Friday, August 31, 2007

Messilas Yesharim (Fri., Aug. 31st)



And there are others who, while like them in kind, are not quite as guilty as they. They are the ones who lie by telling stories and giving false reports. They are not "professional" story-tellers who concoct whole tales or incidents that have never or could never happen. But when they come to relate something, they add on whatever occurs to them. This happens so regularly that it becomes second nature to them, and it is impossible to believe anything they say. Our sages said, "Such is the punishment of the liar: people will not listen to him even when he speaks the truth" (Sanhedrin 89b). This bad trait has been so imbedded in them that it is not possible for anything honest to come from their lips. This is what troubled the prophet Jeremiah so when he said, "They've taught their tongues to speak lies, and weary themselves in committing iniquity" (Jeremiah 9:4).

There is another category of liars whose malady is less serious than the former. They are not quite accustomed to lying, but they would not think of separating themselves from it, and if the opportunity for a lie would come up, they would take advantage of it. Many times they would do this for the sake of a joke, or for some other reason, with no particular malice intended. But as Solomon let us know, this is all against G-d's will and runs counter to His kindness. As he has said, "The righteous hate false things" (Proverbs 13:5), which is exactly what the Torah warned us about when it said, "Withdraw from a false thing" (Exodus 23:7). You might notice that this quote does not say "guard yourself from falsity", but rather, "withdraw from a false thing". This is so to warn us of how far we must withdraw from false things. It is said, "The remnant of Israel will not do iniquity, will not speak falsely, and no trickery will be found in their mouths" (Zephaniah 3:13). Our sages said, "Truth is G-d's seal" (Shabbat 55a). And if G-d has chosen truth as His seal, its opposite must certainly be abominable to Him. The Holy One (blessed be He) has already warned us severely about truth. It is said, "Let man speak truth to his neighbor" (Zachariah 8:16); "He has established His throne upon loving-kindness and will sit upon it in truth" (Isaiah 16:5); "For He has said, 'Surely they are My people, children that will not lie'" (Isaiah 63:8) (pointing out the fact that one is dependent upon the other); and, "Jerusalem shall be called the city of truth" (Zachariah 8:3), signifying its importance. Our sages said, "It is written, '... And he speaks truth in his heart' (Psalms 16:2). This is in reference to those like Rav Safra (Makkot 24a). (According to Rashi's commentary Rav Safra had something for sale once. When a customer came to him and asked him to sell the object for a certain amount, Rav Safra did not respond, because he was reciting the Sh'ma Yisrael at the time. The customer believed that Rav Safra did not respond to his offer because he did not think it was good enough, so he made a better offer. When Rav Safra finished the Sh'ma he told the customer that he could have the object for the price the man originally offered. "That was the price I had in mind to sell it for in the first place" he said). This comes to teach us how far the obligation for truth goes. The sages have already forbade a scholar from "altering the truth" in all but three extenuating circumstances (Baba Metsiah 23b). Truth is one of the very foundations upon which the world stands (Pirke Avot 1:18). As this is so, when you speak falsely it is as if you are nudging at the world's foundation. Conversely, when you are careful about truth you are likened to someone who maintains the world's foundation. The sages revealed that the angel of death does not hold sway in a place where truth is cared for (Sanhedrin 97a). They tell the story of a peaceful town where, because a certain sage's wife adulterated the truth (albeit for a good reason), the angel of death was let loose. As soon as she was removed, the town returned to its original peaceful state. We need not delve further into the matter, as the implications of it are obvious.

The ramifications of the desecration of G-d's name are great and numerous as well. You must be very compassionate towards the standing of your Creator in the eyes of others by considering and reflecting upon all of your actions, and making sure that none of them (G-d forbid) lead to the desecration of G-d's name. As we learned, "In matters of desecration of the Divine name-- both purposeful and accidental incidents of it are one and the same" (Pirke Avot 4:4); and, "What is an example of the desecration of the Divine name? Rav said, 'For example, if I were to buy meat and not pay for it on the spot.' And Rabbi Yochanan said, 'For example, if I were to go a small distance without reciting words of Torah or without my t'phillin on'" (Yoma 86a). The point is that each person, according to his standing, and according to how he is perceived by his generation, must recognize the fact that he can do nothing that would not be fitting for a person such as himself to do. He must be extremely careful and exacting in his Divine service in proportion to the greatness and value of his wisdom. If he is not, the name of G-d is desecrated through him (G-d forbid). The honor and glory of Torah comes about when the ones who study it very much perfect and ennoble their characters as well. Those amongst them who are lacking in this cause shame to be cast upon the study of Torah itself. That is (G-d forbid) a desecration of G-d's name. He has given us His Holy Torah and commanded us to occupy ourselves in it, and to reach perfection through it.

Observance of the Shabbat and of the holy-days is also important because there are many laws involved. It is said, "There are many halachot to Shabbat" (Brachot 12a). And the rabbinic ordinances are central. The sages said, "Never allow the rabbinic ordinances to appear light in your eyes: smicha is one, and the greats of the generation argued over it" (Chagigga 16b). The many particulars, sections and sub-sections of the laws are enunciated in the books of law, and they are equal in our responsibility to them and the amount of caution required to carry them out. What is most difficult for many to observe is refraining from conducting and speaking about business. The prohibition against this is clearly stated by the prophet when he says: "If, because of the Shabbat, you will restrain your foot from pursuing your business on My holy day, and call the Shabbat a delight, the holy day of the L-rd honorable; and you shall honor it, not doing your own ways, nor pursuing your own business, nor speaking of vain matters ..." (Isaiah 58:13-14). The principle is that all that is forbidden to be done on the Shabbat cannot be attempted or spoken of on the Shabbat either. The sages have also forbade us from analyzing our holdings, or from seeing what might be needed for the next day, or to go to the borders to be ready to go off on business immediately after Shabbat, and they forbade us from saying on the Shabbat, "I'll do such-and-such tomorrow", or "I'll buy such-and-such tomorrow", and the like.

Up to now I have addressed those mitzvot which I perceive to be most people's downfalls. From those we can extrapolate to all the other prohibitions, as there is no forbidden act that does not have its divisions and subdivisions, both serious and light. Whoever wants to be innocent must be innocent and purified of them all. As our sages said, "It is written, 'Your teeth are like a flock of sheep' (Song of Songs 6:6), that is, just as sheep are modest, so too was Israel modest and righteous in the war against the Midianites. Rav Hunna says in the name of Rav Aicha that that was evidenced by the fact that not one of them put their head t'philin on before they put on their arm t'phillin. Had one of them done so, Moses would not have praised them, and they would not have left the battlefield in peace" (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 6:12). And as it says in the Jerusalem Talmud, "One who speaks between yishtabach and yotzer commits a sin and must leave the battlefield because of it". This shows you just how exacting and truly innocent you have to be in your actions. And your character has to be just as innocent. However, innocence of character is more difficult to achieve than innocence of actions, as your nature is more manifest in your character than in your actions. Temperament and disposition either greatly cooperate with or summarily oppose the development of character. And anytime you struggle to do something beyond your nature you are involved in a great battle, which our sages were referred to when they said, "Who is a great warrior? One who conquers his yetzer hara" (Pirke Avot 4:1).

There are many character traits-- as many of them as there are deeds in the realm of human possibility, as they come from deeds.


© 1996 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman