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by Rabbi Yisrael Pesach Feinhandler
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Designate for yourself wise and understanding men, and Those who are well known among the tribes, and I will Make them your leaders. (DEVARIM 1:13)
When Rabbi Yaakov Yoseph Herman and his wife came to live in Israel in 5699 (1939), they traveled by boat from New York. Their boat was scheduled to arrive in Haifa on a Wednesday, and they had arranged to stay for a few days at the home of a Rabbi Alfa and his family.
War was close at hand, and there was reason to suspect that the Germans had mined the sea-lanes. Therefore, the captain received orders while in the mid-Atlantic to change his course. Consequently, instead of arriving on Wednesday as planned, the boat arrived two days behind schedule, just an hour before sunset on Friday. A few hours before their arrival, Germany had invaded Poland and the Second World War had broken out.
When they landed, loudspeakers urged the arriving passengers to leave the boat immediately. All the baggage was unloaded onto the pier and the travelers were ordered to take their luggage away as quickly as possible. There was chaos everywhere!
Rabbi Herman and his wife were very worried. How could they possibly take care of their many bags when they had to leave the port immediately in order to reach the home of their host, Rabbi Alfa, before Shabbos began?
Rabbi Herman searched and found the suitcase that contained his Sefer Torah and his tallis and tefillin, and his wife found her handbag. Then they made their way through the crowd on the pier and requested to see the commanding officer.
When they found him, Rabbi Herman made this request. "I have never in my life desecrated the Sabbath. How can I arrive in the Land of Israel and desecrate the Sabbath now? It is impossible!" Rabbi Herman spoke with tears rolling down his cheeks.
The officer answered curtly, "Rabbi, a war has broken out. You have to take this into consideration."
"Just sign my passport, and allow me to leave. We shall take our baggage right after the Sabbath," begged Rabbi Herman.
"Impossible," replied the officer. "We are evacuating the ship and leaving everything on the pier. Once the ship leaves the pier, the pier must also be evacuated."
"I don't care about my baggage," said Rabbi Herman. "Just sign our passports so that we can leave."
The officer gave Rabbi Herman a queer look and asked, "How much luggage do you have?"
"Sixteen trunks with the baggage, and nine suitcases in our room on the ship," replied Rabbi Herman.
"Do you realize," asked the officer, "that the moment you leave, your luggage will remain on the pier without any supervision, and no one will be responsible for it? If you wait until tomorrow evening, not a remnant will remain of your belongings. The Arabs will rob you of everything."
"I have no choice," said Rabbi Herman. "Sabbath is almost here. We must reach the city on time. Please, please, just sign our passports and allow us to leave." Rabbi Herman's voice was full of despair.
The amazed officer summoned another English officer. "Sign their passports and allow them to pass through. This rabbi is prepared to lose all his belongings, as long as he can reach the city before his Sabbath." The second officer also looked with amazement at Rabbi Herman and his wife as he signed their passports and stamped their documents.
Rabbi Herman, holding his suitcase with the Sefer Torah, and his wife, holding her handbag, caught a cab and arrived at the house of Rabbi Alfa exactly at the time of candle lighting.
During the whole Shabbos Rabbi Herman was in excellent spirits. Again and again he said to his wife, "G-d does so much for me. What can I ever do for Him? Finally I have been given the opportunity to sanctify His Name by fulfilling the mitzvah of 'With all your strength [monetary possessions].(1) But Rebbetzin Herman found it hard to share her husband's good spirits. She was physically exhausted, and her longing for her children tore at her heart. In addition, losing all her possessions was a pill that was hard to swallow. But she did not complain.
At the end of Shabbos, seventy-two minutes after sunset had passed, Rabbi Herman made havdalah. Then Rabbi Alfa said to him, "Let's go to the port. It is possible that we may still find some of your trunks." Rabbi Herman and his wife were not as optimistic as Rabbi Alfa, but nevertheless they accompanied him to the port. When they came near, they saw that the area was lit up, and they heard a voice with an English accent asking, "Who goes there?"
Rabbi Herman answered, "I was one of the passengers on the boat that arrived yesterday in the late afternoon." The English guard came close to them.
"What is your name?" he asked.
"Yaakov Y. Herman," answered Rabbi Herman.
