The Torah Podcast Transcript
090 – The Torah Podcast – How Jews Handle Misfortune – The Art of Suffering
Torah Portion of the Week – Tetzaveh
If a man wants to become a convert, he has to be addressed as follows. “What reason have you for desiring to become a convert? Do you not know that Yisroel at the present time are persecuted and oppressed, and despised, and harrassed, and overcome by afflictions?” If he replies, “I know, yet I am not worthy,” he is accepted right away. So, here we see, it doesn’t matter what time period we are talking about, the Jews through all their history are persecuted, oppressed, despised, harassed and we have afflictions, so we ask him, “Are you sure you want to convert? Do you know what the story is with the Jewish people, do you know what the story is?” If he says, “Yes,” take for you clear olive oil crushed by illumination, to light a lamp continually. This is the ner tamid, this is the light that was always lit in the Mishkan, Tabernacle, and it was lit in the Beis Hamigdash continuously.
So, the Shemos Rabba says on this verse, “As the prophet says, ‘An olive tree, beautiful with good fruit, God called your name.” It’s the possuk from Yirmyahu. Rather, with regard to the olive tree, while the olives are on the tree, first they’re picked, then they’re brought down from the tree. Then they are beaten once, and they’re beaten again. And then they’re surrounded by ropes, and pressed by huge stones, and they’re crushed. After all of this, they give forth their oil. So too, the Jewish people. Idolators come and beat them from place to place, and oppress them. They bind them with chains and surround them and beseige them. After that, the Jewish people do teshuva, they return to God, and God answers them. So, we see from the Midrash which explains the inyan, idea that olive oil, why are we like olive oil? We have to have this pure olive oil to light the ner tamid, that stays lit constantly in the Beis Hamigdash, and we’re compared to the olives because if you crush us and beat us, pure olive oil comes out, in the sense that we return to God and this is our history, this is the story of the Jewish people. Like it says, we were oppressed from place to place, we’re bound with chains, we were beseiged. In the end, we do teshuva, and that’s our nature. So, somehow we see that we’re destined to suffer, the Jewish people have suffered through history, and that’s part of our being. That’s part of our story. We are destined to suffer. The question is, why? What’s going on?
The Ohr HaChaim also explains what does it mean that the olives are pounded? It has to do with Torah study. Torah study involves as pounding himself. He has to spiritually pound himself like the possuk says, “The one who died in the tent.” In order to get Torah, you have to work very, very hard. There’s another Chazal says a person has to spit up his mother’s milk in order to learn Torah. That’s how hard he has to work. So, it’s also part of our suffering. We’re commanded to learn Torah, and we have to work extremely hard, because the Torah is like olive oil. That’s the the comparison. So again, we see we have to suffer.
And the Chassam Sofer also explains on this verse, “We know that the olive oil that had to be used in the ner tamid was the very first olive oil, was the purest olive oil. It had to be at the highest standards of purity. So too, Torah learning involves extracting efforts, requires infinite hours of toil. We have to work very, very hard to get a few, pure drops of pure Torah, to make sure the Torah is clear, to make sure we understand it completely, to make sure it’s true. But it’s a tremendous amount of effort. Torah learning requires a lot of suffering, a lot of mesirus nefesh. But not only in terms of Torah learning, in terms of mitzvos themselves also.
Rav Moshe Steinberg says, “The Menorah itself, Moshe Rabbeinu had difficulty constructing the Menorah. And Hashem had to show him how to do it.” So he asks, “Why was it so difficult to control? Why did Hashem make a Menorah that was so difficult to make?” So, he explains, “Proper fulfillment of the Torah is extremely difficult, so much so that even Moshe Rabbeinu found it challenging. And Hashem had to tell him what to do.” So, not only in terms of Torah that we have to work so hard to get pure Torah, we also have to work hard in terms of the mitzvos – more suffering, more hard work. What’s going on here? And not only that, there’s a third aspect. Also, we have to work hard in terms of tikkun ha middos, in terms of changing our character traits. Rav Noam Elimelech says on the possuk, on this verse, “Beat for illumination, you must strike and beat yourself into submission before Hashem, and then you will burn with a great light, and illuminate the lamps forever, causing the flame to go forth with love and unceasing passion for Hashem. In order to have passion for God, you have to “beat yourself.” What’s going on here? We have to work very, very hard to overcome our bad character traits.
