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28 Nissan 5763 - April 30, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
Torah Weakens a Person

by R' Yerachmiel Kram

"You shall be holy for I, Hashem, your G-d, am holy" (Vayikra 19:2).

"Sanctify Yourself Through the Permissible"

Rashi explains that the essence of the holiness which the Torah is referring to here is the obligation to separate oneself from licentiousness and sin. Distancing oneself from immorality is considered holiness. Rashi even provides several elucidating proofs.

In his commentary to the Torah, the Ramban disagrees with Rashi. In his opinion, prishus, or separation and abstinence, which he maintains is what Chazal were referring to, does not involve the prohibition of immorality but the duty of a person to sanctify himself through what is permissible to him.

The Torah commanded distancing oneself from immorality, to be sure, but it permitted marital relations. The Torah forbade eating the meat of carcasses and other meat not ritually prepared, but it allowed eating kosher meat. Similarly, one is permitted to drink wine that was properly processed and is free from the prohibitions of tevel and orlah or yayin nessech. One might, thus, find allowance to assume that a person could indulge in those things permitted by the Torah even to an excessive degree, what is called novvol birshus haTorah.

The Torah preempts this by exhorting us to "Be holy." First it teaches us what is absolutely forbidden, but beyond that, Hashem also tells us that one must practice abstinence even in what is allowed.

"He should sanctify himself from wine by the minimum of indulgence, in the same way as the Torah refers to the nozir as kodosh. He should bear in mind the evils mentioned as rooted in it, as is found in the cases of Noach and Lot. One should also separate oneself from impurity, even though we were not specifically warned against this in the Torah, as is mentioned, `The garments of an am ho'oretz are considered to have a high degree of impurity (medras) by perushim.' And just as the nozir is called `kodosh' in his being cautioned against becoming tomei from contact with the dead, so too, should a person be cautious of impurity. One should also refrain from defiling his mouth and tongue through gluttonous eating as well as from disgusting speech, as is mentioned in the Torah, `And every mouth speaking disgust . . . (Yeshayohu 9:16).' He should sanctify himself thereby until he reaches the level of perishus."

The Ramban continues to explain that the Torah is accustomed to sum up a list of prohibitions with a general rule that encompasses innumerable instances not included in the previous detailed, explicit list. For example: when the Torah deals with monetary laws of damages etc., it forbids stealing, robbing, fraud, delaying the payment of wages and so on. In the end, it commands us in a general fashion, "And you shall do what is straightforward and good."

This is all-embracing, inclusive of all conduct between man and his fellow man, even beyond the letter of the law, that is, even matters which are not obligatory in the Choshen Mishpot section of the Shulchan Oruch and which beis din is not even empowered to enforce.

The same applies to Shabbos. After the Torah enumerated the thirty-nine forbidden melochos, the major creative- work categories, it sums up with a general prohibition that does not specifically apply to those major and subsidiary categories.

The Torah did not break down the injunction of self sanctification (kedoshim tihiyu), or the obligations in conduct beyond the letter of the law (hayoshor vehatov) or the obligation of resting on Shabbos -- for two reasons. The first is that had the Torah explicitly enumerated them, these would have become absolutely forbidden, something which it did not want to happen. Besides this, there is no limit to the details of this injunction and a person is incapable of learning an infinite amount of detail.

Do Not Add Prohibitions to Those Stated in the Torah

Nevertheless, it is not so simple and one must study this thoroughly since, through examining several sources, we learn that taking pleasure from this world is not only not negative but is even a duty! In fact, a duty that if ignored, is considered a sin.

For example, the Torah commands us, "And you shall rejoice from all your endeavors, you and your household, as Hashem blessed you" (Devorim 12:7). One might think that it was referring, as other verses, to the partaking of kodshim sacrifices which is considered a mitzva. But from the wording of Chazal, we learn that the Torah is not referring only to kodshim. Excessive abstention from the [permitted] pleasures of this world is actually considered sinful, even with regard to elective eating of non- sacrificial food, meat that is not kodshim and also not terumoh.

Chazal expressed their negative view in Talmud Yerushalmi in a surprising manner: "Do you not suffice with what the Torah prohibited you that you come to prohibit other things?" (Nedorim 89:5) How, then, can we reconcile this contradiction with the Torah's demand of a person that he sanctify himself and abstain also from those things that are permissible?

