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Rabbi Doniel Staum on Parshas Shemos 5770 - What Character
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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1/8/10

STAM TORAH

PARSHAS SHEMOS 5770

“WHAT CHARACTER”

Rabbi Baruch Diamond, the Rosh Kollel of Yeshiva Shor Yoshuv in Far Rockaway, NY, is a beloved Rebbe. Some years ago a young woman who was ‘in shidduchim’ and was close with his family asked him if he could look into a yeshiva student who was suggested to her. Rabbi Diamond decided that instead of meeting with him for a few minutes, he would invite him to his home for a Shabbos meal.

That Shabbos the young man joined the Diamond family for the Shabbos day meal. When Rabbi Diamond began singing zemiros, the yeshiva student picked up his fork and spoon and began drumming rhythmically on the table. A few minutes later Rabbi Diamond took out a bottle of schnapps and offered the yeshiva student to ‘make a l’chaim’. The yeshiva student filled up his shot glass and promptly downed the contents in one gulp. He complimented the taste of the schnapps as he filled up his cup for a second time and proceeded to down another shot in one gulp. He took a third shot, and then a fourth.

After Shabbos when the girl called his home to find out about her potential suitor, Rabbi Diamond told her to call back later. He wanted to discuss the matter with his illustrious Rebbe, Rabbi Avrohom Pam zt’l. When Rabbi Diamond recounted the events, Rabbi Pam wasn’t bothered by the fact that he drummed along loudly with the beat. Perhaps he had just gotten into it. However, when he was told that the yeshiva student had drank four shots of schnapps, Rabbi Pam asked Rabbi Diamond if he served the boy each shot or if he had placed the bottle in the middle of the table. Rabbi Diamond replied that he had left the bottle for self-service. “In that case,” replied Rabbi Pam, “tell her not to date him.”

Rabbi Diamond was confident that Rabbi Pam’s decision was based on the fact that the yeshiva boy had drunk so much but he asked his Rebbe just to be sure. Rabbi Pam’s response was brilliantly insightful. “Everyone knows that schnapps is expensive. The fact that he drank four shots without asking you if you mind, demonstrates that he is insensitive to your money. If someone does not consider someone else’s money, he will also not adequately consider the honor of his wife. Therefore, at the present time that yeshiva student is not ready for marriage.”[1]

The young life of the future consummate leader of Klal Yisroel was nothing short of incredible. After being rescued from the perils of the Nile by Pharaoh’s own daughter, Moshe was raised in the palace of Pharaoh himself, before being forced to escape Egypt, because he had killed an Egyptian slave-master who was beating a Jew. For decades after his miraculous escape Moshe wandered, at one point even becoming a king. Eventually he ended up at the well in Midyan.

A newcomer to the town, Moshe watched as a band of shepherds began harassing a group of women – sisters, who had gathered at the well to draw water for their sheep. Moshe immediately came to the aid of the women by chasing away the shepherds.

When the sisters arrived home, their father Yisro asked them why they had come home earlier than usual. “They replied, ‘An Egyptian man saved us from the shepherds, and he even drew water for us and watered the sheep.’ He said to his daughters, ‘Then where is he? Why did you leave the man? Summon him and let him eat bread![2]

Rashi explains that the word ‘bread’ is metaphoric for marriage. Yisro was telling his daughters that they should not have allowed this good-hearted individual to leave because he was worthy to marry one of them.

Onkelos however understands Yisro’s words literally. After a stranger had done them such a favor how could they not repay him? Where was their sense of appreciation? Why had they not immediately invited him to eat a bread meal with their family?

Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz shlita[3] notes that ‘hakaras hatov’[4] was one of the hallmarks of Yisro’s character. The gemara (Sotah 11a) notes that Pharaoh had three chief advisors with whom he consulted about their burgeoning ‘Jewish problem’: Yisro, Iyov, and Bila’am. Bila’am maligned the Jews, while Yisro defended them, citing the great contributions of Joseph to the Egyptian economy. Iyov remained silent. Because Yisro had spoken in defense of the Jews he was forced to flee the country, leaving behind his wealth and prestige, to become a fugitive. The gemarah records that in the merit of Yisro’s valiant defense of the Jewish people, he merited that his descendants served as members of the Sanhedrin, the seventy-two member foremost halachic judiciary authority.

