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Weekly Chizuk

Parashas Vayechi

The Obligation of a Torah-Observant Jew

Yissachar is a strong-boned donkey crouching at the boundaries. (Bereishis 49:14)

From Rav Parkoff's sefer Trust Me! citing Yalkut Lekach Tov, p. 308.

It is important to understand why the Torah compares Yissachar to a donkey as opposed to a horse, which is also a beast of burden. What is the difference between these two animals? When a horse is finished with the day's labor and its owner wishes to give it a rest, he must first remove its saddle, bridle, and bit. Only after it is relieved of its load can the animal rest. In contrast, a donkey is quite content to remain with a burden on its back. All the owner has to do is lead it to a quiet place and it will be content to lie down there, with its load still on it.

Yissachar, of course, was the outstanding example of a ben Torah, and his comparison to a donkey is a lesson for anyone who aspires to be a Torah Jew. One of the ways to determine how completely a person is dedicated to a Torah lifestyle is to see how he conducts himself when he is "at rest." The Jew's commitment to bear the yoke of Torah and yiras Shamayim must not only be limited to the observance of certain mitzvos and the setting aside of specific times for study and prayer. Rather, he should submit to the Torah's guidance in every step of his life. In all of his dealings - whether in the sphere of business transactions, his personal needs, or spiritual undertakings - his conduct must conform to his status as a Torah Jew. It simply isn't possible for him to claim for even a single moment that he is free from the Torah's yoke - for at that very moment he ceases to be a Torah Jew! A true ben Torah conducts his entire life according to the Torah's precepts, and he is directed by them like a son is guided by his father. Just as a son is always connected to his father and can never lose his title of "son" - even for a single moment - the same is true regarding the connection between a true ben Torah and the Torah.

There is a famous story told about the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. He was once caught in a very compromising situation, one that was clearly unbecoming to a man of his stature. "Aristotle," he was asked, "how could you have done such a thing?" "Leave me alone," he growled, "right now I'm not Aristotle!"

This is related to the meaning of the following Midrash (Eichah Rabbasi 2:17): "If they tell you that there is wisdom among the nations, believe them; but if they tell you that there is Torah among the nations, don't believe them." It is possible for wisdom to be divorced from action - but this is not the case with Torah. Torah comes from the term hora'ah, which means instruction regarding how a person should act. It is impossible to separate such insight from action. Even those actions related purely to physical survival - such as eating, drinking, sleeping, and pursuing a livelihood - are governed by halachos. How and when to perform them, the intentions one should have - all this is taught by the Torah. Only a person who bears the yoke of Torah throughout every second of his life is a true ben Torah.

In Europe before World War II, periodic business-fairs were a common feature of life. Merchants - Jews and Gentiles alike - would gather on these occasions to buy and sell their wares at wholesale prices. These events were no small thing. A shrewd businessman could make enough money to support himself for a whole year.

Once, a certain Jew was participating in one of these fairs, as was his custom. For most of the attendees, the fairs had something of a festive atmosphere about them. However, as far as this gentleman was concerned, everything was strictly business. He was totally absorbed in pursuing his livelihood, and he was constantly running to his buyers and supplying them with merchandise. His efforts were not in vain, and he always succeeded in turning a handsome profit.

One day, while he was running after a certain merchant, his attention was caught by someone tapping on the inside of a nearby window. Turning to get a look at who it was, he was astonished to see his Rav standing behind the window, motioning him to come inside. Out of respect for the Rav, he stopped what he was doing and entered the house.

As soon as he came inside, he was met with scolding and rebuke. "Do you think it's fitting for a Torah-observant Jew like yourself to run after business like the Gentiles?" the Rav reprimanded him. "Don't you know why man was created? Do you think it was in order to accumulate money and possessions - or to fulfill Torah and mitzvos?" As the Rav continued his rebuke, the chastened Jew began emptying the money out of his pockets. He crumpled up the bills, threw them on the floor and spit on them, in order to show the Rav that he was indeed taking his admonishment to heart.