In a different place in Yerushalmi, Chazal use an even stronger form of expression: "A person will, in the future, have to give an accounting for all that his eye beheld and which he did not partake of" (End of Kiddushin). The two commentaries, Korbon Ho'Eida and Pnei Moshe, explain according to one alternative that this means that the person's sin here is that he denied himself for naught. The Talmud Yerushalmi adds that R' Eliezer took special pains because of these words and would set aside a sum of money to provide himself, each year, with all foods.

But how can we, again, reconcile this with the commandment of "You shall be holy", which, according to Chazal, means, "You shall be separated from . . ." referring to abstaining also from what is permissible?

The Nozir Atones for Having Denied Himself Wine

According to what is explained in the gemora, the sacrifice of the nozir which is brought at the conclusion of his ascetic period comes to atone for the very fact of his having denied himself those particular worldly pleasures during the term of his nezirus. His vow caused him to abstain from wine.

"R' Elozor Hakappor, son of Rebbi, says: [It is written:] `And it shall atone for him for his having sinned against a soul.' Against which soul did he sin? [Rather it must refer to his own soul, and] the very fact that he denied himself wine. Now we derive a lesson from the lesser to the greater: If one who merely abstained from wine is called a sinner, then one who denies himself everything is all the more a sinner. From here we learn that whoever fasts is called a sinner" (Nedorim 10a).

Shmuel the Amora also ruled this for Rav Yehuda: "Grab and eat, grab and drink, for this world is like a party (Eruvin 54a)." Rashi explains the advice of `grab and eat' in the following words: "If you have the means to indulge yourself, don't wait for the morrow, lest you die and forfeit the opportunity, for today you will have it and tomorrow it will be gone. Life is like a wedding procession that passes speedily."

Could we, however, suspect these saintly figures of blithely ignoring the commandment of the Torah to "Be holy"?

The Difference Between Beneficial Abstinence and Undesirable Abstinence

This question was already asked in the beis midrash of the great thinker and saintly figure the Ramchal, who devoted an entire chapter to thrashing out this problem in his famous Mesillas Yeshorim. He explains that there is no doubt whatsoever that distancing oneself from the vanities of this world is a positive thing in itself. King Chizkiyohu proves this. According to Chazal, he did not take advantage of his royal position to dine sumptuously. At his table only two measures of vegetables were served (Pesikta deRav Kahana). Similarly, before his death, the very wealthy Rabbenu Hakodosh lifted up his ten fingers towards heaven and declared: "It is revealed and known before You that I did not indulge in this world even in [or to the extent of] my little pinky" (Kesuvos 104a).

Unnecessary indulgences lead, of necessity, to forbidden things as well, and when a person abstains from them to the best of his ability he is guaranteeing and safeguarding himself from stumbling over the impermissible.

It is simple logic that a person is obligated to flee from the forbidden with all of his might and ability. And since every pleasure eventually can lead to actual trespass for one who is incapable of self restraint, it follows that one should flee from that pleasure even when it is altogether permissible. The Ramchal quotes several examples for this conclusion:

"The Torah did not warn against finery in clothing and accessories. It only forbade kilayim (linen and wool mixture) and obliged tzitzis fringes upon clothing. After that everything is permitted. But who does not know that splendid clothing with embroidery and the like causes pride and may lead to immodesty bordering on immorality, besides arousing envy and desire and the evil means that often accompany anything that is difficult to obtain? Chazal already stated: As soon as the evil inclination sees a person mincing his steps, adjusting his clothing and fixing his hair, he exclaims: This one is mine!

"Idle outings and extraneous verbiage (that is not ossur) are not forbidden per se, and are permitted by the din Torah. But how much time is wasted from Torah study in their indulgence! How much gossipmongering, how much lies and mocking speech! As it says: `With much verbiage there shall be no lack of sin' (Mishlei 10:19). The general rule is that all worldly affairs are tremendous pitfalls. Who shall not be praised if he seeks to escape them and if he thus succeeds?! This is positive abstinence, that he should not derive from this world anything that is not absolutely necessary to him according to his nature and needs. This is what Rebbi gloried in before his death, that he did not indulge in the pleasures of this world as much as a little finger's worth, even though he was a nosi of his people, and likewise King Chizkiyohu."

Why, then, did Chazal come down so strongly on those who castigated themselves?

