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Walking In Two Directions

05/07/2021 12:36:45 PM

May7

Rabbi Barry Gelman

וְהָיוּ הַדְּ֒בָרִים הָאֵֽלֶּה אֲשֶׁר֯ אָ֯נֹכִי מְצַוְּ֒ךָ הַיּוֹם עַל֯־לְ֯בָבֶֽךָ: וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶֽיךָ וְדִבַּרְתָּ בָּם בְּשִׁבְתְּ֒ךָ בְּבֵיתֶֽךָ וּבְלֶכְתְּ֒ךָ בַדֶּֽרֶךְ וּבְשָׁכְבְּ֒ךָ וּבְקוּמֶֽךָ:

And these words which I command you today,shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them to your children. And you shall discuss them when you sit in your house, and when you travel on the road, and when you lie down and when you rise. (Deut. 6)

ע֭וֹלָם חֶ֣סֶד יִבָּנֶ֑ה

build this world from love (Tehillim 89:3)

“Any day that passes without doing an act of Hessed is as if the day did not occur”(Slonimer Rebbe)

Walking In My Ways

Observance of Jewish law is referred to as Halacha  - etymologically related to Ha-La-Ch, the root of “to walk”. Living a life committed to Jewish law is about movement. The question is, which way are we going.

Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, notes that a Jew must walk in two directions - from below to above and from above to below.

Moving from below to above, for Rabbi Zevin, refers to coming close to God, studying Torah and observing the Mitzvot. He connects these strivings to this verse in Tehillim (94:8) -  יֵ֭לְכוּ מֵחַ֣יִל אֶל־חָ֑יִל - They go from strength to strength, in the sense that there is no limit to what we can accomplish spiritually. The Torah provides an endless road of discovery and chiddush (new understandings). This is what the Rabbis in Pirkei Avot mean when they says ״הֲפֹךְ בָּהּ וַהֲפֹךְ בָּה״  - ״ turn the Torah over and over for everything is in it״. 

Moving from above to below is not, as it may sound, a negative for Rav Zevin. Rather, it refers to applying Torah that we studied above (in the Beit Midrash) to our life and relationships. If moving upwards referred to our relationship with Torah as a way to get close to God, moving downwards refers to our relationship with Torah as a way to impact humanity.

One of the grand ideas that Rabbi Soloveitchik taught was of our obligation to imitate God. The Talmud speaks of our obligation to mimic God’s actions by visiting the sick, clothing the naked and burying the dead. 

Our tradition also speaks of God’s desire to “have a dwelling place below” - 

בשעה שברא הקב"ה העולם, התאוה שיהא לו דירה בתחתונים, כשם שיש לו בעליונים.

Perhaps this is referring to God’s wish to have an influence on humanity (the midrash continues and says that once Adam sinned, God, perhaps realizing that his influence is weak, removed himself from his earthly abode and ascended on heaven). 

In keeping with the idea of imitating God, we also have an obligation to have דירה בתחתונים - an influence on earth.

What this amounts to is that our upwards movements, our Torah learning and other spiritual strivings,  must be in service to humanity.

On this point, Rav Zevin quotes a beautiful midrash about King David that explains a verse in this week’s Parsha :

אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ (ויקרא כו, ג), הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (תהלים קיט, נט): חִשַּׁבְתִּי דְרָכָי וָאָשִׁיבָה רַגְלַי אֶל עֵדֹתֶיךָ, אָמַר דָּוִד רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם בְּכָל יוֹם וָיוֹם הָיִיתִי מְחַשֵׁב וְאוֹמֵר לְמָקוֹם פְּלוֹנִי וּלְבֵית דִּירָה פְּלוֹנִית אֲנִי הוֹלֵךְ, וְהָיוּ רַגְלַי מְבִיאוֹת אוֹתִי לְבָתֵּי כְנֵסִיּוֹת וּלְבָתֵּי מִדְרָשׁוֹת, 

If you will walk in my statutes: This is what is written (Psalms 119:59), "I considered my ways and I turned my feet to your testimonies." David said, "Master of the universe! On each and every day I would consider and say, 'To place x and to the home of y am I walking,' but my feet would bring me to the synagogues and to the Houses of Study." 

