Parsha Pearls: Parshas Yisro

One Must Have a Rebbe
Don’t Be a Blind Follower
The Danger of Heretical Thoughts
Make Clear What You’re Protesting Against

And Yisro, priest of Midyan, father-in-law of Moshe, heard all that G-d did for Moshe and Israel His people… And Yisro came… (18:1,5)

Reb Elyakim Shlessinger once asked the Brisker Rav why his wife's grandfather, Reb Yaakov Rosenheim, changed his views on Zionism in his old age. Throughout the pre-State era, Rosenheim constantly reiterated the decision of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah, that Jewish law did not permit the founding of the proposed Jewish state. We must see the planned state as a great misfortune for Jewry, Rosenheim wrote in a 1944 letter to Rabbi Chaim Bloch. But after the State was founded and the Agudah activists, without the benefit of any explicit ruling from the Moetzes, began to participate in the government, Rosenheim began to speak more positively of it. "I will tell you something the Kotzker said," said the Brisker Rav. "The Torah says that Yisro heard about the Exodus and came to join the Jewish people in the desert. Rashi explains that he heard about the parting of the Red Sea and the war with Amalek. Why did Rashi select these two things? So the Kotzker said, Yisro heard about the great miracle of the Red Sea and he wanted to be a Jew, but that didn't mean he had to come out to the desert to join the Jewish people. He could have waited till they entered the Land of Canaan and joined them there. But then he heard about Amalek's attack. The Amalekites had also heard about the miracles, and yet they continued to be wicked. How could that be? Because Amalek didn't have a rebbe. One must never rely on his own reading of events; one must always have a rebbe. In that case, said Yisro, I must come to be with the Jewish people right away. Your grandfather," the Brisker Rav concluded, "in his younger years, always had a rebbe. He listened to my father and to the Chofetz Chaim. The gedolim then were all much older that he. But I and the other rabbanim of today are closer to his age. In his formative years, we were all mere yungerleit, and that is the permanent picture he formed of us. Now, in his old age, when all his rebbes are gone, it's no wonder that he can't see us as his rebbes. So he is left without a rebbe. And without a rebbe, it is impossible to stay on the proper path." (Mikatowitz Ad Hei B'Iyar, p. 343)

And Hashem said to Moshe, "Behold, I am coming to you in the thickness of the cloud, so that the people might hear when I speak to you, and also in you they will believe forever." (19:9)

The Rambam in his Letter to Yemen exhorted the Jews there to remain strong in the face of the trials of exile: "And you, our brothers, be strong and rely on these true verses of the Torah, and do not be confounded by wicked decrees, nor frightened by the enemy's strong hand and the weakness of our people. For all this is but a trial, a test to show the world our faith and how beloved we are to Hashem. Under such conditions, only the wise who fear Hashem, the pure and clean seed of Yaakov, continue to believe in the true Torah, as it says, 'The remaining ones whom Hashem calls' (Yoel 3:5) – implying that they are few. And these are the people whose ancestors stood at Mt. Sinai and heard the voice of Hashem, joined the covenant and accepted the mitzvos, saying, 'All that Hashem has spoken we will do and hear.' They obligated themselves and their descendants. And the Creator has promised us – and His guarantee is certainly reliable – that anyone who stood by Mt. Sinai will believe in the prophecy of Moshe Rabbeinu, and so his children and children's children, forever. For this is what He said: 'Behold, I am coming to you in the thickness of the cloud, so that the people might hear when I speak to you, and also in you they will believe forever.' Therefore we must know that anyone who strays from the Torah given at Mt. Sinai is not a descendant of those Jews who were there. And so our Sages have said, 'Anyone who doubts the prophets – his ancestors did not stand at Mt. Sinai.' May Hashem save us and you from doubts, and keep from us and from you the thoughts that lead to doubt and stumbling."

