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Torah Attitude: Parashas Va'Eira: Who is to be blamed?
December 23, 2007
Moses was the most humble person. He blamed himself before he blamed others. Adam blamed his wife. After King David accepted full responsibility for his mistakes, the rains came pouring down. The little bird smelled itself. Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordia taught us that it is never too late to repent and pray for forgiveness, no matter how terrible or how many mistakes we have made. Neither poverty and wealth, nor our evil inclinations is an excuse.
In this week's Torah portion (Shemos 6:12), G'd instructed Moses and said to him, "Come speak to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, that he send the Children of Israel from his land." To this Moses replied "Behold, the Children of Israel have not listened to me, so how will Pharaoh listen to me? And I have sealed lips!"
Moses the most humble
Moses was referring to what was mentioned earlier (Shemos 6:9): "And Moses said so [what G'd had instructed] to the Children of Israel; but they did not listen to Moses, because of shortness of breath and hard work." Moses was well aware of the Jewish people's difficult situation and he could easily have blamed their shortness of breath and hard work as the reason for their failure to listen to him. Instead, he focused on his own inability to communicate effectively with "sealed lips". This was Moses. The Torah tells us that Moses was the most humble person (see Bamidbar 12:3), and as such he looked at his own shortcomings before blaming others for his lack of success.
Adam blames his wife
Unlike Moses, many of us often fail to examine our selves before blaming others. We find the first example of this failure by Adam's response, when G'd questioned his behaviour (Bereishis 3:9-12). G'd called out to Adam and said, "Where are you?" Adam responded "I was afraid because I am naked, so I hid." To this G'd said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?" And Adam answered, "The woman whom You gave to be with me - she gave me of the tree, and I ate." Rather than accept responsibility for his failure to obey G'd's commandment not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Adam blamed his wife Eve. Like Adam, we often tend to blame others when things go wrong. If we don't succeed, we try to blame everyone else rather than ourselves.
King David and the drought
The Talmud (Yevamot 78b) relates that during the reign of King David, the land of Israel suffered from a terrible drought for three long years. Not a single drop of rain fell from the sky. King David searched high and low for the reason why this punishment was being inflicted upon his Kingdom. In the first year, he suspected that there were idolaters among the Jewish people. However, after checking all over, none could be found. In the second year, he suspected that there were improper relationships among the Jewish people. Again, everyone was inspected and no improper relationships could be found. In the third year, King David thought that maybe there were those who failed to keep their pledges to give charity. Once again, everyone was carefully scrutinized and no unfulfilled pledges could be found. Finally, King David understood that it was not a communal problem, he looked at himself and said "the matter depends on me alone." He realized that the whole country was being punished because he had not taken care of certain issues. King David accepted full responsibility for his mistakes, blamed no one but himself, and the rains came pouring down.
Smelly little bird
The story is told of a little bird that smelled a bad odour. Therefore, it flew to a different place. Yet it stilled smelled the bad odour. Once again it flew to another place. However, the bad odour continued. Finally, the little bird stopped and thought, "It is very unlikely that the whole world is filled with this bad odour. Perhaps, there is something wrong with me." Sure enough, the little bird lifted its wing, and there was a smelly substance stuck under its wing. Once the substance was removed, everything in the world smelled pretty to the little bird. Both the little bird and King David teach us the same lesson. Before we blame anyone or anything for the bad smells or problems around us, we should first check under our own wings or within ourselves to see if we are the cause of the problem.
Eleazar and the harlot
A similar lesson can be learned from the story told in the Talmud (Avodah Zorah 17a) of Eleazar ben Dordia. Our Sages tell us that Eleazar ben Dordia had made it his life's mission to visit every harlot in the world. His desire to satisfy his lust knew no boundaries. Once he heard of a certain harlot in one of the towns by the sea. This harlot was world renowned and very expensive. She demanded a king's ransom for her services. Eleazar gathered the necessary funds and crossed seven rivers to meet her. As he was with her, she blew forth her breath and said "As this blown breath will not return to its place, so will Eleazar ben Dordia never be received in Heaven." Eleazar was devastated by this statement. He left her and went out and sat between the hills and the mountains. He cried to them and begged them to plead for his mercy. They replied "How can we pray for you? We stand in need for ourselves." Next he cried to Heaven and Earth that they should plead mercy for him. They too replied "How can we pray for you? We also stand in need for ourselves." Then he cried to the Sun and the Moon, but they also gave the same response. Finally, he cried out to the Stars and Constellations; however, they as well gave the same response as all the others.
