Choose Life


rabbi-pinchos-lipschutz-By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

If you would have to sum up all that the Torah encompasses in one commandment, what would you choose? Would it be kashrus? Would it be limud haTorah? Maybe you would pick the obligation to remember that Hashem redeemed us from Mitzrayim. Some would say the mitzvah of Krias Shema or the 39 melachos of Shabbos. Others would point to the three cardinal sins of avodah zorah, shefichas domim and giluy arayos.

Many years ago, this question was answered for us by Hillel Hazokein, who said that the entire Torah is based upon the mitzvah of “Ve’ohavta lereiacha kamocha,” loving other people like you love yourself. All the rest is commentary.

In this week’s parsha of Ki Seitzei, we come across yet another example of the Torah’s concern about protecting the dignity of every human. A person sinned so egregiously that he was put to death. The Torah commands that when a condemned man is hanged, “Lo solin nivlaso al ha’eitz…ki kilelas Elokim talui,” his body must be removed from the gallows and buried by nightfall (Devorim 21:23).

The Ohr Hachaim explains the posuk in an interesting fashion. Quoting an injunction of Chazal that one who witnesses a talmid chochom sin should not agonize about it the next day, for certainly the scholar has by then already repented, he explains the posuk to mean, “Lo solin, do not sleep, nivlaso, on the sin, al ha’eitz, you saw the talmid chochom commit, ki kavor sikbirenu, you should bury thinking about that cheit.”

He says that the posuk is commanding the hamon am not to spend time contemplating and analyzing mistakes of a talmid chochom, for by daybreak, his sin is certain to have been erased by virtue of his teshuvah.

Should a person not heed this admonition and instead harp on the sin he witnessed, kilelas Elokim talui, he will cause the curse of Hashem to be hung upon him, because he was meharher achar talmid chochom.

The Ohr Hachaim completes his understanding of the posuk, Velo sitamei es admos’cha, explaining that this is referring to the lesson of Chazal (Shabbos 119b) that the destruction of Yerushalayim was caused by the people who embarrassed talmidei chachomim. If you will behave disrespectfully towards talmidei chachomim you will cause destruction and defilement of your land.

A person who slanders a talmid chochom, is not only inviting personal disaster on himself, but on the entire nation. We must protest those who engage in missions to vilify holy and good people, lest we be complicit in their crimes.

The chachomim in Maseches Avos, which is designed to guide, advise and empower Jews to live wise, healthy and productive lives, warn that one who treats gedolei Torah in a cavalier or irreverent manner is literally playing with fire. The Mishnah in Avos (2, 10) admonishes such people to tread cautiously: “Vehevei zohir begachalton shelo sikovehBe wary of their coals lest you get burnt.”

The rabbis, doctors, professors and general do-gooders who eagerly warn our community of the dangers inherent in metzizah b’peh in a bid to save us from our own primitive selves, and readily mock and disparage rabbonim and gedolim to score their points, would do well to study Avos. Its chochmah is the source of the knowledge that has sustained our people throughout the millennia.

They would do themselves well to be selective in their choice of words and methods. At minimum, they should be at least as concerned about the kavod of rabbonim and other Jews as they profess to be about infectious diseases and illness.

They should also study the topic they claim to be so concerned about to ensure that they are not engaging in pseudo-science and faux medicine.

There is no scientific and medical connection between any of the children who took ill and metzizah, but that doesn’t stop them from seeking to “protect” us from our customs.

Professor Marci A. Hamilton, of Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, wrote on, “This is all a distraction from what truly matters: the protection of children… A line must be drawn to prevent adults, even religious believers, from causing a child’s death and/or permanent disability. This practice easily crosses that line. There does not even need to be a regulation specific to the practice. The neglect laws are neutral, generally applicable laws that apply to all parents who medically neglect their children.”

What she is saying is that our community is unconcerned about our children’s health and safety. We care more about engaging in some ridiculous, dangerous practice than we do about protecting the lives of our children.

Really now, professor? The people who practice this custom are the very same ones who spawned and created many advanced and efficient medical referral organizations, screening programs, and health networks. They have given the world Hatzolah, RCCS, Bikur Cholim groups of all types, Ezer Mizion, Echo, Dor Yeshorim and so many other life-saving organizations. Professor, do you really think that we need to be lectured about protecting our children? Do you think that the community whose prime motivation is caring for the next generation and assisting the elderly engages in suicidal conduct to satisfy some old rabbinic requirement?

Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the RCA, told the Jewish Link of Bergen County (JLBC) that most of the members of the RCA insist on using a pipette when performing bris milah and not having direct oral contact with the wound. “This is something that has been practiced for generations and supported by Halachic authorities. Where we’re concerned about the tradition, we’re concerned about the health and welfare of our children.”

The blood libel against Orthodox Jews is repeated as JLBC reports that Rabbi Dratch said there have been more efforts at fighting the New York City Health Department than fighting the potential threat to children.

In other worlds, we don’t care about children and threats to their lives. What we want to do is fight City Hall.

