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19 Cheshvan 5765 - November 3, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
Bein Odom Lechavero and the Battles for Hashem

Based on the works of Maran HaRav Elozor Menachem Shach, zt"l

The approach of Maran R' Shach ztvk'l to communal matters was not uniform, but composed of different parts and aspects which were, sometimes, even extremely contradictory. Therefore, there are two prerequisites necessary in order for one to properly focus on the lessons to be derived from his practices: a readiness to study them in depth, and the wisdom and understanding with which to interpret those lessons.

The central theme of Maran's concern in communal matters was a firm, unshakable stand for principles, brooking no compromise whatsoever, even at the cost of an out-and-out battle and controversy. But neither is this picture complete unless we simultaneously study the proper dimension which the subject of bein odom lechavero occupied in Maran's eyes. Only through a general, overall survey that includes both poles of the issue can one hope to attain an accurate perspective of Maran's path, and understand it in the light of his daas Torah.

The best concretization of this is the fact that at the very height of a raging battle which he waged against those proverbial "foxes subverting the vineyard," and against those who sought to fetter the feet of those who tread the Torah path -- at that very time, Maran also gave innumerable mussar talks to talmidim in which he established the prime principle of upholding the integrity and due respect of one's fellow man which was, in his eyes, the foundation of all other worthy attributes and character traits.

Maran regarded any insult and denigration of a fellow man as the worst possible sin. He measured up every good deed against this yardstick of truth: How did this act conform with the Torah value of bein odom lechavero?

The sentence that repeated itself in almost all of his talks over dozens of years was, "You may not even realize that you are insulting someone . . . You can hurt someone without meaning to . . ." And again, he would stress this point in personal conversations with the hundreds of people who came to him with their difficult halachic questions, with their problems, with requests for his holy blessings. The scale upon which he weighed many extremely weighty questions was: What are the implications and repercussions that involve aspects of bein odom lechavero?

In the volumes of his Michtovim Uma'amorim, we find many letters written to private people and to communities, to students and to institutions, in which Maran warns and exhorts, pleads and begs, to be heedful and distance oneself from any smattering of machlokes and sin'as chinom. And the dates heading all these letters concur with those very periods when he was waging pitched battles to protect the bastion of pure Torah.

On the one hand, Maran once reacted to the accusation of quarrel-mongering concerning a certain public issue by saying, "And if a thief penetrates to my house and I oppose him, is this called quarrel-mongering?"

And yet, on the other hand, in the course of a difficult fight which ended with the demise of the Poalei Aguda, Maran gave a talk in which he said in the name of HaRav Isser Zalman ztvk'l, "First one must meet one's obligation of establishing Yiddishkeit firmly and afterwards one must make sure that there is no laxity in bein odom lechavero and that no evil traits become entrenched."

And the words with which Maran chose to "assure than there is no laxity in bein odom lechavero" reflect the full balance and equality demanded by daas Torah:

"There were acts that could have caused insult and it seems that according to din Torah, one must be pained that there are people who are hurt and that our fellow Jews are experiencing pain and distress. They were hurt and defeated, and they are distressed over the downfall of their movement. True we should have -- and must -- do what we did. This is what we were instructed to do. But on the other hand, one must also feel the other person's pain, commiserate with his hurt, and realize that even though we couldn't help it, feelings were damaged. We must learn and make amends and see that the insult and abuse of others not be held lightly in our eyes, not be wanton. We must be heedful to respect others, for if one disregards another person's due respect and insults others, even without intent, it can lead to far worse things."

When his words were spoken, they caused a great stir. They were an additional proof that our regular line of thinking is mistaken and distorted. We are talking about the downfall of a movement which our Torah leadership tried to stop for many years, a demise which they tried mightily to bring about. And when that moment finally arrived, Maran saw fit to stifle the waves of joy of the lesheim Shomayim-niks, the self righteous, and to warn lest they succumb to evil traits as a result of all the efforts that preceded the quelling of that movement.

In the sea of verbiage, of the hashing of the political implications and ramifications resulting from the nullification of PAI, Maran is primarily concerned about hurt feelings, and this is what he chooses to dwell upon in his public talks.

