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Torah Attitude: Parashas Lech Lecha: A good heart is a good start
The next thing mentioned in the Mishnah that one needs to acquire Torah is a good heart. The Rambam elaborates on the evils of going to the extremes in any area of one’s conduct. A person should follow the golden middle way in every aspect of his life. Derech eretz (proper conduct) preceded the Torah by twenty-six generations. Why does the Torah start with the description of the creation of the world? The rest of the Book of Bereishis teaches us the importance of proper conduct. “If there is no derech eretz, there is no Torah.” On the other hand, the same Mishnah teaches: “If there is no Torah, there is no derech eretz.” Right from the early stages, a child should be trained to have positive character traits. Rabbeinu Yonah explains a good heart to mean having tolerance of other people and dealing with others favourably, rather than getting upset over every little thing that one may find disturbing. One who is tolerant and deals with others favourably follows in the footsteps of our Patriarch Avraham who opened his doors to all the travellers venturing by his tent.
A good heart
The next thing mentioned in the Mishnah that one needs to acquire Torah, is a good heart. Earlier in Pirkei Avos (2:13), Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai told his five disciples to go and search for “what is a good way for a person to cling to?” Each one came up with another idea. But Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai preferred the choice of Rabbi Elazar, “a good heart”, for, as he said, that includes everything. The Rambam in his commentary on that Mishnah explains that the heart is the seat of a person’s character traits, and as such a good heart means a well-balanced control in all areas of one’s conduct.
Miser and spendthrift
The Rambam refers back to his Introduction on Pirkei Avos (Chapter 4) where he elaborates on the evils of going to the extremes in any area of one’s conduct. On the one hand, says the Rambam, it is bad if one is a miser who cannot get himself to spend even a small amount for his own necessities, and certainly is not ready to donate anything to others. On the other hand, explains the Rambam, a spendthrift who cannot control his eagerness to buy things for himself and others is also not following the proper conduct.
Golden middle way
The right way to go about spending one’s money is to buy what one needs for oneself and one’s family, and at the same time to be generous to help others. This is the golden middle way that the Rambam teaches that a person should follow in every aspect of his life.
The Midrash Rabbah (Vayikra 9:3) teaches that derech eretz (proper conduct) preceded the Torah by twenty-six generations. This refers to that Moses, who received the Torah, was born twenty-six generations after the creation of the world. For there were ten generations from Adam to Noah, and an additional ten generations from Noah to Avraham (see Pirkei Avos 5:1-2). And there were six generations from Avraham to Moses. With this Midrash we can well understand the purpose of the whole Book of Bereishis. Rashi in his commentary on the very first verse of Bereishis quotes from Rabbi Yitzchak that the Torah really should start from the practical commandments that were given to the Jewish people. For the main purpose of the Torah is to teach us the 613 commandments how to conduct ourselves in daily life.
Creation and the land of Israel
Asks Rabbi Yitzchak, so why does the Torah start with the description of the creation of the world? He answers that this comes to teach that G’d is the Creator and sovereign Ruler of the world. If any of the nations claim that the Jewish people have no right to the land of Israel, we can rightfully answer that G’d, Who created the world, decided to give us this land.
Importance of proper conduct
The obvious question that arises is, what about the rest of the Book of Bereishis and the beginning of the Book of Shemos? Why is it important to include this in the Torah? However, with the above quotation from the Midrash it becomes apparent that the rest of the Book of Bereishis, as well as the beginning of the Book of Shemos, teaches us the importance of proper conduct. On the one hand, the Book of Bereishis describes the evil of those generations who deteriorated in their interpersonal relationships with each other and their respect for G’d, such as the generations of the Flood and the Tower of Babel. It further shows how G’d punished them. On the other hand, it relates the sterling character of our Patriarchs Avraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and how they were rewarded with the land of Israel. It further tells the development of their descendants and how they were chosen by G’d to receive the Torah.
No derech eretz, no Torah
Later in Pirkei Avos (3:21) it says: “If there is no derech eretz, there is no Torah.” Rabbeinu Yonah explains that the Torah will never dwell in a person who is not working on developing proper character traits. The Maharal adds that every individual is a mini-cosmos and as such must develop in the same way as the world at large. Just as the Midrash teaches that it was necessary for mankind to develop proper conduct before G’d was ready to let the Torah descend to earth, so it is important that every person develop his character traits before he will be fully able to delve into the depths of the Torah. The great Kabbalist, Rabbi Chaim Vital (Gates of Holiness 1:2) explains that this is why the Torah does not elaborate to discuss proper character development, for this is a pre-requisite to acquire the Torah.
No Torah, no derech eretz
On the other hand, the same Mishnah teaches: “If there is no Torah, there is no derech eretz.” For although a person must have a basic appreciation and understanding of how to develop his character traits even without studying Torah, it is imperative to have the guidance of the Torah to know when it is appropriate to apply any specific character trait and when it is not (see Torah Attitude: Parashas Noah: Torah and proper conduct October 22, 2009).
Teach children respect for belongings
This is an important lesson that every parent must be aware of. Right from the early stages, a child should be trained to have positive character traits. Even young children can learn to be generous and share with others. And eventually they can be taught to respect other people and their belongings. The teachers in a certain yeshiva once decided to change the standard curriculum of how to teach Talmud. They felt it was not a good idea to teach the second chapter of Bava Metzia, dealing with lost and found items, that is traditionally taught as an introduction to Talmud. Instead, they wanted to switch to something that they felt their students would relate to better, such as a chapter in Berachos that deals with the daily prayers. The great sage, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, heard about this change and told the teachers in no uncertain terms that they should not deviate from the accepted curriculum. He explained that by teaching the young students about the laws of lost and found items, it would imprint on the minds of the children for their entire life an appreciation for other people’s properties and belongings.
Tolerance and favourable dealings
Rabbeinu Yonah quotes the Rambam’s explanation of a good heart, and says that no doubt the Rambam is correct in his comments. However, in his own commentary he explains a good heart to mean to be tolerant of other people and to deal with others favourably, rather than getting upset over every little thing that one may find disturbing. Such a person, says Rabbeinu Yonah, will distance himself from anger, and will always talk in a pleasant tone with the people around him. He further explains that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai preferred this character trait as the most central one in a person’s conduct, because if a person works on himself in this area he will basically be able to get along with everyone and deal with them in a generous, pleasant way. Such a person will for sure seek the wisdom of the Torah and study its words, and will constantly be inspired by what he studies to refine his character. Just as in general life this person will be able to get along with his peers, so too when it comes to Torah study, he will be able to study and teach anyone. With the goodness of his heart, he will accept and tolerate people who think differently than himself and be able to teach others even though he disapproves of their ways.
Avraham opened his doors to all
One who is tolerant and deals with others favourably follows in the footsteps of our Patriarch Avraham who opened his doors to all the travellers who venturing by his tent. This included the people of Sodom who represented the exact opposite of everything that Avraham taught. But with his great love for his fellow human beings, and his total dedication to G’d, he was ready to bring everyone close to the truth of G’d and teach them how to conduct oneself. May we all merit to emulate our great forefather for the benefit of ourselves and the people around us.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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