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"Your Tribal Heads, Your Elders"

Harav Yehuda Amital

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion




"Your Tribal Heads, Your Elders…"

Adapted by Dov Karoll


You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God: your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel. Your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water-drawer. To enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is establishing with you this day…. (Devarim 29:9-10)

Rashi (s.v. zikneikhem) states that the Torah intentionally lists the more important people first, before moving on to the rest of Israel. But shouldn't we be calling the whole nation together as one, with unity? Apparently, even when everyone is called together, those who have greater status bear a greater responsibility. More is expected of the leaders than is expected of the simple Jew. Similarly, more is expected of a person who has studied Torah than of someone who has not.

The Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chayim 565:6) rules that you are not allowed to publicize that you have fasted, for this is unwarranted bragging about your religiosity, and one who does so will be punished. The Be'er Ha-gola (565:30) cites the Yerushalmi (Chagiga 2:2, 11a) [quoted by the Tashbetz 105] as the source for this ruling.

The Yerushalmi tells a story of two chasidim, righteous people. One of these chasidim died, and few people attended his funeral. A short time later, the son of the tax collector died, and the whole city attended that funeral. The surviving chasid was bothered by this phenomenon. The chasid who had passed away appeared to his friend in a dream, informing him that this discrepancy was really justified, for he was punished for a wrongdoing, and the son of the tax collector was being rewarded for a good deed.

What were these deeds? The chasid had once reversed the order of putting on the tefillin, placing the shel rosh, head tefillin, before the tefillin shel yad, hand tefillin. And the son of the tax collector, even though he did not observe mitzvot, once did something good. What was it? There are two versions. The first is that once he made a large feast; when his guests did not turn up, he gave the food to the poor, rather than throw it out. Alternatively, once he dropped a loaf of bread and a poor person picked it up, and he let the person keep it.

A few days later, the chasid who had passed away appeared again in his friend's dream. In the dream, the chasid beheld a woman, "Miriam the daughter of onion leaves," whose ear was on the border to Gehinnom, and was continually crushed by the opening and closing of the door to Gehinnom. What did she do to deserve such a punishment? She used to fast and tell people about it. Alternatively, she used to fast for one day and tell people she had fasted for two.

How long would she be there? She would remain on the border of Gehinnom until the passing of Shimon ben Shetach (the Nasi, head of the High Rabbinic Court); when he died, he would take her place. What did R. Shimon do to deserve such a punishment? He promised that if he were to become the Nasi, he would get rid of the cave of witches from Ashkelon, and he did not do so.

The chasid who passed away then charged the chasid still alive with informing Shimon ben Shetach of this ominous punishment that awaits him if he does not act on his promise. The chasid did not want to challenge the Nasi, but he was told that he must do it, and he was given a sign to perform if the Nasi did not accept it. So he went and told this to Shimon ben Shetach, who immediately accepted it. Shim'on ben Shetach recognized the man to be a chasid, because he had never told anyone that he intended to carry out that plan, but rather had only thought it in his heart. The Gemara concludes that Shim'on ben Shetach proceeded to deal with the problem.

What do we see in this Gemara? More is expected of a person who is of higher status. This we see both with regard to the first chasid in contrast to the son of the tax collector, as well as with regard to Shim'on ben Shetach.

But what else do we see? Why is the woman called Miriam the daughter of onions? Most fruits have a kelippa, a peel, under which you find the fruit. But with an onion, when you get past one peel, you have another peel, until you get all the way to the bottom. Similarly, a person who is interested in people knowing about his religiosity cares more about the impression he makes than about his actual depth of worship; he is more concerned about people seeing his religious acts than about actually performing them.

We must strive to focus on serving God, rather than focusing on how people will view us. Our goal must be religiosity without arrogance. Shim'on ben Shetach was judged for being proud internally, without telling anyone about it. Nonetheless, given his level, he was judged severely.

Once, when I was in America with my wife, I attended a sheva berakhot of the grandson of someone we know from Israel. Someone got up to speak about the other side of the family, and spoke very highly of them. My wife told me that I must say something nice about the family we know. So I got up and spoke about the grandfather, an old Chasid working in Tel Aviv, dressed in full Chasidic garb. He was a truly good person, but allowed himself to be treated like a "shmatteh." He did not demand any respect for himself. When I sat down, my wife told me I had failed at praising the family. For these people, praise would be saying that he was the president of an organization, or something that commands respect. To say that he thought of himself as a "shmatteh"? What kind of praise is that?

May we be merit to come before God without any arrogance, bringing ourselves before Him with the proper humility and rising to the demands upon us, and merit a ketiva va-chatima tova, lanu u-le-khol Yisrael.

[This sicha was delivered at se'uda shelishit, Parashiyot Nitzavim- Vayelekh, 5762 (2002).]


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