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Torah Attitude: Parashas Yithro: How can one do more than one knows?
"Everything that G'd said we will do and we will listen to." The Talmud tells a story about a Sadducee who scorned Rava. How can the deeds of a person possibly exceed his wisdom? When a person makes a firm decision to turn around his life and accepts the yoke of all the commandments, and do whatever he is being taught, he is considered like a new person. This can be an extremely difficult path to follow. If a person desecrates Shabbos in public, even if he claims that he is not in defiance of this commandment, but it is too difficult for him, he is still considered as an idol worshipper. Prior to receiving the Torah, many people had married their close relatives and had a family with children. After receiving the Torah, these marriages were prohibited and they had to get divorced. These kinds of situations also happen nowadays. At other occasions, the situation arises when one of the spouses is ready to become a baal teshuvah and the other one not. Our love for G'd is stronger than any other love we feel.
Accepted Torah unconditionally
In this week's parasha, the Torah relates how G'd revealed Himself to the entire nation of the Jewish people and gave them the Torah. The Talmud (Avodah Zorah 2b) explains that prior to the revelation at Mount Sinai G'd offered the Torah to every single nation in the world. No nation was ready to accept the Torah but for the Jewish people. Not only did we accept the Torah unconditionally, we actually showed our eagerness to follow G'd's commandments, as we said "Everything that G'd said we will do and we will listen to" (see Shemos 24:7).
Rava and the Sadducee
The Talmud (Shabbos 88a) tells a story about a Sadducee who scorned Rava, one of the Rabbis of the Talmud, and said to him, "You are a rash people for you let your mouth precede your ear [at Mount Sinai]. You ought first to hear [what G'd commanded]. Then if you like it you accept it, and if not you do not accept it." The Sadducee berated Rava, because it made no sense to him how the Jewish people could obligate themselves to follow G'd's commandments before having heard the nature and extent of their obligation. Rava answered the Sadducee and said, "We go with G'd in wholesomeness." Rashi (ibid) comments on this that Rava wanted to impress upon the Sadducee that we have complete trust in G'd and are ready to fulfill His words out of love. Our relationship with G'd is such that we have no doubt that He will never demand anything of us beyond our ability.
Deeds exceed wisdom
However, it still seems illogical. How can one take upon oneself to do something before one has heard what one is required to do. A similar question arises in regards to a Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (3:12) where it says: "Anyone whose deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom will endure. But anyone whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, his wisdom will not endure." Asks Rabbeinu Yonah, how can the deeds of a person possibly exceed his wisdom? No one can do more than he knows. If a person has not been taught or studied the Torah, how can he fulfill the commandments? Says Rabbeinu Yonah, this Mishnah gives us a new insight providing us with a beautiful piece of advice for someone that did not have an opportunity to learn until now. "Don't worry", says the Mishnah. "Just accept upon yourself that you are ready to do whatever you are being taught from now on, and you will not turn away from any Torah law that you will learn in the future. As soon as you sincerely take upon yourself this acceptance, it will be considered, and you will be rewarded, as if you fulfilled all the commandments." When this Mishnah says "Anyone whose deeds exceeds his wisdom", explains Rabbeinu Yonah, it means anyone who accepts upon himself to fulfill all the commandments. Even if he cannot yet fulfill them for lack of knowledge, nevertheless, it is considered as if he has done everything, and he will be rewarded for his good intention. Concludes Rabbeinu Yonah, this is what our sages say, (Avos D'Rabbi Nathan): "Anyone whose deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom will endure. As it says: 'We will do and we will listen'." The Jewish people at Mount Sinai prefaced doing to listening, meaning that they accepted upon themselves immediately to do whatever G'd would command them. At that moment they received the Heavenly rewards for every single commandment which would be taught to them later. In the same way, every individual will be rewarded as if he was fulfilling all the commandments at the time when he decides to become observant, even before doing anything.
Becoming a different person
In Gates of Repentance (Gate 2, paragraph 10), Rabbeinu Yonah elaborates further on this. He explains that even an illiterate person can in one instant leave total darkness and enter into great light. When a person makes a firm decision to turn around his life and accepts the yoke of all the commandments, and to do whatever he is being taught, he is considered like a new person. He has already acquired for himself the merit and reward for all commandments that he will do in the future. Rabbeinu Yonah proves this with a quotation from the Torah. Prior to the exodus from Egypt, Moses instructed the Jewish elders regarding the laws of the Passover offering. When Moses finished his lecture, it says (Shemos 12:28): "And the Children of Israel went and did as G'd commanded Moses and Aaron …" Rashi quotes the Mechilta who asks how it can say that "they went and did as G'd commanded"? These instructions were given on the first day of the month of Nissan (see ibid 12:1-2) and were only to be implemented on the 14th of Nissan. So what does it mean that they did as G'd commanded immediately after Moses' lecture? The Mechilta answers that since they accepted upon themselves to do these instructions, it was considered as if they had already done it. Rabbeinu Yonah concludes that when a person reaches such a commitment, he must continuously seek to understand and learn so that he will be able to fulfill what he has taken upon himself. This is how our ancestors committed themselves at the revelation at Mount Sinai when they accepted the Torah with the 613 commandments. And this is the privilege and ability of every Jew; to accept upon himself the total gamut of the commandments and immediately receive the reward for all of them.
