with Rav Avigdor Miller
Life and Free Will
Part I. Real Life
The Sanctuary Cities
In this week’s sedrah we read about one of Hashem’s commands to the Am Yisroel as they were preparing to enter into Eretz Canaan. כִּי אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן – When you cross over the Yarden to the land of Canaan, וְהִקְרִיתֶם לָכֶם עָרִים עָרֵי מִקְלָט תִּהְיֶינָה לָכֶם – you should designate for yourself, arei miklat, sanctuary cities וְנָס שָׁמָּה רֹצֵחַ מַכֵּה נֶפֶשׁ בִּשְׁגָגָה – and a killer who unintentionally takes a life shall flee there (Masei 35:10-11).
It’s talking about a man who accidentally killed a fellow Jew and now finds himself in danger of being killed by his victim’s family. The goel hadam – the “blood redeemer” – has the right to avenge the blood of his dead relative and so the Torah provides a safe haven, a place to where the accidental killer can escape. In the arei miklat he is protected from the goel hadam, וְלֹא יָמוּת הָרֹצֵחַ – and that way he will not die (ibid. 12).
But we’ll see now that not only was this city a place where v’lo yomus harotzeiach, where the killer is shielded from the vengeful anger of the goel hadam, but the Torah tells us that while he’s there in that city the beis din is also required to go out of its way to provide him with all the means of normal living. וְנָס אֶל אַחַת מִן הֶעָרִים הָאֵל – He has to flee to one of these cities, וָחָי – and there he will live (Devarim 4:42). And the Gemara says that more than just allowing him to find refuge, the word vachai means, avid lei midi d’tihevi lei chiyusa – You must make a life for him there in that city. Even though it’s a form of a prison for him there, but vachai – make for him a life; the beis din has to provide the rotzeiach with all the necessities for ordinary existence.
Life and Death
We don’t tell him to live on bread and water; he’s supplied with nourishing food and vitamins and medicines, everything he needs to live successfully. That, the Gemara says, is what vachai means – give him life; provide him with whatever he’ll need to live a normal life.
Now, in the crazy world we live in today, you might think it means they have to supply him with color TV. After all, what’s life without television? You know there was a big riot last year in one of the prisons upstate. The inmates broke windows and smashed tables. Why were they so upset? Because they only had ordinary TV, black and white TV. “It’s not a life,” they said. “We need color TV.” And so a special commission came, a state board of inquiry, and this committee of wise men sat down together b’koved rosh and thought deeply into what life means, about what living life to its fullest includes, and they concluded that the felons are right! How can you deprive human beings of color TV?!
But that’s not the Torah view of life. Watching television or the movies today means you’re going over to the dirty toilet and dipping a cup into the sewage and you’re drinking non-stop. The worst thing that can happen to a man is if he gets water on the brain – if he gets sewage on the brain then there’s no hope for him at all!
And so vachai means no television! Television is the opposite of life. Because “and you should provide for him life,” means not that you give him what the lowest element of society thinks life is about – vachai means you have to give him the means of living a successful life.
Jailing The Innocent
And that’s why the Gemara tells us a queer thing, something we wouldn’t have realized on our own. The sages say that included in this mitzvah of ‘vachai’ is, תַּלְמִיד שֶׁגָּלָה מַגְלִין רַבּוֹ עִמּוֹ – When a person has to flee to the ir miklat his teacher is also sent into galus with him. Just as you must supply him with a city where he can live out of reach of the hands of the goel hadam, and just like you provide him with all the necessities of life so that he should live a normal existence, you must also supply him with the opportunity of vachai, to live life most purposefully. And included in that is that we make his teacher, his rebbe, go into exile with him.
Now, the rebbe is innocent – it was the talmid who killed somebody bishogeg, not him – but when the student is sentenced to gointoexile, the rebbe is forced by the beis din to go with his student.
Imprisoning the Rosh Yeshiva
So the rebbe says, “What did I do?! I’m innocent! I have to be imprisoned in an ir miklat?!”
