By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
You answered me and said, "What you said is good for us to do!"(Devarim 1:14)
As most may be aware by now, the world lost another great Torah leader and
giant last week, Rabbi Ya'akov Weinberg, zt"l, Rosh HaYeshivah of Yeshivas
Ner Israel of Baltimore. Though, I personally never attended Ner Israel, I
did have the wonderful mazel of learning from Rav Ya'akov for years during
his frequent trips to Israel and Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem. I even spent
three unforgettable and uninterrupted private hours with the Rosh
HaYeshivah one Sunday in Canada, when I drove him up north for a seminar at
which he was supposed to speak. (The drive up was supposed to have taken
only one-hour, but I missed the turn-off due to early morning darkness--and
plenty of pre-planned questions. In the end, it took two full hours, and we
made it on time for the seminar with only minutes to spare.)
For this reason, amongst the many heart-rending eulogies that have been and
will be delivered because of the loss of this great, G-d-fearing talmid
chacham, I would like to give over a d'var Torah that I heard from the Rosh
HaYeshivah many years ago on this week's parshah. It happens to be one of
the divrei Torah that first drew me to the Rosh HaYeshivah and impacted my
own approach to learning and teaching. It was a clear example of Rav
Ya'akov's phenomenal ability to look at a "simple" text and draw out a
fundamental and indispensable concept for living a Torah lifestyle. I
remember shaking my head and saying, "What a fantastic insight! I wish I
could do that!"
I only wish I could deliver it the same eloquent way the Rosh HaYeshivah
If we recall from Parashas Yisro, Yisro's main contribution to the Jewish
peo ple was his suggestion to divide the responsibility of judging the
people amongst the many leaders of the nation. This way, Moshe would not
have to sit from morning until night judging the people, and the people
would not have to wait in line for hours to have their cases adjudicated.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. In fact, no one said anything
against the idea, and it was duly implemented. It isn't until this week's
parshah that we see what Moshe really felt about his father-in-law's
suggestion, and his "flock's" willingness to follow it:
"How can I carry you as a burden by myself, with the trouble you cause, and
your fighting? Appoint wise men of understanding with good reputations
amongst the tribes, to become leaders, [I told you]." You answered me and
said, "What you said is good for us to do!" (Devarim 1:12-14)
"You immediately decided that it was beneficial to you. You should have
really answered, 'Our teacher Moshe! From whom is it more fitting to
learn-- from you or your student?' ... But I knew what you were thinking.
You thought, 'Many judges will now be appointed over us; if one does not
recognize us, we will bring him a gift and he will show us favor!'."
"If this is so," Rav Ya'akov asked us, "why didn't Moshe mention this when
the idea was first suggested?" "Furthermore," Rav Ya'akov continued, "was
Yisro's idea such a novel one? Had the Jewish people never witnessed a
hierarchy of leadership before?"
Then Rav Ya'akov brought a more current example to answer his question and
illuminate the eyes of all those there. He told us how, back in the
twenties, if someone had come out in favor of abortion, the person might
have been thrown in jail; at the very least, he would have been chastised
by just about every portion of society. "So how did the attitude change so
dramatically to what it is today?" Rav Ya'akov asked.
"It didn't happen over night," Rav Ya'akov explained. "It happened because
one day, someone said, 'I'm not looking to say that abortion should be
legal ... I just want to discuss the issue ... to explore its implications
and consequences ...' "
Then there was one of those famous Rav Ya'akov pauses, when you could
almost hear his mind changing gear. You knew steam was building up and that
the point would reverberate off those walls, and leave an indelible
impression on all those there, as it should. (I remember once listening to
a tape of the Rosh HaYeshivah on the Holocaust while driving. It was so
emotional, so compelling, that I had to pull off the road to listen to the
conclusion. It hadn't occurred to me to take the tape out and listen to it
"Just want discuss the issue? To explore it?! How do you simply discuss an
immoral idea? Everyone knows that once you start to talk about it that it
is just a matter of time before it doesn't seem so wrong anymore. (Voice
raised somewhat) ... Everyone knows that once you discuss something it no
longer is taboo, and that it is just a matter of time before it becomes
acceptable! That is how abortion became acceptable today ... because once,
someone only wanted to discuss the idea ... to explore it."