And the Malbim explains that the begedim which is also in this week’s Parsha, of the Cohen Gadol, all have to do with the different character traits. “For example,” he says, “The external garments of the Cohanim was to guide them how to dress their souls with the best character to achieve purity and sanctity”. For example, the tunic had to do with murder. And the undergarments, had to do with sexual immorality. The mitznefes which was the turban, had to do with haughtiness, had to work on haughtiness, and the avnei has to do with improper thoughts. The choshen which was worn on the chest, had to do with miscarriage of justice, to make sure they were just. And the ephod atones for idol worship. The meil, the robe, atones for gossip, and the tzitz had to do with arrogance, also.” He says, “As far as we put on begedim to remove our animalistic drive,” this is the undergarment, “and afterwards we have the other garments, which have to do with higher levels of purity, a higher level of being a mentsch, of being a human being. But we see from here that where there is Torah or mitzvos or tikkun ha middos, fixing our character, that requires a tremendous amount of hard work and suffering.”
So, the question is, if this is what Judaism is about, this tremendous amount of hard work and mesirus nefesh, constantly guarding yourself, constantly working on yourself, how does a person, where does a person get the strength to go through all this suffering? Where do the Jews get their strength to suffer for generations, in every generation the idol worshippers beat us around and take us here, and they put us into exile over here and over there, the suffering, the Holocaust, the Inquisition in Spain, how come the Jews are still around, bichlal? How do we go through all this suffering? What was our secret that allowed us to handle this religion? What is religion, is it a religion of suffering? The answer is, no. It’s not a religion of suffering. It’s in Tehillim 119, verse number 92. Again, “Had your Torah not been my preoccupation, I would have perished in my suffering.”
And the Tanna de Bey Eliyahu explains that when a person is threatened by afflictions, and he has all kinds of problems, if he goes to the beis medrash and he learns Torah, he will become calm and tranquil. It will calm him down, the Torah itself. Hashem gave us the refuah before the makkah, the healing before the putsch. We got the healing first, Since we were able to sit and learn Torah, and focus on Torah, it calmed us down. We don’t need any drugs, no tranquilizers, we don’t need to drink. We just need to go the beis medrash and sit and learn. Lav davka the beis medrash – even your house. If you open up a Torah book, mimeleh, automatically it helps you to handle your problems. That’s the Torah itself.
And Rav Henoch Leibowitz brings a beautiful proof for this. There’s a Gemara in Shabbos 31a that says like this. “One time, there was a non-Jew walking by a beis medrash and he was listening to the Rebbe teaching the students. And he was telling him this week’s Parsha. What was going on there? And it says, ‘The garments that are made for the Cohen Gadol, all these beautiful garments…’ and he was explaining with such detail how beautiful they were, what kavod it was, that the Cohen Gadol should look like a king. And so, he said to himself, ‘You know what? I’m going to convert. If I convert, maybe I could become a Cohen Gadol and I can also dress that way.’ So, first he went to Beis Shammai. Beis Shammai wouldn’t accept him. Then he went to Beis Hillel, and he asked Hillel, ‘I want to convert. Please help me.’ So, Hillel said to him, ‘Listen, it’s not easy to be a Cohen Gadol. It’s very complicated. The Temple service is also very complicated. You’re going to have to learn all these different laws.’ So he said, ‘No problem. I’m going to learn, I want to learn.’ What happened? He started to learn, and eventually he came across the verse in Bamidbar that says, ‘And the stranger that approaches the Sanctuary shall surely die.’ So, he asked his Rebbe, he said, ‘Who is the stranger? Who is the Torah talking about?’ ‘It’s talking about anybody who wasn’t born a Cohen. Even Dovid HaMelech can’t go into the kadosh hakedoshim.’ So, then he concluded, ‘Wait a second. If a Jew who is not a Cohen can’t go in and be the Cohen Gadol, so surely me, I’m just a ger, I’m converting, surely I can’t be a Cohen Gadol?’ So, what happened? Nevertheless, he continued to study and he eventually converted.”
