Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

18 Tammuz 5764 - July 7, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
Sign and Substance

by Rabbi N.Z. Grossman

Part II

HaRav Elyashiv's ruling about human hair from India being subject to the prohibition of an offering made to avodoh zora awakened an interest in the subject that has not yet died down. In the first part, Rabbi Grossman quoted the Rambam who explains how the idea of avodoh zora started out as a mistaken attempt to serve Hashem through His intermediaries. HaRav Dessler explains that this is a lesson that we must still learn today. We see people who honor the means of performing a mitzva, for example, buying a costly silver menorah, while it doesn't occur to them to think about the Chanukah miracle and use it to strengthen their faith. They neglect the inner spiritual lesson and delude themselves by valuing the outward means of fulfilling the mitzvah.

Looking Around

This lesson is applicable to all areas of life. Ours is a shallow generation that tends strongly to focus on externals alone and this influences the Torah public. All we need to do is look around, in order to see the extent to which people flock after all kinds of charms and segulos, even those whose sources are scant or obscure. These segulos have become the most fundamental thing in the lives of some Yidden.

It hardly occurs to them that the real way to achieve whatever it is they are seeking lies in heartfelt prayer and strengthening their Torah study, fear of Heaven and good deeds. Large sums are invested by people of means in items with "special properties," while a great Torah scholar would advise them instead that giving money to tzedokoh, and supporting Torah institutions in particular, is the way to merit blessing. "It is a tree of life for those who hold onto it and those who support it are happy."

The foundation of every seguloh is the strengthening of faith in Hashem as the Source of all salvation to which it is supposed to lead. Every such symbolic object or activity is supposed to deepen our awareness that Heaven controls our destiny and that itself is a merit through which Heaven might bestow whatever is needed. Regarding an external symbol as having some special active power leads to very fundamental mistakes.

Many chareidi publications provide another contemporary example, unfortunately. Their pages are filled with articles that take a superficial and lighthearted approach to Torah outlook and to daas Torah as it is articulated by the Torah leaders. Nonetheless, these very publications regularly print pages and pages of photographs of gedolei Yisroel attending various events, conveying the overall message that their pictures are more important than their teachings.

This raises a more general and more fundamental problem with the aforementioned publications. The mussar works write that love of this (material) world and love of the (spiritual) World to Come cannot coexist within a person. The same can be said of the relationship between inner content and outer "packaging." Focusing on outward appearance by definition demotes serious contemplation of a thing's essence to being peripheral and insignificant.

External appearance and inner content, means and ends, instrument and essence -- are constantly in conflict with one another. Man's obligation is to determine within himself what is sign and what is substance, not attaching exaggerated importance to instruments and means, which was essentially the mistake of the earliest idol worshipers.

Strategy and Goal

This is the approach that our teachers bid us take towards the entire phenomenon of the chareidi establishment, when necessary. It is well known that the gedolim of previous generations decided that the Torah world should become organized in a hierarchy of representative institutions. This in turn spawned a vast array of organizations, movements, newspapers, periodicals and communal institutions, whose activities, carried out in the Torah spirit and subject to the authority of gedolei Yisroel, were undoubtedly of vital importance.

However, we ought always to remember that these were all merely ways and means of strengthening the Torah outlook and of bolstering the ranks of the faithful. If a person focuses all his spiritual energy and attention on this "machinery," vital though it may be, it must lead to his ignoring our most fundamental obligation: our responsibility, both collective and individual, to strengthen Torah and to repulse the threatening influences of heretics and misleaders.

This is why several decades ago, the gedolim took a public stand against a certain chareidi movement (Poalei Agudas Yisroel) that acted against daas Torah on drafting women for national service. Their opposition to the actions that were taken stemmed not only from the resultant damage itself, but also from the movement's wish to stray from daas Torah out of opportunism. The members argued that their supreme priority was their movement's survival and it was this argument that aroused the ire of the gedolim.

In an evaluation of the episode that he wrote at the time, reflecting the views of the gedolim, Rav Moshe Scheinfeld zt'l stated that the members' mistake had been in allowing the party apparatus to take precedence over its ideology i.e. preferring the means to the end. He quoted from Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch zt'l in order to illustrate this point.