"Do you think for one second that Moshe didn't know how to appoint officers
to share the leadership ... or that the Jewish people never saw a hierarchy
of leadership before? Do think for one moment that G-d, if He wanted the
Jewish people to live and learn as Yisro had suggested, that He would not
have told His greatest prophet ever?!"
"No! It was not like that. It was not like that at all. Rather, as Moshe
tells them now ... at this point, 'You already wanted what Yisro suggested
before he ever brought it up!' But who would have dared to suggest to the
great and awesome Moshe Rabbeinu that he hand over some of his authority to
people lesser than himself? Who would have ever--ever!--suggested to the
greatest, the humblest man ever to walk the face of the earth--that he
wasn't wanted anymore?! Not me!"
"That is why they were so grateful to Yisro! That is why they so quickly
jumped at his suggestion and so readily followed his advice! Once HE,
Yisro, the righteous convert ... the father-in-law of Moshe Rabbeinu
himself, suggested the change, the proverbial 'cat was out of the bag' ...
the hole in the wall was made! There was nothing more to say ... there was
no turning back. What was once off-limits was now a possibility, and maybe
even acceptable! So, Moshe was quiet, and he reluctantly acquiesced ..."
"That is a tragic mistake that mankind has always made, and apparently,
continues to make. When it comes to immoral issues, there is no room for
discussion ... no room for exploration! That is the first stage to
acceptance, even if it takes 40 years to come to that point ... but come to
that point they will ... and have."
The Rosh HaYeshivah then continued to bring more examples to support his
point, all of which made his argument even more compelling. And as always,
he expressed himself eloquently, as only the Rosh HaYeshivah, zt"l could
do. His approach to Torah, his dissemination of the word of G-d, and his
very being made one feel fortunate to have access to such greatness. He was
one of the few teachers that I, personally, could listen to over-and-over
again--even if it was the same material being taught just the day before.
By those who had the good mazel to "sit at the dust" of the Rosh
HaYeshivah, zt"l, and learn, he will be very sorely missed. For those who
did not have that opportunity, they may never know what they missed.
My personal and sincerest condolences to the family of the Rosh HaYeshivah
and all of his talmidim: HaMakom yenachem eschem besoch she-ar aveilei
These are the words which Moshe spoke to all of Israel on the other side of
the Jordan in the desert, in the plain opposite the sea ... eleven days
journey from Chorev to Kadesh Barnea by way of Mt. Seir ... (Devarim 1:1-2)
At first it sounds like merely a location, a way of pinpointing exactly
where Moshe delivered his farewell address to the Jewish people, just
before his death. However, as Rashi points out, Moshe is about to give
reproof as well, and knowing this, each word takes on added, albeit subtle,
For example, there is the "eleven days journey" that the Torah mentions. On
this, there is the following very deep explanation:
"Eleven psalms were forgotten after Moshe's death, and these are the eleven
Negative Forces of which there are eleven, the underlying basis of the
'eleven days journey.' The Midrash goes on to say that this corresponds to
the eleven tribes that Moshe blessed before his death, in order to weaken
these forces which are known to the Kabbalists as the underlying concept of
the eleven curtains [in the Mishkan], the eleven spices in the
Incense-Offering, the eleven verses that begin with the letter 'nun' and
end with the letter 'nun' corresponding the eleven Negative Forces which
cause forgetfulness ... which is why the eleven psalms were forgotten ..."
(Yalkut Reuvaini in the name of Asarah Ma'ameros, Devarim 13)
Normally, a desert is fraught with danger--it is not a human-friendly
environment, to say the least. However, for the Jewish people, most of the
physical dangers were not an issue, since the Clouds of Glory enveloped
them and protected them from all such hazards.
