How do you know you’re right? This was the question going through my mind during a conversation I had with someone a couple of weeks ago. He was stating his opinion quite strongly as if only he could be right, though I could not agree with him fully. He seemed to think that the way he saw things was the only correct way. It was clear to me that he lacked crucial information to know otherwise, had been biased by outside sources, and had emotional blocks going back to early childhood experiences.
To be fair, I had to ask myself the same question. How do I know that I am right? I too feel strongly about my approach to life and negate all others. Who’s to say that I, too, don’t lack crucial information to know otherwise, that I have not been biased by inside sources, and that I don’t have my own personal emotional issues pushing me in my direction?
The person with whom I was having my discussion is very bright. He is also very well educated in secular knowledge, of which there is so much. And even though later in a different discussion he bemoaned how many scientific studies have later proven to be fraudulent, he has a lot more respect for, and trust in, western thinkers than in the rabbis of the Gemora. So if something in the Gemora or a similar Torah source doesn’t talk to him, he immediately assumes that it is wrong, archaic, even dangerous to society. He doesn’t even consider that he might be wrong and that his feeling is incorrect.
It’s not that I also don’t take issue with some of the things that bother him. The difference is that when it comes to my opinion versus the Torah’s, I give way. When it comes to his opinion versus Torah’s, he makes the Torah give way…or assumes that it should. He certainly does not give any thought to what that might mean later, on his final day of judgment. He’d like to believe that there isn’t one, and that Gihenom is only a concept the rabbis hijacked from Christian theology during the Middle Ages, and then built it into Torah thinking.
This is a perfect example of what the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh explained regarding the Aitz HaDa’as Tov v’Ra and the Aitz HaChaim, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. He asked why Adam passed up the Tree of Life for the Tree of Death, since God told Adam that eating from it guaranteed that he would die. He answered that the Tree of Life was actually the trunk of the tree that had no visible fruit. The Tree of Knowledge was a branch off of it, like all the other trees in the garden before the sin, and therefore far more appealing. As the Torah says:
And the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes… (Bereishis 3:6)
The Aitz HaChaim, the Ohr HaChaim says, tasted much better and made a person wise, not just smart. But a person could only discover that if they were brave enough to eat from its bark, which was a lot less appealing than the forbidden fruit of the Aitz HaDa’as. It is a mistake countless people have made countless times throughout history. My friend, seemingly, was just another one of those people, enamored with the “fruit” of the “Aitz HaDa’as” while shunning the “bark” of the Aitz HaChaim. He was, if you’ll forgive the pun, barking up the wrong tree.
THE GEMORA DISCUSSES the importance of fear of God in the educational process:
Rabbah bar Rav Huna said: Anyone who possesses learning without the fear of Heaven is like a treasurer who is entrusted with the inner keys but not the outer ones. How can he enter?
Rebi Yannai said: “Woe to the person who has no courtyard and yet makes a gate for the same!”
Rav Yehudah said, “The Holy One, Blessed is He, created His world only that people should fear Him. (Shabbos 31a)
Can a person be smart and arrogant? Some of the most arrogant people in society are that way because they are so smart. Can a person be wise and arrogant? No. It’s just too much of an internal contradiction to live with, not to mention that it is arrogance that usually bars a person from being wise, as the Torah says (after Adam became “smarter”):
And He drove the man out, and He stationed at the east of Gan Aiden the Keruvim and the blade of the revolving sword, to guard the way to the Tree of Life. (Bereishis 3:24)
As Dovid HaMelech said, “The secrets of God to those who fear Him” (Tehillim 25:14). And as mentioned last week, that means respecting God, respecting Torah and, of course, respecting those responsible for transmitting it from generation to generation. Lose respect for any of these and the secrets of Torah become a closed book.
And when we say secrets, we’re not only talking about Kabbalah. Something can be in plain sight, but if a person can’t perceive it, it is a mystery to them. The person with whom I was talking assumed that what he saw about Torah was all there was to see, that what he understood was all there was to understand. He just couldn’t see what I could see.
Correction, he just didn’t want to see what I see, or understand what I understand. How do I know? Some things are too personal to mention here, but in general, when someone wants to see what I am telling them that I see, they usually ask me more about it. They question me, push me to explain myself better. They may walk away still in doubt about what I am talking about, but they do not walk away without making a concerted effort to find out what it is. They’d rather understand than run away from something that might have major implications about the way they are living their life.
Because, when you get right down to it, the real essence of fear of God is self-honesty, perhaps one the greatest traits a person can have. It’s what allows a person to face down the truth and give in to it once it becomes clear as the truth, regardless of personal consequence. It does not allow a person to fool themself into believing that they can rationalize away Torah, even if it doesn’t yet fit them.