Rabbi Zevin reads this midrash as teaching that King David desired to serve God by going to the serve other and by going to the Beit Midrash.  Says Rav Zevin in explaining this Midrash: "This is what is meant by walking from above to below. Not to close oneself in the synagogue or study hall ,but rather to go to place x and to the home of y , to take care of people’s physical needs…”

Walking in God’s statutes means being able to walk in two directions at the same time - from below to above, as we strive to excel in our personal religious growth and from above (from the Beit Midrash) to below in order to put our Torah into action.

Rabbi Soloveitchik offers a striking application of this idea in his description of his grandfather, Rabbi Hayyim Soloveitchik (known as R’ Chaim Brikser). 

“In Rav Hayyim’s house one could not find a Chovot HaLevavot, or a Mesilat Yesharim… (classic Mussar books on perfecting character traits).He had a Shas (Talmud), the four volumes of the Rambam...and a Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law)… - that’s all. Yet there was no greater baal hesed than Rav Hayyim Brisker zt”l. He had ordered that no attributes be inscribed on his tombstone, but my father and my uncle zt”l insisted that one attribute be mentioned. Not gaon, but  rav hesed: Rav HAyyim ben Rav Yosef Dolv Halevi, rav hesed. In my opinion his hesed personality towered above his intellectual personality.” (Blessings and Thanksgiving pg. 91)

Rabbi Soloveitchik saw in his grandfather a man who walked in both directions - mastering all aspects of Torah, and walking in God’s statutes by doing acts of hesed for his community. 

The prophet Yirmiyahu said it clearly: (9:22-23)

כֹּ֣ה׀ אָמַ֣ר יְהֹוָ֗ה אַל־יִתְהַלֵּ֤ל חָכָם֙ בְּחכְמָת֔וֹ וְאַל־יִתְהַלֵּ֥ל הַגִּבּ֖וֹר בִּגְבֽוּרָת֑וֹ אַל־יִתְהַלֵּ֥ל עָשִׁ֖יר בְּעשְׁרֽוֹ׃

Thus saith the Lord: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, Neither let the mighty man glory in his might, Let not the rich man glory in his riches;

כִּ֣י אִם־בְּזֹ֞את יִתְהַלֵּ֣ל הַמִּתְהַלֵּ֗ל הַשְׂכֵּל֮ וְיָדֹ֣עַ אוֹתִי֒ כִּ֚י אֲנִ֣י יְהֹוָ֔ה עֹ֥שֶׂה חֶ֛סֶד מִשְׁפָּ֥ט וּצְדָקָ֖ה בָּאָ֑רֶץ כִּֽי־בְאֵ֥לֶּה חָפַ֖צְתִּי נְאֻם־יְהֹוָֽה׃

But let him that glorieth glory in this, That he understandeth, and knoweth Me, That I am the Lord who exercise mercy, Justice, and righteousness, in the earth; For in these things I delight, Saith the Lord.

Knowledge of God (including his Torah) is not the ultimate pursuit. If it were, then the verse would have stopped at “That he understandeth, and knoweth Me”. As Rabbi Soloveitchik puts it: “Knowledge of God must lead to something else, to doing hesed, mishpat and tzedaka.” (Ibid) 

Each direction we walk in feeds the other. As we study God’s word we realize that the Torah is a Torat Hesed and that we are obligated to seek out hesed, justice and tzedak. As we work in those realms, we seek to reconnect to our source of inspiration - God. We do that by returning to Torah. 

Rav Yehuda Amital, founder of Yeshivat Har Etzion, would often tell the following story and considered its message to be the founding principle of the Yeshiva:

The founder of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, known as the Ba'al Ha-Tanya, was studying Torah in the end room of a railroad flat.  Two rooms away there was a baby sleeping.  In the middle room, his grandson, the Tzemach Tzedek, was learning.  Suddenly, the Ba'al Ha-tanya, heard the baby cry.  The elder rebbe rose from his studying, passed through the room where his grandson was studying, and went to the next room to soothe the baby to sleep.  Meanwhile, his grandson was too involved in his studies to notice the baby crying.  On returning to his room, the Ba’al Ha-Tanya told his grandson to stop learning.  He proclaimed, “If someone is studying Torah and fails to hear a baby’s cry, there is something very wrong with his learning.”

This is a story about a man who knew how to walk in two directions at the same time. What an inspiring model of what it means to live a life devoted to God , Torah and humanity

Tue, June 22 2021 12 Tammuz 5781