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10 Cheshvan 5760 - October 20, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
Rising to Greatness

by HaRav Alter Yitzchok Dershowitz zt"l

Parshas Lech Lecho opens with HaKodosh Boruch Hu commanding Avrom: "Go out from your country" (Bereishis 12:1). Bereishis Rabbah (39:1) explains, "This can be compared to someone who, while passing from one place to another, saw a building burning. He said, `Can it be that this building has no owner?" The building's owner looked out at him and said: `I am the building's owner.'

"Likewise, once Avrohom Ovinu said, `Can it be that this world is without a ruler?' HaKodosh Boruch Hu looked out at him and said, `The world belongs to Me.' "

"Hashem therefore instructed Avrohom Ovinu, `Go out from your country . . .' so as to leave his land and his father's home and go and make His Divine Presence known throughout the world" (following the Eitz Yosef).

The Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Avodas Kochovim 1:3) writes: "From the time [Avrohom] was weaned, although he was still young, he began meditating day and night. He wondered how it was possible that this world would continue endlessly without a leader. Who ran it? It was impossible that it conducted itself without some [power] guiding it or telling it what to do. . . . He reflected until he grasped the true way and understood the course of justice . . . At forty years old Avrohom realized that there is a Creator."

We see that Avrohom Ovinu a'h was stimulated to realize the Creator's existence through wondering about how perfect the created world is. He looked around him and saw that the world functions in a flawless, perpetual arrangement, and the self-evident question was, "Who is the building's owner?" We can infer from Chazal that Avrohom's ability to ponder the world and his keen amazement over it is what made Avrohom great. Indeed, why is the creation's manifest uniformity not as obvious to us as it was to Avrohom Ovinu?

The following statement of astonishment about our not sensing Hashem's miraculous rule of the world is generally considered to have been uttered by the Alter of Kelm zt'l, a talmid of R' Yisroel Salanter. Humans see a perfect world around them with all creatures living in it and possessing just what they need for their existence. Everyone knows that nothing happens by itself, and no one expects to attain something he lacks without doing something to get it. Why does a person not ask who created this entire superb universe? Why are people not simply staggered when they see the world's precise and intricate arrangement? Is it not a marvel that this order functions with such regularity, that time and again it repeats itself? Is it because we are so accustomed to these amazing sights that we do not ask any questions?

It is possible that the answer to the Alter's question is that men are totally engrossed in their daily routine and are immersed in life's vanities. Habit leads to indifference and taking things for granted. A person may be alive and functioning, while all the time his heart is fast asleep. His spirit is dozing and is in a "slumber of idiocy," as the Midrash defines it. Such a slumber is the worst there can be.

"Rav said that there are three types of slumber (tardeimoh): a slumber of sleep, a slumber of prophecy, and a slumber of hibernation . . . Rabbonon add a slumber of folly" (Bereishis Rabbah 44:17, 17:5).

We will explain the different types of slumber by starting off with the lowest type.

The Ibn Ezra (Bereishis 2:21) explains that slumber is more than sleeping (sheinoh) and sleeping is more than napping (tenumoh). Yonoson Ben Uziel translates tardeimoh as a deep sleep. The least and the shortest discontinuance of man's physical functioning is a light nap, deeper is sleeping, and afterwards follows slumbering. The first category of tardeimoh is also a sort of sleep -- an exceptionally deep sleep:

"Elokim caused a deep sleep (tardeimoh) to fall upon the man, and he slept, and He took one of his ribs" (Bereishis 2:21). With this tardeimoh, HaKodosh Boruch Hu caused Odom Horishon to slumber while He created Chava. Odom was put to sleep so he would not feel pain when one of his ribs was being removed and so that he would not see Chava until her creation was completed. This tardeimoh can be compared to a sort of medical anesthesia. (See Rashi, the Ramban, and the Seforno, on this posuk).

The second type of tardeimoh is a "slumber of prophecy." "The sun was going down and a deep sleep fell upon Avrom, and lo, a horror of great darkness fell upon him" (Bereishis 15:12).

This tardeimoh was cast on Avrohom Ovinu at the bris bein habesorim (Bereishis ch. 15) "to subdue the body's functions so that [Avrohom] could sense prophecy" (the commentary of the Maharazu on Bereishis Rabbah, ch. 17).

