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D'var Torah by Dr. Kalman Stein, Head of School

Dr. Kalman Stein, Head of School

Dear Hebrew Academy Community: 

I think most of us agree that allowing guilt to be both a major preoccupation and the significant motivator of our actions is not a prescription for a healthy life. But is there room for some form of guilt in the wholesome religious life of an observant Jew?

I once asked a student if he had put on Tefillin on Sunday morning. He very candidly responded that he was often too lazy to put on his Tefillin or to pray. My initial reaction was one of which the Berditchiver Rebbie would have been proud. The Berditchiver was famous for always judging his fellow Jews in the most positive way. It is told that he once encountered a Jew smoking a cigarette on Shabbat: “Surely you don’t realize that today is Shabbat.” “No, I know what day it is.” “Then surely you’ve forgotten that it is forbidden to smoke on Shabbat.” “No, I do know that.” Whereupon the Berditchiver turned to God and said, “Master of the Universe, see the greatness of Your people: They always tell the truth.” And that was my initial reaction. I went to a yeshiva high school which naively assumed that all of the boys would pray before arriving for school for classes. I don’t know whether that assumption was valid for most of my schoolmates. It unfortunately was not valid from me. I only put on Tefillin on mornings when I was afraid my parents would notice if I hadn’t. But if my Rebbie had asked me if I had put on Tefillin that morning, there is not even a remote possibility that I would have admitted that I had not done so. I would have been too embarrassed. So when my student admitted that he often did not put on Tefillin my initial reaction was positive: How refreshing was his honesty; how wonderful that he would candidly tell the principal of his yeshiva that he often just blew off this religious obligation. How terrific was it that he felt comfortable enough with me that he could admit this and not fear that he’d be berated!

But as I thought about it I began to reconsider. Honesty is great and as a school administrator it was lovely that students trusted me sufficiently to be honest with me. But did this honesty not demonstrate that he was not at all embarrassed; that he had chosen not to obey one of God’s commandments and did not feel at all badly or guilty about it?

A significant portion of Parashat Bechukotai is taken up by the Tokhakha, the long litany of all the terrible things that would befall the Jewish People if we ignore our religious obligations. Near the very end of the Tokhakha we read:

וזכרתי את בריתי יעקוב ואף את בריתי יצחק ואף את בריתי אברהם אזכר והארץ אזכר --
I will remember My covenant with Yaakov, My covenant with Yitzchak, and My covenant with Avraham, and I will remember the land (of Israel).

Most commentators view this Pasuk as a pause in the litany of punishments, as God’s assurance that despite all of our shortcomings the relationship between God, the Jewish People and the Land of Israel is eternal. The custom in many Shuls is to demonstrate our fear and discomfort with this list of punishments by reading it very quickly and almost in a monotone but to raise one’s voice for this Pasuk and to read it in the normal way. We then to go back to the low monotone for one more verse which returns to theme of punishment before concluding loudly with God’s promise of an eternal bond with Am Yisrael.

Some commentators, however, think that our Pasuk is, and should be read as, part of the chastisement. They argue that it makes no sense for the Torah to pause for one Pasuk and to then add just one more sentence about punishments before the uplifting conclusion. This Pasuk, they explain is equivalent to God wagging His finger at us and saying: “Don’t tell Me you aren’t aware of my expectations. I made them very clear to your father Yaakov, to your grandfather and to your great-grandfather, and I made it clear again when I gave you Eretz Yisrael. Don’t try to convince Me that you aren’t aware of My expectations.”

We all have our shortcomings. We all occasionally fall short of our religious obligations. While it is never “all right” to sin or to fail to perform a Mitzvah, it is understandable that at times we must acknowledge our human weakness and feel embarrassed and guilty—to ourselves and to God—about our faults. Ignoring Mitzvot without a shred of regret or guilt, without appreciating that Mitzvot are divine commands we are bound to obey, is very different. We do not want guilt to motivate our children (or us) to perform Mitzvot but perhaps it is appropriate if they (and we) do feel pangs of guilt and embarrassment when we choose not to obey the will of the Creator.

Shabbat Shalom,

Dr. Kalman Stein
Head of School

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