by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – May 25, 2014
On the 6th day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, Jews all over the world commemorate G-d’s presenting the Torah to their ancestors several thousand years ago. Leading up to this monumental event, the great medieval Biblical exegete known as Rashi cites the Mekhilta commentary on the verse (Sh’mot 19:2), “And Israel encamped there, opposite the mountain [upon which the Torah was about to be presented].” As the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were about to receive the Torah, Rashi and Mekhilta tell us, a unique occurrence transpired in which the entire nation was “as one man with one heart.”
We are told that the entire nation of Israel was completely united in heart and conviction behind G-d, His prophet Moses and the Torah that they were about to receive. This occurrence of total unity was previously unprecedented and unfortunately has not been repeated since. This was a unity of mind and conviction stemming from a sharply tuned common knowledge and intellect along with a unity of common concern towards a common goal without any friction among the various individuals making up this nation that would distract them from their common goal.
For any given individual to fuse sufficient knowledge with correct intellectual understanding and proper moral behavior towards others is in and of itself a feat. Let alone for an entire nation to exhibit such a feat in unison. In fact, the nation of Israel found it difficult, to say the least, to maintain their conviction, unity and interpersonal concern for very long.
Already after the deaths of Moses and his successor Joshua, many members of the nation began to stray from the path set forth for them by G-d’s Torah. As reported explicitly in the Biblical books of Yehoshua (Joshua), Shoftim (Judges), Shmuel (Samuel), Melakhim (Kings), Yeshayahu (Isaiah), Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) and Yechezkel (Ezekiel), as well as throughout the Talmud, over many years, on and off, during the period of the judges who led the nation and later after the reign of Solomon many, including various kings, engaged in idol worship and many ignored and transgressed laws put forth in G-d’s Torah until it brought about the destruction of the first Bet Hamikdash (Temple). And as reported at various points in the Talmud by our Sages, internal strife especially plagued the nation after the second Bet Hamikdash was built until it led to this magnificent structure’s destruction and the exile of the Jewish people from their homeland and the pursuant persecutions and tragedies that the Jewish people have endured since (see Jerusalem Talmud, Yoma 1:1).
Sadly, instead of the Jewish people’s recognizing the messages sent by G-d over the past several thousand years in response to our actions, as per His warnings in the Torah, and, as a result, setting ourselves and our actions straight in line with His wishes, whereby we could earn His benevolence, we continue to sink.
Instead of exerting more and more effort to build our knowledge of G-d’s Word, as set forth in the Torah and related sources, along with sharpening our intellect to properly understand what we know and properly channel our actions, our level of knowledge and intellect as a whole has been continually decreasing. Even back in Talmudic times, one of our Sages stated (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 112b), “If [our] predecessors were [like] sons of angels, we are [like] human beings; and, if [our] predecessors were [just like] human beings, we are [like] donkeys, and not like the donkey of R. Chanina ben Dosa or that of R. Pinchas ben Yair but like the rest of the donkeys.” In line with this description, the Sage, were he alive to see us today, would probably consider today’s generation(s) as ants and mosquitoes! Any one who honestly assesses the average knowledgeable Jew of today against that of only a few generations ago must bow his head in utter shame and embarrassment! What the average knowledgeable individual knows and understands today, while surrounded with luxuries and amenities that few even dreamed of only a century ago, pales in comparison with the level of knowledge and acumen that the average knowledgeable individual displayed only a few generations ago, while living a life of hardship much greater than most have any idea of today. One who was studying full-time in a kollel once asked advice of the famous rosh yeshiva of Ponevezh R. Elazar Menachem Man Shach (1899 – 2001). He was told that he should study an additional 4 folios of gemara a day above what he studies in kollel. Another young man, later on, was advised by R. Schach to study at least 2 additional folios. Today, one can hardly find even a kollel student who would study a half a page more than his regular kollel schedule.
A major ingredient in the plummet of our collective knowledge and acumen is the general attitude expressed today, explicitly or implicitly, where, with all the many modern conveniences that we enjoy today, we more and more sigh about our lack of strength or energy to meet the same challenges that our predecessors were capable of with so much fewer means at their disposal to ease their life. Our Sages tell us (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 6b), “If a person will tell you, ‘I have toiled and I have not succeeded,’ do not believe it; ‘I have not toiled and I have succeeded,’ do not believe it.” One must toil and work at what is important. Time and energy must be invested to gain the pleasures of G-d’s Torah, even if it is hard sometimes. “The words of the Torah remain only with one who kills himself [denies himself material joys] for its sake,” our Sages tell us (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 63b). Even among non-Jews, the expression goes “No pain, no gain.” Unfortunately, all the new luxuries, amenities and conveniences have fostered a tendency to expect things to come easy – a tendency that is counter-productive. The drive to excel – even for one’s own benefit – has become more and more diminished.