Extremely difficult path
This amazing insight may seem easy and straightforward, but if we start to analyze the situation, we will soon realize that it can be an extremely difficult path to follow. Earlier in Gates of Repentance (1:6), Rabbeinu Yonah speaks about a person who is scrupulous in his observance of 612 of the 613 commandments, but says that one particular commandment is too difficult for him, and he cannot fulfill it. The Talmud (Chulin 4b) labels such a person as an apostate in regards to this commandment. Rabbeinu Yonah compares this to a slave who says to his master, "Whatever you expect of me, I will do, but for one thing." This slave has already broken the yoke of his master, and will continue to do whatever he likes. Obviously, this person will be rewarded in full measure for all the commandments that he follows. But nevertheless, in regards to the one commandment that he fails to perform, he is considered an apostate.
The Talmud explains that this applies in regard to the vast majority of the commandments, but if the person serves idols, this person is considered an apostate in general, and not just in regard to the one commandment. The Talmud continues that there is one other commandment that is so basic and significant, that if a person cannot take it upon himself to fulfill it, it is considered as if he is serving idols. This is the commandment of Shabbos. If a person desecrates Shabbos in public, even if he claims that he is not in defiance of this commandment, but it is too difficult for him, he is still considered a general apostate just like an idol worshipper (see Rambam, Laws of Shabbos 30:15, and Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 185:3).
In Parashas Beha'aloscha (Bamidbar 11:10), it says: "And Moses heard the people crying in their families, each one at the entrance of his tent. And G'd got very angry, and it was bad in the eyes of Moses." Rashi quotes the Talmud (Yuma 75a) who explains that the Jewish people were upset and cried because of the Torah's prohibitions against marrying close family members. Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian questions how could the Jewish people, who only recently had been privileged to experience the revelation at Mount Sinai, be upset at these prohibitions? There were plenty of women available that were permitted, so why was this such a big deal? Rabbi Lopian answers that we must realize the situation at that time. Prior to receiving the Torah, many people had married their close relatives and had established a family with children. After receiving the Torah, these marriages were prohibited and the couples had to get divorced. Understandably, this was very upsetting. They would need to split up families that had been living together for years, and make arrangements how to deal with the children. This is what the Torah refers to when it says that they were "standing at the entrance of their tents", where husband and wife would have to go in different directions as they took leave of each other. It is obvious that many tears were shed on that occasion. Nevertheless, G'd was angry as they should have understood that these relationship were not good and healthy for them, and it was only for their benefit that G'd instructed them to divorce. If anyone at the time would have said, "This is too much for me. This commandment I cannot accept", even if they kept every other commandment in the Torah, they would have been considered an apostate in regards to this commandment.
Restrictions on kohein marriage
These kinds of situations also happen nowadays. A few years ago, I heard about a secular couple who had lived together for many years, and had several children together. At some point in their lives, they moved to Tzefat in northern Israel, and started becoming interested in Judaism. Eventually, they decided to have a proper Jewish marriage and approached one of the rabbis to guide them how to proceed. This is when their problems started. It turned out that he was a kohein and she had made some kind of conversion to Judaism. The rabbi had to tell them that there was no way that they could go through a halachically acceptable marriage. Even if she would convert, according to halacha, it would not solve their problem since a kohein is prohibited from marrying a convert. Despite all their difficulties they decided that she would convert and that they would have to leave each other and make arrangements how they could both continue to have a healthy relationship with their children. The same situation could occur between a kohein and a divorcee. These are the kind of major difficulties and tests that genuine baalei teshuvah may have to go through when they embrace Torah observance.
Rabbi Schach's advice
At other occasions, the situation arises when one of the spouses is ready to become a baal teshuvah and the other one not. This creates a lot of frustration and may initially cause animosity. But often when the one who has decided to become a baal teshuvah is firm in the new commitment, the other spouse will eventually accommodate and make it workable. I personally know a couple where the husband decided to become a baal teshuvah and his wife would not hear of making any changes. He travelled to Israel with a friend and consulted the great sage, Rabbi Schach, and asked him what to do. Rabbi Schach advised him not to try and force anything upon his wife, and to let her continue with her lifestyle that she had been used to from her childhood. He should keep his observance on a personal level, and do what he had to do according to halacha himself. But, said Rabbi Schach, in one area he had to ask her to accommodate him, in regards to the laws of family purity. Otherwise it would be impossible for them to live together as husband and wife. This couple overcame their difficulties and continued to live a harmonious life together in mutual love and respect. They managed to bring up well-balanced children, some of whom have started families of their own. Not every situation works out so well, and sometimes there is no other solution than breaking up the family.
Love bond with G'd
This is what Rava said to the Sadducee. At Mount Sinai, we established a bond with G'd based on love. Our love for G'd is stronger than any other love we feel. If we have to choose between G'd and any other relationship, our love for G'd will prevail. This is what we expressed when we said "we will do and we will listen". At that time, the Talmud (Shabbos 88a) relates, a Heavenly voice rang out and compared the Jewish people to angels. An angel has no personal agenda; his whole being is just to do what G'd wants of him. This is the level of observance of a person whose deeds exceed his wisdom. Such a person truly deserves the reward of all the commandments of the Torah even before he has fulfilled them.
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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