Rav Hirsch reads the posuk, "For you had as many gods as you had cities, Yehuda" (Yirmiyohu 2:28) as meaning "your number of cities were your gods." He explains, "the cities that you built and fortified, cries the prophet . . . seemed to you like gods; not as the means to an end but as an end in themselves!" (published in Hashkofoseinu, Vol. 1-2)

Rav Scheinfeld also quotes HaRav Aharon Kotler zt'l who used a parable to issue a sharp warning to that movement's leaders. A human being, said Reb Aharon, is kept alive by his soul which, for all its importance, is utterly invisible. His arms, legs and other limbs are evident and make themselves felt. When his soul departs however, the body is like a broken potsherd. It is of no interest to anyone and, after some time has passed, it is impossible to remain in its proximity.

This is the fate that awaits a party and all its organizational machinery and institutions, if it detaches itself from its life source -- daas Torah.

No Intrinsic Holiness

This idea's relevance is by no means confined to the relatively recent manifestations that have been mentioned thus far. It has been applied by the luminaries of past generations to some of our most historically and religiously significant symbols. The Meshech Chochmoh elaborates for example, on how the Torah ensures that we retain the correct perspective on as important a site as Har Sinai, where we received the Torah (parshas Yisro, piece beginning "Bimshoch hayovel").

"In truth," he writes, "[our] religion's fundamental purpose was to uproot all manifestations of idolatry from Bnei Yisroel's hearts and show them that they `had not seen any image' (Devorim 4:15) because no creature possesses [intrinsic] holiness apart from the Creator . . . This is why it says that they shouldn't imagine that there was something holy about the mountain on account of which Hashem was revealed there. `At the horn's blast, they can ascend the mountain' (Shemos 19:13) which was the lair of animals and creatures. It was only holy while the Shechinah rested upon it, due to Hashem's holiness. This is why it says, `A person's place does not accord him honor; he accords honor to his place.' This is a worthy idea.

"For this reason, in the Beis Hamikdosh, whose holiness was everlasting, all who were impure, even those who had contact with a dead body, were allowed to touch the building's rear wall (Toras Cohanim, beginning of parshas Tazriya) -- so that people shouldn't think that the building possessed any intrinsic holiness. This demonstrated that we only fear the One who rests His Name upon the House. The Luchos and the seat of His glory were inside the building. Therefore its inside was holy, not [the outside of] its back wall."

A Grave Misconception

Elsewhere, the Meshech Chochmoh explains that it was this that lay behind the breaking of the Luchos (parshas Ki Siso, piece beginning "Vayehi ka'asher koreiv").

"Torah and emunoh are the fundamentals of the Israelite nation. All the [different] types of holiness, of Eretz Yisroel, of Yerushalayim etc. are all branches of Torah and are made holy through the Torah's holiness. There is, therefore, no difference in any part of Torah between different times and places; it applies equally in Eretz Yisroel and outside it (with the exception of the land- dependent mitzvos). It also is equally binding at the highest level [that a human can reach, that of] Moshe Rabbenu, the man of G-d and also at the very lowest. . . The Torah refers to Moshe as a go-between [bringing Hashem's Torah to bnei Yisroel] but Torah is not ascribed to him. It has to exist for `Hakodosh Boruch Hu and the Torah are one' and just as Hakodosh Boruch Hu must exist, so does the Torah. Its existence depends solely upon the First Cause, yisborach Shemo."

The Meshech Chochmoh then points out the difficulty that the puny human intellect has in comprehending the existence of a limitless and ungraspable First Cause. He explains that this was what led men to seek ways of making forms and likenesses of the heavenly bodies, which they claimed were the Divine chariot and the controllers of worldly events. They worshiped and sacrificed and offered incense to these forms and their dances and fevered moods were solid and tangible ways of relating to the object of their veneration. Thus, "When they saw that Moshe was tarrying, they fell from their faith and wanted to make a calf and bring a heavenly spirit to rest upon it and relate to it as the divine chariot and the controller of worldly events, that had taken them out of Egypt. This was also the sin of the calves that Yerovom made . . ."

Moshe thus rebuked bnei Yisroel, asking them, "Do you imagine that I am significant and that I posses any independent holiness that doesn't derive from His command, to the point where you made an eigel because I was absent? Choliloh, I am a man just like the rest of you! The Torah doesn't depend on me. Even if I hadn't come along, the Torah would still exist without any change, choliloh."

End of Part II

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