Torah Portion of the Week – Va’eschanan– Understand Your Limitations – The Infinite Torah – A Powerful Parable about the Spoon that Gave Birth – A Great Story about Rav Shach and Peace in Your Home – Giving and Receiving
The Torah Podcast Transcript
067 –The Torah Podcast – Understand Your Limitations – The Infinite Torah
Torah Portion of the Week – Va’eschanan
Chapter four in Devarim starts like this. “Now oh Yisroel, listen to the decrees and the ordinances that I teach you to perform, so that you may live. And you will come to possess the land that Hashem your God of your forefathers gives you. You shall not add the word that I command you, nor shall you subtract from it.” This is a negative commandment of bal tosif or bal tikra, you shall not add and you shall not subtract, “To observe the commandments of Hashem your God that I command you. Your eyes have seen what Hashem did with Bal Peor, for every man that followed Bal Peor Hashem your God destroyed him from your midst. But you who cling to Hashem your God, you are still alive today.” All the meforshim, commentators are asking, “What’s the connection between the negative commandment of not adding or subtracting from the Torah to the idol worship of Bal Peor, which was defecating in front of the idol. So, what’s the connection between these two things?
Rav Moshe Feinstein wants to give an answer and he says that adding onto the Torah is the basis of idol worship. Why? We know that the Rambam brings down that idol worship started in the dor, generation of Enosh. And they had an idea like this, since God placed all the heavenly bodies above the world it must be that he wanted us to worship them also, even though he didn’t explicitly command us to worship them. And they thought these heavenly bodies are doing the work of God, so we should also give kavod, honor to them. That was the beginning of idol worship but it was a mistake, because it was their own idea. Hashem never told them to worship the stars and the moon. They got the idea themselves. So, doing more or doing different than what Hashem told you is the basis for idol worship, which is the connection here also. Do not add to the Torah, because then you’ll even come to this degrading position of Bal Peor which is an extension of the original idol worship. That’s Rav Moshe Feinstein’s answer.
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz wants to answer by saying that if you break a fence, so the fence is useless. If there’s a hole in the fence, what kind of fence is it? So, once a person takes away even one mitzvah it’s like he broke the entire fence. In the end he’s going to come to do Bal Peor, the most disgusting things, because it’s a breakdown in the entire system. He winds up ridding himself of all restraint. And not only that, it could also be in the opposite direction. If you add a mitzvah so then you again made it hefkerus. You’ve created that it’s an open field. You could do whatever you want. In the end, you broke down all restraints and it’s going to come to avoda zara, which is especially Bal Peor which is the whole avoda zara. It’s to defecate in front of the idol which shows there is no restraint, there is no meaning. There are no rules. That’s the connection according to Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz.
The Malbim wants to give an answer by saying, “One cannot add or subtract from something that’s perfect, because the commandments are from Hashem who is the ultimate perfection. Therefore the commandments themselves are perfect. How can you possibly add to them?” He wants to explain that the Jews, what were they doing there at Bal Peor when they were worshipping Bal Peor? They were trying to disgrace the idol. They thought that defecating in front of the idol was a disgrace to the idol. So, they thought they were doing a positive thing but they were going against the Torah because in the end, that really is the idol worship. That’s the worship to the idol. Even though they thought they were doing a positive thing in the end they destroyed themselves. They were all wiped out, and that was their own sevara. Hashem never said to do such a thing. They were ibra chacham, they outsmarted themselves. That’s the answer to the Malbim.
But Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch gives a different answer which I want to expand upon. He says, “If you add or take away any mitzvah you’re really saying that the Torah is arbitrary. And therefore, you’re denying the divinity of the Torah, and you’re equating human discretion with God’s commandments which in the end is going to lead to idol worship. That’s why it’s connected with Bal Peor. He brings down the case of Shaul where he was over both these lavim. He added more and he took away some. What did he do? Shmuel haNavi came to him and told him, “You have to kill everybody,” and kept the king alive. Therefore he did less and he didn’t listen, and he did more. He took the spoils which he was supposed to destroy and he offered them as an offering. He thought that would be a great thing. What does the possuk say there? “Does God delight in ascent offerings and in meal offerings as obedience to the voice of God?” Obedience is the main thing. God wants us to listen to Him, not to do what we think. So, why is this going to lead to avoda zara, idol worship?
