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Rabbi Doniel Staum on Parshas Eikev 5769
"Sterling Character"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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8/6/09

Recently, I read an interview in which Rabbi Dovid Feinstein shlit”a discussed some recollections about his father, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt”l. The interviewer asked Rabbi Dovid what aspects of his father’s noble life he wished to share. Rabbi Dovid replied that he didn’t feel there was much benefit in talking about his father’s Torah study. Rabbi Moshe’s diligence, devotion, and incredible Torah scholarship was uncanny. The average person would be completely intimidated when hearing about Rabbi Moshe’s erudition. He is unable to relate to a man who completed the entire Talmud each year and was familiar with every aspect of Torah with complete mastery. Rather, Rabbi Dovid felt there would be more benefit in discussing Rabbi Moshe’s interpersonal acumen; his extreme love for every person, his sensitivity for the feelings of others, and his tireless efforts on behalf of Klal Yisroel.

“It was at the end of forty days and forty nights that G-d gave me the two stone Tablets, the Tablets of the covenant.[1]

Rabbi David Lapin, founder and author of iawaken.org[2] makes a poignant observation about the Luchos[3]. If one analyzes the text of the Luchos (i.e. the Ten Commandments) he will note that there were far fewer letters on the left-hand side of the Luchos than on the right! Although there were five commandments inscribed upon each side, the commandments on the right-hand side dealing with a person’s responsibilities to G-d, are much longer and detailed than those on the left, which involve one’s interpersonal obligations. The commandments listed on the left are curt and concise, merely stating the imperative to be adhered to. The commandments on the right however, include a lengthy exposition about the law being commanded.

Although the wording on the left should logically have taken up much less space than the wording on the right, the Mabit notes that the words on the shorter, left-hand side were written larger than the words on the right. Thus, while the format was the same, i.e. the margins were the same width and height on both sides, the size of the letters was very different. It stands to reason then, that the large letters on the left-hand side could be read from a much greater distance than the smaller letters on the right-hand side.

With this in mind, Rabbi Lapin depicts the following scenario: We can only imagine Moshe descending from Sinai (let us say, the second time when the people were not otherwise preoccupied with the sin of the Golden Calf!). There was a tremendous feeling of anticipation among the Nation. They wondered, “What will this covenant that Moshe is bringing from G-d, say? What will it demand?” They had already committed themselves to it, and therefore, it is conceivable that they were somewhat apprehensive about what they had committed themselves to.

Imagine the almost palpable wave of excitement growing in the people as Moshe appears. They tentatively step forward, then more quickly. They strain to see what is written on these large stones Moshe bears high in his arms. There is the silence of awe: the same silent questions in the hearts of every person. Curiosity. Wonder. Anticipation. Finally he is close enough for those of them with better eye-sight to read. It is as if the Headlines are all listed on the left-hand side, and the articles are on the right! They can read the headlines, but not yet the articles.

What? No mention of G-d? No ritual? No ceremony? No formal worship? Just a list of worthy moral principles to govern the relationships between people? What religion is this? Is it a religion at all? Did that take forty days to receive?

And much later, as Moshe steps lower and lower down the mountain, cautiously avoiding the rocks and obstacles that must have littered his way, they can read the writing on the right: I am Hashem your G-d; There shall be no other G-d; Take not My Name in vain; Shabbos. Honor your parents.

The Nation’s first impression of the Torah was a code of interpersonal behavior and ethics. Only later, when they read the small print, did they see that there was a requirement of a vibrant relationship to G-d as well.

That is how great Jewish people appear to the world. From the distance all you notice about them is their dignified conduct, their sensitive human interactions, their compassion and empathy, their extreme cautiousness not to damage others physically or emotionally. From the perspective of first impression and appearance, it is their humanity and morality that so radically differentiates them and sets them apart: Princes among nations. Only when you get closer, when you become more intimate, do you notice the “ritualistic” side of their religiosity. But it is not the external uniform and extent of their religious affiliation and commitment that first strikes your eye.

Why then, if the interpersonal laws are the more important ones, did G-d not place them first on the Luchos? The headline usually begins the newspaper; but in this case the small print preceded the headlines! The reason is because the interpersonal is not more important than the laws that govern Man’s relationship with G-d. Our Torah lives start with Emunah and Bitachon, (belief and faith). Our precious and ever growing relationship with G-d drives everything else we do, including our interpersonal behavior.

