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Eikev: Clinging to the Wise Man

Published on Thursday September 30th, 2021

In Parshat Eikev, the Torah commands the people to go in the ways of HaShem, and to”cling to Him”.[1]  The Sifri[2], quoted by Rashi, asks how it is possible to cling to HaShem, given that He is described in another place in the Torah as an “all-consuming fire”[3]?  The Sifri answers that the Torah is instructing us to cling to Talmidei Chachamim[4] and their students; by doing that it is considered as if we cling to HaShem himself.  The Rishonim[5] derive from here an obligatory Mitzvah to learn from Talmidei Chachamim and try to develop a connection with them, in order to learn Torah with the correct understanding.[6] A person might understand that it is a good hanhago (mode of behavior) to cling to Chachamim, however it is essential to recognize that it is a Torah obligation.  Moreover, the Sefer HaChinuch writes very strongly about the importance of keeping this Mitzvah.  He says; ”One who transgresses this and does not cling to them [Chachamim]…transgresses this positive Mitzvah, and his punishment is very great, because they are the [basis of] the existence of Torah, and a strong foundation for the salvation of souls, and anyone who is with them a great deal, will not come to sin..”[7]

The Mesillas Yesharim also discusses the importance of learning from Talmidei Chachamim, particularly with regards to personal growth.  He writes that one of the main strategies of the yetser hara is to confuse people so that they do not recognize the difference between good and evil.  Accordingly, they believe they are acting correctly, when in truth they are being tricked by their yetser hara.  How can a person avoid this trap?  He answers with an analogy.  A person finds himself in a very complicated maze, and there is only one path that leads to the exit, however, most paths do not lead anywhere, and in fact take him away from his destination.  The person has no way himself of finding the correct path because the possible paths look identical to each other.  The only way to escape such a maze is to take advice from someone who has already been through the maze and arrived safely at the other side.  He can advise the person stuck inside which is the correct path to take.  So too, a person who has not yet mastered his yetser hara will find it impossible to overcome it without the guidance of Talmidei Chachamim who have spent many years refining their characters.[8]

We have seen how essential it is for one’s spiritual well-being to learn from Chachamim.  However, a person may argue that this is an overly difficult Mitzvah  because a significant amount of effort and persistence is required to attach oneself to Chachamim due to their busy schedules and the fact that already many people flock to them.  The answer to this point is found in the words of the greatest Chacham,  Moshe Rabbeinu.  In Parshas Devarim, he recounts the episode when Yisro suggested that Moshe refrain from ruling on every matter of law, rather, other wise men should be appointed to guide the people in certain questions.[9] The practical reason for this was in order to lessen the burden for Moshe and for the people who had to wait a long time for Moshe to be available.[10]  Moshe agreed to the suggestion and instructed the people to appoint Chachamim.  The people gladly agreed to this request.  Rashi points out that in his recollection of this incident, Moshe rebuked the people for their enthusiasm for Yisro’s idea.  Moshe was telling them, “you should have answered, Rabbeinu Moshe, from who is it better to learn, from you or from your students, is it not [better to learn] from you, who suffered over it [the Torah]?!”[11]  Moshe rebuked them for not wanting to learn from the greatest Chacham, despite the fact that they would have to endure significant hardships in order to do so.  We see from here how important it is to be willing to be moser nefesh[12] to learn from Chachamim.

This lesson is borne out by a teaching of Chazal, that a person who learns a great deal of Torah but does not cling to Talmidei Chachamim is considered an am ha’aretz (ignorant person).[13]  Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz zt”l explains that one who learns alone only relies on his own understanding and does not turn to wise people for guidance.  Because he does not verify his understanding with Chachamim, it is inevitable that he will come to make serious mistakes in his learning.[14]  In contrast, one who clings to Chachamim can achieve great levels in his wisdom.

The Alter of Novardok zt”l expressed this point when extolling the greatness of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt”l.  “His wisdom and genius is so great and of so much depth and breadth, because when he was young he was always to be found in the presence of the Gedolei Hador (greatest Rabbis).  He never said to them, ‘accept my opinion’, rather he made himself into a ‘vessel’ who would listen and absorb all the opinions and explanations of all the Gedolim there.  He absorbed into his very being all the wisdom that he heard and his wisdom became purified and elevated by the greatness of many generations that became embedded in his mind.[15]”   When we discuss the greatness of Rav Chaim Ozer we generally focus on his incredible natural genius and ability to think of many things at the same time.  We see from the words of the Alter that the key to his greatness was his willingness to learn from Talmidei Chachamim.

We have seen how essential it is for one to learn from Chachamim.  The Sefer HaChinuch points out that this Mitzvo is also incumbent upon women.  He writes, “This Mitzvo is in place in every place, at all times, for men, and it is also a Mitzvo for women to hear the words of Chachamim so that they will learn how to know HaShem.”[16] It is interesting to note that the Sefer HaChinuch also writes that women are not obligated in the Mitzvo of Talmud Torah (learning Torah)[17]  Nevertheless, they are obligated to seek out Chachamim to guide them in their Avodas HaShem.

It is clear from the sources discussing this Mitzvo that both men and women must strive to learn from Chachamim.  This is a particularly relevant lesson to people who grew up in more secular environments.  In the secular world, the concept of ‘asking the wise man’ for guidance in life issues is almost unheard of.  This is partly because intelligence and life wisdom have no necessary correlation.  As a result of this, a baal teshuva may find it unnatural to ask life questions to Rabbis.  Rav Noach Weinberg zt”l addressed this issue – he pointed out that in the secular world, people spend many years on studying in order to attain a certain qualification.  However, with regard to basic life issues, such as marriage, child rearing, and life satisfaction, people spend almost no time studying how to succeed.  The results of this failing are clear to see, with the divorce rate skyrocketing, family relationships consistently failing, and general life dissatisfaction commonplace.  The Torah teaches that in all such issues it is essential that we learn from Chachamim, people who understand the Torah approach to life challenges.

[1] Eikev, 11:22.

[2] Sifrei, 11:21, quoted by Rashi, Eikev, 11:22. The Gemara in Kesubos, 111b makes the same point.

[3] Va’eschanan, 4:24.  This is obviously not meant to be understood literally, rather in a figurative sense.

[4] Literally translated as ‘wise students’ – it refers to people who have learnt and internalized vast amounts of Torah.

[5] Early commentators, who lived in the period from the 10th Century until the 15th century.

[6] See Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvo 434.  There are two aspects to this Mitzvo – one is the obligation to study from Talmidei Chachamim and the other is to serve them or spend as much time with them as possible.  In this essay we will focus on the aspect of learning from them.

[7] Sefer HaChinuch, ibid.

[8] Mesillas Yesharim, Ch.3, ‘Explanation of the parts of Zehirus’.

[9] Parshas Devarim, 1:12-15.

[10] Parshas Yisro, 18:18.

[11] Rashi, Parshas Devarim, 1:14.

[12] Mesiras Nefesh is most accurately translated as self-sacrifice.

[13] Brachos, 47b.

[14] Sichos Mussar, Maamer 14, p.61-2. See there, where he brings an example of this phenomena.

[15] ‘Hameoros Hagedolim’, quoted in Mishel Avos, ibid.

[16] Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvo 434.

[17] Mitzvo 419.

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