Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Mea Culpa

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

On Shavuos we read Megillas Rus. Many commentators speak of the connection of this megillah to the days that commemorate the receiving of the Torah. Based on an unfortunate experience this past week, I thought of a new explanation.

The megillah opens with the words, “Vayehi b’yimei shefot hashoftim - And it happened during the period that the shoftim ruled over the bnei Yisroel.” We are all familiar with the way the words of the posuk are juxtaposed to portray the period of time in which the story with Naomi and Rus took place. “It was in the days that people judged their judges.” It was a period of a certain sense of anarchy because people in those days were cynical about their leaders and mocked their decisions.

Chazal are teaching us that cynicism is not a middah consonant with kabbolas haTorah. Chazal are hinting that because the people didn’t respect the shoftim of the day, and because they mocked them and were negative and cynical, they suffered hunger and pestilence and had to move about in order to seek improvement in their income and status.

A message in Megillas Rus - and one of the reasons we read it on Shavuos - is to teach us that a prerequisite for becoming a ben Torah is to be non-judgmental about leaders. Ikrei emunah, as well, are not matters to mock through derisive sarcasm.

Our generation is blessed in many ways. The Olam HaTorah is growing by leaps and bounds. More people than ever have dedicated their lives to Torah study. Mitzvos which once required mesiras nefesh are now easily observable, and difficulties in matters of kashrus and shemiras Shabbos are things of the past.

But there are still aspects of our lives which can use some improvement. Foremost among them are the levels of cynicism and negativity which are too prevalent. The way we treat each other at times leaves much to be desired.

When we approach kabbolas haTorah and wonder what we can do to become true bnei Torah, it would seem that we should be working on our bein adam lachaveiro and the lens of leitzunus through which we view our world.

A negative aspect of cynicism and mockery was brought home when an advertisement unfortunately slipped through our system and appeared in the paper last week. Some things are just beyond the pale, and that ad was beyond the pale. Basic sacred concepts such as naaseh venishmah are not to be profaned with leitzunus. An ad which does that should not have been printed.

When Chazal teach that middos are a prerequisite to learning Torah, it is not just a nice drasha. Cynicism and mockery of Torah are not acceptable and should not be tolerated. An advertisement which utilizes such methods to sell a product has no place in our paper.

This paper began a lonely journey twenty-one years ago, and with many doses of mesiras nefesh, under the guidance of gedolim, set the standard which, for all practical purposes, changed what we bring into our homes. Publications which were considered to be the ‘norm’ are now non-entities. Ideas which crept into our machaneh are now kept out. And by and large, you can depend on the Yated to provide you with a magnificent variety of divrei Torah, musar and hashkafah thoughts, combined with a high level of news coverage on an intelligent level and free from the pollution which engulfs our world.

But we are not perfect. We are human. We all make mistakes. Regretfully, something was printed which shouldn’t have been. That doesn’t mean we have changed our standards and it doesn’t mean we are for sale. It means that though we are all working for the same cause, something slipped through. Regrettably, when involved in such a mammoth undertaking, there are oversights. Everyone makes mistakes, except those who do nothing.

As an am kadosh, we are commanded to behave differently than the ‘Yosef bashukah.’ As recipients and bearers of the Toras Emes and Toras Chesed, we have to cleave to the values that have helped us endure the dark exile surrounded by the ‘Yosefs bashukah.’

The words of Rav Yosef recounted in the Gemara Pesachim (68b), are often quoted to convey the extraordinary spiritual power of the day. On Shavuos, Rav Yosef would partake of a meal consisting of the finest meat. He explained that, “Ih lav hai yomah dekagarim kama Yosef ika b’shuka - If not for this day, there would be no difference between me and all the other Joes in the street.”

Rav Yosef was saying that the study of Torah is not just an intellectual pursuit. It transforms those who absorb its lessons and strive to make themselves into better and holier people.

The greatness of this day is that it celebrates this transformative force of the Torah on all aspects of our lives. If we remain with the same personality we possessed prior to our study, then we are just another Joe. If our limud haTorah falls short of changing us and does nothing for us, the day’s gifts have been wasted.

Torah is a Divine gift given to man, but it contains myriad obligations. The holiday and the accompanying joy are reserved for those who conduct themselves as Rav Yosef did, channeling their lives into a steady upward incline of elevated performance and accomplishments.

