Leadership and Morality

By Rebbetzin Holly Pavlov


(This essay is based on a shiur delivered by Rav Chaim Goldvicht, zt”l)

When the Greeks conquered ancient Israel, they had no desire to induce the Jews to reject Torah completely. Rather, they sought to create a new, universal culture that would bind and sustain their empire. Historical sources document that Greek culture revered the intellect and was drawn to knowledge, and would often integrate the wisdom and philosophy of subject cultures into their own.


Hence, the Greeks admired Torah, which they considered wise and beautiful. They therefore did not object to the study of Torah and could tolerate major portions of Jewish observance, since they were certain that Judaism would adapt itself to Greek culture.


There were, however, three mitzvos (commandments) that they could not tolerate: Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh (declaration of the new month) and circumcision--each of which, the Greek governors believed, posed a direct challenge to Greek culture. So they banned them.


The reasons for banning Shabbos are apparent: Shabbos reminds us that there is a Creator, a higher moral authority to whom we must bend our wills. Shabbos stands at the center of everyday life, of our families and of Jewish peoplehood.  Eliminating Shabbos would empty   Torah of its meaning and essence, rendering it an empty core of ritual with no content.


The centrality of bris milah is similarly self-evident: Circumcision affirms that, though body and soul are joined physically, Judaism demands that the needs of the body be subjugated to the needs of the soul. This idea flew in the face of the Greek veneration of physical beauty. They viewed circumcision as a debasing deformity.


But what was the objection to Rosh Chodesh? How did marking the Jewish calendar’s new month pose a threat to Greek thought and belief? To understand this we will have to examine the difference between Greek wisdom and Jewish wisdom.


The Wisdom of Torah versus the Wisdom of Greece


Torah is a system that requires intellectual immersion and practical action. It demands more than knowledge or even understanding, but rather requires integration and growth following the acquisition of that knowledge. In other words, learning Torah changes a person—if done properly. Torah is not an intellectual exercise; it is meant to transform a person into a more refined human being. If personal transformation does not follow the acquisition of Torah knowledge, then the Jewish view would doubt the knowledge supposedly acquired. At most, a person would have information. That is much different than having wisdom.


Greek Wisdom, the precursor of later Western civilization, saw no necessary correlation between knowledge and action. Nor did it teach that knowledge is tied to a particular kind of behavior. Attaining “knowledge” is a goal in and of itself; one can understand ideas and ideals without integrating them into one’s life. Just as some contemporary “ethicists” are not particularly ethical in their day-to-day behavior, many of the greatest Greek philosophers—those who theorized about the meaning of life and the purpose of man--were immoral in their personal behavior: Being a great scholar did not—and does not—necessarily bring with it any personal transformation.


Needless to say, each nation’s different approach to wisdom affected its view of scholars.


In Greece, wisdom was separate from action, so scholars, while respected, had no real moral authority. They were free to act however they wished without lessening their individual standing, either socially or in the academy.


Torah, by contrast, is designed to change a person. The more learned and integrated a person is in his Torah scholarship, the more of a moral authority he becomes, and the more those in Jewish society are obligated to listen to him.


Moral Authority from the Creation of Man


Why does Torah scholarship grant an individual moral authority? The answer is rooted in the creation of man. “God formed the human being from the dust of the earth and He blew into his nostrils the breath of life.” (Beraishis 2:7)


Man has a dual nature: His body was formed from the earth, while his soul is the breath of God. This duality of body and soul brings with it a constant tug of war. What the soul needs, the body doesn’t want but what the body desires, the soul does not want. The Torah comes to teach how to make peace between the two, by allowing the soul to dominate the body. The soul, after all, is a part of God.  The soul is the moral authority, which dictates to the body how to live. The body may derive pleasure from the world, but the Torah provides a strict code as to when, how and what the body may do.


Learning and integrating Torah should help a person reach the state where his soul guides his body. The self-refinement brought by Torah wisdom allows his body to listen to his soul, the internal voice of God. The Torah defines life’s priorities and demands that we incorporate those priorities into our personality, our perspectives and our behavior. The Torah embodies an ethical life and demands of us that we live up to its standards.


A person who does all of these things is called a talmid chacham (a Torah scholar). He lives his life attuned to his soul, the breath of God within him. Of course, it is possible to learn Torah--even to be a scholar—and yet not have integrated its message.  Such a person is not called a talmid chacham but is likened to a donkey that carries books on his back. He has the book knowledge – but it is external to him. He carries books and ostensibly their wisdom, but he is not a refined person . He has not internalized the message of Torah nor allowed it to guide his own actions, to refine him. Therefore, he is akin to a beast of burden.


