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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Shoftim 5776 "Right or Left"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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I have heard the following story related by Rabbi Mordechai Finkelman on a number of occasions[1]:

There was a fifty-year-old man whose health had been becoming progressively worse for a few years. His eyesight was blurred, and his hands and legs became less and less coordinated, causing him to lose his balance, even as he walked in the street. Finally, his doctor told him and his wife the grim prognosis: He had a debilitating disease and had only six months to live.

As can be imagined, they were extremely distraught. The wife called a young man whom she knew had a relationship with the previous Skolya Rebbe, Rabbi Dovid Yitzchok Isaac Rabinowitz zt’l, and asked him to please speak to the Rebbe on their behalf.

When the young man recounted to the rebbe what the doctor had said, the rebbe became very agitated. He exclaimed that on the Torah’s words[2] “He shall provide for healing” the gemara[3] expounds, “From here a doctor was granted permission to heal”[4]. “A doctor only has permission to try to heal someone. But who gave him permission to rule about death?”

The rebbe then asked the young man if the patient was an eved Hashem (servant of G-d)? The young man replied that the man went to shul to daven three times a day and had a fixed time to study Torah every day. “In that case”, replied the rebbe, “there is a verse in the Torah that applies to him. “You shall worship Hashem, your G-d, and He shall bless your bread and your water, and I shall remove illness from your midst”[5]. Tell the patient’s wife to prepare for him a piece of bread and a glass of tea. He should recite a blessing and eat them, and G-d will bless him with longevity.”

The wife did so, and within three days of eating the bread and the tea he began to feel better. With time he regained most of his eyesight and the use of his hands, although he never really regained the usage of his feet.

Rabbi Finkelman would conclude the story by saying, “I don’t know what happened to the doctor. But I know that the patient is still alive, and still going to shul each day and learning Torah.”

That is the way I had heard the story from Rabbi Finkelman on a number of occasions. At the end of the summer of 5771, Rabbi Finkelman’s father, Mr. Shmuel Finkelman, passed away. In his eulogy during the funeral, Rabbi Finkelman recounted the story and then added:

“I never related who the story was about for fear of causing an ayin hara (evil eye). But now I can say that the patient in the story was my father, and I was the one who went to the Skolya Rebbe at the request of my mother. My father lived 35 more years after the rebbe’s blessing.”[6]

May his memory be for a blessing.

Moshe Rabbeinu instructed the nation[7], “Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves.” Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein shlita[8] notes that to some degree every person naturally craves a sense of subjugation. It gives a person a certain measure of comfort and inner security to know that he can turn to, and has to answer to, a higher authority. It is also comforting for a person to have someone to guide and instruct him, so that he does not feel alone. Although we all crave independence and chafe excessive authority, too much freedom can lead to anarchy if not harnessed and controlled. When a person becomes completely lawless and ‘free’ he feels wild and unbridled.

This is a very poignant concept in education. Children resist authority constantly and struggle mightily against structure, chores, and rules. But deep down they feel loved when they are granted guidelines and limits. Conversely, children who are granted too much freedom and lack structure often become emotionally unstable and lack self confidence[9]. They begin to feel that they are uncontrollable, and they act accordingly.

Thus the obligation that one imposes judges and officers is not only for the sake of maintaining peace and judicial law. It is also so that one has mentors and teachers to whom he turns to for guidance and direction in life.

Our Torah leaders do not merely teach us the Torah’s laws and matters of policy. They direct us how to live our lives according to the dictates, and within the parameters of the Torah. They show us how to live within the spirit of the law, and not merely the letter of the law.

The Torah instructs us to adhere to the word of the sages even if we feel they have erred. “According to the teaching that they will teach you and according to the judgment that they will say to you, shall you do; you shall not deviate from the word that they will tell you, right or left.[10]” Sifrei expounds, “Even if they will tell you about the right that it is left, and the left that it is right (you must hearken to their instruction)”.

