Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Be Like Moshe...

I recently found a shiur from my teacher and mentor, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter on the YUTorah website. Apparently, they've been adding old materials from the tape library to the site, and recently included this gem which I downloaded and listened to with interest. (Although the title on the YU site says that the shiur is about R' Yaakov Emden, it's really a much larger talk called Facing the Truth of History, connected to his long article in the Torah U'Madda Journal. Also highly recommended.)

Gedolim biographies have legitimately taken a lot of abuse over the years. In this Jewish Action article from 2002, Rabbi Emanuel Feldman describes many of the criticisms levels against these popular books including the habit of cleansing a gadol of weaknesses, shortcomings and deficiencies. Authors write not about who a particular sage really was, but how they think he should be portrayed today. They gloss over or ignore shortcomings, or even mundane pieces of interest that conflict with the larger message of their books.
Among the many problems associated with these kinds of efforts, when an author cleanses the life of a gadol, writing not what the man actually did in his life but what we want him to have done, he robs the reader of any aspiration to emulate that great sage. How can anyone - no matter how pious, studious and passionate, possibly compare with a person who lived apparently without shortcoming - someone who never fought with his wife; never entertained feelings of doubt; never spoke an angry or negative word?
In a word - he can't. No one is perfect, not even a gadol. Moreover, his greatness often lay precisely in his ability to overcome those shortcomings. Without appreciating a gadol's greatness, how can any normal person aspire to grow to such heights?
With these thoughts percolating in my mind, I came across a fascinating commentary of R' Ya'akov ibn Habib in his work, Ein Ya'akov.
The gemara in Berachot (33b) discusses the notion of Yirat Shamayim - "fear of heaven."
ואמר רבי חנינא: הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים, שנאמר: "ועתה ישראל, מה ה' שואל מעמך כי אם ליראה". אטו יראת שמים מלתא זוטרתא היא? והא"ר חנינא משום ר' שמעון בר יוחאי: אין לו להקב"ה בבית גנזיו אלא אוצר של יראת שמים, שנאמר" "יראת ה' היא אוצרו"? אין -- לגבי משה מילתא זוטרתא היא, דאמר ר' חנינא: משל לאדם שמבקשים ממנו כלי גדול. ויש לו, דומה עליו ככלי קטן. כלי קטן ואין לו - דומה עליו ככלי גדול.
Said Rabbi Chanina: Everything lies in the hands of heaven except for the fear of heaven, as it is written, "and now, O' Israel, what does God ask from you other than fear?" Yet, is fear of heaven a small (minor) thing? Did not Rabbi Chanina say in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: The only thing the Holy One blessed be He has in his treasury is a storehouse of "fear of heaven" - as it is written, "Fear of God - this is His store"? Yes, regarding Moshe it is a small matter. As Rabbi Chanina stated: it can be compared to a man from who they ask for a large vessel: if he has it, it seems small to him. [If they ask him for] a small vessel and he doesn't have it, it seems to him like a large vessel.

At face value, the Gemara raises a difficult and challenging issue. Moshe asks us simply: "What's the big deal? All you have to do is fear God? Is that asking too much?" To this the gemara answers, "Actually, it is. It was easy for Moshe, who had plenty of "fear of heaven," but for the rest of us, it's like asking us for a small pot when we have nothing at all. It's a really big deal.
The gemara itself is at least a little problematic, leaving us with the impression that Moshe gave us advice from his ivory tower, with little knowledge or understanding of how "the rest of us" really live. "Is it really that big of a deal?" he asks us, "to have fear of God"?
"Actually", we tell him, "It is. But you wouldn't understand."
That doesn't really paint Moshe in the most positive light in terms of his leadership of the people. He seems aloof and distant, unable to appreciate the simple struggles of most normal people.
Rabbi Ya'akov ibn Habib, in his commentary called הכותב in the Ein Ya'akov, resolves this seeming difficulty by explaining the piece in a very straightforward manner.
ועל דרך הפשט ראוי ליישב לשון המאמר ולא ישאר בקושיא, כי כיון שהכיר משה בעצמו דמלתא זוטרתא היא, א"כ יכול היה לומר להם "שאלה קטנה אני שואל מכם, כי הלא מחומר קורצתי גם אני", כי להיותו ילוד אשה ג"כ היתה היראה דבר קשה עליו בתחילה, ואחר כך גבר שכלו על הכוחות גופניות והכניעם עד שנשארת היראה חקוקה בלבו, והתמדתה היא מילתא זוטרתא אצלו, שגם ישראל יוכלו לעשות כן. כי אם יגבר החומר עליהם, יכניעהו וישפילהו הכח השכלי. ולכן שתק המקשה בשמעו זה התירוץ להיות מספיק לבטל קושיתו מצד מאמר רשב"י "אין להקב"ה בבית גנזיו וכו'" שהאמת אתו, שהיראה היא אוצר חביב לפניו יתברך. ועכ"ז הוא דבר קל ואפשר קרוב לישרים בלבותם להגיע אליה ולהיות ירא ה' כמשה. א"כ, ענוה גדולה היתה למשה בזה שהיה אומר להם "ועתה ישראל למה לא תהיו כמוני? כי הנה כולכם בני ישראל ואברהם ויצחק, והרשות נתונה לכם להיות שוים אלי בדבר זה, כי גם אני אחיכם."
And in the manner of simple understanding, it is worthy to explain the language of this section, and it will not remain in question. Since Moshe recognized in himself that this indeed was a small matter, therefore he was able to say to [the people]: "I ask from you a small request - for I am also made of physical matter." For, since he was born of a woman, fear [of heaven] was also a difficult matter for him at first. Only afterwards, his intellect overcame his physical desires and subjugated them until the fear [of heaven] remained hewn into his heart. Moreover, persistence was a minor matter to him, that [members of] Israel could also do. For if physicality would overcome them, they could lower and subjugate that [inclination] with the power of the intellect.
For this reason, the questioner was silent when he heard this sufficient answer to negate his question with regard to the saying of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, "God only has in his storehouse..." For the truth is with him, that fear [of heaven] is a beloved stored [matter] before Him. Nonetheless, it is an easy thing, and quite possible for those who are straight in their hearts to achieve, and to fear God like Moshe. Therefore, it was a matter of great humility for Moshe who said to [the people]: "And now O' Israel, why will you not be like me? For all of you are the Children of Israel and Avraham and Yitzchak, and the ability is given over to you to be equal to me in this matter - for I am also your brother."
Two amazing ideas emanate from Ein Ya'akov's comments:
1. According to him, anyone truly can achieve Moshe's level of yirat shamayim. If he could do it, so can we, because it's a matter of overcoming our physical inclinations and allowing our knowledge and intellect to help us make the proper choices in life.
2. Most surising to me is his formulation that, "since he was born of a woman, fear [of heaven] was also a difficult matter for him at first." While it seems logical and obvious, his comment is anything but. Moshe began life not as Moshe Rabbeinu, but with faults, struggles and difficulties. He too needed to overcome his yetzer hara - his evil inclination. One imagines that he too failed at times. He wasn't born perfect. No one is.
And still he grew to become the great teacher and leader of Israel that he did, despite - or perhaps because of those shortcomings.
And maybe, just maybe, so can we.