April 8, 2024
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April 8, 2024
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Dear Yaakov,

It’s hard to believe that in just a few months, im yirtzeh Hashem, you will be off to learn in Israel. We are so proud of you, and so excited for you and for all of the opportunities that you will have, and we hope and know that you will make the most of them. There is so much Torah and holiness in the Land, and you will need to focus carefully and choose wisely as you seek out the role models and leadership that can make the time you have there lift you as high as you want to climb. We hope that you can meet and learn from true gedolei Yisrael.

We know that you will learn with hasmada, putting in long hours to master as many pages of the Talmud as you can. But remember, as crucially important as that is, and as tremendously proud as that makes us, that is not all that Torah requires. Chazal make it clear many times and in many ways that it is possible to master all the details, to know it all by heart, and yet still to miss the point (see Vayikra Rabbah 1:15, Pirkei Avos 3:11 and 3:17). There is so much more that is needed for genuine gadlus.

The most fundamental principle in Judaism, that precedes all others, is hakaras hatov. Without this crucial midah, everything else, including basic faith, falls apart (see Mishnas R. Eliezer ch. 7; Rabbenu Bachya, Shmos1:8, etc.). We are obligated to actively instill this in our consciousness, and it has nothing to do with whether the kindness was optional or mandatory, intentional or unwitting. Thus, we are told we have responsibilities even towards inanimate objects from which we have benefitted (Bava Kama 92b; Rashi, Shmos 19:7) and even in how we think about them inwardly (see Meiri to Bava Kama).

This applies even to benefits provided with ulterior motives; The Torah obligates us to maintain gratitude even to the Egyptians for their hospitality (Devarim 5:8). And of course, it goes without saying that it applies to one who is paid, or who is carrying out a basic responsibility. The Chayei Adam (67:2) had harsh words for those who would think otherwise, applying the words of Tehillim (31:19) “Let the lying lips be silenced,” and writing “Hashem has not given them a heart to know and to understand” and they will come to deny Hashem as well.

Certainly there is no path to gadlus without this; Hakaras hatov is the first trait tested in order to appreciate the Torah. We see this from the comments of the Ramban on the pasuk following the giving of the Aseres HaDibros (Ten Commandments) (Shemos 20:16), when Moshe tells the Jewish people not to be afraid of the thunder and the lightning and the smoke that surrounded the giving of the Torah, because Hashem has come “ba-avur nasos eschem, in order to test you.” The Ramban understands this in the sense of nisayon, to test the Jewish people, to see if they are capable of feeling an appreciation for an awe-inspiring display.

As Rav Yitzchak Hutner explains (Pachad Yitzchak, Shavuos #8), this “test” was a crucial part of the process of the bestowing of the Torah upon the Jewish people. If the Jews failed to be moved by such a display, then they cannot fulfill their roles as the guardians of the Torah; they will be unreceptive to the infinite treasures of its content, and thus immune to its influence.

In this sense, Rav Hutner notes the Maharal of Prague’s interpretation of the Gemara’s statement (Bava Metzia 85b) that the churban haBayis (destruction of the Temple) took place because the Jews failed to recite birchos haTorah. This passage has long challenged commentators, both because of the apparently disproportional nature of the punishment, and the well-known fact that the Jews of that era were guilty of several other egregious offenses. The Maharal (Hakdamah to Tiferes Yisrael) explained that the Talmud is not claiming that the lack of birchos haTorah is the punishable offense; indeed, the churban was provoked by the other offenses committed at that time. Rather, the Gemara’s question was this: Since we know that the Jews of that time were involved in the study of Torah, how is it also possible that they were guilty of such transgressions? Shouldn’t their Talmud Torah have influenced them toward a more righteous path?

This is what it means to say that they did not recite a bracha on the Torah. They were not awestruck by the experience; they were not moved by the privilege to express gratitude to He who bestowed this great gift. If that was their attitude, they were not in a position to be influenced by the Torah’s content.

Once we know how important hakaras hatov is, there is still more. It is not a binary concept that is either there or not; it must be calibrated to the degree of benefit received. So, for example, when it comes to our holy soldiers, who are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice so that others can live and thrive, our debt to them cannot be compared to some mundane service of a fundamentally different nature. If there is no appreciation for what is being required of the giver, there can be no hakaras hatov.

