Faith and Ethics

Educating towards a sense of responsibility

R. Chaga, one of the Sages, sat before R. Mana on the Day of Atonement (a fast day) and asked if it was permissible to drink.

  1. A.     Emphasizing free will

In the tractate Yoma of the Jerusalem Talmud (Ch. 6, 4) the following story is related: R. Chaga, one of the Sages, sat before R. Mana on the Day of Atonement (a fast day).  The sage was thirsty due to the fast and in his weakness he asked R. Mana if it was permissible to drink.  R. Mana said to him: Drink.  After some time R. Mana went back to him and asked: Did you drink?  The sage answered: No.  The moment you gave me permission to drink I stopped being thirsty.

This story reveals to us an important principle: The moment R. Mana allowed the sage to drink he made him aware of the magnitude of his responsibility.  So long as the sage thought that he was bound by the formal halacha (Jewish law) not to transgress, he was at war with his impulses.  After all, if the halacha is an external force that is stronger than he is and determines his behavior, so too are his impulses.  However, if the act is permissible and is only given over to one’s free choice – then all the factors that seem more powerful than him are removed from the picture.  Both the will to do good and the will to do evil depend solely upon him.

In several places the Talmud brings the words of R. Ila’a the Elder:

“If one sees that his inclination is overcoming him, let him go to a place where he will not be known, clothe himself in black [this teaches us that Jews usually do not wear black clothing…], wrap himself in black, and do as his heart wishes, and let him not profane the name of heaven in public.”

Rashi (among the greatest Biblical and Talmudic commentators, lived in the years 1040 – 1105) explains that it is better for one to transgress by succumbing to one’s impulses in private than to profane the name of G-d in public.  However, the Tosafists (Talmudic commentators in Europe during the Middle Ages) protest and say: G-d forbid!  Certainly such a man is not permitted to transgress! Rather, by wearing black clothing and changing his place he will in the end avoid transgression altogether.  Evidently the conclusion is that we should tell the individual Rashi’s commentary, thereby giving him permission to transgress, in order to point out the choice that is given over to him.  In this way he will act like the commentary in the Tosifists, and avoid transgression…

  1. B.      The evil inclination is not an independent being

From this we see that to depict the evil inclination as an independent entity is to be reconciled with wickedness.  Man chooses to succumb to evil, and by utilizing this description he tries to avoid his responsibility.  Maimonides, in his famous statement (Introduction to the Ethics of the Fathers, Ch. 1), “Know that the soul of Man is one”, tries to avoid the situation whereby man might not see an expression of his personality in the totality of his inner forces.  This would be a kind of ‘split- personality’.  A situation like this might be described in such as: ‘my impulses caused me to sin’, or ‘my urge overcame me’, or ‘it was stronger than me’.  In truth, the expression ‘my impulses brought me to this’ is another way of saying ‘I wanted it’.

This is what the Sages meant when they said, “‘With all of your heart’- with both of your inclinations”.  Man is actually above both of his inclinations, and can direct them to the service of G-d.  The Sages expressed this well in the following midrash (Kohelet Raba 5:1):

“The wicked are controlled by their hearts, as it is written: ‘And Esau said in his heart’, ‘And Jeroboam said in his heart’.  But the righteous have control over their hearts, as it is written: ‘And here she was speaking to her heart’, ‘And David said to his heart’, ‘And Daniel put it on his heart’.  Thus they are like their Creator, as it is written: ‘And G-d said to his heart’.”

The intention is clear:  The ‘heart’ represents the various forces of one’s psyche, and ‘control’ represents the freedom of the individual.  He who is righteous chooses to put into effect the freedom that was given to him as part of his being created in the image of his Creator.  The wicked, on the other hand, accept the dictates of the various forces of the soul.

While one must not bow to the commands of his natural urges, still there is no need to uproot them.  Rather, one should use them wisely in order to attain the goals of man.

  1. C.      Transferring responsibility to the pupil

Many times we find that educators exhibit behavior that is opposite that brought in the story above.  Because they are filled with anxiety regarding the spiritual wellbeing of their pupils, they tend to take away all responsibility from them.  And the moment an individual senses that he is not responsible for his actions he acts accordingly. 

The high schools are filled with people who have already reached a sense of full awareness and the ability to choose freely, yet the message that they receive from the educational system is: ‘You are sitting here because of the law’, or ‘You are here because of a decision by your parents’, or ‘You are here because this is what is acceptable in our society’.  Such a message causes the potential pupil to say to himself: ‘That’s true, I didn’t choose to be here.  Maybe I would have been interested to learn, but now it’s not my responsibility.  So the teacher had better hold me back, otherwise I will interfere with the class.’

As parents and teachers we have only one responsibility: to provide correct information.  We have neither the responsibility nor the ability to decide in place of the pupil.  Whether one will be righteous or wicked depends solely upon his own free will.  By making studies and moral behavior in high schools obligatory and not something meritorious and deserving of praise we are opening the door to continuous immaturity.

On the other hand, the pupil has the obligation to ‘make yourself a rav (teacher or master)’.  Indeed, spiritual advancement depends on the acceptance of authority too.  The acceptance of authority does not imply blind obedience or enslavement; rather it is an axis upon which one learns to relate to things.

R. Yehuda Ashkenazi (among the leaders of French Jewry, 1922 – 1996) would often say that the obligation of the rav towards the student could be found in the words of the Ethics of the Fathers (1:1): “Raise up many disciples”.  Why does the Mishna say to ‘raise up’ many disciples and not to ‘teach’ many disciples?  Because it is incumbent upon the rav to make sure that the student knows ‘to rise up and stand on his own two feet’.  And in fact, the Mishna could be read, “Raise up your disciples often” – the action must be frequent.  The rav and the educator are tempted to keep the pupil close by, within his educational framework, yet they are obligated to make him an independent man. 

Rabbi Oury Cherki

Rav Oury Cherki was born in Algeria in 1959 and grew up in France, and he made Aliyah in 1972. He studied at Merkaz Harav Yeshiva, which was founded by Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook. He performed his military service in the artillery branch of the IDF. He studied with Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, Rav Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi (Manitou), Rav Shlomo Binyamin and Achlag. Rav Cherki heads the Israeli department of Machon Meir, and he is the Director of Brit Olam - the Noahide World Center. He teaches in many places throughout Israel. Rav Cherki is the spiritual leader of the "Beth Yehuda" community in Kiryat Moshe (Jerusalem). He has written many books on Jewish thought and philosophy.

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