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Are you wise?!

By Rabbi Jonathan Tawil
August 3, 2017

A Jew was riding on a train travelling through Russia. Seated next to him was a soldier of the Czar quietly boiling and seething with deep hatred toward the Jew. In one moment he let loose his anger to the Jew who, unaware of the danger, was staring into one of his holy books. He barked, “What makes you people so smart?”

The Jew was startled. He realized his life was at risk and he had better give the correct answer. Without hesitation, with help from heaven, he responded with perfect calm, one word -“Herring!” (That little bony fish) The soldier sternly inquired, “Do you have any?” The Jew acknowledged that he had a few pieces remaining which the soldier demanded with authority should be handed over to him.

Taking a big risk, the Jew refused and insisted he be compensated 20 Rubbles for the now desirous herring. The soldier hurriedly threw the money at him and took hold of the prize. In a one gulp, like a hungry bear, he swallowed the whole lot of them. After wiping his mouth brutishly he turned to the Jew, who had calmly returned to his books, and protested, “20 Rubbles for those few pieces of fish?! Where we are going to in Moscow I can get five times that amount for the same price!” At that point the Jew turned to him with a full face and declared, “You see, it’s starting to work already!”

Am Yisrael are known as a wise nation. The Torah states (Devarim 4:6) “Therefore be careful to observe them (Torah); for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’

What makes us such a wise nation?

The Torah hints to the secret in the above mentioned verse.

We are nation that is careful to observe – Ushmartem VaAsitem –we guard and perform. Rashi explains the difference between guarding and performing. Guarding is the learning Torah aspect, performing is the action of the Mitzvot. We learn and we put into practice what we learn. This enables us to internalise our Torah.

The Torah continues, it is not just those Mitzvot that we understand the meaning of that we perform, rather it is also the Chukim – statutes, in which we have no real understanding of, that enhances our wisdom and standing amongst the nations.

The story is told of an ignorant villager that used to live on his own. One day he had a yearning for fish. He made his way to the fishmonger and asked for the tastiest fish. Whilst paying for the fish, he asked the fishmonger for the best recipe that would bring out the delicious flavour of the fish. The fishmonger wrote a list of instructions including how to salt the fish, what herbs to put, what temperature to heat it at, and for how long. The man paid, put the recipe in his pocket and went happily home. He arrived home, placed the fish on the table, and got ready preparing the herbs. He was shocked to notice a cat, swoop for the fish on the table, and yank it away with his teeth biting the fish in his mouth, cunningly escaping through the window.

The man shook his head towards the cat, and with a smile on his face, said “Silly Cat, what good will the fish be to you, – I have the recipe!”

The Taamei (reasons) Hamitsvot  are tastes to the mitzvah. They give taste to the mitzvah, but the real Mitsva exists whether the taste is there or not.

Our Sages state that although we should endeavour to learn Torah and understand the Mitzvot, there are plenty of Mitzvot that are known as Chukim – they were given to us, and we should perform them even without fully understanding them. The fact that Hashem commanded us to do these Mitzvot, should be enough of a reason to perform them.

When the nations of the world observe our heritage, and they see how we have stood through the waves of history with our traditions; how we stand strong in the performance of Mitzvot that we don’t even understand, then they exclaim “This great nation is a wise and understanding people.”

Let us ensure we pass the mantle down through the generations, let us strengthen in our service of Hashem, through Mitzvot and Chukim and may we all be Zoche to the Wisdom of Hashem. Amen.

“Allow me now to cross over and see the good Land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon.” (3:25)

This good mountain – Jerusalem, And the Lebanon – The Holy Temple – Rashi

The Holy Temple was called Lebanon, which derives from the word, lavan [white], for through its remarkable powers of atonement, all our sins are whitened. – Sifri

Allow me now to cross over – Moses was not thinking about his own welfare when making this request. Rather, he feared that whoever would lead them into the Land would not complete the task and leave them at risk of being exiled eventually. Thus he requested, “Allow me to lead the people into the Land, for I will not rest until every last of its current inhabitants are driven out, lest they later entice the Jews to sin and cause them to be exiled from the Land.” His request was denied and his prediction proved prescient. – Sforno

If he requested to “cross over,” wouldn’t that automatically imply that he would “see the good Land”? R’ Menachem Mendel of Kotzk explained that many people merit to spend time in Israel, but few of them see only the good of the Land. Instead, they allow themselves to be sidetracked by the hardships and struggle that so often accompany one’s existence in the Land. Moses promised G-d that if he were allowed to enter the Land, he would only see “the good of the Land,” and not focus on its less savory aspects.


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