Rav Hirsch explains, “He does not subordinate everything to the One God. He does not set God over himself as a master of his whole fate and his whole life. Rather he places beside God a separate, independent power. He entrusts his face to all kinds of oracles, simanim, his seichel. He thinks he can get around God, and that’s exactly what avoda zara is – idol worship. He doesn’t believe there’s One God who controls everything. He has his own tricks up his sleeve. Don’t worry, he’s going to do it his way.” He says, “That is exactly idol worship.” This is a tremendously important idea. If we are somech, if we rely on our own seichel, our own intelligence and our own ideas and we think we’re going to live our lives that way, that’s a type of avoda zara. That’s a type of idol worship, because what we’re saying is, “Don’t worry about God. I’ve got God in my pocket, no problem. I’m going to do it my way and it’s going to work out.” He continues that it says at the end of the possuk, “Those of you who cling to Me today are still alive.” He said that was the greatest gului shechina that could exist. It was a revelation of God. Why? Because the people saw through their obedience by not clinging to Bal Peor, by not worshipping Bal Peor, that all those people who didn’t worship they lived. And all the people who did worship, they died. There was a clear example of middas hadin, of judgement, which doesn’t happen too often in life. Everything’s mixed up, we’re confused. We don’t see the justice. But that was a clear example of justice which is the same idea if you go in the way of God, that’s how you’re going to be matzliach. That’s how you’re going to be successful.
He explains further that this was said just before they were about to go into the land. This is unbelievable, you’ve got to hear this. He says, “You were the only nation in the world that possessed the laws before it possessed its own land.” In other words, we got our laws before we got our land. Most nations that go into a land, when they have a land they have to make laws. He says, “By us it’s just the opposite. It’s not that the laws are intended as a means to build up the land and have a national existence. It’s just the opposite. We’re given the land in order that we should fulfill the laws – unbelievable. Every other nation becomes a nation through its land, and afterwards creates the laws for your land. You by contrast become a nation through the Torah, and you received the land in order to observe the Torah. And that’s why your laws never changed, the Torah doesn’t change. The whole purpose of life is to fulfill the Torah. But those nations who have laws in order to keep things going, in order to keep the land going, so the laws are constantly changing,” he says, “Because there’s changing needs of the nation’s development. But you were given laws by Moshe Rabbeinu, who never set foot in the land. Nothing to do with the land. The land is the means to fulfil the Torah, not that the Torah is the means to be able to live in the land, because you can’t live in the land without laws. No, it’s the opposite. The laws of the Torah are absolute, whereas you and your land are conditional,” he says. This is why God put together in the possuk not to add or subtract from the Torah, together with the idol worship, because if you rely on yourself and your own seichel and your own intelligence that is a kind of an avoda zara, because you don’t trust in God and you don’t trust in His Torah.
I just want to tell you, Rav Schwab said on the second possuk in this week’s Parsha, it says, “My Lord Hashem Elokim, you have begun to show your servant your greatness and your strong hand. You have just begun.” So, what does Rav Shwab say? He says, “Moshe three times spent 40 days in the heavens with Hashem, as close as a man could possibly be to Hashem. And after all that it was only after 121 years when he was about to pass away that Moshe says, ‘You have just begun to show your servant your greatness.” The Torah is infinite. Why would we think with our small pea minds that we know what life is about, that we know what’s going on here? It is like landed here from another planet. We were born here, and we still don’t know what’s going on. Do we understand what life is about? We don’t even understand how the planets work. We don’t understand hardly anything. Moshe Rabbeinu, he himself said, “I don’t understand everything, “ after all he’s been through, with all of his nevua, his prophesy and everything.