And you shall make a boundary for the people all around, saying, "Be careful not to go up on the mountain or touch any part of it…" (19:12)

This verse contains an allusion: Make a boundary for the Jewish people in exile around Jerusalem and around Eretz Yisroel. Be careful not to go up on the mountain – this hints to the oath that Hashem made Israel swear not to force the End and not to go up to Eretz Yisroel before the time, as it is written, "I adjure you, daughters of Jerusalem, why do you arouse…" (Shir Hashirim 8:4) "Or touch any part of it" – this is a hint that they must not touch the building of the Temple before its time.

The Torah continues, "Anyone who touches the mountain shall surely die. No hand shall touch it, for he will surely be stoned and cast down; man or beast, he shall not live; at the sounding of the yovel they will ascend the mountain." Anyone who speeds up the redemption will surely be stoned; anyone who ascends before the end of the subjugation of the nations will not live. "The yovel" – means the shofar of redemption, referred to in the verse (Yishaya 27:13), "A great shofar will be blown and those lost in the land of Ashur and those cast away in the land of Egypt will come, and they will bow down to Hashem in the holy mountain, in Jerusalem." (Tosafos Hashalem)

"I am Hashem your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of slavery." (20:2)

The Rambam, the Smag and the Smak count this as one of the 613 mitzvos. The Smak defines the mitzvah as follows: to believe that the Creator of heaven and earth is alone the ruler of the universe, and everything happens through His will, not through automatic processes such as mazalos. Hashem is the One Who brought us out of Egypt and performed all the wonders, the plagues and the splitting of the sea. No one knocks his finger unless it is ordained from Above. "The steps of a man are prepared by Hashem." (Tehillim 37:23) And this is the meaning of Chazal's statement (Shabbos 31a) that when a person dies and comes before the Heavenly Court, he is asked, "Did you hope for the redemption?" Where is this mitzvah written, that a person should be held responsible for it? The answer is that this is all part of the mitzvah "I am Hashem," for just as we must believe that He took us out of Egypt, we must believe that He will bring the final redemption. If this is to be counted as one of the Ten Utterances, [it must have a practical meaning], and so it must be saying, "Just as I want you to believe in Me, that I took you out of Egypt, so I want you to believe that I am Hashem your G-d and I will eventually gather you in and save you. And so the Torah promises (Devarim 30:3), "And He will return and gather you in from all the nations." (Sefer Mitzvos Katan, Mitzvah 1)

Remember the Shabbos day to sanctify it (20:8).

Our Sages teach that this refers to the mitzvah to recite kiddush on Friday night. They enacted that this kiddush be recited over a cup of wine. They also enacted that another kiddush be said on Shabbos morning, before eating the meal.

Once the Chasam Sofer was traveling and he spent several days at the house of a pious but unlearned Jew. Rumors reached the Chasam Sofer's ear that his host was speaking badly about him and calling him a "sinner". He asked his assistant to fetch the man, and asked him in the presence of several of the townspeople why he had said this. The man replied that he had seen the Chasam Sofer eating the noontime Shabbos meal without making kiddush. What Jew eats without kiddush? (The Chasam Sofer arose early on Shabbos morning, prayed, recited kiddush and ate some cake. Then he studied Torah until it came time to eat the main meal. The host had not seen the Chasam Sofer make kiddush earlier.) Some of the townspeople laughed at the unlearned host's mistake, and others were so angry that they would have beaten the man, had the Chasam Sofer not intervened and saved him. Later the Chasam Sofer sat and thought: Why did G-d cause this to happen to me in my old age, that someone should call me a sinner? But then he realized with pleasure that the Torah would continue to be known to the Jewish people, thanks to simple Jews like this man. A time is coming when the rabbis will be wicked and heretical. We need laymen who will challenge them and question their every action. The Gemora says (Beitzah 25b) that the Torah was given to the Jewish people because they are bold. Look how bold this unlearned man was! Here I was, a famous rabbi of a great city, head of a big yeshiva, and all the local rabbis came to greet me. And yet when he saw me doing something different from what his father and father's father had done, he was not afraid to call me a sinner. But if the laymen in future times follow their rabbis uncritically, believing blindly that everything they do is according to the Torah, then G-d forbid the Torah will be forgotten!" (Lev Haivri, p. 54; Chut Hameshulash p. 123)

