Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Lesson for Shavuos: Your spiritual (& physical life) comes before that of others

One of the most important lessons about spirituality I learned from  Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach because of the following Shaarei Teshuva. Everybody knows the gemora (BM 62a) that when there are two people in the desert with only one container of water - that you don't sacrifice your life by giving your water to the other person. Similarly the mitzva of "loving your fellow as yourself - the commentaries note that it can't be understood literally since your life comes first. 

When I read the following while indexing the Mishna Berura (Yad Yisroel) I was puzzled. How could it be that if there is a spiritual opportunity that you can not give it up to help another person? After all doesn't the Chofetz Chaim say that serving G-d with all your might means that you must be prepared to sacrifice that which is most precious to you. Therefore if you are Talmid Chachom you should be prepared to sacrifice your learning for the sake of serving G-d?

The lesson mentioned below for Shavuos is that Boaz did not want to sacrifice the spiritual opportunity to be the ancestor of Dovid HaMelech and therefore concealed the importance of marrying Ruth. Similarly Yaakov didn't want to miss the opportunity to be the ancestor of the Jewish people and therefore he bought it from a starving Esav with food - instead of simply feeding him.

I asked Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach why in the case of the prisoners with one kazayis of matzoh they have to fight over it and one can not simply allow the other to take it?

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach answered:. If you possess the matzoh you can give it to another person. However if neither of you have the mitzva - then you have to strive to obtain it. The reasoning is simple. By not making an effort but simply passively letting the other take the mitzva you are showing a contempt for the mitzva. You are showing that it really doesn't mean anything to you. However once you have the mitzva - then the giving the other person the opportunity does not show a disrespect for the mitzva.

Bottom line: The Torah(Devarim 1:17) says that one should not withdraw when confronted by any man. That means if you know the halacha - you can not refuse to pasken. You can not pretend you don't know the halacha. Nor can you refuse to question your teachers because they are so much superior to you (Sanhedrin 6b).  Similarly, one can not be shy and  humble when it comes to acquiring Torah learning or doing mitzvos. (See Mishna Berura in simon 1).

Shaarei Teshuva (482:1-2) The Beis Yehudah asks when two people are in prison or in the desert and there is only enough matzo for one of them to fulfill the mitzva – who has priority? He answers that whoever is stronger gets the matzo. But this answer doesn't seem correct because then the matzo would be considered stolen from the other party and thus not able to used for the mitzva. … Apparently then the Beis Yehuda's case must be in the case where the matzo is ownerless. This would thus be no different than other situations where somebody acquires something from hefker such as leket shicha and peah….You take precedent over everyone else – even concerning something which is needed to live…. In the case of two people in the desert, the halacha is that it is prohibited to give up your portion of water to save the other – even if both die because of this. If this is true concerning material things than it is surely true concerning spiritual issues. The commentary to Megilas Ruth - Igros Shemuel -  comes to a similar conclusion. Boaz referred to Ruth as a Moabitess when he is talking to one who has the first right to marry her. He did this because he knew with his ruach hakodesh that Ruth was destined to be the ancestress of the royal family of Dovid. He wanted to frighten the person away from marrying Ruth so that he himself could marry her and thus be the ancestor to this great lineage. Even though it is prohibited to deceive someone to get their possessions, that is only when dealing with material possessions – but not mitzvos. Even though it is prohibited to take mitzvos from others such as mila, nevertheless wherever the other has not actually obtained the mitzva it is like the ownerless desert which can be taken by anyone. Everyone is commanded to perfect his soul and to acquire mitzvos.  This can also be seen with Yaakov concerning the rights of the first-born. Yaakov knew that Esav was driven to do evil and that he needed the rights of the first born to perfect himself. … Therefore if they have the matzo in partnership, if one overcomes the other than it doesn't help for the mitzva since it is stolen. However there still remains the possibility that there is a partial mitzva done with less than the minimum quantity (i.e., chatzi shiur) according to the Ritva . According to this possibility than each one should hold onto his half and achieve a partial mitzva and neither would be allowed to give up his part to allow the other to fulfill the complete mitzva and he would lose the mitzva entirely. But it would seem even according to the Ritva it would be better to cast lots. Then the person who won would achieve the complete mitzva but the loser would still achieve reward for the mitzva since he was responsible for the other being able to fulfill the mitzva completely. This would be comparable to the Yissachor Zevulen relationship….because the complete mitzva is very much greater that the reward for a partial mitzva. And when it is done complete by means of another he merits and causes his brother to merit with him and it is not considered as giving up the mitzva since he is doing this by means of the lottery. Similarly if he gives to his portion to the other willingly it would also seem that there is nothing wrong since this causes that the mitzva be done fully. This would surely hold true according those who posken that there is no mitzva at all for chatzi shiur… Thus one who voluntarily gives up his portion to enable the other one to fulfill the mitzva properly gets reward with him and it is considered as if he did the mitzva in its entirety by himself…


  1. BUT... "yenemz gashmius iz meiner ruchnius". It is quite likely this is the yesod of the famous machloqes between R Yisrael Salanter and the CC about whether you should ask mechilah for LH the other didn't know you said about him, and would be hurt to learn about. The CC places your own kaparah first; RYS places his feelings first.

    Just thinking out loud.

  2. How are posts getting published at 3:45pm EST? You're not home in Y-m????

    1. Post was published 3:45 Israeli daylight savings time - about 3 hours before candle lighting time - dont know why it should show up differently on your computer.

  3. Great source.
    Thanks for sharing!
    I will use this on Shavuos in a talk.
    Just remember, this is in a case where it's impossible to share the Mitzvah.
    Only then, does one's out ruchniyos come first.
    This source is not addressing a case where one can share a mitzvah (i.e. taking time from one's own learning to learn with others, etc.).
    A good Yom Tov!

  4. The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught the opposite: that one should give up opportunities for one's own spiritual growth in order to help others. (That said, I'm not sure if he was addressing precisely the same kind of factual situations you're describing.) The Gutnick edition chumash includes summarizes of his statements of this nature. I don't have citation handy at the moment.


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