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Shabbos Shuva 5766 - The Importance of Dignity

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Oct 14, 2005

Shabbos Shuva 5766 Delivered at YI of Midwood 1) Over last few years spoken about various deep issues – בחירה חפשית, י"ג מידות etc. This year – somewhat different. Talk about the society around us, and a particular challenge that it poses. R’ Hutner cites מסורה from גר"א: Last כפירה will be כפירה in man. That is really today’s theme. 2) Each morning during this past month of Elul we have blown the שופר. The Tur explains that on שבועות Moshe had gone up to הר סני to receive the Torah, but 40 days later it had come to a tragic end when the Jews fell into the terrible trap of idol worship, when they fashioned the עגל הזהב. And then, after Moshe prayed and implored for 40 days, הקב"ה told him to once again ascend הר סני to receive the second לוחות. And so on ראש חודש אלול Moshe again went up to הר סני, where he spent forty days, culminating on יום כיפור On that ראש חודש אלול, as Moshe went up the mountain - "the sound of the shofar was sounded in the encampment so that they would not once again err after idol worship." 3) שופר ßà ע"ז. Somehow שופר represent opposite of ע"ז. Explore that - Furthermore: Nothing in אידישקייט is simply commemorative. If we continue to blow שופר each אלול it must be that we also need the שופר to sound and warn us against ע"ז Now let us understand that. After all, I don’t many of us have graven images stashed away in our attic; or have any plans to open a שטיבעל in which idols will be prayed to. So why should we continue to blow שופר as a warning against falling into the error of ע"ז? 4) So much of energy of אידישקייט was addressed to opposing ע"ז. Many, many מצוות, exhortations of משה רבינו and נביאים – Hard for us to realize – universal human condition. What was the appeal of ע"ז? Rambam – בימי דור אנוש. Rambam was a philosopher – gives us philosophy of ע"ז. But such a universal phenomenon – every human culture until אידישקייט – is not just a philosophy. What is the psychology of ע"ז? What was its psychological appeal? 5) Human beings are unique in the capacity to create. R’ Chaim Volozhin – צלם אלקים means that only man is a creator. And while R’ Chaim talks about spiritual creation – it is also true that man has a unique ability to make things that have a power and beauty and life of their own. And that is really mysterious and amazing. Man is capable of great things; of great works of engineering; of sublime music; of brilliant invention; of profound literature; of beautiful art. Music is not born inside the musician; yet he creates it. Same with all human creativity. It is a kind of יש מאין. Part of the power of art – what makes it so powerful – is our perennial amazement at the fact that a human being can create something that is not simply utilitarian – not just a tool, but something that stands alone, separate from its creator, and demands our attention in its own right. Story of Pygmalion reflects that wonder at man’s ability to make something which lives outside of himself. 6) There is certainly wonder in man’s ability to create. ע"ז is born in that wonder – in the impulse to fall down in adoration of our own creations. But – there are two ingredients in ע"ז. One is the worship of man’s creation; and the other is his debasement of himself. When a person looks at what man has created – two possible reactions: a – Can see in it reflection of man’s greatness, ability to create, aspect of צלם אלקים – Or – disbelieve in himself, and come to conviction that somehow idol must have created itself, worked through me – Significance of expression: ויצא העגל הזה – created itself. 7) פוער עצמו לפעור. Debase oneself. That is the essential act of idolatry – to debase oneself in front of one’s מעשה ידים. So ע"ז has two moments – elevation of מעשה ידים, and debasement of self. 8) And therefore שופר is the opposite of ע"ז. Why? Spoke in the past – שופר represents ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים. חלל – dead body. Into – ויפח באפיו. Creates נפש חיה – רוח ממלא. Paralleled in שופר – חלל ריק, into which נשימה, creates קול. Symbolic of fact that man is created בצלם אלקים, that he is חלק אלוק ממעל. Imbues sense of man’s greatness, mirrors creator. And that is the opposite of ע"ז. ע"ז represents the ultimate debasement of man, who feels reduced by his creations. שופר is the recognition of the גדלות האדם, who carries within himself the נשמת חיים given him by the בורא עולם. 9) חידוש: We’re used to thinking that against idea of idolatry, אידישקייט posed idea of G-d. Only half of truth. Against ע"ז it also posed idea of man, created בצלם אלקים, and therefore master of the physical world around him, rather than its slave. The pagan world had no such belief. Both Aristotle and Plato held that most humans are by nature slavish and suitable only to be slaves. Most do not have natures worthy of freedom and proper to free men. Judaism gave the world the concept of human dignity – חביב אדם שנברא בצלם. Expressed in הלכה as כבוד הבריות. Idea that eventually affected West profoundly – that human beings are ends, not means; that each human life has value; that human beings have moral stature. 