So we tell him, “We can’t help it. The Torah says vachai, that your talmid has to live.”
“Let him live,” the rebbe says, “I have nothing against him living. But why should I be sentenced along with him? I’ll write to him, I’ll visit him, but let him live without me!”
“No,” say our sages. “That’s not called living life without a rebbe.”
So the rebbe has to move; he has to leave his home and find a place to live in the ir miklat in order to fulfill the command of the Torah. If he has a yeshivah, he has to forsake his yeshiva; it’s his responsibility to go with his talmid into the ir miklat. And it’s based on the admonition vachai, he must live. Avid lei chayusa – “Make a life for him,” and there’s no life without a rebbe.
Sending a Torah Library
Now we could have thought that all this was in the olden days. In the ancient times when it was still forbidden to write anything except Torah, Nevi’im u’Kesuvim – you couldn’t write the gemara; even to write the mishnah was forbidden – and so the only source of Torah knowledge was a live rebbe. Some chumash you could learn on your own but that’s all – and even your chumash didn’t have any Rashi. And so, without your rebbe you were cut off from the fountain of Torah.
But after printing was invented – suppose we had the system of arei miklat today and one of our disciples was unfortunate enough to be sentenced to galus so we would think that it’s up to the beis din to provide him with a shas, a big shas with all the mefarshim, and all the rishonim and achronim too, and that’s how we’d fulfill this mitzvahof giving him spiritual life – give him a Torah library and that’s all he needs. So it would seem. The rebbe could continue with his great work maintaining his yeshiva wherever he was and he could make a big order from the Jewish book store and send a Torah library for the talmid.
The Meaning of Life
And yet there’s no such leeway given. Even today, with all of our printed books and with all of our Torah lectures on the telephone, when we have arei miklat again, this din of talmid shegala, maglin rabo imo won’t change. Vachai means not only that he should have food and clothing and medicine and seforim, but most of all he should have his rebbe too. And the rebbe would have to come personally because that’s what the Torah means when it says vachai. To live means you should live together with your rebbe.
Now we should try to understand why that is so. You know when you learn mathematics so the one who is teaching you mathematics is not giving you a part of his neshama. He’s taking a dry formula that he has somewhere in his pocket and he’s handing it to you – it makes no difference if he gives you the formula with a smile or with a sigh or with any kind of pious thoughts. You understand what kind of thoughts the teachers have in the schools usually, and so it’s lucky that the thoughts don’t go in with the mathematics. Thankfully the thoughts remain in his head and the disciples get only mathematics.
Torah Is Not Algebra
But that’s not the case here; Torah isn’t lehavdil like mathematical laws, like geometry propositions. It’s a big error to think that Torah is a set of abstractions. No, Torah is something different altogether – it’s a way of life; its teachings are intended to become part of your personality.
The problem is that people generally think in stereotypes; they think that just like an algebra teacher teaches algebra, so a Torah teacher teaches Torah. They’re the same thing – only one went to the university and one went to the kollel. And because the rebbe has certain information that you don’t, therefore you have to have to be in contact with him in order to access that information.
The truth is that you can’t blame people too much for thinking that way because today most of our Torah has been learned from pages that have no character, no personality, no emotions. Even the rebbes themselves are sometimes test-tube babies – they are the result of laboratories. They are the result of printed pages and so their ideas are all paper ideas – since the heter to write the Torah down was given, this gem of having a rebbe has been neglected to a certain extent. Because actually a rebbe gives so much more than Torah information.
Boarding The Ferry
The gemara (Kiddushin 70b) tells us that once an old sage came to visit Naharda’a. Now this sage was a disciple of the great Torah giant Shmuel and so Rabbi Nachman took the opportunity to ask him something about a certain halacha that was confounding him. Rabbi Nachman asked him, “Did you ever hear anything about this from Shmuel?” So the old sage said, “Yes, I remember when Shmuel was once about to take leave of us and he had one foot on the ferry boat and one foot on shore; when he was just about to board the ferry across the river he told us this halacha that you’re asking about.”