He brings the possuk,”Gal ayenai,” and cover my eyes, “and it shall gaze upon the wonders of your Torah,” a possuk in Tehillim, 119.18. There’s endless chiddushim, new ideas, novel ways, another way of looking. Every time you learn the Gemara, it’s a new Gemara. Every time you go over it again you see another chiddush. So, how could we possibly have the chutzpah to think that we can add or subtract from the Torah? It’s a ridiculous idea. Are we going to bring it down to our level to a human level, to human intelligence? Once you bring it down to human intelligence that’s the end of the whole Torah. Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz says, “You break the fence.” You don’t have a fence any more. It’s finished.
So, what’s the solution to this problem? How do we save ourselves? The Torah itself tells us, two more possukim forward we see the possuk says, “And you shall safeguard and perform them, for it is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the people who shall hear. All these statutes you will say. Surely a wise and understanding people is this great nation.” So, Rashi says there, “What does it mean, ‘You shall safeguard them?’” He says, “This is study. You have to learn.” The Sifrei says there, “Study of the commandments of the Torah constitutes safeguarding, for knowledge of them is the best guarantee of the continuance and fulfilment.” Rav Moshe Feinstein explains, “You have to learn from a Rebbe. You have to go to Yeshiva. You have to learn from teachers.” And if not, you’re going to wind up like Enosh, who had his own ideas on what to do – worship the stars. It sounds like a good idea. It’s the worst thing in the world! It’s only through learning the Torah that we mechazek ourselves, we understand what the Torah is saying, how it’s being said, why it’s being said, what are the inferences we can make, what are the ones that are muchrach, forced inferences and not forced inferences? What’s the logic behind it? Does it make sense, doesn’t it make sense? Back and forth, reading all the meforshim, understanding the truth of the Torah, seeing how it fits, how the whole Torah fits together. Does it make sense? If it doesn’t make sense we are the one’s who have to validate the Torah. That’s what it says in the Gemara, “We’re the ones that have to understand the Torah. If we don’t understand it, it means that we’re empty.” Chazal says that if the Torah is empty, it’s your emptiness. And if not, God-forbid, someone can wind up doing avoda zara, idol worship. He relies on all kinds of forces and all kinds of things to get him through life, to be successful. But the real success is to go in the way of the Torah, that’s the success. And that’s what Hashem says, and that’s what we’re here for – to fulfill the Torah.
I just want to end off here with this beautiful thing that Rav Schwab says. He says, “One time, the President of the Conservative Synagogue came to him to speak to him. He says, ‘I don’t really understand. We’re very traditional.’” He added, “I even put on tefillin today. I’m very traditional, what’s the problem with our approach?” Rav Schwab says to him, “I’m not really interested in traditional Judaism. As a matter of fact, I could even do without it altogether.” The Conservative Rabbi said, “What are you talking about? What are you saying?” Rav Schwab continued, “Tradition leaves me cold. Just because my father did something doesn’t mean I have to do the same thing. If my father wore long wool stockings, does that mean I can’t wear cotton ones?” The Conservative Rabbi doesn’t know what’s going on. He says, “What’s going on here? You’re not interested in tradition? Why would you put on tefillin every day if you’re not interested in tradition?” Rav Schwab answers him. He says, “It says in this week’s Parsha, ‘And these words I shall command you today,’ and Rashi says there that this verse teaches us not to look at the mitvos as some kind of ancient custom, but rather to look at them as if they were given today, for the first time.” He said, “I put on tefillin because Hashem is telling me to put on tefillin, not my grandfather and not my great-grandfather. Hashem’s commanding me today to put on tefillin.” He says, “Even though I’m very proud and happy that all my ancestors kept the Torah, but this is not the reason why I keep them. I keep them because Hashem is telling me today to keep the Torah. And it’s the same exact Torah that we received from Sinai. We can’t add to it, we can’t subtract to it. It’s perfect, like the Malbim says. It’s infinite. It’s beyond our understanding, beyond our comprehension. We’ll do our best, but we have to go according to what’s written. It’s scholarship, it’s not a joke – you can’t just make up whatever you want.”
