Parsha Pearls: Parshas Mishpatim

It’s Our Vote that Counts in Heaven!
The Insane Call the Sane Insane
The Meaning of the Sapphire Brick
When We Don’t Follow a Majority

And he shall surely heal. (21:19)

The Gemora in Bava Kama 85a says, “From here we learn that a doctor is permitted to heal.” Rashi explains that if not for this verse, we might have said, “The Merciful One smites, and this man heals?!” Similarly, Tosafos says that the Torah uses a double expression “heal he shall heal” because if it had only said “heal” one time, we would have thought that a doctor may only heal a wound inflicted by a person, but to heal a sickness would be like going against the decree of the King.

Special permission was given for a doctor to heal, but in general the principle remains true: taking action to reverse a situation brought about by Hashem is considered rebelling against Hashem’s decree. This is all the more true in the case of effort to end the exile – not only is there no special permission for such effort, but it was explicitly forbidden. (Rabbi Moshe N. Kahana Shapira, printed in Daas Harabbanim, p. 38)

Follow the majority opinion. (23:2)

At the Knessia Gedolah of Agudath Israel in Marienbad, 1937, the central topic of discussion was the recent proposal of England’s Peel Commission to partition Palestine, designating a piece for a Jewish state.

When Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman and Reb Ahron Kotler saw that the Knessia was even considering the idea of a Jewish state, they wanted to leave in protest. But Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, who was ill and not able to attend himself, sent them a message that they should not leave.

The Brisker Rav, who was not at the Knessia, was also very angry when he heard that they were considering the idea of a Jewish state, which would bring bloodshed, G-d forbid. He lamented, “They are sitting and discussing whether it is permitted to give up on part of Eretz Yisroel, but to give up on one Jewish life is definitely forbidden!” Reb Avrohom Kalmanovitz visited the Brisker Rav and tried to calm him, saying, “What difference does it make what the Agudah says? The British aren’t going to take the opinion of rabbis into consideration in any case.”

The Brisker Rav opened a Gemora to Sanhedrin 26a and read: “Shevna’s lectures were attended by 130,000 people, and Chizkiyah’s lectures were attended by 110,000 people. When Sancheiriv came and beseiged Jerusalem, Shevna wrote a note and delivered it with a shooting arrow: ‘Shevna and his followers surrender, Chizkiyah and his followers do not surrender.’ Chizkiyah was afraid, saying, ‘Perhaps the mind of the Holy One, blessed is He, follows the majority. Since the majority will be delivered into the hands of Sancheiriv, we will also.’ The prophet Yishayah came and said to him, ‘Do not call a conspiracy, what this people calls a conspiracy.’ In other words, it is a conspiracy of the wicked, and a conspiracy of the wicked does not count.”

He finished reading and explained, “Yishayah told Chizkiyah that G-d indeed goes after the majority, but the opinion of the wicked does not count toward determining that majority. Here also, G-d does not care about the plans of the secular Zionists. He looks only at what the Torah Jews say. At this Knessia the majority of the gedolim of our generation are present, and G-d goes after the majority – we cannot call them “a conspiracy of wicked people.” If they decide that there should be a state, then I am afraid that there will be a state.

“In our holy Torah, it makes no difference what character this Jewish state will have. Even if it would be a Jewish state run completely according to the Torah law, even if the president and prime minister would be Reb Chaim Ozer, and everything would be done according to the Torah – even then it is forbidden that even one Jew be killed in order to establish a Jewish state. That is the crux of the issue here. The issue is not how the Jewish state will be run, religiously or secularly. The point is that it is forbidden for Jewish blood to be spilled for the purpose of establishing a Jewish state. And since it is impossible to accomplish the partition without spilling Jewish blood, it is forbidden to accept this plan.”

“But,” said Reb Avrohom, “why does the Rav say that there will be bloodshed? The plan is that the British and the League of Nations will carry out the partition peacefully, with the agreement of the Arabs.” “It will never be so,” said the Brisker Rav. “The Arabs will never agree to the establishment of a Jewish state. There will definitely be bloodshed. Even if there were only a possibility of bloodshed it would be forbidden, all the more so now that it is definite bloodshed.” (Teshuvos Vehanhagos v. 2 siman 140, Peninei Rabbeinu Hagriz p. 148)

When confronted with the clear halacha that the Jewish people is forbidden to found a state during exile, and that the state causes bloodshed, some people respond, “This halacha is not practically relevant because the state has already been founded by secularist Jews who do not ask halachic questions. The question for us is how we should relate to the state.” But the Brisker Rav has shown us, based on the Gemora in Sanhedrin, the fallacy of this argument. The Gemora teaches us two important things: 1) Hashem guides the Jewish people in the direction the majority of them want to go; 2) He takes into account only the opinion of Jews loyal to the Torah. It is our vote that counts!