"So, it is about time you arrived!" said the guard. "I was promised that you would be here the moment the sun set. You are several hours late. My officer threatened to behead me if anything was missing from your belongings. Please check if everything is here, and sign these papers. And then take everything away as quickly as possible. I am dead tired." (MORESHET AVOT IV, p. 70)
Rabbi Herman's actions showed tremendous self-discipline. He did what was right, entirely disregarding the consequences of his actions. He knew that he was responsible to G-d to keep Shabbos, no matter how great the loss. We are also responsible to G-d when it comes to teaching our children their obligations as Jews. We must know how best to manage this responsibility.
"Designate for yourselves wise and understanding men, and those who are well known among your tribes [to be appointed as judges and leaders of the people].(2) "Men?" Would anyone have considered appointing women as judges? What then does the verse add by using the word "men?" It comes to tell us that the appointees had to be pure and careful with mitzvos [since the word for "men" in Hebrew, "ish," refers to someone who is outstanding].Why must we appoint as judges people who are pure and are careful with mitzvos? Why did Rabbi Yossi say that a wise person is one who practices whatever he learns? That certainly is not the common definition of wisdom? Why did Arayus think that practicing what you learn is rather the definition of an understanding person? What is the difference between the two coin dealers in the parable? What does the parable of the coin dealers teach us? Why is it important that the judge you choose be someone you have known for a long while and can easily recognize? Why did the Torah want the appointees to be known, and how does that prevent slander? Why should the appointees have been leaders even without your having appointed them? Why are our leaders punished when we do not keep the Torah, when it seems that every person ought to be responsible for himself?
...The appointees had to be pure and careful with mitzvos… Rabbi Yossi answered [Arayus], "A wise person is one who practices whatever he learns."
The reason we must appoint judges who are pure and careful with the mitzvos is that a judge must withstand great tests of integrity. A person may tend to use his position for his personal benefit and forget that he is a public appointee. But the truth is that one is offered such a position only to help others and to rule with justice by making unprejudiced decisions for the benefit of the public. To serve with one's own interest in mind is betraying the trust one has been given. Therefore the Torah said that before a person can become a public figure, he must be pure and careful with mitzvos. These two traits are necessary prerequisites to help a person to overcome the temptations that come with public office.
Rabbi Yossi defined a wise person as one who practices whatever he learns, because it is much easier to absorb knowledge than to practice it. One may agree in theory with many principles, but actually applying them is always difficult. Our Sages understood that a truly wise person has the courage to put into practice that which he has learned. This takes a higher level of wisdom, and only that can be considered true wisdom.
Arayus thought that someone who does not use his learning to do the proper thing is lacking, not in wisdom, but in understanding. He possesses the actual wisdom, but does not comprehend how to apply it.
An understanding person is comparable to a coin dealer who, when he is brought a dinar to inspect, inspects it. When he is not brought a coin, he takes out a coin from his own pocket and inspects that.
The difference between the two coin dealers in the parable is that a person who is a devoted and understanding coin dealer does not waste time. He is constantly studying coins, since he knows that his expertise can bring him either fortune or ruin. Therefore, every moment is utilized for the purpose of studying coins, and when no coin is being traded, he takes out a coin of his own to continue his study. On the other hand, the rich coin dealer is not diligent in his trade and relies on the money he has already made. He neglects the study necessary to improve his skill in his field and is content with the "wisdom" he already possesses.
The parable of the coin dealer teaches us that in order to be truly successful, you cannot sit back and do nothing, but rather you must work diligently. The person who is called "understanding" is one whose mind is constantly working. He takes what he has learned and analyzes it further in order to determine what more he can gain from it. This is called understanding, since such a person is always gaining new knowledge and growing. On the other hand, the wise person is satisfied with the volume of wisdom he has already accumulated and does not seek more, unless it happens to come his way.
This does not contradict what has been stated earlier, that someone who is wise practices what he has learned. Such a person is indeed considered wise, but he has not yet reached that higher level of possessing a thirst for wisdom, which the understanding person has.
"And those who are well known among your tribes."
As to someone's true integrity and greatness, people can be fooled some of the time, but not all the time. Knowing a person a long time guarantees his reliability. A person who is new to you cannot be trusted, since you have not yet tested him and seen that he is actually trustworthy, as you have done with someone you have known for a long time. For such a responsible position as judge or leader, only a person of proven long-standing stability can be appointed.
Knowing people well prevents slander, since every person develops some reputation, whether good or bad. When the appointee is someone with a good reputation, this makes his work easier, since he is already trusted and well liked. People will accept the good reputation of this person who has taken public office, and will not likely slander and belittle him. However if a person is unknown, there is bound to be slander about him, since people will naturally inquire about him and someone will surely find some fault in him.