Rav Henoch Leibowitz has a gevaldik kashe on this. He says, “Wait a second. What happened here? First, the guy started out that he wanted to convert for the wrong reasons, because he was going to dress, he was going to be the Cohen Gadol and get all the kavod, honor, and dress a certain way, dress with tremendous kavod. Then all of a sudden he finds out that there’s no way, but anyway in the end he converts. So, if we look in the story, there’s only one thing that changed. What changed was, this convert learned Torah himself. It was the learning of Torah that allowed him, that gave him the strength to convert even so. Like we said, we know we tell the convert it’s going to be difficult, it’s going to be hard. He wanted to convert for the wrong reason. And still, after he learned Torah, the Torah itself gave him the strength to convert for the right reasons. It gave him the energy. He saw in the Torah itself that this is the right way to go. Even though originally he started for the wrong reasons, but he learned it for the right reasons. So, we see that Torah itself has the koach, it has the strength to help a person to grow spiritually. Also like we said before, it helps the person to be able to suffer all of his sufferings. So, that was all in terms of learning Torah itself. One way we are able to handle suffering is through the learning of Torah itself.
But the Radak has another perush, explanation on that same possuk of Tehillim, I’ll tell you that possuk again, it’s so important. “Had your Torah not been my preoccupation, I would have perished in my suffering.” The Radak says on this, “Had I not been preoccupied with my belief in your Torah, your teachings and promises, I surely would have perished in my suffering.” In other words, it’s the philosophy of the Torah, the understanding of the Torah, what the Torah means, that’s what gives the Jew the strength to handle all these difficult loads. For example, the Shach says in Pesachim on the possuk, “Shema Yisroel,” the possuk we say every day, night and day. “Hear O’Israel, Hashem is your God, Hashem is One.” So, the Shach explains, “Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad,” Hashem is the name of mercy. Hashem Elokeinu, the God of mercy is the God of din, of judgement. “The same God,” he explains, “The same attribute of justice which is represented by Elokim that we say in Shema Yisroel, is the same Hashem who is the Hashem of mercy that we understand from the Torah, and that all our difficulties are coming from mercy. They look like they’re difficult. They appear to be difficult. If we look deeper into it, we will see that it’s really Hashem’s mercy. He is helping us. And not only is Hashem helping us, but He cares about us.”
Rabbeinu Bachye says on this week’s Parsha, Surely Hashem didn’t need us to light the Menorah in the Beis Hamigdash. Hashem has the sun and the stars and the moon. He’s got plenty of lights. He doesn’t need those lights inside the Beis Hamigdash. But He says, “The lights which Aaron was kindling are very beloved to Me, even more so than the ones that I have set in the heavens. Hashem Himself testifies that when the Jews, whenever the Cohen Gadol lights the Menorah, in the Beis Hamigdash, it’s more precious to Him even than all the stars and the planets that He created. In other words, we are special in front of God. God loves us. God gave us our place. God gives us space, God is our father, we’re His children. So, knowing that, it helps us to handle whatever’s thrown at us. Not only that, but we understand that the Torah itself is something beyond this world.