Nevertheless, as we see from the many negative episodes in the desert
(eleven altogether), the Jewish people still remained in a state of
spiritual challenge. This means that the episode of the spies, that caused
eleven days journey to become forty years of wandering in the desert, was
not incidental. It was the end result of a difficult battle against
invisible, but very real Negative Forces in creation. Forces, according to
Torah philosophy, that were created and exist to test our will and faith in
G-d. Forces, according to the Ramchal (Derech Hashem), created to allow us
to "earn" our portion in the World-to-Come.
Therefore, in a very real sense, all of us have an "eleven-day journey"
ahead of us, whose beginning is birth and whose end is death. It is the
straight-and-narrow path from spiritual imperfection to personal
fulfillment, from selfishness to selflessness, from living in the image of
G-d to becoming like G-d Himself. The only problem is, that, below this
short journey is a tremendously deep, spiritual gorge called the "yetzer
hara"--the evil inclination.
How to safely cross that gorge:
1. Learn the difference between a "weakness" and a "test." People often
say, "This I do well, but that is my weakness. Oh well, everyone is
entitled to a weakness." A better way of saying it is, everyone has a
weakness, because that is what we are here to correct, not excuse. Our
"strengths" are G-d-given abilities that we are blessed with and with which
we are expected to overcome our weaknesses.
2. Pray to G-d for intellectual and spiritual clarity. The Talmud says:
Rebi Shimon son of Levi said: Everyday a person's yetzer hara overcomes him
and wants to kill him ... If The Holy One, Blessed is He, didn't help, a
person could not survive! (Kiddushin 30b)
However, one has to acknowledge this reality, and ask for this help as
well. Too many people accept their yetzer hara as a mere "personality
flaw," and simply learn to "live with it." It leaves them blind to its
devices, and very soon, their lifestyles are governed by the yetzer
hara itself. In the meantime, their whole picture of reality becomes
distorted, and they have a difficult time recognizing and responding
correctly to Divine Providence.
As our long and difficult history has proven: this is dangerous, very
This is where a "Cheshbon HaNefesh" (literally, "Soul-Accounting") often
helps. This means sitting down on a regular basis and evaluating one's
priorities against the Torah's priorities, and the historical goals of the
Jewish people against one's personal goals. This alone can be a big
eye-opener, and a lifesaver for that matter, when history turns a dangerous
corner for the Jewish people, as it often has done in the past.
G-d said to me, saying, "You have encompassed this mountain long enough;
turn northward." Command the people saying, "You are to pass through the
boundary of your brother, the Children of Eisav, who dwell in Seir, and
they shall be afraid of you; be very careful ..." (Devarim 2:3-4)
A little merit can go a long way in G-d's world. Even though Avraham was
told that one day his descendants would inherit the nation of Seir as well,
still, that promise would have to wait until Moshiach's time to become
fulfilled. It was a right that was forfeited when the Jewish people allowed
the golden calf to be built.
However, there is another reason for this. Eisav, for all of his evil,
still made a point to take care of his father, a function of the mitzvah
kibud av v'aim--honoring one's father and mother. For this Eisav earned
some merit, and his it came in the form of a Divine directive not to go to
war against Eisav's descendants, at least for now.
However, can it be that Eisav did this mitzvah for mitzvah-sake?
The Midrashim and logic tell us, no. So, why then does he warrant Divine
patience and protection? Because, continues the Midrash, a mitzvah done in
This World for the wrong reasons still warrants reward--in This World.
Eisav was getting paid in This World for his years of honoring his father,
so that he would not merit to receive eternal reward. For those who do a
mitzvah as a mitzvah, there is (primarily) reward in the
World-to-Come--forever. However, for those who do mitzvos "by chance,"
there is only temporal reward in this temporal world.
This is a very interesting point, and one that a rabbi used to explain the
wealth of a certain businessman. Five years ago, he was fabulously wealthy.
Today, his wealth defies the imagination, and gets less comprehensible by
"Why is he so rich?" a student asked.
Answered the rabbi, "It is hard to know for sure. But I will say this: This
man is very responsible for the spreading of a lot of Torah today, to parts
of the world we never knew how to reach, at least practically-speaking.
Through his computer software and entrepreneurship, he has greatly affected
the Torah world, in a very positive way."