This attitude of caring is what he demands from his audience as well. One must commiserate and empathize with the losers and have regrets for anything that was done that ruffled feelings. He called upon each and every person to find ways to stop the avalanche of negative feelings lest it gain momentum as it hurtles downward. G-d forbid that insulting others become free territory, something permissible and even considered admirable -- a "mitzvah," no less.


His strict attitude on the subject of interpersonal relations runs like a silver thread throughout his many talks, and his words are stated in a most stringent, warning tone:

"In our times, the matter of embarrassing a person (malbin pnei chavero), abusing and besmirching him, has become wide open. There is no doubt that this can deteriorate to a level of bloodshed, very literally speaking! My heart is torn and bleeding. To what depths have we fallen? At what base level are we? To abuse and vilify one another without even being aware that it is a sin!

"There is no value to any good deeds or fine merits or advantages," he determines, "when these come at the expense of hurting another person's feelings -- so long as there is no law in the Shulchan Oruch explicitly permitting and commanding one to do so.

"Let us visualize Klal Yisroel in Egypt, steeped in forty-nine levels of depravity. Hashem sends Moshe Rabbenu to rescue them and liberate them from bondage. Being a prophet, Moshe knows that their emancipation also entails the receiving of the Torah and entry into Eretz Yisroel. Nevertheless, he makes his own reckoning. Perhaps my accepting this mission will insult Aharon? And thus do Chazal state in the Midrash: `Until I came along [and was designated as the liberator], my brother Aharon prophesied to them in Egypt for eighty years. And now, shall I impinge upon his territory and cause him pain?' And this is why he refused to go."

We must infer, says Maran, that even the height of one's aspirations, the pinnacle of anything a person might dream of in this world -- to receive the Torah [firsthand]! -- is of no value and not worthwhile if Moshe must intrude upon Aharon's territory and cause him hurt. This is what Moshe Rabbenu ruled!

This is an awesome lesson! That even the most precious thing cannot be viable if it steps on someone else's toes in the process. If one does a good thing but another suffers from it, it cannot possibly be truly successful.

To all the poignant, forceful thoughts just expressed, Maran added a message that summed it all up, laying full weight upon good character traits involving one's fellow man.

"I heard from R' Isser Zalman that after Chazal interpreted the verse, `You shall love Hashem your G-d,' to indicate that one must make Hashem beloved upon one's fellow man, that one should read and review and all of one's dealings with others should be pleasant with everyone. If so, then this goal is also included under the commandment of the conclusion of that verse: `With all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might.' This means that the obligation to deal pleasantly with every human being must, where necessary, even be taken to the extreme of self-sacrifice!" (See Machsheves Mussar, pp. 282, 456, 506 and 507).

"To deal pleasantly with one's fellow man, even to the degree of self-sacrifice" -- this is the essence of the great `work' of the life story of Maran ztvk'l, as testified by thousands of facts that were widely publicized. And this is likewise the preface to that great `work' called "The Book of the Battles of Hashem," which Maran wrote and bequeathed to his generation.

To Weigh on a Scale

Many cases showed the delicate balance and the manner in which Maran weighed the extreme caution that he exercised in avoiding every hint of insult to another, just as he carefully weighed the primary values in the Torah world in juxtaposition with an adamant and consistent stance to preserve the purity of his principles.

In the period in which he stood at the center of the battle of Torah-true Jewry against a certain rabbi, Maran participated in a wedding at which that selfsame rabbi was present as the moro de'asra, the official rabbi of that place. Maran insisted that the rabbi be given honors as the moro de'asra.

At a certain time when he waged a battle to prevent a certain rabbi from seizing power over a certain community that included bnei Torah, Maran happened to overhear words that showed that some people wanted to extend the battle to actually challenge his rabbinical credentials for leadership over any group. Maran reacted with pain, "How can you think of such a thing? Everyone agrees that he does have the right to exercise authority over a certain public. Our only fight is to stop him from extending his authority to our circle. But why should we wish to encroach upon his territory?"

Maran once had to find out information about a famous rabbi regarding his outlook in matters that represented the Torah- true hashkofoh. He asked R' Dovid Frankel about him and R' Dovid began delivering his opinion at length.

Maran sat and listened in silence. At one point, R' Dovid began touching upon a personal matter, when Maran suddenly roused himself and grabbed R' Dovid by the hand, rebuking him, "R' Dovid! Loshon hora!"

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