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains, “The Menorah, which represented Torah, was put outside the parochet,” that’s what the verse says. It was put outside of the curtains. Why is that? Because the Torah is outside of us. The Torah was given to man, but it’s not a product of human intellect. Man is drawn to increase in enlightenments from the Torah. But he must never introduce his own light into the Torah.” In other words, he shouldn’t be like those arrogant people that they want to explain the Torah the way they want to explain it. “No. We understand the Torah itself is something from Hashem Himself. There’s no way that we could understand anything without the Torah. All we would know is what we see with our senses. We have to use our intellect a little bit, but there’s no way we’d be able to know all the secrets of the Universe. The Torah is the secrets of the Universe. Once we understand that the Torah is the secrets of the Universe, and God loves us, and He cares about us, so of course we are able to go through whatever it takes to get there, to get the understanding. And since God wants us to work on our middos, He wants us to work on our character, of course we’re going to do whatever it takes to work on our character because we know it’s the Master of the Universe, it’s God Himself helping us, telling us what to do. And of course we’ll be able to solve it, to handle it.
Like the Orchas Tzadikim says, “A person who believes with his whole heart and trusts in God’s help will always be happy and able to endure anything.” It’s unbelievable. This is just like a sick person that’s taking bitter medicine to be cured. A person willingly endures his problem free of worry. Such a person is also satisfied with the little bit he has. It’s sufficient whatever God gives him.” Thus, we see that happiness includes everything. In other words, we understand there’s a God in the world who cares about us, all the things we are going through are to purify us. Everything that we’re here for is to grow.
Like the Vilna Gaon said, “If a person’s not here to metaken his middos, lama li chayim?” What is he here for? Why are we here? We’re here to grow. We’re here to grow through this problem. And if we understand that God loves us and everything He’s doing is to help us, so we’re going to be happy. If we’re happy, we’ll be able to handle anything. “On the other hand,” he says, “someone who worries and doesn’t have peace of mind and is constantly figuring out more ways to make money, and is not satisfied with what God gives him, that person no matter how much money he has, no matter how much he has, he’s always going to want more and more.” And he continues, “What brings a person to proper faith in God? He is unaffected by any bad happening, and accepts everything with joy and serenity.” A person needs to believe with perfect faith that his Creator, that He does good and He’s the most merciful being, and that He is the true judge. And all that He does is for a person’s own good. Once a person knows that, of course he’s going to be happy. And when you’re happy, and when you’re happy, you’re going to be able to solve all kinds of situations.”
So, one of the points I want to make is, it’s not a question of self-control. Really, there’s no such thing as self-control, how do you control yourself? The answer is, if you have goals, if you understand your purpose in life, it’s not a question of self-control. It’s much easier, you’re able to handle it. This week, I went to speak to Rav Chaim Kaminetsky in Bnai Brak, and I overheard a Jewish guy who came in and said, “Listen, my daughter wants to marry a non-Jew.” So, the Rav said to him, “Did she go crazy? Maybe she went crazy.” In other words, “Are you kidding me? It must be she went crazy.” What do you mean, she went crazy? You’ve lost your context, you’ve lost touch with reality. It’s the same kind of thing, the progressives say, “Oh, if it feels good, do it.” Are you nuts? You’ve lost the context of reality.
The Ramchal explained in his logic, you have an idea of a connotation and denotation. Denotation means the word refers to the thing itself, and the connotation means you bring the context with it. For example, if I say someone is a government worker, it means this guy works for the government. But if I say he’s a politician, not only does he work for the government, but it brings the whole context along with that. We’re not isolated, but the problem is, we lost track of where we are. If you don’t have the bigger picture, so then you’re lost. It’s like you’re crazy, you don’t know what you’re doing. If it feels good, do it. You have no control over yourself. But if you have the bigger picture, you understand you’re here for a purpose, and you have meaning. Meaning is what gives happiness to life, if things have meaning. But meaning only is there if it’s broader. It can’t be just looking locally. You have to be looking at the bigger picture, the bigger goal.
