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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshios Achrei Mos-Kedoshim 5773 "A Nagging Conscience"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Late one night, Rabbi Yaakov Haber[1] was alone driving down Route 17 toward Monsey. As every driver knows, after dark the desolate highway can provide a perilous trip for the lonely and fatigued driver.

Overcome with exhaustion, Rabbi Haber pulled off the highway into the local New Jersey village in search of a late-night store where he could purchase a coffee. He finally spotted a small store and walked in. He immediately felt an uneasiness about the place and was about to walk out when he heard the man behind the counter speaking Hebrew. Hearing the familiar dialect Rabbi Haber turned around and greeted the man with the traditional, “Shalom Aleichem”. The man looked up in surprise and then replied (in Hebrew) that Rabbi Haber’s choice of words was grammatically incorrect. The Hebrew word ‘Aleichem’ is used when addressing more than one person. As he was only one person, the man insisted that Rabbi Haber should have said ‘Shalom Alecha’[2].

Thinking quickly Rabbi Haber poignantly replied, “The verse in Tehillim (91:11) states, ‘For He will command His angels to protect you in all your ways’. Our sages teach that a person is never alone for G-d dispatches his elite angels, Michoel (who stands on one’s right) and Gavriel (who stands on one’s left), to accompany and protect every person. Therefore I was not only addressing you with my greeting but I was also addressing your entourage.” The man seemed satisfied with the explanation, so Rabbi Haber purchased his coffee and continued on his way.

About two months later Rabbi Haber again found himself traveling the weary Route 17 with his eyelids threatening to close, so he decided to head back to the diner to see his ‘old friend’. As soon as he walked in the man behind the counter recognized him, “Atah! Atah mikalkel et hachaim sheli- You! You have ruined my life!” Rabbi Haber was stunned; what could he possibly have done to ruin this man’s life? The man continued, “Atah ‘Shalom Aleichem’ nachon? - You are the one who said ‘Shalom Aleichem’ to me, correct?”

Rabbi Haber nodded. The man explained that soon after Rabbi Haber left the diner that night he picked up his sandwich to eat it. True it wasn’t Kosher but he had never thought twice about it before. But as he was about to bite into it he thought to himself, ‘how can I eat this with the holy angel Michael standing next to me?’ Sometime later as he prepared to go somewhere he thought that the angiel Gavriel who is with him would not be too happy with his going there. The man complained that since that day his conscience has been nagging at him incessantly and he could no longer enjoy many of the things he had always done. Therefore, “Atah mikalkel at hachaim sheli”.

Idolatry is one of the three cardinal sins a Jew can commit. It is so egregious that if one is forced to choose between life and worshipping idolatry, he is obligated to give up his life. The Torah makes this unequivocally clear in the second of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not recognize the gods of others in my presence”.

If so, why does the Torah add a specific prohibition to worship the idol known as ‘Molech.’ “Any man from the B’nei Yisroel…who shall give of his seed to the Molech, shall be put to death; the people of the land shall pelt him with stones. I shall concentrate My attention upon that man, and I shall cut him off from among his people, for he had given of his offspring to Molech in order to defile My Sanctuary and to desecrate My Holy Name.[3]” Why is serving Molech so terrible that it warrants its own individual warning?

Rabbi Shimon Schwab zt’l explains[4] that the service of Molech entailed offering one’s child as a sacrifice on a blazing pyre in front of the Molech idol. Despite the severity of the sin of idolatry, the transgressor can at least purport that he sinned because he was overcome by his desires. To serve Molech however, necessitated a rational decision to go against one’s nature. A person naturally loves his child more than himself. To offer a child as a sacrifice takes a tremendous amount of psychological and mental preparation. One who ‘works on himself’ to perform such a heinous sin is spitting G-d in the face, as it were. Such a despicable act demonstrates total disregard and antipathy for G-d. Therefore Molech is more severe than any other form of idolatry.

When the Torah records the narrative of the sin of the golden calf, the Torah[5] states, “Yehoshua heard the sound of the people in its shouting…” Targum Yonason Ben Uziel explains that the sounds Yehoshua heard were, “Kad miyabivin b’chedva kadam iglah- When they cried with rejoicing in front of the golden calf.” What does it mean ‘they cried with rejoicing’; crying and rejoicing are paradoxical emotions?

Rabbi Yeruchom Levovitz zt’l, the Mirrer Mashgiach, once told his disciples, “I don’t know if you will merit the great rewards of the World to Come, for that depends on how you live your life. But one thing I can guarantee: As a student of the Yeshiva you will never be able to fully enjoy the physical pleasures of life.”[6]

In a similar vein, Rabbi Yisroel Salanter zt’l once commented to his students, “The moment you put your hand on the doorknob of the Yeshiva’s front door, you forfeited full enjoyment of the base pleasures of this world.”

Oznayim LaTorah explains that the sin of the Golden Calf transpired shortly after Klal Yisroel accepted the Torah. Therefore, even though they rejoiced over their sin, the revelation of Sinai had so inspired them and developed within them a conscience that their joy in sinning could not be complete. That is what the Targum is conveying. They tried to rejoice with the golden calf, but their souls cried out from within them, marring their celebration.

The Chofetz Chaim was once asked why he expended so much effort to publish his magnum opus about the laws of Loshon Hora if people still speak Loshon Hora? The Chofetz Chaim replied that, because of his sefer, people will at least have a conscience and feel bad when they speak Loshon Hora. For that alone it was worth all the effort.

Rabbi Mordechai Schwab zt’l was a beloved educator and Torah leader, especially in the Monsey community.

A former student who had left the ways of the Torah once approached his former Rebbe and told him that he hated him. He explained that although he had long ago forsaken the path of his fathers, every time he was about to commit a sin, the sweet and gentle voice of his Rebbe from so many years prior reverberated in his ears, depriving him of any real pleasure and satisfaction from his sins.

Perhaps the most intriguing point of all is that Hitler himself recognized this idea when he declared that he hates the Jews because they gave the world a conscience.

This ‘conscience’ is what we call the ‘Pintele Yid,’ i.e. the inherent spark that is never extinguished. One can bury his Pintele Yid and cover it with all sorts of spiritual debris, but somewhere beneath it all that inner voice will keep crying out.

The opening blessing of Shemoneh Esrei, the central portion of all of our prayers, concludes with the words, ‘Blessed are You, Hashem, the shield of Avrohom.” The Chiddushei Harim explains that there is an inner ‘Avrohom-keit,’ a spark of our patriarch Avrohom, within the heart of every Jew. That spark is preserved by G-d despite anything one does. It is for that special spark that we thank G-d.

One who actively tries to quell his inner spark actively has committed the greatest sacrilege of all. But even such a person will never be fully successful. His inner conscience, Pintele Yid, spark of Avrohom, will continue to yearn for spiritual nourishment.

“To defile My Sanctuary and to desecrate My Holy Name”

“When they cried with rejoicing in front of the golden calf”

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[1] Former Rabbi of Congregation Bais Torah in Monsey. He is currently the Rav of Kehillat Shivtei Yeshurun in Ramat Bait Shemesh. I am appreciative that Rabbi Haber took the time to read and confirm the story.

[2] ‘Alecha’ being the word used when addressing an individual.

[3] Vayikra 19:2-3

[4] Ma’ayan Bais Hashoaivah

[5] Shemos 32:17

[6] Rabbi Yeruchom was alluding to the fact that incorporated into the Yeshiva curriculum is a strict set of morals and ethics with intense study and discourse about self-improvement and self-control. One exposed to such rigorous study will inevitably develop a strong conscience that will never allow him to enjoy sin or over-involvement in physical pursuits.

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