This is similar to what we find in the laws of bikur cholim, visiting the sick. A major element of that mitzvah is to pray for the patient, and yet we assume that this cannot be done adequately without coming in person to visit, to experience directly what the patient is going through. Please never let anyone tell you that visiting a patient, or attending a levaya (funeral), or a shiva, is bitul Torah. Not only because, in the context of funerals, the Gemara explicitly commands leaving the beis midrash (Kesuvos 17a). Regarding mitzvos overall, the Gemara teaches that Torah study generally does not exempt one from their responsibility (Moed Katan 9a-b). The Ba’al HaTanya explained why this is: a crucial part of the covenant of Torah is “lishmor v’laasos, to learn in order to fulfill the Torah.” If Torah study becomes a reason not to perform mitzvos, then it is fundamentally flawed. This is especially true if we are referring to the mitzvah of chesed, which is the essence of Jewish identity (Yevamos 78b).

But, of course, this is true on a whole different level if the patient, or, chas v’shalom, the deceased, is one of our precious chayalim who put themselves in danger on behalf of all of us. Then, the most basic obligation of hakaras hatov once again kicks in and asks for the most minimal acknowledgement of the sacrifices that have been made to fight for us and all that we love. And it is a whole additional level on top of that, if the belief is that the Torah study will be effective as a source of merit for those on the front lines. For that to be the case, there needs to be a genuine connection and identification.

Of course, these experiences will have an effect on your learning; they are supposed to. The Gemara teaches that visiting the sick and the bereaved was permitted on Shabbos “with difficulty“ (Shabbos 12b). The Sha’arei Teshuvah (OC 287:1) assumes, then, maybe it should not be allowed for those who are sensitive and will have their oneg Shabbos disturbed. The Tzitz Eliezer (XIII, 36) objected to that; the whole point of these mitzvos is to connect with the suffering of those being visited; that becomes the priority.

In general, we are taught that our Torah learning is supposed to make us more sensitive to what is happening around us, and more inspired to react (Ta’anis 4a and Rashi). If it doesn’t, something is wrong.

In the parsha that you will read this week, we are directly told what gadlus is. “Vayigdal Moshe, (Shmos 2:11), Moshe became a gadol,” “Vayetze el echav v’ya’ar b’sivlosam, he went out among his brothers and he saw their suffering.” Not by accident: Rashi quotes the Midrash, nasan enav v’libo l’hiyos metzar aleihem; he set his eyes and his heart to be anguished on their behalf. Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman notes that it says v’ya’ar twice because he “saw” a second time with the increased compassion he developed from the first time; the Oznayim L’Torah writes it should really be translated as “understanding.” This is what is known as intentional, affective empathy; this is gadlus.

Never let anyone tell you that the suffering of any part of the Jewish people is not our problem, whoever they are. Rav Shimon Shkop tells us in the introduction to his Sha’arei Yosher what gadlus is. He explains the Mishna (Avos 1:14) in which Hillel declares, Im ein ani li mi li, k’sheani l’atzmi mah ani? should not be interpreted as two conflicting statements, “I must take care of myself” and “I can’t only care about myself.” Rather, they are one integrated idea. Yes, human beings must attend to their own needs first. But every individual can decide how broadly to expand their “ani” beyond just “l’atzmi,” and therein greatness lies.

Never let anyone, in the name of Torah, make sweeping generalizations about whole groups of people, without knowledge of the reality of their individual natures. When the Chafetz Chaim wrote his sefer, some of the dayanim from Vilna wrote a haskama in which they noted that, despite the fact that Torah is supposed to be an antidote to lashon hara (evil speech) (Arakhin 15b), somehow, there are still talmidei chachamim who make unfair judgements about people and groups. That does not make it acceptable; if anything, it increases the damage.

Unfortunately, it is possible for even minor differences in philosophy to create divisions between Jews, and then for these splits to justify the disparagement or dismissal of major portions of the Jewish people, even in the minds of those who seem to be tzadikim. The Netziv, in his introduction to Bereishis, wrote that “Hashem has no patience for such tzadikim,” and it is this that causes the exile.

It is a terribly difficult time right now for our people, but we have faith that a little light pushes away much darkness. Continue in your quest for the light of true Torah greatness, and let it shine upon us all.

With love,

Abba


Daniel Z Feldman is the rabbi of Ohr Saadya of Teaneck, a rosh yeshiva at RIETS and an instructor at the Syms School of Business. His most recent book is “Letter and Spirit: Evasion, Avoidance, and Workarounds in the Halakhic System” (RIETS/Maggid 2024).

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