* * *

Two young yeshiva men from Lithuania found themselves in Switzerland at the end of the Second World War, and there they became admirers of the Satmar Rebbe. Before they left Switzerland for Eretz Yisroel, they came to the Rebbe and said, “Satmarer Rav, Chazal say that a person should take leave of his fellow with a word of halacha. Let the Rebbe tell us a halacha!” The Rebbe thought for a minute and then said, “The Chazal ask in the Midrash, which halacha? And they answer, ‘Yochid verabim halacha kerabim – the halacha is determined by the majority.’ Why this halacha? Because the goyim say to us, we are the majority, so you must follow us. We reply that we are a berya (a complete organism) and a berya cannot be nullified. That’s a good answer for the goyim, but what do we say to the bad Jews who tell us, ‘Chaveirim kol yisroel,’ all Jews are friends, and we should be like them, since they are, unfortunately, the majority. The answer is, the minority only becomes nullified if there is a mixture. But if we stay completely separate, we do not have to be like them. Nu, you are now going to a place where those Jews say, ‘All Jews are friends,’ and they are the majority. On this Chazal say: a person should become potur (free) from chaveiro (his friend), from someone who argues that you and he are friends, through the use of halacha. Which halacha? The halacha that the minority must give in only if it is mixed together with the majority, but if it stays separate, it will not give in. That is the only way to save yourself from the argument of going after the majority in Eretz Yisroel!” (Pe’ulas Tzadik Lechaim, p. 55)

Do not follow the majority for evil. (23:2)

When Rabbi Chaim of Brisk (1853-1918) spoke about Zionism, he gave the following parable: Once there was a town in which there was a well that had been closed and sealed for as long as anyone could remember. It was common knowledge that the water of this well was poisoned, such that anyone who drank from it would go insane.

One day, a group of distinguished doctors came to town, and they heard about the well. “We must investigate this well for ourselves,” they said. As they were distinguished doctors, the townspeople could not refuse them, and so they agreed to open the well for them. The doctors performed tests on the water, and determined that there was nothing bad or poisonous about it; the water was perfectly safe to drink. People began to drink from the well, and they indeed became insane. As more and more people drank and went insane, these insane people began to look at the sane people who had not drunk from the water as insane. For such is the way of insanity: those who suffer from it believe themselves to be normal and everyone else to be insane. The sane people, of course, told the insane people that they had gone insane, but their words went unheeded.

Now that the well was open, more and more people drank from it, until there were left only a small number of people, or perhaps one person, who had not drunk. The whole town shouted at this tiny minority, “Lunatics! Lunatics!” There came a point where these few individuals stopped and reconsidered: “Perhaps the whole town is correct and we are the lunatics, and we must drink from the well water and heal ourselves.”

But then they reassured themselves with the following logic, “We still remember the days when the well was closed and sealed, and everyone knew that the water was poisoned and whoever drank from it would go insane. If so, then we must be correct. We are normal and sane, the others are all insane, and we will not drink from the well.”

If this parable applied long ago, in Rabbi Chaim Brisker’s time, it applies all the more to our day and age, when unfortunately the majority of the Jewish people are Zionists. Sometimes anti-Zionist Jews experience moments of weakness, when they wonder if perhaps they are insane and it is the Zionists who are normal Jews. To regain their bearings, they must continually look back at the previous generations of Jews who all believed in the coming of moshiach, who all believed that the redemption was exclusively G-d’s domain, who all believed that Jews were in exile because G-d wanted them there. They must read the classic Jewish commentaries and works of previous centuries, and realize that it is not they but the Zionists who are the anomaly in Jewish history.

This is what Shlomo Hamelech taught us in Shir Hashirim (1:8), “If you do not know, O most beautiful of women, then go in the footsteps of the flock, and pasture your kids among the dwellings of the shepherds.” Rashi explains, “If you, My people, who are the most beautiful of the nations, do not know where to go to pasture your flocks safely among the threatening nations of the world, follow the imprints of the footsteps of the flock: study the ways of your forefathers in previous times, who accepted My Torah and kept My charge and My commandments, and walk in their ways, for only by virtue of this will you be able to pasture your kids among the nations.”

On the day the state was established, the Satmar Rebbe was greatly pained, and he paced around his room in grief and anguish. The Rebbetzin came in and said, “You look like – I don’t want to say what.” The Rebbe said, “I look insane? Whoever doesn’t look like this now is an apikoros.” Later the Rebbe explained that this was predicted already in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 97a): that in the time before moshiach comes, “whoever turns away from evil will be considered insane.” (Tiferes Yoel v. 2 p. 48)

And they saw the G-d of Israel, and under His feet was like the work of a brick of sapphire, as pure as the essence of heaven. (24:10)

Rashi says that this brick had been before G-d during the slavery in Egypt, to remind Him of the suffering of Israel, who were forced to do work with bricks.

