July 21, 2024
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July 21, 2024
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The following is the drasha given by Rabbi Halpert last Shabbat.

“טוֹב לָלכֶת אֶל־בֵּֽית־אֵ֗בֶל מִלֶּ֙כֶת֙ אֶל־בֵּ֣ית מִשְׁתֶּ֔ה”

It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting.[1]

This is what Shlomo Hamelech tells us in Megillat Kohelet. But life experience would seem to contradict this maxim. In the past month, I along with the greater Yeshiva University, MTA and Hillcrest communities experienced the loss of three great individuals: Rabbi Dr. Mitchel Orlian, professor of Tanach at Yeshiva College for over 60 years; Rabbi Label Dulitz, a fixture at MTA (YUHSB) for over four decades; and just last week, Rabbi Simcha Krauss, a musmach, Yoreh Yoreh and Yadin Yadin from Rav Yitzchok Hutner of Chaim Berlin, subsequently a student of the Rav, Rav Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik, a rebbi at Yeshiva College for over 20 years and rabbi of the Young Israel of Hillcrest for several decades, and for as long as I can remember, the rebbi that I would turn to for guidance on the most complex and difficult issues.

So I have to say, right now, it seems to me that it is in fact not better לָלכֶת אֶל־בֵּֽית־אֵ֗בֶל מִלֶּ֙כֶת֙ אֶל־בֵּ֣ית מִשְׁתֶּ֔ה—לא טוב

It is not better to go to a house of mourning rather than to journey to a house of simcha.

But Shlomo Hamelech, חכם מכל אדם, in his wisdom must have known the difficulty of the loss of a mentor, the loss of a teacher, the loss of a lifelong confidant; so what is the wisdom behind the principle that טוֹב לָלכֶת אֶל־בֵּֽית־אֵ֗בֶל מִלֶּ֙כֶת֙ אֶל־בֵּ֣ית מִשְׁתֶּ֔ה, that somehow it is good, or perhaps better, to go visit a house of mourning rather than visiting a house of joy?!

The traditional explanation of this principle, an idea we first see in print from the beit midrash of the Rashbam, is that visiting the house of mourning mitigates sinful thoughts and deeds, as a visit to the house of mourning forces an individual to face the limited and finite nature of human existence. טוב ללכת אל בית אבל—שמתוך כך יתן אל לבו וידאג מן המיתה.[2]

However, even this traditional explanation seems to raise further difficulties in light of a Gemara in ברכות ה:

אָמַר רַבִּי לֵוִי בַּר חָמָא, אָמַר רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן לָקִישׁ: לְעוֹלָם יַרְגִּיז אָדָם יֵצֶר טוֹב עַל יֵצֶר הָרַע, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״רִגְזוּ וְאַל תֶּחֱטָאוּ״ אִם נִצְּחוֹ — מוּטָב, וְאִם לָאו — יַעֲסוֹק בַּתּוֹרָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״אִמְרוּ בִלְבַבְכֶם״. אִם נִצְּחוֹ — מוּטָב, וְאִם לָאו — יִקְרָא קְרִיאַת שְׁמַע, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״עַל מִשְׁכַּבְכֶם״. אִם נִצְּחוֹ — מוּטָב, וְאִם לָאו — יִזְכּוֹר לוֹ יוֹם הַמִּיתָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וְדֹמּוּ סֶלָה״.

Rabbi Levi bar Ḥama said that Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: One must constantly struggle so that his evil inclination does not lead him to transgression . . .  If one succeeds, excellent, but if he does not succeed he should study Torah . . .  If one succeeds, excellent; if not, he should recite Shema. If one succeeds, excellent; if not, he should remind himself of the day of death.

Asks Rav Yonathan Eibshitz in his Sefer יערות דבש, why go through this three-pronged process, (i) fighting the Yetzer Hara, (ii) learning Torah and (iii) saying קריאת שמע. Why not just jump to stage four and just think of yom hamitah (the day of death)?[3][4]  So there are those who explain that you cannot constantly make use of the “nuclear option.” If a person is focused on death or is focused on the end of life, that person will become depressed and despondent. Thinking of death can only be a last resort in unique situations. So once again, what did Shlomo Hamelech have in mind when he advocated seeking out mourning and sorrow rather than joy and celebration? And lest you think that the concern was partying and celebrating in a rowdy and hedonistic fashion, the Chochmei Tzarfat clarify that we are discussing a situation where you have the choice to celebrate a seudat mitzvah or to instead be menachem avel.[5] This is a seudat mitzvah that is being passed up, not an office holiday party!

So once again, what is the wisdom behind the principle that טוֹב לָלכֶת אֶל־בֵּֽית־אֵ֗בֶל מִלֶּ֙כֶת֙ אֶל־בֵּ֣ית מִשְׁתֶּ֔ה, that somehow it is good, in fact it is better, to go visit a house of mourning rather than visiting a house of joy?! Constant depression and morbidity cannot be a recipe for spiritual success?!

