| Magazine Feature |

Believe That You Can   

Hagaon Rav Reuven Feinstein on choices in chinuch, how to feel the pain of Eretz Yisrael, and the source of personal greatness

On Shavuos we celebrate that moment in history when we stood at the foot of a mountain and heard the roar of the Aseres Hadibros.
The Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh comments on the pasuk, “V’atah tetzaveh es Bnei Yisrael” (Shemos 27:20) that the word “tetzaveh” can mean “escort.” Through the talmidei chachamim of each generation, Moshe Rabbeinu continues to escort the People whom he led, loved, and sacrificed for.
In honor of the Yom Tov of kabbalas haTorah, we asked a series of questions to one of the great talmidei chachamim of our times, Rav Reuven Feinstein shlit”a, rosh yeshivah of Yeshiva of Staten Island, and received the Rosh Yeshivah’s sage advice in response.


The Gemara (Pesachim 68b) discusses the tension between the spiritual and the physical when celebrating a Yom Tov. It concludes, “hakol modim d’ba’Atzeres ba’inan nami lachem,” that all agree that on the Yom Tov of Shavuos there must be an element of “lachem,” of physical enjoyment. The Gemara continues, “mai taima — why is this so? Yom shenitna bo Torah — it’s the day on which the Torah was given.” But the pasuk in Devarim (9:9) tells us that when Moshe was on the mountain for 40 days, he didn’t eat or sleep. Does this imply that accepting the Torah mandates full abstinence from physicality? How do we reconcile this? And how should we be educating our children in terms of striking a balance between spirituality and physicality?

Torah itself is entirely ruchani. It has no physical bearing at all. Moshe Rabbeinu went up to Shamayim to receive the Torah and existed during that time completely devoid of physicality. Only Moshe was capable of this. Even Eliyahu Hanavi, who also spent 40 days and nights on Har Sinai, did so with the energy he mustered from eating beforehand (see Melachim I 19:8). The pshat isn’t that Moshe abstained from eating and drinking for 40 days and 40 nights, the pshat is that he didn’t need to eat or drink for 40 days and 40 nights. But in this world, we relate to the Torah from a physical perspective. The Torah is meant to elevate the physical. The Zohar teaches, “istakel b’Oraisa u’bara alma,” that Hashem looked into the Torah and created the world. What this means is that the entire purpose of the Torah was so that it should allow us to live an elevated life in this world. Without Torah we’re not people — we’re like animals.

The way this manifests in chinuch isn’t to encourage prishus. Rather, the lesson is that everything we do should be for a purpose. We can — and should — engage in Olam Hazeh, but only for the purpose of growing in ruchniyus.

The Torah describes Matan Torah as being a terrifying experience to the point where, “nafshi yatza b’dabro (Shir Hashirim 5:6), Klal Yisrael lost their souls. But in what seems to be a direct contradiction, there’s a pasuk in Tehillim (19:8) which says that Torah is meshivas nafesh,” it restores the soul. Should we relate to Torah as something fearful and imposing, or as something to enjoy and delight in? If it’s the latter, then why was Matan Torah such an awe-inspiring experience?

This is the same yesod as the previous one. The Torah, when coming straight from Hashem, is too powerfully spiritual for us to withstand. We heard the first two dibros from Hashem — Anochi and Lo yihyeh — and our nefashos leaped out of us. Only Moshe Rabbeinu was able to hear the dibros straight from Hashem, just as he was the only one able to live for 40 days and 40 nights without food.

We, who must live in a physical world, can’t withstand such intense spirituality. On the contrary, the Torah we live with is meshivas nefesh, it restores the soul, for it allows us to live with spirituality even within our physical existence.

Before Matan Torah there was tremendous achdus. The pasuk tell us, “Vayichan sham Yisrael neged hahar” (Shemos 19:2), which Rashi explains to mean, “K’ish echad b’lev echad.” This wasn’t happenstance, it was a necessary predicate to Matan Torah. Does this apply today as well? If so, what does that mean practically? As we approach Shavuos, how do we reach the requisite level of achdus?

What k’ish echad b’lev echad means is that everyone had the same interest. They all wanted to hear the Torah. Think about it — Korach, the Meraglim, Dasan and Aviram were present at the time. Yet they all wanted to hear. It was how they interpreted what they heard that was the problem. The way to fulfill k’ish echad b’lev echad today is for each person to strive to ensure that his family is “on the same page,” that their primary interest in life is Torah. We may not all look or sound alike, but our ultimate desire is the same — to come closer to the Torah and to Hashem Yisbarach.

The Gemara (Shabbos 89a) interprets the word “sinai” to refer to “sinah,” hatred. When the Torah was given, hatred toward Klal Yisrael came to the world. How can it be that Torah should result in something so devastating?