That’s how people knew their rebbe. Whenever they repeated anything of the Torah, the face of their rebbe came up before their eyes. The way he stood, the way he spoke, every nuance, it was part of the Torah.
The Breath of Your Nostrils
And that’s because Torah means not the halacha alone; it means much more. When the rebbe speaks, the talmid understands that he is accepting from his rebbe a part of his soul. The Torah was given over with expressions of countenance and with the participation of emotions in such a manner that it couldn’t be lifeless. Ki heim chayeinu! It was the lifeblood that passed from the rav to the talmid it became part of his soul.
And that’s what life is – that’s what a rebbe really is. It’s not merely a refinement. It’s not a luxury. A rebbe is mamash the breath of your nostrils. It’s your life in the world to come. That’s what we’re learning here and that’s what the Torah meant when it said, vachai. To live in this world means you should live together with your rebbe.
Part II. Choosing Life
The Gem of Free Will
Now, when we talk about the rebbe who comes to golus along with his talmid because of vachai; in order to help him live, we have to know that there’s something more that is included in the life that a rebbe provides. And that’s the great subject of וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים – And you should choose life. It’s a mitzvah in the Torah and it means that you should always be choosing the right path – the path that will lead you to life in the World to Come.
But first, as an introduction, it’s important to understand what a gem, what a rare bird, this ability to choose is. There’s nothing in the world as exceptional as free will. Because when you study everything in the world, you’ll see there’s no such thing as something acting on its own – every object in the universe, every process, every act, is the result of certain causes that made it be what it is or made it function like it does. There is nothing that acts independently of the laws of cause and effect that Hakodosh Boruch Hu implanted into nature at the time of creation. The wind doesn’t choose to blow; it blows because of a system that Hashem set into place. The rain doesn’t choose that today is a good time to rain; it’s all part of a calculated system of cause and effect that was created by the Keil Elyon, the Uppermost One who is making all the choices.
Brilliant Bird Brain
In the animal world too – all the animals follow the instincts which they were created with. A bird, you see it hopping across the sidewalk with a leaf in its mouth – that bird is going to build a nest. It decided it’s time for a nest? No. It will build a nest because it has a built-in program that tells it when to build a nest and how to build a nest. The bird is not choosing to do anything – it doesn’t understand a thing; everything it does is already encoded in its brain with all the details of what to do and how to do it without any instruction from its parents. It is born with the information already programmed into its mental computer.
If you see a bee setting out from its hive, even if it’s on its virgin flight, it doesn’t need any instructions. It flies in the most amazingly precise manner according to information that has been supplied to it by bees who have previously departed from the hive and left trails behind, certain signals whereby the young bee can set out and follow a pre-programmed path.
The bee even knows how to follow the angle of the sun’s inclination! It’s remarkable how the bee functions like a skilled navigator using both the signs that have been laid down by the pioneering ones who went before it as well as certain forces of nature like the sun and the earth’s magnetism. This little bee who never went to school – it wasn’t even homeschooled by the mother bee – and it visits flowers and collects pollen and nectar. And it does everything with the utmost efficiency! It doesn’t understand a thing but everything is coded on his brain with all details of what to do and how to do it.
And so that’s an axiomatic truth about creation – nothing in this universe has any choice; everything follows the patterns of wisdom which the Creator laid down at the outset.
Purpose of Mankind
However there is one exception to that rule. Mankind! Man has the free will to choose. That is something that we know from our Torah; it’s a self evident part of our Torah tradition because the Torah is constantly speaking to man, promising him reward if he chooses this or that and warning him, threatening him with retribution if he chooses the other way chalilah. Now, if a man was forced by his nature or by circumstances, then it wouldn’t make any sense to command him and it certainly would be unjust to punish him; reward would also have no place. So from the Torah we see that bechirah chofshis, free will, is a foundation of kol hatorah kulah.
