There Is Only One Rule In Shiur

By this point in the year, my talmidim know it by heart. “There is only one rule in Shiur: Be A Mensch.”

Overwhelmingly, my students behave wonderfully. But anytime someone calls out, or disrupts, I remind them that there is only one rule. They finish the sentence themselves.

This week, one of the guys, good-naturedly, challenged me after Shiur: “Rebbe, everything we learn has a Mekor, a source. What's the Mekor for a being a Mensch? Where does the Torah say so?”

From a technical perspective, it's a good question. There are dozens of possibilities. But in the deepest way, the source for menschlichkeit is not a Pasuk in the Torah, it predates Matan Torah, and indeed, everything depends on it; as Chazal tell us: דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה – Derech Eretz precedes the Torah. Our tradition of being a mensch, however, was forged into the hearts and minds of our people from this weeks Parsha.

Any student of Sefer Bereishis is familiar with the trials and tribulations that Avraham underwent in his pursuit of Emunah.

The Torah describes many of these events in detail, and the medrashim fill in many more. But while Chazal speak volumes about Avraham's encounters with Hashem, from age three to seventy-five, there is virtually nothing recorded about the Imahos. How did they arrive at their faith?

This question is not trivial. Chazal tell us that Sarah possessed a level of prophecy that was greater than that of Avraham! Moreover, while Rashi notes that Sarah maintained a level of perfection throughout her life, the Ramban comments that the same is not true of Avraham! (ואמר ״שני חיי שרה״ שכללן והשוה אותן ולא ידרשו כן באברהם.)

The Rambam writes of Avraham והוא עובד עמהם – in his youth, Avraham also worshipped Avoda Zara. Sarah did not. Understanding how Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah achieved their emunah is of paramount importance, which makes the absence of these accounts all the more startling... But perhaps the answer is hiding in plain sight.

The Secret Mesorah of Our Mothers

The Torah describes how Eliezer, the faithful servant of Avraham journeys to find a wife for Yitzchak. The stakes of this mission are about as high as any shidduch could be. He is not simply looking for a compatible life partner, but the next mother of the Jewish people.

So Eliezer devises a test:

וְהָיָה הַנַּעֲרָ אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיהָ הַטִּי־נָא כַדֵּךְ וְאֶשְׁתֶּה וְאָמְרָה שְׁתֵה וְגַם־גְּמַלֶּיךָ אַשְׁקֶה ...

let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’—let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.”

Shortly thereafter, Rivka presents herself as such a girl; giving water to the camels and Eliezer. (The obvious lesson here being that the wife of Yitzchak would need to be a women of exceptional personal qualities, a girl who exemplified generosity.)

But, one might ask, from where did Rivka learn to behave like this? All evidence of her family and upbringing appear to be adverse to such kindness. Her brother Lavan and father Besuel were Reshaim through and through. Indeed, Chazal (בראשית רבה סג ד) explain:

מה תלמוד לומר ארמי בת בתואל הארמי, מה תלמוד לומר אחות לבן הארמי, אלא בא ללמדך אביה רמאי, ואחיה רמאי, ואף אנשי מקומה כן, והצדקת הזו שהיא יוצא מביניהם למה היא דומה לשושנה בין החוחים.

Her father was a cheat, her brother was a cheat, and likewise were the people of her town. Rivka came from within this world, as a rose amongst the thorns.

But the Torah hints to us how she managed this remarkable achievement.

She had a mentor.

When Rivka leaves with Eliezer, there is a mysterious woman who joins her: Her nursemaid, who the Torah later identifies as Devora.

וַיְשַׁלְּחוּ אֶת־רִבְקָה אֲחֹתָם וְאֶת־מֵנִקְתָּהּ וְאֶת־עֶבֶד אַבְרָהָם So they sent off their sister Rivka and her nurse along with Avraham's servant and his entourage.

The Targum Yonansan reveals to us that this nurse was not simply a babysitter:

ואלויו ית רבקה אחתהום וית פדגוותה And they sent away Rebekah their sister, and her teacher.

Rivka had a teacher! A women that raised her. And when Devora dies (much later in Parshas Vayishlach) the Torah relates:

וַתָּמָת דְּבֹרָה מֵינֶקֶת רִבְקָה ...וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ אַלּוֹן בָּכוּת

And Devorah, the nurse/teacher of Rivka died, and she was buried below Beth-el under the oak; and the name of it was called “The Tree of Tears”.

Apparently, Yaakov and his children were significantly affected by her death; the women who raised and educated Rivka. But where did this Devora receive her education?

Rav Moshe Tzvi Neria זצ״ל, the Talmid of Rav Kook suggests (נר למאור פ׳ חיי שרב) that Devora was an early student of Avraham and Sarah of whom the Torah says ואת הנפש אשר עשו בחרן.

There were people who were inspired by the message of Avraham and Sarah, who, for whatever reason, never made the journey with them all the way to Eretz Yisrael.

Devora, specifically, was a student of Sarah, as Chazal teach us אברהם מגייר את האנשים ושרה מגיירת את הנשים – Avraham converted the men, and Sarah, the women.

If so, then Devora is the link between Sarah and Rivka. The primary messages that Sarah educated were the values that Rivka emulated: The values chessed, hachnasas orchim and middos tovos. These were the lessons that Rivka absorbed, and indeed, this is exactly was Eliezer was looking for.

Two Paths To Emunah

There are two paths to achieving an understanding of and relationship with Hashem. The first is the part of Avraham. The Medrashim explain this derech in great detail.

But there is another derech, the derech of Sarah Imenu. This is the path of knowledge of Hashem not through philosophy, introspection, physics and metaphysics, but through tikkun hamiddos, becoming a mensch.

When the Torah instructs us ואהבת את ה' אלקיך – you shall love Hashem your God, we most often think about this in the mind of the Rambam:

וְהֵיאַךְ הִיא הַדֶּרֶךְ לְאַהֲבָתוֹ, וְיִרְאָתוֹ: בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁיִּתְבּוֹנֵן הָאָדָם בְּמַעֲשָׂיו וּבְרוּאָיו הַנִּפְלָאִים הַגְּדוֹלִים, וְיִרְאֶה מֵהֶם חָכְמָתוֹ שְׁאֵין לָהּ עֵרֶךְ וְלֹא קֵץ—מִיָּד הוּא אוֹהֵב וּמְשַׁבֵּחַ וּמְפָאֵר וּמִתְאַוֶּה תַּאֲוָה גְּדוֹלָה לֵידַע הַשֵּׁם הַגָּדוֹל, כְּמוֹ שֶׁאָמַר דָּוִיד “צָמְאָה נַפְשִׁי, לֵאלֹהִים—לְאֵל חָי” (תהילים מב,ג).

What is the path [to attain] love and fear of Him? When a person contemplates His wondrous and great deeds and creations and appreciates His infinite wisdom that surpasses all comparison, he will immediately love, praise, and glorify [Him], yearning with tremendous desire to know [God's] great name, as David stated: “My soul thirsts for the Lord, for the living God” [Psalms 42:3].

But the Tamlud (יומא פו א) records a different possibility:

אביי אמר כדתניא, ואהבת את ה' אלקיך, שיהא שם שמים מתאהב על ידך, ... ויהא משאו ומתנו בנחת עם הבריות, מה הבריות אומרות עליו, אשרי אביו שלמדו תורה, אשרי רבו שלמדו תורה... ראו כמה נאים דרכיו כמה מתוקנים מעשיו, עליו הכתוב אומר, ויאמר לי עבדי אתה ישראל אשר בך אתפאר.

“And you shall love the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 6:5), which means that you shall make the name of Heaven beloved. How should one do so? One should do so in that he should read Torah, and learn Mishna, and serve Torah scholars, and he should be pleasant with people in his business transactions. What do people say about such a person? Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah, fortunate is his teacher who taught him Torah, woe to the people who have not studied Torah. So-and-so, who taught him Torah, see how pleasant are his ways, how proper are his deeds.

When Shlomo HaMelech qualifies this education in Mislei, he writes:

שְׁמַע בְּנִי מוּסַר אָבִיךָ וְאַל־תִּטֹּשׁ תּוֹרַת אִמֶּךָ

Hear, my son, the instruction of your father, And forsake not the teaching of your mother.

The words תּוֹרַ֥ת אִמֶּֽךָ, the teachings of your mother, are rendered by the Targum as נִימוֹסָא דְאִמָךְ – the manners of your mother.

While the Derech of Avraham will teach us how to come close to Hashem intellectually and emotionally, the Derech of Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah is to become close to Hashem through being like Hashem. מה הוא רחום אף אתה רחום – Just as He is merciful, so too, should we be merciful. Through tikkun hamiddos, working on our character, we draw closer to the צלם אלוקים, the image of Hashem in which we are all fashioned.

In his famous “Tribute to the Rebbetzen of Talne”, Rav Solovietchik addresses a mother's role in Jewish eduction, the Emunah of the Imahos:

Most of all I learned [from my mother] that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in a living experience. She taught me that there is a flavor, a scent and warmth to mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life—to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders. Without her teachings, which quite often were transmitted to me in silence, I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive.

What the Rav describes is an encounter with Hakadosh Baruch Hu – a window into a world of Emunah that is all too often ignored. This encounter comes through selflessness, self-control, self perfection. This is the world of Toras Imecha. It is this torch that Sarah passed to Devora, that Devora passed to Rivka, that we are obligated to pass to our children.

To “Be A Mensch” is to know that the goal of all Torah and life is to be Godly; in developing our minds, but also in developing our hearts and our middos. Hashem should help us to become the talmidim of Avraham and Sarah, to raise our children in their image, to grow to greatness and menchlichkeit together.