A true talmid chacham carries the knowledge but also has integrated everything he has learned into his actions, traits and personality.

How does a person reach this level of development? How does he become a Gadol (great teacher/leader) in Israel? How does he become a moral authority?


We are told that the Shechina (Divine Presence) spoke through the throat of Moshe (Zohar). Moshe was so refined, so humble, that the inner voice he heard was the voice of his soul, the voice of God. Therefore, when he spoke, he spoke with the authority of his Creator.


Authority Is Passed from Teacher to Student


When Moshe died, Yehoshua, his student, assumed the mantle of leadership. In fact, the Midrash teaches that Moshe asked God that, after his death, his children would inherit his role as leader of the Jewish People. God refused and instead appointed Yehoshua:


The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said to him, “ ‘He who guards the fig tree shall eat its fruit’ (Proverbs 27:18). Your sons sat around and did not engage in Torah. Yehoshua served you abundantly and honored you a great deal. He was in your meetinghouse from early in the morning until late at night. He set up the benches and spread the mats. Because he served you with all his might, he deserves to serve Israel; he will not forfeit his reward. “Take Yehoshua the son of Nun” (Numbers 27:18), to uphold the verse “He who guards the fig tree shall eat its fruit.” (Bamidbar 21:14) (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:14)


The metaphor of a fig tree is a beautiful one: Moshe is the tree, the figs are the Torah and Yehoshua is the one who tended the tree. Yehoshua inherited the mantle of Jewish leadership because he served Moshe. The one who tended the fig tree eats of its fruit; the fruit was the role of leader to the next generation.

What does it mean to be a servant? A servant takes care of his master and does his bidding, setting aside his own desires. Servants negate their own egos and desire in order to serve a higher authority. In so doing, the servant identifies with the master: the master’s will becomes the servant’s will.

Moshe is called a “servant of God.” So is Yehoshua.

Yehoshua served Moshe, listening to his voice, and doing whatever was necessary for his master’s functioning, even menial tasks. Moshe’s needs were Yehoshua’s priorities. Through this service, Yehoshua became part of his teacher, Moshe.

Moshe served God in the same way. He listened to His voice, gave God’s will priority over his own ego and desire, serving Him with complete devotion. To that extent, by serving Moshe, Yehoshua was in actuality serving God. This listening to the higher moral authority of Torah is what qualifies a person as a Jewish leader.

“If you listen.” If you have listened to your master, ultimately others will listen to you (Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Tavo 4)


The wisdom of Torah is passed from generation to generation. Students learn from their teachers, listen to their words, integrate their message, and thus inherit their voice. Over the course of time, the many voices of our scholars join together in a chorus. The authority of subsequent generations of rabbis is derived from the authority of previous generations of rabbis, in a chain that hearkens back to Moshe.

The Authority of the Scholars and Rabbis


As we aforementioned, the Greeks separated wisdom from action. In their view, all wisdom was equally valued; no particular strain carried more moral authority than the next. Greek thought viewed math, astrology and Torah as equal in value and status, while scholars in each discipline enjoyed equal standing.  No one had superior wisdom, nor did anyone speak with a higher moral authority. This brings us to the significance of Rosh Chodesh.


The Greeks sought to ban Rosh Chodesh because the celebration of the new month concretely represented the moral authority of Chazal, our Rabbis.


In ancient times, before the advent of set calendars, the Beis Din (Jewish court of law) determined the new month. Following the sighting of the new moon, witnesses would testify in court. The Rabbis would question them about what they saw: the moon’s size and precise location. If satisfied by the testimony, the Rabbis would then declare Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the month.


This declaration had legal ramifications: Jewish holidays fall on certain days of each month, so the court’s decision would determine when Rosh Hashanah, Pesach or other holidays were celebrated. Other laws were also set by the new moon as well.


Suppose the Beit Din made a mistake? After all, they were only human beings, and humans can err. What if the witnesses didn’t see correctly or the judges misunderstood? Would their decision have less authority? What would be the ramifications of such a mistake? The Midrash answers:


If the Beis Din says, “Today is Rosh Hashanah”, then the Holy One Blessed Be He says to the ministering angels, “Set up a platform, let the defenders and the accusers arise, for My sons have said that today is Rosh Hashanah.”