That’s how athletes can endure all kinds of things. You can endure anything. People who have goals with life, they can endure almost anything. There’s all these crazy stories of people that endured incredible things. Victor Frenkl in his theory of psychology asks, “Why don’t you commit suicide? Why don’t you kill yourself?” So, the person thinks, and some people would say, “Well, I have a daughter.” Or, “I want to get married.” Or, “I love my parents.” So those are the things that give you meaning. Ask yourself, “Are you just suffering? Life is hard. Why don’t you kill yourself?” The answer to those questions are the things that give meaning in your life. And if you can build up on those things that give meaning in your life, then you can build a framework, and reframe everything in terms of those things. That’s what the Torah does, it gives you a framework to reframe everything, to not just look locally. In what context am I? Where am I, what am I doing here? Why am I here? All these reasons give meaning to life. And it’s the meaning that you get in your life, that enables you to endure all kinds of different sufferings.
So, in the end of the day, the answer as to how the Jews can handle the sufferings is the Torah itself. Why? Because the Torah puts everything into the proper framework. When you learn Torah, and you learn the philosophies of the Torah, and you see the greatness of the Torah, it creates a context in the way you can live. You don’t just live isolated. You’re living in the context of a greater good, of a God who is kind, of meaning in your life. And that’s the meaning that gives you happiness that allows us to handle any type of suffering.
A Powerful Parable
The Maggid Mi Dubno brings the same verse, “To keep the lamp burning constantly.” He says that the lamp was the symbol of Torah. Like it says, “Ner mitzvah ve’Torah ohr.” For a commandment of kindle, and the Torah’s the light. That’s a possuk in Mishlei. So he explains, “The Torah needs to be learned with diligence and persistence, that no time should be lost.” We know all the Gedolim, all the great Rabbis, they didn’t waste a minute. Every minute they were learning and growing. So, he wants to bring a moshul, a parable.
There were two poor men. They used to shlep from village to village and collect money. And they always got enough to get by, they both collected money. But they were very different from each other. One man, as soon as he got his money he would spend it right away and there would be nothing left the next day, he’d be back to zero. The other one, he would collect and he would always save a little bit on the side. So, little by little, the other one starts to save some money. And he bought some merchandise, and he sold it. Then he made a little bit more money, and little by little he actually became a wealthy person. He improved his lot, just by collecting the money and saving a little bit. But his friend, he continued in his way. He always stayed a beggar his entire life. He’d always spend the money, and there would be nothing left. So, that was the moshul, what’s the nimshal?
The nimshal is that a person is given a certain amount of years to live, comprised of days and hours. And if a person knows how to utilize his time, and during that time he learns Torah and he does mitzvos, in the end, one will join to the next and he’ll have a tremendous reward, a tremendous reward in the next world. But if a person wastes his time day after day, in the end he’ll have nothing.
Great Stories – The Klausenberger Rebbe
The Klausenberger Rebbe relates that one time during the height of the horror of the Holocaust, a Jewish professor who was not religious, asked him this question – cynically, he says. He says, “What do you say about the Jewish people now, Rebbe?” The Rebbe answered, “Don’t worry. It will be good.” So, the professor was shocked. How can he say such a thing? He says, “Listen, I’m not a prophet. And in terms of myself, I don’t know what’s going to be. But I know one thing. The future of the Jewish people is going to be good. I know with certainty our people will survive, and all the cursed evildoers will be destroyed and disappear. This phenomenon has happened over and over through the history of the Jewish people. In the end, every enemy that came against us was wiped out, and today they don’t even exist in civilization. But on the other hand, you can find complete families from one Jew who was killed with mesirus nefesh, was killed by the Nazis, he was killed but his family survived, and there’s hundreds of grandchildren and children that are all serving God and have a great life. And the people who killed him, they had no descendants at all. Nothing left of them.” So, the professor had to agree with the words of the Rebbe.
