Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

3 Ellul 5761 - August 22, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
Living Down-to-Earth

by Rabbi Nosson Zeev Grossman

At all times, and especially in times of distress, people turn to "miracle- working tzaddikim" who sell their wares to thousands of gullible people. Stories about terminally ill patients who were cured, infertile women who conceived, penniless unfortunates who became millionaires overnight, are circulating everywhere. By using "practical kaballah" and "inherited hidden powers" they promise to save mankind from all its troubles -- for a fee, of course.

In this article, I want to discuss the spread of believers in such "wonder- workers" among more-or-less observant people. Doubtless if these charlatans had failed to trap some religious, or at least traditional, Jews in their net they would never have succeeded in attracting the general public.

Believing in "visits from another world" and other unrealistic fancies answers a psychological need. This is the bread-and- butter of people who, instead of focusing upon their obligations in this world, try to run away from reality.

Occasionally it seems to a person that his life is at best colorless and boring, or at worst depressing and utterly bitter.

Life is surely not easy: it is full of continuous battles and daily grappling with problems, crises, and failures. A person is liable to sink into dejection and despair, and if he lacks the emotional strength to handle the bitterness of reality, he will search for a way to escape from it -- some sort of emergency exit.

Some run away from reality by becoming addicted to narcotics or alcohol. Others prefer to sleep for endless hours, or to sit and stare at the empty air. There are those who immerse themselves in self-made illusions, or in reading the illusions that some writer has designed. Their common aim: to kill time.

The above are all popular ways to duck current problems and daily heartache. There are newspapers and publications that devote full pages to ultra-fantastic scoops. These reports are best-sellers because they feed on the vital emotional need that we are discussing.

Our Holy Torah warns us against all sorts of sorcery, and spells out the spiritual danger involved in going after such things. The Rambam (in Sefer Hamitzvos, lo sa'aseh 32) rules that "You shall not practice divination" (Vayikra 19:26) includes a prohibition against sleight-of- hand tricks, such as stage magicians use: "These are cunning tricks, whereby the use of sleight-of-hand convinces people that he can do wonderful things.

We see them all the time taking a rope and attaching it to the edge of their clothing, and a snake emerges from it. They toss a ring into the air, and afterwards remove it from a mouth of a person standing by. Such acts of famous magicians are forbidden, and someone who performs them is deceiving people through the swiftness of his hand. It is a type of sorcery punishable with malkos and it misleads people."

The magician's sleight-of-hand does not involve using powers of tumah, but merely employing some simple trick. Why, then, has the Torah forbade it? The Rambam continues "Enormous harm comes from this. Portraying totally impossible matters before fools, women, and children is extremely harmful. It perverts their mentality and causes them to believe in the preposterous."

Every illusion portraying the inconceivable as capable of happening produces immediate spiritual damage. When a person starts "to believe in the preposterous" he has created a potential threat that can depreciate his soul and character.

Imagination and reality are merged together within him. He stops functioning properly and begins "drifting" in midair, detached from the world in which he must live and in which he must fulfill his daily obligations.

This is significant even for the Torah observant, and especially with regard to our children's education. In the secular world, developing infants' and children's imagination is for some reason approved of. "General" childhood literature in Eretz Yisroel, too, overflows with imaginative stories about witches and dwarfs, about Supermen flying in the air or people who can see others but are themselves invisible. The innocent child swallows these concoctions without even questioning them. He begins to live in an imaginary world severed from reality.

Fortunately, due to the increase in chareidi-written childhood literature it is uncommon nowadays to find such books like these on the bookshelves of a chareidi family. (If some remnants of these fantasies still remain they should be discarded. Although they do no discernible harm, as written above, engrossing children in the imaginary causes vast educational damage).

