IT ALL COMES down to mentality. I look at someone in wonderment and ask, “How can they do that?” He looks at me in wonderment and asks, “How can they not do that?” Both of us assume that because we both believe in the same God, follow the same Torah, and live by the same Shulchan Aruch, the differences between us should be minimal. And yet there are some very fundamental dissimilarities in our approach to certain halachos and matters of derech eretz.
Some differences are understandable and perfectly acceptable. Sephardim are very different from Ashkenazim. Chassidim are very different from both. But as long as each group is doing its best to fulfill the 613 mitzvos and spirit of Torah, there is nothing to complain about. As long as a Jew is doing their best to love and fear God, which should show up in the way they act, especially towards others, there is nothing to complain about, only to praise.
Where it gets tricky is when someone thinks they are doing all of this, but really they are not. They are taking liberties they should not, and perhaps think too highly of themselves to self-criticize. In their eyes they are doing just fine by God, but not in your eyes. That’s when someone asks, “How can they do that?” That’s when mentality can play too major a role in the way a person approaches Torah, and life in general.
True, Torah is called Aitz Chaim—Tree of Life. But it is also called “water,” and though water helps things to grow it does not necessarily guarantee that what grows will be all good. If you water a good seed, you get a good tree. If you water a bad seed, you get a bad tree.
With one major difference, though. Actual water is really quite neutral, teaching us nothing (obvious) about morality. Torah may be compared to water, but it is only about morality. When you learn it, you “drink” laws about life and social behavior, which ought to guarantee that a good “tree,” to which man is compared, grows. How can a person learn Torah and still be corrupt, even just a little? The answer once again: mentality.
What is mentality, and where do we get it from?
There are a few contributors to a person’s mentality, some they cannot control, some they can partially control, and some they can completely control, if they choose to. A person’s soul, which they do not choose, sets a person on a certain path in life before they are even born. Once born, they are impacted by family and peers that they can choose, somewhat, to reject. And then, once out in the larger world, they are bombarded by extraneous sources like social media that they can accept or reject outright.
The truth is, by the time a person is usually much older and better prepared intellectually and emotionally to deal with the third category of influence, they have already been so affected by the first two categories that they are unaware of their biases because of them. One they were born with and one they were too young to understand its potential future effects. It had already shaped their mentality before their first day in Cheder.
THIS IS WHY even children who once promised themselves to not be like their parents later end up being more like them than they wanted to be. This is also why some friends remain a part of our way of thinking even long after they stopped being a part of our lives. This is the reason why so many years later we can still recall our best and worst teachers. All of them didn’t just get under our skins. They got into our heads and way of thinking.
And this is also why, as Rashi points out in Bereishis, that God sacrificed some important clarity about His unity to teach us derech eretz:
And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…” (Bereishis 1:26)
Let us make…Even though they [the angels] did not assist Him in His creation, and there is an opportunity for heretics to rebel, the Torah did not hesitate to teach proper conduct and the trait of humility… (Rashi)
Hence the motto: Derech eretz kadmah l’Torah—proper conduct before Torah. In this brief and seemingly side point of Rashi is one of the most instructive lessons in all of Torah. Technically-speaking, not being able to teach new “tricks” to old “dogs” refers to at least middle-aged people. Psychologically, it is actually true from 12 years old and up, and in some respects, even earlier.
Thus, while many parents in the world gloss over those very early and formative years, less so but somewhat also in the Torah world, it turns out that they are the ones that may seal the fate of their children for the rest of the lives! Everything a person will ever learn and understand will always be through the eyes of the mentality that they began to develop even before they ever opened a Chumash.
There are always exceptions to just about any rule, but who knows how to be one? And miracles do happen, especially for people looking to do teshuvah, but who wants to rely upon them? You can be sure that the 3,000 Jews who joined the Erev Rav in their celebration of the golden calf were somewhat destined to ever since their childhood. You could draw a straight line from what they were doing at the base of Har Sinai to their early upbringing.
Similarly, there is a clash of mentalities happening here in Israel today. The truth is, they have been at odds ever since the Zionist Conferences at the end of the 1800s, the secular and the religious. Make no mistake about it. There is no threat to democracy because of the proposed reforms, and certainly no human rights abuse here. This is why so many Israeli academics publicly support the reforms.
What there is instead is a fear within the very secular community to allow democracy to work when the people who block their initiative to lose the Jewish soul of the country are in power. They didn’t complain before because the Supreme Court is mostly left-thinking, which is why they are so against surrendering their current power status.
The Left saw in the last election how, even in this day and age of Woke culture, the religious parties can still take control of the country away from them. The Interim Prime Minister and his followers were humiliated in defeat, and they worry going forward that the power they lost will only make it more difficult to go the way of Europe and America.
While the Right tends to think independently of world opinion and is concerned about the Jewish integrity of the state, the Left wants to finally just leave all that behind and become another Western nation. One trip to Tel Aviv and Haifa makes that clear. Reading left wing newspapers makes that clear. It’s their mentality, born and bred on leftist kibbutzim, and carried over into the secular educational system.