A tardeimoh of hibernation is the third type. Let us imagine this scenario: Shaul and Avner Ben Ner, the king's chief army commander, led three thousand soldiers in search of Dovid in the Zif desert. Nightfall forced them to discontinue their chase, and they set up camp for the night. Meanwhile Dovid and Avishai secretly approached Shaul's camp:

"Behold Shaul lay sleeping within the barricade and his spear was stuck in the ground at his head, and Avner and the people lay round about him. Then said Avishai to Dovid, `Elokim has delivered your enemy into your hand this day; now therefore let me strike him through to the earth with the spear at one blow, and I will not need to strike him a second time.' And Dovid said to Avishai, `Destroy him not . . ..' So Dovid took the spear and the jar of water from Shaul's head and they went away, and no man saw it or knew it or awakened, for they were all asleep, because a tardeimoh from Hashem was fallen upon them" (I Shmuel 26:7, 12).

This was a time when Shaul's camp should naturally have been at the peak of caution. All of their senses should have been razor-sharp. They were in the midst of pursuing an opponent of the king and were also exposed to danger from all of the desert wildlife. Even the slightest noise should have made them jump to action. Instead we see that they were all sound asleep, contrary to a person's inherent instinct to protect himself. Although this was a most threatening situation Shaul and his camp were paralyzed, totally immobilized. They were just like forest animals hibernating during the winter, sleeping as if dead.

The fourth type of tardeimoh is the most intense -- "a slumber of folly."

"For Hashem has poured out upon you the spirit of tardeimoh and has closed your eyes, you prophets, and has covered your heads, you seers. And the vision of all this is become to you as the words of a sealed book, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, `Please read this,' and he says, `I cannot, for it is sealed.' Then the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, `Please read this,' and he says, `I am not learned.' And Hashem said, `Since this people draw near, and with their mouth and with their lips do honor Me, but have removed their heart far from Me, and their fear towards Me is as a commandment of men learned by rote; therefore behold, I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, a marvelous work and a wonder, for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid'" (Yeshaya 29:10-14).

According to the Metzudos Dovid, the novi is describing a lack of desire to understand things that they could very well have understood. Instead of trying to understand them, the people gave trifling excuses, such as the matter being a "sealed book" or the message being unclear. If they had really wanted, they could have opened the "sealed book" and read it, or requested the novi to explain it to them. Their laziness and indifference were a result of HaKodosh Boruch Hu's "pouring upon them" a feeling that confused them and made them feel as if they were in the midst of a slumber. Hashem closed their eyes so that they would be unable even to see something that everyone saw, since "when someone comes to be metamei himself Hashem opens the door for him" (Shabbos 104a). Furthermore, Hashem decided to "put a covering over a covering, a seal over a seal" (Rashi, ibid.) until the wisdom and understanding of the wise became concealed and even their wise behavior would not help them escape the looming danger.

This is a stupor, a lack of sound reasoning, a total lack of understanding, an insensitivity, a loss of discernment, an inability to analyze what is happening. People are wide awake but actually they are fast asleep. They are as if spiritually dead; their intelligence has ceased functioning. They are engulfed in the vanities of the age, with daily burdens ruling over them that determine how they live. Men drown in an ocean of trivial matters and nonsense and do not succeed in lifting themselves out, in picking up their heads, taking a break, breathing a little, thinking farther than the daily span of life right around them.

How do we escape this endless routine? How does someone break his habits and rouse himself from his deep sleep? How does the heart of today's busy and overburdened man finally awaken to learn, to reflect about his environment the way Avrohom Ovinu did, to feel the creation's beauty, its wisdom and sophistication, its wonderful design? How does he awaken to take interest, to investigate, and to ultimately discover the truth?

The answer is waiting in the commentaries of the rishonim on the following pesukim:

"Only take heed to yourself and guard your soul diligently, lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life; but teach them your sons, and your sons' sons -- the day that you stood before Hashem Elokim at Choreiv, when Hashem said to me, `Gather Me the people together, and I will make them hear My words, that they may learn to fear Me all the days that they shall live upon the earth and that they may teach their children.' And you came near and stood under the mountain and the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, with darkness, clouds, and thick darkness. And Hashem spoke to you out of the midst of the fire -- you heard the sound of the words, but saw no form, only a voice" (Devorim 4:9-12).