Yisro’s unwillingness to participate in Egypt’s nefarious plot against the Jews stemmed from his steadfast hakaras hatov. He refused to ‘forget Joseph’ as the rest of Egypt had done. That character trait was the catalyst that brought Moshe to his home and to eventually marry his daughter Tzipporah.

Moshe agreed to marry Tzipporah because he recognized not only Tzipporah’s greatness and sterling character, but also that of her father, who taught it to her.

In seeking a partner for marriage there is nothing more important than checking into the person’s character traits. There are many other petty external details that people sometimes get hooked up on. But ultimately the most important barometer for the success of a marriage lies in the personalities and character traits of the prospective spouses.

The greatest fear of each of the patriarchs was that their sons not marry a Canaanite woman, for the Canaanites were people of ignoble character. When Avrohom dispatched Eliezer to find a wife for Yitzchok he specifically instructed him that if all he could find was a Canaanite woman, he was absolved of his mission, as the verse states, “Avrohom answered him, ‘beware not to return my son there.[5]

The Rambam[6] records a lengthy discussion about character traits. In it he discusses the importance of knowing how to act in different situations, the need for different character traits at different times, how one can improve his innate character traits, and the danger of one who does not work on improving his character traits. The Rambam titles this treatise “Hilchos De’os – the laws of knowledge/opinions”.

Rabbi Avigdor Miller zt’l explains that the fact that the Rambam labeled this section ‘Hilchos De’os’ and not the more expected “Hilchos Middos – the laws of character traits” teaches us an integral lesson: A person develops his opinions and outlook of life based on his natural character traits!

For example, a person who is naturally lazy will rationalize that taking things slowly and not becoming too excited is a positive character trait. He may convince himself that he is not actually lazy, and besides there are worse character traits than being a bit sluggish. The person may be very intelligent, but he may still fail to recognize his glaring shortcoming, because he is blinded by his negative character trait.

This concept holds true for all character traits. Thus, before a person can contemplate the validity of his opinions and beliefs, he must first consider the source of his character. He must be brutally honest with himself in contemplating whether his character traits are as they should be or if he needs to work on improving himself. But if one is unable to see the detriment and fault of his own character, he will hardly be able to recognize the fallacy of his beliefs which are rooted in his personality and character.

The Rambam brilliantly alludes to this concept by naming his discussion about character traits “the Laws of beliefs.”

George Bernard Shaw once quipped regarding marriage: “When two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most illusive, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part.”

How can one ever know if he/she should agree to commit to another person for the rest of his/her life, to share dreams and passions, and to build a family together? Undoubtedly we all pray for Divine Assistance. But the most we can do is analyze the character and personality of a potential spouse.

Moshe merited becoming our foremost leader, not only because of his integrity, virtuousness, and righteousness, but also because of his sterling character. When he stood before G-d Moshe was the humblest of men with awe etched on his face. But when he was instructed to appear before Pharaoh, gone was his humility and meekness. He stood before Pharaoh with a holy arrogance and unwaveringness towards his mission, without a trace of fear. When Moshe witnessed the servitude and oppression of his brethren he could not bear to see their suffering. His compassion towards his fellow Jews aroused within him zealousness and chutzpah to kill an Egyptian. Yet despite his love for his people, he uninhibitedly chastised a Jew who was hitting another Jew.

Moshe is not only our teacher in the sense that he transmitted and taught us Torah, but also as our example of how we can become leaders as well. Leadership is not only a matter of insight and wisdom; it is also a matter of integrity, compassion, humility, appreciation, love, and zealousness – and knowing how to utilize each trait properly.

“Beware not to return my son there”

“Then where is he? Summon him and let him eat bread!”

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[1] Heard from Rabbi Zechariah Wallerstein (torahanytime.com)

[2] Shemos 2:19-20

[3] Tiv HaTorah, Shemos

[4] Hakaras hatov literally means ‘recognizing the good’ but it also refers to expressing one’s appreciation for the good which they have recognized.

[5] Bereishis 24:6

[6] In Mishnah Torah, Sefer Maddah



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