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12 Iyar 5766 - May 10, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Opinion & Comment
Everything Depends on One's Starting Point

A Mussar Talk of the Mashgiach HaRav Yechezkel Levenstein zt'l, delivered Lag BaOmer 5702 (1942) in Shanghai.
Transcribed by his talmid, Rav Moshe Binyamin Bernstein zt"l

The gemora (Yevomos 62b) says: "R' Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of disciples." This implies that there were no individuals among them; thus the sages specifically use the word "pairs."

We have often mentioned that one must examine every word of Chazal as carefully as one examines the Torah itself. Only because of our limited intellect do we fail to understand their words—the truth is that deep secrets lie behind every word.

"They all died in one time period." We should contemplate this point in depth. "All" means that not even one was spared. "Because they did not treat each other with due honor" — yet this fact leaves us unaroused. Could there be any greater proof of how careful one must be where the Torah's honor is concerned? Or greater proof of the clarity and truth of this principle?

We indeed observe mourning all the days of the Sefira in remembrance of this plague, exactly as if this event happened yesterday. But if something like this happened in our time, chas vesholom, how it would it waken us! Why don't we contemplate this matter? We see how particular G-d is concerning his close ones and how the punishment of disrespect for bnei Torah is beyond comprehension.

"It was taught, they all died from Pesach until Shavuos." The Maharsha explains that this was so that no one should ascribe the plague to any other cause, because this is the best and healthiest season of the year.

This too can be well understood in the light of our shmuess on Shavuos. We said that the way G-d directs the world is for the sake of the complete rosho as well. G-d's actions leave no room for him to err, and only a madman or a rebellious sinner can make any mistake.

In our case, even without the Maharsha's insight it was impossible to ascribe the plague to any other cause because, as we mentioned before, they all died — every one of the twenty-four thousand — and all of the same disease. Anyone would doubtless understand that it was a punishment.

Nevertheless, G-d made the plague at this specific time so that no rational person could entertain any other notion. This is because of the insight we expressed.

"The world was desolate." Rashi explains that the Torah became forgotten. This implies that there were no other yeshivos at that time and that R. Akiva's yeshiva constituted all the Torah in the world at that time. "Until R. Akiva came to our sages in the south" — he had to once more establish a new yeshiva in a new place.

But this entire episode seems extremely hard to understand. How could an angel of G-d like R. Akiva fail to uproot the plague that had visited his disciples?

We must certainly assume that their sin was the slightest of the slightest. Chas vesholom to suspect that any actual belittling of the Torah was involved. Their only sin was that they did not behave with due honor towards each other. There was some flaw in their care concerning the honor befitting the bnei Torah of R. Akiva's beis midrash who all certainly had ruach hakodesh.

But even if their sin was slight our question still remains unanswered. R. Akiva once said, "Better that I die a death at my own hand than transgress the words of my colleagues" (Eruvin 21b), because he was so concerned about the honor of his colleagues. And we find that his prayers for rain were answered because of his quality of forbearance (Taanis 21b). So how could he fail to sense his disciples failings no matter how slight?

He must certainly have detected the problem and certainly did his utmost to stop their negative behavior. Nevertheless, he could not uproot the negative point sown in his disciples' hearts and, despite all his efforts to influence them, he did not succeed.

Afterwards he was forced to go "south" to a new place. It is taught that he immediately instructed his new disciples about this point so that they should pay attention to it straight away, as soon as the yeshiva changed its location.

We learn from all this that we do not have the power to uproot a fault that is entrenched, especially when a community is involved!

The fundamental principle is that everything follows the initial starting point. Once an initial preconception enters someone's heart, he should realize that he will be unable to change it without devoting work and much effort into making room for new conceptions and making new beginnings. Then, perhaps, with the passing of time, his first preconceptions will become nullified.

The rule is: "Turn away from evil" (Tehillim 34:15). Don't try to fight and conquer the old ideas. Just turn away from them, ". . . and do good" (Ibid.). Use all your strength to forget the old ideas you acquired from contaminated sources, and strengthen the ideas you gain and acquire now to embed them in your heart. Then the old ideas will automatically decay and the new ones will flourish in their place.

