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The Systems of the Jewish Year

Spiritual Competition

By Rabbi Yaacov Haber

The Torah speaks of the greatest moral heights and the lowest moral depths to which we can sink.

“ ... and if you despise My Laws, and your soul reject My social regulations so that all My commandments be not fulfilled, whereby you break My covenant, then I also will do the same unto you ...” (Lev. 26: 14-16,).

Rashi in this parsha seems to have illuminating insight on every sentence. The phrase quoted above: “And if you despise My laws” ("Ve-im bechukosai timasu"), explains as: “If you despise the performance BY OTHERS of My laws”. The Mizrachi (R. Eliahu Mizrachi of Constantinople, 1448-1526, commentator on Rashi) explains this as meaning: “If you yourself perform mitzvos, but resent the same thing in others”!

It seems that when it comes to having a blessed life or G-d forbid a cursed life depends not only on our personal performance of G-d’s will but at how we react when others do the will of Hashem. Why would anyone who keeps the Mitzvos despise someone else that does the same?

Sometimes, how we react to others speaks louder than what we choose to do or not do.

It is perhaps easiest to understand this by considering the workings of organizations. Suppose we are involved with teaching Torah, and have built up a certain reputation, and then some other person (or organization) moves into town, to do the same. Our reaction will depend on what we view as the purpose of our work. If our teaching is for the glory of G-d, then we should be pleased about it: the more, the better! But if it is for our own glory, then we may find ourself resenting the newcomer. His presence, and his successes, detract from our status. We are no longer the only game in town.

As we come towards the end of the period of counting the Omer, let us remember that during part of this period we mourn the loss of thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students. We may assume that they all learned the Torah day and night, and observed the mitzvos. So why did such a terrible fate befall them? The Gemara says that they did not show proper respect to one another. Rashi explains: they did not rise for one another, and they called one another by their first names.

We can assume that the students of Rebbi Akiba were extremely accomplished in their Torah. The important question was how did they feel about the accomplishments of their colleagues? Clearly, they did not need to show one another the same respect they showed their Rebbe, Rabbi Akiva, but they should each have realized and been excited about the fact that their colleagues were also talmidei chachamim. By the fact that they did not show one another some elementary courtesy. (Instead of addressing a colleague, for example, as “Chaim”, they could have said: “Reb Chaim.") It seems that they felt that somehow their colleagues accomplishments diminish their own! It seems that they forgot why they were studying Torah and that each student was more concerned with his own status as a Torah scholar than with the accomplishments of his colleagues.

Among observant Jews, there is probably not such a great problem with resenting our neighbors’ material progress (their new home, or their new car). But there is, I am afraid, quite a problem with resenting their spiritual progress, whether in learning or whether in the performance of mitzvos. Perhaps we feel that such progress on their part threatens our own status, or even shows up our own deficiencies!

It is the right time of year for us to look around, find the “competition” and have some nachas. Hashem’s honor is growing! Then we can look at our own lives and watch G-d’s blessing pour in. 

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