And yet, for Olam Hazeh alone we would be happier if we didn’t have free will; we could have been given instincts for how to live successfully and like the cow in the field and the bird in the tree, we’d be satisfied. Nobody would make any demonstrations, there wouldn’t be any revolutions, there wouldn’t be any fights or divorces – there would be an ordinary settled manner of life. And we would go happily through life and then we would die like all the animals do. We wouldn’t have anything to look forward to, nothing to work towards, but at least this world would have been a successful career.
But unlike the rest of creation, our purpose is not Olam Hazeh; our purpose is the next world. And that’s why we are given this greatness that is beyond anything else in this world – because its purpose is beyond anything in this world.
The Greatest Question
So in a sense, free will is a gift that excels beyond all the forms of benevolence that Hakodosh Boruch Hu has bestowed on us in this world because it is the means by which we achieve the great happiness of the next world. The plain truth is that there is nothing greater than the opportunity to fulfill וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים, to choose life. Because what kind of life are we talking about? You’re choosing a life that is forever.
And therefore this brings us to the great question, what to do about this big responsibility? Hashem didn’t make you a bird or a bee after all – He gave you that very rare gift of free will, and so you have to spend some time thinking about this question. It’s not a small question at all – you shouldn’t think it is just some idle kind of philosophical discussion that doesn’t require your attention. Oh no, this is the question of all questions, probably the greatest question you’ll ever face: “What should I do with this tremendous responsibility?” After all, many people have spent their lives constantly choosing wrong and they’ve failed to accomplish in this world what they’re capable of.
Hiring a Mashgiach
And this brings us to one of the details in this subject of bechira that is too often overlooked – it’s the important principle of utilizing the free will in order to limit the free will. You hear that chiddush?! There are ways that we could take our ability to choose and utilize it in order to deprive ourselves of free will! And that’s the explanation for why you’re not considered living unless you’re under the watchful eyes of a rebbe. Because he’s forcing you to choose good; his presence forces you to choose life!
Now, I’m sure this is not appreciated because people don’t understand what it means to check your free will but I’ll give you an example, a common story, so you can understand. Let’s say there was a boy in the yeshiva who sometimes doesn’t come down to shacharis; it happens sometimes in the yeshiva. And so one day the mashgiach catches up to him and reproaches him, “What about coming to tefillas shacharis?” So what does the bochur say? He says, “I like to come without being forced.” He doesn’t want to be told to come.
Now that boy doesn’t realize that what he is saying is the opposite of common sense because one of the foremost ways to utilize your free will is to put yourself in a situation where you’re forced to choose life. You should like to be forced, you should want to be forced. Because when you choose to limit your free will by putting yourself under the watchful eyes of others, you’re making use of one of the greatest devices available for saving your life.
Praying for the Environment
Like the Mirrer mashgiach zichrono livracha, R’ Yerucham used to say, “To be muchrach on yiras shomayim, to be forced, that’s what we have to pray for.”
You know, in the yehi ratzon for the new month we say, חַיִּים שֶׁתְּהֵא בָנוּ אַהֲבַת תּורָה וְיִרְאַת שָׁמַיִם and also חַיִּים שֶׁיֵשׁ בָּהֶם יִרְאַת שָׁמַיִם וְיִרְאַת חֵטְא. So it seems like we’re repeating ourselves; we’re asking for Yiras Shomayim twice in the same paragraph?
I’ll tell you something that I heard more than sixty years ago, from my chavrusah in Slabodka, Rav Aharon Birzher, zichrono levracha. The Germans killed him – he was a talmid chochom, the son-in-law of the Kurdaneh Rav and he was murdered along with the Kurdaneh Jews. He said like this. The best thing is שֶׁתְּהֵא בָנוּ – we should have Yiras Shomayim, but in case we don’t have it ourselves, at least חַיִּים שֶׁיֵשׁ בָּהֶם – we should be in such an environment of Yiras Shomayim, that the environment forces us to be good.
Eternity through Externality
If you are in a kollel although you are not a big masmid, but you have to open a sefer once in a while. When the Rosh Kollel looks up from his sefer you surely have to! That’s a great benefit! That’s excellent!
