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Lost in the Crowd

An entire generation is being raised to not possess seichel and dei’ah


Last week, as we read Megillas Esther, one trait took center stage more than any other, and it remains of great relevance to us today. It is called moral courage.

Moral courage? Is that even a Jewish middah? A quick scan of the tables of contents of the Orchos Tzaddikim, the Mesillas Yesharim, and Chovos Halevavos does not turn up a reference to any such ideal.

But of course it’s there, referred to using many different, perhaps more familiar words. All these classic sifrei mussar extol bitachon, trust in Hashem, and yiras Shamayim, fear of Him. They laud emes, standing up for truth, and zerizus, alacrity, while disparaging chanifah and atzlus, flattery and indolence. They all speak of mesirus nefesh.

Perhaps the term “moral courage” isn’t a familiar one, perhaps it’s not yeshivish parlance. But whatever phrase one wants to use, that middah — summoning the inner resolve to do what is right in the face of great opposition — plays a pivotal role in many of the most important events described in Torah: numerous episodes in the lives of Avraham Avinu, Moshe Rabbeinu, and Dovid Hamelech, the stories of Yehoshua and Kalev, Nachshon, Pinchas, Eliyahu, and many more.

And it is at the heart of the Megillah, too. Mordechai Hatzaddik displays this courage when he refuses to bow before Haman. Actually, the Megillah states, “V’lo kum v’lo za mimenu,” meaning that Mordechai did not even so much as flinch when Haman walked by.

In the Novardoker network of yeshivos, the year was divided up into many individual tekufos, monthlong periods when the students would focus their spiritual avodah on a particular middah. One such period was devoted to achieving psychological independence from others’ reactions of any kind, whether acclaim or censure. It was sometimes called the tekufah of “Lo kum v’lo za,” and what those young men were working on was developing moral courage.

Further on in Megillas Esther, we find one of the most dramatic episodes of moral courage in all of Tanach, when Mordechai encourages Esther to go before Achashveirosh to plead for her nation. The personal cost for her was huge: She would be risking her life, and forever severing her marriage to Mordechai, thus sealing her tragic fate of lifelong imprisonment in the palace of an unspeakable rasha.

But there are other intimations of moral courage in the Megillah, too, of a different sort. Rather than spiritual bravery in the face of potential death and bodily harm, these take the form of the courage to face down public opprobrium and risk ostracism.

The Midrash describes the scathing internal critique Mordechai faced for refusing to bow to Haman, and the Alter of Kelm explains its subtext. Early in Achashveirosh’s reign, the Jews of Shushan had ignored Mordechai’s warnings not to attend the feast he held for his subjects. They went and partook, seeking to avoid the king’s murderous wrath, and no negative consequences seemed to ensue from their participation.

A full nine years later, when Haman ascended to power, Mordechai stood alone in obstinate refusal to bow before the empire’s second most powerful man (although doing so did not constitute actual idolatry). And almost immediately, Haman succeeded in having a decree of annihilation issued against the Jews.

It seemed eminently reasonable to believe that it was Mordechai’s reckless provocation of a powerful, hate-filled Amaleki that was the proximate cause of the looming genocide of the Jews, not their attendance, over rabbinic proscription, at a long-forgotten royal banquet a decade earlier. Mordechai’s moral courage, then, required him not only to stand firm against Haman, but against the charge issued by some of his own people that he was a rodef of Klal Yisrael.

But if, in the Alter’s rendering, this incident illustrates the concept of emunas chachamim, a further verse in the Megillah adds yet another dimension to it, and to the notion of moral courage, too. Incensed by Mordechai’s dismissal of him, Haman decides to kill not only Mordechai but the entire Jewish People. Why? “Because they had told him of the am Mordechai,” the nation to which Mordechai belonged.

Haman had no idea that Mordechai’s refusal to bow was a matter of internal Jewish controversy; he assumed Mordechai was acting on religious principles shared by all Jews. And as Rav Yitzchok Blazer, rav of Peterburg and leading talmid of Rav Yisrael Salanter, explains, Haman was convinced that getting rid of Mordechai alone was insufficient; this was a “Jewish problem” that needed to be solved. Rav Blazer writes:

Haman knew that Jews are different. If a Jewish leader were to eat meat during the Nine Days, for example, that practice wouldn’t spread; to the contrary, a rejection of his actions would be widespread. Haman understood that even if Mordechai were to somehow break and agree to bow, he would be written off by his people as a fallen leader. The Jews would not follow his mistaken lead, because they are trained to be critical thinkers, each one individually carrying the responsibility for fulfilling the Torah. Haman thus realized that the only way to ensure he would not be disgraced was to annihilate the Jews entirely.

Moral courage means a leader like Mordechai must have the inner conviction to do what must be done regardless of public opinion. But it also means Jews are not a herd, whether that means mindlessly following other straying sheep or an errant shepherd.

We live in a time when, as one turns the pages of our publications, we find that so much that goes on in the frum world consists of mass programs and drives and causes. There’s great comfort in numbers, and feeling part of something larger fulfills a basic human need.

More importantly, joining with other Jews is a prime Torah value. B’rov am hadras melech is a halachic concept, as is Chazal’s teaching of eino domeh merubim ha’osim es haTorah l’mu’atin ha’osim es haTorah.

Those crucial concepts, however, are supposed to make Jews a tzibbur, not a herd. When Jews gather in large numbers to honor Hashem and to do His Will, that increases kevod Shamayim, and is a wonderful thing.

But crowds are not inherently positive. They can also make people lose their ability to think for themselves and they blur individual identities. We live in a time of crowdfunding and crowd-sourcing, but when a crowd doesn’t necessarily bring greater glory to Hashem, joining one ought to be approached with due care — particularly if somehow, somewhere, someone is making a profit off those numbers.

Thinking for oneself instead of being just a voice in the crowd might sound ever so “enlightened,” perhaps not-quite-frum-enough. But Rav Dovid Soloveitchik, who I believe is above suspicion as a maskil, wrote:

To our chagrin, one of the things that’s been lost in this generation is the idea of daas. Once, bnei Torah were bnei daas and they knew how to dissect each issue with due consideration of the factors and understanding…. But today, people don’t engage in any independent thinking; rather, everything’s influenced by the street and the newspapers…

My father z”l had complaints against me because whatever he said I immediately agreed with and I never debated with him. He wanted me to not automatically accept what he said without debating, because he too always wanted to hear if it was possible to take a position different from his….

Rav Yerucham z”l taught that a ben Torah has to have his own mind and be a bar daas so he can achieve self-knowledge in Torah and yiras Shamayim. But today, it’s considered assur to think at all, and one who thinks for himself is immediately regarded as having a lack of emunas chachamim. An entire generation is being raised to not possess seichel and dei’ah.

In order to grow we can’t just go with the flow.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 904. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com)

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