I have a copy of this letter that Rav Schwab wrote to a different Conservative Rabbi who decided that it’s better to drive on Shabbos because we’re going to have much more people inside the beit Knesset that way. Otherwise, if we don’t drive on Shabbos, not too many people come. Rav Schwab gave six reasons why his logic is wrong. First of all, the Torah is from Sinai. It says to keep Shabbos. You can’t change it. Second of all, specifically driving on Shabbos there’s sparks in the ignition, there’s lighting the fire, the burning of the fuel. No matter how much you twist it and turn it, you can’t tell me that it’s permitted. It’s aish, it’s binyan. There’s no way around it. Third of all, it’s just the opposite. The shul is there so people should keep Shabbos, not that people should break Shabbos in order to come to shul. We have shuls in order that people should stay religious. The fourth thing he says, “Judaism without Shabbos is unthinkable. But Judaism without a beit knesset is thinkable.” He said, “For generations we didn’t have public places. We couldn’t meet together in public, and Judaism continued. So, why are you putting people coming to shul above Shabbos?” The fifth reason he gives, that if a person does not come to shul because he lives far away, he has done more for Judaism than any Jew who drives on Shabbos and comes to shul. What’s this guy doing? By staying home you’re fulfilling the mitzvah. And the sixth thing for those people who live a little bit further away and they walk to shul, every step they take is kadosh kadoshim. It’s a holy avoda, it’s worshipping Hashem. Every step he takes is the mesirus nefesh, self-sacrifice that he has to get to shul on Shabbos. He concluded, “Indeed, numbers don’t count.” What was he telling him? If you go according to your own sevara and your own ideas about what Judaism is about, so you have this great idea of numbers. You’ll only get more people in shul. More people in shul means better Judaism, right? Wrong. Judaism is what the Torah tells us. We have to fulfil the Torah. And the Torah is perfect just the way it is. Like the Malbim said, “The Torah is perfect. What are you trying to change it for?” And if a person doesn’t subordinate himself to God, that’s avoda zara. We have to do exactly, exactly what the Torah says, not to add and not to take away.
A Powerful Parable
The Maggid mi Dubno brings a moshul like this. He says, “One time a neighbor came to borrow a spoon. Fine. The next day the guy came to bring it back, and he brought back with it a little teaspoon. So the guy who lent it out said, “Listen, I only lent you one spoon.” He said, “It’s true. But this spoon gave birth to this little spoon, so I’m giving you back the two.” He didn’t say anything, he thought the guy’s crazy and he took the two spoons. The next day he comes by, he wants to borrow a cup. Fine, he lends him a cup. The next day the guy comes back and brings back the cup, and he brings a smaller cup with it. The guy thought, “Obviously this guy’s crazy.” He just took the two cups, he didn’t say anything to him. A week later the guy comes by to borrow two silver candlesticks. He says, “Wow, this is great. He’s probably going to give me back four. I’m surely going to lend these two silver candlesticks.” So, after a while he saw the guy didn’t bring them back. He starts to ask him, “Where are they?” He said, “Listen, I’m sorry the candlesticks died.” The guy says to him, “Are you crazy? What are you talking about? Did you ever hear of candlesticks that died?” He said back to him, “And did you ever hear of spoons or cups that give birth to another one? And you took them without a word. If a spoon could give birth, so the candlesticks can die.” What’s the nimshal, conclusion? He says, “So too, mitzvos. Mitzvos have to be done exactly. If you think you can add to the mitzvos, you’re also going to think that maybe you could subtract from them. It just shows you that your logic is wrong.”
Great Stories – Rav Shach
The possuk says, “But all who cling to Hashem your God you are alive today.” So, the Nefesh haChayim explains, “What is clinging to God? It means learning Torah. And when you learn Torah you should have intention that you are clinging to God Himself.” So, one time there was a young man who came to Rav Shach with serious financial pressures. He didn’t know what to do. He was thinking, “I’m going to have to go out to work. Let me go ask Rav Shach.” He spoke with Rav Shach and Rav Shach agreed. “Things are quite difficult. I think you’re going to have to go into business.” So, the young man turned to leave, feeling relief. At least he’s solved his sofek, his doubt. But on the way out he heard Rav Shach gave a sigh, and he was speaking to himself. “It is true, he must leave learning. But how can he leave learning? How can he leave the beis medrash, study hall, the source of pure water, the wellsprings of the Torah?” So, when this young man heard this he went back in to Rav Shach and he said, “Listen, the Rosh Yeshiva sigh tipped the scale. I’m staying in learning.”