"And these words which I command you this day, shall be in your heart" (Devorim 6:6).

"This day Hashem your Elokim has commanded you to do these statutes and judgments. You shall therefore keep and do them with all your heart and with all your soul" (Devorim 26:16).

"And Moshe and the Kohanim the Levites spoke to all Yisroel, saying, `Take heed and hearken, O Yisroel, this day you have become the people of Hashem your Elokim. You shall therefore listen to the voice of Hashem your Elokim and do His commandments and His statutes which I command you this day" (Devorim 27:9-10).

The Ramban writes that HaKodosh Boruch Hu distinctly warned us to remember receiving the Torah and mitzvos on Mt. Sinai, and not to forget even the minute details of that revelation: its noises and flaming torches, the mountain burning with fire to the heart of heaven, the darkness, clouds, Hashem speaking to us out from the midst of the fire, and our hearing a voice but not seeing any form. We felt His honor and greatness, heard His voice, feared being consumed by the enormous fire and dying if we continue to hear the voice of Hashem.

This was a prominent event, an awe-inspiring occurrence hitherto unheard of in man's history. Nowhere on earth had anything like it previously happened. Never before had a nation sensed Hashem's sublime glory. These powerful impressions must be well preserved in a Jew's personal, familial, and national memory, and should be transferred from one generation to the other forever. Hashem did this to teach us that we must eternally fear Him. Forgetting the revelation in Mt. Sinai is a lo sa'aseh ("lest you forget") and letting our future offspring know of it is an aseih ("teach them to your sons").

The reason we received the Torah from the Almighty in this magnificent way and not from Moshe Rabbenu, is so that if a false prophet would some day deny the momentous event of our receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai, everyone would know he lied. Fathers conveyed to their sons that Hashem gave us the Torah at Mt. Sinai, and the sons naturally believed what their parents told them, since parents will not bequeath to their children something not true, as the Ramban (Devorim 4:9) writes: "[parents] do not testify falsely to their children." The children in turn continue, in an unending chain, to bequeath this tradition to their own children as the solid truth.

"Only take heed to yourself and guard your soul diligently" (Devorim 4:9). Rabbenu Bechaye comments that if you forget, and remove that wondrous milestone of kabolas HaTorah from your heart, it will cause you in the end to deny Hashem's existence -- destruction for a person's body and nefesh.

He writes, "`This day' (Devorim 26:16) -- what is the meaning of the phrase `this day'? Moshe Rabbenu was talking to am Yisroel forty years after our receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai! Chazal (Midrash Tanchuma Ki Sovo 3) explain that `every day the Torah should be as dear to you as if you today received it from Sinai,' and concerning the parsha of Shema Yisroel Chazal (Pesikta Zutresa, ibid.) write, `It should be just like new for you, as if you had today received it on Mt. Sinai.'

"Generations go by and man's heart is influenced by what he sees with his eyes. What he sees he remembers and what is hidden from him he forgets. Since the miracles at Mt. Sinai did not go on forever, the Torah warned us that our emunah in kabolas HaTorah should forever remain fixed in our hearts.

"It may be that the reason the posuk starts `this day' and ends `with all your soul,' is to show us that a person must sacrifice himself for mitzvos at all times, just as when we first received the Torah. Just as he would have been willing to sacrifice himself for Hashem on that day, when he saw with his own eyes the miracles and the fire on the mountaintop, so should he always be prepared to be moseir nefesh."

"Listen Yisroel" (Devorim 27:9). The Seforno explains (ibid.) that this means that we should depict for ourselves what happened when we received the Torah on Mt. Sinai, then afterwards reflect about it, and then we will undoubtedly listen to what Hashem has commanded us.

"That I command You today" (Devorim 6:6). Rashi explains that you should not consider these things a king's command from a long time ago, something that was once sent to you in a letter, something that people do not attach much importance to. The Torah should be like something new that everyone runs out to greet.

