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Torah Attitude: Parashas Miketz/Hanukkah: A fence to protect the truth of Torah
In the previous Torah Attitude, we discussed the importance of putting up fences and controlling our speech. We will be judged for our idle talk. We must take extra precaution when we study Torah and transmit it to others. One must clarify what one has learned from one's teacher and make sure to have a thorough understanding of the subject. When we pray for Divine assistance in understanding what we learn from others, we are very specific and ask that we shall be able to understand, clarify and absorb the lesson. Often people do not even realize how by changing a few words here and there they can totally distort the basic message. It is so important to be clear and concise when one teaches Torah. Heretics will misinterpret everything to make it fit with their beliefs. The Chashmonaim did not engage in just a physical war but a spiritual fight for the continuity of Torah-true Judaism. As we kindle our Hanukkah lights, we reaffirm our commitment to preserve our undiluted loyalty to the Torah.
Fence to control speech
In the previous Torah Attitude, we discussed the importance of putting up fences and controlling our speech. The main purpose of this is to make sure not to engage in any kind of prohibited talk such as cursing, gossiping and embarrassing other people.
Judged for idle talk
The Vilna Gaon writes in his letter that after 120 years we will also be judged for our idle talk. The Talmud (Chagigah 5b) already mentions this and quotes what the Prophet Amos (4:13) says: "And He [G'd] tells a person what he spoke." Says the Talmud, this refers even to a light conversation between a husband and his wife. This does not mean that spouses and friends should refrain from talking to each other. Rather, it teaches us to train ourselves to control our speech in the same way as we must control our actions. Whatever we do, and whatever we say, should be with a purpose and not just because we feel like it.
Extra precaution transmit Torah
Our sages teach that we must take extra precaution when we study Torah and transmit it to others. Every morning we ask for Divine assistance with our Torah study in the blessing prior to Shema. We say: "Our Father … instill in our hearts to understand and to clarify, to absorb, to learn and to teach … all the words of Your Torah's teaching." The order of this prayer seems strange. We would expect the request for assistance in our learning to be mentioned prior to instilling in us the ability to understand etc. However, it appears that when we talk about understanding, clarifying and absorbing, we refer to what we learn from teachers and mentors, as well as by studying books. After that we ask for Divine assistance to learn. This refers to our personal study, and we ask that we shall reach a level of learning where we can develop our own Torah thoughts and explanations. Finally, we ask that we shall be able to teach others.
Rashi explains that when the Mishnah teaches that putting up a fence around one's words is a pre-requisite to acquiring Torah, it means that one must clarify what one has learned from one's teacher and make sure to have a thorough understanding of the subject. Only in this way can one pass the lesson on to others with sufficient clarity. The purpose of the"fence" is to protect and guarantee the truth of the Torah subject that is being studied. The Maharal elaborates on this and explains that every Rabbi and Torah scholar must be articulate in their teachings to ensure that they cannot be misunderstood. The Maharal quotes the Talmud (Eruvin 53a) that relates how the people, who lived in the central part of the Land of Israel known as Judah, were famous for being cautious in their choice of language and therefore Torah study flourished by them. On the other hand, the people who lived in the Galil were rather careless in this area and as a result they lost their Torah study. The Maharal explains that clear and concise language is a proof that the one who delivers the lecture has clarity in his own mind of what he is teaching. Obviously, if the lecturer does not have a clear understanding of the subject himself, there is no way the students can absorb it in a clear fashion.
We pray for clarity
When we pray for Divine assistance in understanding what we learn from others, we are very specific and ask that we shall be able to understand, clarify and absorb the lesson. For this is the foundation for the future of Torah study and the guarantee for its truthfulness. For only if we have a complete clarity of what we are being taught will we be able to grow in our own study, and eventually merit to transmit Torah to future generations.
Changing words distorts the message
In Gates of Repentance (3:181), Rabbeinu Yonah bemoans those people who are careless when they quote others. Often people do not even realize how by changing a few words here and there they can totally distort the basic message. He says that it all starts if they do not make sure to clarify the subject they study or the lecture they listen to. He quotes from Mishlei (21:28) where it says: "And the man who listens, he will speak forever." Rabbeinu Yonah explains this to mean that a person who is diligent and listens carefully to what he is being taught, he will be able to teach it to others exactly as it was told to him. Such a person will be a popular speaker, says Rabbeinu Yonah, for people like to listen to him as they know that they can relay on what he teaches.
Clear and concise when teach Torah
The Rambam, in his commentary on Pirkei Avos (1:11), mentions an additional most crucial point why it is so important to be clear and concise when one teaches Torah. The Mishnah (ibid) says: "Scholars be careful with your words, for you may have to go into exile and you will have to go to a place of evil waters … and it will come about that the name of Heaven will be desecrated." The Rambam explains that the place of evil waters refers to a place populated by heretics who may interpret what they hear to suit their philosophies and lifestyles. Says the Rambam, from this we learn how careful any public speaker must be. One never knows who is in the audience, and the lecturer must therefore make sure that his words cannot be misinterpreted. For it there are any heretics around, they will take any opportunity to quote the speaker according to their understanding. They will disseminate the lesson in the speaker's name and draw others to them, says the Rambam, and this is what the Mishnah means when it says that eventually it can cause the desecration of G'd's name.
It is well known how Christian evangelists misinterpret the laws and customs of Seder night according to their religion and beliefs. In the same way, they distort any part of Judaism and use it in their missionary activities to attract ignorant Jews. They even take the verses of the Torah and try to fit them in with their messiah. And so it is with any group of heretics. They will misinterpret everything to make it fit with their beliefs.
Hanukkah spiritual fight
We are in the midst of the days of Hanukkah where we celebrate that G'd helped the Chashmonaim to overpower the Hellenists and their Jewish cohorts. Afterwards, G'd showed His love for the Jewish people when He miraculously let the Menorah in the Temple burn for eight days, although they only had sufficient oil to burn for one day. In the special insert we say on Hanukkah in Shemoneh Esrei and Benching, we describe how the Hellenists wanted to make the Jews forget the Torah, and prevent them from observing the commandments. Later, we mention how G'd helped us and "delivered the ones who knowingly transgressed the laws of the Torah into the hands of those who occupied themselves with the study of Torah." This was not just a physical war but a spiritual fight for the continuity of Torah-true Judaism. The Hellenists were ready to accept the Torah as a book of immense wisdom and beautiful ethical values, but not as a comprehensive guide that instructs us how to conduct ourselves in our daily lives. This was the biggest misinterpretation and distortion of the Torah. This fight is still going on nowadays where we find many groups who continue in the ways of the Hellenists.
Kindle Hanukkah lights
As we kindle our Hanukkah lights, we reaffirm our commitment of undiluted loyalty to the Torah. In this merit, may we see when G'd will let the original light shine anew on Zion speedily in our days.
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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