The posuk recounts that when Hashem appeared to the Bnei Yisroel and offered them the Torah, they responded in unison, “Naaseh venishmah - We will do and we will hear.” The Gemara in Shabbos (88a) cites Rav Simai’s teaching that when they answered thus, placing naaseh before nishmah, angels descended from Heaven and fastened two crowns on the head of each Jew, one for naaseh and one for nishmah. Rabi Elazar says that a bas kol rang out, stating, “Who taught my children this secret, which is used by the angels?”

Many commentators question what was so extraordinary about the words naaseh venishmah that the Jews were so richly praised for stating them. Many different answers are offered. Perhaps we can understand that the greatness of the response was that they understood that acting is of greater importance than listening. By placing naaseh ahead of nishmah, they demonstrated their understanding that Torah is not just an esoteric theoretical pursuit. They were stating that they understood that they had to make the performance of the Torah’s dictates their highest priority.

In addition, of course, they committed themselves to heeding the teachings of the Torah, poring over them and toiling to understand them. Torah study will be their most important pursuit in life; the nishmah will take precedence over all other occupations. But it will all be ancillary to the naaseh. The primary purpose of the Torah is for us to carry out its chukim and mishpatim. Other intellectual pursuits do not necessarily change the behavior of the person who engages in them. Their study does not improve a person’s character and make a better man. But the study of Torah must have a positive effect upon us.

When we proclaimed naaseh venishmah, we were saying that we were prepared to act like himmeldiker mentchen. We were prepared to act as people suffused with Torah and kedushah. We were prepared to obligate ourselves lilmod ulelameid lishmor vela’asos ulekayeim. We were prepared to be serious about Torah and our obligations.

Thus, the Jews were found deserving of receiving the Torah and declared to be on the level of angels who follow G-d’s word with steadfast devotion, without deviation or question.

At times, we lose sight of what our goals should be. We get so caught up with the difficulty inherent in the study and observance of Torah that we forget to apply its lessons to our daily lives and to become more cognizant of the others around us. We expect everyone to conform to our wishes, mimic our actions, and think exactly as we do. We become intolerant of other people’s feelings.

It is only when Hashem’s nation - the people who remain loyal to Him and his mitzvos - put their internecine squabbles and differences aside that we are worthy of being G-d’s nation. It is only when we stand together as one that we achieve our greatness and are able to overcome all who seek to drive us from the Tree of Life. It is only when we are mature enough and dedicated enough to own up to our mistakes and learn from them that we can attempt to achieve perfection.

If we recognize the greatness in each other, we can cross pollinate and enrich each other as Jews and as people. We grow, as we respect and learn from others.

Let’s treat all people the way we want to be treated, as Hillel the Elder told the man who asked him to teach him the whole Torah al regel achas. We are all familiar with Hillel’s response: “Mah de’aloch senei lechavroch lo sa’avid, v’iduch zil gemor - Don’t do to unto others what you don’t want done to you. As for the rest, go study.”

What was Hillel telling him? Is the Torah really only about ve’ohavta lereiachah kamocha?

Perhaps Hillel was teaching that the Torah is all about “talmud hameivi lidei maaseh,” Torah study which alters the way we behave, affecting positively the way we act. The basis of Torah is to know that its study has to affect our actions and the way we treat our fellow people. It is only after we accept this premise that we can set about learning. “Mah de’aloch senei lechavroch lo sa’avid, v’iduch zil gemor.”

This is what is meant by the Toras Kohanim at the beginning of Parshas Bechukosai. The posuk states, “Im bechukosai teileichu v’es mitzvosai tishmiru.” Hashem says that if we follow his chukim and mitzvos, all will be good. The Toras Kohanim, which is brought by Rashi, explains that the words v’es mitzvosai tishmiru mean that Hashem will bless us if we will toil in Torah in order to be able to follow its commandments. Ameilus baTorah is not sufficient if it is not animated by the intention to heed the Torah’s mandates.

During the Sefirah period, we have climbed the ladder of the 48 ways in which Torah is acquired. Most of the 48 requirements for having Torah listed in Pirkei Avos involve our actions bein adam lachaveiro.

Let us strive to seriously inculcate those attributes so that we can be zoche to kabbolas haTorah.

Chag Sameach. Ah gutten Yom Tov.


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