Beit Midrash

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Wanted - Both Types of Ethics


Rabbi Mordechai Greenberg

Sivan 5 5783

It was at the historic Stand at Mt. Sinai that we were first informed that, via our acceptance and receiving of the Torah, we were destined to become a "treasured nation," G-d's am segulah. This message is a central part of our festival prayers: "Atah v'chartanu, You chose us from among all the nations… and raised us up from among all the tongues."

Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, of saintly blessed memory, explained the two different ways of our selection that appear in this prayer. The first is that we were chosen from among the simple, primitive peoples, in that G-d guided us to detach and remove ourselves from their vanities and abominations, and to be honest, upright people.

The second way is that we were raised above even the more "cultured" nations – for we were destined to be not only not primitive, but Divine! We are to be a segulah, a special treasure among the nations, raised above the "tongues" – for the tongue is a symbol of speech, of language, of culture. The Jewish Nation has not only mortal human perfection, but also Divine supremacy. So explains the Sforno the concept of "My oldest son Israel" (Sh'mot 4,22): Even when all the nations call upon G-d with one language (see Tzephania 3), and are all G- d's children, still the birthright belongs to Israel – and there is only one first-born.

The 20 th -century sage Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik wrote this idea in his explanation of Moshe Rabbeinu's defense of Israel after the Sin of the Golden Calf. The rabbis taught that Moshe said to G-d: "It is because of the great amounts of silver and gold that they sinned with the Golden Calf. It is like a father who bathed and anointed his son, fed him, hung a purse full of coins around his neck, and brought him to the entrance of a house of prostitution – what hope can there be that the son will not sin?"

Rav Soloveitchik asked: "What kind of father would ever do such a thing to his son?!" And he answered: "G-d sent Israel into exile specifically among the more cultured nations, such as [in this case] Egypt, as well as Rome, Persia, and the like, in order to teach them that even the cultured nations are not humane – and this will teach them the value of our Torah."

Rav Soloveitchik made a similar point when explaining the verse about Moshe's confrontation with a wicked Egyptian man: "He saw an Egyptian man striking one of his [Moshe's] Jewish brethren, and he turned back and forth, and he saw that there was no man, and he smote the Egyptian and buried him in the sand." The Rav asks: "Why does the verse begin with 'Egyptian man' and end just with 'the Egyptian'? Answer: The verse is teaching that he saw an Egyptian 'man,' a cultured individual acting like an animal. He then turned hither and thither and saw that there was 'no man,' that this so-called cultured person had no humanity to him, and so he struck the 'Egyptian' – no longer called a 'man.'"

We now turn to the 19 th -century rabbi and commentator known as the Malbim. He explained the words of Avraham Avinu to King Avimelech in a manner that mystifies us as to how he wrote this before the Holocaust. Avraham said to the king that he was unable to tell him earlier that Sarah was his wife, because, "I thought, there is no fear of G-d in this place and they will kill me on her account." The Malbim writes: "Avraham told him that even if we see a great philosopher of a person or nation, governed by proper man- made laws, of good character as accepted by society, and who acts justly with others – we can still not trust this person or nation not to behave abominably. For when lust arouses him to sin with a beautiful woman or with his neighbor's property, when no one sees, his lust will overcome his mind and intellect, and he will even murder and commit adultery and other sins… The mind and intellectual insights alone cannot withstand the power of lust."

Rav Kook wrote a similar idea in his work Mussar HaKodesh, as follows: "Secular ethics are not deep-rooted, and do not enter the inner places of the soul. And even if a person is drawn by this man-made morality to do good because he recognizes its basic and logical goodness, still, those teachings are not sufficiently well-rooted to withstand the stormy attack of various lusts when they rise up against him. And certainly such a weak ethical system does not have the power… to penetrate the depths of the soul and to turn a heart of stone into one of flesh. There is no other way: we must be guided by the Divine ethic, and not by man-made ethics."

But this cannot be taken to the extreme. If one's ethical character is founded solely upon fear of G-d, and lacks the natural, human foundation, this is no less of a problem. The Torah does not take the place of our natural, instinctive sense of ethics, of what is right and wrong. Rather, the Torah comes to build atop it a more uplifted ethical world. And when this natural ethic is lacking, the foundation is missing – and the entire structure is liable to come crumbling down. The Sages teach that "derekh eretz [respectful and humane behavior] precedes Torah."

This is straightforward – but I heard several times from Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook that this teaching applies not only to the way in which we must learn to conduct ourselves, but also to the very structure of the Torah. That is, the entire Book of B'reshit and the first portions of Sh'mot purposely precede the account of the Giving of the Torah – because first we must learn the behavior of the Patriarchs, and then we can learn of the giving of the Torah. This is the proper Divine order.

"Always be a person of fear of G-d," the Sages teach – meaning, first be a person, and then have fear of G-d.

The Talmud (Tr. Sotah 21b) also discusses a "foolish pious man" and provides an example: "a man who sees a woman drowning in the river and refuses to save her, saying, 'It is not proper for me to see her so immodestly dressed and to save her.'"

It is also taught there that there are "false righteous" who injure themselves by acting as if they are closing their eyes, ostensibly not to see immodestly dressed women – and then walk into a wall.

Most especially must Torah scholars conduct themselves properly and with derekh eretz, so that people will appreciate and extol the greatness of those who study Torah. A Torah scholar who behaves in the opposite way thus desecrates the Name of G-d; the renowned Rashash explains that this is actually the worst type of desecration of G-d's Name, because people will say that it is their Torah study that brought them to behave so disgracefully – thus desecrating also the honor of Torah.

translated by Hillel Fendel
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