Do Not Be Sure Of Yourself
The Midrash teaches, “When Israel came out of Egypt, the vast majority of them were afflicted with some blemish. Why? Because they had been working in clay and bricks and climbing to the tops of buildings. Those who were engaged in building became maimed through climbing to the top of the layers of stone. Either a stone fell and cut off the worker’s hand, or a beam or some clay got into his eyes and he was blinded. When they came to the wilderness of Sinai, G-d said: ‘Is it consonant with the dignity of the Torah that I should give it to a generation of cripples? If, on the other hand, I wait until others take their place, I shall be delaying the Revelation.’ What, then, did G-d do? He commanded the angels to come down to Israel and heal them” (Bamidbar Rabba 7:1).
Concerning the verse, “Egypt enslaved the Children of Israel bepharech [with crushing hardness]” (Exodus 1:13), the Talmud explains this to mean “with a tender mouth [peh rach]” (Sotah 11b).
These two remarks seem contradictory at first, yet we shall demonstrate that they are closely related to one another.
Let us recall that when Moses saw two Hebrews quarreling with each other, he asked one of them, “Why would you strike your fellow?” (Exodus 2:13). The man replied, “Do you propose to murder me, as you murdered the Egyptian?” Thus Moses thought, “Indeed, the matter is known” (v.14). In other words, “Moses was mediating in his heart: ‘Wherein has Israel sinned that they should be enslaved more than all the nations?’ When he heard these words, he said: ‘Tale-bearing is rife among them, and how can they be ripe for salvation?’ ” (Shemot Rabba 1:30).
We may therefore say that it was this peh rach – the slandering and gossiping that the Children of Israel inherited from the Egyptians – that almost made them breach the fiftieth gate of impurity. Now we know that the Torah contains 613 mitzvot, of which 248 positive commandments correspond to the 248 limbs of the body, and 365 negative commandments correspond to the 365 sinews of the body and days of the year (Makot 23b). Each limb and sinew has a relationship with a particular mitzvah. Therefore when the Children of Israel speak “untruth to his neighbor. A lip of smooth talk, with an insincere heart do they speak” (Psalms 12:3), they affected their limbs and broke either a hand, a leg, or any other limb related to the mitzvah they had defiled.
They were healed of this sin when they stopped their slandering and began to love one another. Thus they imitated the angels, “all of them beloved, all are chosen, all are mighty, all are holy; who repeat in unison the words of the living G-d; who give each other permission to sanctify their Maker with joyous spirit, all exclaiming in unison, with awe, and declaring in reverence: ‘He is holy in the lofty heights’ ” [Tur, Orach Chaim 132]. Addressing one another they exclaim, “Holy, holy, holy, is the L-rd of Hosts” (Isaiah 6:3).
Without a doubt, this is what our Sages alluded to when they said, “Al ta’amin be’atzmach [Do not be sure of yourself] until the day you die” (Perkei Avoth 2:4). Do not trust in atzmautecha (your body). Your limbs will be affected if your defile them with your sins, and you may fall ill “until the day you die.” On the other hand, if you take to the path of uprightness, your bones will be healed, your body will be in good physical health, and you will serve your Creator as should be.
The Midrash teaches, “The first Tablets of the Law, which were formally given to the Children of Israel, were broken because of the evil eye, whereas the second, which were given discreetly, remained intact” (Tanhuma, Ki Tisa 31). Several commentators have asked how the evil inclination managed to make the Children of Israel sin, for despite the number of miracles that the Children of Israel witnessed at the Sea of Reeds and at the giving of the Torah (the first Tablets of the Law), they made the golden calf. However at the giving of the second Tablets, the Children of Israel reached lofty levels in Torah study. They fasted for forty days, and on Yom Kippur their sin was forgiven (see Numbers 14:20). Why was the evil inclination incapable of making them sin at that time as well?