"But did he intend to do that? Wasn't he just trying to increase his share
of the market? Why, he isn't even Jewish, and probably doesn't even know
what Torah is! Why should be benefit so much?"
The rabbi smiled. "You know," he began, "our generation is unique. In the
past, Jews were self-sacrificing for Torah and mitzvos, because they knew
This World was temporary, and that reward in the World-to-Come was all that
counted, in the end. However," the rabbi continued, "today ... how many
Jews today even relate to the concept of the World-to-Come? For many today,
the World-to-Come has arrived! in the form of physical comforts and
societal privileges. Ours is a generation that doesn't relate to abstract
pleasure ... However, mention one billion dollars, and eyes light up.
Mention fifty billion dollars, and people fall backwards in awe! So,
perhaps, G-d is talking to our generation, and He is saying, 'Look! See
what a man, who is not commanded to live by Torah, or to teach Torah, or to
help disseminate it, receives for doing so, without intention, and only
indirectly! Now, consider how rewarded you will be, a simple Jew, who is
commanded to perform mitzvos, for doing even the simplest of mitzvos, but
for the right reasons! He may be getting his reward in This World; you will
get yours in the World-to-Come!"
Whether or not this is the complete explanation for this particular
businessman's personal "mountain" of money, remains to be seen. However,
the concept is true, and one has to keep it in mind all the time,
especially in this generation.
An ox knows his owner and a donkey, his master's trough; Israel does not
know, My people does not consider. (Yeshayahu 1:3)
This posuk, of course, is one of the main reasons why this Haftarah was
chosen for Shabbos Chazon, the one right before Tisha B'Av.
Tisha B'Av is about a nation that strayed from G-d, and of the horrific
consequences for doing so. It began first in the desert, when the Jews
spied out Eretz Yisroel and rejected the gift that G-d had promised their
ancestors. Their cries of fear and disappointment were meaningful to them,
but meaningless to G-d, for they were baseless, and costly:
The Holy One, Blessed is He, said to them, "You cry for nothing?! I will
make this day one of crying throughout the generations!" (Ta'anis 29a)
Hence, Tisha B'Av is about the dramatic, and often tragic results of
mistaken priorities, and of making mole hills out of mountains, and
mountains out of mole hills.
But what is the comparison to the ox and the donkey? What do they really
know, or understand? Can they choose to rebel against G-d, when they lack
free-will? True, Israel is always responsible for rejecting G-d and Torah,
but why hold up non-free-will beings as a symbol of loyalty to which the
Jewish people can be compared?
Perhaps the answer to this question is implied in the words of Rav Elchanan
"And the commandment to believe in G-d? It is a commandment not to allow
one's desires to overcome his intellect so that he will automatically come
to believe. In other words, there is no need to struggle to believe. One
must simply remove the obstacles that stand in the way of believing. It
will then come naturally, of itself... " (Ma'amer al Emunah;Kovetz
Ma'amarim, p. 15)
Yes, we are highly intelligent beings, blessed with free-will. However, it
is amazing how easily we use our intelligence and free-will to do, well,
the most unintelligent things that literally deny us free-will, like
turning our backs on G-d and Torah. It is a mitzvah that forces a person to
confront his reality and to make choices--tough, moral choices, which
brings out his or her godliness.
There is something very holy and sublime about the simplicity of the animal
world, something very godly about the way they simply are who they are. So
false pretenses, nothing. They can never become complex like man, which is
why they'll never receive reward in the World-to-Come for being what they
However, we, who can become complex, because we do possess free-will, earn
our portions in the World-to-Come by choosing to be simple and
straightforward, by seeing past the "shtick" of the yetzer hara and society
around us. Our intelligence and free-will are tools entrusted to us to be
used to remove the obstacles that stand in the way of our loyalty to G-d
that--a loyalty that, when all things are considered, is the most natural
thing to feel and live with.
This is a very important message of the Three Weeks and Tisha B'Av.
Have a great Shabbos, and may we merit to see this Tisha B'Av transformed
from a day of mourning to one of redemption and joy for the Jewish people.