JLBC says that they asked the good rabbi whether, in the interests of “pikuach nefesh,” efforts should be led “to get legislation passed preventing this practice, as it can endanger the life of the child.”

Rabbi Dratch said, “I think if there’s even a small chance of this happening, then it’s not necessary, because there are other ways to satisfy the ritual requirements. We continue to urge them that if they don’t want government regulation on this, then they have to find ways to ensure that the children are safe.”

He cares about children safety. We don’t. That’s the message.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah also weighed in on the matter. He, too, is very upset with our community, the defenders of metzitzah b’peh. He, too, understands what’s really at play here: disregard for halacha. According to JLBC, he said that “in America, where there is empowerment, ‘we get away with all this stuff, not following the proper halacha wherever there is a risk of life, that takes priority. It’s American that we ignore halacha and just flex our political muscles and our political muscles are we want to do it our way.”

Poor Rabbi Lopatin. The zealous, loyal defender of halacha looks on in anguish as a community tramples on the sacred poskim of the Shulchan Aruch. It must hurt. All the nasty Chareidim care about is flexing political power. They ignore halacha and the needs of their children in order to feel empowered.

That’s how Rabbi Lopatin views us.

There is an expression in Hebrew, “hakozak hanigzal,” used to evoke sarcastic pity for a Cossack who complains that he was robbed. The imagery is ironic. Cossacks were brutal ruffians who plundered and rampaged through Europe, taking whatever they wished from whomever they wanted. A simple villager swiped the scarf of one of these hooligans and the poor Cossack went around whining about the injustice done to him.

Rabbi Lopatin crying that we ignore halacha is as funny as the original tale.

But it’s worse than that. In our day, bizayon talmidei chachomim is easier to commit than ever before. Whereas in the past it required some element of courage to publicly take issue with rabbinic leadership, now that is no longer necessary. These days, if you have a beef with the establishment, there is an army of bloggers ready to do your dirty work.

To go after rabbonim, or anyone else for that matter, all you have to do is tip off a lonely blogger, share a story, allegation, rumor or innuendo, and your bitterness goes viral.

Referring to such activity, the posuk says, “Lo seileich rochil be’amecha. Do not behave as a mean-spirited peddler circulating from town to town and spreading hateful tales.”

Today, to condemn, disparage and demean, you no longer have to leave the comforts of your home. The internet does it all for you. A person’s reputation can be destroyed instantaneously by a noxious peddler.

There are disenchanted people everywhere eagerly waiting to scoop up the latest gossip and treat it as absolute truth. Those who dignify blogs by taking them seriously and paying attention to their half-stories and lies are as guilty as the purveyors.

At a recent gathering, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman discussed the threat of technology. He quoted Rabbeinu Yonah, who wondered why one who embarrasses another person loses his portion in Olam Haba. Even actual murder does not have such a frightening consequence.

Rabbeinu Yonah explains that one who actually sheds blood is well aware of the harshness of his crime and might eventually repent. He who shames someone is not aware of the seriousness of what he has done. He will rationalize his behavior and reason that he didn’t really do anything wrong. He says, “What did I do already? It’s just words. Words don’t kill.” Therefore, he will neglect to repent for his actions. As such, he remains with his aveirah and the heinous deed never receives the tikkun of teshuvah.

Rav Shteinman compared this to the nisayon of the internet. He said that well-meaning, sincere individuals waste hours online, but they may never do teshuvah because they don’t realize that they erred.

So too, we may say that people who utilize the internet to slam others may not fully comprehend the severity of their actions and will fail to seek to repent for their cheit.

The Medrash in Parshas Metzorah tells of a certain peddler who traveled around announcing that he was selling a potion guaranteeing a long life. Wherever he went, crowds quickly formed to hear about the amazing product. One time, it happened that the Tanna, Rav Yannai, was in the marketplace when the peddler made his bold announcement. He gathered around the man along with a large crowd.

The salesman noted the presence of the Tanna and told him that someone such as he had no need for the merchandise he was selling. When Rav Yannai persisted, the peddler opened a Tehillim and read the pesukim of “Mi ho’ish hechofeitz chaim…” “Netzor leshoncha meira…” (Tehillim 34:13-14).

“Pure speech is a recipe for long life,” he proclaimed.

Rav Yannai praised the interpretation and thanked the peddler for enlightening him.

Since Rav Yannai was a Tanna, we can safely assume that he was familiar with the pesukim in Tehillim that the itinerant peddler read to him. What was so fascinating about the man’s lesson that Rav Yannai was so thankful and the Medrash saw fit to recount it for eternity?

Rav Shlomo Freifeld explained that when referring to the type of water from which a mikvah must be constituted, the Torah calls it “mayim chaim,” literally “living waters.” The Torah is referring to a body of forty sa’ah of water formed from its own source, as opposed to forty sa’ah of water that collected after flowing from another source.

The term mayim chaim requires explanation. Why is water from an independent source referred to by the Torah as mayim chaim? The Maharal explains that chaim, life, means not having to depend on something else for its existence. Mayim chaim refers to water that emanates and pools directly from the ground.

