Rav Soloveitchik’s “A Yid iz Geglichn tzu a Seyfer Toyre”

Translator’s Note: The following is a translation from the Yiddish of the seventh and final 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 version. Thanks go to R. Elchanan Adler and R. Jacob J. Schacter for their assistance in refining and editing this work.

Section VII

The hair side (tsad ha-se’ar) [of a person’s internal Torah parchment] must also be processed. One must remove the hair and sensitize the skin on the tsad ha-se’ar so that it can absorb the letters of the Torah – of “You shall surely open up your hand,”[i] of “Do not oppress any widow or orphan,”[ii] of “Be careful lest there be a thought in your base heart… and your eye be miserly towards your impoverished brother [and you not give to him],”[iii] of “Righteousness, righteousness shall you seek,”[iv] of “You shall love the stranger,”[v] etc.

This mending and this processing are also realized through “Avraham bound (himself) on the altar.”[vi] This time, [however,] a person must bind, not the “Man of Flesh” (Ben Basar) but rather the “Wicked Man of the World” (Resha Arets) within him, namely, his egoism and depravity, his cynicism and cruelty. The Halakhah maintains that just as a person can process the skin on the flesh side (tsad ha-basar) and restrain his corporeal desires – his appetite and sexual instinct – so is he capable of processing the skin on the tsad ha-se’ar and binding his wickedness (rish’ut). The hero who conquers his instincts[vii] overcomes both the cravings of the flesh and the desires of rish’ut.  My father [R. Moshe Soloveitchik], z”l, told me that when he became the rabbi of Raseyn[viii] and came to bid farewell to my grandfather [R. Hayyim Soloveitchik], z”l, he [R. Hayyim] said, “A rabbi must, like all Jews, give charity and do acts of kindness (hesed), not just when he is naturally a benevolent person but even when he is ill-natured. I myself, Moshe, was born with a hard, unsympathetic nature, but I broke it!…”

The “Avraham bound” relates to both aspects of the human personality, both on the tsad ha-basar and on the tsad ha-se’ar.

Tefillin, which remind us of the Exodus from Egypt, symbolize the antidote to the sin of the Generation of the Dispersion, [namely,] the merging of the individual with the community, of the “me” with the “you;” the idea of a nation, of hanging together, of “I am with him in [his time of] tribulation,”[ix] of suffering [together] with the community, of being someone who shares the burden of his friend,[x] of “Moshe went out to his brothers and saw their agony,”[xi] of defending the weak and standing up for the helpless. The paragraphs of the tefillin are written on kelaf, the uppermost part of the skin, on which the hair grows, since the straps of the tefillin bind the rish’ut in people, their hard and unopening hands. The paragraphs all fuse together into one great “I am with him in [his time of] tribulation.” Solidarity [with], and participation in the pain of, one’s friend – that is the motto of tefillin.

For this very remedy does a Jew again pray on Rosh ha-Shanah in “Malkhuyyot” (the Coronation passage) when, in addition to the plea, “Let all the Benei Basar call out in Your Name,” he also petitions regarding the Rish’ei Arets, “Cause all the Rish’ei Arets to turn to You.”[xii] [In other words,] may the feeling soul (nefesh ha-margishah) find its remedy both on the tsad ha-basar and on the tsad ha-se’ar.

Moshe’s Great Sacrifice

With respect to the processing of the skin on the tsad ha-se’ar, too, the rule of “according to the pain is the reward” (le-pum tsa’ara agra)[xiii] applies. The greater the sacrifice a person brings on the altar of hesed; the more difficult the “Avraham bound” is for him; the greater his sense of narcissism, which does not want to acknowledge [the suffering of] the other; the more developed his sense of “I have loved [you]”[xiv] – all the more elevated is the mending, all the more uplifted the processing.

Here, too, the Master of the Universe demanded from Moshe the greatest “binding.”[xv] He desired that the Master of All Prophets achieve spiritual wholeness (shelemut) for his nefesh ha-margishah with the greatest suffering, so that the skin facing the hair would be processed and prepared to absorb the Word of God on the highest level.

The Midrash says:

“For three things was Moshe prepared to give up his life, and they were [therefore] referred to by his name: the Torah, Israel, and justice […] For Israel – they were referred to by his name, as it says: ‘Your nation has acted corruptly [in creating the Golden Calf].’”[xvi],[xvii]

The Midrash is a bit difficult. Where do we find an episode before [that of] the Calf which highlights the fact that Moshe gave his life for the community? [We do not;] we first encounter his faithfulness to sacrifice himself for the people upon his second ascent atop Mt. Sinai, when he said to the Master of the Universe: “And now, if You forgive their sin – and if not, erase me, please, from Your book which You have written.”[xviii] Before that very occasion, Moshe did not have any opportunity to display his dedication to Kelal Yisrael. The Midrash has no proof off-hand that Moshe offered himself up for the Assembly of Israel before the Story of the Calf.

