Rav Soloveitchik’s “A Yid iz Geglichn tzu a Seyfer Toyre”
BY: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
Translator’s Note: The following is a translation from the Yiddish of the sixth section of R. Soloveitchik’s yortzayt shi’ur entitled “A Yid iz Geglichn tzu a Seyfer Toyre” – “A Jew is Compared to a Torah Scroll.” (Previous sections appeared in prior issues of this paper.) Dr. Hillel Zeidman transcribed and published the shi’ur, with an introduction, in R. Elchanan Asher Adler (ed.), Beit Yosef Shaul, vol. 4 (New York: Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, 1994), pp. 17-67. A Hebrew translation by R. Shalom Carmy appeared in the same volume (pp. 68-103).
The present translation – the first rendition of this shi’ur into English – was prepared by Shaul Seidler-Feller, utilizing Dr. Zeidman’s original Yiddish transcription and R. Carmy’s helpful Hebrew equivalent. Thanks go to R. Elchanan Adler and R. Jacob J. Schacter for their assistance in refining and editing this work.
Generally, the Master of the Universe requires of us, small people, only modesty – a little control and self-discipline in eating and drinking, in sexual life, and so on. From the leaders of the nation, however, the Master of the Universe strongly demanded [that] the processing (ibbud) of the hide on the flesh side [be] of the highest level.
We all know of Avraham’s “And he bound,” but we are completely unaware of the fact that Moshe also went through a binding. Moshe’s binding was, perhaps, more terrifying and heroic than Avraham’s. When Avraham brought Yitshak as a sacrifice, the angel ultimately called out, “Do not send your hand against the lad and do nothing to him,” and the two of them turned back from Har ha-Moriyyah with great joy. Such a kindness did not happen to Moshe, [though]. The Master of the Universe demanded and then took his sacrifice. Why? [He did so] because with regard to the Master of All Prophets [Moshe], the Master of the Universe required ibbud of the hide on the flesh side on such a scale as He had not required of any other person.
On the verse[s], “God called out to him from the bush and said, ‘Moshe, Moshe,’ and he responded, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Remove your shoes from your feet because the place upon which you stand is holy ground,’” the Midrash quotes a striking conversation which took place at that point between the Master of the Universe and Moshe:
“He [Moshe] said, ‘Here I am, ready for priesthood and for kingship.’ Moshe wanted priests and kings to descend from him. But the Holy One Who is Blessed told him, ‘Do not approach here [halom],’ in other words, ‘You will not have any children who will offer sacrifices as priests, since the priesthood is already prepared for your brother, Aharon.’ ‘Halom‘ [also] means ‘kingship.’ The Holy One Who is Blessed told him, ‘The kingship is already set aside for David.’ Nevertheless, Moshe merited both of them: priesthood, since he served [in the Mishkan] during the Seven Days of Initiation, [and] kingship, as it says, ‘He [Moshe] was a king over Yeshurun.’”,
Let us properly understand the Midrash.
Moshe requested of the Master of the Universe two things: first, priesthood and kingship for himself; second, priesthood and kingship for his descendants. God fulfilled the first request and bestowed upon him both the Crown of Priesthood and the Crown of Kingship, as the Midrash says: “Nevertheless, Moshe merited both of them.” [However,] God turned down the second request, that the priesthood and kingship pass by way of inheritance to his descendants: “You yourself, Moshe, can have anything you want, [but] you will not be able to pass those gifts on to your children. Do not approach here! You will not establish any dynasties – neither a dynasty of priesthood, nor a dynasty of kingship.”
Let us, nonetheless, ask a simple question: Was Moshe only incapable of transferring to his children the priesthood and kingship, or could he not bestow upon them anything which he possessed? Did Moshe as a father leave behind children upon whom he had lain his hands and said with pride, “These will continue my work; these will carry on the Masorah, forge the Chain of Tradition; these will take my place and become leaders of the community,” like Ya’akov said: “And Ya’akov commanded his children”? No! Not only was the right of passing on the priesthood and kingship to his sons denied him, but even the simple privilege of a normal father to leave an ethical will (tsavva’ah), to die on a bed surrounded by his children, was taken away from him.
Moshe died lonely and alone on Har ha-Avarim, and before his death he did not lay his hands upon Gershom’s or Eliezer’s head but instead on Yehoshua bin Nun’s. His splendor was made to emanate [ne'etsal] onto a foreigner, Yehoshua, and not onto his offspring.
Moshe’s fate was [actually] even more tragic, [though]. The sons of Moshe are not even recorded in the Jewish Book of Genealogy [Sefer ha-Yohasin]. Moshe counted the Jews twice and also calculated [the number of members in] his tribe, the Children of Levi, [yet] no one dwells upon the silent tragedy which envelops the verses that tell of the calculation of the Children of Levi. The Torah begins: “These are the descendants of Aharon and Moshe on the day Hashem spoke to Moshe on Har Sinai.” At first glance, the Torah should, obviously, [continue on to] mention both Moshe’s descendants, his children, and Aharon’s descendants, his children. However, the verses go on to forget Moshe completely and concentrate on Aharon: “And these are the names of the children of Aharon: the firstborn Nadav, and Avihu, Elazar, and Itamar”! Where are the children of Moshe? The Torah is silent. Where are the descendants of Moshe? The Torah does not mention them. Moshe did not merit the normal pleasure to which every human being has a right: to see himself reborn in his child[ren], to live again through [them]. [He did not merit] the great joy of being able to feel that not everything withers away with death, even in this world – that something, his offspring, would remain.