However, when the Rav saw what he was doing, he began scolding him even more! "What are you doing?! Pick up that money right now and put it back into your pocket!" Now the man was completely mystified. What did the Rav want from him? Should he continue in business or stop? It seemed that whatever he did, the Rav would be upset with him.

Sensing the merchant's confusion, the Rav softened his tone a little bit. "I see from the look on your face that you don't realize what I expect of you. Let me tell you a story that will help you understand:

In a distant village, the farmers would gather every evening in the local tavern. There, they drank their beer, relaxed, and talked about this and that. Once, a certain farmer noticed that one of his companions seemed agitated. He turned to him and said, "I see that something is upsetting you. What's the problem? Maybe I can help." He waited for a reply, but his friend refused to divulge what was bothering him. After much prodding, the farmer managed to drag out the following from his friend: "Every night for the past few weeks I've been having a very disturbing dream, but the truth is I'm too embarrassed to tell anyone about it."

Upon hearing this, the first farmer confided, "That's incredible! The same thing's been happening to me too. Let me tell you my dream and then you tell me yours." Amazingly, it turned out that they had both had the same dream: the following year's crop would bring catastrophe - anyone who ate from it would become insane! The second farmer said to his friend, "Now you know why I'm so worried. I don't know what to do about next year. How can I eat from that crop? I don't want to become insane! But if I subsist by eating what's left over from this year, then even if I retain my sanity, everyone else will be crazy! That would be too much to bear." The two men decided to ask the village sage for his advice on the matter.

After the sage heard them out, he laughed and said, "I also had the same dream. But I know that I won't be alive then to see what happens. However I have some advice for you. At the beginning of next year, each of you should tie a rope around your waist. Then go about your business of farming, and eat from the crop like everyone else. However, before you eat, take hold of the knot you made on the rope. That way, you'll remember that you are about to go crazy. Yes, you will both become as insane as the rest of the world - but with a difference. Everyone else will be insane and not realize it - but you will be insane and you will know that you're insane!"

"And the same is true of you," concluded the Rav to the merchant. "Of course you have to pursue a livelihood and take care of your family. Therefore, you have to return to the business fair and work very hard to succeed. Why, then, did I call you over? When I saw how involved you were in your business, how completely engrossed you were, I felt it was necessary to remind you of something very important.

"The nations of the world view the pursuit of the physical as an end in itself. We, however, the people of the Torah, see the material world as merely a means toward achieving a much higher goal. As Chazal tell us: 'If there is no flour there is no Torah' (Pirkei Avos 3:17). We are thus commanded to look after our physical needs. However, during every moment we do so, we must keep in mind that we are engaging in something which is insane (see the Rambam in his introduction to Seder Zera'im). Yes, both we and the nations of the world do the same thing, but there is a crucial difference! They are insane and don't realize it. We are insane too - but we know that this is insanity. We must always remember that what serves as a means to sustain life is just that and nothing more - it is merely the means, and not the end."

This story provides us with the means to gauge all of our actions every minute of our lives. If we hold on to the knot and continually remind ourselves of who we are, then we will automatically know how to comport ourselves according to the Torah's commands. Moreover, it is important to understand that this does not apply solely to the pursuit of the physical. It is incumbent upon us to recall our duty when we engage in spiritual matters as well. The Torah sets the goals toward which we must strive. We have an obligation to fulfill our goals perfectly, and going halfway is unacceptable. Whether it is in studying Torah, praying with proper intent, performing mitzvos, or perfecting our character traits, we must always recall the words: "And now Yisrael, what does Hashem your God want of you?" (Devarim 10:12).

Wishing everyone a Gut Shabbos!

Rabbi Eliezer Parkoff
4 Panim Meirot, Jerusalem 94423 Israel
Tel: 732-858-1257
Rabbi Parkoff is author of "Chizuk!" and "Trust Me!" (Feldheim Publishers), and "Mission Possible!" (Israel Book Shop Lakewood).
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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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