Never too late
After being rejected by the hills and mountains, by Heaven and Earth, Sun and Moon, and by the Stars and Constellations, it finally occurred to Eleazar ben Dordia that he would have to take responsibility for his own life. He came to the same conclusion as King David and said "the matter depends on me alone." Only he himself could pray to G'd that he be forgiven for his misdeeds. Eleazar placed his head between his knees and cried so hard and so long to be forgiven that his soul departed from his body. At that moment a Heavenly voice called out and proclaimed "Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordia is destined for life in the Eternal World." When Rabbi Judah the Prince, the author of the Mishna and one of the greatest sages of all time, heard this story he wept and said "Some acquire eternal life in Heaven only after many years [of extreme efforts] and others [like Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordia] in one hour." It is never too late to pray for forgiveness, no matter how terrible or how many mistakes one has made in a lifetime. Rabbi Judah the Prince said further not only are people who repent sincerely accepted to enter Heaven, they are even called "Rabbi"! We may ask why indeed did Eleazar earn the title of Rabbi? The answer might be because he taught us some important lessons: (1) our destiny is in our own hands, and if we make mistakes we have to rectify them ourselves; (2) we all have the ability to repent; and it is never too late to correct our mistakes.
Hills and mountains
We still need to understand what was the need of Eleazar's crying out to the various parts of the world. Maybe one can explain this with a homiletical interpretation. The hills and mountains often represent the Matriarchs (Sara, Rivka, Rachel and Leah) and Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) of the Jewish people. In the same way, the hills and mountains in this story represent Eleazar's parents. The Heaven and Earth represent nature and the environment, and the Sun and Moon represent the different evil inclinations of day and night. Finally, the Stars and Constellations represent under which star he was born. At first, Eleazar blamed his parents for his mistakes. When this did not work he blamed his environment. After that he blamed his natural disposition, and finally he blamed his bad luck. However, like King David and the little bird, Eleazar slowly came to realize that instead of blaming other people or other things for his mistakes, the matter depended on him alone. With this realization, the gates of Heaven opened and he was proclaimed "Rabbi"!
The Talmud (Yoma 35b) teaches that when we leave this world each of us is called before the Heavenly Court. There our efforts to study Torah throughout our life are examined in detail. Everyone tries to blame their specific situation for their failure to spend much time studying Torah. The poor blame their struggle of earning a living as an excuse for not studying Torah. However, the Court responds with the story of Hillel who was so poor that he could not even afford the entrance fee to the Study Hall. One winter day, Hillel climbed onto the roof of the Study Hall so he could follow the lecture. He almost froze to death in his eagerness to hear a few words of Torah. If someone as poor as Hillel could learn, then poverty cannot be an excuse for anyone's failure to study Torah.
The affluent blame their time-consuming efforts to protect their wealth as an excuse for not studying Torah. This time the Court responds with the story of Rabbi Eleazar ben Harsom who was so wealthy that he owned a thousand cities on the continent and a thousand ships at sea. Nevertheless, he disguised himself with a sack of flour over his shoulder and went from city to city to study Torah. One day he was mistaken for a beggar and almost imprisoned. Yet he continued to pursue his studies, regardless of the consequences. If someone as rich as Rabbi Eleazar ben Harsom could learn, then wealth cannot be an excuse for anyone's failure to study Torah.
The wrongdoers blame their evil inclinations as an excuse for not studying Torah. The Court does not accept their excuse either, but responds with the story of Joseph whose beauty enticed Potiphar's wife to try to seduce him. She threatened Joseph and said "Yield to me or I will have you thrown in prison". Although Joseph was tempted he chose prison rather than give in to his evil inclination. If someone as beautiful as Joseph could protect his integrity, then one's disposition towards sensual escapades cannot be an excuse for anyone's failure to study Torah.
It is so easy to blame others for anything that goes wrong in our lives. Moses could have blamed the shortness of breath and the hard work as the excuse for the Jewish people not listening to him. Instead, Moses blamed his own deficiencies to communicate. Adam blamed Eve for his failure to obey G'd's commandment. David blamed everyone in his Kingdom until he realized that he was the cause of the famine. The little bird kept moving from place to place until it looked under its wing. Eleazar ben Dordia blamed his parents, his environment, his personality and his bad luck before coming to the realization that he must accept responsibility for his shortcomings in life.
It all depends on us
The world is full of opportunities for each of us to do our best. If we blame others for our failures, we close the door to those opportunities. But when we accept responsibility for our lives and overcome our inclination to blame, we can grow to limitless heights. May G'd grant us the strength and integrity to do what is right, and help us not to blame others but appreciate and understand that it all depends on us alone.
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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