I never had the opportunity to discuss this question with any of my rebeim, but I have no doubt that it would have troubled them all; as master educators, individuals with a thirst for life, for building and crafting, the future was their focus, not the past, and certainly Rabbi Krauss, who would so often say, “We follow the ruling of Rav Yochanan ben Zakai, מהרה יבנה בית המקדש.” We must look to the future with optimism and not to the past in defeat and sorrow.

Just as I have no doubt that this question would have troubled them, I have no doubt that each of my rebbeim would have suggested looking for inspiration for this dilemma from the parsha. Certainly Rabbi Orlian, a masterful teacher of Tanach who brought to press from manuscript the sefer Ha’gan of Rebbi Aharon Bar Yosi Ha’cohen (one of the baalei tosafot); certainly Rabbi Dulitz, who knew most of Tanach by heart and who focused extensively on building Chumash skills; and of course Rabbi Krauss, who was a darshan par excellence. So let’s look at the parsha together and see if we can find guidance as to how to understand this seemingly difficult advice of Kohelet.

In the beginning of Parshat Mishpatim the Torah presents the halachot of the eved ivri[6], the indentured Hebrew servant, who must be released after a six-year term of service. However, if the servant chooses to remain under his master, then

ווְהִגִּישׁוֹ אֲדֹנָיו, אֶל-הָאֱלֹקים, וְהִגִּישׁוֹ אֶל-הַדֶּלֶת, אוֹ אֶל-הַמְּזוּזָה; וְרָצַע אֲדֹנָיו אֶת-אָזְנוֹ בַּמַּרְצֵעַ, וַעֲבָדוֹ לְעֹלָם.{ס}

6 Then his master shall bring him unto God, and shall bring him to the door, or unto the door-post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him forever. {S}

the master performs the retzi’a ritual, whereby he pierces the servant’s ear and the servant shall “serve him [the master] forever” (וַעֲבָדוֹ לְעֹלָם). Rashi, based on the Mechilta, explains that this pasuk in Parshat Mishpatim, like other pesukim in Parshat Mishpatim (e.g., עין תחת עין , an eye for eye) is not to be taken literally, but rather in this context, the word לעלם (“forever”) means until the next yovel, and thus a maximum of 50 years.

What is driving Chazal to alter what seems to be the plain meaning of the pasuk that the eved ivri remains a slave permanently? Seemingly, it is the existence of a conflicting verse in Sefer Vayikra[7]

מכְּשָׂכִיר כְּתוֹשָׁב, יִהְיֶה עִמָּךְ; עַד-שְׁנַת הַיֹּבֵל, יַעֲבֹד עִמָּךְ.

40 As a hired servant, and as a settler, he shall be with thee; he shall serve with thee unto the year of jubilee.

that states that a servant goes free at yovel. How do we reconcile the contradiction between these two verses? Is it לעולם  or עד היובל? Explains Rashi, the word לעולם  in this verse, in Parshat Mishpatim, cannot be taken literally, as it refers only to the period of time remaining before the onset of the jubilee.

This response answers the local question, the contradiction, between the pasuk in Parshat Mishpatim, וַעֲבָדוֹ לְעֹלָם, and the pasuk in Sefer Vayikra, עַד-שְׁנַת הַיֹּבֵל.  But it leaves us with a more fundamental question: Why did Hakadosh Baruch Hu choose to use the word לְעֹלָם in this context?

The משך חכמה suggests that the world לְעֹלָם is appropriate in this context. Why? Because the decision to undergo retzi’a really does create a permanent obligation, an obligation לְעֹלָם; it’s just that yovel comes and unwinds that obligation. What is the נפקא מינה, what difference does it make if לְעֹלָם means yovel or לְעֹלָם means forever but yovel comes and unwinds that obligation?

There are unique cases where yovel can’t come to unwind the obligation. The משך חכמה addresses the case of an eved Ivri who underwent retzi’a shortly before the Temple’s destruction, when the laws of eved Ivri still applied, but the Temple was destroyed before the onset of the next yovel. Since the laws of yovel apply only in the times of the Mikdash, the obligation to release servants does not take effect after the Temple’s destruction. Therefore, this eved Ivri, who had already undergone retzi’a, is not set free on the jubilee year; rather he remains in his master’s service forever. Apparently, the משך חכמה understood that the phrase “va-avado le-olam” should indeed be taken literally, as extending the eved Ivri’s term of service indefinitely. In principle, retzi’a places the servant under his master’s service for the rest of his life; as it happens, however, the laws of yovel require masters to release their servants on the jubilee. Hence, even though in virtually all cases the servant will go free on the yovel, if the jubilee laws are suspended the indentured servant will remain in his master’s service forever (in the literal sense).

How does this help us? How does this explain Chazal’s imperative טוֹב לָלכֶת אֶל־בֵּֽית־אֵ֗בֶל? It seems that the משך חכמה explains there is nothing worse than giving up your freedom, your individuality, your ability to be a full and complete eved Hashem, and in fact there are unique and unusual circumstances where that is a permanent condition; there is churban, which is terrible and complete and massive, but it is rare—it is the outlier, it is the exception.

