Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

28 Shevat 5761 - Febuary 21, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
The Liberating Servitude

by Yochonon Dovid

The small auditorium of the Beis Haknesses was already filled with people waiting for the lecture to begin. The subject publicized in the announcements was: The Liberating Servitude. The apparent contradiction in terms whetted people's curiosity and they were discussing the title among themselves.

Slavery and deliverance were clashing concepts. One person suggested that the speaker would surely elaborate on the idea that, "There is no free person as one who is occupied in Torah study," which he understood to mean that only one who subjugates himself to Torah can be truly considered free [from all kinds of other demands]. Several other conjectures were raised before the speaker made his appearance, whereupon the audience settled down to listen to what he had to say.

Good evening -- he began. With your permission, I would like to tell you about a personal event that is connected to the topic of tonight's talk. Last week I attended a family wedding out of town. I couldn't very well leave before bircas hamozone and sheva brochos and another round of dancing. This was followed, of course, by a set of good-byes to assorted relatives. It was way past midnight when I finally arrived at my home-town, where I hailed a cab. When I get home, I thought to myself, the only thing I'll be fit for is crawling into bed.

This wedding and the traveling back and forth topped a day full of activity and I was exhausted. The cab sped through the empty streets but even in my condition, I couldn't help noticing the driver's frequent yawns. Towards the end of the ride, he apologized and said, "I am exhausted."

I countered with a remark that was half question, half statement, "You're probably going home yourself, after this."

And he replied, "I can't. I haven't earned my `daily' yet."

The cab stopped in front of my house. I paid the driver and it sped away. I stood there for a moment, thinking about what he had said. "I can't. I haven't earned my `daily' yet." What, exactly, did that mean? His daily what? What was actually stopping him from driving straight home? Who had established that `daily' of his?

Suddenly, my mind shook off its cobwebs and it became clear to me. The driver had determined the set amount that he was meant to earn each day and until he arrived at that sum, he would not stop roving the streets in search of customers. No one was coercing him, to be sure. It was his own individual willpower, his personal resolution, which propelled him and sustained him to continue working until he achieved his personal goal.

I was overcome with shame. I felt like an accused person standing before a court, with the prosecuting attorney roaring mercilessly at the defendant: "He, the driver, has not yet earned his daily quota and therefore, he cannot go home to sleep! His weariness and the late hour have no impact on his decision to persevere! And what about you? Have you discharged your obligations and commitments for the day? Have you duly provided your soul with its daily nourishment? Was it not you, yourself, who resolved not to let a day go by without your daily daf? Were you not the one who declared, more than once, that one mustn't retire for the night without having devoted a quarter of an hour to mussar study? And what about your resolve to cover one chapter in Tanach? It was you who urged your audiences to adopt this practice as an immutable obligation! But you let yourself off this hook; you made allowances for yourself and permitted circumstances to provide excuses. That driver rides his donkey far better than you!"

This was the accusation that I heard in my mind while I stood on the sidewalk in front of my house. I can see that my last sentence about the donkey is obtuse. I'm referring to Moshiach, who is described by the novi as mounted upon a donkey. This does not mean to convey a mode of transportation.

A donkey signifies physicality, materialism. Every person has the gross, material side to him which includes his physical sensations, his bodily needs and his corporal desires. He also has a spiritual side which is his sublime aspect. The spiritual part is meant to "ride" over the physical side, to dominate it and subordinate it to his service. When a person eats something which he knows he should abstain from, he personifies that hapless rider whose donkey is actually mounted on him and directs him. When a person coughs and feels pressure in his chest, and has just read about the dangers of smoking, yet, nevertheless, removes with his yellowed, nicotine- stained fingers still another cigarette and lights it, he is serving the "donkey" within him, the animal nature which pushes him to fulfill a physical desire. He allows it to mount him, as it were, and dominate his actions.

Moshiach, on the other hand, is the perfect, ultimate man, the person who ideally dominates the materialism within him; he rides upon his donkey. He is in full command of his physicality. His mind and his free will determine what he does; they see to it that the matter is subordinate to their dictates. This is the significance and the implications of being mounted upon one's donkey. We find Avrohom Ovinu saddling his donkey and suppressing his natural feelings towards his beloved son; he, too, completely rules over his instinctive paternal emotions.

Don't think that I didn't have my defense plea against the cab driver's mute accusation. In his case, his resolve was not a question of subordinating his material side since the reason for his "riding the donkey,' that is, overcoming his natural physical fatigue, was primarily a material reason! Money! If a person waives a frank- on-roll with mustard in favor of pita-falafel with chili sauce, he is not demonstrating any physical self restraint, any victory of will power over matter. He is simply substituting one desire for another. It is only when the spirit overrules the matter, the donkey, when an abstract spiritual value prevails over a physical, material mechanism, that we see the characteristic predominance that typifies the ideal person, the perfect man. His is self-control that dominates the physical with an iron hand and this expresses the liberation of man's spirit, the strength to overcome physical demands and desires.

I am reminded of my rebbe in cheder who was the epitome of self restraint. He never made allowances for himself, never displayed self pity. Every written test he gave was returned, marked, the following morning, accompanied by incisive comments. On the day he married off his daughter, he came in to class as usual, even in the afternoon. For dozens of years, he gave a nightly class in his home for older people which he never cancelled for any reason whatsoever. Only many years later did it dawn on me that he was the example par excellence of one who rode upon his "donkey."

I would like to note that one who rides upon his donkey must, of necessity, take into consideration the physical limitations of that "donkey" and not overburden it beyond its capacity. Similarly, one must be careful not to pamper it, either. No irreversible damage happens to a healthy man who discharges his daily quota late at night, due to extenuating circumstances.

These were my thoughts after hearing the message heavenly designed for my ears -- of the driver who had not fulfilled his daily quota. I was reminded of a mussar talk on the topic of a "servant of Hashem." The Mashgiach had said that if a person established a regimen of Torah study, no matter how small, which became iron- fast, immutable, inviolate, under all circumstances, this was sufficient to earn him the crowning accolade of "a servant of Hashem."

His might be merely a small crown, but it was a legitimate coronet, nonetheless. The absolute subordination was what earned him this praise.

Close to two a.m., in a state of mental alertness and with uplifted spirits, I closed my last sefer, having discharged all of my self- imposed study obligations. A new refrain trilled within me: "Thank G-d, I have completed my daily quota."

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