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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayakhel: Let us get it straight
The next thing the Mishnah mentions that one needs to acquire Torah is a love for straightness. Adam and Eve made a gross miscalculation. Lot's miscalculation is a classic example of how a person makes his own calculations rather than to make sure to do what G'd wants of him. When there is no king or governing body to make sure that the laws of the Torah are observed, people make their own calculations and will even end up worshipping idols. The second portion of Shema clearly warns us of the danger of what may happen if we give in to our evil inclination and make our own calculations. G'd created the Torah as the only effective antidote against the evil inclination. Bereishis deals with the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who were known as straight and upright people. A straight and upright person is someone who is not only careful to study Torah and serve G'd, but he makes sure that he deals with his fellow human beings in an honest and truthful manner. The name Yeshurun emanates from the word "Yashar" which means straight and upright. In order to enable the Torah to straighten us out, we must look for and even love straightness.
The next thing the Mishnah mentions that one needs to acquire Torah is a love for straightness. This includes fairness, truthfulness, honesty and uprightness. We find that G'd is described in the Torah as being "straight", as it says (Devarim 32:4): "The Rock [G'd], His work is perfect … He is righteous and straight." A few weeks ago we mentioned that the Torah instructs us to emulate G'd and conduct ourselves in our daily lives with the same character traits that G'd ascribes to Himself. This in itself obligates us to be straight and upright in every aspect of our lives.
Miscalculation of Adam and Eve
However, it goes further than that, for G'd actually created us with a natural sense of straightness. As it says in Koheles (7:29), "G'd created man straight and they looked for many calculations." In the Midrash and the Targum, our sages point out that this verse starts in the singular "man" and continues in the plural "they". The sages explain that this is a reference to the time of the creation of Adam and Eve. As long as Adam was on his own, everything went straight without any issues. Only after Eve was created they were misled by the snake and fell into sin. The commentaries explain that Adam and Eve calculated that it was greater to serve G'd once they had eaten the forbidden fruit, as they knew that the fruit would enable them to choose good from bad. They reasoned that serving G'd in this way would be on a higher level than when they were only able to do good. This was a gross miscalculation. They should not have attempted to do beyond what G'd instructed them. This was G'd's test to Adam and Eve. He wanted to see if they would follow His instructions rather than making their own calculations.
Miscalculation of Lot
We all have similar challenges in life. G'd tests us to see whether we follow what G'd has commanded us in the Torah or make our own calculations to justify our personal course of conduct. The Torah relates how Abraham's nephew, Lot, followed in the footsteps of his uncle and invited the two angels, who came to destroy Sodom, into his home at great personal risk. However, there was a significant difference in the conduct of Abraham and the conduct of Lot. As soon as Abraham invited the strangers to stay with him, he told them to wash their feet, and only after that offered them to rest under the tree (see Bereishis 18:4). Rashi explains in the name of the Midrash that Abraham was concerned that they were Arabians who used to worship the dust of their feet. Abraham was extremely careful not to let any idolatry into his home, and therefore asked them to wash off the dust before entering. When the angels came to Sodom, Lot urged them to come into his house and stay for the night, and only in the morning to wash their feet. Rashi quotes from the Midrash Rabbah (50:4) that the reason why Lot did so was due to the fact that it was prohibited to host visitors in Sodom. Lot reasoned that if they were to wash their feet immediately, the people of Sodom would discover that he had visitors. He therefore told them to wait to wash their feet till before they left not to arouse any suspicion of him hosting strangers. However, his scheme did not work. Although Lot told them to enter from a side entrance, the people of Sodom immediately noticed he had visitors. Lot made his own calculations and although he was well-meaning he missed to emulate his uncle to ensure that the dust of idol worship did not enter his house. This is a classic example of how a person makes his own calculations rather than to make sure to do what G'd wants of him.