Because here’s the thing. If God is God and Torah is Torah, we’re going to have to answer for all the times we acted contrary. And excuses like, “I didn’t realize it was true,” or “It seemed so antiquated…” or, “I was never taught the true meaning of it,” etc. won’t hold much water. God’s not going to look only at how much was learned. He’s also going to look at how honest we were with ourselves about what we learned, and our intentions and sources of motivation.
You don’t need fear of God to know the “secrets” of western knowledge, the Aitz HaDa’as Tov v’Ra. That’s why so much of it can be faked by overzealous or unscrupulous sources of secular knowledge. Man has done a remarkable job of learning so much from the world itself and accumulating vast storehouses of knowledge. But it will always only belong to the category of Aitz HaDa’as, and it will never have the wisdom of the Aitz HaChaim—Torah.
But you do need fear of God in order for Torah to penetrate your mind and heart, and if it hasn’t, it’s a good time to start looking at your self-honesty. And don’t be fooled into thinking that because you are getting away with something that you are not just digging your hole even deeper. God has plenty of patience, and is perfectly willing to let a person choose the wrong path in life their entire life. It’s a merit to know truth, not an automatic reality. That’s the real blessing Moshe begins with in this week’s parsha. It’s a curse to not know truth.
THIS IS TRUE any time of year, but especially now, beginning with Rosh Chodesh Elul. Rosh Hashanah is coming and we are starting to prepare for it. Well, at least those who take divine judgment seriously.
There are many ways to prepare for Yom HaDin, some are only technical, like looking over the Machzor in advance to be more familiar with it. Some ways are more psychological, like checking out how honest you have been with yourself about your pursuit of truth and living by its principles. Because that is really what our judgment is always about. That is why Moshe said in last week’s parsha:
Now Israel, what does God your God ask of you? Only to fear God… (Devarim 10:12)
In other words, what does God ask of us, only that we be honest with ourselves about the truth. Completely honest, because that will always lead you back to God and Torah. If it hasn’t yet, then you haven’t been completely honest with yourself yet.
Because self-honesty is about getting to the soul of the matter. Your soul of the matter. What does it mean to be honest with yourself? Who else are you going to be honest with inside of you? Who is your self?
We all know the answer to that question, and it is what the Arizal emphasizes on the first page of Sha’ar HaGilgulim: You are your soul, not your body. Your body is to your soul what you clothing is to your body, with one BIG difference. Your clothes do not have any say in how you feel or what you do, at least not like your body does. Your body has an instinct to survive, your clothes do not. Your body believes it has something to lose if it goes the spiritual route. Your clothes can’t even think about it.
What then is self-honesty? It is being true to your soul, because it just wants to do what is right by God. If that is not true about you, then you might want to try being more honest with yourself. That’s what the Heavenly Court is going to be checking out about you during the Aseres Yemai Teshuvah.
Ain Od Milvado, Part 15
MANY HAVE SAID that the best politicians stay away from politics. Politics is power, and power corrupts even some of the best and most honest people. You have to have a lot of fear of God to withstand the test of being a politician.
Politics also creates a major test for the voter. It is so easy to get distracted away from Ain od Milvado when it comes to elections and politicians. The people running for office give the impression that they are powerful people, and the people voting for or against them fall for this as well. It is an illusion, but a darn good one that has duped many a God-believer over history.
Even Moshe Rabbeinu complained about this in Parashas Devarim. Recounting the implementation of Yisro’s plan for the court system, Moshe reminded the people that they wanted it so, they could find a judge whom they could bend to their side. They wanted to use their influence to convince the judge to use his influence to decide in their favor.
Really? What about God in all of this? Isn’t He the real Judge? Aren’t the judges just acting as His emissaries on earth for His decisions? Were they planning on bribing God? And what is actually going on when a judge can be influenced in one direction or another?
The Gemora says that when judges sit to rule truthfully, the Shechinah dwells among them. The Shechinah won’t compel them to judge truthfully, because that has to be their free will choice. But it won’t stop them either from perverting justice, so that they can be held responsible for the damage they have done, and for forcing God to right their wrong through other means.
Not only this, but if someone is looking for a corrupt judge, God will arrange one for them. The person who finds such a judge will think it is their lucky day, and may even enjoy the outcome of their effort. This way when God comes collecting later on, He will be able to show them how much greater their eventual loss was versus their original gain.
This is why some people abstain from such situations and from voting altogether. They’re afraid of getting pulled in the wrong direction, as so many have already. They know how easy it is for the yetzer hara to go after the illusion of people with false power and, choose to be safer away from it all.
Most people just vote. Most people just judge. Most people just go to court. You just have to remind yourself before going in and when coming out, and every moment in-between that all of it is God. The legal and political systems are just another very elaborate way of hiding God’s hand in life, to give us another chance to reveal it.