One might ask: Doesn't this comment of the Chasam Sofer conflict with the well-known principle of emunas chachomim, faith in our Sages? The Torah says, "Do not turn aside from the thing that they tell you right or left" (Devarim 17:11), and Rashi comments, quoting the Sages, "Even if they tell you that your right hand is your left and your left hand is your right." We have mentioned the subject of emunas chachomim in the past, in the Parsha Pearls of Korach, 5766. There we quoted Rabbi Moshe Feinstein as saying that every man must keep the laws of the Torah as interpreted by the great rabbis of his generation, and not just however he himself sees fit. And in the Parsha Pearls of Yisro 5766 we brought the story of the Brisker Rav who quoted the Kotzker Rebbe as saying that Amalek too heard about the Parting of the Sea, yet he failed to learn the correct lessons because he did not have a rabbi to interpret it for him, and therefore he came to fight with Israel. Therefore when Yisro heard about the Parting of the Sea and the war of Amalek, he realized that it is impossible to understand G-d's ways and be a good Jew without a rabbi, and so he came to the desert to learn from Moshe Rabbeinu. Based on this, the Brisker Rav said that the mistake of the Agudah activists was that they had no rabbi at the crucial time of the establishment of the Zionist state, and they decided on great issues on their own. How then could the Chasam Sofer encourage all simple Jews to challenge their rabbis and not accept what they say?

The answer is that of course one must have a rabbi and consult him on all matters, but he must not follow the rabbi blindly, without ever asking questions. Asking questions and challenging one's rabbi has always been the Jewish way, for this is how the Torah is transmitted from generation to generation. The entire Talmud is full of questions and challenges between students and rabbis.

If one sees his rabbi do something that appears to be forbidden, he should ask: Why did you do that? Is it not written in the Torah such-and-such? If the rabbi gives a scholarly and satisfying answer, then good. And if the rabbi admits that he was mistaken, then he will cease to do the forbidden act. But if the rabbi is a wicked man, the kind foreseen by the near-prophetic vision of the Chasam Sofer, his answer will show clearly that he is not primarily interested in following halacha, and his action was taken for political or other reasons. At that point the follower should leave this rabbi and find himself a different rabbi, a true scholar whose actions are all for the sake of Heaven.

And so we find in the Talmud that when Rav Yehuda saw his teacher Shmuel doing something wrong, he challenged him, and Shmuel in his great honesty and humility admitted that his pupil was correct: "Shmuel was sitting in judgment when a woman came in and began crying before him, but he paid no attention to her. Rav Yehuda said: Does the master not agree to the verse, 'One who closes his ear from the cry of the poor, he will also cry out and not be answered.' (Mishlei 21:13). Shmuel said: Sharp one! Your teacher will be punished with cold water, but your teacher's teacher (i.e. Mar Ukva, head of the court) will be punished with hot water." (Shabbos 55a)

The Brisker Rav blamed the Agudah for taking certain actions at the time of the establishment of the state without receiving any ruling from their rabbis. Without the true Torah opinion of a great scholar, one is likely to err. But even someone who does hear a ruling from his rabbi is obligated to respectfully challenge his rabbi with any questions that he may have, so that the matter becomes clarified.

And all the people answered together and said, “All that Hashem has spoken, we will do!” (19:8)

In Parshas Mishpatim (24:7) a similar verse occurs, but with two changes: there it does not say that the people answered together, and it says that the people said, “We will do and we will listen.” What is the reason for these differences?