The answer is that, as we have seen, the angels healed the people of all their infirmities (Yalkut Shimoni, Yitro 300) and character faults before the Torah was given. However since they had not personally put an effort into achieving that end, only their external infirmities were healed. Their hearts were not completely pure, and they accepted the Torah under duress. This is why they committed the sin of the golden calf. However when they received the second Tablets of the Law, they deeply imbued themselves with Torah and reached sublime spiritual levels. It was then that they believed in themselves in a proper way.
Thus the first Tablets (denoting the external aspect of serving G-d) were broken, whereas the second Tablets (denoting the internal aspect) remained intact.
We may also say that the Children of Israel failed at the giving of the first Tablets because they believed themselves to be completely upright: “If we were not upright,” they said to themselves, “we would not have deserved to see the Shechinah, to witness so numerous miracles, to eat the manna – the food of angels [see Yoma 75] – and to live safe and sound in peace.” It was these thoughts that incited the evil inclination to attack them. At the time of the second Tablets, however, they understood that they should not smugly believe in themselves. They also understood that all the miracles that the Holy One, blessed be He, performed for them had been a free gift destined to make them take to the right path, and in no way did they feel that they were Tzaddikim. Hashem demonstrates patience, even with the wicked. Having made great efforts, the Children of Israel thus succeeded in conquering their evil inclination.
A person should therefore realize that it is precisely when he has no particular financial or health problems that he should be most vigilant. Leading a tranquil life is likely to make him believe that his behavior is pleasing to G-d, and that he deserves the blessing that Heaven has lavished upon him in many areas. This is the occasion that the evil inclination waits for, and it is therefore appropriate to double our safeguards in order not to fall into its traps. A person should thus diligently engage in Torah study, correct his negative character traits – in depth, not just superficially – and repent each day (Shabbat 153a), for how can a person know that he has not sinned? It may very well be that he sinned but does not recall his offense. The very belief that we have not sinned is reprehensible. As Bilam said to the angel of Hashem, “I have sinned, for I did not know…” (Numbers 23:34). This ignorance in and of itself constitutes a sin, testifying to the pride inherent in an individual.
The Sages teach, “What is meant by, ‘Who is the wise man who will understand this? Who is he to whom the mouth of the L-RD speaks, that he may explain this? For what reason did the land perish?’ [Jeremiah 9:11]. This question was put by the Sages, but they could not answer it; by the prophets, but they [too] could not answer it, until the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself resolved it, as it is written: ‘But the L-RD has said: Because of their forsaking My Torah that I put before them’ [v.12]” (Bava Metzia 85a-b). How can we imagine that Jerusalem, the place where numerous miracles were performed (Perkei Avoth 5:5), could be destroyed? It is because the Children of Israel, who had become accustomed to miracles, believed that if they had not been truly worthy, they would not have had the privilege of witnessing them. Sure of themselves and their importance, they began to neglect Torah study and perform the mitzvot by rote, without any concentration. Their divine service then began to resemble a body without a soul, and their “uprightness” was only on the outside. This is because they had received everything as a gift, without exerting the least effort. A person must therefore never consider himself to be a Tzaddik. Instead, he must always engage in Torah study to spiritually elevate himself.
The Talmud asks, “Why was…Israel in that generation deserving of extermination? …Because they partook of the feast of that wicked one [Achashverosh]” (Megillah 12a). Sure of themselves, the Jews of that generation voluntarily responded to the king’s invitation (Esther Rabba 2:5). Thus they witnessed abominable sins, which proves that their hearts were not pure. They desecrated G-d’s Name by their conduct, and instead of believing in G-d and doing everything to avoid participating in this feast, they believed in themselves too much and were convinced that they would not fall.
Nevertheless, after the miracles of Purim they again received the Torah, as it is written: “The Jews confirmed and took upon themselves and their posterity [the Torah]” (Esther 9:27). If they received the Torah on Mount Sinai under duress and, as it were, superficially, nevertheless on Purim they received it with love. The Talmud teaches that they performed above what they had received below. Their deed was accepted above because their new acceptance of the Torah was internal. Conforming to Mordechai’s instructions, they began to take to the godly path and did not consider themselves as being Tzaddikim. Instead, they relied solely on Hashem.