The Sins of the Race

  • Rav Yaakov Fisher
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The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Yeshivat Har Etzion


 

The Sins of the Race

or, Where are We Running To?

By Rav Ya'akov Fisher

[This sicha was originally delivered on 7 Tishrei 5748 (1987).]

Fourteen years ago today, the seventh of Tishrei 5734 (1973), I left the yeshiva on my way to the Golan Heights, accompanied by Avner Yona z"l, - my chavruta, roommate, and best friend. We had volunteered to serve as cantors on Yom Kippur for the front-line armored unit in Juhadar.

We did not finish our prayers that Yom Kippur. In the middle of the day war broke out and we were mobilized. We immediately joined the fierce tank battles raging in the Golan, trying to stem the Syrian onslaught.

Avner did not return.

A few hours before we left the yeshiva, Avner gave me a photograph. The photograph, which Avner had taken during our military service together, shows me jogging along the Lebanese border. On the back of the photograph, he wrote the following dedication:

B"H 7 Tishrei 5734

Ya'akov:

Once in a while, stop, look at this picture, and ask yourself: "Where exactly am I running to?"

(This is important forty days before your wedding. Mazal tov.)

Indeed, by the grace of God, I did get married on time. But Avner was no longer with us. All that was left was this photograph and what was written on it.

At times, words can attain their full scope, depth, and meaning only retroactively, with the perspective of hindsight. Today I know that this is Avner's testament.

For a long time I hid this precious secret in my heart, and even "the heart to the mouth did not reveal" (Kohelet Rabba 12). This intimate link with his sacred memory was very important to me. Today, I feel that I no longer have the right to keep it to myself. In his memory, I would like to share with you some of the thoughts that fill me with trembling as I hold in my hand this testament, and its message is seared into my heart.

We are in the midst of the Ten Days of Repentance, approaching the holy and awesome day of Yom Kippur. There is a unique power during this period. As the gemara says (Rosh Ha-shana 18a), "'Seek God when He is found; call to Him when He is near' (Yeshayahu 55:6) - these are the ten days between Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur." It is incumbent upon us to sense the strength of these days, and to draw out of ourselves, by way of these days, all that we can. This is the time for introspection, an accounting of the soul from which we tend to shy away amid the routines of the other days of the year.

Some people try to avoid a thorough accounting through existential somnolence and intellectual torpor. In response, we must shout: "Wake up! Why are you sleeping?" However, there is another form of evasion, one which employs the antithesis of slumber - running, racing, perpetual rushing. Against this we must cry, in the words of Avner's testament: "Stop and ask yourself: Where exactly am I running to?"

Lethargy and the race are both forms of fleeing. A man's flight from himself, from struggling to make an account of the life he has created for himself, can take either form. In either case, a person will neither examine the sights and sounds of the outside world nor pay attention to the sights and sounds within his innermost soul.

It would seem that instead of running or standing still, a person must walk. "I will give you those who WALK among these who stand" (Zekharya 3:7). "Fortunate is the people who know the trumpet-blast; Lord, by the light of Your Face they WALK" (Tehillim 89:15). Indeed, on Yom Kippur we will recite the confession and strike our chests "Al chet she-chatanu lefanekha be-ritzat raglayim le-hara," "For the sin which we have committed before You by running to do evil."

Yet perhaps we go too far here. We should not avoid running altogether - the verses of the Torah and the prophets, the sayings of the sages and the laws of Halakha all speak of the need to run. "Race like the deer ... to do the will of your Heavenly Father" (Avot ch. 5). The Jewish People are frequently praised for their trait of running to houses of prayer and houses of study.

So we ask: what now? We cannot suffice ourselves with a general condemnation of the race and with a blanket call to halt it. Rather, we must clarify the nature of the race in a more basic manner, deepening our understanding in order to achieve a fuller grasp of this concept and its various manifestations. Upon reflection, I believe we can distinguish three forms of running to which we must put a stop.

