Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Messilas Yesharim (2nd Day of Rosh Hashanna Fri., Sept.14th)


Our sages said about the verse, "And I have come because of your words" (Daniel 10:12), that Gabriel did not go through the curtain again until he acted as an intercedant for Israel (Ain Yaakov, Yomah, Ch. 8). It is said that Gideon was allowed to "Go with this, your strength" (Judges 6:14) because he had acted as an intercedant for Israel (Yalkut Shimoni).

G-d only loves those who love the Jewish nation, and He enlarges His love for someone who enlarges his own love for them. Those kinds of individuals, the true shepherds-- the ones who sacrifice themselves for Israel, who ask and strive for their welfare and well-being in all ways, who stand by the breach to pray for them so any edicts against them would be nullified and so that the gates of blessing would be open for them-- are the ones whom the Holy One (blessed be He) desires so much. Toward them He is like a father who cannot love anyone more than the person he sees faithfully loving his child, which is only natural. This is in fact the whole matter of the High Priest, about whom is written, "(They) should have asked for mercy for their whole generation, but they did not" (Makkot 11a). We find that "a certain man was eaten by a lion a distance of three parsangs from Rabbi Joshua ben Levi. (Because of that) Elijah did not appear to (Rabbi Joshua ben Levi) for three days (in a vision)" (Ibid.) and that shows the responsibility a pious person has to ask and strive for, for the sake of his generation.

What we have done is explained the major aspects of piety. The particulars are left to the thinking person with a pure heart to come to so that he can go on the honest path based upon them at the proper time.


What has to be explained now is the process of evaluating that is involved in piety. It is a very, very essential matter as well as the most difficult and subtle element of piety. The yetzer hara has a lot of input in it, so there is a lot of danger, because the yetzer hara can have you avoid many good things as if they were bad, and draw you in to many transgressions as if they were great mitzvot.

In truth, the only way a person can succeed in this evaluating process is by these three means: his heart must be the most forthright of hearts; his only motivation should be to bring satisfaction to his Creator, nothing else, and he should reflect deeply upon his actions and try to rectify them toward this end; and after all this he should cast his burden upon G-d so that it may be said of him, "Happy is the man who places his strength in You... There is no lack of good for those who go about wholeheartedly" (Psalms 84:6–12). You will never reach wholeness if you lack one of these conditions and will be dangerously close to stumbling and falling instead. If your motivations will not be the highest and purest, or if you slacken off from thorough reflection or if, after all this, you do not place your trust in G-d, it is unlikely that you will not fall. But if all three conditions-- purity of thought, analysis, and trust-- are met, you can truly go safely and no misfortune will come upon you. This is what Channah was prophetically referring to when she said, "He will watch over the feet of His pious" (Samuel I, 2:9). David alluded to this as well when he said, "He will not abandon His pious; they will always be protected" (Psalms 37:28).

What you have to understand is that you cannot judge matters relevant to piety by first impressions. You must reflect and analyze their ramifications. Sometimes an act may appear to be good, but it must be abandoned because what would come out of it would be bad, and if you were to do it you would actually be a sinner, not a pious person. The actions of Gedaliah ben Achikom bespeak this (see Jeremiah 40:16). Because of his over-piety and his unwillingness to adjudge Ishmael guilty or to hear out slander, he said to Yochanan ben Koreach: "You are lying about Ishmael." What happened because of that? He died, Israel was dispersed and their last dying ember was extinguished. The Torah credits him with the death of those who were killed as if he himself had killed them, as our sages explained (Niddah 61a). They based their proof on the verse, "... all of the corpses of the men struck by the hand of Gedaliah" (Jeremiah 41:9).

The second Temple was destroyed because of this kind of piety-- piety not weighed on the scales of balanced insight. It involved the actions of Bar Kamsa: "The Rabbis wanted to offer the animal, but Rabbi Z'charia ben Evkolas said to them, 'People will surmise that blemished animals can be offered on the altar.' The Rabbis then wanted to kill Bar Kamsa, but Rabbi Z'charia ben Evkolas said to them, 'People will surmise that whoever wants to offer a blemished animal will be killed by the Rabbis'" (Gittin 56a). All the while the evil-doer was slandering Israel, and Caesar came to destroy Jerusalem. Rabbi Yochanan said that Rabbi Z'charia ben Evkolas's caution caused the destruction of his household, the burning of the Sanctuary and our exile among the nations. So you see that you cannot make judgments relevant to piety according to how they first appear. You have to turn it over in your mind a number of times until you can judge what would be most fitting -- to act, or to refrain from acting. The Torah commands, "You shall surely rebuke your companion" (Leviticus 19:17). How many times does a person start to rebuke a sinner at a time or place he would not be listened to? He actually causes the person to advance in his bad ways, to profane the name of G-d, and to add rebelliousness to his transgressions. In this instance the pious thing to do would be to remain silent. This is what our sages meant when they said, "Just as it is a mitzvah to say something when it would be listened to, so too is it a mitzvah sometimes to not say what would not be listened to" (Yevamot 65b).

Obviously, it is proper for a person to be eager and run to do a mitzvah and try to be one of those who busies himself with it. But sometimes controversy can result from this, and you would thereby more likely shame the mitzvah and profane the name of G-d than honor it. In such a case the pious individual has the responsibility to abandon the mitzvah rather than pursue it. As our sages said in regard to the Levites, "Because they knew that whoever would carry the Ark would get the greater reward, they left the table, Menorah and altars behind, and ran to carry the Ark instead to get the reward. They would argue back and forth saying to each other, 'I'll carry the Ark!' As a result of that they were disrespectful, and the Divine Presence struck them ..." (Bamidbar Rabbah 5:1).


© 1996 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman