Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

22 Teves 5761 - January 17, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment

by Yochonon Dovid

Let us study the following sentences: "I'm incapable of doing that." "I'm just not built for it." "I simply can't do that." "Sorry, it doesn't fit in with my character."

Familiar, no? When did you last hear such a statement? Oh, you remember? You tried to send a child to the grocer to return the spoiled cheese he bought that morning, and whose production date had expired a while back. The bashful child writhed and shrugged his shoulders while spouting one of the above sentences, adding a suggestion that his older sister be sent for this particular errand.

The use of the above sample apologetic sentences is not limited to pre bar mitzvah age. Sometimes even parents fling these about like a ping pong game. Like the decidedly unpleasant task of calling up so-and-so and telling him that the suggestion we so generously offered last week is off and we ask his forgiveness. Each side presents credible, convincing arguments, in all honesty and sincerity, why they are not the suitable person for that particular phone call. Both employ variations of the excuse, "I'm incapable . . . " with appropriate psychological rationalizations thrown in. And in order to avoid embarrassing the other party, we try our best to forget those instances when we, ourselves, with all due respect, evaded similar unpleasant obligations on the grounds that "I simply can't."

The big question, the crux of the matter, really is if this justification is valid and correct. Is it really true that the person who presents this excuse is actually incapable of certain acts? Does the apologizer's personality really render him incapable of doing certain things?

In order to test it, let us make a comparison with the world of electronic devices. Many people ask what is so unique about the invention called the computer. Today's world is full of machines and sophisticated devices that encompass all areas of life. But the computer reigns supreme. Why? What's so special about it?

A careful analysis will lead us to the following insight: every machine is built to serve a definite purpose and designed accordingly. A sewing machine, for example, is a clever mechanism, but all it can do is sew -- nothing else. The most state-of-the-art air conditioner can only regulate temperature, while an electric drill can only operate according to its attachments. A lawn mower can only mow and a washing machine -- wash clothing. The unique function of each device is limited to its particular design. All except for the computer. When a computer leaves the factory, it is incapable of doing a thing. It must first be primed with a program which will enable it to `understand' the directions that are fed into it. But once it has been supplied with these instructions, it can do anything according to that data. A computer loaded with a word processing program will function as a word processor. It may be able to translate to another language, locate spelling errors, provide synonyms and so on. This same computer can also operate as an electronic engraving machine, or monitor the heartbeats and breathing of a patient in an ICU emergency ward. It can also guide a rocket to its destination, all according to the program and data put in to its memory bank. The computer is a universal instrument, a very general device that can be adapted to every task in the world for which a program can be designed.

This distinction also exists between man and all other living creatures. All living things are designed with a specific purpose, and this is their function and destiny in life. They each perform the tasks that suit their respective internal program. A spider cannot build a nest, just like a dog cannot fly and a bird cannot pull a plow, nor an ox spin a web.

In distinction to this is man who can perform a vast spectrum of activities, with his body and the extensions thereof, that is, his instruments and inventions. He can imitate the actions of all the various creatures, and do much, much more.

Man is a universal creature, if we can say so ourselves. An animal cannot go against its nature and instincts while man, by virtue of his mind and will, finds a way to do whatever he wishes, both in the physical and in the ethical sense. He can penetrate outer space and cross the ocean in an atomic submarine that goes under the icebergs of the poles. He can sit in his home and converse with people at any point on the globe.

The Torah even supports this view that man is almost omnipotent, as a mortal. It is clear that the Torah would not expect the impossible from him. But man can delude himself into thinking that matters confined to the heart are not within his capacity. Indeed, commandments like "You shall not covet," "You shall not stray after your hearts," "You shall love the convert" and so on, testify that Hashem, Who created man and commanded these precepts, knows that man is certainly capable of complying with them. Even the most primal instinct, that of survival, can knuckle under his control. Hashem testifies to it when He commands a Jew to do what is beyond his capacity. A Jew declares that due to his refined and compassionate nature, he cannot kill a fly, to say nothing of a human being. But he is wrong, for the commandment of eradicating Amolek stands and testifies that he is, indeed, capable of it; he can do it. Shmuel Hanovi, sanctified from the womb, who was wholly spiritual to the degree of prophecy -- was indeed capable of beheading Agog, king of Amolek, with his own hands.

@Big Let Body=If we are men of truth, let us replace the false phrase "I am incapable" with an accurate one like "I find it difficult," "I need to take myself in hand and overcome considerable resistance to be able to do that," "I need time in order to convince myself that it is positive and important before I can tackle it." These are honest statements. Man is capable of many things, but some of them are very difficult for him and require mental and emotional preparation. A person is capable of stealing and cheating and even killing. He must refrain from these because it is forbidden, not because he is `incapable' of committing them. A striking example is Yaakov Ovinu.

Yaakov exemplifies the characteristic of truth, "titein emes leYaakov." To his sons, Shimon and Levi, who kill the men of Shechem and liberate Dina, Yaakov says: "`You have brought trouble on me to make me odious.' We promised them that if they circumcised themselves, we would live in peace. They will say that we deceived them." He remembered this to their disfavor in his blessings on his deathbed.

Yet, on the other hand, when his mother commanded him, through prophecy, he obeys and comes before his blind father and `usurps' the blessings, as permissible and rightfully his. He is capable of everything. Upon his first encounter with Rachel, he says to her that he is her brother's kin, in other words, that he can match him in chicanery, if need be (see Rashi). Whoever claims that he is incapable of deception does not necessarily express ethics and honesty but limitation; he is handicapped, fettered. A perfect man is capable of anything, but he operates within the Halacha framework, according to what is truly right. Ethics is the power of self control, not limitation or stricture, but working within the accurate boundaries dictated by truth.

Let us not make peace with a child's excuse of "I can't." We must explain to him that it is within his rights to return to the grocer the cheese that was spoiled. We must review the exact words he should say to the storekeeper, and even accompany him part way as a sign of encouragement. But let us not forego this educational exercise. We must not make allowances for chinuch, even if this child is none other than ourself!

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