Our standards and expectations of interpersonal conduct need to be way beyond those of a secular moralist or humanist. To us, the prohibition of murder includes killing a person’s dignity. Theft includes the theft of time, reputation or even sleep. These demanding definitions of our moral standards stem from the very fact that they originate in our relationship with G-d. Our connection to our fellow man is premised on the fact that our souls share a common root.

Internally and in process, the man - G-d laws precede the interpersonal laws. However in the way we project ourselves to the world, our religious observance (while never really hidden) is always part of our very private lives. It is our majestic dignity in interpersonal conduct that defines us and differentiates us in the eyes of our communities and the world.”

Rabbi Lapin’s beautiful thought has important implications for every Jew. What makes our leaders great is not only their scholarship and vast knowledge in Torah. In fact, when one encounters a Torah leader it is not his scholarship that is striking at all. Rather, it his persona and countenance; the patience he displays and the love he exudes for everyone he encounters.

Often people walk away from a meeting with a Torah leader with a noticeable sense of elevation. “It was like I was the most important person in the world and he had all the time for me, despite the fact that I know he has tens of people waiting to speak with him.” That ‘external greatness’ is the first aspect of a leader that is noticeable.

Then, when one becomes closer with a Torah leader and begins to know him more intimately, he realizes that his sterling character and uncanny humility is the product of his incredible Torah study and erudition.

Those qualities are not only for the elite and holy. It is incumbent upon every Jew to strive to perfect his character so that is resonates with every person he encounters. One must also realize that the root of that perfection, which is not discernable to the naked eye, stems from one’s devotion to G-d.

Rabbi Lapin notes that his great-uncle, Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian zt”l, related that when he was a young child he once saw Rabbi Yisroel Salanter zt”l. Rabbi Lopian mentioned that what most impressed him at that moment was the majesty of Rabbi Yisroel’s bearing, and the fact that in appearance and dress, he resembled an ordinary businessman. In that sense, Rabbi Yisroel epitomized the Luchos: From the distance he appeared like a person who was differentiated only by his personal majesty, not by his rabbinic clothes. It was only later did his piety become evident.

In fact, to the masses the greatness of Rabbi Yisroel’s Torah scholarship was not well known. He is remembered as the founder of the Mussar Movement, always completely devoted to thinking about others and living a life of complete selflessness. But Rabbi Yisroel was also an unbelievable scholar with an incredible breadth of Torah knowledge and a razor-sharp mind. That hidden aspect of Rabbi Yisroel’s persona was in reality the source of his greatness and accomplishments.

Here in Camp Dora Golding, there is a ‘tradition’ to kick off every Visiting Day by repeating the old bad joke: “What is the difference between a Jew and a canoe? A canoe tips!”

The Mashgiach, Rabbi Mordecai Finkeman shlit”a, often says that the fact that there is truth in that joke is not very funny. We have an obligation to be Examples to the world and to be a People who live a more noble and elevated lifestyle. When non-Jews (and surely Jews!) muse that Jews are aggressive drivers, lousy tippers, rude, or cheap it is a terrible desecration of G-d’s Name.

The media never minces words when they have an opportunity to malign Jews, especially religious Jews with long beards. Recently, there has been much written about Jewish dishonesty and involvement in financial shams. It is an egregious reflection upon all of us.

We have a responsibility to do our part to alter those negative stereotypes and to show that Jews are indeed a regal nation. That often entails giving an extra dollar as a tip, driving a bit slower, and being more patient on lines. But that is our responsibility as the Chosen Nation. After all, although our true greatness is that we are the Torah Nation and are incredibly devoted to G-d’s Torah and have built tremendous yeshivos, it is our interpersonal interactions that are immediately apparent.

“The words on the left were larger than the words on the right”

“G-d gave me the two stone Tablets, the Tablets of the covenant”

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[1] 9:11

[2]iawaken.org “Challenge your mind - Awaken your soul: Innovative Torah; Aligned Hashkofah; Authentic Mesorah

[3] Shavuot, 5766: The Luchot: Their Font and Format



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