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Thursday, 4 December, 2014 - 12:17 pm

Dear Friend,

An angel appears at a faculty meeting and tells the dean that in return for his unselfish and exemplary behavior, the Lord will reward him with his choice of infinite wealth, wisdom, or beauty.
Without hesitating, the dean selects infinite wisdom. "Done!" says the angel, and disappears in a cloud of smoke and a bolt of lightning.
Now, all heads turn toward the dean, who sits surrounded by a faint halo of light. One of his colleagues whispers, "Say something."
The dean sighs and says, "I should have taken the money."
Two great giants who were a part of pre-war Eastern European Jewry were Rabbi Chaim Ozer, chief rabbi of Vilna, a brilliant Talmudic scholar, and the Ostrov Rebbe, a spiritual giant, who fasted every day for forty years straight, eating no more than millet mixed with milk at night.
Some claim that he did so because he felt the Holocaust coming, similar to the Talmud’s story about the great sage Rabbi Tzadok who fasted for 40 years before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
A wonderful story is related about these two rabbis:
Once, Reb Chaim Ozer asked the Ostrov Rebbe to share a Torah insight with him, and he did. After hearing the brilliant interpretation by his colleague, Reb Chaim Ozer exclaimed, "You are indeed a great man!"
The Rebbe responded, "No! Brilliant scholarship, even if it came about through great toil, is not what makes one a great man in Judaism. You need something else entirely to be considered a 'great man,' a gigantic individual in the universe of Torah."
"What would that be? And why do you say so?" asked Reb Chaim. The Ostrov Rebbe proved his point from a fascinating analysis of the Talmud:
In this week’s portion, Ki Teitzei, the Torah states that for certain serious transgressions, the violator is liable to receive 40 lashes.
The Sages in the Mishnah deduce that the exact number of lashes was not 40, but 39, the number that leads into and completes the possibility of the number 40.
This gives us the background to appreciate the following Talmudic statement:
"The great sage Rava said, 'How foolish is the practice of people who rise up before a Torah Scroll, but who remain seated in the presence of a Torah Sage. After all, the literal Biblical verse ordains that the individual who transgresses a serious Biblical negative command should receive forty lashes. Yet the Sages came, and reduced the number by one. How foolish it is then to rise before the Torah scroll, and not before the 'great men' who possess the wisdom and power to interpret the true meaning of Torah! For what would the Torah be without the people who truly understand its depths?"
The Rebbe then asked his counterpart Rabbi Chaim Ozer the following question:
There are quite a number of occasions where the sages reinterpreted the biblical text to reveal its deeper meaning, which wasn't seen at face value. They tell us, for example, to wear Tefillin below the hairline, not between the eyes, as the simple text seems to command. The other phylactery is placed on the arm and not on the palm of the hand, though strict textual reading would have us do so. Many more examples exist.
In fact, there is even an instance quite similar to the case of lashes. The Torah tells us to count fifty days of the Omer before celebrating the holiday of Shavuot. Yet, the Sages reinterpret the number fifty and tell us to count forty nine. Why is that example not cited by Rava to show the greatness and power of the sages? This question becomes even greater when we realize that this is an example from the Portion of Emor in the book of Leviticus, far earlier than the commandment about lashes in the book of Deuteronomy!
Is the ability to make a holiday one day earlier not a powerful enough attestation to the hegemony of the sages?
The Rebbe then gave the following explanation:
The fact that the Sages have the wisdom and authority to expound and interpret the actual meaning of the Torah does not suffice to give them the title of "Great Men," which would require us to stand before them. The reason why they are called great men after the case of lashes is because through their wisdom and exposition, a Jew, even a transgressor, is spared an extra lash of the whip. It is the sense of love and caring of the sages that behooves us to stand up in their presence. Upon hearing this, Reb Chaim Ozer, the great sage, exclaimed, "Ah, that is Chassidut!"
This is the definition of greatness in Judaism. Yes, we cherish education, scholarship and knowledge very deeply; we admire talent, creativity and success. However, what turns you into a grand human being? That you care! That you employ your wisdom, talent and resources to ease the pain of a fellow human being, to lighten his burden, to reduce his suffering, to bring goodness and kindness to the world around you.
Where did Rava know this from?
The first and greatest Torah scholar who ever lived, Moses, taught this lesson. How does the Torah begin the story of Moses? Not by saying that he finished the entire Talmud 600 times at the age of 22. Not by saying that he received his PHD in mathematics, biology and nuclear physics at the age of 26. Rather, ‫"Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and saw their pain…” Moses could have remained in his palace, climbing the greatest intellectual and spiritual heights, but he was a man of true greatness. Instead, he went out to see how he could help his brothers. Indeed, what was his first act? He stopped the flogging of a Jew by the hands of an Egyptian!
The one favor you do for one person in need may be one small step for man, but it is a giant leap for mankind.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky
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