The hatred that the nations of the world have toward us is rooted in the fact that we’re the Chosen People. And we gained that status at Matan Torah. The umos ha’olam have a choice. They can either look to us as the Chosen People and learn from us, or they can look at us as the Chosen People and despise us. We see this happening today. They all hold the State of Israel to a higher standard. That’s fine, but what about them? They don’t have to live by that standard? They realize we’re special, but aren’t willing to be inspired by us. The “sinah” of Sinai is the hatred of people who know we have something special but refuse to acknowledge that they can, and should, be influenced by its radiance.

Something we all have to work hard on during this time is sensitivity to others. As the war drags on, it becomes harder and harder to feel the searing pain endured by our brethren in Eretz Yisrael. The Rosh Yeshivah’s father, Rav Moshe Feinstein ztz”l, was known for his tremendous nesius b’ol im chaveiro, his ability to feeling the pain of others. Can the Rosh Yeshivah share some of the stories about Rav Moshe’s sensitivity for fellow Yidden?

When people ask me to share stories about my father I say, “You tell me a story about your father!” The Rosh Yeshivah was the only father I ever had. Everything he did seemed so basic and natural.

But I’ll share two anecdotes that come to mind. The first is that when I was a child, I slept in the room in which the Rosh Yeshivah learned. The Rosh Yeshivah was always writing. He would sit facing the window, his back to the door. But when someone arrived at the doorway, although the carpet muffled any footsteps, he’d immediately drop his pen and turn around. He sensed the person and wouldn’t keep them waiting for a moment. When the visitor would take leave, the Rosh Yeshivah would turn back to his notes, right back to the word he was in the middle of writing.

The second anecdote is a story I witnessed. Rav Elimelech Bluth z”l and I, were with the Rosh Yeshivah when an elderly woman entered the office. She began describing to the Rosh Yeshivah how spaceships were coming and aliens were after her. The Rosh Yeshivah listened intently for about an hour. Then he said, “It’s getting dark. You should probably go home before the spaceships come back.” She said, “Yes, yes,” and left. Then the Rosh Yeshivah turned to us and said, “You have to listen to these people because no one else pays attention to them.”

The Torah was given in the midbar prior to us entering Eretz Yisrael. But the Midrash tells us that, “Ein Torah k’Toras Eretz Yisrael.” More explicitly, the pasuk (Yeshayahu 2:3) says, “Ki miTzion teitzei Torah udvar Hashem m’Yerushalayim.” In light of this, it seems strange that Matan Torah took place outside of Eretz Yisrael. Additionally, Talmud Bavli, which is more widely studied than Talmud Yerushalmi, was compiled in chutz L’Aretz. Is that to say that there are pluses and minuses to learning in chutz l’Aretz vis-à-vis Eretz Yisrael? Practically speaking, should a yungerman make it a priority to learn in Eretz Yisrael? Should it be accepted for bochurim not to learn in Eretz Yisrael?

The idea of Torah being given outside of Eretz Yisrael is to reflect what we’re taught in Maseches Megillah (10b), that the Aron was “eino min hamiddah,” the Aron didn’t take up any space. The Torah is spiritual and can’t be bound by time, space, or any other physical limitation.

In terms of learning in Eretz Yisrael, it all depends on whether or not it will be conducive to a person’s learning. We’re taught “avira d’ara machkim,” the very air of Eretz Yisrael brings wisdom. Many connect with this and, indeed, see significant growth in their learning while in Eretz Yisrael.

If, however, a person feels that, for whatever reason, his learning will suffer if he leaves where he feels most comfortable, then it wouldn’t be advisable for him to go to Eretz Yisrael.

Har Sinai was chosen as the mountain upon which the Torah would be given because of its humility. How does one maintain humility when he knows his own greatness in Torah? How do we balance humility with the confidence needed to deliver a shiur or issue a psak halachah? In terms of chinuch, should we inculcate the importance of humility on our bochurim, or allow them to take pride in being bnei Torah, even if it borders on gaavah?

To answer this question, we have to define “anavah,” humility, properly. A person certainly has to know his capabilities. The Rosh Yeshivah used to say, “You can’t do it? Then you won’t be able to do it.” We’re only able to do that which we’re confident we can do.

The Gemara in Bava Basra (10b) tells of Rav Yosef brei d’Rabi Yehoshua who fell unconscious and his neshamah ascended to Shamayim. Later, he returned to consciousness and his father asked him, “Mai chazisa,” what did you see?” Rav Yosef responded, “Olam hafuch ra’isi.” I saw an upside down world. “Elyonim l’matah v’tachtonim l’maalah,” those on top are on the bottom and those on the bottom are on the top.”

Rav Yosef was describing how, in Shamayim, those who were “on top” in this world are considered inferior to those who were relegated to the “bottom” of society. Rabi Yehoshua responded, “Olam shapir ra’isa,” you saw a correct world.