Moshe had two sons; he certainly loved them, exactly as Avraham had loved Yitshak. The Creator of the World commanded him to give them away, to sacrifice them on the altar, but no angel cried out to Moshe: “Do not send your hand against the lads and do nothing to them.” The slaughtering knife mercilessly severed the bond between Moshe and Gershom and Eliezer. Instead of “Gershom ben Moshe,” Tanakh uses a new form [in referring to him], “Gershom ben Menasheh.”
The feeling soul (nefesh ha-margishah) on Moshe’s flesh side had to undergo an ibbud-process with respect to the most elevated and best part of human existence – continuity through one’s children.
Why? Because the one who accepted the Torah, the Teacher of Kelal Yisrael, could not be bound to one family [alone]. He is the father of all of Israel; all Jews must have an equal share in him. No one person may relate to him more than the next. Moshe’s Torah scroll must be transmitted as an inheritance to everyone uniformly [so that] no one person may say that he is Moshe’s heir. Not only is the Torah treated like a wilderness, ownerless for everyone [to claim for himself], as Hazal interpreted [based] on the verse “And from a wilderness, a gift,” but so is the one who accepted the Torah treated like a wilderness, as everyone’s possession.
“Do not approach here” – Moshe, the pleasure of children is not for you. “Remove your shoes from your feet” – dispense with your private interests, your personal human necessities. “Because the place upon which you stand is holy ground” – for your place in Jewish history is full of pure sanctity. Perforce, you should not constrict yourself to the private domain of family life.
The highest aspiration of the Men of Flesh (Benei Basar) – the loveliest [form of] pleasure seeking, [namely] being happy through one’s children – Moshe sacrificed. “Do not approach here…”
The Generation of the Flood and the Generation of the Dispersion
The ibbud of the hide on the hair side, the kelaf, is meant to mend another sin, callousness (rish’ut). This sin is symbolically represented by the Generation of the Dispersion. While the Benei Basar possess a spark of the Generation of the Flood, the Wicked of the World (Rish’ei Arets) have within them a glimmer of the Generation of the Dispersion.
Of what does the sin of the Rish’ei Arets consist? Of giving in to the voice of hot blood [and granting one's body] the desires of the flesh, the raw cravings of the brazen animal within human beings? No! Who are the Rish’ei Arets? How did the Generation of the Dispersion sin? Through pleasures, promiscuity, drunkenness, and self-gratification? No! The Rish’ei Arets of the Generation of the Dispersion were the exact opposites of the Benei Basar of the Generation of the Flood, who were guided by the slogan “Whomsoever they chose.” In the Generation of the Dispersion, people controlled themselves with an iron discipline, an inflexible order. The Generation of the Flood had no ideology; all it sought was to enjoy life in the spirit of “Eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” The Generation of the Dispersion, [however,] did have an idolatrous ideology, an atheistic, brazen deity: “They said, ‘Come, let us build a city and a tower with its head in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered over the face of the earth.” We must alter the world order; we must institute a new social system. We must control the cosmos and annihilate the Kingdom of Heaven.
In order to bring this very ideology to fruition, they lorded over and enslaved everyone, commanding each person what to do and how to live, destroying families, shattering individual freedom, and rendering everyone worthless. “The entire earth was of one language and of one speech.” They assessed the worth of a man not by the measure of his spiritual esteem, but rather by the number of bricks he could carry up to the heights of the Tower. “The entire earth was of one language and of one speech.”
The Rish’ei Arets, the people of the Generation of the Dispersion, the Mao Tse-tungs, or the Khrushchevs – in contrast to the people of the Generation of the Flood – displayed, and still exhibit today [in 1959], a superhuman power of self-discipline in the ability to control the flesh. They can sacrifice everything if such is desired by their idolatry.
Their sin is not on the flesh side, but rather on the hair side. That which hair symbolizes, in the sense of “Behold, my brother Esav is a hirsute man,” is a lack of sensitivity – a deficiency of compassion towards one’s fellow, [as well as] cruelty and emotional numbness. Their hands, their hearts, and their consciences were overgrown with long, barbed hair, and they themselves were transformed into insensitive, rigid creatures who had no empathy for the weak, nor any love for the poor. Basic sensitivity, clemency, kindness, and gentility were foreign to them. In order to place a couple of bricks onto that ridiculous tower, they could sacrifice thousands of people, their happiness, and their freedom. The Midrash reports: “When a brick would fall and break, all of them would cry over it; when a person would fall and die, no one would look around for him.”
The sin of the Rish’ei Arets is committed by the nefesh ha-margishah when it is wrapped in its own hair and ceases to feel the hair of the next person; when kindness disappears from the world; and when the individual thinks only of himself or of an idolatry which he serves. The Benei Basar sin mostly against God (bein adam la-Makom), [while] the Rish’ei Arets commit interpersonal sins (bein adam la-havero).
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), z”l, was Rosh HaYeshiva at YU/RIETS, was active in the Boston Jewish community, and is widely recognized as one of the leading Jewish thinkers of the 20th century.
Shaul Seidler-Feller is a senior at YC majoring in Jewish Studies and is an Editor-in-Chief for Kol Hamevaser.