To understand the Medrash, Rav Freifeld explained that there are two ways a person can feel big. He can either act big and accomplish big things, or he can make those around him small and tower over them.

The difference is that the person whose positive thoughts and actions cause him to be big is independent of other people. He provides himself with the means to rise. The person who feels big by putting others down is entirely dependent on other people, for he elevates himself only by putting them down. Without them, he remains small.

This is what the peddler taught Rav Yannai. “Mi ho’ish hechofeitz chaim? Who wants to really live? Who wants to be self-sufficient? Netzor leshoncha meira, train your lips to refrain from pettiness and slander. Don’t use other people to feel big. Be independently great. If you do so, you will really be alive and one whom the Torah refers to as a chai.”

Bloggers and those who supply them with their “merchandise” depend on the talmidei chachomim they disparage for their own existence. Rather than rising by virtue of doing and accomplishing for humanity, they seek to raise their own standing by putting others down.

Is that the life we seek? When an ill-advised person sets himself up as a bar plugta with a gadol, he shrinks and his life loses value.

It is interesting to note that sophisticated and distinguished people are always careful to treat people respectfully.

The Chasam Sofer was once delivering a shiur and someone interjected with a question based on a ruling of Rav Meshulam Igra. The Chasam Sofer waved away the argument and continued the shiur.

Suddenly, the Chasam Sofer found that his mind had gone blank and he was unable to remember the shiur he had prepared. The Rabbon Shel Yisroel was abruptly deprived of his clear, pristine Torah.

Without hesitating, he ended the shiur and gathered a minyan of talmidim to accompany him to the grave of Rav Meshulam Igra. He arrived there and begged mechilah for the perception of a slight to the opinion of the gaon. As he finished his tefillah, he recalled the rest of the shiur.

The Chasam Sofer was eminently qualified to disagree, kedarkan shel talmidei chachomim, but he felt that in the heat of the moment, he had been too casual in his manner of arguing.

He understood the severity of his action, because he appreciated talmidei chochomim. He perceived the danger of even remotely expressing a lack of respect for a master of Torah. As soon as he waved off the questioner, his mind went blank out of fear of what he had done. Immediately, he ran to do teshuvah and ask mechilah so that he would not be harmed by the gacheles of a talmid chochom.

We can understand the posuk in Mishlei (6:23) which states, “Vederech chaim tochachas mussarThe path to life is through accepting mussar admonishment.” A person who is desirous of leading a life of chaim, as described by the Maharal, attains the ability to grow through his actions and contributions by learning mussar. The study of mussar will discipline you into seeking growth through positive actions and not by undermining others.

Similarly, the posuk in Mishlei (3:18), referring to the Torah, states, “Eitz chaim hi lamachazikim boh vesomcheha meushar The Torah is a tree of life to those who grab onto it, and those who support it are blessed.” A person who cleaves to the way of Torah will attain the proper and good life, chaim, and will grow as a tree, benefitting himself and others. Those who support the person who seeks greatness through growth will themselves also be blessed.

We are now in the season of chaim, beseeching Hashem to allow us to experience life, another year of chaim. We wish for ourselves and our families to be inscribed in the Book of Life. A most appropriate way to have that wish fulfilled is to take steps towards life, as the Maharal taught, by living lives that don’t depend on belittling others for meaning and relevance.

Let our encounters with other people be aimed only at building them up and being mechazeik, helping and supporting them. Then, not only will we be living properly, but in that zechus we will merit another year of life.

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  1. “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of … is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

  2. Pur’onus starting w/ tzaddim: Yechezkel 21:8; B”K 60a

    “Ve’Hich’rati mi’maich tzaddik v’rosho”

    The Maharsha explains that the vov separates the two, indicating
    tzadikim are punished before – not along with – the reshayim.

    However, perhaps one could alternatively also suggest the following
    re’mazim of the expression “tzaddik v’rosho”:

    The “Vov ha’chibur” suggests a connection between the two, indicating
    that the types of tzaddim punished before the reshayim are (or, at
    least, include) those tzaddikim who have some relationship with the
    reshayim, eg:

    1. Those who are mechubar to, or partner with reshayim (“mechubar
    la’tomei tomei”);

    2. Who praise reshayim (“ish le’fi mehaleloh”);

    3. Who are mechanef (flatter) or support reshayim;

    4. Who are wantonly supported BY them;

    5. Who enable them IN THEIR RISHUS itself;

    6. Who obscure (cover up) their deeds, even actively whitewashing
    their wickedness;

    7. Who overtly provide the veneer of tzidkus for reshayim, or their deeds;

    8. Or those who combine “tzidkus” with rish’us in their own person –
    ie a “tzaddik” who is “also” (or *actually*) a rosho;

    9. Or who combines *actual* tzidkus w/ rishus, magnifying the Chillul HaShem;

    10. Or one who uses his tzidkus for rishus (“tzaddik v’rosho”- the
    former serving the latter).