Friday, Apr 12, 2024

The Alter of Slabodka’s Pit

A talmid in the Slabodka Yeshiva saw a piece of paper on the floor and, thinking that it was a page of shaimos, bent down to pick it up. Seeing that it was just plain garbage, he threw it back on the floor. Walking right behind him was the Alter of Slabodka, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel. He reprimanded the bochur, saying, “Why did you do that? Don't you realize that you are a mazik in a reshus horabim? What you did is tantamount to digging a bor on public property, causing other people to stumble.”

“What does a piece of paper have to do with digging a pit or leaving a stumbling block?” was the bochur’s defense. “Can anybody possibly slip on this piece of paper?”


The Alter explained: “A bor in a reshus horabim does not only apply to digging a hole or leaving something for someone to trip over. True, only then would you be liable to pay damages for the physical harm caused to someone’s property. But there is also the spirit of halacha. Even if you just cause someone to bend down needlessly, you are considered a mazik, for you are making him stop and bother for no reason, taking him out of his way and wasting a couple of moments of his time.


“And if you’ll claim,” continued the Alter, “that it wasn’t your piece of paper on the floor to begin with, be aware of the halacha that states that the moment you picked it up, you are effectively eliminating the responsibility of the person who dropped it there to begin with and now you are responsible” (Bava Kamma 29b).


Rav Leizer Shulevitz, rosh yeshiva of Lomza, once spent Yom Kippur together with his rebbi, Rav Yisroel Salanter. Right before Mussaf, Rav Leizer had to leave the bais medrash for a few minutes. By the time he returned, the tzibbur was already davening the Mussaf Shemonah Esrei. Not wanting to disturb anyone’s tefillah by walking back to his seat, he stood in the doorway and davened. In middle of his tefillah, someone whispered in his ear, “You are stealing fresh air from the entire tzibbur.” It was his rebbi, Rav Yisroel. The implication was that he was required to move to the side even in middle of his tefillah so as not to make it harder for others.


Another Pesach has been celebrated, another dosage of geulah, and once again we are on the road to Har Sinai as we prepare for the Matan Torah of Shavuos. Chazal tell us, “Derech eretz kodmah laTorah” (Vayikra Rabbah 9:3). For twenty-six generations of the world’s existence before the Torah was given, the survival of man depended on derech eretz, the way of life by which a person should conduct himself based on rationale. This was basically included in the seven mitzvos of Bnei Noach. The reason the Dor Hamabul, the Dor Haflagah, and the people of Sedom met an ignominious fate and have no share in the World to Come, say the seforim, is because they did not live by the basic tenets of derech eretz.


One of the reasons why it is customary to learn Pirkei Avos during this time is because it deals primarily with refining our middos, a prerequisite for receiving the Torah. Rabi Elazar ben Azaryah says: “If there is no Torah, there is no derech eretz, and if there is no derech eretz, there is no Torah” (Avos 3:17). This sounds like the old conundrum: “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” How can derech eretz precede Torah if without Torah there is no derech eretz?


Rabbeinu Yonah explains: “Certainly before one learns Torah he must first acquire good middos. For the Torah does not dwell within the physical body before it possesses good attributes. On the other hand, a person cannot acquire the finer points of middos until he delves into the Torah, because its many mitzvos entail middos that one cannot get with mere logic.”


Yes, as the chosen nation, the am haTorah, we are expected to be more refined in our way of life. Even the non-Jewish world is aware of this. Rav Shlomo Davis, for many years the registrar in Telshe Yeshiva, related that he once received a telephone call from the postmaster of Wickliffe, Ohio, requesting that the yeshiva boys not write extra messages on the envelopes of the letters they send out, because it makes it more difficult for the mailmen to sort the mail. (This was at a time when people still sent personal letters by mail.)


Rav Davis asked the man if the problem was endemic only to the yeshiva boys or if it was a more widespread problem. The postmaster answered in all earnestness: “It is a problem we face from all over, but you people are Jewish, and you live by a higher standard. More is expected of you.”