Chazal say that when Moshe Rabbeinu went up to Heaven to receive the Torah, the angels protested that the Torah should be given to them. G-d commanded Moshe to answer the angels. Moshe was afraid they would burn him with their fiery breath, so G-d told Moshe to hold onto the Throne of Glory. Moshe then said to the angels, “The Torah says, ‘I am Hashem your G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt.’ Did you go down to Egypt? Were you enslaved to Pharaoh? The Torah says further, ‘You shall not have other gods.’ Do you live among nations who worship idols? The Torah says further, ‘Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it.’ Do you work, that you should need to rest?” Moshe continued to demonstrate that the commandments of the Torah do not apply to angels. When he finished, all the angels became his friends and offered him gifts (Shabbos 88b-89a).

What were the angels thinking when they asked for the Torah? Didn’t they know that its commandments are only meant for humans? And what was the point of Moshe holding onto the Throne – how did it protect him? And if Moshe was so afraid that the angels would be angry at his answers, why did they become his friends at the end?

The Chasam Sofer answers these questions based on the Ramban in his introduction to his commentary on the Torah. The Ramban says that the entire Torah is made up of combinations of Divine names, and they can be read in different ways. In our world, they are read as the story of the Jews in Egypt, the Exodus, the spies and so on. In the world of the angels, the letters are combined differently and contain other meanings. The angels are so far from our earthly existence that they cannot understand the Torah the way we do. But Moshe Rabbeinu and other great tzaddikim are able to understand Torah not only on the earthly level but on the levels above, symbolized by the Throne of Glory.

The angels wanted to receive the Torah on their own level, not in its earthly form containing commandments and stories. Moshe was afraid that they would burn him when he answered that the earthly Torah only applied to humans, because they would say, “Why are you better than us? The Torah applies to us on our level just as it applies to you on yours.” Therefore G-d said, “Hold onto my Throne to show the angels that you understand the Torah on all its levels, from the Throne down to the earth.” Moshe held onto the Throne but, out of respect for the angels, did not boast openly about his understanding of the Torah on all levels; because of this respectful gesture they became his friends.

Based on this, Rabbi Yaakov Teitelbaum explained the difference between the verses noted above. When the people were speaking all together, they said “we will do” because in the practical observance of the commandments all Jews are equal. But when they said “we will do and we will listen” they were not together, because everyone “listens” (i.e. understands) on his own level. Some understand the Torah on a simple level, some delve into the meaning of emunah, and some understand the hidden meaning of the Torah.

A Jew is not obligated to understand the mitzvos that he performs. However, if he has the wrong thoughts and intentions while doing a mitzvah, it is worse than having no thoughts at all. The prime example of this is animal offerings. If a man slaughters his offering with no thoughts at all, it is kosher. But if he has in mind to eat it after its time limit, the entire offering is invalid and the severest penalty, kareis, is given to one who eats it even within the time limit.

The Ramban says that the words “cursed is he who does not uphold the words of this Torah” (Devarim 27:26) apply to any Jew who does not believe in one or more of the mitzvos, or does not believe that those who keep them will be rewarded and those who transgress them will be punished. Even if this Jew personally keeps all the mitzvos, he is cursed. But a Jew who believes in the mitzvos and the principle of reward and punishment, even if at times he succumbs to his desires and violates the Torah, is not cursed. We see here that the “we will listen” – Jewish belief – is more important than “we will do” – practical observance of the mitzvos. Not everyone is obligated to understand Jewish belief on a high level, but if one tries and has it wrong, it is more destructive than a sinful act.

Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk was once speaking terrible words about himself: “I am the worst person, the lowest person…” The Koznitcher Maggid said to him, “You are such a man of truth! How can you say such falsehood about yourself?” Rabbi Elimelech replied, “I will give you an analogy. If a big, heavy beam falls on a man, even on his head, it is possible that he will survive. He may have to be hospitalized for a few weeks, but his wounds will probably heal. But if he is pierced by a needle, even in a minor part of his body, it can sometimes lead to his death. It is true that I am not afraid of practical sin – the beam – but I am afraid of sinful thoughts, doubts about emunah – the needle.”

