Torah Podcast Transcript
The Torah Podcast 016 – How to Become Wise – Shavuot
Torah Portion – Bamidbar
This week’s Parsha, Bamidbar, starts out with a Midrash. The Midrash Rabba says like this. The possuk says, the verse says, “Vaydaber Hashem el Moshe bamidbar Sinai,” Hashem spoke to Moshe in the midbar, the desert. The Midrash says that from here we learn the Torah was given with three things. What were they? B’aish, ub’mayim, ub’midbar. They were given with fire, the Torah was given with fire, and the Torah was given with water, and the Torah was also given in the desert. The Midrash continues and says, “Why was the Torah given with these three things? Just like that these things are all free, m’kol, for everbody? So too, these three things were given for free – fire, water and the desert, that was before the water company and electricity company ,but it was given for free, free for the taking. The possuk says, they bring a verse that says, “Whosoever is thirsty go to water, and even if you don’t have any money, go and buy and eat, and go without money, without a price. Buy milk and wine.” That’s what the possuk says from Yeshiyahu. It’s talking about that the Torah is free for everybody, anybody who wants to learn the Torah can learn the Torah. It’s free. Now I’m going to discuss these three things based on the sefer, book, Ohel Yaakov.
It says, “Man has opposite forces inside of himself. He has arrogance on one side, and on the other side he could be humble. Mercy, he can be merciful, on the other side he could be very cruel. Man could have tremendous love, or he could have tremendous hate. And all these things are all mixed together. It’s man’s job to decide when and with how much to use them.” This is the concept of middos, character traits. The word middos in Hebrew means measurements. Character means measuring what you do. You could be a little bit angry or a lot angry. Sometimes you have to act angry. Sometimes you can be humble, very much humble or a little bit humble. It depends. Each thing, each moment, each new situation that Hashem gives us requires us to act with our character, with our middos. That means we have to measure our emotional status. In modern terms it would be called “emotional management” – managing your emotions, managing how you act. The problem is, it’s all these character traits are mixed up inside of ourselves. Not only that, it’s not so clear which character is which.
I’ll give you a little story. One time I went to a burial of an older woman who was not religious. The religious people there were burying this woman, and the sister of this woman who was also not religious, she was saying, “Look how cruel these Rabbis are. They’re putting the dirt on my sister, and they’re each giving another a chance to do it.” In other words, by the burial usually you take the shovel, you put the dirt on the dead person. Then you put the shovel down, and the next person comes and picks it up. Why? Because it’s a mitzvah. She looked at that mitzvah and says it was cruel. “How cruel can these people be?” But really, it’s just the opposite. It’s kindness. We know for example, if there is a dead body found in a field somewhere and you bury that body, that’s called chessed shel emes. It’s the highest level of kindness that a human being can do, because he doesn’t get anything in return. You’re just doing the mitzvah of chessed, of kindness for the person and you’re not getting anything back. Even a midda which appears to be kind, another person can determine to be cruel.
Another example of that would maybe somebody’s kid wants a third ice cream. On one side you’ll say, “Give it to the kid. Be kind to the kid.” Who says that’s kind? You’re being cruel to the kid. He’s going to wind up with a stomach ache. So, it’s not clear which is which. First of all, a person has to study and understand what’s cruel and what’s kind, what’s love and what’s hate. Secondly, in using these character traits, we have to use them in measurement, in the proper measurement. You can’t over react or under react.
The Ohel Yaakov goes on to explain, “In man you have two major categories of character. For example, desire and being satisfied. A person has tremendous desire for things. He wants to be rich, he’s a go-getter. He gets up early in the morning, very driven. And you have another type of personality where he’s laid back. He’s happy, he’s happy with what he has. He doesn’t have to go out and be king of the world. He doesn’t have to be famous. He’s happy with what he has.” Now , in terms of acquiring the Torah, and we’re talking about the week before Shavuos, acquiring the Torah and accepting the Torah, we need to execute these two characters. On one side, if we have desires for the world, all kinds of things we want – we want physical things, we have to be rich and we’re running after women, and we’re running after all kinds of things of the physical world. That has to be toned down. That character trait is comparable to fire burning, the burning inside of a person. How do you handle burning? You put some water on it to calm it down. He wants to say, “That’s part of the Midrash. In order to receive the Torah, if a person has a drive, has tremendous fire for the world, he has to put a little bit of water on it in order for him to be successful as a religious person. On the other hand, if the guy is very laid back and he’s not driven and he has no goals, he’s also not going to be able to receive the Torah. It’s hard work to receive Torah. A person has to sit and discipline himself, and work hard and spend time learning into the wee hours of the night. That person is more like water, but in order to conquer that he has to put a little wood on the fire. He has to get his internal fire burning.
The possuk says, “If you will seek it like silver and hunt for it like treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord, and you will find the knowledge of God.” That’s a possuk in Mishlei, a famous possuk. “You shall seek it like silver,” in other words Torah learning requires that a person runs after it the way a person runs after money. He’s going to have to work hard to get that wisdom, and that’s the quality of fire. I just want to bring a famous Gemara, I couldn’t find it, but I remember it. It says like this, that the Jews were given an extra measure of chutzpah. If you want to know why Jews have chutzpah, it’s written here in the Gemara why they are. The Gemara says among the plant life, the zlaf, the caper bush has the most chutzpah. The caper bush just grows, it’s like a wild weed. You can’t stop it from growing. In the world of birds, the chicken has the most chutzpah. He runs around like a wild chicken. If you’ve ever tried to catch a chicken, it’s almost impossible. In the world of animals, the animal kingdom, the nemer, the leopard has the most chutzpah. He will do things that are dangerous, the things that other animals wouldn’t do. And among people, the Jewish people have the most chutzpah of all the people. Why do we have this extra chutzpah? Why did God give us extra chutzpah? It says, “The Torah is like fire.” Because the Torah is like fire, we need an internal fire to fight that fire. So, God gave us a special drive in order to be able to learn Torah. It says if the Torah was not given, if the fire of the Torah was not given, then the fire that the Jews have would take over the entire world. The nations are right. The nations are right when they say we’re taking over the world. That’s because when we’re not directing our energies in the proper place, we should be directing our energies towards God and towards the service of God, and learning Torah. Then the fire goes into the right place, but if not it goes in to start to take over the world. So, if you want to know where anti-Semitism is coming, it’s coming from us.
Now, when it comes to fire and when it comes to water, and you have a little bit too much fire and you’ve got to put some water on it, you have a little bit too much water you have to put some fire on it. These concepts are called mashe berucho, a man overcoming his tendencies. He uses the opposite character to overcome his natural tendencies. But what’s happening is, there is still a certain suffering the person’s is going through in order to do the right thing. In other words, a person who is not driven, who is not goal-oriented, it takes him tremendous energy to get himself out of bed in the morning early to go learn. We would call that self-control, he’s using these powers inside of himself to overcome his tendency. On the other hand, if a person has tremendous drive but he’s using it in the wrong direction, he’s running after the wrong things, he will also need to water it down but he’s going to suffer having his self-control and those two levels are the levels of fire and the levels of water that the Midrash was speaking about.
But there’s another level above that, and that’s called midbar, the desert. What’s the third thing, why God gave us the Torah in the desert? The actual place where the Torah was given has the highest quality. He brings a Gemara Nedarim that says, “One should make himself like a desert which is ownerless, free to all. And the Torah will be given to him as a gift.” The desert is hefker. Hefker means ownerless. If a person views himself as ownerless, if his character is ownerless, a tremendous level of humility, so that’s when the person is going to receive the Torah as a gift. And this is a higher level of fire or water. Why? Because the Rambam explains in the Shemonei Perachim in chapter six, that when it comes to unhealthy things that a person can overcome them completely, that’s a higher level. For example, if a person gets insulted, one person will get insulted and he’ll have to try very hard to keep his mouth shut. Another person will get insulted and he doesn’t even feel it. He doesn’t know about it. He doesn’t care about it. It doesn’t mean anything to him. He knows that everything comes from God. He’s not offended at all. He doesn’t hold by himself in that way. Let that person think what they think. That level, that’s like a midbar. That’s like the desert, that the person is hefker. He’s ownerless. That level is the highest level.
He brings a possuk from Dovid haMelech who says, “Ki ani ve’evyon anochi, velibi challal bekirbi,” for I am poor and needy, and my heart has died within me. Dovid haMelech was on such a level it was as if he was dead in terms of his humility. This breaking…it’s called sheviras hamiddos, the breaking of the character. Breaking of the character is really what’s needed in order to receive God’s holy Torah, because we’re physical and we want to become spiritual. It’s only our identification with the physical world, “You’re over my kavod and you said this to me, and you said that to me,” it’s all these physical things that are making us so upset. But the higher level would be to be like the desert and hefker and ownerless like the desert.
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz wants to bring a couple of proofs that the breaking of the character is the ikar, main thing for receiving the Torah. He brings one proof by Purim. We know that by Haman, that the decree of Haman scared the Jewish people so much that they became closer to each other. There became a oneness between the Jewish people. We know that that led to accepting the Torah b’ahava, with love.
Another example of this is the Gemara Menachos that says, “Avimu could not recall one of his tractates. He couldn’t remember his learning. He went to Rav Chisda his disciple”, The Rebbe went to the disciple to ask him to remind him of his learning. The Gemara asks also, “Why didn’t he send for his disciple to come to him? He’s the Rebbe, why does he send for the disciple? Because he felt if he went to his disciple, he would be more successful. He would understand better.” In other words, the breaking of his character would help him to understand the Torah even more.
He brings another proof from Vayikra Rabba, it says like this. When a pauper and a smart person meet, Hashem enlightens the two of them. When a wealthy man and a pauper meet, Hashem has made them both.” What is it talking about? A person who has knowledge in learning, in Torah, and the other person doesn’t have knowledge. He says, “So when those two meet and one teaches the other, they both become enlightened. On the other hand, if the poor person, poor in learning asks the other teacher to teach him and he refuses and he says, ‘Go and learn with people of your own standard,’ then it says that Hashem had made them both.” In other words, the one who has made the “rich man” learn, he could make him stupid. And he could also make the ignorant one learn. He could switch things around. We see that if the people are together and they have good character one with the other, they both become smart. If on the other hand they don’t have good character, God will take away the wisdom of the smart one. What do we see from this? We see that the breaking of the middos is an essential quality to gaining wisdom. In order for us to be spiritual and wise, we need to be humble. The highest level of this is when a person actually overcame his bad character traits.
There’s a verse in Mishlei 19:11 that says, “It is good sense for a man to be slow to anger, and it is his glory to pass over a transgression.” Rashi explains there that he passes over his retaliation. In other words, he completely forgives the other person. It’s like the other person didn’t even get him angry, which we said up to now is the quality of the desert – completely ownerless. The question now is, how does a person work on his character to the point where he overcomes it completely? We know what happens in people. For example, let’s say a person decides not to smoke any more. It’s very hard for him. What happened? There’s a tipping point where something happens in a person. You hear many stories, a person goes to the hospital or he sees something and it just shocks him, and it wakes him up. At that point, his intelligence understands that smoking is really dangerous, and maybe he’s in danger, so he stops to smoke. The point really is where the intellect penetrates the heart. When the intellect penetrates the heart, the person changes.
You have the same thing for example, in some homes they will never speak loshen hara, bad speech. They will never speak badly about other people. It’s something beyond them. The children will say, “God-forbid, I would never do such a thing.” That was because they had an upbringing where the parents never spoke badly about people. On the other hand, those kids maybe steal. Another house, they never steal. They would never steal. The parents never steal. Well you know, every little kid he tries to steal. What usually happens? Hopefully it happens, and he’s 10 years old and he steals a candy, he gets caught. It’s such a shock that he never does it again; and oy vavoy to the kid who never gets caught. He could become a thief his entire life. But what happened to that little kid when he got caught? His intellect, he understood emotionally. He went from his head to his heart. “Hey, I can’t do this. This is not right. People don’t accept this behavior. I’m going to have to change.” So, when the intellect penetrates the heart, the person changes.