The Zohar goes a step further and says that the sapphire brick was a reminder of the Egyptians’ cruel practice of snatching Jewish babies away from their mothers and burying them alive in brick walls. The Zohar calls this image of a brick the “footstool” of G-d, and says that this is what the words of Eicha 2:1 mean: “How does Hashem darken in His anger the daughter of Zion? He has cast the splendor of Israel from heaven to earth, and He has not remembered His footstool on the day of His anger.” The footstool refers to this sapphire brick. It stood before G-d’s throne from the Exodus until the destruction of the Temple, when its great merit was finally ignored. (Zohar v. 2 p. 66b)

The Maharik in his commentary on the Zohar explains that the brick was not just a symbol that G-d sympathized with the suffering of the Jews; it was a symbol of the great merit of the Jews, who accepted upon themselves the yoke of exile even at a time when the Egyptians were committing such acts of cruelty against them.

If this acceptance of exile was a source of great merit for the Jews, there was an even greater source of merit. When they stood at the shores of the sea, the Torah says, “And Pharaoh drew near, and the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, Egypt was coming after them, and they feared greatly, and the children of Israel cried out to Hashem” (Shemos 14:10). Rashi says, “They took up the profession of their fathers.” A prominent rosh yeshiva asked: Earlier, during the slavery in Egypt, the Torah also says that the Jews prayed: “The children of Israel groaned from the labor, and they cried out, and their outcry went up to G-d from the labor” (Shemos 2:23). Why doesn’t Rashi say there as well that the Jews “took up the profession of their fathers”?

He answered based on the Gemara in Shabbos 92b: “The Divine spirit of prophecy only rests on a man who is wise, strong, wealthy and tall.” Wise we understand, but what does being strong, wealthy or tall have to do with prophecy? Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner explains that the only real requirement is that the person be humble. But if he were weak and poor, his humility would not show anything, since he would have little to be proud of. A person is truly humble if he retains his humility even when he is strong and wealthy.

Similarly, when the Jews in Egypt prayed to G-d to bring an end to their suffering, it was a beautiful prayer, but it was not yet proof that they were adopting the profession of their fathers. As weak slaves under the whips of their taskmasters, what other choice did they have but to endure the suffering and cry out to G-d? But by the time they reached the shores of the sea, they had already been free for several days and had had time to organize themselves. The Ibn Ezra says that when Moshe said to them, “Stand by and see the salvation of Hashem that He will do for you today” (14:13), he was telling them not to go to war against the Egyptians. The Jewish army, six hundred thousand strong, would have easily been able to defeat Pharaoh’s small army. The only reason they were afraid was because they were not accustomed to battle. But they did not go to war; instead they cried out to Hashem. This was the true proof that they placed their trust in Hashem, as their fathers had done.

Today we have carry with us the great merit earned by the Jewish people for faithfully shouldering the burden of exile for almost two thousand years. But however great that is, there is an even greater merit we can earn in our time. The worst suffering of our exile is still within living memory, and Zionism is available as an alternative to exile. When a Jew rejects Zionism and trusts only in G-d to take care of the Jewish people, he shows that he is truly following in the footsteps of his holy ancestors.

This greatness is something we saw in the gedolei hador who survived the Holocaust and then went on to oppose Zionism. Rabbi Yitzchok Lebovits of Woodridge writes, “Particularly following the unprecedented destruction of our people under the wretched Nazi regime, when the indescribable abuse of our people had exceeded any thinkable limit, when hell was literally experienced here on planet Earth; and following that, also the period of the notorious Soviet Communist persecution of Jews who refused to surrender their holy faith, yearnings for independence were at their peak and suppression of acting upon these feelings was extremely difficult. So much that we are amazed at the character of those individuals who at that time withstood the challenge and controlled their emotions, favoring rather to accept the will of G-d.
“I find it appropriate to mention the courage of my uncle, the Krasner Rav, Rabbi Hillel Lichtenstein, who underwent the seven chambers of hell at Auschwitz, and notwithstanding this fact, when the Zionist activists lurked in the DP camps, morbidly abusing the situation for their personal agenda, recruiting pioneers to aid them in their struggle for independence from G-d, he did not lose his mind and was not able to be coerced. But rather, upon his arrival at the Landsberg DP camp immediately following liberation from Auschwitz, he stood up and vehemently protested against the Zionist delusion. Upon contemplation of this one should be awed at the greatness of this strength, which was a result of his total submission to our holy Torah.”