In truth, [however,] Moshe did sacrifice for Israel the best and most precious thing for which a person pines right at the beginning of his mission as a prophet. That sacrifice sanctified him and elevated him to the level of the Master of All Prophets.

Moshe’s Hidden Face

When the Master of the Universe appeared to Moshe in the bush, Moshe concealed his countenance: “Moshe hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.”[xix] Hazal were divided in their opinion about Moshe’s desire not to see the Immanent Presence of God (Shekhinah). R. Yehoshua ben Korhah held that Moshe acted improperly, while R. Yonatan said the opposite – that Moshe’s modesty and fear to look at the Shekhinah were later rewarded by the Master of the Universe.[xx]

At first glance, one does not understand R. Yonatan’s opinion. Why does he consider the [fact that] “Moshe hid his face” an elevated deed, for which the Master of the Universe later selected Moshe to be the Master of All Prophets? Moshe had the choice to either see the Master of the Universe or to conceal his countenance and not cast his glance at the Creator of the Universe; why should he receive reward for hiding his face? The Master of the Universe was at that moment prepared to reveal Himself to Moshe in His full, absolute Truth. Moshe had the opportunity to penetrate the concealed parts of the world,[xxi] to access all the hidden things, to understand clearly the ways of God, His justice, and His governance of the Creation. Moshe could have strolled through all fifty Gates of Understanding;[xxii] not a single secret would remain in the entire Creation, all questions would be answered, and all unsolvables (teikus) would be explained.

[However,] Moshe concealed his countenance, [because] he did not want all riddles to be solved, all halakhic questions to be ruled upon, and the entire mystery [of life] to disappear. He protracted his [state of] not-understanding over [the opportunity for] unlimited knowledge. He chose to live in the night of human ignorance and innocence. He did not want to penetrate all the Gates of Understanding. One Gate, Moshe prayed, must remain closed and locked. “Master of the Universe,” he begged with a heavy heart, “do not reveal everything to me, do not explain to me all the secrets; I want to live out my years in wondering and in [a state of] not-understanding.” The fire of the bush burned, the interminable flame stretched and howled, the Master of the Universe waited, but Moshe’s countenance remained hidden.

Why? Because he was frightened to learn the great secret of knowledge of God (da’at E-lohim). He trembled at the danger of becoming omniscient. “Moshe hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.” Why, [though,] was he terrified?

Da’at and Hesed

Because were he to know everything, he would have lost the trait of kindness (middat ha-hesed), the feeling of compassion and love for others, for the helpless, impoverished, and suffering. “Because he was afraid to look at God.” He was frightened to delve too deeply into [God’s] Trait of Strict Justice (Middat ha-Din). For were he to properly understand that trait, he would have discovered the truth – that there is no evil whatsoever in the world. He would then have realized that the agonies that a person undergoes are entirely for his own good. He would at that point have seen that, in reality, “The Rock – His work is perfect, for all His ways are justice,”[xxiii] and that undeserved suffering does not exist. Then, the name E-lohim (denoting Justice) would have transformed into the name Hashem (denoting Mercy). Then, Moshe would have looked at the world from the same vantage point as the Creator of the Universe had seen it from [on that original] Friday before [the time of] Kiddush: “God saw all that He had done and it was very good;”[xxiv] Hazal say, “This [the words ‘very good’] refers to death.”[xxv] Then, seeing the world in its entirety, everything – death, sickness, poverty, suffering, and loneliness – would have appeared to be good, and everything would have had a purpose and meaning.

At that point, Moshe would not have been able to do any hesed with a poor person, because in his unending wisdom he would have understood that poverty is [really] a kindness for that person. In such a situation, he would not have been able to have compassion on a sick man or save him from death, because he would have had full knowledge of why the Master of the Universe punished him with illness and what the purpose of his suffering was. Under such conditions, he would not have made any allowance for, or had any understanding of, a sinner, and would not have been able to pray [anything like the petition beginning,] “And he [Moshe] besought.”[xxvi] He would have recognized with clarity the correctness of God’s justice. [In fact,] Moshe would not have been able to pray at all, because he would have understood how foolish it is to beg for something which is absurd and laughable.[xxvii]

Mercy, hesed, and love depend upon the ignorance of man, on his intellectual limitations, on his childlike innocence, on his great mistake [in thinking] that there is evil in this world and that people suffer undeservedly. The Torah, for instance, notifies us that “he shall surely heal”[xxviii] – that one may, and one must, heal the sick and may not delve deeply into “that which is before and that which is after [God’s calculations].”[xxix] Do not ask [the following question], the Torah instructs man: “The sick person suffers, presumably, with the oversight of God, Who is righteous in all His ways and pious in all His acts;[xxx] why, [then,] should I heal he whom the Master of the Universe has made sick?” One may not ask such a question. “You, man, understand nothing, you have no knowledge – for you, illness is an evil against which one must fight. All the calculations belong in the lap of the Shekhinah; [meanwhile,] man must have mercy on, and empathy for, the helpless and miserable, because he does not know the reason for [their] suffering.” [However,] this overflow of hesed is gifted to man at a high price – ignorance.