The Sifrei (11:32 cited in Rashi, Devorim 11:13) explains the posuk "And it shall come to pass if you hearken diligently to My commandments which I command you this day" as meaning that "it should be as if new for you, as if you heard it the same day."

From the commentary of Rabbenu Bechaye it is obvious that it is insufficient merely to depict what we saw and heard on Mt. Sinai. It is necessary for each person to be prepared for mesiras nefesh, just like our forefathers, who were moseir nefesh to receive the Torah and mitzvos.

"I have set Hashem always before me" (Tehillim 16:8) is a feeling that was felt by all of Klal Yisroel when Hashem revealed Himself to us on Mt. Sinai. During that momentous occurrence we all sensed the power of His greatness, we perceived His honor and heard His voice.

When they were "ready by the third day" (Shemos 19:11) their clothing was washed, both men and animals were forbidden to ascend the mountain or even touch its edges, the whole nation was on a level of nevu'ah and truly fitting for Hashem to talk to them "face to face" (Devorim 5:4).

The Kuzari (Ma'amar 1:87) writes, ". . . during the three days before receiving the Torah [bnei Yisroel] were greeted with great signs, such as noises, lightning, and thunder, and a fire encompassing Mount Sinai. These fearfully shrill noises, unlike anything before, were intended to purify their bodies and shatter their physicality. There was a fire burning within the darkness, and owing to the confusion and fright anything physical disintegrated.

"On the third day in the morning there was a clamor, thunder, and a dense cloud on the mountain. The sound of the shofar was powerful and all nations were petrified. [Bnei Yisroel] stood at the mountain's bottom ready to do what Moshe had commanded them. The mountain was dislodged from its place and was held over them like a barrel. There was complete silence: no bird cried out, no ox lowed, and the whole mountain was consumed in flames until the heart of heaven. The shofar's sound increased in power, and afterwards Hashem descended onto Mt. Sinai, to the mountain's top. Hashem uttered all of the asoro dibros in one sound, and to this sound was added Divine lettering engraved on the tablets. All six hundred thousand Jews saw this miraculous writing. They witnessed all this, trembled, and stood far away. Mal'achei shoreis came and helped bring them back. [Bnei Yisroel] asked Moshe to speak to them alone instead of Hashem, lest they die."

Only such a genuinely stormy experience can fill one's whole heart. Habit and petty things lose their importance and finally find their proper place. Man is left attentive, realistic, and able to rouse himself and reflect on what is happening. He can take an interest in his surroundings, and examine things just as Avrohom Ovinu did. Man can now reach the unavoidable conclusion and reveal the truth.

The personal revelation to Avrohom Ovinu, and the revelation to six hundred thousand of his children more than four hundred years later, can happen to every Jew, whenever and wherever, since there is always a "building that is burning." Today too, if a person preserves the magnificent true vision of receiving the Torah as if it happened today -- if he searches for the owner of the building -- He will immediately look out at him.

A Note About the Author

The above mussar vort perfectly suits its author: this was the sum and substance of HaRav Alter Yitzchok Dershowitz zt'l. One of his most characteristic qualities was his ardent desire to constantly review what he had studied. Tirelessly, persistently, again and again, he would reexamine what he had studied. Torah study was always new for him, just like the day it was given on Mt. Sinai. It was as if he had studied this matter just now for the first time, like a new command that had just arrived from the king. He was full of enthusiasm to reopen the daf he had studied yesterday.

Every time afresh.

When many were tired out, satisfied with what they knew, and had decided to proceed, to study another topic, R' Alter would prefer to start the same sugya again, to reopen the old daf that was known to him so well, that he was acquainted with and that was cherished by him. He would feel with his entire being the sweetness and longing to study that page, as if it was an entirely new daf. He was always beginning again from the start: this was his Bereishis, also his siyum, and in fact his very essence. He was a man made all of "Go out" -- "for your benefit and your good," in your way, untiring, in the way that ascends to the house of Hashem.

HaRav Alter Yitzchok Dershowitz zt'l, whose yahrtzeit is on 27 Tishrei, was the founder of the beis midrash in Bnei Brak which is now called Zecher Yitzchok in his memory.

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