The same happens when one sows seeds. Those which one cares for and nurtures bear fruit and flourish — and the neglected ones decay. It is not a good idea to actively uproot one's old ideas.

The Mishna (Ovos 1:6) says, "Judge every man [to be] on the scale cup of merit." Rabbenu Yonah (Ibid.) explains that this applies to an average person. But a wicked person who has a bad root should be judged to be on the scale cup of sin. Even if we superficially see no evil in his action we should still say that it stems from an evil force, as it says, "When his voice speaks with favor do not believe him, for there are seven abominations in his heart" (Mishlei 26:25). He is certainly merely pretending to do good.

Similarly it says in Mishlei, the tzaddik understands the house of the wicked man, he slurs the wicked as evil doers (Ibid. 21:11).

The tzaddik knows the rosho well and understands that he possesses no good. The tzaddik knows that everything the rosho does comes from a contaminated source. Even though the tzaddik seems far removed from the rosho, he nonetheless understands the house of the wicked man. With his wisdom he identifies every movement of the rosho and knows how to evaluate it.

Only those who leave the Torah, praise the rosho. Just as it is dangerous to witness a rosho's evil deeds, so too is it dangerous to perceive him as possessing any good. However, even though R. Yonah says that a tzaddik may even speak evil of the rosho, it is possible that we who are not pure ourselves cannot actually speak against him.

But we must nevertheless have the knowledge that even when the rosho speaks nicely — there are seven abominations in his heart. This is all because of the fundamental idea we explained above: that it is impossible to uproot an evil root and a preconceived assumption. The tzaddik sees the first initial point. Similarly G-d says, I am G-d who investigates the heart and examines the kidneys — so hidden are these roots that they must be searched for in the kidneys.

Thus the sages say: "In the future G-d will judge each person according to what he is"—according to his root and his initial starting point. This is because a man can live in error all his days, thinking that all his actions stem from righteousness and uprightness, while the truth is that they all stem from a corrupted starting point and evil character traits. Even though all his actions revolve around this point, he himself does not know and is no longer aware that the cause of all his deeds is an evil point resulting from an initial preconception that settled in his heart.

Thus the verse says, Our youth (is revealed) in the light of Your countenance (Tehillim 90:8)—all the initial motives of our youth are revealed before You. You know and recognize who walks before You in truth and purity.

(This is why there were sages who were truly afraid before their deaths. For example R. Yochonon ben Zakai said: "I do not know in which path they will lead me," and R. Avohu said: "I do not know whether I will receive reward or punishment for all my deeds." These holy men suspected that all their deeds might stem from an initial point that was not pure and proper. It is terrible and disturbing to contemplate how a person should fear and tremble that even if he toiled in Torah and mitzvos his whole life, all his deeds may all stem from another source!)


In conclusion, one must realize and understand this fundamental idea—that it is impossible to alter one's nature, and an initial preconceived notion and all one's activities follow one's initial direction. Thus we see some bnei Torah who ultimately remain the same as when they began. The person who opposed mussar still opposes mussar, and the preconceptions he understood from his cheder rebbe remain unaltered.

Each person should examine what he thinks and imagines between the sedorim and during meals. As the sages say: "A man is recognized by three things—his purse, his cup, and his anger." He should recollect his past and perceive his attitude towards the future and then he will see where he stands!

The rule is that a person remains with his old conceptions. In truth the entire creation is like this. As it says, There is nothing new under the sun. Similarly, the nine latter statements with which G-d created the world all emanated from G-d's first statement of Creation. Everything is sustained by the old, by the merit of our forefathers.

Nevertheless, we must constantly initiate new beginnings. (As we say in Shacharis, "He constantly renews everyday the works of Creation.") So we too must constantly make new beginnings and foundations. This is why it has been established to state before each mitzvah, "Behold I am ready and prepared" — because everything depends on how one begins. Similarly, one should become accustomed to start each day by doing good and establish the day on a good footing. Then the entire day will be good because everything follows the initial starting point.

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