, but the beggar died in the meantime. Terribly distraught, Nachum cursed the limbs of his body that did not respond quickly enough to save the man’s life.
Shortly after the curse came true, and he became completely crippled and bedridden. His students visited him and bemoaned the fact that their rebi had to suffer so, But he told them that it was better that they saw him suffering in this world and not in the next world. Shortly after that, he passed away.
His primary student was Rebi Akiva who was famous for many things, including his declaration of absolute faith in God: “All that God does is for the good. Like his rebi, Rebi Akiva believed that God could do no bad…no matter how bad a situation may look to us. He too died amidst great suffering, grateful for his predicament and without an ounce of resentment or anger.
This is a very high level to reach, and only possible when Ain Od Milvado is in a person’s heart and not only in their head. It is the result of being able to look at a crisis and find the silver lining in it. The enemy may have intended bad against us, but it is only God working through them to do good for us.
Yes, the good can hurt. Yes, the good can even kill us. But God focuses on the big picture while we tend to focus on the small picture. We want to live a long, comfortable, and happy life, and there is nothing wrong with that. But we wouldn’t want to do that at the cost of an eternal life of ultimate pleasure, or even just a lesser amount of it.
But that is not a calculation we can make, only God can. He knows the long term cheshbon, and can tweak it as necessary. Even when we do the best that we can to do the right thing, we can err and do the wrong thing. But not God. He gets it right to the last detail for every person, all the time.
So, part of getting ourselves to be real with Ain Od Milvado means training ourselves to look at the “bad” in life and ask ourselves, “Even though this looks bad, what possible good can come out of it?” When God sees that approach to His providence, He usually helps a person to get clarity on what He is doing. He wants us to want to figure out hashgochah pratis, and will help us to do it if we walk that path.
So, even though it looks as if the enemies of the Jewish people win in the short run, they never win in the long run. The bad they do will earn them punishment, maybe even destruction. But it will somehow help the Jewish people, making the joke on perpetrators in the end.
This when Pharaoh said:
Get ready, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase…” (Shemos 1:10)
God said, “Less they increase?! Certainly they will increase!” Pharaoh’s own words led to the opposite result that he wanted.
The same has been true countless times throughout history. And continues to be so today as well.