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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayigash: Give credit where it's due
The next thing that the Mishnah enumerates as necessary to acquire Torah is "not to claim credit for oneself." "You shall remember HASHEM your G'd, for it is He Who gives you strength to make wealth." It is G'd's blessing that enables us to succeed. We should not even attribute G'd's assistance to our personal merits. For every breath we take we must thank G'd. This why we say the morning blessings every day. Without G'd's assistance we would be totally disabled. How can one take credit for oneself if one has not done even one-thousandth of what has to be done? A person will be judged for not having learned enough during his lifetime. The higher IQ we are blessed with, the more we are obligated. The Ramban instructs his son to be modest and deal with every individual with humility. In this week's Parasha, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and the Torah relates how embarrassed they were at meeting him in this situation. A modest person who acts with humility, constantly studies Torah, and does not take credit for himself, is destined to the World to Come. If a person knows more than others, he is obligated to share his wisdom with his peers. Rabbeinu Yonah compares one who studies Torah to someone who repays a loan. The character trait of not taking credit for oneself also obligates one to teach others. The person who studies Torah in order to please G'd, Who created him for this purpose, he will not guard the Torah as his private property. He will be more than happy to share it with others.
Do not take credit for yourself
The next thing that the Mishnah enumerates as necessary to acquire Torah is "not to claim credit for oneself." Earlier in Pirkei Avos (2:9) it says: "If you have studied a lot of Torah, do not take credit for yourself, for that is what you were created for."
G'd gives strength
This does not apply only to Torah study. In Parashas Eikev (Devarim 8:17-18) it says: "And [if] you say in your heart, 'My strength and the might of my hand made me this wealth'. And you shall remember HASHEM your G'd, for it is He Who gives you strength to make wealth." This teaches us that when we have success in life, we should not attribute it to our own ability and cleverness, but realize that it is G'd's blessing that enables us to succeed. This is how Joseph conducted himself. As it says (Bereishis 39:2-3): "And G'd was with Joseph, and he became a successful man … And his master saw that G'd was with him, and all that he did G'd made it successful in his hands." The obvious question is, how did Potiphar, Joseph's master, see that G'd was with him? Rashi answers this with a quote from the Midrash Tanchuma (8) that relates how Joseph constantly attributed his success to Divine assistance. Later, when Joseph was taken out of prison, as mentioned in last week's Parasha, Pharaoh said to him that he had heard that he knows how to interpret dreams. Joseph responded unequivocally and said (Bereishis 41:16): "It is beyond me. G'd will respond to the welfare of Pharaoh."
Do not attribute personal merit
However, it is not sufficient that we realize that G'd is behind every success that we achieve. The Torah teaches that we should not even attribute G'd's assistance to our personal merits. As it says (Devarim 9:4-5): "Do not say in your heart … 'In my righteousness G'd has brought me to take possession of this land …' You are not coming to take possession of this land in your righteousness and the uprightness of your heart, but because of the evil of these nations HASHEM your G'd drives them away for you." In Gates of Repentance (3:29), Rabbeinu Yonah explains that the Torah here warns us not to relate our success to our righteousness. Rather, we have to understand that any success we achieve is only due to G'd's lovingkindness and His abundant goodness.
Thank G'd for every breath
These principals apply whether we are engaged in business and commerce, or in studying and teaching Torah. The Talmud (Berachos 28b) relates that Rabbi Nechonya ben Hakanah would say a special prayer before starting to study Torah and after he finished his daily studies. In his second prayer he would thank G'd for letting him be amongst those who sit in the study halls. In Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim (110:8) it is recommended that everyone who studies Torah say these prayers. The obvious question arises, in which way does G'd make a person part of those who dwell in the study halls of Torah? Is that not every individual's own choice? However, based on the above, the answer is obvious. There is absolutely nothing that a person can accomplish in life without Divine assistance. In the very last verse of Tehillim (150:6), it says, "All souls shall praise G'd, Hallelukah." On this the Midrash Rabbah (Bereishis 14:9) comments that for every breath we take we must thank G'd. Whenever we go to the hospital, and see people with oxygen masks, we are reminded how fragile we are and to what degree we depend on G'd's assistance and life support. We cannot even take one breath if not for His mercy. How much more to move our body, and function. At every step we take we need G'd's help to reach our destination. And when we arrive at the study hall, we can only sit down to read and listen to what is going on with G'd's permission and assistance.
The Talmud (Berachos 60b) teaches that this is why we say the morning blessings every day. We thank G'd in these blessings in recognition of our dependency on G'd's assistance in everything we do. Originally, these blessings were said immediately upon rising in the morning. The Talmud says that as soon as we wake up we must say a prayer thanking G'd for restoring our soul in our body. The Talmud goes through the various blessings and explains how they refer to our bodily functions. For example, when one opens one's eyes one should say "Blessed are You G'd … Who gives sight to the blind." When one puts one's feet on the ground, one should say, "Blessed are You G'd … Who spreads out the earth upon the waters." When one starts walking, one should say, "Blessed are You G'd … Who prepares man's footsteps." For every detail we thank G'd for giving us the ability to function.