Peace in Your Home
Rav Moshe Aaron Stern explains that one of the things needed for shalom bayis, to have peace in your house, is faith. If you have faith, you’re going to bring peace into your house. You and your wife, you both have to have faith. “If a person has faith,” he explains, “you could handle all the ups and downs in life. It’s like putting a rock behind the wagon wheel. If the wagon starts to go backwards a little bit, his faith will keep the wagon in place. He brings the Maharal who explains that every Jewish mother tells every child to put his hands over his eyes when he says Shema, that a person, what do we learn from there? That we have to have blind faith. We have to believe that everything Hashem does is for the good. And really, every Jew has faith. The question is, how do Jews sin? “If the yetzer hara, evil inclination comes in,” he explains. Sometimes the yetzer hara comes in and causes a person to sin.
He says even, there’s a famous story about Rav Eliyahu Lopian. There was a famous apikorsus that every day, he used to stand up and speak. “There is no God, there’s no din, there’s no dayan,” there’s no judgement and there’s no Judge, nearly every day. So, what happened? They heard one time, he had to go to the hospital. And he was about to go into the operating room for a very serious operation. They heard him crying. He said, “In Your hands I place my soul. You have redeemed me, God of truth.” This is a Jewish apikorsus who when it came down to it, he starts to pray, because every Jew believes in God. Chazal tells us that even a thief calls on the name of God to help him. A guy’s about to rob the house and he prays, “Please help me, Hashem.”
There’s a true story in Har Nof, these robbers came into the house and there was somebody in the house, he saw them running out. On the way out, they kissed the mezuzah. So, you see that really inside of every Jew, he has faith. It’s just that he gets lost a little bit sometimes. What does it have to do with? It has to do with we have to have faith in order to have shalom in our house. If we don’t have faith, we’re going to have very difficult lives. We’re always going to be fighting and worrying, and complaining. If you have faith, it helps to bring peace into your house.
So, he explains that we pray for chassadim tovim, which means Hashem’s good chessed, His good kindness. But isn’t all of Hashem’s kindness good? The answer is, yes, it is. But we pray that we see it. We don’t always see the good. We have to see the good, we have to see it in our house. We have to be relaxed. So he says, “One time a Rav asked, ‘If suffering is really good, so why don’t we say a blessing on it, she hakol li kol zarchi, that Hashem, You take care of all of our needs.” But when we say the blessing in the morning, Hashem, You take care of all of our needs, that’s including…in other words, how did He take care of all of our needs? Through our suffering, because our needs are to grow. So it’s true, we do say a blessing on it.
So, he brings the famous story of Rav Chaim of Brisk, this is a famous story. Somebody came to Rav Chaim and says, “I have a lot, a lot of questions on emunah. I don’t know what’s going on, I don’t believe in God. I have a lot of questions.” So he asked him, “When did these questions start, the questions that you have now? Did they start after you started to be mechallel Shabbos, after you became not religious, or before?” So he says, “Most of the questions I have now, it happened after I became not religious.” So he says, “Listen, your questions aren’t questions. Your questions are answers, the answers to why you don’t want to be religious. You want to be free so you have a lot of answers of why you can be free. I can’t answer your answers, because that’s what they are. They’re not questions, they’re answers. So really, if you had faith, then you wouldn’t have any questions.” That’s what it says, “A believing Jew has no questions.”
And the point is in terms of shalom bayis, that if you believe that everything is min hashemayim, so you’re not going to be up tight all the time. You’re not going to be striving constantly, why he has a nicer car, and why I don’t have any money, and why this, and why this? And that’s what creates all the fighting in the house. If you have emunah and bitachon, you’re both two happy people, and you’re able to live together in peace, because you have inner peace. So, if you really want to work on peace in your house, then you should also work on your faith, because your faith is going to bring you to peace.
Okay, that’s it for this week’s Torah podcast. I hope you enjoyed it and please share it with your friends.
Rabbi Eliyahu Mitterhoff