It is noteworthy that the Sifrei’s example – regarding right and left - is a matter of direction and perspective, for one person’s right is on the left of the person standing opposite him. On a deeper level, the Sifrei is teaching us that if our leaders tell us right is left, they are teaching us that we are viewing the matter backwards. We are seeing right and left inversely because we are viewing the matter from a falwed perspective.

If one were to enter the Mishkan[11] the Shulchan[12] would be on his right side while the Menorah[13] would be on his left. It seems incongruous that in the Holy Temple the vessel representing physical success was on the right side (symbolizing priority), while the vessel representing spiritual greatness was positioned on the left?

The Bais Halevi explained[14] that the vessels were only positioned in that manner when one entered the Mishkan. However, after one had walked through the Sanctuary and experienced the embrace of G-d’s Presence, as it were, when he subsequently turned to leave the Menorah was now on his right while the Shulchan was on his left. The experience of being in such proximity to holiness was sufficient to shift one’s perspective and priorities.

Iyov said[15], “When you speak a decree it shall be fulfilled for you; and a light will shine upon your path.” The gemara[16] explains, “The righteous one decrees it and the Holy One, blessed is He, fulfills it.” Countless stories demonstrate that at times G-d alters celestial decrees based on the blessings and prayers of the righteous.

In the center of every town in Europe there was a clock hanging from a tower. Most people would rationalize that the reason why the clock was so high up was so everyone could see it. Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner zt’l noted that there is an added reason why the clock was so positioned. If the clock was lower and more accessible, a passerby may notice that the clock was two minutes faster than his watch. So he would walk to the big levers behind the clock and simply move it two minutes ahead. A minute later another fellow would walk by and see that the clock was three minutes slower than his watch. So he too would reset the clock to match his watch. Throughout the day the time on the clock would constantly be changing, as every person ensured that the clock was set correctly according to his own watch.

But if the clock is high up and inaccessible, a passerby who notices that the time on the big clock does not match the time on his watch will have no choice but to change his watch to match the time on ‘the big clock’. Because of its position the big clock sets the standard, and not vice versa.

Rabbi Hutner explained that this is the perspective we must have of our leaders. A Torah leader is not a politician who alters his rulings and tailors his speeches to pander to the fancies of his constituents. He is not seeking votes or candidacy for office. A Torah leader’s sole interest must always be only to espouse the unadulterated truth. Therefore, his followers have to subjugate their views and opinions to his, and not vice versa. He is the proverbial clock that towers above all else and therefore everyone else lifts their gaze towards him.

Our leaders, like the Sanctuary itself, teach us how to shift our weltanschauung from society’s view to the vastly different perspective of the Torah. It is in their shadow, and according to their direction, that we live our lives.

“Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves”

“You shall not deviate right or left”

Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – ASHAR

Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor

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[1] Rabbi Finkelman is the Mashgiach at Yeshiva Ohr Hachaim in Queens, and a legendary educator. I am privileged to consider myself a talmid of Rabbi Finkelman from his many years at Camp Dora Golding.

[2] Shemos 21:20

[3] Berachos 60a

[4] From the fact that the Torah obligates one who inflicts a wound on another to pay his doctor bills, we see that a doctor is allowed to practice medicine. This is the source which permits (and obligates) one who is sick to go to a doctor.

[5] Shemos 23:25

[6] During the shiva, Rabbi Finkelman’s brother, Rabbi Shimon, related that after his father began feeling better their mother sent him back to the rebbe to tell him the good news (Rabbi Shimon was not yet married and was still living at home). The rebbe became very excited with the good news. He explained that people often come to him and relate the pain on their hearts. But very rarely do they return to tell him the good news. [I have heard this sentiment expressed in the name of other tzaddikim as well].

[7] 16:18

[8] Aleinu L’shabayach

[9] There is much empirical (and anecdotal) evidence to support this

[10] 17:11

[11] Technically speaking, as only the Kohain Gadol was permitted to enter the Sanctuary on specific occasions

[12] Table which contained the twelve Showbreads and represented the livelihood of the Jewish people

[13] Whose light represented the light of Torah

[14] Note that I heard this beautiful thought in the name of the Bais Halevi but was personally unable to find it in the sefer

[15] 22:28

[16] Kesubos 103b

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