The same also if you wear a black hat and you act like you are a frum Jew so your wife cannot be like a woman of the street and wear shorts because people will see her husband and look at her and it has to fit. So you are being forced into a certain form of behavior. Don’t disdain that! It’s a very great achievement, to look for externalities that force us to be better people, that force us to choose good. It’s a very important part of the mitzvah of u’vacharta bachaim, of choosing a life that gives you eternal life. The more we choose to restrict our free will and force ourselves to be beholden to better people, that’s already the road to greatness.
The Life Preserver
And therefore a talmid who had to go into golus, it could be he’s a big lamdan. We’re not talking about a sixteen-year-old boy who needs a rebbe to teitch the gemara for him; we are talking about a man of forty, fifty, sixty, he’s a big talmid chacham and in some cases he might even know more than his rebbe. He can leave his rebbe behind and make a yeshiva of his own in the ir miklat. So the Torah says, nothing doing! That’s not called life. No matter what, you need somebody; everyone needs a גַּבְרָא דְּמִסְתְּפִינָא מִנֵּהּ – a man of whom he is afraid (Moed Katan 24a). That’s the benefit of being close to a rebbe.
When the rebbe is around there is a certain force, something that restrains you; it makes you think two times and three times before you do something. How many people have gone lost because they didn’t know or they didn’t heed this admonition? You didn’t go lost altogether maybe, but surely you took many steps, you made many mistakes that you could have prevented if you had stuck to a rebbe.
No matter how well you can swim, the buffeting waves of life are more powerful than you can imagine. You know, if you’re at sea and you fall out of the boat and someone throws a life preserver to you, you don’t swim out on your own even if you’re an expert swimmer. You hold on because that’s your preservation! Vachai! As sure as you are of your ability to swim in this world, every man must hold onto his rebbe because that’s life.
Live Near Your Rebbe
It’s a tremendous principle that the gemara teaches: L’olam yador adam b’mekom rabo, a man should always live in the place of his rebbe (Brachos 8a). Some people today think that’s limited to chassidim, but even chassidim don’t necessarily fulfill this as it was intended. Some use their rebbe if they want to get blessings from him or that he should say a tefillah for them, or for advice in a difficult situation, but to live near the rebbe because that’s your life, that’s a concept that’s greatly overlooked. And it means therefore that people are overlooking life.
Of course you’ll ask, “Who is my rebbe? I had this rebbe, I had that rebbe. I went through the mesivta and I had six different rebbes, each year a different one, and they live at different addresses. Where should I move?” At least near one of them! Near the one with whom you had most shaychus, the one you were closest to.
See and Be Seen
You can’t move? Make sure you’re seeing him as much as possible. A lot of people don’t have anything. Women call me up on the phone, they’re having trouble with their husbands. So I said, “Which shul does he daven in?” If he would have a Rav she could call up, so that Rav could talk to him.
“He davens in a few shuls,” she tells me.
It means he’s a yasom. Friday night he goes to one place, Shabbos morning he puts on his tallis and he travels around various places. Mincha and Maariv if he goes, he goes to a different place.
I asked her, “Does he know the Rav in any one of the shuls?”
“No. He never went even to say good Shabbos to any of the rabbonim.”
Sometimes they tell me that his only rebbe is buried in Europe. That’s not enough. A dead rebbe can’t tell you off – he can’t keep his eyes on you. A man who doesn’t have a rebbe is a hopeless case. You’re not an insect or a bird who can rely on his instincts to be successful. A human being has to have a rebbe, somebody standing over him, otherwise it’s not called living.
Where to Move
If you never had a rebbe, that’s a big problem. It’s a big pity. Where should you live? Wherever your wife decides is the nicest neighborhood?! Should I move out somewhere in Briarcliff? A new community with new trees and new houses and new Jews. Everything you take into consideration when you move except for the most important one. The main principle is the one that’s mostly neglected, to remain b’mekom rabo.
Isn’t that a new idea? When you’re thinking of where to settle, to make sure it’s near your rebbe. Or at least a different rebbe even though it’s not yours. Aseh lecha rav means make somebody your rebbe! The rav of the local shul, a talmid chochom who lives nearby, somebody! Of course get the best one you can but whoever it is you have to stick to him. It doesn’t mean that you’re committed forever, but until you find somebody better, that’s your life.