However, because of the feelings of inferiority that are common for some reason in our camp, a certain degree of this fantasy writing has penetrated to our children's literature too. Some people seem powerfully determined to imitate the secular world and create chulin al taharas hakodesh (to make pure the mundane). The results: several books have been written in which the connection between the content of the book and reality is merely coincidental. Naturally we are not talking about stories of witches and the like, but fantasies on a different level: imaginative thrillers, fascinating adventures, and intriguing plots that never happened and lack any reasonable chance of actually happening. The writers and publishers rely upon the children's rich imagination and feed them pure fabrications.

They are, unfortunately, not taking into consideration the damage they are causing. They know that by marketing such stories they will sell a lot of copies, since children -- when not restrained by their parents -- are captivated by such imaginary stories and prefer them over "commonplace" real-life books.

There is another trend which, although it only pertains indirectly to our present topic, stems from the same basic source: "miracle" stories, lehavdil. The unnatural peaks of success these stories have reached (commercially speaking) can likewise not be overlooked.

There are some people whose entire spiritual interest is limited to hearing and conveying countless wonder stories. They even choose their spiritual leaders purely according to their achievements in wonder-working (it is irrelevant for our discussion if the stories are true or mere fabrications). This trend has bred the growth of bogus "wonder workers" like mushrooms after a rain. Strong rabbinical opposition has arisen against this state of affairs.

Naturally, no one disagrees that gedolei Torah can bring salvation to people in a supernatural way. Every novice knows the concepts of "The will of those who fear Him He fulfills" (Tehillim 145:19) or "Who rules over Me? A tzaddik. I make a gezeirah and the tzaddik annuls it" (Mo'ed Koton 16b), and others. Throughout history religious Jews have requested an odom godol to pray for their sick and afflicted, and to give a brocho for success in various fields. (This principally refers to Torah disseminators. The Nimukei Yosef remarked in Bovo Basra 116 that when Chazal wrote that someone who has a sick person at home should go to a sage to beseech Hashem to have pity on him, the sage referred to is someone who "keeps a yeshiva." See also the Or HaChaim on parshas Beshalach 14:27 and the No'am Elimelech on parshas Chukas, who write at length about the power of Torah study to heal the sick and the prominence of people who toil over the Torah, to whose decrees nature is subjugated).

Nonetheless, we must be wary of an extremist approach that considers all of Yiddishkeit to be dependent upon "wonders." Such an approach causes people to be overly engaged in such affairs. It is a matter of general knowledge that the Kotzker Rebbe zt'l used to rebuke his chassidim and warn them not to pay too much attention to wonders. Emunah and Judaism are not built only on the basis of wonders, even when these wonders are clearly and truly done for them by Heaven. The Rebbe explained that from this perspective we should study the parshiyos of the miracles that happened to us when leaving Egypt and until our receiving the Torah from Heaven.

"Our forefathers in Egypt did not understand Your wonders . . .Then they believed in His words, they sang His praise" (Tehillim 106:8, 12). The explanation seems to be that although a wonder excites people, this excitement is only momentary and is later forgotten. Through the Torah our faith is strengthened and persists. This is what is meant by "Our forefathers in Egypt did not understand Your wonders" -- they did not feign understanding faith through wonders. They truly did "believe in His words," which is the Torah, through which they "sang His praise" (Ohel Torah 253).

Paying overmuch attention to wonders offers an easy solution for a person looking for a way to run away from his true aim in life. Why should he bother with clarifying his life's obligation, why should he exert himself over understanding a difficult Tosafos, why does he need to try to ameliorate faulty character traits? He can forget about all this and still consider himself to be enveloped in spiritual growth. How? Simple! He can engage only in "what is important" in Yiddishkeit -- hearing and telling wonder stories.

Innocent Jews are liable to succumb to this. They might begin thinking they are fulfilling their duty by reading and talking about wonders from dawn to dusk. They are unfortunately neglecting their obligation to engage in personal spiritual growth.

Chassidic and mussar leaders in the past have warned about the dangers of such a trend. Even when a person narrates stories of tzaddikim he should concentrate on those facts from which each one of us can gain in yiras shomayim and new strength for avodas Hashem. When hearing about the avodas Hashem of gedolim, their exertions over Torah study and scrupulous upholding of every halachic detail, a person obtains a personal lesson and is motivated to emulate their deeds. He then says to himself, "When will my acts reach the acts of my fathers?" But when he is preoccupied with hearing wonder stories and relating them to others he has no time to absorb the important message that will advance him in avodas Hashem.

