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Parashat Ki Tetze 5774 — 09/03/2014

Parashat Ki Tetze 5774 — 09/03/2014

If you become your fellow’s creditor for any amount of debt, do not enter his house to take his pledge. (24:10)

The matter is understood, however, by first noting Rashi’s comment in Parshas Mishpatim about a lender’s obligation to return collateral that he took when he lent money (Shemos 22:25). “Hakadosh Baruch Hu says,” writes Rashi, “How great is your debt to Me! Every night your soul ascends to Me to give an accounting, and is found guilty before Me. Nevertheless, I return it to you. Therefore, you too, take [collateral] but return it.”  Furthermore, we have the famous words of the Rambam about the Torah’s prohibitions against taking revenge and bearing a grudge. The Rambam writes, “It behooves a person to be forgiving about all worldly matters because, to understanding minds, all worldly matters are vain and insignificant, and not worth taking revenge for” (Laws of Ethics Dei’ot 7:7). This is why the Torah commands, Do not take revenge or hold a grudge against your neighbor.

In light of the above, our verse teaches that debts that a person is owed by his fellow – even the largest sums possible – are all “of no significance” compared to what a person owes his Maker. All worldly matters are vain and inconsequential anyway. In effect, Hashem commands, “If you become your fellow’s creditor for any amount of debt, it is nothing compared to your debt to Me. Although your debt to Me is huge, I mercifully return your soul to you every morning. You must behave in like manner, and not enter your debtor’s house to take collateral from him.”  (Chafetz Chaim)

We are in the month of Elul, and the Days of Awe are rapidly approaching.  Hopefully we are making good use of this time when Gd is, so to speak, more available to us as we engage in the process of t’shuvah / return to Gd, to our own infinite, essentially perfect nature.  There are two schools of thought regarding the status of human beings vis-à-vis Gd and the cosmos, and they were reflected in two of the great Yeshivot of pre-War Eastern Europe.  The Yeshiva of Novardok emphasized shiflut ha-adam / the insignificance of human beings, while the Yeshiva of Kelm emphasized gadlut ha-adam / the greatness of human beings, or at least their potential greatness.  So are human beings the crown of creation or lowly worms?  In the words of Deion Sanders, “Both.”

As is often the case with these kind of dilemmas, I believe the answer lies in the perspective from which we are speaking.  For example, our Sages ask why Adam was created last, after all the other creatures.  They answer that if mankind is deserving, we can look at ourselves as the crown of creation.  If not, it is as if Gd tells us, “The mosquito was created before you!”  I think the Chafetz Chaim is suggesting a complementary approach.

We have commented on a number of occasions that the surface, material world is nothing more than a crust or veneer on top of a vast, non-material substratum.  Thus, thought bubbles up from deep in the mind, until at the surface it becomes visible as speech or action.  The body is the clothing of the soul – the body is mortal and limited, while the soul is eternal and essentially unbounded.  I think it is in this sense that we can understand the insignificance of the material side of our existence.  Our bodies are finite, and compared to the infinite, the finite is nothing at all.

Of course there is the other side to the issue, and that is that human beings are not simply bodies.  In fact, we are not in essence our bodies at all.  We are a soul, which our Sages tell us is a piece of the Divine, and that our bodies are merely garments that the soul is clothed in for a while, in order for it to carry out its mission on earth.  That mission, as we have discussed often, is to infuse the infinite Divine nature of life into the finite.  In terms of our personal life, that means to have our soul dominate our body, in the same way that a rider dominates the horse and bends the horse to his will.  This, in fact, is the “war” that we “go out” to every waking moment of our lives – the war with our material nature, a war in which the aim is not to destroy our material nature, but to elevate it.

The very fact that the success of the Divine Plan has been put in our hands, so to speak, is an indication that in Gd’s eyes at least, human beings are certainly not insignificant at all.  In fact, since the perfection of creation requires that it be  perfected by imperfect creatures with the ability to choose between good and evil, our actions take on cosmic significance.   With that significance comes cosmic responsibility, and the possibility of earning infinite reward.

The question then is, if we are finite, and therefore imperfect, how can we bring perfection into the world?  I believe the answer lies in the fact that we are perfectable.  We are only imperfect when our body dominates our soul, like a horse taking its rider where it wants to go.  Our entire Torah way of life is an exercise in identifying every aspect of our personality with our inner, infinite, perfect nature.  Gd’s commandments are signposts along the way, guiding our action in the right path, for both ourselves – to perfect the finite aspect of our personality, our thoughts, our speech and our action, and for the creation – to reflect the perfection of the Creator.

Gd has implanted within us eternal life, a perfect, immortal soul.  In His wisdom, He caused that soul to be hidden behind a material, outer shell, in the same way that He hides Himself behind the material shell of nature.  Our job is to get behind the curtain and identify ourselves with the reality, and then bring it forward for all to enjoy.  If we can accomplish this, then we truly will be the crown of creation.

A Dear Son to Me

Essay 20: One Step Forward (Ukraine, 14 March 1997)

This essay was apparently written for distribution to the Jewish communities in Ukraine, several years after the fall of the USSR, and the consequent removal of restrictions on Jewish self-expression.  R. Steinsaltz’ challenge to the Jews of Ukraine is simple.  When you’re a baby, every little step is applauded; as you grow up, more and more is expected of you.  Unless you have suffered some disability, as an adult nobody is going to reward you for walking!

In the same way, right after the USSR fell apart, every slight movement to reconstitute the rich Jewish life that flourished in Eastern Europe before the Nazis and the Communists did their best to destroy it, was applauded.  Now, some years later (and more so now, 17 more years down the line), R. Steinsaltz is telling the Ukrainian community that if they really want to be Jews, more will be required.  A few people hesitantly learning Hebrew here and there was like a phoenix rising from the ashes in 1990; now it is commonplace, and one might ask why more and more people are not jumping on the bandwagon.

While our material situation here in N. America is markedly different from that in Ukraine or Russia, perhaps we need to be asking ourselves the same questions in terms of our spiritual lives.  How is our Jewish community going to survive a greater-than-50% intermarriage rate?  How are we going to survive the near-total Jewish illiteracy rate outside of Orthodoxy?  We believe that we have a special mission on earth – to infuse Gdliness into every aspect of creation.  We’re well beyond the realm of baby steps.  We need to be moving forward, now!