Choose a yeshiva and move as close to the yeshiva as possible. The yeshiva will be your rebbe. It’s good to feel like the yeshiva men are looking over your shoulder. The yeshiva building is looking over your shoulder. The rosh yeshiva, the rosh kollel. It’s worth any amount of money to settle there. It’s very serious what I’m telling you now. The environs of a yeshiva are the healthiest places to live. You have no idea the effect it will have upon you and your wife and your children if you follow the prescription of chazal, le’olam yadur bimekom rabbo.
That’s it – the Torah laid down the law. And le’olam means always! Even when you are older and have grown independent. It could be you’re already a gavra rabbah, a great man; at least you’re married and you have children, even grandchildren, so you think you‘re something already. And maybe you are. But no matter; le’olam! Always! You should be as close as possible to your teacher, always, so that you should see him and he should see you. You must remain under somebody’s constant watch.
Part III. Ancient Life
Cause of The Churban
Now, in order to emphasize the importance of a rebbe looking over your shoulder, the gemara there tells us something about a great man that at first glance seems so remarkable that it’s almost difficult to accept. Chazal tell us that it was the violation of this teaching that caused the galus! The Churban Beis Hamikdash! You know why we’re mourning for the Beis Hamikdash today? Because Shlomo Hamelech made the big mistake of making decisions without his rebbe.
The gemara says that kol zman she’Shimi ben Geira kayam, as long as Shlomo’s rebbe, Shimi ben Geira, was still alive, lo nasa Shlomo es bas Pharaoh, Shlomo didn’t wed the daughter of Pharaoh. It was only after his rebbe passed away that he made the decision to marry her, which ultimately brought the destruction of Yerushalayim.
Now, you can’t tell me that Shimi ben Geira was bigger than Shlomo Hamelech. Shlomo was far beyond his rebbe and Hakodosh Boruch Hu had already put His stamp of approval on Shlomo that he was the chacham mikol adam (Melachim I 5:11). It means he was the genius of our history and he was fully competent to get along on his own. He could make decisions that were the best, so it seems to us.
Shlomo’s Encyclopedic Defense
And the truth is that if Shimi ben Geira would have confronted him, Shlomo would have had what to say. Let’s say Shlomo thought his rebbe was dead and all of a sudden after marrying the bas Pharaoh his rebbe shows up and says, “Shlomo what are you doing here?! You think that just because you converted her, it makes you right?!” So you can be sure that Shlomo had a big pilpul prepared, a maarachah, to defend his actions. Not like in the shaalos u’teshuvos, a maaracha with just ten anafim; oh no, that’s child’s play compared to the chochma of Shlomo. He would make a whole set of seforim defending his position.
There is a halacha sefer called Chazaka Rabbah, a big set, like a shas, all on the subject of chazaka. Chazaka Rabbah, a whole set like this. Shlomo Hamelech would make a set three times, ten times, as long as that! And he would prove b’osos u’mofsim that not only is it muttar, but it’s a mitzvah, a chiyuv to do that.
I spoke about that here last time, about Shlomo Hamelech’s derech in that. It was his great plan to increase kavod shomayim; to spread emunah in the world by marrying into many royal families and influencing the monarchies of the world. Whatever it was, Shlomo Hamelech could have defended himself mightily against his rebbe.
Rome Wasn’t Built in A Day
And yet the gemara says that only because his rebbe was no longer alive, that’s why he did it. He would never have done it with his rebbe still around. It’s a remarkable thing! Had he been in the shadow of his rebbe, had the rebbe had still been alive, Shlomo would have hesitated to take that step. He would have thought it over and something in his mind would have told him to hold off. The mere presence of Shimi ben Geira would have deterred him – despite Shlomo’s tremendous mind and his titanic ability to choose, the fact that there was someone in the background, that would have limited his gigantic free will.