The Slonimer Rebbe zt'l, the author of the Beis Avrohom, told the following: "Once, after the Baal Shem Tov was niftar, the Baal Shem Tov's holy disciples sat together and told stories about him. Meanwhile R' Tzi zy'a, the son of the Baal Shem Tov, fell asleep, and saw his father in a dream. The Baal Shem Tov told him: "Why are you telling wonder stories about me? What benefit do you have from that and what benefit do I have from that? It is preferable for you instead to tell about the world being for Hashem's service. From that both you and I will benefit" (Beis Avrohom, Shavuos, p. 161).

The Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe said in one of his shmuessen that, "Chassidim and anshei ma'aseh were never accustomed to tell wonder stories about their Rebbes. They used to say, figuratively speaking, `Signs and wonders [belong] in the land of the children of Cham' (Ma'ariv). They would always talk about their Rebbe's great tzidkus and yiras Shomayim and self- sacrifice for Hashem, and their constant faith in Him, never diverting their attention from Hashem for even a moment. They told this type of stories so that others could learn from them" (divrei Torah during Seudah Shelishis, parshas Ki Siso, 5735).

Exaggerated involvement in such storytelling testifies to the nature of our generation. This is an age of "instant gratification" and "the easy life": people prefer to tell pleasant, non-obligating stories instead of devoting themselves to the constant internal battle and the daily fatiguing labor of advancing in Torah and yiras Shomayim -- the real duty of each Jew. This behavior also partakes of flight from reality and the spiritual obligations of life. One is adopting instead sublime matters that have no obligating significance or educational aim.

As mentioned previously, our discussion has no connection with recognizing the power of the tzaddikim to bring salvation through their Torah and tefilloh. This is not the question we are addressing. Our topic is to what degree an average Jew should engage in such stories and whether he is allowed to let his main objective in life be to tell wonder stories. About this we can get a clear answer from our Torah mentors: everything is dependent upon one criterion -- is what one is doing an aid in his spiritual growth?

Even concerning the belief in the coming of the Moshiach and the yearning for the Redemption, which are foundations of our faith, the Rambam writes: "A person should not engage himself in hagodos and should not study at length midroshim that deal with such matters. He should not make them a principal element in his life, since they are not conducive to yirah or ahavah" (Hilchos Melachim 12:2). Even this elevated subject should not be delved into in an extensive way, since it has no present practical significance for a person's spiritual advancement.

Even when something is as lofty as can be, that does not justify devoting precious hours to it if it is not conducive to the yirah or ahavah of Hashem. A person must exert his mind and heart only in things that bring an actual spiritual benefit and have a daily lesson for him. He should not run away from reality to higher worlds with which he has no connection.

Some people's obsessive involvement in wonder stories has reached such a pinnacle that there are those who measure a person's greatness only according to the wonder stories told about him. That is the sole yardstick according to which they choose their spiritual mentor, and therefore there is presently such a mounting popularity for the various types of wonder workers.

The Me'or VaShemesh alerted us about such a condition (parshas Re'ei, ch. 12): "People are accustomed, after hearing about someone who has done any sign or wonder, to travel to him and believe everything he says to them. They do so even though they know nothing of his life since youth, what his nature is, and how he acts. The truth is that this [behavior] is worthless. Traveling to a tzaddik to study his ways and be with him is only [legitimate] after observing for many years how he acts and his tzidkus and chassidus. To make signs and wonders the foremost criterion, even when one does not know what [the person] is like, is worthless; it is forbidden to travel to [such a person]."

Running after wonders is extremely dangerous, as sharply expressed by the Me'or VaShemesh. It stems from dodging reality and a person's spiritual obligations, clinging instead to "sublime matters" totally irrelevant to man's true tasks in life.

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