With insufficient knowledge of G-d’s instructions to us, it is obviously impossible to properly heed G-d’s wishes. Of course, without knowledge of His Word as put forth in the Torah, we do not even have the most basic knowledge of His Word. Moreover, as expressed in Rashi’s commentary (Sh’mot 31:18), citing Tanchuma 16, one cannot be considered truly knowledgeable in the Torah without proficiency in all the Holy Scriptures, consisting of the entire Torah and all the books of Prophets and Writings. And without the explanation of the Torah and Holy Scriptures amplified upon in the Babylonian Talmud and Jerusalem Talmud, the Code of Jewish Law known as Shulchan Arukh and other classic commentaries, it is impossible to expect to properly heed His Word, as described in the well known work on Jewish law known as Mishna Brura (chap. 156), written by the eminent Torah giant R. Yisrael Meir Kagan (1838 – 1933), known as the Chafetz Chaim. This Torah luminary expended enormous energies and efforts to utilize his own tremendous wealth of knowledge and understanding and organize it to help ease the acquisition of knowledge and understanding of G-d’s laws and guidance by as many of his fellow Jews as possible. Sadly, many do not even make the effort to properly take advantage of this monumental work that was written expressly for the purpose of facilitating the advancement of our knowledge and understanding, at least of a major portion of Jewish law and lore, in line with the fact, as noted by our Sages (Mishna Avot 2:5) that one with insufficient knowledge cannot be pious or truly venerate G-d.
Knowledge, though, alone can also not be enough as is brought out in an interaction reported concerning the renowned former rabbinic leader of Jerusalem, R. Shmuel Salant (1816 – 1909). It is told that a certain very learned man once came to be tested by R. Salant for the purpose of being granted ordination. The man, in addition to other rabbinic sources, purportedly had a full command of all 4 sections of the Code of Jewish law known as the Shulchan Arukh. Nevertheless, after testing him, R. Salant, surprisingly, refused this man ordination. The man was thunderstruck. How could this be? He could quote any sentence in any of the 4 sections of Shulchan Arukh! He knew all 4 sections of Shulchan Arukh “backwards and forwards”! Puzzled, the man confronted the sage, asking for an explanation. Indeed, the venerable rabbi admitted, the man knew all 4 sections of Shulchan Arukh, but, the rabbi stressed, the man did not know the fifth section, so to speak. The fifth section was the understanding to interpret properly the 4 sections of Shulchan Arukh. The knowledge and ability to store facts alone is not sufficient. While very important and crucial, knowledge cannot stand alone. It must go along with an intellect that exhibits correct understanding to properly interpret that knowledge – something this man was lacking.
More on the matter of correct understanding can be gleaned from an incident having occurred in the presence of the latter day Torah giant R. Yitzchak Zev Soloveichik (1886 – 1959), known as the Brisker Rav. Once during a festive gathering, a discussion erupted concerning the necessity according to Jewish law of placing a mezuzah on a given doorpost in the room where the gathering took place. All sorts of arguments were offered both pro and con. The discussion continued incessantly and heatedly for a considerable length of time. When it finally occurred to the crowd to turn to R. Soloveichik for guidance, he summarily dismissed the entire discussion. Why argue incessantly, he wondered out loud? The doorpost, he offered, can be dismantled and rebuilt in such a way that there would be no more doubt. If, after some careful thought, there is a doubt about whether the situation requires the application of a given halakha, R. Soloveichik protested, why argue about it for an extended period of time? True service, conviction and commitment to G-d and His Torah call for us to correct the situation to remove the doubt so that G-d’s Torah could be adhered to without question.
Knowledge and intellect also call for respect for the opinions of those of intellectual stature among our predecessors – parents, teachers and others older than us. The wise King Solomon advised (Mishlei 1:8), “Listen my son to the discipline of your father, and do not forsake the teaching of your mother.” Regretfully, recent generations have been distancing themselves more and more from the ways of their forebears. Like the foolish King Rechavam who ignored the advice of his father King Solomon’s seasoned advisors, there has been a tendency among recent generations to ignore the additional experience and understanding accumulated by their elders over the years. Average individuals of younger generations tend to think they know as much or more than those of prior generations and in many cases ignore or are ignorant of the ways of previous generations. It is true that those who have honed their knowledge and intellect and carefully consider the opinions of their elders can and should be free to express their own position and even act upon their position. Indeed, the highly respected rabbi of Tshebin, Poland, R. Dov Berish Weidenfeld (1881 – 1965) advised the latter day Torah great R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (1910 – 1995), when he was still young, to be stalwart in his opinion despite others, some of them older, who disagree, and a young R. Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld (1848 – 1932) chose to marry a poor young woman in contradistinction to his venerated teacher’s opinion. However, such decisions can only be reached after careful forethought.