Once the Shinnover Rebbe was staying at a man’s house in a village for Shabbos, and when it came time to make kiddush on Friday night, he said, “I cannot make kiddush. Look carefully around the house to see if there is any heretical book here.” The people looked but did not find. So the Rebbe got up himself and looked, and found the Torah with Moses Mendelssohn’s translation. He threw the book out the window, and then began to say Kiddush. (Kol Yaakov, pp. 74-77)

The Brisker Rav said that his father, Reb Chaim, was not a crier by nature. But there were three times when he cried. One of the times was on Rosh Hashanah, during the prayer that describes G-d as “He who examines hearts on the day of judgement.” He explained: “With his physical actions a person can be careful not to sin, but who can be careful with his thoughts, to make sure that every thought matches exactly with true emunah in Hashem Yisborach? Sinful thought is among the three sins people commit every day (Bava Basra 164b).” The other two times he cried were on Yom Kippur during the “Al Chet” prayer, and when he found out that one of the women in his family knew how to write in the gentile language. The Brisker Rav commented, “From these things we could see what really troubled my father.” (Uvdos Vehanhagos Leveis Brisk v. 3 p. 181)

If great tzaddikim like Rabbi Elimelech, the Shinnover Rebbe and Reb Chaim Brisker were afraid of heretical thoughts, what can we say for ourselves today?

The seventh day is a Shabbos for Hashem, your G-d; you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your slave or your maidservant, or your animal, or the stranger who is in your gates. (20:9)

From here we learn the law that a Jew may not make his animal work on Shabbos. This includes placing any load on the animal for it to carry in the street. Any unnecessary object is considered a load, even a strap between a cow’s horns. The Mishnah (Shabbos 54b) tells us that Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya’s cow used to go out with a strap between its horns, and the other Sages were not happy about it.

The Gemara asks: Could it be that Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya had only one cow? We know that he had a herd of cattle so large that he used to separate a tithe of twelve thousand calves every year! The Gemara answers: It was not Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya’s own cow that went out with a strap, but the lady next door’s cow. But since Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya did not rebuke her, it was called “Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya’s cow.”

The Gemara does not explain exactly who gave the lady’s cow this prestigious title. We can assume that the other Sages, who condemned the practice of letting a cow go out on Shabbos with a strap, were not interested in attaching Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya’s name to the transgression. And certainly they would not have wanted to speak badly about Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya or remind everyone of his fault. Rather, the Gemara means that from Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya’s silence, the common people concluded that he approved of what his neighbor did, and they called the cow after his name, i.e. “the cow that Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya permitted to wear a strap.” More likely than not, some of them used this as a basis to do the same to their own cows. This is why the Sages were so upset about his silence. It was not only one lady’s sin that was at stake; it was the sins of all the people who followed in her footsteps.

It is important to register one’s protest against a transgression, but it is equally important to explain to people exactly what is wrong, so that in case something changes in the future, no one will think the transgression becomes permitted. When the secular Zionist movement was launched, almost all the rabbis of the generation spoke out against it. But not all of them were careful to explain that the problem of Zionism was more than just the fact that it was an irreligious movement. They assumed it would be sufficient to invoke the rule that “one may not join the wicked” and to declare that “Torah cannot be replaced with nationalism.”

However, the result was that some religious movements later joined the effort to build a Jewish state in order to try to “accomplish from within.” Their intentions were admirable if one assumes that the only thing wrong with the Zionists was their irreligious outlook and lifestyle. What these movements failed to understand, however, is that a Jewish state during exile is forbidden in any form, no matter how religious and Torah-based it may be, and that it is fundamentally heretical for Jews to claim to know better than Hashem. If Hashem decided that the best place for Jews now is in exile, living under the rule of gentiles, and He promised to redeem them from there, how can any believing Jew claim that a Jewish state is desirable?

Rabbi Simcha Yissocher Ber Halberstam, the Chiashenover Rebbe (d. 1914, son of the Shinnover Rebbe and grandson of the Divrei Chaim) was one gadol hador who did speak out against the root of the problem inherent in Zionism. He wrote:

Woe to the ears that hear such things! The heart is torn in ten pieces to hear their words and see their signs that they hang on the walls of the shuls and halls of study, openly denying our hope of redemption with words that stab like swords, saying, ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me?’ These are words that it is forbidden to hear, and with such words they fill the world.