No king or governing body
In the Book of Judges (17:5), it is related how an individual by the name of Michah had a house of idol worship. In the following verse it says, "In those days there was no king in Israel, every man did what was right in his eyes." This teaches us that when there is no king or governing body to make sure that the laws of the Torah are observed, people make their own calculations and will even end up worshipping idols.
Seek objective advice
In the second portion of Shema, the Torah clearly warns us of the danger of what may happen if we give in to our evil inclination and make our own calculations. As it says (Devarim 11:16), "Guard yourself lest your heart be seduced and you will turn away and serve idols." In Mishlei (14:12) King Solomon also addresses this and says, "There is a straight road ahead of a person and it ends up on the roads of death." The Vilna Gaon explains that this verse refers to a person who makes his own calculations and imagines that he is on a straight path. He does not even start to realize that it only leads to disaster. Therefore, says the Gaon, one should be extremely careful not to rely on one's own calculations. No matter who he is, a person should always seek advice from others who can judge the situation objectively.
The Sforno and other commentators explain that the snake in the Garden of Eden represented the evil inclination. Just as the snake was sent by G'd to test Adam and Eve, we all have our personal evil inclination that is here to test and challenge us. The Talmud (Kiddushin 30b) teaches that G'd created the Torah as the only effective antidote against the evil inclination. The Torah and its laws are straight, as it says in Tehillim (19:9): "The instructions of G'd are straight." And only by following them can we overcome the challenges of our evil inclination that constantly tries to mislead us.
Straightness of Patriarchs
In Scripture (see Joshua 10:3 and Samuel II 1:18) we find that, although all of the Torah is straight, Bereishis is specifically referred to as the Book of Straightness. The Talmud (Avodah Zorah 25a) explains that this is because Bereishis deals with the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who were known as straight and upright people (see Bamidbar 23:10). The Midrash Rabbah (Bereishis 61:1) explains that Abraham had a natural understanding of what G'd would later instruct the Jewish people in the Torah, and in general he followed every commandment of the Torah (see also Midrash Tehillim 112). The Talmud (Yuma 28b) discusses how that also applied to Isaac and Jacob. Thus they were well equipped to conquer and overpower their evil inclination and conduct themselves totally according to the wish of G'd.
Straight and upright
In his introduction to Bereishis, Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, known as the "N'tziv", explains in great detail why the Patriarchs are referred to as straight and upright, rather than other positive character traits that they exhibited. He explains that a straight and upright person is someone who is not only careful to study Torah and serve G'd, but he makes sure that he deals with his fellow human beings in an honest and truthful manner. This is a character trait that we find by all three Patriarchs, says the N'tziv. Even when they dealt with idol worshippers, whose conduct they very much opposed, they treated them in a straight and upright fashion.
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
For example, Abraham went out of his way to pray for the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah despite their despicable conduct and evil ways (see Bereishis 18:23-33). Isaac dealt with Avimelech, the King of the Philistines, in a respectful manner although he had expelled Isaac from his country (see Bereishis 26:26-32). And Jacob loyally watched the flocks of Laban even though Laban constantly cheated him (see Bereishis 31:4-7).
The Prophet Isaiah (44:1-2) says, "And now listen my servant Jacob, and Israel that I have chosen … Do not worry My servant Jacob and Yeshurun that I have chosen." We here find three names used for the Jewish people: Jacob, Israel and Yeshurun. We quote these names in the beginning of our morning prayers after the morning blessings. The commentaries point out that the name Yeshurun emanates from the word "Yashar" which means straight and upright. It is interesting to note that the first three letters of the word "Yisrael" also form the word "Yashar". This teaches that as descendants of our Patriarchs we have within us to behave and conduct our lives in a straight and upright fashion. And as the Prophet Isaiah indicates in the above-mentioned verse, this is why G'd made us His chosen nation.
In order to enable the Torah to straighten us out, we must look for and even love straightness. This is why it is one of the requirements we need in order to acquire Torah. For only if we seek straightness we will be able to see how G'd conducts Himself with total straightness and learn how to emulate the straight ways of our Patriarchs and internalize the straightness of every commandment of the Torah.
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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