Thursday, July 05, 2007

A Question To Ask Yourself Every Year

(Picture courtesy of Yad Vashem)

A student of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz once asked him how he could be assured that he was making progress in his Torah study. Rabbi Steinsaltz replied that he honestly did not know how much the student had accomplished over the past year and advised his student that there was only one person who could accurately judge his progress - the student's wife.

Rabbi Steinsaltz instructed his student to ask his wife whether all the Torah he learned over the past year had contributed into making him into a better person, or whether he had just remained the same. If she told him that he was better person, he would know that indeed was on the right track and could be confident that he was making headway in his studies. If she told him there was no apparent difference, he would know that he would need to start making some changes.

This story resonated with me and I asked my wife this very question on Shabbos morning. My wife responded that she could not tell a noticeable difference. She further noted that there was still one area where I was lacking and could make improvement - Ahavas Yisroel. My wife explained that while I excelled in the way I treated and related to non-Jews and also religious Jews, my dealing with secular Jews, particularly those who were antagonistic towards religious Jews, was lacking.

Ahavas Yisroel - a cornerstone of the derech of the Baal Shem Tov - and I was lacking in this! I didn't dispute my wife's observation and was interested to hear her cite examples of where I did not meet the mark. After Shacharis, I reviewed the Tzemach Tzedek's teaching on this subject in Derech Mitzvosecha. There the Tzemach Tzedek advises one that although a his intellect may become aware of the shortcomings of a fellow Jew, he should never allow this cognitive knowledge to result in negative emotions, felt or displayed towards a fellow Jew.

Is this difficult advice to follow? Indeed it is, especially when one encounters a person who may take an antagonistic stance against you.

However, if this is the benchmark to gauge whether I am succeeding in learning Torah, I must remember that if I profess to love Hashem, I must also love His children.


I came across another piece of advice for Ahavas Yisroel in the process of learning Parshas Pinchas. Moshe Rabbeinu said [Rashi, Bamidbar 27:16],

"Ribbono shel Olam, the personality of each individual is revealed before You; they do not resemble each other. Appoint a leader who can put up with each individual according to his personality."

Moshe then warns Yehoshua about the character of the people he will be charged to lead [Rashi, Bamidbar 27:19],

"You should know they are troublesome, that they are uncooperative."

Hashem instructs Moshe to put "his splendor" upon Yehoshua and informs him that the Jewish people will heed his words when they recognize that his countenance is shining brightly.

The lesson for me behind all of this is clear: I may be fully cognizant of the shortcomings of a fellow Jew, nevertheless, I must relate to this Jew according to his or her unique personality; I must become a shining example of the person Hashem expects me to be.


At July 5, 2007 at 11:12:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an insightful post!

Ahavas Yisroel like you're speaking about is, indeed, probably the hardest issue… not for nothing did Hillel (and R' Akiva for that matter) state that it was the very essence of the entire Torah.
I think that the primary reason that this is such a great challenge is that most of our behavior - especially bein adam lchaveiro – are a result of external influences, i.e. we tend to reflect the prevalent norms, attitudes, values and ideals of the community that we are affiliated, or aspire to be affiliated, with. And since this issue (true ahavas yisroel, carefulness about lashon hora, etc) is almost non-existent, it is something that we have no point of reference, no model and no leadership for. In this we must be mavericks, we must go against the stream, we must overcome our communities, and that is no small feat – in fact it is the ultimate feat…

At July 5, 2007 at 11:20:00 AM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...


Interestingly, I noticed that the advice of the Tzemach Tzemach concerning Ahavas Yisroel is very similar to the advice of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov concerning sinful thoughts. Basically, on every single occasion when one of these negative thoughts flashes into our mind, we must instantly banish it.

Since I have incorporated Rebbe Nachman's advice for my 40 day offensive, I also now plan to incorporate the Tzemach Tzedek's advice and will report back periodically as to its effectiveness.

At July 5, 2007 at 2:47:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A Simple Jew: Another great source for some pratical advices is "Toymer Dvoyro" of the Rama"k, who's yortzayt is coming soon (23th of Tammuz).

At July 5, 2007 at 2:50:00 PM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Thank you, A Yid. Did you have any particular chapter of this sefer in mind?

At July 5, 2007 at 3:15:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"countenance shining brightly" results from practice of intention to see good points, soul points in the numbers 27:18 where it says yehoshua is a man with "spirit", the commentary says that he could ascertain the different spirit each person had.

At July 5, 2007 at 3:29:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Especially chapters 1 and 2. But the whole seyfer is just so warm with kind of Baal Shem Tov's warmth - so you can learn it all (it is not that long).

At July 5, 2007 at 4:14:00 PM EDT, Blogger redsneakz said...

Thank you for this. I have to remember to make my own learning influence my middos as well as my sechel. I need to be reminded of this daily, though.

At July 5, 2007 at 9:43:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How can you instantly banish thoughts?

At July 5, 2007 at 11:26:00 PM EDT, Blogger A Talmid said...

"How can you instantly banish thoughts?"

Likutei Mohoran 233 says don't try to banish the thought because it will just become harder to do. Instead think of something else, such as Torah, Tefila or even business because it's impossible to have 2 thoughts at once.

At July 6, 2007 at 12:36:00 AM EDT, Blogger Neil Harris said...

A great post. It's important to remember (I'm saying this to myself) that the average "secular Jews, particularly those who were antagonistic towards religious Jews" fall into the category of "tinok shenishbo" and we need to be sensitive to that. I'm sure it's not easy when someone walking into a room with both barrels loaded.

At July 8, 2007 at 4:17:00 PM EDT, Blogger Unknown said...

I love the Rav Steinsaltz story, but I love your story just as much. Admirable and honorable.

(Maybe I should find myself a wife after all...)

At July 8, 2007 at 6:23:00 PM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Great to hear from you again 'laizer :)


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