Unity and harmony among our people also continues to suffer. The sad altercation between Korach and Moses and its resultant tragic outcome did not put an end to baseless strife among our people. The Jewish people did not learn their lesson. King David too suffered at the hands of others, some of great stature, who fomented strife, as has occurred many times since then among our people. This internal strife has continued into modern times, where vitriolic and venomous rancor has been spewed by the rank and file in disagreements between Torah giants the likes of R. Yaakov Emden (1697 – 1776) and R. Yonatan Eybeschutz (1690 – 1764) and others later on – up to this very day. Individuals, far from proficient in knowledge and with average intellect often turn legitimate and innocent intellectual disagreements among scholars into political battles, jumping on the band wagon of one of the sides and hurling diatribe and even insults at those upholding the other side and even at the scholar whom the other side purports to follow. This is on top of an unprecedented splintering of our people into numerous different and differing camps – Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Chasidim, Litvaks, Dati Leumi, secular and their sub-groups – who often accompany their difference of opinion with disparaging diatribe and disrespect for those of another camp. Our Sages tell us (Mishna, Avot 5:15), “Accept all people with a pleasant face,” and “One who shows another the white of his teeth [viz. smiling] is better than giving him a drink of milk” (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 111b). More than not just being “at each others’ throats,” so to speak, we are advised by our Sages to greet each other with a pleasant face and a smile, something that in today’s day and age is hard to come by. It is noteworthy that the splintering and disrespect among our people seem to have been increasing as the average level of knowledge and intellectual acumen has been declining.
Our rabbinic leaders have also taught us the importance of using our intellect to guide the knowledge that we accumulate in accordance with correctly caring about our fellow Jew. A story is reported of R. Yosef Dov Soloveichik (1820 – 1892) in which he donated a sizeable sum of money to a man who asked him whether he could use milk instead of wine for the four cups at the Pesach seder. When questioned by his wife as to the reason for this, he explained that, upon contemplating this man’s question, he realized that if this man is asking about using milk at the seder then he must not even have any meat to eat at this very festive occasion. So he chose to give his questioner the means of preparing a meal for himself fitting to the occasion. Similarly, a grandson of R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach once mentioned a special interaction between himself and his saintly grandfather. The grandson would regularly visit his grandfather on Shabbat. One Shabbat, the grandson did not come to his grandfather until after Shabbat. When questioned by his grandfather as to his sudden veering from his customary visit on Shabbat, the grandson explained that he was concerned about the possible problem in carrying across a certain area of Jerusalem which may violate a certain stricture in carrying on Shabbat. Thinking that his caution for Shabbat laws would gain him favor with his grandfather, the grandson was surprised to find the very opposite. R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach reprimanded his grandson since his grandson was concerned about a law that involved a possible stricture whereas his sudden change in behavior without prior warning caused immeasurable worry and concern on the part of a grandfather and thereby transgressed the requisite respect definitely mandated by Torah law. In yet another incident, leaders of a given yeshiva came to the rosh yeshiva of Ponevezh R. Shach and mentioned their policy – for the sake of maintaining a proper environment for study – to summarily expel any student who would not behave in accordance with their liking. R. Shach recoiled in horror at such a policy that is liable to destroy such a student along with his family, causing immeasurable damage, without first attempting other means to solve the apparent problem.
Having mentioned R. Yonatan Eybeschutz, it would be noteworthy to mention some of his thoughts in his Yaarot Dvash, drasha 7, on the subject of inter-personal relationships among Jews: “People tend to be aware of the gross transgressions they commit and are, therefore, more likely to repent for them. This is what happened in the Babylonian exile after 70 years. In the days of the Second Temple, however, when sinat chinam [petty hatred] and lashon hara [disparaging talk] were rampant, the Jews did not repent their many sins, and we are still holding on to this impurity today. A man speaks peaceably to his neighbor, but in his heart plots against him and rejoices in his downfall, and he thinks there is no sin in this. To the contrary, he is considered clever….And we continue to live in exile, for as long as the cause of an illness is not removed, the illness cannot be cured with all the medicine in the world.” According to R. Eybeschutz, the Jews’ exile continues because of the wrongful ways Jews have treated each other and continue to treat each other.
True conviction in and commitment to G-d and His principles and laws, as set forth in His Torah, the Holy Scriptures, the Talmud etc., require a drive to pursue and gain a command in the knowledge of those sources that reflect His Will. True conviction and commitment require the proper honing of our intellect and understanding in order that we can be capable of putting things into proportion and properly interpreting the knowledge that we gain. And to better the environment for engaging in this necessary drive for and pursuit of knowledge and the mental acumen to interpret it, unity and harmony is of great value.
Previous essays that were written were intended with the purpose of providing a basic favorable taste of the knowledge found in the Torah and other related sources, knowledge necessary for the true conviction in and commitment to G-d’s supremacy and service to Him, as well as food for thought to help hone the intellect and foster its advancement, in order to, hopefully, spark an increased and continuous pursuit of knowledge and understanding in G-d’s principles and laws, thereby bringing us closer to G-d and advancing ourselves to higher and higher levels towards fulfilling our role in being placed in this world by our Creator.
It is with sincere hope that, while putting things into proportion, we can see the truth for what it is and drive ourselves to pursue the knowledge and understanding needed to properly form our conviction in and commitment to G-d and His Torah in an atmosphere of unity, harmony and truly caring for each other, so that the Al-Mighty G-d may swiftly bring us the messiah and so that we may, hopefully, return to our initial paramount state at the time of G-d’s presenting us with the Torah, being together once again “as one man with one heart.”