The Ramchal explains that the mortification frowned upon by Chazal was abstention not only from luxuries but also from minimal necessities. Those who mortify their flesh with self imposed suffering and abstemiousness are alien to the spirit of the Torah. In condemning their likes, Chazal said that a person must not punish himself (Taanis 22).

For this reason they also said that "Whoever sits in fasting is deemed a sinner" for this is self-imposed suffering. The gemora in Taanis (11a) says that whoever fasts is called a sinner only if he is incapable of withstanding this mortification. But if he is capable of it, he is not considered to be sinning, for then it is a permissible and commendable form of abstinence. The Ramchal sums up this subject as follows:

"This is the true and valid rule: Whatever is superfluous for a person with regard to mundane, corporal things -- should be abstained from. Whatever is necessary, for whatever reason it be [if it is there to serve him and] if he abstains from it, he is considered a sinner. This is a reliable yardstick (Mesillas Yeshorim Chapter 13).

"Do Not Be Overrighteous, Nor Be Overclever"

The Rambam concludes the following in his Yad Hachazokoh:

"Lest a person say: Since envy and desire and the urge for glory and the like are evil ways that remove a person from this world, I will distance myself from them to the extreme to the point that I will eschew eating meat and drinking wine; I will not marry and will not live in a nicely furnished home or wear seemly clothing, but will suffice with sackcloth and unrefined wool and so on, as do the abstemious priests of other religions. But this, too, is an evil way which is forbidden to follow. One who pursues such a path is called a sinner, as we find by the nozir: `And he shall atone for himself for having sinned upon his soul.' Said Chazal . . .: Therefore Chazal commanded that a person not renounce anything beyond what the Torah itself denied him. One should not deny oneself through vows and oaths, restricting himself from things that are permitted. Thus did they say: `Does it not suffice you what the Torah forbade that you must go and add upon yourself additional restrictions?' And in general, those who are constantly fasting are not doing a good thing. Chazal forbade a person to mortify himself through fasting and all similar things. King Shlomo advised (Koheles 7:16), `Do not be overrighteous, nor be overclever; wherefore must you destroy yourself?' (Rambam, Hilchos Dei'os, chapter III, 1)."

The Rambam's terse language here indicates that every abstention is undesirable and ugly, but perhaps he was only referring to those specific examples which he enumerated, like abstaining from eating meat and wine, abstaining from marriage and living in decent housing as opposed to neglected and rundown living conditions, things which are considered basic needs for normal existence. It is probably that the Rambam agrees with the words of the Ramchal that it is desirable to distance oneself only from luxuries and indulgences.

Why Does the Torah Sap One's Strength More Than Any Other Occupation?

Perhaps one may even expand on the words of the Ramchal:

Let us first present a different saying of Chazal, well known to all:

The gemora determines that the Torah weakens a person. The simple explanation of this rule is that Torah constitutes a factor that fatigues a person; it weakens him. And here we must ask: Is this true? Can this be? Is it valid to say that a Torah scholar who returns from kollel after a day of grappling with difficult, mind-exhausting sugyos is wearier than the carpenter or construction worker who returns home after a day of physically exhausting toil? Are not the physical laborers more depleted of their strength than the former?

Furthermore: Even if we presume that mental exertion is as difficult as work on the scaffolds, and perhaps even more, and even if we accept the statement that Torah exhausts the strength of a person who immersed himself totally in cracking a difficult, obscure passage in Rashbo, thus one who invested all of the vigor of his 248 organs and 365 sinews into intense study is truly as sapped of strength to the point that he cannot do anything else. But this is not true if he is fully committed to a life of Torah study and a long day of mental exertion, since from the moment he opens his eyes to the moment he finally retires to bed, he cannot have really depleted his strength. It cannot be that to such a person Chazal were referring when they claimed that Torah depletes a person's vitality. And yet, it appears that they did mean such a one, that the Torah does, indeed, sap him of his strength.

The gemora tells of R' Yochonon who was once bathing in the Jordan River when he suddenly spied the chief of a band of highwaymen in the area. R' Yochonon was impressed by his prowess in leaping across the river and tried to persuade him to repent his ways, since the power he displayed showed him capable of harnessing himself to a life of Torah study, which makes great physical demands upon a person. After R' Yochonon promised him the hand of his sister if he committed himself to Torah, the robber chief agreed to abandon his evil ways and join the scholars of the beis hamedrash. But when he attempted to leap back across the Jordan to join R' Yochonon, he was unable to do so.

Why not? What change had suddenly come over him?

