In our discussion last week of the tsunami, we described Torah as the ultimate tzura (form) whose purpose it is to give shape to every aspect of existence – above all our own lives. In the context of our lives that means constantly asking ourselves: What is the Torah ideal that applies in this situation?
As the Vilna Gaon writes in his commentary to Mishlei (23:26), "The goal and primary purpose of the study of Torah is to know the straight path in which to go in order to serve Hashem. . . Knowledge of Hashem is knowledge of the path in which to walk."
Only by seeking to apply our Torah knowledge to every aspect of our lives can we make the Torah part of us and not something that remains forever external. While the following may seem like a list of pet peeves, it is meant to illustrate how a more thoughtful approach to the lessons of the Torah would profoundly affect many aspects of our common behavior.
In some yeshivos, bochurim routinely address one another by their last names. To some extent, this is a function of convenience – there are usually fewer Rosenblums than Yaakovs around (though if your name happens to be Cohen or Levy the situation is reversed).
This form of address ignores the great importance that the Torah places on a name. A name defines a person's essence. Both halachah and minhag stress the great importance attached to a person's name, and some of the most frequently asked shaylas pertain to naming after deceased relatives. Until very recently, Jews did not even use family names. One was simply known as ploni the son or daughter of ploni.
To call someone by his last name, then, is to strip him of his essence, and to deny his individuality. Doing so, immediately interjects a barrier between the speaker and the one being addressed, and serves as a bar to developing any real closeness.
A BOCHUR AT ONE OF ERETZ YISRAEL’S FINEST YESHIVOS told me recently that I would be shocked if I heard how some bochurim scream at the foreign workers in the yeshiva. He hastened to add that those who ordered around the foreign workers, as if they were yelling at a misbehaving dog, constitute only a small minority. But that minority shows no fear of the disapproval of their peers.
The Torah forbids inflicting unnecessary suffering on an animal, much less a human being created b'tzelem Elokim (in the Divine Image). And the Chafetz Chaim emphasizes that the pain caused by treating a person with a lack of basic respect is often greater than that caused by a physical blow. Indeed humiliation is considered a form of murder.
The Alter of Kelm empathized so intensely with the suffering of his fellow men that he could not bear to walk on a road in Kelm that he knew had been built with convict labor. The suffering of those who had built the road cried out to him.
And our greatest Torah figures have always excelled in their efforts to treat every person, no matter how menial his position, with the greatest respect. As a young yeshiva student in Torah Vodaath, Rabbi Moshe Sherer was assigned to accompany Reb Elchonon Wasserman. Reb Elchonon's first morning in America, he asked Rabbi Sherer to teach him how to say, "Good morning", so that he could properly greet the elevator operator. Reb Elchonon practiced saying "Good morning" for a long time, before he was willing to leave his room and enter the elevator.
Once Reb Yaakov Kaminetsky and another prominent rosh yeshiva were riding together in a taxi, whose radio was blaring raucous music. The other rosh yeshiva was about to ask the cabdriver to turn off the radio, but Reb Yaakov stopped him. The cabdriver worked a long and tedious day, he pointed out, and the music soothed his nerves.
The Kuzari famously describes a Jew as existing on a level above other human beings created in the Divine Image. That statement is not meant to indicate the lowliness of other human beings, but the incomprehensible elevation of a Jew. When we treat others in a humiliating fashion, with no sensitivity to the Divine Image within them, we belie our own spiritual elevation.
PERHAPS THE MOST SERIOUS EXAMPLE of the failure to integrate the teachings of the Torah into our daily behavior is the way we drive. A Mashgiach recently commented to me that it has been more than two decades since Rav Schach, zt"l, issued a very strong condemnation of yeshiva bochurim renting cars during bein hazemanim. And, he added, there has not been a single bein hazeman since in which there has not been some tragedy involving yeshiva students driving.
The reason is not hard to find, at least not for anyone who has ever watched a rented car filled with young bochurim blast past on the highway. As one swivels to see who is driving so fast, one invariably finds oneself staring into a sea of smirking faces. Action, speed – those are the goals. The thought that a car is a lethal weapon, both to those within and to everyone else on the highway, is the furthest thing from the driver's mind.
How can those immersed in the study of Torah so completely miss one of its fundamental lessons: the preciousness of every moment of life – one's own and that of everyone else?
None of us will reach the level of sensitivity to human suffering of the Alter of Kelm, or to cry copious tears at the end of the year over six minutes unaccounted for, as the Vilna Gaon once did. But neither are such stories supposed to roll over us like water off a duck's back. We become serious, thoughtful Jews only by taking the Torah seriously, and constantly asking ourselves how it applies to our every action.