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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Behaloscha 5776 "Sterling Character"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Please keep in mind: R' Reuven Alter Mordechai ben Malka & Elimelech ben Basya in all of your Tefillos for a Refuah Shelaimah.

Michelangelo is renowned for being a great painter, particularly of the Sistine Chapel. The truth however, is that his true love was not painting, but in sculpting.

He was once asked how he creates such masterful sculptures out of slabs of stone. He is purported to have replied:

“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”

In other words, when Michelangelo looked at a piece of marble, he was able to envision the statue inside the marble. The only thing left to do was to chisel away the excess marble which obscured the beautiful sculpture within.

The Torah relates that Miriam contracted tzara’as after speaking loshon hara about Moshe to their brother, Aharon[1]. Rav Lazer Shach zt’l[2] noted that the Torah recounts the event in great detail, as it does when it relates the tragic saga of the spies. In fact, Chazal note that the Torah juxtaposes the account of the spies with that of Miriam to demonstrate that the spies did not pay heed to the lesson of Miriam’s punishment. The Torah’s lengthy account here is in contradistinction with many fundamental laws and prohibitions which are written concisely and learned exegetically from a mere allusion in the pausk.

Rav Shach explained that deriving Torah laws from pesukim does not leave much room for error. The law is the law! When discussing behaviors and middos (character traits) however, one’s personal inclinations play a significant role, and there is much greater proclivity for misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

For example, if the Torah would be more concise in its account of Miriam’s loshon hara, one could argue that the severity of her sin was because she spoke negatively against the supreme Torah authority. That interpretation would negate the Torah’s intention of demonstrating to us the severity of any loshon hara. Similarly, if the Torah minced words about Korach’s rebellion, one could argue that its severity was because he challenged the great Moshe Rabbeinu, and thus fail to realize the Torah’s message about the detriment of any dispute.

As a general rule, the Torah is far more explicit and detailed when it discusses the ramifications of negative middos than it is about its vital laws. That is because we fail to realize how damaging negative character traits are, and how much we have to invest in order to rectify them.

In parshas Vayetzei[3] the Torah relates that Reuven picked dudaim[4] for his mother Leah. Rashi comments that the Torah states that this event happened during the time of the harvest, a time of year when farmers generally don’t mind if a passerby snatches a few stalks. Yet Reuven was careful to avoid any possibility of stealing, by exerting himself to find dudaim that were ownerless.

Why is it considered so virtuous that Reuven didn’t steal; wouldn’t we expect nothing less from someone of Reuven’s moral caliber?

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt’l explained that the Torah is not praising the fact that Reuven did not steal. Rather, the Torah is noting that Reuven recognized that despite how great he was, he still had to be wary of his proclivity towards sin. Reuven’s greatness was that, despite his personal integrity, or perhaps because of it, he was vigilant not to fall under the influence of his wily evil inclination.

The Torah is teaching us that every person has to constantly work on himself and can never feel that he is above sin. In the words of Shlomo Hamelech[5], “And who can say my heart is meritorious; I have purified myself from my iniquities?”

Every soul is created and sent to this world imperfect. It is incumbent upon us to strive for perfection and dedicate our lives to capitalizing on our strengths and seeking to rectify and channel our deficiencies.

The greatest parents and educators are able to recognize the magnificent sculpture that resides within the souls of their children and students. Then they invest their efforts to guide their children to bring out their innate greatness by chiseling away at their imperfections. However, even more important is for us to be able to recognize the greatness that resides within ourselves and to believe in our own virtues.

The converse is sadly also true. Those who only see their flaws and deficiencies see only internal ugliness. They therefore spend their lives trying to mask their essence, further obscuring them from appreciating themselves for who they are.

The truth is that Michelangelo is not the originator of the idea of chiseling out greatness by revealing the already present internal greatness. When Hashem instructed Moshe about the formation of the Menorah, He commanded Moshe to make the Menorah “miksha” – hammered out from one piece of gold[6].

The Torah commands two other vessels to be made “miksha” chiseled out of one chunk of its material – the trumpets used to summon the nation[7], and the keruvim which were placed above the Aron[8]. The gemara relates that the keruvim had the faces of children[9]. The symbolism of these vessels needing to be created “miksha” is poignant: For a leader to unite his charges, and for an educator to build up his children, he needs to know the secret of “miksha”, i.e. how to hammer out the excesses in order to reveal latent internal greatness.

This week I went to be menachem avel our wonderful summer neighbor, Rabbi Hersh Kasirer who was sitting shiva for his late father, Reb Moshe Kasirer z’l - a legendary mechanech in Queens, NY.

Rabbi Kasirer recounted that his father survived the Nazi camps and was in the Displaced Persons camps when the war ended. There he was heavily influenced by Rav Gershon Libman[10], who was hismelf a student and adherent of the Narvadok Yeshiva.

The approach of Narvadok was unique, stressing the total negation of ego and the physical world. Through those efforts one strove to achieve complete and total focus on his soul and intellect side.

It is well-known that talmidim of Novardok participated in deliberately embarrassing behavior, such as wearing old patched clothing, or going to a shop and asking for a product not sold there, such as screws in a bakery. The common understanding is that this was done to bring out feelings of lowliness in order to negate any feelings of conceit and hubris.

Rabbi Kasirer related that the common conception must be a misnomer. His father and his friends had just survived Nazi brutality and utter degradation. What more ‘shattering of the ego” could be necessary in a DP camp?

Rather it seems that the purpose of these exercises was to promote the opposite feeling. It was to inculcate within the students emotional freedom from the shackles of public approval. They discovered that fear of embarrassment is a terrible hindrance towards the development of one’s true inner self. By training themselves to be laughed at by others, they strengthened their resolve to follow their conscience and to pursue what they knew was correct, completely ignoring what others said or did.[11] This was in fact part of what gave his father the resolve to forge on; the feeling that nothing the Nazis could say or do could have any effect on the greatness within himself.

Every person is created with greatness. It’s our job to unearth that greatness and utilize it for the benefit of others.

“Miriam and Aharon spoke about Moshe…”

“ To tell you the praise of the shevotim…”

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[1] Bamidbar 12:1

[2] Meirosh Amanah

[3] Bereishis 30:14

[4] A certain type of flower known to help a woman be more fertile

[5] Mishlei 20:9

[6] Bamidbar 8:4

[7] Also in Parshas Beha’aloscha – Bamidbar 10:2

[8] Shemos 25:18; the “Voice of G-d” resounded from between the two Keruvim, as stated in the last pasuk of Parshas Naso (Bamidbar 7:89)

[9] Chagiga 13b

[10] author of Degel Hamussar

[11] I have heard this same explanation of the Norvadok approach more than once.

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