The Seventy Facets of Torah
Let us revisit the concept of “As one person, with one heart” (Rashi, Mechilta, Exodus 19:2).
We may ask how the Children of Israel managed to come together and unanimously proclaim the oneness of G-d (Minchat Eliezer). As we have seen, they constituted what has been called the “Generation of Knowledge,” and each undoubtedly served G-d in different, individual ways. That being the case, can we truly speak of their accord and harmony?
The answer is that, as we know, what really causes strife is personal self-interest and pride, which are intrinsic to man. This is particularly true of a person who has already reached a certain degree of spirituality, and who, jealous of his fellow who serves Hashem even better than he does, opposes his ideas or favors his competition. This person creates a closed personal circle, and in it he suggests ideas that are diametrically opposed to those of his fellow. Such a person certainly does not act for the sake of Heaven, and he does not notice his own pride, for in the final analysis he only cares about his own personal interests.
As for the Children of Israel, they stood “before the mountain” (Exodus 19:2), meaning that they rid themselves of the evil inclination (see Sukkah 52a). No one wanted to compete with others; none selfishly sought his own interests. Therefore they all served Hashem with one heart.
The Talmud states that Hashem kafah aleihem har kegugit (“overturned the mountain on them like a barrel”) and threatened to bury them under it if they refused to accept the Torah (Shabbat 88a). Hashem therefore helped them to lehitkofef (“bend”, having the same root as kafah) and adopt the point of view of others. This is because discord does tremendous damage to the livelihood of the Jewish people, especially to their Torah study.
Hashem therefore placed all the Children of Israel under the same mountain so they would perform the mitzvot in the greatest possible harmony. The Mishnah teaches that this is because all discord stems from person self-interest; it is useless and leads nowhere (Perkei Avoth 5:7; see also Zohar II:33a). Moreover, according to the Midrash (Bereshith Rabba 18:12), the letters of the word machloket (discord) are formed from the first letters of makkah (smiting), charon (fury), likui (punishment), kelalah (curse), and to’evah (abomination). Let us therefore seek peace by all possible means, for wise and learned men increase peace in the world, as it is written: “Torah scholars increase peace in the world” (Berachot 64a). They are called bannaim (“builders”), for they are constantly engaged in building up the world (Shabbat 114a). This is what happens when everyone follows Hashem in his own individual way, yet acts solely for the sake of Heaven. Accord and harmony lead to success in every area.
Concerning this subject, we have already looked at the case of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who refused to stand in the Temple while Rehoboam, the king of Judah, would be seated there (Sanhedrin 101b). He wanted to ignore the teaching of the Sages, who said that the Temple was reserved for the kings of the house of David (Yoma 25a). Jeroboam ended up becoming evil, and he established two golden calves to make Jews believe that it was unnecessary to go up to the Temple in Jerusalem. His pride and selfishness made him lose all reason. We have also seen how he refused to repent and enjoy G-d’s presence in Gan Eden, for David, the son of Jesse, would have been at the head there. Jeroboam thus refused to honor King David, who considered himself more like a worm than a man (see Psalms 22:7). According to our Sages, this is why Jeroboam the son of Nebat and all his followers descended into hell, where they are punished for all generations (Rosh Hashanah 17a).
It is certainly difficult for a person to neglect his own interests. Yet as our Sages taught, a person is allowed to follow the path (good or evil) that he wishes to pursue (Makkot 10b).
We personally know people who, even in the realm of Torah, only take the opinion of their own rabbi into account, and everything that another Torah authority says has no value in their eyes. For the love of their own rabbi, they end up opposing and hating anyone who does not share their point of view. Such people are truly in the wrong, for even what the greatest Torah scholar is destined to reveal has already been said on Mount Sinai (Vayikra Rabba 22:1). Therefore whoever neglects the Torah of a rabbi (or of a student, or even of an ordinary person) renounces the Torah of our teacher Moses, which was transmitted to him on Mount Sinai.
I was once giving a speech somewhere, and while the audience was carefully listening to my words, a man sitting in the first row could not stop bursting with laughter. I understood that he was doing this because I wasn’t saying anything new to him. What’s more is that I was thinking the same thing myself, for everything was said to Moses on Mount Sinai, and “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
At the end of the speech I called him over and said, “Don’t you know, my dear friend, that everything I said is what I heard from the rav of your yeshiva?” He then completely changed his attitude and admitted, “It was really an amazing speech. I knew that those words could only come from him.” I then left him.
A few minutes later, he came back and said to me, “Rabbi, why didn’t you mention that fact during your speech?”
“It was to punish you for having laughed at me during and after my speech,” I explained to him.
G-d wants everyone to love his fellow, even if he does not share his point of view or that of his teacher. This is because the Holy One, blessed be He, hears the prayers of all the Jewish people, both Tzaddikim and ordinary people. He even makes a crown from the prayers of the wicked (Zohar II:58b; 246a).
