Baruch Hashem, Rav Weinberger has approved this version of my write-up of his drasha from this Shabbos, parshas Ki Seitzei. See here for past shiurim at YUTorah.org's website by Rav Weinberger both as Mashpia at YU and from the past 20 years. You can also click on one of the following links to subscribe to the shiurim: email, rss feed, podcast, or iTunes. Please note that these drashos will only be available online for one month. If you notice any mistakes, please let me know so I can correct it. If you are interested in a particular drasha that is no longer online, you can email me (right sidebar) and I'll send it to you IY"H, BL"N.
Click here to get Dixie Yid in your e-mail Inbox or here to "follow" me on Twitter.
Rav Moshe Weinberger
Parshas Ki Seitzei 5776
Beyond Black Fire
The Torah, in this week’s parshah, lays out the punishment of one who violates one of the prohibitions in the Torah (Devarim 25:1): “You shall lash him 40 times, do not add...” The Mishnah (Makos 22a), however, explains the Torah as follows: “How many times do we lash him? Forty minus one, as the Torah says (Devarim 25:2-3), ‘in number forty...’ – i.e., a number that is close to forty.” Rashi explains that this means the “calculation which completes the total of forty, which causes it to reach forty, i.e., thirty-nine.”
The Gemara (Makos 22b) makes a remarkable comment about this derivation regarding the number of lashes given to a sinner: “Rava says, how foolish are those people who stand up before a sefer Torah but do not stand up before a great man. With regard to a sefer Torah, it says ‘forty,’ but the rabbis came and subtracted one.” In other words, the Torah, on a simple level says one thing. But the great men of Chazal are so brilliant and so great that they demonstrate an understanding of the Torah even deeper than its simple meaning, an understanding that yields a number of lashes one less than the proscribed count in the plain meaning of the Torah’s text. How can one stand up for the Torah without standing up for those who demonstrate a brilliance even more profound than the simple understanding of the Torah!
Rav Pinchas Friedman, shlita, connects this Gemara to well-known Midrash (Devarim Rabah 3:12): “Reish Lakish said, ‘The Torah given to Moshe is parchment of white fire on which is written black fire.” This is similar to the Yerushalmi (Shkalim 16b) which says, “The Torah which Hashem gave to Moshe was given to him as white fire imprinted with black fire.” We see from these teachings of Chazal that the black ink of the letters we are able to read in the Torah are compared to black fire and the white parchment in the background is compared to white fire.
Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, zy’a, explains this idea in Kedushas Levi (Likutim, d’h “B’maseches Megilah”). He quotes Chazal’s explanation (Vayikra Rabah 13:3) of the passuk (Yeshayahu 51:4), “For Torah will go out from Me,” to mean that “The Holy One said, ‘[In Moshiach’s times,] a new Torah will go out from Me, a renewal of Torah will go out from Me.” He points out that this Midrash is extremely disconcerting in light of the fact that one of the fundamentals of our faith is that the Torah we have today will never be exchanged or changed even iota. What then do Chazal mean that when Moshiach comes there will be a new Torah?
The Berditchiver explains that that the black letters, the black fire of the Torah, is accessible to everyone. It understandable to everyone on its simplest level, “black on white.” On the other hand, the white parchment, the letters made of white fire, are the embodiment of the hidden aspect of the Torah, the aspect of the mind and intentions of G-d, so to speak, which cannot be expressed in finite words. The letters of white fire are only accessible to great people, those who have purified their thoughts, words, and actions to such an extent that they are able to look beneath the surface of the black letters of the Torah and into the white parchment below. The true hidden meaning of the Torah, the white fire on which the black fire of the letters of the Torah are written, is the “new Torah” that will be fully revealed at the time of the redemption.
In the fourth chapter of Tanya, the Alter Rebbe, zy’a, explains that just as G-d is infinite, so too His wisdom is infinite. Yet in His mercy, He constricted this infinite wisdom into the finite and comprehensible letters of the Torah. The color white corresponds to chesed, kindness, which is expansive and infinite. And the color black corresponds to justice and constriction. In Hashem’s kindness, He created the black letters of the Torah to constrict His wisdom to enable us as finite beings to grasp this constricted light of His wisdom.
While a deeper revelation of Hashem’s wisdom, the white fire of the Torah, will be accessible to us in the world to come, Hashem has given a taste of that light to the Sages of each generation who know how to look beyond the black letters of the Torah into the primordial parchment from which they were drawn – a taste of G-d’s infinite wisdom preceding its constriction.
We can now understand the Gemara’s statement, “How foolish are those people who stand up before a sefer Torah but do not stand up before a great man. With regard to a sefer Torah, it says ‘forty,’ but the rabbis came and subtracted one.” The black letters, the black fire of the Torah, seem to require “forty” lashes. But the Sages are so great that they can access the wisdom of the white fire, the deeper essence of Hashem’s will hidden in the white parchment. If one stands for the simple meaning of the black letters of the sefer Torah, how much more so must one stand for the people we depend on to access the deeper essence of G-d’s will!
But why does the Torah use the way Chazal explain the punishment of a sinner as the paradigmatic example of the depth of a “great man?” Why not something more pleasant? What do we learn from the fact that the greatness of the talmidei chachamim is demonstrated through the fact that they lessen the number of lashes given to one who intentionally violates the Torah?
One of the greatest leaders of his generation was Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, zt’l, of Vilna. His brilliance was beyond expression. It has been recounted that eye-witnesses saw Rav Chaim Ozer simultaneously writing a letter, responding to a halachic question, and correcting a his wife’s retelling of a newspaper article from the kitchen. It happened one summer that Rav Chaim Ozer met Rav Meir Yechiel Ostrovtzer, zy’a, a tzaddik and talmid chacham from the chassidic movement. Rav Chaim was extremely pleased with the opportunity to “talk in learning” with the Ostrovtzer because he had heard extensively of his brilliance in Torah.
Rav Chaim Ozer was hoping that the Ostrovtzer would share a novel Torah idea with him. In order to elicit one, the Rav began sharing his own Torah insights, hoping to spark a satisfying debate. The Rebbe, however, was extremely humble. Whatever the Rav said, the Rebbe simply nodded, “yes, a beautiful idea.” After several minutes of this, the Rav said in frustration, “Didn’t I hear about you that you are a great man!”
The Ostrovtzer then responded, “What does the Gemara call a ‘great man?’ One who can turn forty lashes into thirty-nine. Why does the Gemara demonstrate a Chazal’s greatness using such a morbid topic? It could have demonstrated this by showing how they took the fifty days counted between Pesach and Shavuos and made them forty-nine, a much more pleasant subject.” Rav Chaim agreed that this was a good question. The Ostrovtzer continued, “We see that the Gemara defines a great man as one who sees a Jew suffering, even a sinner, and does what he can to remove even a little bit of his pain. Brilliance in Torah is profound and critical to the Jewish people. But we chassidim define a great man not as a leading scholar, but as one who looks beneath the surface of a wicked man’s life in order to show him compassion.”
An average Jew may only be able to read the black letters of the Torah, whether the surface life of another comports with the simple directives of the Torah. But the sign of a great man is that he knows how to read the white fire below the black text. He knows how to see below the black surface of a sinner’s life to the pain beneath. May all of us merit to taste greatness while still in this world and witness the full revelation of the white fire of G-d’s wisdom with the coming of Moshiach and the complete redemption soon in our days!
Click here to get Dixie Yid in your e-mail Inbox or here to "follow" me on Twitter.