Totally disabled without G'd
Without G'd's assistance we would be totally disabled. As we say a little later in our morning prayers, "What are we? What is our life? What is our kindness? What is our righteousness? … our salvation, our strength, our might. What can we say before You, G'd … Are not all the mighty ones like nothing before You?" We clearly express our inability to do anything and conclude: "Therefore, we are obligated to thank You and praise You." And as part of the Jewish people, we express an extra appreciation for receiving the Torah and say, "We are fortunate, how good is our portion, how pleasant is our lot, and how beautiful is our heritage."
Not done even one-thousandth
The only thing we personally can do is to utilize G'd's blessings to the best of our ability to serve Him and to do what He expects of us. But even for this we should not take credit for ourselves. For who can truly say, "I have fulfilled my obligation and fully utilized the blessings that G'd has bestowed upon me." Rabbeinu Yonah, in his commentary on the above-mentioned Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 2:8) writes that a person cannot take credit for himself for his is only at the beginning of his obligation and cannot claim that he has reached even halfway. As it says (Job 11:9): "The Torah measures longer than the earth and is broader than the ocean." Says Rabbeinu Yonah, so how can one take credit for oneself if one has not done even one-thousandth of what has to be done?
Judged for not learning
The Midrash Mishlei (Chapter 10) describes how a person will be judged for not having learned enough during his lifetime. Says the Midrash, if a person has just studied scripture but has not learned Mishnah, G'd will not even deal with him. The Mishnah is divided into six orders. And if someone studied only two or three orders, G'd will ask him, "My son, why did you not study the other ones?" And so it continues with the various parts of the Talmud and other parts of the Oral Law.
Higher IQ, more obligation
It is well known that we do not use even a small percentage of our intellectual capacity. There is a famous myth attributed to Albert Einstein that people only use 10% of their brains. However, no one will dispute that we all can do better. And the higher IQ we are blessed with, the more we are obligated. Therefore, no one is entitled to take credit for himself just because he knows more than his peers. For with his ability, he may be using less of his intellectual capacity than others with a lower IQ.
Ramban's letter to son
The Ramban discusses this in his famous letter to his son, where he instructs him to be modest and deal with every individual with humility. He tells him to consider every person as being greater than himself. "If the person is wiser or wealthier than you," writes the Ramban, "you should honour him. And if he is poor, and you are richer or wiser than him, realize that you are more obligated than him and he is more righteous than you."
Joseph and brothers
In this week's Parasha, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and the Torah relates how embarrassed they were at meeting him in this situation. As it says, (Bereishis 45:3): "And his brothers could not answer him because they were dismayed before him". Says the Midrash Rabbah (Bereishis 93:10): "Woe to us on the Day of Judgment. And woe to us on the Day of Reproof. Joseph was younger than the other tribes. Nevertheless, they could not withstand his reproof. How much more will it be embarrassing when G'd will come and reprove each one according to what he is." We will not be able to get away with the fact that we may have done more than others, for the judgment is not by comparison but each one according to his ability.
Modest and act with humility
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 88b) discusses who is destined to the World to Come. Says the Talmud, this is "a modest person who acts with humility, constantly studies Torah, and does not take credit for himself." It seems strange that the Talmud uses this double expression of being modest and acting with humility? The answer may be that this refers to a person who is modest vis a vis G'd in his recognition that all of his success in life comes from G'd's blessing. At the same time, he deals with other people with humility, as the Ramban instructed his son. The Talmud adds that it is not sufficient that a person is modest but he must also constantly study Torah. The truth is that the two go hand in hand. For the modest person that does not take credit for himself will keep studying Torah on a constant basis. He will never feel that he has accomplished all that he needs to know and does not have to study anymore. Such a person understands that despite all his accomplishments, he is constantly obligated to do more.
Obligated to share wisdom
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto takes this a step further. In Path of the Just (Chapter 22) he writes that if a person knows more than others, he is obligated to share his wisdom with his peers. Rabbi Luzatto explains that a person's wisdom does not entitle him to feel proud, for all he is doing is to utilize his nature that he was blessed with by G'd. This, says Rabbi Luzatto, is just like a bird that can fly higher than others because that is its nature. If another person would be blessed with a similar IQ to his, he would have been just as clever as him.
Paying back to lender
Even if a person would be able to utilize all his capacity to study Torah, he still would have no right to take credit for himself. For as the above Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 2:8) concludes: "For this is what you were created for." Rabbeinu Yonah, in his commentary, compares this to someone who is given a loan. When this person comes to pay off his debt, would one say that he gets credit for doing so? All he is doing is paying back what he had received.
We can now well understand why this character trait of not taking credit for oneself is so important when it comes to the study of Torah. For only a person with this trait will continually study to the best of his ability. From the words of Rabbi Luzatto, we see that this trait also obligates one to teach others. He actually interprets the words of the above Mishnah to refer to one's obligation to share one's Torah knowledge. According to him, the words of the Mishnah translate in the following way: "If you have studied a lot of Torah, do not keep this goodness for yourself." In other words, teach it to others as well.
Highest level of Torah study
This is the highest level of Torah study. For a person who studies Torah in order to gain honour and respect, he will want to keep his knowledge to himself to show that he is more knowledgeable than everybody else. But the person who studies Torah in order to please G'd, Who created him for this purpose, he will not guard the Torah as his private property. He will be more than happy to share it with others. This is how Moses conducted himself. Whatever G'd taught him he would teach to the Jewish people. And this is how Torah sages have conducted themselves ever since, right up to our generation. If we emulate these spiritual giants, we will also merit to be a link in the eternal chain of Torah transmission to future generations.
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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