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10/16/2020 01:40:14 PM


Rabbi Barry Gelman

Leave An Impression

10/16/2020 09:59:49 AM

Rabbi Barry Gelman

Are you dreaming differently these days. Recently there have been some articles reporting that the CORONAVIRUS pandemic is altering sleep patterns and  the way we dream.

Rabbi Moshe of Coucy (1200-1260) was not living through a pandemic, but he did have a very strange dream. It happened when he was writing his now famous Sefer MItzvot Gadol (SeMaG) an early example of a Halachik code that discusses each of the 613 Mitzvot of the Torah. 

Well, he was certainly jolted by this vision. After all, how would you feel if you were  setting out to write a book enumerating God’s commandments and you are told by what you believe is a heavenly voice that you are missing something very important?

Luckily for us, Rabbi Moshe recorded the content of the dream. 

“Also with regard to the negative commandments, a vision in a dream came to me, saying: "You forgot the principle: ‘Beware lest you forget the Lord your God’ (Devarim 8:11).” For it had not been my intention to include this in the count of the prohibitions. Rabbeinu Moshe [ben Maimon, the Rambam] similarly did not mention it in his count.

I contemplated the matter in the morning, and, lo, it is a great foundation in the fear of God, and I included it among the great principles in its place.”

What was the great principle that was missing?

We will get back to this a bit later.  Let’s fast forward about 770 years.

Earlier this week I (along with Robert Levy, Dr. Oberman and Steven Mitzner) shared part of Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin’s - the Netziv -  (20 November 1816 in Mir, Russia – 10 August 1893 in Warsaw, Poland) introduction to Sefer Bereishit

In the introduction he explains why Sefer Bereishit is called Sefer Hayashar (The Book of The Upright) by noting that Yashar refers to a specific character trait of treating everyone, even those one disagrees with with respect.  The lack of yashrut led people to suspect others of terrible things and it even led to bloodshed. Sefer Bereishit is called Sefer Hayashr because our forefathers had the capacity to treat even the greatest sinners kindly. 

For example, the Netziv notes that: “We thus saw Abraham pray for Sodom even though he hated them for their wickedness as he explained to the King of Sodom. Nevertheless, he desired their well-being.... Jacob, too, spoke gently with Laban even though he was justifiably angry with him for trying to destroy his entire family.... This is why Balaam prayed " let me die the death of Yesharim." They are the upholders of the creation. Thus we have clearly explained why this book is called 'The Book of Yashar' for it is the book of creation.

I would like to relate this idea that we find at the beginning of the Torah and an idea that emerges from the end of the Torah. 

When we learn torah we should ask ourselves a few questions.  We should ask ourselves: What have we learned - what information and knowledge have we amassed?  This is a fundamental question we should ask. But there is another very important question we also need to ask ourselves. That is:  Is the fact that we studied torah reflected in our character? Torah study and indeed, living a life committed to the Torah is not only about amassing knowledge so we can be smart and observe the ritual commandments. Torah is also about our essence, who we are fundamentally. 

There is a beautiful Midrash related to a verse at the end of the Torah that makes this very point.

וַיֹּאמַ֗ר יְהוָ֞ה מִסִּינַ֥י בָּא֙ וְזָרַ֤ח מִשֵּׂעִיר֙ לָ֔מוֹ הוֹפִ֙יעַ֙ מֵהַ֣ר פָּארָ֔ן וְאָתָ֖ה מֵרִבְבֹ֣ת קֹ֑דֶשׁ מִֽימִינ֕וֹ אשדת [אֵ֥שׁ] [דָּ֖ת] לָֽמוֹ׃

He said: The LORD came from Sinai; He shone upon them from Seir; He appeared from Mount Paran, And approached from Ribeboth-kodesh, fire flashing at them from His right. (Deut. 33:2).

מה אש כל המשתמש בה עושה גופו רושם כך דברי תורה כל המשתמש בהם עושה גופו רושם מה אש עמלים בה ניכרים בין הבריות כך תלמידי חכמים ניכרים בהלוכם ובדבורם ובעטפתם בשוק

Just as fire, leaves an impression on anyone who uses it so to the Torah leaves an impression on anyone who engages with it. Just as those who use fire are (blacksmiths?) are known to do so by the community, so too, those who are Torah scholars recognizable by their walking, talking and the way they dress in public. 

Rabbi Baruch Simon explains this midrash to refer to periods when the Torah scholar is not studying. Even once a fire has been extinguished, the burn marks remain. Similarly, with a Torah scholar, even when they are not engaged in Torah study, it is obvious from their refined character that they are students of the Torah. 

I love this interpretation as it reminds us that Torah - from beginning to end -  is about compiling knowledge and about constructing our character. It reminds us that we must internalize the Torah to such an extent that it is reflected in our everyday interactions. 

Applying the Netziv’s idea of Yashrut we may suggest that those who study Torah and live a life committed to Torah should be recognizable by that is a part of life that solus be reflected in all of our interactions. 

Now let’s return to Rabbi Moshe of Coucy and his dream. Searching his code to see where he uses the phrase “Beware lest you forget the Lord your God (as that phrase appears twice in the Torah)”, we note that it is in reference to the sin of arrogance. In his words: “"Beware lest you forget the Lord your God" – This is a warning against Israel becoming arrogant when the Holy One, blessed be He, bestows good upon them, and saying that they acquired all of this through their own effort and toil, and not showing gratitude to the Holy One, blessed be He, because of their arrogance...From here we derive the prohibition that a person not be arrogant about what he received from the Creator, whether wealth, or beauty, or wisdom. Rather, he must be humble and low-spirited before God and man, and thank his Creator for having graced him with that virtue.

Notions of character had to be included in the Sefer Mitzvot Gadol; otherwise it would have been incomplete. Rabbi Moshe of Coucy had to be taught that by a heavenly vision.

I will leave you with a powerful passage from the Talmud that reminds us that being committed to Torah is also about reflecting positive character traits.

אביי אמר כדתניא (דברים ו, ה) ואהבת את ה' אלהיך שיהא שם שמים מתאהב על ידך שיהא קורא ושונה ומשמש ת"ח ויהא משאו ומתנו בנחת עם הבריות מה הבריות אומרות עליו אשרי אביו שלמדו תורה אשרי רבו שלמדו תורה אוי להם לבריות שלא למדו תורה פלוני שלמדו תורה ראו כמה נאים דרכיו כמה מתוקנים מעשיו עליו הכתוב אומר (ישעיהו מט, ג) ויאמר לי עבדי אתה ישראל אשר בך אתפאר

Abaye said: As it was taught in a baraita that it is stated: “And you shall love the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 6:5), which means that you shall make the name of Heaven beloved. How should one do so? One should do so in that he should read Torah, and learn Mishna, and serve Torah scholars, and he should be pleasant with people in his business transactions. What do people say about such a person? Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah, fortunate is his teacher who taught him Torah, woe to the people who have not studied Torah. So-and-so, who taught him Torah, see how pleasant are their ways, how proper are thier deeds. The verse states about him and others like him: “You are My servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” (Isaiah 49:3).

May we all merit to be those who reflect good character (here is a link to something I wrote a few years ago about how character should affect impact our communal and national life) and  who makes God’s Torah beloved to all and of whom it is said: see how pleasant are their ways, how proper are their deeds. 


Tue, May 18 2021 7 Sivan 5781