The Eternal Message of Those Who Practice What They Preach

I have recently had the amazing zechus of speaking at two different siyumei Shas – completions of the entire Talmud – made by young people in their thirties and forties. Both are hardworking baalei batim, not rabbonim or other Jewish “professionals,” just persevering regular guys who didn’t miss a day of Daf Yomi for seven and a half years. Both have assured me that there is no pleasure like it in the world and begged me to “sell” the idea to others. I cannot offer their tenacity or dogged indefatigability as a gift. It must be internally bred. But I can testify to the pride in their voices and the radiance of their faces as they recited the final words with incredible rapture and delight.

These beautiful events reminded me to continue a theme I began in these columns several months ago about the somewhat lost art of appreciation for the sages of the Talmud, the holy Tannaim and Amoraim. I noted that one of the glaring differences between Torah Judaism and the so-called Open Orthodoxy, whose title but not essence has been changing, is the varying attitudes toward Chazal. We revere them totally, while the others treat them as ancient scholars whose work is sometimes useful but often discarded if considered old-fashioned, primitive, politically incorrect or simply inconvenient.

I was particularly reminded of this distinction when honored with learning aloud the first Mishnah in Shas. The very first Tanna mentioned by name is Rebbi Eliezer. Rav Reuvein Margulies (Nitzutzei Ohr, Brachos 2a and page 113) suggests that Rebbi Eliezer is mentioned in the very last Mishnah in Shas as well (Uktzin 3:10) because he was known to always have been the first one to arrive in the bais medrash and the last one to leave. This profound thought is reflective of the fact that all of the Tannaim and Amoraim were paragons of virtue, their actions exactly echoing their words.

Throughout Pirkei Avos, the volume that most formally teaches proper middos – ethical and moral behavior – the expression often used is hu haya omer, meaning literally “he used to say.” However, many of our meforshim understand this to mean on a deeper level that “he was what he said,” meaning that he practiced exactly what he preached. Clearly, the entire Talmud, far from a vast series of platitudes, recreates the lives, ideals and practical teachings of a most incredible group of human beings in history.

This fact alone should inspire us to study and review the words, stories and legacies of our sages as the proper way of life in every situation in which we find ourselves.

In fact, Rav Meir Shapiro zt”l (quoted by the Gerrer Rebbe, the Pnei Menachem, in Otzar Drashos Umaamarim to Pirkei Avos, page 225) uses this concept to explain the phrase “boruch shebochar bahem uvemishnasam.” He explains this to follow the Gemara (Chagigah 14b) that some only preach well, but others practice what they preach. “Mishnasam” refers to the formal teachings of the sages, but “bahem” refers to the actions of the rabbis themselves, which were always in consonance with what they taught.

Secular scholars as diverse as Aristole and Bertrand Russell are reputed to have ridiculed the idea that there must be consistency between their writings and real lives. In other words, one can write a book about ethics without concern for one’s personal actions, and one could surely be a fine mathematician, physician or architect without being quite a perfect human being.

However, with our sages, as with the great Torah personalities, their lives are analyzed and microscopically criticized (see Michtav M’Eliyahu, Volume 1, “Chatoei Harishonim”) for millennia by millions of people. Even recently, the publication of the work of one of the recent great baalei mussar (Ohr Yahel by Rav Leib Chasman) featured the introductory statement of one of his students, Rav Yechezkel Sarna, that their teacher’s biography reflected every one of his teachings. It goes without saying that Rav Yitzchok Blazer, one of the prime disciples of Rav Yisroel Salanter, founder of the Mussar Movement, testified the same way about his rebbi (Nesivos Ohr page 110).

On the Chassidic side, perhaps Rav Tzadok Hakohein of Lublin said it best. “Whoever loves the Torah, the Torah loves him as well” (Tzidkas Hatzaddik, No. 198). In other words, there is a direct and intimate relationship between those who love and teach the Torah and their own stature as its eternal representatives.

On a profound level, Rav Yisroel Eliyahu Weintraub zt”l (Besod Yesharim 5756, page 215) points out that the source of na’eh doresh and na’eh mekayeim – practicing what we preach – is the Gemara (Chagigah 14b) where Rav Elazar ben Arach was teaching the esoteric meaning of Maaseh Hamerkava, which has no obvious practical application. Nevertheless, Rav Yochanan ben Zakai praised him for fulfilling its teachings on the pragmatic level. Rav Weintraub explains that even the most abstruse of subjects, when taught in this world, has significant ramifications in the real world of our actions. He therefore proceeds to explain in a Kabbalistic manner what these takeaways are.

Although Rav Weintraub’s explanations are beyond this writer’s understanding, it is clear that every part of the Torah can teach us something about our everyday world, if we are worthy. On the more down to earth level, the Yid Hakadosh of Peshischa taught perennially that money is unimportant to happiness and one should never be obsessed with its value in life. It is therefore totally appropriate that he never allowed any money to remain in his possession overnight. When a destitute person arrived at his doorstep, he would immediately give him every penny he had. He would explain that his source for this extreme magnanimity was the posuk (Iyov 2:4) which states, “Whatever a man has he would give up for his life.” The Yid Hakadosh interpreted this literally to mean that man is in constant need of redeeming his soul and the only proper way to do this is to give everything away. Now, while this giant of Chassidus did not demand this standard of everyone else, he surely demanded it of himself (Gedolei Yisroel Beyaldusam 1:232).

Another practical example of this principle may be seen in the life and work of the Chiddushei Harim, the first rebbe of Gur. He often taught about how deplorable the trait of arrogance is. He praised those who are modest and humble. He wrote that “one should consider all wisdom that a person acquires as a matnas chinam, an unearned gift from Hashem” (Sefer Hazechus, Likkutim on Orach Chaim). He even explained the cryptic declaration of “He who walks with his head held high is as if he is pushing away the feet of the Shechinah” (Brachos 43b) by pointing out that since Hashem chose the humble Har Sinai, “anyone arrogant acts as if He takes issue with the Creator’s decision” (Siach Sarfei Kodesh 2:108, No. 410).

How did the Chiddushei Harim act in his own life? Once, when there was a great crush of Chassidim struggling to hear his holy words, the rebbe sighed deeply, audibly lamenting that “since Klal Yisroel sinned by not heeding the words of the nevi’im, they are now relegated to listening to the lowly likes of me” (quoted in Gur, by Yitzchok Alfasi, page 154).

In our day, we saw this unity between a gadol’s teachings and his own conduct and demeanor in Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l. He writes (Darash Moshe, page 20, Parshas Vayeitzei) that “a tzaddik who wishes to influence his students and the people at large must have three traits [which we learn from Yaakov Avinu]. His comportment and bearing must be such that whoever approaches him will immediately learn how to act, even if the sage has not formally taught him anything. Secondly, whatever one has acquired from the tzaddik must be so lasting and profound that he will never again be able to succumb to evil. Lastly, the tzaddik must practice what he himself teaches, knowing that he is imperfect yet is the best available at the moment in his generation, as Yiftach was to his generation what Shmuel was to his generation.”

Surely, anyone who met Rav Moshe Feinstein even casually would be able to testify that these wonderful traits were completely present in his beautiful and inspiring personality. We do not have to open a biography every time we learn someone’s Torah. But it would behoove us to remember that these were not merely giants of the intellect, but primarily giants of the spirit, a trait that separates our Torah study from all other worldly pursuits. May they and their Torah continue to inspire and uplift us.