Peace in Your Home
Rav Simcha Cohen speaks about giving and receiving – tremendous chiddushim here. These are novel ideas – you’ve got to hear them. He says that everybody knows that a shopkeeper will stand for hours waiting for customers, trying to make money. But it’s not because he cares about his customers. He’s not being altruistic. He just wants to make profit. And also the customers, they’re not coming. They’re not giving tzedakah, charity, and they want to buy what they need. So both the shopkeeper and the customer are really looking out for their own self-interest, and that’s how the system works. But it works, because both sides get what they need. Not only that, but a good sales person will give emotional gratification to their people. He’ll smile at them, he’ll ask after their health. He’s polite to them. He remembers their names. He knows that the customers are basically self-centered, so he tries to be polite to them. It’s like if you would go to an influential person, so you’re thinking on the way, “What can I say to this guy to influence him? How is he going to help me? How am I going to treat him in a special way, make a good impression upon him?” Everybody knows that’s the way the world works. But why did Hashem make it that way? He says that since every human being is created in the image of God, he has a certain self-worth. He’s created with an ego, a sense of self-importance. He knows he has a unique position in the world. And therefore on the negative side, we have an egocentric attitude. Like it says, “Bishvil li nivra haOlam,” the whole world was created for me. The Pirkei Avos says it. But it’s a healthy feeling, that’s the way Hashem made us. And why did Hashem make us like that? So that we would be ethical. We want to do the right thing. We have a certain self-worth that we feel we have to do the right thing, and we want to grow. So, he says unfortunately – and nobody likes to hear this – he says, “Nobody wants to admit but really people just love themselves.” And not only that, everybody is after personal benefit. And before a person gets married he asks himself, “What am I going to get out of this?” Usually he’s not asking, “What is my spouse going to get out of this?” And even if he asks, “What are we both going to get out of this?” so he is really just wondering what he’s going to get out of it. He’s like, “I hope the bank is okay.” He’s not worried about the bank, he’s worried about his money. But he hopes that the bank does well.
One time the Kotsker Rebbe wanted to show this concept to his students. He saw one of his students eating a fish with a lot of gusto, so he asked him, “Why are you eating that fish?” He says, “I love fish, so I eat it.” He says, “You don’t love fish.” He says, “You love yourself. If you loved the fish you would put him in a pool and get clean water for him, and feed him.”
There’s another story I heard one time one of the balei mussar asked one of the talmidim, students to bring him a tea. The talmid said, “Of course I can.” He said, “Can you bring me a tea?” “Yes, of course.” So, he brings him a tea. He says, “Thank you very much.” He says, “Did you bring the tea to me? You didn’t bring it for me, you brought it for yourself, because you want to do a mitzvah. You feel like you’re doing the right thing. You have your reasons why you brought it. Did you really bring it for me? You really care about me, that I should have a tea? Or you just brought it for yourself?” This is what he says. He says, “When a person says, ‘I love you,’ what he really means is, ‘I’m attracted to you. I find it pleasant to be around you. I enjoy your interest in me. I like being charmed by you.’ So, even though these things are very difficult to hear but in the end we’re going to understand them a little bit better. So the question is now, why does a person help? Why does a person give if he just cares about himself? He gives an example.
Let’s say you see an old man carrying a heavy box. What are you going to do? You see the guy, so what motivates you to help the guy? There’s different reasons. Maybe you have a desire to do a mitzvah, to do a mitzvah, or you have pity on the person. Or you were just brought up as a kid that you should help. Or you’re worried that your conscience is going to bother you later, so you help now. Or you actually get pleasure from helping. Still, it’s your pleasure. Or you would like to see a world where everybody helps. So, he wants to go through all these different reasons and show how each one is really actually self-serving.
