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Moshiach Nothing But the Truth
by Rabbi Zvi Homnick

EARLY TRUTH

 

Oddly enough, I can recall sitting in a yeshiva classroom at age ten or eleven and pondering in amazement the statement of Rabbi Akiva, cited in Pesachim (49b), “When I was an am ha'aretz (one who is unschooled in Torah) I would say, who will deliver to me a talmid chacham (Torah scholar) and I will bite him like a donkey.”  The Gemara goes on to say that his students said to him, “Rebbi, say like a dog,” to which he responded, “This one (a dog) bites and doesn't break bone, this one (a donkey) bites and breaks bone.”  Although I can't reconstruct from memory my entire thought process at that time, I found it puzzling that Rabbi Akiva felt it necessary to share this information with his students, and the compilers of the Talmud felt compelled to pass it along to all future generations. 

 

We were learning the beginning of Kesubos at the time, and my then chavrusa (study partner) and I had gone way ahead of the rest of the class, which left us with little to do but waste time during our study sessions, so we decided to learn a later chapter in our unofficially “spare” time.  That day, we had learned the Gemara (62b) that tells how Rabbi Akiva was working as a shepherd for Kalba Savua, and his daughter observed that this simple unlearned field hand was “modest and of elevated character,” so she offered to marry him if he would agree to go away to study Torah. 

 

The commentary of Tosefos there raises the question how could he be described as being possessed of elevated character in light of his statement regarding his earlier attitude towards those of the scholarly class.  Tosefos answers that one could say that he did not hate Torah scholars but was convinced that they were arrogant towards the unlettered because of their Torah knowledge and they hated their inferiors, and that was the source of his great antipathy.

 

Later, during class time, I found myself tuning out the Rebbi (a wonderful man and teacher, by the way) and going off into my own thoughts (bad habits die hard; my wonderful wife says that I do it to her too).  It seemed to me that Tosefos clearly did not mean to legitimize Rabbi Akiva's earlier worldview as he himself stated that he only felt this way before becoming a Torah scholar.  What it must mean is that he was previously laboring under a misconception regarding how the Torah scholars viewed their lesser edified brethren. 

 

If that is the case, Rabbi Akiva was conveying two important messages to his students.  Firstly, animus towards others often comes from misapprehension of the others' true feelings, and secondly, and even more shockingly, a Torah scholar who indeed does look down upon and hate his unlettered counterpart, deserves to be bitten and having his bones broken!

 

The first point actually became a guiding principle in life for me.  Time after time, and having been on both sides of some of the largest dividing issues in Jewish life, I have seen that projecting feelings, intentions and motives unto others, is the most devastating and divisive practice known to man.

 

Before being exposed to the explanations of Chassidus as to how the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva could possibly have been guilty of not behaving with respect towards one another which led to their deaths and the practice of mourning during the days of sefira (the Omer counting period), I always assumed that it was exactly this (on a subtle and lofty level) that caused the breakdown in mutual respect.  When I know nothing about you and your world, I can easily make a mistake about your inner thoughts and feelings.  Conversely, the problem is more easily rectified, if I make the effort to not only put myself in your shoes figuratively but to actually try them on and see the world from your perspective as Rabbi Akiva did when he went off to learn Torah. 

 

However, when I feel that I know everything about you, since we are both disciples of the same master, and I know what you know; if I become convinced that any difference of opinion is a result of impure motives on your part, it is almost impossible to prove otherwise and correct the situation.  Rabbi Akiva was trying to convey this all-important message to his students (and us), using his own less than stellar past as an illustration, but sadly, they were unable to assimilate that lesson.  Although, like the younger Rabbi Akiva according to Tosefos, they had no hate for their fellow students, and surely following the dictum of their master that “And you shall your fellow like yourself” is the great principle of Torah they loved each other, they still viewed each other with suspicion and this manifested as a lack of proper respect.

 

Interestingly, after learning the various explanations of the Rebbe on this issue from a Chassidic perspective, attributing the loftiest of intentions and the subtlest of flaws to the disciples of Rabbi Akiva, I found that it still all comes back to projecting unto others.  And the more subtle the projection, the harder it is to overcome.

