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at Sinai in its entirety. Thereafter the Torah was given to Yehoshua, elders, prophets, and sages but no recipient captured it in its entirety (Avos 1:1).

Moshe’s humility exceeded that of Avraham (Chulin 89a). Avraham said, "v’anochi affar v’eiffer" -"and I am dust and ash" (Braishis 18:27), whereas Moshe said "I am nothing" (see Shmos 16:8 – "v’nachnu ma" – "who are we", referring to himself and Aharon).

When Hashem called, "Avraham, Avraham" (Braishis 2:11), in the Torah a line separates between the two words. The call "Moshe Moshe" (Shmos 3:4) has no such separation (Shmos Rabba 2:6). The line signifies a gap between the soul and the reality which the body creates. Only Moshe, who negated his body, i.e. his sense of self, completely, reached his full potential, so that the Divine presence would speak, as it were, through his throat.

This lofty description of the greatest prophet carries an important lesson for all people in all times. Our understanding of Torah is affected by who we are. In many cases, a personal agenda, explicit or implicit, leads to a distorted interpretation of Torah laws and values. Even a sincere effort to comprehend and apply halachah is affected by every person’s tendency to see matters through his own "glasses".

It is nearly impossible to totally remove personal bias in halachic analysis and decision. Yet this is the challenge imposed upon all recipients of Toras Moshe. If we cannot be "mikabel" completely, we must attempt to adhere to the mesorah described in the first mishna of Pirkei Avos.

It is noteworthy that the three things recorded in that mishna in Avos - be deliberate in judgement, develop many disciples, and make a fence for the Torah – relate to the theme of humility which is the very essence of mesorah. An arrogant person makes snap judgements, without consultation, and "pushes the envelope" to the limit. A humble person, cognizant of human frailty, is more deliberate, consults with peers and students, and allows for a margin of error.

Unfortunately, this conservative approach is attacked by promoters of various agendas, often with inappropriate self-assuredness. Even sincere Torah Jews sometimes fail to appreciate the mishna’s long view, and criticize rabbonim who resist the zeitgeist.

Ironically, in Rav Chaim’s words, the more a person negates himself, the greater he becomes. Only Moshe Rabbeinu, the humblest of all men, reached his full potential. Remarkably, the phrase "be all that you can be" is associated with military service, which demands selflessness and even self-sacrifice for a noble goal.

In a further irony, the more popular restatement of this theme has a chasidic source. The Rebbe Reb Zyshe told his followers that he did not fear that he would be asked by the heavenly court, "Why weren’t you Moshe Rabbeinu, R. Akiva, Rav Ashi, the Rambam, or the Ba’al Shem Tov". Only one question worried him: "Reb Zyshe, why weren’t you Reb Zyshe?"

Self-centered modern society promotes self-fulfillment, gratification of one’s physical and psychological needs and wants, and self-actualization, the maximum fulfillment of one’s potential.

The Torah teaches that these two goals are contradictory. Moshe reached the highest level of self-actualization precisely because he humbly negated his sense of self, and lived as an absolute servant of his Master. May all of us learn from his example and attempt to understand the Torah without a personal agenda. Paradoxically, by this self-negation we will be enabled to narrow the line between who we can be and who we are.



[From last year]



Now on this matter there is a warning in the scripture which says "Take heed in the plague of tzara’as … remember what the Lord thy G-d did unto Miriam by the way (Devarim 24:9). That is to say,

consider what befell Miriam the prophetess who spoke against her brother, … Now she did not speak despitefully of him but erred only in that she put him on a level with other prophets; nor was he resentful about all of these things, for it is said, "Now the man Moses was very meek" (Bamidbar 12:3). Nevertheless, she was forthwith punished with tzara’as. How much more then does this apply to wicked and foolish people who are profuse in speaking great and boastful things!

… Now the way of the company of the scornful and wicked is this: in the beginning they are profuse in words, as in the matter whereof it is said, "A fool’s voice cometh through a multitude of words" (Koheles 5:2). Thence thy go on to speak to the discredit of the righteous, as in the manner whereof it is said, "Let the lying lips be dumb which speak arrogantly against the righteous" (Tehilim 31:19). Thence they become accustomed to speak against the prophets and to discredit their words, as in the manner whereof it is said, "Bu they mocked the messengers of G-d and despised his words and scoffed at his prophets (Divrei Hayamim 2, 36:16); moreover it is said, "They have set their mouth against heaven and their tongue walketh through the earth" (Tehilim 73:9). What brought it to pass that they set their mouth against Heaven? Their tongue, which first walked through the earth.

Such is the conversation of the wicked, occasioned by their idling at street corners, in the gatherings of the ignorant, and in the feastings of drunkards. But the conversation of the worthy ones in Israel is none other than the words of Torah and wisdom; therefore the Holy One, blessed is he, aids them and bestows wisdom upon them, as it is said, "And they that feared the Lord spoke together every man to his neighbor, and the Lord hearkened and heard. And a book of remembrance was written before Him for them that feared the Lord and that thought upon His name" (Malachi 3:17). (1)

The foregoing passage from Rambam’s Mishnah Torah is remarkable in many respects – e.g., the analysis of Miriam’s error, the symbiotic coupling of Torah and chochmah, and the description of the inexorable progression from lashon hara to heresy. While each of these is obviously worthy of exposition, the constraints of the present forum do not allow for such a lengthy presentation. Let us, therefore, content ourselves by briefly commenting on the theme of progression (2).

The sequence depicted by the Rambam is sobering. The process begins with constant, frivolous, futile chatter – admittedly religiously unworthy conduct, but seemingly not so terrible – and culminates in heresy! How does such an insidious process unfold?

The answer is rooted in a fundamental religious-psychological principle. What a person does or how a person speaks is doubly important. First of all, the action or speech per se is important. Mitzvos are intrinsically meaningful and meritorious; issurim are intrinsically inimical and evil. Moreover, ones actions and speech also impact upon oneself. Through one's actions and speech one fosters attitudes and inculcates character traits, thereby forming one’s personality and influencing future behavior.

Case in point: constant idle chatter is not simply a self-contained waste of time. Such mindless prattle lowers a person, making him petty and hungry for gossip. When he habitually indulges these inclinations, he becomes cynical. This is the inevitable result of engaging in lashon hara whereby one focuses on the faults and negatives within a fellow Jew.

Every Jew abounds with mitzvos as a pomegranate with seeds (3). Speaking lashon hara bespeaks a cynical decision to focus on another Jew’s faults, and ignore his virtues.

The insidious process continues to inexorably unfold. Initially, one’s cynicism may manifest itself only vis-à-vis one’s neighbors or acquaintances. Inevitably, however, the cynical attitude engulfs one’s attitude towards tzadikim and prophets, and ultimately even Hashem. Cynicism is the antithesis of faith (4).

The Rambam’s poignant description shatters the mythical line of defense which we oft-times present. "Just this once I will sleep late


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