Allow me, dear reader, to list some not-so-uncommon situations that definitely qualify as examples of the Alter of Slabodka’s definition of a bor in a reshus horabim. You heard a good vort or machshavah on the parsha or Yom Tov on the way to the bais medrash and you think to yourself, “I can’t wait to get there and look up the vort inside the sefer.” You enter the bais medrash with great anticipation and walk up to the seforim shrank to take out the sefer only to find that it isn’t there, so you walk around the bais medrash to see if perhaps someone is using it, but no one is. You are anxious to find the sefer, but it is nowhere to be found. Finally, after circumnavigating the bais medrash a couple of times, you find it – under a pile of other seforim.


You just wasted a few minutes needlessly. You also had to go through the extra bother to find the sefer. What was the person who used the sefer before you thinking? The answer is…he wasn’t. He’s not a bad guy and had no intention of causing you inconvenience. He just wasn’t thinking. But an oveid Hashem is required to think and realize the consequences of his actions or lack thereof. This is a bor in a reshus horabim.


Here is another non-fictional for instance. You are in a rush and your wife gives you a list of items to pick up in the store. You drive into the store parking lot, which is crowded. You are happy to notice a lone empty parking spot and hurry to park there. As you’re making the turn, you stop. The spot isn’t empty after all, because someone left his shopping cart smack in the middle of it. You quickly get out, bring the cart back to its proper place, and park.


You wasted precious moments, and in your state of frustration, you mutter a few unkind words to the shopping cart, but it did nothing wrong. It was the person who left it there and certainly meant no harm who is at fault. Perhaps he assumed that the store’s workers would return it. But that doesn’t help you any. It’s another example of the Alter’s bor in a reshus horabim.


You’ve bought your items and hurry back to the car. But your parking spot is not as big as when you entered the store. You see, the fellow parked next to you on the driver’s side pulled out and another guy pulled in, but he is much closer to you than the guy before him was. He is parked so close to you that you can’t open your car door and you certainly can’t get in without making a dent in the other car.


So you go to the passenger’s side. From there you’ll maneuver your way over to the driver’s side. Now you open the door and realize that there are shopping bags there from an earlier trip, so before you get in, you must first remove the bags, put them in the back seat, and then twist your way in. Again, no harm was meant, but the driver who parked so close to your car wasn’t thinking.


Now you’re really in a rush to get home. You’re at a stop sign, but you can’t move on, because there is another car smack in the middle of the intersection. Why isn’t the car moving? Has it stalled? No. The driver is on his cell phone. Doesn’t he realize that he is holding up traffic and imposing on others? No, he doesn’t, because he is so wrapped up in his conversation that he is oblivious to everyone around him.


But now I am really hot under the collar. It has been a long day. Yes, by now, if you haven’t guessed, it’s all happening to me. So I turn onto Maple Avenue, leading to my street, and there is a major traffic jam. The cars are moving very slowly, and as I get closer, I see the problem. There is a school bus just standing there and the bus driver is on his cell phone. The cars behind him must maneuver around him by going into the opposite lane.


What chutzpah! The bus driver is obviously a Yid. How inconsiderate of others and what a chillul Hashem. I finally make it home, and in a few minutes I’m back out the door for another errand. I turn onto Maple and that school bus is still standing there. How long can a guy talk on the phone knowing that he is blocking traffic?  


But wait. There is an emergency truck right behind him, helping him out. Oh! Whoops. My bad! The bus had broken down and the poor driver was on the phone trying to call for help. He wasn’t being inconsiderate, after all. This time it is I who was being inconsiderate and have dug a pit of my own. In my state of agitation, I forgot a basic rule of derech eretz 101: “Yehoshua ben Prachya says…, “And judge everyone favorably” (Avos 1:6). Perhaps if I would, those other situations wouldn’t have gotten me so upset in the first place.



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