10) The 20th century was not kind to the idea of human dignity. From the point of view of modern history, of course, it seems absurd to say that human beings are uniquely valuable. In the twentieth century, more than a hundred million persons in Europe alone died by violence, often in a way they could not have foreseen even in their worst nightmares. In our century, history has been a butcher’s bench, and the words human dignity have often sounded empty. Then, too, there are the intellectual assaults that the nineteenth and twentieth century launched against the idea of man as צלם אלקים – Darwinism, Marxism, Fruedian psychology, behaviorism etc. Modern astronomy has reduced man’s place in the cosmos to an infinitesimal speck. 11) But there has been another assault on human dignity. Because for the first time, perhaps, since the overthrow of paganism – men are beginning to feel themselves smaller than their creations. As the technologies that underlie our modern existence become more and more powerful, more and more ubiquitous, and more and more incomprehensible – we, the very people who wield them, feel ourselves smaller and smaller. We are surrounded on all sides by powerful machines that we don’t understand. We live in cities whose complexity and size is beyond our comprehension. Our lives our filled with machines that allow us to do a million things which we know we could not do without them, but whose inner workings are a mystery to us. Modern man is totally dependent on machines at whose effects he marvels and whose workings are a complete mystery to himself. And all around him huge energies are being harnessed to tremendous, inscrutable ends. And the cumulative effect is to make him feel smaller and smaller. There is really an irony here. It might have been thought – all this power at our disposal – we can throw our voices half way around the world, span the ocean in hours, gather huge amounts of information off the ether in moments – would enhance כבוד הבריות – would create men who would be ותחסרהו מעט מאלקים והוד והדר תעטרהו. But if we look carefully at the culture around us, and the changes in the culture over the last century, we see just the opposite. Never have human beings felt so small, so unimportant, so lacking in moral stature, so dwarfed by their creations – as in the modern world. 12) We see that at every level of the culture – From the lowest level. Open a TV – the images that pour out. I’m not talking about פריצות – I’m talking about the view of human nature that is displayed. The wallowing in self-abasement, the self-parody, the total lack of anything remotely resembling moral decision making and moral stature. Look at the modes of dress. Once upon a time a self-respecting person would not walk out in the street unless he was dressed in a way that reflected his dignity. Today look at a crowd of people in the street – people walk around as if they were in their own bathroom. And that reflects a deep lack of self-respect that has seeped into every pore of the culture. And at the highest level of the culture: The dominant intellectual fashion: that moral decisions are meaningless, that free will is illusory, that the mind itself is mindless – that it is basically a software program running on the brain, no more conscious than a computer program, consciousness itself is a delusion. It seems amazing that anyone could adopt such a belief that flies in the face of our most intimate and constant experience – yet this is the dominant intellectual dogma today, and little by little it is filtering into society. Benjamin Franklin – advocated keeping diary of one’s moral growth, how did I do each way in various character traits. Can you even imagine someone doing that today? We can imagine someone trying to sell a computer program in which you keep a log of your moral development – a kind of Quicken for מידות? How absurd! Why? Because the whole idea of moral progress has been forgotten. To most people today it would be as absurd to monitor their moral progress as it would be to monitor the moral progress of their pet dog. And that represents a true loss in our societies conception of man. 13) And here we see before our eyes the Gaon’s prediction coming true: The last great כפירה is not in G-d, but in man. 14) And all of this affect us – and affects us deeply. Because this lack of belief in ourselves – in our importance before the רבש"ע – in our moral stature – this lack of belief that what we do – how we behave – our virtues and our sins – is important – of supreme importance – has seeped into our bones, and corrodes our own religiosity. I don’t need to tell you that our youth have a very hard time today. And without doubt they face נסיונות that we never faced – a far more hedonistic culture, the poison of the internet and so on. But perhaps a more insidious danger – which affects our youth and our adults and ourselves – is the lack of belief in our own importance. An erosion of the belief that one’s moral שיעור קומה matters. R’ Chaim Volozhin begins his נפש החיים – his handbook of how a Jew should live his life – with a disquisition on the meaning of man’s being created בצלם אלקים, in which he elaborates on the cosmic significance of every single act that a person does. Every word he speaks, every movement, every מצוה and