The articles in this column are transcriptions and adaptations of shiurim by Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l. The Rav’s unique perspective on Chumash permeated many of the shiurim and lectures he presented at various venues over a 40 plus year period. His words add an important perspective that makes the Chumash in particular, and our tradition in general, vibrant and relevant to our generation.
The Gemara (Chulin 92a) compares different segments of knesses Yisrael to components of a vineyard. This is consistent with the Torah comparing man to a tree (Devarim 20:19). Rav Shimon ben Lakish comments that the branches of the vine represent the baalei batim, a term that Rashi explains to mean the people who are involved in the various core community institutions, such as charity organizations. The scholars are compared to the grape clusters, the core fruit of the vine. The simple people (amei ha’aretz) are compared to the leaves of the vine, which provide shade and protect the fruit and the vine.
Each of these aspects of the vineyard are critical, as the fruit in particular and the vine in general cannot survive without any of them. The leaves of the vine, like the peel that surrounds the fruit, is referred to as shomer l’pri, the protector of the fruit, for without it the delicate fruit would not survive. The various components of the vine are indeed similar to their corresponding features in a human being, who cannot survive without the lungs and the various organs that support, protect and sustain life.
Judaism has always valued every Jew, regardless of station. All Jews are required to assemble once every seven years during the festival of Sukkos, from the wood chopper to the water drawer (Devarim 31:11). Hakhel was not limited to the intellectual or wealthy elites. The covenant that Hashem forged with Moshe on behalf of the Jewish people includes every Jew. The Gemara mentions that the grape clusters refer to Moshe and Aharon, the paradigm of what a Jew can be. However, while it is important to treat the scholars like Moshe and Aharon with proper respect, one must not diminish the dignity of other jews who are not at that level. Without these Jews, the scholar could not reach his level.
Rashi (Chulin ibid) notes that the common people are critical to the system as they work the fields and provide the food and basic materials that the scholars require. The schiolar must never make demands on the community, the other components of the vineyard, and become a pose’ah al roshei am kodesh, one who treads on the heads of the holy nation (Sota 39a). For example, a scholar should not expect or take pride in the honor accorded him when others stand up for him when he enters a room.
The Rav related a story of Rabbi Akiva Eiger, the scholar par excellence of his time, who traveled for the first time to the city of Pinsk, Lithuania for the wedding of his son. When he arrived, the people of the city unhitched the horses from his wagon and carried his carriage into the city as a sign of honor. Rabbi Akiva Eiger wept quietly and recited the confessional prayer; he was bewildered as to how he could have come to a situation of treading on the heads of the holy Jewish people.
While there is an obligation on the rest of the community to honor the scholar, the scholar must be very careful never to take it for granted and to be mindful of the dignity of the Jewish people. (Note, a similar idea can be seen in Parshas Yisro, where Yisro rebuked Moshe for making the people stand all day while he sat in judgement. Rashi notes that Yisro rebuked Moshe for apparently taking lightly the dignity of the holy people, Shemos 18:13).