So, even though a guy says he wants to see a world where everybody helps, what he’s really saying is in the end, I’m going to get some help also. That’s like communism. I’m willing to share, because I want to get. Or for example, he has pity so he wants to get rid of his feelings, so he helps the guy. Or it be because of the influence of his upbringing, so he has to do it because that’s who he is. He was trained that way. He has the mindset to help, or else he feels uncomfortable if he doesn’t act according to who he is. Or he wants to avoid the pangs of his conscience. Or even if he does it for a mitzvah, what’s the mitzvah? He’s doing it because he wants eternal reward. Or surely if he gets pleasure he personally gets pleasure from somebody else. So he says, “These ideas are a little bit difficult to digest. You hear them and say, ‘Whoa. What, am I that self-centered?’ Nobody wants to feel they’re self-centered. But most of it is subconscious. We don’t realize how self-centered we are.” So the question is, why did Hashem create us this way? Hashem doesn’t make us bad or evil, Hashem created us to be good. The answer is that this self-centeredness could be a positive force or a negative force.
For example, parents raise their children because they look at their children as an extension of themselves. But that’s how they wind up raising healthy children. Or a person will never grow if he wasn’t self-centered. He wouldn’t grow spiritually. He wouldn’t do anything. And the advancement of the world is based on the fact that man is self-centered. Spiritually and physically, the world wouldn’t advance. So, the same thing with your family, with your spouse. And you have to remember your spouse is an ordinary person, a regular person who is also self-centered, with personal interests. Nobody gets married because they say, “Wow, I wish I could find this wretched, poor, ill person that I could help.” Who gets married for that reason? You ask yourself, “Can this person support my material needs? Can this person support my emotional needs? What about my spiritual advancement?” These are the normal questions that a healthy person asks themselves. He doesn’t ask, “What’s my spouse going to get from me?” He asks himself, “What am I going to get out of this marriage?” But if it wasn’t for that, if the other person didn’t need you, so there’s going to be no relationship. These needs are what cause the relationship to exist. And you don’t want to be in a situation where your spouse doesn’t need you at all.
He gives an example like this. He has this shidduch, he’s going out with this girl and he’s about to get married. And then he meets a friend and he realizes, “Hey. You know, this guy would be a better match for my shidduch.” Does he stop the marriage and say, “You know, it’s better for you to marry this girl.” No, and so it happens. He continues on and he marries the girl, because he likes her. So, if this is all true we have to go back to the shopkeeper. Part of marriage is giving your spouse what they desire to fulfill their need, just like you would any other person out in the street, but it’s much easier to people on the street. Of course you have to be polite on the guy in the outside. And when it comes to your wife, you think you don’t have to be polite. You think you’re entitled. And you don’t ask in a gracious manner, what manners. And where does that come from? That comes from childhood. Why? Because parents give to their kids unconditionally, without manners, with manners, they give to their kids. The kid doesn’t ask twice. The parent anticipates what the need of the kid is, and gives it to the kid even before the kid knows he needs it. And we expect when it comes to a marriage, it should be the same way. Somehow, when it comes to a spouse, that somehow they should be like a parent. But really, they’re more like the guy outside. They’re more like the neighbor who doesn’t owe you anything. They’re more like your peers, people you have to be polite to, you have to give kavod to, you have to be nice to, and then they’ll give you. That’s more what the spouse is like. That’s what a shalom bayis is. It’s not like your mother and your father. But most people don’t know this. Most people think that I should be getting unconditionally, without having to ask. My spouse should be anticipating what I need.
And what happens when they don’t do that? We are disappointed. We have unrealistic expectations. We say, “What’s going on here?” and we feel like we’re in an unsuccessful relationship. But that’s coming from us, because we have too high expectations. We should be saying, “Please could you help me do this. Please can you help me do that?. Would it be a big deal if you could do this for me?” just like you do your peers. And you say, “Thank you,” afterwards. But the problem is, if your friend doesn’t do what you want, so eventually you’ll walk away from that person. When it comes to a marriage, you’re stuck there. You don’t just walk away. So, the other person starts to feel they’re being used, and a lot of resentment builds up in the marriage.
So, in order to solve these problems we need two things. First, we need to understand the emotions involved in giving and receiving. And second of all, we need techniques to help us be successful in it. I know this is a bit of a cliffhanger, but next week we will speak about it.
That’s it for this week’s podcast, I hope you enjoyed it and please share it with your friends.
Rabbi Eliyahu Mitterhoff