If the Beis Din decided to move it (Rosh Hashanah) to the next day, then Holy One Blessed Be He says to the ministering angels, “Take away the platform, let the defenders and the accusers move on, for My sons have decided to move it to tomorrow.”  (Talmud Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashanah 7)

The Rabbis are empowered with complete authority to determine Rosh Chodesh and God Himself “listens” to their decision. There could be no mistake. Why?

Our tradition teaches us that Torah is expression of God’s will. Therefore, those who immerse themselves in Torah—who integrate what they learn and allow Torah to refine them—become a lens through which God’s will, as expressed in Torah, can be heard and understood. The individual rabbi’s own voice is incidental to that of God’s. It is from this submission that his moral authority is derived. When the rabbi interprets a law or an incident, his ego is subsumed to the will of God.

When the Beis Din made a determination, there were no mistakes, and God Himself “obeyed.”

It has been taught that on that day Rav Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but the sages did not accept them. Said he to them, “If the halachah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!” Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place; others affirm, four hundred cubits. “No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,” they retorted.

Again he said to them, “If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!” Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. “No proof can be brought from a stream of water, “ they rejoined.

Again he urged, “If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the Study Hall prove it,” whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But Rabbi Yehoshua rebuked them, saying, “When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have you to interfere?” Hence they did not fall, in honor of Rabbi Yehoshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honor of Rav Eliezer, and they are still standing thus inclined.

Again he said to the, “If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!” Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out, “Why do you dispute with Rav Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him?”

But Rabbi Yehoshua arose and exclaimed, “It [the Torah] is not in heaven.” What did he mean by this? Said Rabbi Yirmiya “That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because You have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, “After the majority [of scholars] must one incline.”

Rabbi Nasan met Eliyahu and asked him, “What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour?”  “He laughed [with joy],”  he replied, “saying, ‘My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.’ (Baba Metzia 59)

Jewish law is the not just a code of ritual, but a code of life. The Torah’s law applies equally to all facets of human existence, from daily ritual behavior to moral codes to the laws of damages. Talmidei chachamim (great Torah scholars) are the legal authorities. They are the moral authorities who demonstrate and teach how Jewish lives are to be lived.


A New Holiday

The Greeks sought to break the link between Torah’s wisdom and its moral authority. To do so, they needed to diminish the greatness of Torah scholars, to lower them to the status of “other” scholars. This is why the Greeks banned Rosh Chodesh. In doing so, they  were making a clear statement that our Rabbis possess no special wisdom; they need not be followed any more than any other member of the academe.

Following the Maccabean victory over the Greeks, our Rabbis, Chazal, established a new holiday--a decisive response to the Greek attempt to undermine the moral authority of the sages.

But what is a holiday? Normally, we think of holidays as a celebration of a historic event or a demonstration of a particular religious concept. For instance, Pesach celebrates our exodus from Egypt. From the series of events that led up to the exodus, we learn about the concept of redemption.

This conception of holidays, however, is not entirely accurate. When God created the world, He created all physical reality, including time. Physical reality is built on a spiritual framework. The role of the Jewish people in this world is to utilize the physical world in such a way that we release its spirituality.

For instance, when we take an esrog, hold it together with three other species and recite a bracha (blessing) on Sukkos, we plug into the spirituality of the esrog. Now the esrog is no longer just a fancy lemon, but has kedusha, holiness

Time also has spiritual underpinnings. The spiritual underpinning of the month of Tishrei is simcha, joy. Thus Sukkos, which Chazal call “the time of our joy,” is celebrated in Tishrei.  The month of Nisan’s spiritual underpinning is Redemption, which is why the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt occurred in Nisan. Likewise, the month of Sivan has the power of Torah. Therefore, the Torah was given in Sivan.

When the sages established a new holiday, Chanukah, they created a new spiritual reality. Chanukah is not just a historic event, nor is it merely representative of a religious concept. The month of Kislev became imbued with the quality of “enlightenment” – our ability to see light within darkness, spirituality within the physical world.

The victory over the Greeks had been total. The Greeks had maintained that our Rabbis had no special powers, but the Torah maintained differently.  Learning Torah changes a person so much so that a Torah scholar becomes a pipeline for the voice of God, and he enlightens the world with his wisdom.

On Chanukah, we add the words “they set up these eight days of Chanukah” to our prayers. We do not say this as a review of the historic fact that the sages declared a holiday, but rather as a celebration of their power to create holiness in time. The spiritual underpinning of this holiday is enlightenment. The menorah lights up the physical space; our Rabbis enlighten us in the ways of God.

The Chanukah lights declare each year the moral victory of Torah over Greek wisdom.


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