It was only when Shlomo lost that someone, that’s when the seeds of the churban Beis Hamikdash were planted. The gemara says that at that time when Shlomo married the daughter of Pharaoh, a malach came down and put a stick into the ocean and seaweed began to collect around the stick. And then more seaweed and then sand and dirt, and after a while an island developed around that stick and there was formed the piece of land on which Rome was built.
Now that’s a mashal of course but it means that when Rome finally came at the end and destroyed the second Beis Hamikdash, that churban was a result of the first churban, and the first churban was a result of Shlomo’s misdeed.
Of course, it took many twists and turns from the day that he married the daughter of Pharaoh until the churban but our sages detected in the destruction of the mikdash and our being exiled from Eretz Yisroel a connection to hundreds of years previous when a great man didn’t have a rebbe anymore.
There’s a great lesson there that our sages are trying to teach us – having someone looking over your shoulder is so important that the future of our people hinges on it. The kiyum of the Am Yisroel, our success, depends on every single one of us living in the shadow of a rebbe, someone to look over our shoulder.
And that’s why one of the most important things that we mourn over during these days of aveilus is that we lost the system of nevuah; we lost an entire system of having people standing over us and guiding us. Of course we weep for the destruction of the House of Hashem and for the people we lost, the עַם הַשֵּׁם שֶׁנָּפְלוּ בֶּחָרֶב, but we should never forget that we are weeping too for the great opportunity that went lost when nevuah came to an end.
Now, if we’re going to mourn properly we have to know what we’re mourning for. It means we have to get a clear picture in our minds, what was the function of the nevi’im?
The Maggidim of Yesteryear
You know that up until about a hundred years ago there were maggidim, preachers, who used to visit the kehillos and speak to the Jewish people. They spoke for hours criticizing. The Kelmer Maggid used to come to towns and speak; he spoke for two or three hours. He was lambasting them. And don’t think the people didn’t come to listen. It hurt but they listened anyhow.
A man told me he remembers in aseres yemei teshuvah the maggid used to speak to the storekeepers about honesty in weights and measures. This man said he remembers, if you would take a walk outside of the town, you would find pecks and pints and bushels scattered all over because the merchants had thrown away these bushels or weights in order to buy new ones. They had been worn out and no longer gave exact measurements. That’s what the maggid accomplished in those days, not so long ago.
The Original Maggidim
But all this is nothing compared to what we once had. It’s nothing compared to the days of the nevi’im! When the navi came he spoke with the utmost vigor to denounce anything he saw that was wrong. Nobody – not the kings, not the talmidei chachomim, not the wealthy – no one was immune from his criticism.
And he wasn’t a public speaker, an entertainer who told them anecdotes; he didn’t hide his criticism between stories. He told them straight away what was wrong with them. The smallest sins were portrayed by the navi in the very worst words. That’s the system of nevuah. Nothing is considered small. And it was said in the bitterest way!
In some cases they attempted to silence the Navi by killing him. Zecharyah ben Yehoyada was killed at the order of King Yoash. He was criticizing the king in public and finally the king sent somebody to secretly attack the navi and killed him. It was a case that was never forgotten in our history. The blood of the navi was never forgotten. It was a rarity but it happened. Uriah Hanavi was killed by Yehoyakim. Yeshayah was executed by Menashe.
Oh yes, it was dangerous to be a prophet. Yirmiyah Hanavi says (Eicha 3:53) vayadu even bi, they threw stones at me. They attempted to kill him too – he was thrown into a quagmire and he was sinking until a colored man came along and saved his life. It’s interesting to know that – a black man saved the life of Yirmiyah Hanavi. The white Jews were afraid to save him because he had enemies but along came a black fellow, a slave, and he told the king, “Look! The navi is drowning in mud!” So the king said, “Take blankets and ropes and run to save him.” That’s how Yirmiyahu was saved. We’re grateful to the black people for that! But we see that he had been put there to drown in mud. And that’s because Yirmiyah had a bitter tongue. It wasn’t his tongue though – he spoke the words that Hakodosh Boruch Hu told him to speak.