every עבירה, have cosmic importance. R’ Chaim makes that his point of departure, because only if a person believes in his own importance, in the significance of everything that he does – only if he believe deeply that the choices that he makes, the מצוות that he does, the Torah that he learns – are important the רבש"ע – can he begin to live a life of עבודת השם. One of the giants of Mussar was the Alter of Slobodka. He put tremendous emphasis on this point – that no spiritual growth is possible unless a person believes in his own significance. He insisted that his תלמידים deport themselves with the dignity that befits a צלם אלקים, a Jew, and a בן תורה. The stories about his insistence on this are legion. For example – a new בחור once unbuttoned his shirt in order to take out his ציצית to kiss them during ק"ש. The Alter reprimanded him – “We don’t do that here; it’s not nice to unbutton your shirt in public”. Another תלמיד walked with a stoop; the Alter told him to put on pince-nez, which would force him to walk upright so his glasses wouldn’t fall off. I remember when I was a ישיבה בחור my ראש ישיבה, R’ Shneur Kotler, used to tell us in the name of his grandfather ראז"מ that every בחור should have a notebook in which he would record his thoughts on the גמרא – not that they would necessarily be so earth-shattering, but because it inculcates the habit of mind that my thoughts matter – and that is the first step, and the necessary step, towards intellectual growth. It’s hard to strive for advancement in Torah if we don’t think our Torah matters. It’s hard to strive for תפילה בכונה, if we don’t think that we’re important enough for the רבש"ע to care about our תפילה. It’s hard to make sacrifices for עהרליכקייט, if we don’t think our integrity a prize beyond price – if we don’t think that “he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him, And makes me poor indeed”. 15) The whole idea of זכרונות – להפקד כל רוח ונפש – is the radical idea that each individual is important enough to have the רבש"ע’s undivided attention. 16) Here, I would suggest, is an agenda for us. Let us try and recover this central and radical belief in our own significance. I don’t want to be misunderstood. I’m not talking about self-confidence; that is the confidence in my own skill and prowess. I’m talking about something else – about belief in my own significance as a moral being, the belief that my learning and my davening and my mitzvos, my honesty and integrity, my character – have some transcendent importance, that they matter to the רבש"ע. We have to take ourselves seriously – because only then can we take our תפילה, our תורה, our integrity – the entirety of our אידישקייט – seriously; because the רבש"ע takes them seriously. Let us ask ourselves: When we come to shul to daven, do we believe that our davening matters? If we would, then the davening would be much more meaningful to us. My grandmother every week would tell us insights that she thought of in the words of the סידור while davening. Do we even know what the words are? Talking in shul – part of problem – we have trouble imagining that He’s listening. We know our neighbor is listening. It is a failure of visualization. When we sit down to learn – do we take our own learning seriously? I mentioned R’ Shnuer – notebook. Not only for yeshiva bochurim. If you have a question, a thought – on Gemara, on Siddur, on Chumash – something you heard and want to remember – write it down. I used to work with manuscripts. Had a large collection of notebooks written by בעלי בתים, in which they would write down ווערטלעך they had heard, or thought of on their own. They weren’t necessarily great scholars; what they wrote down were ווערטלעך that caught their fancy, questions that they had on the גמרא or on the חומש, and so on. What a beautiful practice! And what a sense of confidence in the significance of one’s own learning that represents. I mentioned earlier the Alter of Slobodka. A typical שמועס – how exalted world is, since He took “trouble” to create it. And crown of creation – man. Among men, the עם הנבחר are כלל ישראל. And among them, those who study Torah are the elite. And even in that circle, Slobodka – where Torah is combined with מוסר and the study of man – is the highest point of development. So each תלמיד must weigh his every action, to make sure he behaves in a way that suits his exalted position. אף אנו נאמר – הקב"ה created a magnificent world, and man is the purpose of creation. And among men כלל ישראל are the עם הנבחר. And among כלל ישראל those who carry the flag of Orthodoxy, who are true to תורה and אידישקייט, are the elite. And within Orthodoxy, the Brooklyn community – with its many yeshivos, with its thousands of shuls, with its myriad shiurim and chesed organizations, occupies a special place. And within Brooklyn, our own shul – with its broad spectrum of מתפללים, with its wide array of שיעורים, with its tolerance and its camaraderie, has a special חביבות. Let us therefore weigh our every action, our every תפילה, our תורה commitments, our חסד with each other, in such a way that they will not disgrace us – and that we will indeed all of us merit to be written and sealed בספר החיים, together with all of כלל ישראל.


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