Moshe had the choice of either acquiring knowledge and abandoning hesed or remaining ignorant and achieving it. He chose the second alternative. He loved Jews so much that he sacrificed the highest and most precious of human desires for them: knowledge of God (da’at E-lohim) and understanding of Him (binat Sha-ddai). “Moshe hid his face because he was afraid to look at God” – he did not want to know everything.

Therefore, the Master of the Universe told him at the time the Jews made the Calf, “Your nation has acted corruptly.” “Moshe, they are your people, to whom you acquired rights through the greatest sacrifice – knowledge. Thus, you can now also pray for them.”

When Moshe later begged God, “Show me, please, Your glory,” the Master of the Universe answered him, “You may not see My face, for no man can see Me and live,”[xxxi] [but] He showed him [the] knot of [His] tefillin.[xxxii] Why tefillin, of all things? Because tefillin symbolize the “Avraham bound” – the binding of the nefesh ha-margishah on the tsad ha-se’ar, the great sacrifice a person offers for the realization of the hesed-ideal. That is why a person may not see the face of the Shekhinah. Omniscience and hesed, symbolized by tefillin, are a contradiction.


When the “internal” skin is processed both on the tsad ha-basar and on the tsad ha-se’ar, when a person binds both his flesh, his desires, and his hair, his callousness, and brings [these] two sacrifices, the human personality transforms into parchment – processed on both sides, sanctified, and purified – on which is written the great “internal” scroll, whose holiness shines forth and sanctifies all that a Jew touches.

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 the outgoing Editor-in-Chief for Kol Hamevaser.

[i] Devarim 15:8,11.

[ii] Shemot 22:21.

[iii] Devarim 15:9.

[iv] Ibid. 16:20.

[v] Ibid. 10:19.

[vi] A play on Be-Reshit 22:9. See the fifth installment of this derashah in Kol Hamevaser 3,6 (March 2010), p. 21, where the Rav explains that the sin of the Men of Flesh (Benei Basar) is their inability to restrain and “bind” themselves from seeking physical pleasures.

[vii] See Avot 4:1.

[viii] Raseyn (Raseiniai) is a small town near Kovno (Kaunas), Lithuania. R. Moshe Soloveitchik served as rabbi there from 1910-1913 before becoming the rav of Khaslavichy in White Russia [R. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, vol. 1 (Hoboken, N.J.: Ktav Pub. House, 1999), p. 9].

[ix] Tehillim 91:15.

[x] See Avot 6:6.

[xi] Shemot 2:11.

[xii] See the Rav’s previous discussion of this passage in Kol Hamevaser 3,6 (March 2010): 21.

[xiii] Avot 5:23.

[xiv] Presumably based on Mal’akhi 1:2.

[xv] See Kol Hamevaser 3,7 (May 2010), pp. 28-29, where the Rav describes Moshe’s inability to have a well-developed family life as his first “binding.”

[xvi] Shemot 32:7 and Devarim 9:12; emphasis mine.

[xvii] See Midrash Tanna’im to Devarim 16:18, Yalkut Shim’oni to Parashat Shemot 167, and Midrash Pitron Torah to Parashat Va-Ethannan for similar versions of the Midrash quoted here.

[xviii] Shemot 32:32.

[xix] Ibid. 3:6.

[xx] Berakhot 7a.

[xxi] See Hagigah 13a.

[xxii] See Rosh ha-Shanah 21b and Nedarim 38a. As it is, Moshe only reached forty-nine of those Gates; see below.

[xxiii] Devarim 32:4.

[xxiv] Be-Reshit 1:31.

[xxv] See Yalkut Shim’oni to Tehillim 643 and Otsar ha-Midrashim, Massekhet Heikhalot. This Midrash intimates that even death, which human beings normally fear and mourn, is, in fact, ultimately a good thing.

[xxvi] Shemot 32:11.

[xxvii] In other words, Moshe would have understood that everything God does has a purpose, and so to pray for Him to change what He has done is folly.

[xxviii] Ibid. 21:19.

[xxix] See Hagigah 11b, Megillah 25b, and Tamid 32a.

[xxx] Tehillim 145:17.

[xxxi] Shemot 33:18,20.

[xxxii] Berakhot ibid.