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24 Teves 5765 - January 5, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
"If the Ancients were Like Angels, then We are Mere Mortals . . . "

by HaRav Mordechai Gifter zt'l

The rule which Chazal established that, "If the ancients were like angels, then we are like mortals," applies as well to the relationship between the younger members of the generation with regard to the elders of that same generation.

"If the ancients were like angels, then we are like people, and if the ancients were like mortals, then we are like donkeys, and not like the donkey of R' Pinchos ben Yo'ir."

This does not express doubt about the nature of the Rishonim, but rather establishes definite and clear-cut parameters of our approach towards them. If we relate to them in contrast to ourselves as angels to people, then we are people and can benefit from their wisdom. But if we regard them as mortals like ourselves, then we are no more than donkeys. And as such, we are altogether incapable of being influenced or taught by them. We are even lower and less able to receive any influence than the famous donkey belonging to R' Pinchos ben Yo'ir, whose owner's kedushoh was so great that it influenced even his donkey and caused it to shun food that was not tithed.

When speaking about the relations between generations, it is vital for us to be aware that we are not talking about generations far removed from us by centuries. This is not so. The gap between earlier and later generations even applies within the span of a generation or two, so that the elders who are contemporaries of the younger ones, with years in between to be sure, are to be considered like `Rishonim' and the younger ones as `Acharonim.' This is specifically stated in the words of Chazal (see Brochos 20a).

Whoever has a proper perspective on this matter is capable of receiving some genuine lessons and influence from the piety and wisdom of the elders and sages of his own generation. Only if he truly regards them as angels of Heaven, will he be able to absorb the element of prophecy inherent in their wisdom, as Chazal have noted (Bovo Basra 10a).

Even though prophecy was taken away from the prophets, that is, even if we no longer enjoy prophecy, still an element of prophecy exists by the wise. Chazal deal with this matter of prophecy that exists within wisdom in greater depth in Shemos Rabbah, Yisro 28:4. "Said R' Yitzchok: Whatever the prophets were to prophesy in each and every generation was already transmitted at Sinai. And so we see it written: `The prophecy of the word of Hashem to Israel at the hand of Malachi.' It is not written, `In the days of Malachi' because that prophecy already existed in his hand, as it were, directly already at Sinai. However until the very hour that it had to be transmitted to the Jewish people, it was withheld and he was not permitted to prophesy it. Not only did the prophets receive their prophecies directly from Sinai, but even the sages and elders in each and every generation received their own prophecies directly from Sinai (see further Brochos 5a)."

If we wish to understand the opinion of a Torah sage who does, in fact, possess an element of prophecy within his wisdom, we must realize that he is tied and closely bound to Hashem yisborach, and everything about his life is imbued with Torah. Chazal said in Beitza (40a) about Rabi Chonoh bar Chanilai that he is a great man and busy with his learning, and Rashi explains that such a sage is one who forgets worldly matters.

We cannot help but bemoan the fact that in our times people who have not merited shimmush chachomim and some who are not even worthy of the title of talmid since the term talmid denotes a submissiveness, as of disciple to master in accepting his authority with a blind faith (this is explained in the gemora in chapter Bameh Madlikin which tells what Hillel said to a convert) nonetheless express opinions, even daring ones, concerning Jewish life, based on criticism against the Torah scholars of the generation, portraying these scholars to the public as if they lack experience in practical everyday life.

These critics who did not attend to Torah scholars, lord it over others and boast of their wisdom and of their practical experience. They are truly involved in many things in life, but in fact they are very distant from being absorbed at all in the holy Torah. Because of their many pursuits and the difficulty they have in concentrating they do not find much time to study, and have really lost the deep desire for that elevated pleasure of being distracted by learning Torah. Their spirit is dispersed. It is not focused.

Since seeing the truth in Torah has that element of prophecy that is in wisdom, the only way one can see it is through total distraction and absorption, that is similar to what prophets experience when they prophesied. We see that when prophets prophesy, "Their bodies tremble and they become debilitated and lose their wits and exclude extraneous stimuli so that their minds are free to understand what they visualize" (See Rambam, Yesodei Hatorah, 7). In a similar way, we must also concentrate completely on Torah, and study it "with dread and fear and trembling," as it was transmitted at Sinai, as explained in Chazal in Brochos.

Only through such an approach can we understand and feel what Chazal taught upon the verse, "I am a wall . . . " The towers are the Torah scholars, and as is explained by the Yad Ramah commentary on Bovo Basra, "The members of that generation derive benefit from the scholars in their midst just like an infant imbibes his mother's milk, and their Torah protects them like watchtowers. For not only does the generation enjoy the benefit of their counsel, but their entire subsistence is from these scholars just like an infant's subsistence is from his mother's milk. When we relate to them thus, then truly they protect us, like towers that serve as vantage points for distant lookout.

"Torah scholars have a far-reaching vision that can look into the past that is already forgotten by the bulk of the nation and extrapolate their wisdom into the future to know what will transpire. They do not suffer from shortsightedness or a narrow view of the present which is like a fleeting shadow, like others."

We must strengthen within ourselves an appreciation of what our sages have taught us: A person must forever say: When will my deeds approach those of my ancestors, Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov? Chazal did not obligate us to reach their level, for this is an impossible feat and is dependent purely on Heavenly assistance to merit this. But they did obligate us to say, "When will my deeds approach . . . "

We must endlessly, ceaselessly strive for our deeds to emulate theirs. We must strive for an ongoing continuity in the tradition and transmission from generation to generation, from the Patriarch founders of our people up till the preceding generation and unto our very times, for the deeds of every generation touch the ones preceding it and following it.

The yahrtzeit of HaRav Mordechai Gifter zt'l, rosh yeshivas Telz, is 23 Teves.

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