FORGET ME NOT
Once upon a time, there lived a lonely craftsman. Everyday, on the way to his shop, he would pass by the king's palace. Gazing at the beautiful structure and imagining the wealth that was inside, he could only dream of being a part of it.
Once upon a time, there lived a lonely craftsman. Everyday, on the way to his shop, he would pass by the king's palace. Gazing at the beautiful structure and imagining the wealth that was inside, he could only dream of being a part of it. A short time later, his dream became a reality when, after finding favor in the eyes of the king, he was granted the privilege of marrying the king's only daughter. He loved the princess very much, and found that when he acted graciously towards her, the king was very close and candid with him. However, when he did something to upset the princess, causing a rift between him and her, the king distanced himself as well.
On the second day of the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, we read Megillat Ruth. The megillah starts off by telling us about Elimelech. Elimelech was a very wealthy individual who, in a time of famine, was a major food supplier to his Jewish brethren. However, due to feelings of stinginess, he and his family left the land of Israel to go live, undisturbed, in the land of Moav. Shortly thereafter, Elimelech died, and soon after that his two sons, who had each married a Moavite princess, died as well.
The Ralbag, a 14th century French commentator, points out that from here we learn the importance of a Jew carefully monitoring his interactions with the gentile world as much as possible. Elimelech and his sons died in a very short time because they became overly exposed and comfortable in the surrounding non-Jewish culture, to a point that both of Elimelech's sons married non-Jews. For this they were punished with death and a loss of all their possessions.
We are told that the Torah is not in the heavens and not across the sea (Deuteronomy 30:12). However, says the Talmud (Tractate Eruvin 55a), if it was in the heavens or across the sea, we would be obligated to go up to the heavens or to travel the sea in order to get it and bring it close to us. Why does the Talmud have to tell us this? In reality, we have the Torah and it is close to us. So why does the Talmud have to stress the fact that if it wasn't, we'd have an obligation to go after it? That scenario will never exist!
The Talmud answers that this seemingly hypothetical scenario is talking about someone who "raises his intellect above the Torah" or "expands his intellect over it". This is in reference to someone who feels that since he is so smart, he can invent his own ideas and outlooks on Torah Judaism. He feels that he is in a position to be "above the Torah" by not carefully following the instructions of the Torah and/or those who represent it. The truth is that no mindset could be more destructive and further from the truth. One cannot invent his own reasoning, rationalizations, objectives, views, or outlooks on religion without direction from either the Torah itself, or from a competent rabbinic authority figure who represents and lives what the Torah truly stands for. If a person does make up his own ideas, this is the person in the scenario that the Talmud makes reference to. It is this type of person who is distant from the Torah and who is obligated to come down from his self-imposed heaven and cross his self-imposed sea in order to be close to Torah once again.
We were given a special commandment to remember the time that we stood before Hashem at Mt. Sinai (Deuteronomy 4:9). The Torah phrases it that we should "look out for ourselves and guard our lives a lot", lest we forget what we saw and heard there. Why does the Torah use such strong language in regard to this particular commandment? Rashi, the classic commentator on the Torah, explains that the language is so strong because this idea is fundamental to the Jewish people. If we don't forget the Torah, and instead fulfill the commandments correctly, the other nations will look up to us and consider us wise. But if we distort the Torah through forgetfulness, the nations will look down at us as fools. All the greatness that we have in the eyes of the nations only comes to us because we are following the Torah and fulfilling the mitzvot. If we don't involve ourselves in Torah study, we are nothing.
For this reason, the Torah stresses the importance of remembering our assembly at Mt. Sinai - because it was that assembly, and the Torah and mitzvot that we received there, that makes us who we are. If we forget or distort it, then there is nothing special about us. Rather, we must follow the guidance of those who can lead us in the direction of the Torah.
We also learn from this the idea that if we follow the Torah and do the mitzvot properly, we are looked up to by the nations. Whereas if we forget or distort the Torah, or try to emulate the non-Jewish culture that surrounds us, we are looked down upon as fools. This was the mistake that Elimelech made - he overly intermingled with his non-Jewish neighbors to a fairly extreme point, and he and his sons were punished as a result.
Now that the holiday of Shavuot is approaching, a time when we should strengthen our ties with the Torah, let us keep these ideas in mind. We must remember that the Torah is what keeps the Jewish people separate and special. It is the Torah which, if followed properly, will bring us the awe of the nations, and if distorted or neglected, will bring their disdain. The only way to keep in line with the proper ideas of the Torah is through the guidance of a competent rabbinic figure and not just by what we think is the right thing to do by means of our own reasoning. If someone puts himself above the Torah by thinking that his own intellect will bring him to do what the Torah wants, and he doesn't submit his thinking to what the Torah really wants, then there is an immeasurable distance between that person and the Torah.
This is the idea with the princess, the craftsman, and the king. The princess is the Torah, the craftsman is the Jewish people, and the king is Hashem. When the craftsman (the Jewish people) upsets the princess (don't properly follow the Torah) then the king (Hashem, who cherishes the Torah) is distanced from us. But when we are close to the Torah and follow it properly, then the King is closer to us, and we become the awe of the nations.
Let us all find ways to come closer to the Torah - to listen, to learn, and to teach, to guard, to do, and to fulfill all of its holy words, with love. By doing this, may we all live happily ever after - both in this world and in the World to Come.
Mendel Starkman, a native Atlantan, is attending the Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Jerusalem.
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