But we must know that for hundreds of years people tolerated the navi. It doesn’t mean that everybody always obeyed him, but they allowed him to speak. Everyone understood that it was the best thing for the nation; the kiyum of the nation depended on hearing criticism, and having a rebbe.
What happened finally? At the end of the era of the first Beis HaMikdash, our resolve began to weaken and that’s when false prophets began to appear on the scene; it happened because people wanted other kinds of prophecy, not criticism.
Like Yirmiyahu in Eichah (2:14) said in the name of Hashem: נְבִיאַיִךְ חָזוּ לָךְ שָׁוְא וְתָפֵל וְלֹא גִלּוּ עַל עֲוֹנֵךְ לְהָשִׁיב שְׁבוּתֵךְ – Your nevi’im—not My nevi’im; your nevi’im—they saw for you visions that were false and meaningless, וְלֹא גִלּוּ עַל עֲוֹנֵךְ – and they did not reveal to you your sins, לְהָשִׁיב שְׁבוּתֵךְ – which would have brought back the captivity; it means it would have prevented the golus.
The End of Prophecy
So Hakodosh Boruch Hu said, “I gave you this great gift to help you in this world and the next world and now you’re becoming tired of it? So I’m taking away that gift.” And that’s why the nevuah stopped; the Churban Beis Hamikdash was the termination of the nevuah. At the beginning of Bayis Sheini there still remained some old nevi’im who continued to live on for a little while. And when they passed away no more navi ever arose.
It’s a remarkable thing; read our history – never again did anybody get up and say כֹּה אָמַר הַשֵּׁם – “So said Hashem…” That’s why in the New Testament – of course it’s full of sheker, the whole New Testament is nothing but falsehood – but Oso Ha’ish was very careful; he knew how to guard himself. He never said כֹּה אָמַר הַשֵּׁם, not even once. He prayed to Hashem, yes; he prayed to Hashem it says. He kept the seder. He said hallel. He said hallel at the seder – it says that b’feirush in the New Testament. Many things he did. But despite all of his boasts he never said, “So said Hashem…”. That he knew you can’t do! Because prophecy had already come to an end at the end of Bayis Rishon. The system of having someone appointed by Hashem to stand over you went lost.
Mourning and Its Reward
And that is the saddest of everything that we lost in the Churban because that was the success of the Am Yisroel. Up until then the Am Yisroelrelied on the nevi’im to guide them toward perfection in avodas Hashem. And that’s why those generations were so excellent; never again did we have such good people as we had in those days when the nevi’im stood on guard and they lambasted every wrong thing that they saw. We were made aware and we became better and better.
And therefore we have to remember always what we lost when the nevuah stopped. When prophecy came to an end, we lost one of the most precious gems our people ever had, the gift of unbiased and unlimited criticism that guides us to everlasting life. And it’s that gift that we try to relive in our own lives by always being close to someone who will look over our shoulders and guide us. That’s the lesson of vachai — and he should live successfully in the ir miklat; it’s the lesson that “living” means to live a life of coming closer to Hashem by means of asei licha rav.
And if as a part of our mourning for the ancient days we remind ourselves of those days and we too try to use that gift of limiting our free will by accepting the guidance of others then we b’ezer Hashem will be included in that great promise of כָּל הַמִּתְאַבֵּל עַל יְרוּשָׁלַיִם זוֹכֶה וְרוֹאֶה בִּישׁוּעָתָה – Those who mourn for Yerushalayim will be rewarded that they shall see the salvation of Yerushalayim (Taanis 30b).
Have A Wonderful Shabbos
Let’s Get Practical
One Minute a Day of Choosing Real Life
Life means living with a rebbe who forces you to limit your free will and choose only to do good. From now until Tishah B’Av, I will bli neder spend thirty seconds thinking about the loss that befell our nation when we lost that great system of nevuah whereby the nation was being taught and watched and criticized. And then I will spend another thirty seconds thinking of practical ways that I can gain that same perfection we once had, by means of choosing a Torah teacher who will stand over my shoulder and help me “choose life.”