 

LOVE TRUTH

 

The implications of the second point didn't have much relevance at that point in my life, since although I found the idea of such a Torah scholar revolting, the great people that I looked up to, such as Reb Moshe Feinstein and the like, were known for having limitless love and patience for simple G-d fearing folk.  We certainly didn't associate the highly caricatured Misnaged of Baal Shem Tov stories with any of the people we knew as great scholars.  It was only in later years that I picked up on more subtle undercurrents manifesting also as anti-Chassidic sentiment, and that forced me to rethink many things.

 

In fact, at least speaking for those that tended to be part of my more immediate circle of friends, we were more likely to look down on those that were somewhat learned, who despite having substantial gaps in their knowledge insisted on pushing themselves into high profile roles in public life.  The idea being that we could love and embrace somebody that doesn't know and realizes he doesn't know, but we had little to no tolerance for somebody that doesn't know but insists on proclaiming his views and opinions from the rooftops.  The worst of course, were those that spoke in the name of Torah and Judaism and said things that were wrong or misleading. 

 

This was also a basis for criticism of the Lubavitch institution of shlichus, since there were clearly no significant standards of scholarship as a prerequisite, so that there is a vast range amongst those who serve as shluchim, from formidable scholars to the minimally versed.  Since they are all committed to trying to impact as many Jews as possible, and as such try to exploit forums whereby they can reach larger numbers, oftentimes the ones whose voices are heard the loudest are those most likely to get it wrong.  I even knew one guy who collected stories of Lubavitchers making inane or inaccurate public statements on matters of Jewish law and religious outlook.  Of course, this was colored by a jaundiced view of Chabad Chassidic philosophy in general, and the modern day version of that philosophy in particular.

 

After I took the opportunity and the plunge to walk in Lubavitch shoes, I not only began to see the world and the Torah from a whole new perspective, I also became privy to a great deal of information that is not readily accessible to “outsiders.”  For instance, I became aware of how exacting the Rebbe himself has always been as regards the spoken and written word when offered for pubic consumption.  There are countless letters and notes where the Rebbe critiques and guides various writers and publishers, some of whom were and are brilliant scholars.  Time and again, and in his public talks as well, the Rebbe emphasizes the importance of getting even the smallest detail exactly right, not only factually but also perceptually from the reader's perspective. 

 

The Rebbe often insisted that people consult experts in the field with an emphasis on what will the reader think rather than on what you have to say.  This extended not only to accuracy of content and message, but whether it is worth bringing up certain questions or citing certain sources even for the purpose of debunking them.  Nobody in the history of the world ever put in as much time and effort screening, editing and critiquing even the smallest detail, of as many Jewish publications and radio broadcasts, as did the Rebbe.

 

Unfortunately, the phenomenon of spokespersons, “official” or unofficial, getting things wrong due to ignorance, misconception or aversion to controversy, has always been around and has only gotten more severe since the Rebbe is no longer playing a hands-on role.  Not to mention, those that knowingly twist and distort the Rebbe's words for reasons sinister or benign.  The most prominent and colorful example of this is the former shliach to a world respected university, whose love for the spotlight and penchant for prolific prose and prolix pontification particularly on private matters has positioned him as an expert on Jewish thought and practice, determining for a vast audience what is “kosher” and what is not.

 

On a number of occasions, I have been approached by people (including a non-Lubavitcher rabbi) asking if I was willing to debate this person on live radio or in writing.  Each time I have refused, as per the Rebbe's general guideline to avoid debates, especially when dealing with someone whose gift of gab and award winning debating skills may trump one's stronger grounding in traditional texts.  Another reason for my refusal, which surprised even me (as to how radical a metamorphosis I have gone through in my new shoes), is that I can't help really liking the guy despite never having met him.  I can't help myself, but I get a really huge kick out of the fact that he has grandiose ambitions to reach ever wider audiences in contrast to the exile induced provincialism of so many religious folks today. 