“And then there arose people who are called Mizrachi, a group which is distinct from the Zionists in name only, but truthfully, inwardly, their ideology is identical to that of the Zionists, for the evil of Zionism lies not in the fact that it is sinners who support it, for the truth is the opposite: Zionism is a dangerous disease in and of itself – heresy and denial of our faith – and that is why these sinners support it.” (Divrei Simcha, 3)

Another such gadol was Rabbi Yehuda Greenwald, rabbi of Satmar (1845-1920), who wrote:

“It should not occur to you that you, by human hands, can build the ruins of Jerusalem, and arouse the end of exile with great love of the Jewish people, to improve their state through this action, as the Zionists hold. Only G-d is the healer of the broken-hearted and the bandager of their pains, and if G-d does not build a house, its builders work in vain.” (Zichron Yehuda 1:187)

Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber Schneersohn, the Lubavitcher Rebbe (1866-1920), wrote:

Even if these men were loyal to G-d and His Torah, and even if there were a chance that they would achieve their goal, we must not listen to them in this matter, to make our redemption with our own power. Is it not forbidden even to force the end with excessive prayer (Rashi Kesubos 111a, and see Midrash Shir Hashirim 2:7)? All the more so that with power and worldly methods, that is, to leave exile by force, we are not permitted. Not in this way will our salvation and the redemption of our souls come. And this is against our true hope, for our whole longing and hope is that that G-d will bring us the moshiach soon and our redemption will come through G-d Himself. (Ohr Layesharim, p. 57)

Those who assist these Zionists will pay on the Day of Judgment, for they are abetting those who cause the masses to sin. Therefore, whoever is for G-d and His Torah will not join the evildoers and will not cling to them. On the contrary, he will oppose them as much as possible. And until it is G-d’s will to redeem us, we must accept the yoke of exile to atone for our sins. (Ohr Layesharim, p. 59)

Their plan to gather the Jewish people together with their own power will never be; and all their strength, their many strategies and efforts will not work or have any success against the will of G-d. (Igros Kodesh, letter 130)

Whoever twists the meaning of the Torah and finds proofs to Zionism from the Torah, and especially from the Hidden Torah, is like one who places an idol in the Temple. G-d will not forgive him. May G-d in His great mercy remove this accursed doctrine from among the Jewish people, and inspire their hearts to repent to Him in truth. (ibid.)

And if the movement takes on this form, to go out of the exile by force and to redeem themselves with their own strength – this is something no believer in Torah and its commandments can ever do on his own, for this runs against the Jewish people’s strong faith and hope for their redemption with the coming of the messiah, when they will be redeemed physically and spiritually and will be elevated to the highest degree. Only with this deeply engrained hope can they find rest, and only with this have they lived during their bitter exile, encouraging themselves through Torah and observance. They will not be satisfied with the promises of Herzl and Nordau, who promise them their own state and a good physical life - even if we would fool ourselves into thinking that they could accomplish this. (Kuntres Umayan Mibeis Hashem, p. 50)

Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, the Belzer Rebbe (1854-1926), wrote:

Zionism itself is founded on denial of G-d’s providence, reward and punishment and the coming of the redeemer. Nationalism is built only on the ruins of the holy Torah, belief in G-d, His prophets, and the Talmudic Sages. Therefore, even if the movement were led by G-d-fearing, righteous men with the best of intentions, it would be impossible for it not to destroy faith and Torah. (Kuntres 22 Cheshvan, p. 108)

But it could be that before the arrival of the messiah, the Satan’s efforts will succeed and the wicked will get a state in Eretz Yisroel. Therefore it is an obligation on every Jew who must leave his home to move to America or somewhere else, but not to Eretz Yisroel under the state of these wicked men, because their state would be a great danger to every Jew’s body and soul. (Om Ani Chomah v. 6 13 Adar I 5717)