Rav Yisroel Salanter he says, “What is mussar? What is learning about character traits? What’s the tachlis, what’s the purpose? When the heart feels what the mind knows.” When the heart feels what the mind knows, the person’s going to change. Until then, it’s always a struggle. He’s always fighting with himself. He’s doing the wrong thing, he’s always fighting with his tendencies to be lazy, or his tendencies to run after women, or this tendency…he’s always fighting with himself. But at a certain point you say in Hebrew, “the asimon falls,” the coin falls. The little telephone coin would fall and it clicks in the person’s mind, “I cannot behave this way. I can’t act that way.” And after that, it’s easy. But for all of us, it’s a tremendous struggle in the places that are difficult for us. So, how do we work on it, what could we do in order to overcome these difficult spots in our personality?
I want to bring the Shem shel Shmuel who brings down the Gemara in Shabbos. Reb Yeshuah Ben Levi said, “What is the meaning of the verse, ‘his cheeks are like a bed of fragrant spices,’ in Shir haShirim. The Gemara says, ‘With each one of the ten commandments that God spoke, the whole world was filled with fragrant spices.’” In other words, when the Jews heard the ten commandments at Sinai, the world started to get filled up with incense and spices, unbelievable spiritual smells coming into the world. So we know that at Har Sinai, Hashem removed the zehuma, the impurities of the Jewish people he removed from them, in order for them to receive the Torah. So, where did that zehuma come from? It came from the sin of Adam haRishon. When Adam sinned, what came into the world? Death; death came into the world. When the Jews received the Torah, they received the possibility of life, eternal life. A person who does mitzvos and learns Torah will get eternal life. That came back into the world. Before that, man would live forever. He lived eternally. At the sin of Adam that left the world.
He brings down from Bnai Yissaschar like this. He says, “The sin of Adam haRishon had all the senses involved, the five senses, except for the sense of smell.” He brings a bit of a drasha, speech, but he says like this by Eve, “The woman saw,” she saw, that was the eyes, “That it was good to eat,” that’s the taste. “And it was desirable to the sight,” and she took, she touched it from the fruit, and she ate. “And she heard the voice of God,” so there you have four of the senses. The one sense that was missing was smell. We know that the sense of smell is the most spiritual sense. It says the Mashiach is going to have a tremendous sense of smell. He’ll be able to smell people to see who they are. So, what at Har Sinai when we received the Torah in the midbar, in the desert there was such a tremendous smell there? Because that smell was never tainted. We were trying to rectify the sin of Adam haRishon, of the first man. The Jews could rectify that sin at the time of the receiving of the Torah. The thing that was never damaged was the sense of smell. That sense of smell was there.
He says a beautiful chiddush, idea here. He says, “God gave us that as a starting point. The part of us that was never sullied, that was never dirty. The part of us that stayed clean.” He says, “Self rectification has to start from an unsullied point. This may be very hard, but if one searches deeply inside of himself, his spiritual makeup, he will find some element of his character which is totally pure. Only from there, the ability to improve can spread to the rest of the personality.” This is a beautiful idea. The question is, how do we overcome our bad character traits which have been plaguing us our entire lives? The starting point is to find the point of purity inside of yourself. Everybody has a different point. Some person is very humble, some person is very giving, some person is very excited, some person is very loving, some person is very kind. Find that point inside of yourself, and build on it. When a person can develop that pure quality even more, it will start to spread into the other parts of his personality.
I’ve heard this idea before in Chazal, but here I saw it written. And it’s tremendously encouraging, because every person no matter how low they are, has what’s called the pintele Yid, the spark of holiness inside of himself. This could be the foundation for your spiritual growth. And as it spreads into other parts of your personality, you won’t have to put fire, or you won’t have to add water. Become like the desert, which is ownerless and pure, and you will be able to receive the Torah in the proper way.
A Powerful Parable
In this week’s powerful parable, I want to bring a Midrash Rabba that says like this. Another quality that’s connected with making ourselves like a desert to be able to receive the Torah is this idea that the desert is completely empty. You go into a desert, there’s nothing there. So too, a person’s intellect has to be desert-like, free of foreign elements, in order for the Torah to go in. And in order for us to appreciate and to hear the Torah, we have to clean our minds out of all the nonsense that we’ve been given up till now.
The Midrash has a beautiful parable for this. He says like this. A king conquered a new country. This new king comes in, he wants to take over the entire country, and he wants his law to be implemented. Therefore, he’s going to go and visit the different towns that he overcame, to see the people. He goes to this one big city and he’s expecting a cheering crowd to come out. Nobody shows up. He did a little research, what happened? Why did nobody come? He says, this city – listen – had a lot of rich people in it. They were scared that the king was going to tax them, so they don’t want to show up. They were also dishonest in their dealings, and they were scared of the king. Maybe he’s going to punish them. He says, “Okay, fine. I’ll go to another city.” He goes to another city, a big city. He’s waiting for all the people to come out, to have a big entourage that the king is coming. Nobody shows up. The king says, “This is bizarre. I don’t know what’s going on.” He thinks to himself, “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to do a little research here. I’m going to go to another city where I know the people are a little bit more desolate, and a little bit poorer people, common people. I’ll go to that city. There, I’ll get the proper welcome.” So, the king goes there. They’re rejoicing, everybody’s singing. They have hope for the future. They know that the king’s going to rebuild their city, their wrecked homes and their farms, whatever happened during the war, and they’re all very happy.
The Midrash says, “Similarly, Hashem, God wanted to give the Torah at the Red Sea. But what happened is the Sea ran away. Why? Because we know there was an idol worship from the Egyptians, it says Bal Tzafon was there on the side of the Egyptian side of the sea, there was idol worship. The sea didn’t want to be around when God came around. So God said, “You know what? Maybe I’ll give the Torah on the mountains.” It says now, the possuk says, “The mountains skipped away like rams.” Why is that? Because we know if you go into any of these countries – I went to Italy, I was in Italy. You go up to the top of a mountain, there’s idol worship, there’s a statue up there. They don’t want to be around when God came.
Finally he said, “You know what? I’m going to give the Torah in the midbar, and in the midbar, receive the Torah without fear of shame, for it was totally bare, unblemished by any stain of idol worship.” That’s why God chose the desert. What do we learn from this? We learn, in order to receive the Torah, we need to be like a midbar in a different aspect which is, our mind needs to be clean. We have to appreciate what the Torah has to offer. If we don’t think we’re filled up with all of our philosophies, and all of our politics, and all of our ideas, what’s right and what’s wrong there’s no way we’re going to be able to receive the Torah to hear what it has to say.
Great Stories – The Chazon Ish
I want to tell a great story about the Chazon Ish. The Chazon Ish was the gadol hador in the generation before, the leader of the Torah generation. He said, “You always have to have the proper reverence when referring to Torah teachers and their writing, including those of even recent generations.” He quoted like this, “It is incumbent upon us to exercise caution when being critical of our teachers’ opinions. You are always able to express your opinion in an honorable way, when attempting to refute the proof for what’s being said. But a person should only take pleasure from the intellectual side of what’s being said.” Let’s say he has a kasha, a difficulty with what that Rabbi said. So, he can get pleasure in the difficulty, but God-forbid he should get pleasure from putting that Rabbi down.
