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ב"ה

WHEN SHOULD YOU NOT LISTEN TO AN ANGEL?

Thursday, 5 August, 2021 - 12:02 pm

A man came to a bar on a nightly basis, ordering two glasses of Crown Royal. When the bartender asked him why he never changed his order, the man explained that he had a friend with whom he drank a nightly glass of Crown Royal for many years.


"My friend was drafted and died in Korea," the man sighed, "and I decided to immortalize him by drinking two glasses of Crown Royal every night. One glass I drink for him; the other for myself."


One night, after thirty years, the man entered the bar and ordered a single glass of Crown Royal.

"What happened?" asked the bartender.


"Oh," the man responded, "I quit drinking."


It is a classic case of denial; but it also may have a deeper message to it: sometimes I can drink for you. It is this theme, I want to talk about.

There is a fascinating verse in this week's portion, Reah:


You are children of the Lord, your G-d. You shall neither cut yourselves nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.

 

The custom of pagans was to scratch their skin off and cut themselves in demonstration of grief over the death of a loved one. The Torah prohibits us to do this.


The Talmud, however, adds a second meaning to this commandment:

“the root word “agudah,” means groups. The Torah is saying: Do not splinter yourself into separate groups.


This is a prohibition against the Jewish people becoming disjointed and fragmented, where each group is “doing its own thing,” conflicting with one another. Practically, the Talmud and the Halchik authorities explain, this is a prohibition against one Jewish court dividing into two and guiding the community in a conflicting fashion, the community becoming divided as a result.

One practical example would be this. If a synagogue has a certain tradition of how to pray, to come and try to alter that tradition and pray in a different tradition without consent, and create a split and a fight, is non-permitted.


But there is something very strange here, and the question is pointed out by the great 16th-century Jewish sage and leader, Rabbi Yehuda Leow (1512-1607), known as the Maharal. He was chief Rabbi of Prague, and one of the most influential Jewish personalities of his time, and the author of many major works on Jewish thought which are still extremely popular and profound. The Talmud and the Midrash often present various interpretations for one biblical term; but nowhere do we find two interpretations that are completely disjointed? On the simple level, means scratching your skin; then we are told it also means don’t split up into separate groups? How in the world do these two divergent instructions come together in a single word? Why would Moses communicate such two disparate ideas in one word?

 

Yet it is here that we can once again gain insight into the depth of Torah wisdom. The truth is, that the two interpretations are not only not divergent; they are actually one and the same. They both represent the same truth—one on a concrete, physical level; the other on a deeper, spiritual level.

 

The Torah prohibits us from cutting and scraping off our skin as a sign of bereavement. Our bodies are holy. Our organism is integrated, sacred, and precious; we must not harm it, we must not separate even a bit of our hide from our bodies. Our entire flesh should be treated with sensitivity, respect, as part of a divine gift. Even difficult moments of grief don’t allow us to give up on our lives and on the sacredness and beauty of our bodies.


But that is exactly what we are doing when we allow our people to become splintered. The entire Jewish nation is essentially one single organism. We may number 15 million people but we are one gigantic body. When I cut off a certain Jew from my life when I cut off a certain Jewish community from my life when I split our people into parts and say, “You don’t belong to me,” I am cutting off part of MY OWN BODY Because we are one.


They tell an incredible story. In the late 18th century, in Eastern Europe, there was a terrible conflict between the Chassidim and their opponents, the Mitnagdim, who suspected the Chassidim of heresy. The chief opponent was the Vilna Gaon, the famous Rabbi Elijah from the city Vilnius, who sadly got erroneous testimony and issued a tragic ban, against Chassidim. It was a terrible division that continued for decades and caused much harm and agony.


The Mitnagdim then came to one of the greatest students of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Chaim of Valahzin, and asked him to sign the ban. He refused. They said: But your own Rebbe, the Vilna Gaon, signed it! So you must sign the ban.


This was his response:

There is a famous question on the story of Akeida. "An angel of G-d called to him...And he said: 'Do not stretch out your hand against the lad nor do anything to him.”


But the instruction to bring Isaac as an offering came directly from G-d Himself told Abraham to offer his son to Him. Why did the stop-order come from an angel and not from G-d?


The answer is, because if G-d wants to tell you not to touch a Jewish child, it is enough if He sends an angel. But if He wants you to “slaughter” another Jew, an angel never suffices… G-d Himself needs to come and tell you to do it. If you are going to “slaughter” another Jew, make sure you hear it from G-d Himself. If not, don’t do it! To help another Jew, however, one needs no direct Divine command. To let Isaac live, the instruction of an angel sufficed. To let Isaac die, G-d needed to show up Himself.


“My Rebbe is a holy angel,” Reb Chaim said. “But I will not sign a ban against another Jew,” even when an angel tells me to do it. To “slaughter” a Jew you need to hear it from G-d Himself.


The lesson to us is clear: Sometimes we get into fights with people for idealistic reasons. We “slaughter” people—with our words or actions—and we feel that we are acting on behalf of an angel. We feel angelic about our actions.


Be wary, says the Torah! If you are going to cut someone off from your life, you want to hear it from G-d Himself. You want to be not 100 but 1000 percent sure that this is the right path to take. If not, let it go.


We say in the Hagadah.

Not only ONE but in every generation, they try to destroy us and Hashem saves us from their hand!


The Sfas Emes learns a little bit differently: only the fact that we are not united, we are not “echad,” we are not one, is what threatens to destroy us in every generation.


This is no time for Jews splintering into groups. Our greatest threat can become our disunity. We must stand up as one to protect our people and our world.

Certainly, “the Guardian of Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” But let us stand up together to protect our planet, and let us increase our unity and love for each other.

 

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Elul Tov,


Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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