Our Sages came to the conclusion that the viewpoints of the school of Hillel, as well as those of the school of Shammai (which are sometimes diametrically opposed) constitute the words of the Living G-d. The Halachah nevertheless goes according to the school of Hillel (Eruvin 13b). This is because they were humble and willingly cited the viewpoints of their “opponents” before their own. Incidentally, this was not always the case, for the Halachah sometimes went according to the school of Shammai.
The Mishnah teaches that every controversy that is for the sake of Heaven leads to an abiding result; such were the controversies between Hillel and Shammai (Perkei Avoth 5:17; see also Zohar I:17b).
G-d threatened to bury the Children of Israel under the mountain so that everyone would acknowledge the validity of the other’s viewpoint. “If you accept My Torah in accord and harmony, without seeking your own selfish interests,” He told them, “Good. If not, sham [‘there’ – under the mountain] you will be buried.” The destiny of the person who only cares about his own reputation – one who only cares about his own shem (“name”) and thinks that he is important; one who rejects all other ways of serving G-d – will be bitter. Yikaver, he will be buried in his shem, as it is written: Veshem reshaim yirkav (“And the name of the wicked shall rot” – Proverbs 10:7). This is the fate of those who support discord and antagonism among the Jewish people. If we share our fellow’s point of view when we are ke’ish (an abbreviation of kan eno yirkav, yikaver shemo: “Here he will not rot, and his name will not be buried”), we will merit living a pleasant life both in this world and the World to Come.
These comments are valid in every era, especially in our generation, when the results of assimilation have been devastating. Hardships are extremely numerous and increasingly difficult in our time, when those who want to do Teshuvah are disrupted by the difficulties of life. The evil inclination is always present and on the lookout, not relaxing if it fails in its attempts. On the contrary, it constantly attempts new tricks, telling the Baal Teshuvah, “You did well to turn back to the good path. Be careful to pay attention only to the words of your own rabbi, since only his Torah is truth. All other rabbis are worthless; they don’t know how to serve G-d.” In this way a person transgresses the prohibition against slandering others and denigrating one’s fellow and his words, which is the cause of our long exile.
A person can study Torah, recite prayers, and perform mitzvot, yet he must be constantly careful to not feel superior to others in wisdom or knowledge. He must love his fellow, both internally (belev echad) and externally (ke’ish echad), and his heart should be in accord with his mouth concerning his sentiments for him (see Pesachim 113b).
One of the first questions that the Celestial Court asks a person after he dies is, “Did you hope for salvation?” (Shabbat 31a). Is this question put to the Tzaddikim? No doubt it is not, for they certainly believed during their entire lives in the coming of Mashiach and the approaching Final Redemption. This question is certainly not put to the wicked either, who completely disregarded the commandments. Who then is this question put to?
It is put to those who, on one hand, wait for Mashiach, and who on the other hand delay his coming. It is put to those who slander their fellowmen and hate them (Yoma 9b).
Moses wondered why the Children of Israel had to be enslaved more than any other nation (Shemot Rabba 1:30). However when he learned that they slandered one another, only seeking their own selfish interests, he said, “Certainly this thing is known” (Exodus 2:14). It is primarily these evil deeds that delay the Final Redemption.
Before the giving of the Torah, strife was dividing the Children of Israel, with each person thinking that he was in the right. Concerning this subject, the Midrash teaches that each time the verse states, “and they journeyed,” “and they encamped,” it is highlighting this strife (Yalkut Shimoni, Exodus 275). However after having received the Torah, each of them paid attention to the words of the other and no one sought his own selfish interests. The author of the book HaMeir, dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Meir Chadash Zatzal, nevertheless notes that both during times of strife and times of harmony, “The L-RD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them on the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel day and night” (Exodus 13:21). While the plural is used to describe their journeys in the desert, on Mount Sinai the singular is used, for at that point their unity was absolute.
Because of this unity, all the people together replied, “All that the L-RD has spoken, we will do” (Exodus 19:8). Rashi asks why Moses brought the people’s response back to Hashem (see Mechilta). Was G-d not already aware of it?
The answer is that Moses knew that their unity would find favor in Hashem’s eyes. He therefore brought their response to G-d to quiet the accusers who claimed that the Children of Israel did not merit receiving the Torah (Shabbat 88b). Moses explained to them that it was the Torah that contributed to their unity, and they expressed their desire to “see our King” (Rashi on Exodus 19:9).
We see from this that the study of Torah and the performance of the mitzvot aim primarily at unifying the Jewish people. According to Hashem’s words to Moses, He came to him “in a thick cloud, that the people may hear [Hebrew verb is singular] when I speak with you, and believe in you forever” (Exodus 19:9). It is only through unity, when people rid themselves of their own selfish interests, from pride and honor, that they achieve complete faith in G-d and the Tzaddikim of the generation. May G-d help us to humble ourselves as the dust of the earth before each Jew who is truly G-d-fearing, and particularly before the Tzaddikim of the generation, whose words are those of the Living G-d. We will only have the merit to witness the coming of Mashiach, our righteous redeemer, when we free ourselves from pride and when perfect love and harmony reign among us. We will then be free of our evil inclination, which constantly tries to make us stumble. Amen.