He said he was very dismayed, one time he read a book that said that the Magen Avraham was lacking substance. He says, “Chas veshalom, God-forbid,” the Chazon Ish wrote. “The Magen Avraham’s words were clear and forthright.” In other words, none of our great Rabbis said anything stam, just because. There’s a tremendous amount of thought that went into what was being written. Anybody who came into the Torah world, that we read his books, means he was a tremendous person. A person has to give a lot of honor to that person and respect, when reading his words. Ah, you don’t understand it? So the Chazal says, “If the Torah is reik, it’s your emptiness.” If you don’t understand something in the Torah what the Rabbis are saying, it means you’re empty. You’d better check yourself out, and realize and think why he was saying it, why that Rabbi said it that way. You have to think deeper into it, and not disrespect it. He says, “The Magen Avraham, he was our teacher, and we’re all his disciples. Praiseworthy are those who truly merit being counted among his disciples.” We see from here that Torah learning requires the proper respect.
Peace in Your Home
I now want to bring another commandment of marriage. It seems like there’s more than ten commandments here, there’s a lot of them. This one is also from Rav Avigdor Miller. He says, “Do not be a tyrant. This commandment is frequently disobeyed. For example, let’s say a woman works. We know according to the Gemara if the woman works, the money belongs to her husband. For example, when the husband takes responsibility for the house, he gives food, sher kesus v’onah, really that money that she works really belongs to him.” But the Rav says “We don’t go according to halacha when it comes to these things. A man has to loosen up a little bit. He has to know that the money that the woman worked hard for, she has to have some say in that money. You have to give her a little bit of leeway.”
He brought another case of a man not trusting his wife’s shopping ability, God-forbid. He was scared to let his wife go out and shop. He didn’t trust her. She was the only one among her friends who was not allowed to shop. Her husband’s a tyrant. A tyrant – what do you care about the few dollars a week that’s the difference that she’s going to spend. That’s called being a tyrant. It’s going to ruin your marriage. It’s arrogant. A man doesn’t marry to make his wife into a slave.
On the other hand, sometimes you have women that are also tyrants, a little bit too domineering. He said, he spoke to somebody who says, “Everything I do is because I’m afraid of my wife.” His wife happened to call him and ask him. She says, “I don’t want to separate from my husband. I want to find what’s going on. I think he’s cheating on me.” He says, “I’ll tell you what’s going on. He’s afraid of you, and you have to change your ways. If you want to become close with him, you have to act sincerely and stop being a bossy tyrant.” He says, “Usually the man is a tyrant, but sometimes a wife could be a tyrant when it comes to details.”
He concludes, “The husband is a captain and the wife is the first mate. But a captain who tramples on the first mate is asking for mutiny. It’s true the husband runs the house, but if he bosses his wife around too much, you’re going to wind up with a case of mutiny.”
I’ll just end this off with a joke about being a tyrant. One time, the joke goes, that when men get to the next world, there’s two lines. There’s one line of the men who were henpecked, and there was one line where the men were really men. He gets to heaven and he sees all the men lined up in the line that they were henpecked, their wive’s were driving them crazy their whole lives. There’s another guy in the line of the real men, the people who were not henpecked by their wives. One guy in the line with all the henpecked wives says, “I’ve got to go speak to this guy. I want to find out what happened here.” He gets to the guy and he says, “How did you do it? I don’t understand. Why are you standing in this line?” He says, “Oh, my wife told me to stand here.”
Okay, that’s it for this week’s podcast, I hope you enjoyed it. Please share it, please comment. Sign up for the email list. I hope you enjoyed it, and please have a great Shabbos and a great Shavuos, kabbalos HaTorah. We are coming to Shavuos soon, the time to accept the Torah. So, everyone should have a great Shavuot also.
Stephan Sundkvist says
One of the challenges we have in our life, is to be in balance, to see to the “middos” of our lives. And not let any part of our character dominate us beyond measure. May Hashem, blessed be He, help us not to end up in a situation like Belshazzar (Dan. 5:22-25)
MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.
Therefore we need to carefully cross examine all our traits and to break down what is needed to receive G-d.
This is the metamorphosis we need to go through. We need to be transparent and integrated to become one (not split) as G-d is One.
So, help us Hashem to be keen to learn the Torah.
Stephan Sundkvist says
This is maybe one of most difficult things to learn, moderation of one´s ego and the traits that we have.
Therefore we need to pray and perform our mitzvos on a daily basis.