I would have thought that if you give them greatness, they will possess greatness...
A leader is born with leadership qualities. This is not a trait that is acquired, but rather one that comes to a person naturally. Such a person makes decisions, and feels an obligation to serve the public. Such people did not simply become this way after they were entrusted with leadership, but rather they have always demonstrated such traits, and they gain the opportunity to utilize them in their public appointments.
Our leaders are punished when we do not keep the Torah, because their task is to rebuke the nation and warn them when they stray from the right path. Since our leaders are respected by all, their words are heard, and they thus have the obligation to use the power of their influence for the common good. When an individual has the ability to correct someone and does not take advantage of this opportunity, he is held responsible for the other person's wrong actions.
Just as our leaders are responsible for the actions of the nation, so too are parents responsible for the actions of their children. This is stated explicitly in the Talmud, as it says, "He who is able to protest against the members of his family and does not do so, is caught in the sins of his family.(3)
The reasoning behind this is that since we can have influence upon our children, it is our responsibility to use that influence to prevent them from doing wrong. Although we might choose not to react, and claim that we have done nothing wrong, when you have the ability to speak up and thereby prevent wrongdoing, you are obligated to do so. If you have not exerted your positive influence, you are considered a partner in the evil.
Unfortunately, some parents think that since they live in a democratic society, they must practice democracy in the home as well. They let their children choose whether or not they want to be religious or keep a certain mitzvah. They feel that it is wrong to impose their will upon their children, but rather they mistakenly believe that each individual has to decide for himself the way in which he wants to live his life.
To such parents we ask, "Do you also let your child decide if he wants to eat or if he prefers to starve? Do you let your child decide whether he will eat with a fork and knife or with his hands? Do you let your child decide whether he is going to get dressed in the morning or leave the house naked?" Obviously, no one would allow his children to make such ridiculous choices. All parents feel an obligation to prevent them from making such errors. The same applies to spiritual choices. We must look after our children's spiritual well-being no less than their physical well-being, and we must not allow them to do anything that is considered a sin, for this would have very far-reaching consequences.
I have heard mothers say, "I want to give my son the opportunity to make his own decision when it comes to keeping Judaism. I do not want to force him at such an early age." This of course demonstrates what the mother thinks of Judaism. She looks at it as some sort of hobby, and truly believes that you can either take it or leave it. The truth is, she does not have to decide for her son whether he will be a stamp collector or not, but she does have to decide for him that he will be an observant Jew. His religion is too precious a matter to play around with. It is as vital as air and food to a child.
On the other hand, we must be careful not to give our children a negative feeling towards mitzvos. For example if you feel that your son is not in the mood to learn Torah, do not try to force it down his throat. Try to catch him in a good mood, and then he will be able to enjoy the Torah as he really should.
Try to get your children to participate in all the mitzvos that you do. When it comes to building a sukkah, get every child involved in the action. When you go to buy an esrog, take your child with you, and make him a partner in deciding which one to buy. When you do Pesach cleaning or shopping, get your children to participate, so that it will be a family affair.
Even getting ready for Shabbos can be shared with your children. Get them involved in the preparations. For example, let them help you decide on the menu. When Shabbos comes, be relaxed and enjoy your Shabbos table. Do not force your son to say a Devar Torah if you feel that he does not want to. Let him do so at his own leisure, so that he will enjoy doing it.
Parents who think that they can convince their children to keep mitzvos through force, are treating them like soldiers. In the army, a soldier will not dare disobey orders, but when he gets out, he will often act in just the opposite way, since he is so sick of being forced to do everything he is told. The same is true for our children. If they feel that we are forcing them, chances are they will rebel and do just the opposite of what we are forcing them to do.
Any order we give must come with love and patience, and we should understand if they cannot keep to it. Don't preach. Some parents say, "I am doing this for your own good." Instead of saying that, show it by the expression on your face, the tone of your voice, and your attitude. This will be much more effective than the use of words alone.
Although we cannot ignore our children's behavior by leaving vital choices up to them when they are small, yet on the other hand, if we are too strict we will risk losing everything. We must find the middle path, where we are firm in our demands but are not constantly forcing them to do what we want. Through a great deal of prayer, love and patience, we will discover that middle path.
1. Devarim 6:5
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network