Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
A Plethora of Preaching - What Do We Take Out of a Derasha?
The night of Yetzias Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt, was certainly one
of the most remarkable and significant nights in our nation's history. One
can imagine the panic and hysteria that night as one firstborn after
another died - "for there was no home where dead were not found!
(12:30)" In stark contrast to the frenzied circumstances of the Egyptians,
the Jews that night enjoyed complete tranquillity. True, they left Egypt
"in a rush" - but that was because they were driven out by the Egyptians
themselves. Leaving in a rush does not mean fleeing in confusion; to the
contrary, the night of leaving Egypt is described by the Torah as, "Leil
shimurim - a night of protection." On that night, "No dog so much as
whet his tongue towards the Children of Israel (11:7)!"
What is the significance of the dogs not barking at the Jews as they left?
Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Chasid explains that dogs, as a rule, bark at a dead
body. This is because dogs have the ability to perceive the Malach Ha-
Maves, the Angel of Death, as he comes to perform his morbid duty.
Sensing the Malach Ha-Maves, dogs bark and carry on. Although
Mitzrayim was full of deadly angels who had come to perform their
duties, in respect for the Bnei Yisrael, the dogs remained quiet.
The recitation of this pasuk has actually become known among Jews as
somewhat of a dog-charmer. It is said that if chased or attacked by a
wild dog, all one has to do is to recite the verse, "And to all of the
Children of Israel no dog whet its tongue," and the dog will immediately
become quiet. While I don't personally suggest aggravating a bloodthirsty
Rottweiler and banking on this pasuk's salvation, it's still a good thing to
know when the need arises. There are many stories of people who were
saved from dog attacks through this pasuk.
Rabbi Yaakov Krantz zt"l, better known as the Dubner Maggid, was
famous for his poignant parables - he somehow managed to come up
with the most incredible parables to explain almost anything he wished.
He used parables to explain difficult passages in the Gemara and to
illuminate complex sections of the Written Torah. Most of all, he used
parables to couch his piercing ethical and moral sermons in a vehicle
more palatable to his listeners. Parables, he felt, allowed one to laugh at
oneself - to recognize and acknowledge one's faults without feeling the
need to defend oneself or deny their existence.
One time, the Maggid's travels brought him to a somewhat "enlightened"
congregation in Germany. The Maggid's fame as a storyteller and public
speaker was so great that the leaders of the community, despite their
unenthusiastic stance vis-a-vis Torah and mitzvah observance, felt
obligated to invite him to deliver a derasha in their synagogue. They
sensed, however, that there was a need to clarify beforehand to the old-
school Rabbi exactly what his role was when addressing such a apathetic
(to Torah) and enlightened (to everything else) community.
"Rabbi," they said, "we know you are world-renowned for your parables
and stories. You use them to beautify your derashos and drive home your
powerful message of Torah adherence, and to articulate your biting
criticism and reproach. Let there be no mistake: We love a good story,
but we have no interest in your rebuke. We don't need some old-
fashioned rabbi coming and telling us that we're not as dedicated as we
should be to the Torah. We love the Torah - we just understand it
differently than you. So please, rabbi, just give us the stories, and leave
out the mussar!"
"Let me tell you a parable," said the Maggid. "A yeshiva rebbe once
decided to take his students on a walk through the forest. 'Now boys,'
he told them, 'we're going to be walking through a forest, and there's a
good chance we might come across wild dogs. Well boys - have no fear!
All you have to do if we come across wild dogs is to recite the pasuk,
And to all the Children of Israel no dog whet its tongue, and no harm will
become us. Did you all get that?'
"Just to make sure, the rebbe had them repeat the pasuk back to him.
When he was satisfied, he confidently led his class into the forest. Sure
enough, they hadn't been walking long when they stumbled upon the lair
of a wild and ferocious dog. None too pleased with his intruders, the
dog began to bark and howl, sending a piercing shudder of fear through
the hearts of the young children and their teacher. All eyes turned to the
rebbe - which is just as well, for the rebbe was already a good 50 feet
away, darting for safety as fast as his feet could carry him. Reminding
himself of his young charge, he screamed over his shoulder as he fled,
'Run for your lives!'
"They ran out of the forest, and found their rebbe still shaking with fear
as he huffed and puffed from the ordeal. 'But rebbe,' they asked, 'why did
you take-off like that? You said all we had to do was to say the pasuk
and we would be safe!'
"Of course all you have to do is to say the pasuk!' said the rebbe. 'But
how on earth am I supposed to say the pasuk if that crazy dog chasing
after me doesn't let me say it?!'
"Let there be no mistake," concluded the Maggid, "I am not a storyteller.
I am a rabbi. I use stories to bring out my points and to illuminate my
words - but the stories to me are never just stories. There's always a
point to be made, or a lesson to be learned. What point is there in me
talking to your community if all they want is to hear a nice derasha, but
have no interest in taking anything home? Talk is cheap."
In today's world, we are (Baruch Hashem!) exposed to derashos to an
extent never before realized in our community. Every week there are
posters describing some community gathering to hear the splendid words
of a well-known public speaker. Tapes of speeches by our Gedolim and
Roshei Yeshivos are distributed worldwide, often on the very same day
their speech was delivered. One can even hear a "daily derasha" over the
phone! (You can also hear a daily derasha from your spouse, if you
choose to consistently come home late, but that's another story.)
The danger of this plethora of preaching and surfeit of sermons is that
they become commonplace and routine, until we no longer return home
from a derasha asking ourselves, "How can I change?" but rather, "How
polished a speaker was he/she? How good were his jokes? How
touching/scary/absorbing were her stories? Was he/she better or worse
than the speaker I heard last week?" We no longer approach a good
speech as an opportunity for growth, but rather as a diversion - a chance
to be entertained and amused by someone with the gift of the gaff.
While we would never be so brazen to say as they said to the Maggid,
"Just give us the stories," we must be careful that our actions in this
regard don't end up speaking louder than our words, and that we really,
sincerely, try to listen to the lessons being taught and the mussar being
given, and make changes for the better - even small ones - in our lives.
Next time you go to a derasha, make sure you take something home -
besides just the stories and the leftover chocolates!
Have a good Shabbos.
This week's publication has been sponsored in
memory of HaRav HaGaon R' Shimon Fuerst, author of
'T'nu Kavod LaTorah, and Shem MiShimon on Shas and
Text Copyright © 2003 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.