Torah Fatigues from the Moment of Commitment

The gemora does not provide any answer to this question, but Rashi explains: "As soon as he made a commitment to accept the yoke of Torah, he became weakened." This bandit went to the beis medrash, where -- according to Rabbenu Tam -- he had once studied in his youth, and became one of the most famous of the amoroim of Eretz Yisroel, Reish Lokish, one of the chief disciples of R' Yochonon.

Here we must express our amazement: We can understand that at the moment of commitment, Reish Lokish renounced his gymnastic and acrobatic pursuits which became henceforth meaningless to him as they are in the life of any ben Torah. We also understand that there, on the banks of the Jordan, his decision was firm and binding that all his desires and aspirations be henceforth harnessed to growth in Torah and piety. At that very spot, the seed of his future greatness as a saintly amora began to sprout and ferment. Given.

But all in all, he had not yet even as much as opened a holy book! He had not yet even invested an ounce of strength in that direction. All that had transpired was a commitment, albeit honest and sincere, but it was only a conscious decision and not any actual act in the flesh! Wherefore did Reish Lokish become so weakened?

Nothing Can Stand Against the Will

Modern science determines that a person utilizes only a small fraction of his mental and spiritual capacity. If a person is able to carry a certain weight and no more, this is only because he is prepared for the effort that he is willing to invest therein. A factor that cannot be ignored is the extent of the effort which he is prepared to invest when he is very interested in accomplishing a given thing.

A person of limited physical capacity cannot swim more than a distance of several meters. The effort he must expend in the paddling motions cannot exceed the effort he is willing to make because it is difficult for him and he will tire very quickly and give up. But if we take the selfsame person and throw him off the deck of a ship in mid-ocean, he will quickly reveal latent strength which he never knew he possessed. He will swim energetically, indefatigably, with determination, towards the closest piece of driftwood, exhibiting vitality and strength no one knew existed, all for the sake of saving himself from death.

What has happened to this person whose physical strength was so poor and limited? Apparently, his threshold of willpower was raised many notches because he realized that his life was in danger. He understood full well that if he said, "I don't have the strength to persevere; I am unable to continue," as he did in the past, it wouldn't help and he would sink and drown. The sea does not recognize such excuses and explanations. Waves must either be overcome or they will overcome him. He is aware of this and utilizes all of the hidden strength which he never realized he possessed and never made use of in the past.

Another example: A person who has never attempted it, will not dream that he is capable of bursting through a locked door. It seems totally beyond his ability and he will not even make an attempt to test his strength in this area. But witness the conduct of a person who sits in a locked room when he suddenly becomes aware that the building in which he is located is on fire. After determining that no one from the outside can help him, he will do all in his power to barge through and escape the firetrap. Nothing will stand in his way and he will attack the door from every possible angle until he has battered it down.

He, like the first person, knows very well that his life depends on the extent of the strength he is prepared to exert to save himself.

A person's powers and abilities are not only measured by the strength of his muscles, but also by the strength of his will. The will can free latent powers and bring them to actuality. Nothing stands against the will.

The Torah saps the strength of one who gives himself over totally to the Torah. This is what Chazal referred to. A man like this is unwilling and fatigued by doing all the other things for which most people show enthusiasm. The Torah cancels all desires for anything else. The enthusiasm that others show for a nice car or creature comforts, he shows for a clear understanding of a Tosafos or full comprehension of a Ketzos or simply remembering every detail of the maseches he is learning. That is how the Torah saps one's strength from anything else.

The Mitzvah of Kedushah is to Reach a Madreigoh of Transcending Olom Hazeh

When the Torah says, Kedoshim tihiyu, it is not asking us to forego a tasty kugel. Rather it is asking us to lift ourselves to a madreigoh so that we will not feel its lack. A person must become so close to kedushoh that his intensity of avodas Hashem imply that he loses interest in the things of Olom Hazeh so that spending the night talking about yetzias Mitzrayim rather than the material aspects of simchas yom tov do not in fact affect his peronsal simchas yom tov which is focussed on the mitzvah.

But in the meantime, whoever has not reached this madreigoh should not give up his wine and kugel as long as it is permitted. If the pleasure is forbidden, then a person must undergo whatever suffering is necessary to avoid the issur.

We are not asked to leave the kugel that is served to us in our plates. Rather we must concentrate on putting all our energies into Torah and mitzvos -- and the rest will happen by itself.

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