My father, the Rosh Yeshivah, asked, “What is it that Rav Yosef didn’t know? He wasn’t aware of the fact that, down here, we respect people not worthy of respect and vice versa?” The Rosh Yeshivah answered that the “elyonim” that Rav Yosef saw were, in fact, elyonim. They were superior to the “tachtonim” in their diligence and knowledge of Torah. However, they were placed below the tachtonim. Why? Because the tachtonim fulfilled their potential, while the elyonim didn’t. The elyonim completed Shas 50 times, but they could have done so 100 times. They’re therefore considered inferior to those who barely completed Shas but worked as hard as they could.

A great person remains humble by measuring his standing based on his potential rather than his accomplishments.

A part of this is recognizing that no two people have the same yardstick of success because no two people are the same. We learn that in Sedom, they would chop off the legs of the tall people and stretch those of the short people. In Sedom, they wanted everyone to be the same. It’s exactly what the liberal mindset of today is. Everyone is the same and should be treated as such, even when that is so damaging. Women can be given tasks in the army that they aren’t physically capable of performing, but since they have to be the same as men, we can’t hold that bias. This is the philosophy of Sedom, and it has no place in the Torah, so much so that Hashem didn’t simply cause Sedom to be destroyed — He destroyed it Himself.

Because Hashem created everyone with unique abilities and Sedom sought to uproot that, it was a direct challenge against Hashem’s plan for creation, and so He Himself eradicated them from the world.

Everyone is different and everyone’s metrics for success are different. Recognizing this allows a person to maintain humility even while confident in his accomplishments.

The Gemara in Shabbos (146a) tells us that at Matan Torah, it was “paska zuhamasan,” the influence of the nachash was diminished, and we achieved a level of purity that existed only prior to the cheit of the Eitz Hadaas. This seems in line with the gemara (Kiddushin 30b), which tells us that, “Barasi yetzer hara, u’barasi lo Torah tavlin — I created the yetzer hara and created the Torah as its antidote.” This means that Torah, by its sheer spiritual force, has the power to cleanse us of all inner evil. We live in challenging times. In terms of chinuch, should we be addressing the raging “yetzer haras” head-on? Or, as per the Gemara’s teaching, let the kedushah of the Torah “work its magic,” as opposed to holding overt discussions about spiritual challenges?

We have to define “yetzer hara.” If you want to eat ice cream, is that a yetzer hara? No, it isn’t. It’s a natural human desire. It’s a yetzer hara when you’re fleishig and you want to eat milchig ice cream. The inclination to violate halachah and eat the ice cream anyway — that’s a yetzer hara. When the Gemara says, “Barasi yetzer hora, ubarasi lo Torah tavlin,” it doesn’t mean that the Torah makes our natural human desires disappear.

The kedushah of the Torah counters the influence of the yetzer hara in terms of stopping the temptation to pursue this desire because you know it’s wrong. So regarding learning to grapple with the actual desire, this is something that should be discussed. As far as a strategy to combat the persuasions of the yetzer hara, which is a step after desire, for that, Torah is the most powerful weapon.

Does the Rosh Yeshivah have any closing remarks to share as divrei chizuk for the upcoming Yom Tov of Kabbalas HaTorah?

We always read parshas Bamidbar before Shavuos. Why is this? The Rosh Yeshivah used to say that when you count Klal Yisrael, everyone has the same significance in terms of number. The greatest talmid chacham counts as one person, and so does the greatest am haaretz.

How can we consider them to be equal?

The Rosh Yeshivah would point to a Rashi in parshas Va’eira to further this question. There (6:26), Rashi tells us that at times the pasuk places Moshe before Aharon, and at other times, after Aharon. This, says Rashi, is to teach us that they were “shkulin k’echad,” equal.

This is difficult to understand. Moshe Rabbeinu was the Av Haneviim. He ascended Har Sinai and received the Luchos. How can we say that Aharon was equal to him?

The Rosh Yeshivah explained that Hashem gives every person kochos — capabilities — which he is expected to maximize. Moshe Rabbeinu was great because he maximized his kochos. Aharon was his equal because he, too, maximized his kochos.

Anyone who maximizes his kochos is like Moshe Rabbeinu.

We enter the Yom Tov of Matan Torah having learned that Hashem sees us capable of receiving the Torah just like Moshe Rabbeinu did. For this reason, we’re taught (Megillah 6b) that a person who says, “Yagati v’lo matzasi — I toiled but didn’t find,” isn’t believed. Hashem believes you can do it! How can you say that you can’t? Not everyone can understand Torah at the same level, but we all have a connection with it. We all have kochos — and Hashem wants us to live up to them.

May we all be zocheh to be mekabel the Torah with all our kochos — just like Moshe Rabbeinu.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1015)

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