Follow the majority opinion. (23:2)

The Gemara in Sanhedrin 26a tells the following story: “Shevna’s lectures were attended by 130,000 people, and Chizkiyah’s lectures were attended by 110,000 people. When Sancheiriv came and beseiged Jerusalem, Shevna wrote a note and delivered it with a shooting arrow: ‘Shevna and his followers surrender, Chizkiyah and his followers do not surrender.’ Chizkiyah was afraid, saying, ‘Perhaps, G-d forbid, the mind of the Holy One, blessed is He, follows the majority. Since the majority will be delivered into the hands of Sancheiriv, we will also.’ The prophet Yishayah came and said to him, ‘Do not call a conspiracy, what this people calls a conspiracy.’ In other words, it is a conspiracy of the wicked, and a conspiracy of the wicked does not count.”

If Chizkiyah was so sure that he was right in not surrendering, then why was he afraid that Hashem would follow the majority? And if Hashem would rule in accordance with Shevna’s view, then Shevna’s view would obviously be the truth, so why did Chizkiyah say “G-d forbid” to this possibility?

The answer is that even when Hashem agrees with the minority opinion, the halacha follows the majority, as we see from the famous story of the dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages about the disassembled oven (Bava Metzia 59b). Rabbi Eliezer said, “If I am right, let proof come from Heaven!” A Heavenly voice proclaimed, “Why do you fight against Rabbi Eliezer? The halacha always follows his opinion!” Rabbi Yehoshua, leader of the Sages, stood up and said, “It is not in Heaven! The Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, and we do not pay attention to Heavenly voices, because You already wrote in the Torah at Mount Sinai: Follow the majority opinion.” Rabbi Nosson met Eliyahu and asked him: “What was the Holy One, blessed is He, doing at that time?” He said: “He was smiling and saying, My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.”

This is why Chizkiyah feared that although he was correct, Hashem would go along with Shevna since his side was the majority. Therefore the prophet told him that a conspiracy of the wicked does not count.

But we must ask two questions here. First of all, Shevna was not wicked, as we see in Gittin 59a: “From Moshe to Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, we do not find anyone who was the greatest in his generation both in Torah and in wealth and power. What about Chizkiyah? There was Shevna.” Chizkiyah, as the king, was certainly the greatest in wealth and power; therefore the Gemara must be saying that Shevna was greater than him in Torah. Furthermore, he must have been a tzaddik, since he was one of Chizkiyah’s ministers, and we know that righteous kings never appoint wicked ministers (Chullin 4b).

Secondly, if Shevna was really wicked, why did Chizkiyah think that Hashem would follow him simply because the majority was on his side? The Sefer Chinuch (78) says that we only follow the majority when both sides know the Torah equally well, not a majority of ignorant people. Certainly we cannot follow a majority of wicked people, who are worse than ignorant people. There have been many times in history when the majority of the Jewish people was wicked – is the entire Torah then null and void? In Choshen Mishpat 163:1 the Rema says that even in communal matters, we take into account only the opinions of people who express those opinions for the sake of Heaven, not for their own ulterior motives. The wicked will certainly not express their opinion for the sake of Heaven: “They cannot sleep unless they do evil” (Mishlei 4:16). Besides they are disqualified from acting as judges altogether. Clearly, then, the law of “follow the majority” does not apply to the wicked; the beginning of the verse, “Do not follow the majority to do evil,” would be more appropriate.

The answer is provided by the Maharsha, who says that the word “wicked” does not refer to Shevna and his followers, who were righteous, well-meaning people. It refers to Sancheiriv, who blasphemed Hashem and said (Yishaya 36:20), “Who among all the gods of these lands saved their lands from my hand, that Hashem should save Jerusalem from my hand?” The “conspiracy of the wicked” refers to Shevna, who wished to surrender and make peace with Sancheiriv. “Does not count” refers to Hashem, who does not take the side of such a majority that wishes to join the blasphemers. The halacha can only follow the view of the majority if Hashem is with that majority, as Chazal say (Sanhedrin 93b) that when Scripture says that Hashem was with Dovid (Shmuel I 16:18), it means that the halacha followed his view.

Now we can explain a puzzling axiom of Chazal: “A single and a majority, the halacha is like the majority.” Why does it say “a single and a majority”? Even when the minority is more than one person, the halacha follows the majority. It should have said, “A minority and a majority, the halacha is like the majority.” Furthermore, why does it have to mention the single at all? It should have said simply, “The halacha is like the majority.” But according to the Maharsha, we can explain that the word “single” refers to Hashem, who is the One and Only Creator. When the Single, Hashem, is with a majority, then the halacha follows that majority; but if Hashem is not with them, the halacha does not follow them. (Vayoel Moshe 1:154-157)


Agudath Israel

Brisker Rav

Rabbi Chaim Brisker