Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Fair Lawn—On March 23, Yeshiva University and RIETS will be celebrating their Chag  HaSemicha celebration which takes place every four years. I will have the privilege of being a participant in this year’s chag, as I missed the previous celebration by one year and had to wait to be a part of such an exciting celebration of Torah and the Yeshiva.

Lately, I have been thinking about the significance of this chag and what it means to me. Four years ago, I remember being frustrated that I so narrowly missed the previous one and would have to wait so long for my turn. Ironically, my yeshiva, an institution where I studied for six years, only this month—three years into my rabbinic work in Fair Lawn (and five years since I began working as a rabbinic intern in Bergen County at Keter Torah and Ahavath Torah)—is finally ready to include me in a ceremony which proclaims: Now You Are A Rabbi! I told my shul’s president that maybe he should send YU a memo about what I have been up to for the last couple of years!

We recently began the book of Vayikrah, which begins in quite a peculiar way, as the verse says: Vayikrah el Moshe. Vayedaber Hashem eilav mei’Ohel Mo’ed lei’mor. There was a call to Moshe. And God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.

There is a clear redundancy in the verse, as the text first describes a call to Moshe and then subsequently Hashem speaks to him. The medrash in Vayikrah Rabbah 1:15 says that the redundancy of Vayikrah and vayedaber stems from the fact that Moshe waited patiently outside the  Mishkan until Hashem called him in. As the medrash says, that despite all of the accolades on Moshe Rabbeinu’s resume, and all the wonders he had performed, “lo nichnas lifnai ve’lifnim ad she’karah lo.” Despite all that he had accomplished, Moshe didn’t enter the Mishkan until God called him in. That’s the purpose of the first Vayikrah, to simply let Moshe in the door.

The medrash derives from this episode the following concept: Any talmid chachom who doesn’t have da’as, a carcass is better than he is. It seems to be a strange derivation from this episode. If I were to ask you which character traits were Moshe exhibiting while waiting by the door, what might you suggest? Respect, courtesy, derech eretz? Why does the medrash articulate it in terms of da’as? Da’as would seem to be more of an intellectual quality!

What is the concept of da’as? We are all familiar with the term Chabad, which actually stands for chochma, binah and daas. Chazal inform us that there are multiple layers of intellect, which I will only explain on a surface level. Chochma refers to intellectual knowledge, the facts. Binah is somewhat of a sixth sense, being able to read between the lines, usually associated with the feminine persona who is more attuned to underlying subtlety. Da’as represents inherent, intuit knowledge that we attain more from experience and common sense, than what we call “book smart.”

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, of the Boca Raton Synagogue, suggests that perhaps when the medrash is equating Moshe’s actions and derech eretz with da’as, the medrash is highlighting the fact that derech eretz is intuitive. Derech eretz should be common sense. Being a sensitive individual and basic decency shouldn’t need to be taught intellectually. The medrash is saying that if you are a talmid chachom and rude, you are worse than a carcass. The fact that the Torah hasn’t made an impact on one’s personality is a lack of the inculcation of the Torah into one’s bloodstream.

Rabbi Goldberg tells the story of a prominent surgeon who was a medical school teacher known to be quite demanding and even critical of his students. This doctor ran a top-notch residency program and at the end of three years of residency, every resident had to take an exit exam with this medical professor so he could sign off on them, and be sure they were ready to enter the real world and be full-fledged doctors.

The students would study for weeks, reviewing all of their anatomy and organic chemistry notes, and they made sure to know every disease by heart. When the time came for the test, the professor said he only had one question. What was that question? He wanted to know: After you perform a surgery, and you have sutured up your patient, and there is blood everywhere, and you take off your scrubs … what is the name of the janitor who comes in at that point to clean everything up? If you can answer that question, then you are ready to become a doctor. In a program that emphasizes so much on the intellectual capabilities of their students, only if you have common sense and decency are you ready to become a doctor. Do you know the janitor’s name?

This is a real challenge for our generation. We live in constant informational excess. Yet, does that knowledge ensure that we are also decent human beings? Chochma is important, but our challenge today is whether we combine that chochma with intuit, innate decency, what we can now understand as da’as.

When I reflect on my own educational journey, specifically my six years at YU, I am struck by the feeling that throughout so much of the semicha process, the emphasis was largely on what do you know? How much Gemara or Shulchan Aruch have you become an expert in? Perhaps that is a reflection of the fact that it is much harder to teach proper middos than it is to quantify a talmid’s intellectual capabilities. In hindsight, at least in my case, perhaps the chag haSemicha is happening at exactly the right time.

It is quite premature to give a talmid semicha and sign off on him as a rabbi when they have yet to leave the walls of the yeshiva. It is there where a person, when presented with fewer distractions, can truly amass a large quantity of chochma, of wisdom. But the real test is what happens after one leaves the walls of yeshiva. Do they also exhibit common sense and common decency? It is in the experience of life where that answer is determined.

That is what I am celebrating at the upcoming chag haSemicha. Not so much whether or not I am now a chacham, as I have years of learning towards that goal still ahead of me. In truth, what I am most proud of is that hopefully, in the three years working with my community Darchei Noam of Fair Lawn, and throughout my travels in Bergen County, working at TABC and for OHEL, during these three years post-semicha, I hope I have learned from all of you—and with all of you—a little bit about da’as.

Thank you for helping me get my semicha.

Rabbi Jeremy Donath Cong. Darchei Noam

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