The standard, the norm, is עבדו לעולם  followed by a yovel, an opportunity to correct, repair and rebuild, to move on and move forward.

Attending a simcha, a wedding, a brit, a pidyon haben is beautiful, is enjoyable—we give a bracha on the way out and we say you should be zoche to build a bayit ne’eman, you should be zoche legadlah leTorah lechupah ulemaasim tovim—you should create, you should build. What should I do? I don’t feel like I have to do anything since I know you are on the job. If attending a simcha has any impact, it perhaps makes the attendees more complacent knowing that there is a new couple, maybe a young couple moving into a new community, who will build the next generation, maybe two individuals who have had a bumpy road but have now found a path forward, but I leave that wedding, that brit, that pidyon and I think to myself: they will build something.

When you leave a beit avel, and you see individuals who did amazing things for klal Yisrael, for the community, for their families, and now they are no longer present, they are no longer able to do those things, they can no longer build and create, there is a churban and that churban could be expected to be permanent, unless there is a yovel. And who is that yovel? We are that yovel, and when you leave that beit avel you say to yourself, it’s not someone else who will build, it’s an obligation on us to create the next yovel that will undo the restrictions and the inability to create and perform mitzvot.

טוֹב לָלכֶת אֶל־בֵּֽית־אֵ֗בֶל מִלֶּ֙כֶת֙ אֶל־בֵּ֣ית מִשְׁתֶּ֔ה”

It’s good—not because the reminder of death minimizes sin, but because the recognition that an eved Hashem, in death, has become an eved olam and can no longer perform Torah and mitzvot; the sight of an eved olam motivates us to bring a yovel, to create and to build in the place of those who previously created and previously built but are no longer able to do so.

And of course this lesson is applicable to all of us as it applies not only in the context of the creation of an eved olam, a loss of life, but anywhere there is a loss, anywhere there is a void: a void in a family because of a tragedy, a void in a community because people have moved away, or even a void in a nation because people are paralyzed by fear of disease or exhausted from the stress and challenge of uncertain times.

The memory and teachings of Rabbi Orlian, Rabbi Dulitz and Rabbi Krauss should be an inspiration to their students and all of klal Yisrael to carry on their legacy, to recognize the challenge and needs of the community and to attempt to the best of our abilities to facilitate a yovel in lieu of permanent eved olam.

Rabbi Yehuda Halpert is the rabbi of Congregation Ahavat Shalom in Teaneck.


[1] קהלת ז:ב

[2] פסאודו-רש”י קהלת ז’:ב  “

[3] יערות דבש ח”א:א

[4] חברותא – הערות ברכות דף ה עמוד א

9). ביערות דבש [ח”א א] העיר למה צריך לעבור ג’ שלבים, והרי עדיף שיזכיר לעצמו בתחילה יום המיתה, וביאר שהכוונה לשלשה אופני מלחמה ביצר, והם כנגד שלשת הסיבות לחטא, א. אם חטאו מחוסר ידיעה משכהו לבית המדרש ללמוד ולדעת. ב. אם חוטא ברצון מחמת כבוד וגאוה, יקרא ק”ש ויבטל גאוותו. ג. אם מחמת תאוה יזכיר יום המיתה ויפקיע תאוותו, [ועי”ש שביאר גם מהו לשון “נצחו ולא נצחו”].

וכעין זה ביאר בהקדמת תרומת הכרי ששלשה סיבות הן לחטא: א. החכם בעיניו שאינו שומע לרבותיו – יעסוק בתורה בעיון, ויראה שהוא רחוק מחכמה. ב. החטא קל בעיניו – בק”ש יראה חומרתו, שנאמר וסרתם ועבדתם ופרש”י ע”י שסר מהתורה בא לידי ע”ז. ג. תאוות – יזכיר יום המיתה ותפקע תאוותו. וראה עוד בבית הלוי [פר’ בראשית].

ויתכן לבאר שאמנם כוונת הגמרא לשלבי התשובה, כי אילו לא ילמד תורה ויקרא ק”ש לא תעזור לו זכירת יום המיתה, שהרי הרשעים שמחים ביום מיתתם [ראה תענית יא א, וכן מצינו אצל עשו שפקר ביום מיתת אאע”ה], והיינו משום שסבורים שאין יותר מתענוגי העוה”ז, ורק אם ילמד תורה ידע שהעיקר הוא בתענוג הרוחני לעתיד לבא, ויחשוש להפסדו אחר מיתה.

[5] פירוש מחכמי צרפת קהלת ז’:ב’

טוב ללכת – בזמן ששניהם יחד בעיר, יניח מלכת אל בית משתה – של מצוה, וילך לנחם אבילים

[6] שמות כא: א – ו

[7]  ויקרא כה:מ

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