While a two-state solution is not the way to resolve the Arab conflict, it might be the way to solve the religious-secular one. Give them Tel Aviv (less Bnei Brak). Let them run it autonomously. Let them turn it into the Sdom they want it to be, and America has already become. Then God will have to take care of it as He sees fit. We have a history of golden calves, and this one is alive and well and bleating.
Liberalism has its place in society and history, but a bleating-heart liberal is not only not a Jewish thing, but a dangerous thing. What to do?
THE TORAH IS a template for life. Some would like to believe that the past was the past, and therefore you can read Torah and perhaps even enjoy it, but there isn’t much to learn from it in terms of life today. Orthodox Jews obviously disagree, but is that because they’re just hanging on to the familiar, or because they truly think differently.
By the way some Torah Jews live, it is not always so clear. But certainly, in principle we believe that Torah is eternal, meaning that it is always relevant regardless of how irrelevant people try to make it. If God wrote it, and He also made the world, then it can be assumed He took all of history into account.
Besides, has man really changed that much since thousands of years ago? His yetzer hara is the same yetzer hara it has always been. Just the ways to be trapped by it have changed over time, and thanks to technology. For all of modern man’s material sophistication, he is actually less sophisticated today spiritually. But does he care so long as God keeps to Himself in the meantime?
They tell the story of Rav Shimon Schwab (1908-1995) who, as a young man, spent a Shabbos with the Chofetz Chaim (1838-1933). The Chofetz Chaim at some point asked his young guest if he was a kohen or a levi. He answered that he was neither.
The Chofetz Chaim, who was a kohen, told his guest that it was a pity. He said that Moshiach would come soon, and that only the kohanim and levi’im would serve in the Temple, not the rest of the Jewish people.
Then he asked the future Rabbi Schwab:
“Why aren’t you a kohen?”
The young man answered the obvious: “Because my father was not a kohen.”
But the Chofetz Chaim pressed him, “Why wasn’t your father a kohen?”
By that time, Rabbi Schwab realized that the Chofetz Chaim was teaching him something that had nothing to do with his lineage, so he waited for the real answer, and it came.
“Do you know why your father was not a kohen and my father was?” the Chofetz Chaim asked. “Because when our teacher Moshe called out, ‘Who is for God—let him come to me,’ my great-great grandfather came, and your great-great grandfather did not. That is why my father was a kohen and your father was not a kohen.
The message was clear: Next time the call goes out to fight on behalf of God, in whatever form it may take, answer it. Don’t hesitate, even for a moment, because moments come and go quickly, and with them, eternal opportunities. A person has to have already developed the right mentality to make truth more important than anything else. That way, when a crisis comes that tests our resolve, we can make the correct choice decisively.
Ain Od Milvado, Part 42
HISTORY IS A lot more sophisticated than most people know, because for some it can seem so simple. There are plans being actualized that are older than Creation itself, souls being rectified in ways we can’t imagine, and opportunities being thrown at us that many do not recognize. It’s all rather kabbalistic, which compelled me to write a book about it called, “Highest Knowledge Ever.”
History is about either exile or redemption. The Jewish people in particular are always going in one direction or the other, in our case, in the direction of redemption. We’ve been in this fourth and final exile for thousands of years now, so it’s about time it ended.
But the end of anything important is rarely a case of just picking up and walking away. There are things to do and processes to complete, and exile is no different. Exile could transition smoothly to redemption, but it rarely has. Just not enough people do teshuvah to make that happen.
Hence the following dialogue in the Gemora:
Rebi Eliezer said: “If the Jewish people repent, they will be redeemed, and if not they will not redeemed.”
Rebi Yehoshua said to him: “If they do not repent, will they not be redeemed at all? Rather, the Holy One, Blessed be He, will raise up a king for them whose decrees are as harsh as those issued by Haman, and the Jewish people will repent, and this will restore them to the right path.” (Sanhedrin 97a)
Does this mean that Haman, and all the other enemies of the Jewish people, will be able to argue before God, “Why blame me? I was minding my own business when you involved me in Your plan to push the Jewish people to teshuvah!” The Gemora answers that question by saying that Haman’s original name was Memuchan because he was muchan—ready—for the job. God just had to plug him in at the right moment and in the right way.
We’re all a bunch of plug-ins. History was scripted long before we came onto the scene but for our sake. Different things have to happen at different times to bring the master plan for Creation to fruition, and each of us has been given potential to participate in that process in one way or another, for good or for “bad,” for right or for “wrong.”
At the end of the day, it seems, the world’s population comes down to three groups. The vast majority that seem to live their lives like extras on a set, necessary but very secondary. They help Creation reach its goal, but significantly on an individual basis.
The other two groups are opposites. These are the people who make a difference, either in the direction of Torah or against it. They’re either allies of God or against Him. They may have never made the choice consciously, but that is how they have ended up for one reason or another. They have either been blessed or cursed with a specific mentality, and it is difficult, if not impossible to know at this time why. How can we, if we don’t fully understand how God works or why?
To which group do you belong. That will depend on if you are blessed enough to hear the call, “Who is for God—let him come to me,” and if you’re even more blessed to respond to correctly. This close to the final redemption it is all that matters and what is going on. The media will focus on the events and the people making them happen. But the maskilim, the truly spiritually astute people will look past all of that and see God making and shaking history to allow us to prove what kind of mentality we truly have.