The first type is the "rush to do evil." Here the emphasis is on the negative aim and goal, in opposition to which we must provide its positive incarnation: "to do the will of your Heavenly Father." This does not require explanation; to avoid the "rush to evil," we must examine the aims of the race we run. We must stop to get our bearings every once in a while, like the runner who periodically stops to check the map. Is he indeed headed toward an appropriate and desirable destination? If he discovers that he is, he will resume his pace; if he reveals that he is mistaken, he will change direction, but maintain his speed. In any case he will continue to run, as long as the destination remains "to do the will of your Heavenly Father."

Up to this point, we have unearthed no surprises. Doesn't every person know that he or she has the responsibility to choose the good path? As the Talmud periodically poses the rhetorical question, are we then dealing with sinners or with fools?

There is, however, an additional form of running, which is more perilous, though its danger is less obvious: the aimless race.

This example seems, at first glance, decidedly odd: how can it be that a person would run without an aim? Yet a person will run not only despite the fact that the race has no destination, but because of it. This person runs not because he has forgotten to check the map; rather, he runs so that he will not have to check the map! This is the process of inertia which so pleases us, which we hide behind and fool ourselves with, so as to avoid the frightening thought of self-examination. We are accustomed to this type of race, which is why we find it so pleasant, and which is why we find it so difficult to examine and halt it.

This is "running within the framework," where we are always lost in a crowd that constantly surges onward. This is the way which we run in educational and social arenas, from one framework to the next - kindergarten, grade school, high school, yeshiva, and on and on. Even when we have matured and supposedly have come into our own, we continue to follow the crowd. In yeshiva, we all surround ourselves with the same small Tanakh, the same set of Talmud, the same set of Rambam, the same classes and schedules, so that the people become as nondescript, unimportant, and interchangeable as the chairs. We too move through the cycles of time, through days and weeks and semesters and years, and we run and run - without ever once wondering if indeed we have any direction or destination at all.

At times, we resemble the tightrope-walker, who runs so that he may not fall; we also resemble the hummingbird which constantly, from birth to death, flaps its wings furiously to stay aloft. They do not invest all of this energy because they are proceeding toward a specific destination, but because they know, with a preternatural sense, that the moment they stop moving, they will fall to the ground. We are no different, for "our soul escapes like a bird" (Tehillim 124:7). We also flee by means of the constant race. There is an abyss at our feet, yet we do not stare into it for fear that it might look into us. Confrontation itself is more frightening than victory or defeat.

A great amount of energy is invested in our race through life; we worry about exhibiting constant dynamism, about never stopping. However, this dynamism has a cost to it, for "since he is so eager to digest it, he fails to swallow it." Our minds are setight against the "danger" of introspection, protected from the readiness to change the direction of our lives which any religious person must have. We love and enjoy that which is set, that which is routine and comfortable. We are even pleased with ourselves, for is not our routine a good one? Once we are within the framework of the yeshiva, is there any need for introspection? We must stop patting ourselves on the back and ask the hard questions which we avoid so easily when we fade into the running masses.

Let us now remember that which our ancestor Ya'akov knew well and taught us by his example when he crossed the Yabbok River alone at night: it is impossible to conduct struggles of introspection within a comforting social framework. It is necessary, at times, to seclude oneself, to stop, to be alone. Only after "Ya'akov remained alone" (Bereishit 32:24) was he prepared for the struggle that "a man wrestled with him," thereby meriting the blessing, "Your name will no longer be Ya'akov, but rather Yisrael, for you contended (sarita) with God and with man, and you were sufficient [for the task]..." (ibid. 28).

Until this point, we have analyzed two types of running. In both of them, the problem was with the destination - either its negative aspects, or its lack of definition and self-criticism. The prophet Yeshayahu addresses both problems in his rebuke to the people. He begins by saying: "Since this people has drawn close, honoring Me with its mouth and lips, while distancing its heart from me..." (29:13). This is the first genre of running - toward sin. However, in that very verse he continues: "Their fear of Me became the rote command of man," and this is parallel to the second type of running, which addresses God-fearers, but those who act so only out of "the rote command of man."

Yet there is a third type of running, which we also must stop. But here, the problem lies not in the nature of the destination or the lack thereof, but rather with the progress of the race itself and with its nature.

In this third type of running, the destination is proper and good. A person races to do the will of his Heavenly Father. He sees in this a great and exalted destiny, an important and lofty ideal. He sees a tower of light which inspires him, and so he runs towards it. However, the tower is so high and its light so powerful that it blinds the person who runs toward it; the runner still recognizes the target, but he no longer distinguishes the details, and he tramples and crushes them through the overwhelming emotion of his holy desire. Alternatively, he might trip over these details, ensnared by the very speed which manifests the intensity of his yearning - and if so, he never even reaches his destination.

Yes, we run to do our Heavenly Father's will. As benei yeshiva, we dwell in a place of Torah and fear of God, and we spend our days in Torah study and the performance of mitzvot. Yet also here, and here in particular, it is incumbent upon us to inspect carefully the nature of the race we run. Do we not trample the details along the way? Doesn't it happen, all too often, in our eagerness to chalk up one more lesson or study session or prayer on our great spiritual scoreboard, that we close our eyes from the friend who is in distress? How many times a week are we too busy to brighten our faces to a friend and to say "Hello" or "Good morning?" Haven't we all ignored a book which fell, a forgotten possession, or a ringing telephone simply because we ran "to do the will of our Heavenly Father?" But is not even this running, based on its character, "our rush to evil?"

Here introspection is more difficult and must probe more deeply, for here the evil inclination wears his most insidious disguise - that of the good inclination!

When Rav Amital founded our yeshiva, he was asked what would be special about it. He replied with the now-famous story of the crying child. The Ba'al Ha-tanya and his grandson lodged at an inn. While they were immersed in study, a baby in the inner room began to cry. After the Ba'al Ha-tanya attended to the baby's needs, he castigated his grandson, who hadn't noticed the baby's crying: "If your Torah study is such that it prevents you from hearing a baby cry, it is worthless!" I want to found a yeshiva, Rav Amital continued, where we will be immersed in study, but we will nevertheless hear the baby (i.e. our friends, our nation, etc.) cry - and we will respond to that cry!

The cry of the baby will not be heard by the sleeper, nor by the runner - even if his race is for the attainment of holiness.

Amid all this, we must ask: did our sages not command us to run to do the will of our Heavenly Father? Yes, they certainly did. But perhaps they were indeed aware of the problem, for they did not instruct us only regarding the destination of the running, but the nature of the race as well, in telling us to "race like the deer." The deer's running has delicacy and nobility in it. It does not indiscriminately trample and crush, nor does it run to a destination without investigation and a constant inspection of the path, with its sundry details.

So the sages derive in a midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Shir Ha-shirim 986): "Rabbi Yitzchak said: Just as the deer jumps and skips from tree to tree and from hut to hut and from fence to fence..." The speed of the deer's running is accompanied by its caution and careful observation. There is in it an expression and a symbol of eagerness, but also awareness and caution, and so too we must run to do the will of our Heavenly Father. The Chasidim say that a Jew, in order to be successful in his spiritual endeavors, must master a few tricks: to cry out silently, to grow angry affably, and to run slowly.

Thus, we hope to run not a race of flight, but rather a race of pursuit, as Hoshea instructs us (6:3), "...and we will know that we pursue the knowledge of Lord." Hoshea is a great guide for repentance, as the sages say in Pesikta Rabbati (Piska "Shuva Yisrael," 5):

"All the prophets call Yisrael to repentance, but none like Hoshea... And they do not teach Yisrael what to say, but Hoshea says, 'Repent!' and teaches them how to appease themselves to God... 'Take with you words...'"

When the Day of Atonement is now just three days away, how nice it is to return and recite the verses in Hoshea that were almost written for us specifically, right here and right now (6:1-3):

Let us go and return to God, for He tore us and shall heal us, struck us and He shall bandage us. And He will let us live after two days; on the third day he will raise us up and we will live before Him. And we will know that we pursue the knowledge of Lord.

 

[Translated by Yoseif Bloch]


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