 

Because of these feelings of kinship, instead of feeling acrimonious when encountering any of his outrageous statements that conflict with the Torah and Chassidic point of view, I simply feel sad.  I am well aware that he has taken positions and promoted ideas that fall under the category of “exposing facets of Torah that are inconsistent with Halacha,” and I know full well the legal and moral ramifications of such behavior.  And yet, I can't help but grant him the benefit of the doubt that his is a case of good intentions and idealistic fervor (with some self-professed naked ambition thrown in) gone terribly awry, so I only see the tragedy of a caring, compassionate, talented and gifted fellow Jew and fellow Chassid gone astray.  And yet, the “love for peace” that enables me to give him (and all my fellow Jews that have and put forth differing or even unacceptable views) the benefit of the doubt must not supplant the “love for truth.”

 

SWEET TRUTH

 

The prophet Zecharya (8:19) says, “So has spoken G-d of Hosts, the fast of the fourth (month), and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth, will be for the House of Judah for joy and happiness and holidays, and truth and peace you should love.”  The commentaries explain the conclusion of the verse as being conditional; the prophecy regarding the transformation of these days of mourning and self-affliction into holidays with the coming of Moshiach and the redemption is contingent upon the Jewish people complying with the divine exhortation to love and embrace the traits and practices of truth and peace.

 

One of the challenges that Torah loyalists in public life have to contend with is finding the correct balance between the love of truth and the love of peace.  The Torah itself condones the practice of “altering for the sake of peace” and attributes such behavior to G-d Himself.  That would seem to indicate that peace as an ideal is more important than truth, as truth must give way to promote and preserve peace.  On the other hand, we find that when it comes to Torah law, a judge while encouraged to foster compromise between litigants, is warned against even the slightest deviation from truth for any reason, noble or otherwise, even for the sake of peace.  The Maharshal even goes so far as to say that if threatened by a gentile angered by some aspect of Torah law that makes him feel slighted, one is obligated to give up his life rather than distort a fact of Torah law.

 

Throughout the years, the Rebbe always took the position in his directives, talks and letters, that there is no such thing as true peace that is not based on the truth of Torah.  Pointing out that countless situations have come up over the past two plus centuries where the Chassidic movement encountered opposition that argued for toning down the message for the sake of “peace,” the Rebbe made it abundantly clear that the policy is and has always been that the truth does not back down.  Every effort must be made to preserve and promote peace, but that peace has to be based upon the truth. 

 

Tact, diplomacy, graciousness, as well as considerations of impact and effectiveness, are all elements that go into shaping and honing the delivery of the truth, in terms of the when, where and how. In personal interactions one may “alter” the facts for the sake of peace, and doing so is considered praiseworthy, but the facts and directives of Torah are sacrosanct and immutable.  If the Torah tells us that it is part of our job to deliver a certain message, then we do so even if it upsets somebody's idea of peaceful coexistence.  In fact, the Torah's law of rebuke requires that one must keep rebuking a sinner even a hundred times until the point that he reacts with physical violence.

 

This is and has always been the approach to promoting the teachings and messages of Chassidus as well.  Chassidim never backed down in the face of opposition based on specious arguments of preserving the peace.  The Rebbe did direct his Chassidim to avoid potential confrontation in the face of actual serious violence committed by Jew against Jew, but otherwise the issue was always how to get the truth out there, not “if” it should be done at all.  Clearly, the same holds true regarding the truth of the Rebbe's prophetic statements regarding Moshiach, which he explicitly instructed and exhorted us to publicize, in order to help ourselves and others prepare.

 

I am well aware of how weird it seems and how painful it can be when you are trying to share the ultimate in good news with the world, and the response of some ranges from the derisive to the vitriolic.  One can't help feeling like, “Hey pal, this is like good news, you know.  I don't need the grief if you can't handle a little sunshine in your life.  I wonder how you treat people who give you bad news.”  Yet, despite that feeling, we must remember that this too is a symptom of exile, holding onto the familiar suffering and affliction rather than enthusiastically looking forward to exchanging them for joy and happiness. 

 

Our job is to love and promote the truth while doing everything in our power to love and promote peace between all Jews, assuming the best about others as the prophet Zecharya says in the previous verse (8:18) cited in Tanya (Iggeres HaKodesh #22), “And man should not think in the heart about the iniquity of his fellow.”  This in turn, will enable us to finally experience the transformation of these days of mourning during sefira into days of joy in anticipation of the giving of the Torah, including the revelations of the deepest secrets of the Torah with the True and Complete Redemption, immediately, NOW!

 

 


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