Last Thursday, the 10th of Shevat, marked the fifth yahrzeit of my dear uncle, HaRav Sholom ben R. Moshe Feivel, zt”l. It is only appropriate that we dedicate the column he created to words of eulogy that both lament the passing of a tzaddik and also serve as a celebration of his life’s accomplishments.
These lines appeared on the first yahrzeit (2/2/01), but they are relevant now, especially in light of Israel’s ongoing battle for its peace and security.
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We read in Parashat Mishpatim (Shemot 22:5), “Ki tetzei esh u’matz’a kotzim ve’ne’echal gadish o hakama o hasadeh, shalem yeshalem hamav’ir et ha’be’era – If a fire goes forth and finds thorns, and a stack of grain or a standing crop or a field was consumed, the one who kindled the fire shall make restitution.”
Based on this verse, the mishna (Bava Kamma 60a) extrapolates legal culpability for damages, stating: “If one causes a fire and it consumes wood, bricks or [scorches] the earth, he is liable, as it says, ‘If a fire goes forth’ …” The Gemara questions why it was necessary for the pasuk to mention all these items, namely, thorns, a stack of grain, a standing crop and a field. In the course of the discussion that follows, it is clear that the mishna considers allowing a fire to go forth equivalent to having sent out [or caused] the fire.
The Gemara proceeds with a homiletic discussion. R. Samuel bar Nachmani said in the name of R. Yonatan that calamity only comes when there are wicked people in the world, and it always begins with the righteous, as stated in the verse, “If a fire goes forth and finds thorns …” When does a fire break out? When there are thorns nearby. However, it always begins with the righteous, as it says, “… [A]nd a stack of grain … was consumed.” The phrasing is not hypothetical but factual, “was [already] consumed.” (The wicked are compared to thorns whereas the righteous are metaphorically compared to a stack of grain that produces fruit – see Maharsha, Chiddushei Aggadot ad loc.)
The Gemara offers another reason why the righteous suffer although the punishment is intended for the wicked. R. Yosef refers to the verse in Parashat Bo specifying the instructions to the Children of Israel so that they will not be smitten by the Plague of the Firstborn (Shemot 12:22): “U’lekachtem agudat ezov u’tevaltem badam asher basaf ve’higa’tem el hamashkof ve’el shetei ha’mezuzot min ha’dam asher basaf ve’atem lo tetz’u ish mi’petach beito ad boker – Take a bundle of hyssop and dip it into the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with some of the blood in the basin; and none of you shall go out from the door of his house until morning.” The Gemara explains that we learn from the latter part of the verse that once permission is given to the Angel of Destruction, he does not distinguish between righteous and wicked. Moreover, he even begins with the righteous, as it is stated (Ezekiel 21:8), “Ve’hish’chatti mimech tzaddik ve’rasha – I will cut off from you the righteous and the wicked” (mentioning the righteous before the wicked). R. Yosef started to weep, saying: Are the righteous worth so little that they are punished even for the wicked? Abaye answered [with words of comfort]: It is indeed good [for the righteous], for it is written (Isaiah 57:1), “Ki mipnei ha’ra’ah ne’esaf ha’tzaddik – The righteous is taken away from the evil to come.” (Rashi explains: so that they do not see the evil that will come.)
R. Yehuda stated in the name of Rab (regarding the interpretation of the pasuk in Parashat Bo instructing the Children of Israel not to leave their houses until morning): A man should always enter [a town] by daytime and leave by daytime. (The Gemara uses the term “ki tov,” “because it is good,” to denote daylight, referring to the fourth verse of Bereishit, “Va’yar Elokim et ha’or ki tov,” which describes the light as being good. Rashi remarks that daylight is also the proper time to enter or depart from an inn in order to protect oneself from evil spirits and highway robbers.)
Why is a second reason given to explain the fact that punishment starts with the righteous? Is not the first reason, offered by R. Samuel in the name of R. Yonatan, sufficient? However, R. Yosef’s interpretation of the pasuk in Parashat Bo leads to the halacha stated in the name of Rab – which we find in Piskei HaTosafot, Pesachim 2 – that when one enters or leaves a town, one should do it by daylight. This is a rejoinder regarding security that should not be taken lightly.
My uncle, HaRav Sholom Klass, zt”l, always underscored, during all the years that I was fortunate to benefit from his guidance, that one of the main purposes of The Jewish Press was to serve as a voice of conscience and a vehicle for disseminating information to the worldwide Jewish community. He even ventured to say that had there been, during the Second World War, a publication fearless in reporting the true story of the genocide perpetrated against our people, many of our brethren might not have perished at the hands of the German Nazi beasts.
Indeed, it was his reporting of events and his enabling of so many erudite voices to pen their articles that kept the readership focused on the importance of security for the viability of the State of Israel. And when asked why so many innocent Israelis are killed in the never-ending conflict with the Arabs, he quoted the above Gemara in Tractate Bava Kamma.
The Gemara clearly explains that security is a matter of halacha; it is obligatory, and as such we are required to address it with utmost care. Eretz Yisrael, the land all our readers love and which my uncle loved as well, can only remain ours if particular care is taken to fulfill this halacha.
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The Gemara (Shabbos 105b) quotes R. Chiya b. Abba in the name of R. Yochanan to the effect that he who is lax in the eulogy of a scholar does not live a long life. R. Chiya b. Abba also said in the name of R. Yochanan that when a brother dies, the other brothers should worry [that they will die shortly] and [similarly], when one of the chabura (company) dies, all the members of the chabura should worry.
Rambam (Hilchot Avel 13:12), the Tur and the Mechaber (Yoreh De’ah 394:5) all quote this Talmudic statement and rule that all the members of the chabura should be afraid. Indeed, many of our great sages explain “chabura” as referring to the entire generation. This is a most unusual halacha, especially since Rashi understands “yid’agu” (worry) as fear of death. In the preceding halacha (13:11) Rambam has explained that one must not be overcome more than is accepted in one’s grief over the departed since this is “the way of the world” [namely, that people die. He bases this opinion on a statement of R. Yehuda in the name of Rab (Mo’ed Katan 27b), who said that he who is overwrought by grief beyond measure will end up weeping for yet another departed].
In which way, then, are fear and grief to be exhibited? Rambam notes that one should concentrate on the examination of one’s deeds and on teshuva, repentance. That is also the ruling of the Mechaber (op. cit. 394:6).
Repentance is a goal to which our generation must aspire. But it can only be accomplished when individuals are knowledgeable about the mitzvot incumbent upon them and thus realize when they have sinned. And this knowledge can be attained through the study of Torah.
This was one of the goals of my uncle when he founded The Jewish Press, and it has remained its guiding principle. The numerous Torah columns and discussions that appear on these pages week after week enrich the Torah-true life of a multitude of readers. Indeed, if my uncle’s passing leaves a lasting impression that causes the return of some to the ways of Hashem, that would serve as a great consolation to his blessed soul.
Yehi zichro baruch. ◙