Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Many years ago I taught at Rabbi Shlomo Riskin's high school in Riverdale.  I was also director of the dormitory.  Since I lived so close to the school (and was poor) I didn't own a car.  Periodically, I needed a ride into the city and one of the other staff members who was truly a zadik, was always obliging.  The wonderful thing about these excursions was that as soon as the car was in motion, my driver and colleague would ask for some u'valecticha baderech Torah.  For those not familiar with that phrase from Shma, it means 'and when you are going on the road.'  The reference is to our Torah which is to be studied at all times and in every situation.  These wide ranging discussions down the Henry Hudson Parkway were fabulous.  After a quick thought from me to get us started, the conversations, but thankfully not the car, roamed to totally unexpected destinations.  And at the earthly trip's objective we often kept the dialogue going in the car for a while.  Even though this often negated the time advantage over taking public transportation, it was always worth it.  I always felt that this involvement in the Torah study somehow made the trip not only more enjoyable but also in some way safer.  Historically, travel was very dangerous.  That's why we have a prayer before setting out on a trip and a blessing of thanksgiving for successful conclusion of a trip.  I'm not sure that these prayers are still as relevant today, but it shows an attitude about, especially, non-voluntary travel, which demonstrates great concern for travel safety.  And that idea is referenced in our Parsha in an unexpected way.

            As the brothers are getting ready to return to Israel for the purpose of bringing Ya'akov down to Egypt, the verse records:  And (Yosef) sent off his brothers, and they went, and he said to them, "Do not quarrel (get angry) on the way (Genesis 45:24)."  This instruction to not fight on the way home seems to be advice to not get involved in a blame game over the selling of Yosef (Avraham Ibn Ezra).  The Rashbam suggests that it means that they shouldn't be afraid of the journey, perhaps because they are on mitzvah mission.   However, Rashi quotes a famous Midrash on the verse:  Do not engage in a halachic (Torah) discussion lest the way cause you to stray (Ta'anit 10b).  Wow, Rashi claims that Yosef was instructing them to not study Torah on the road!  That's against our normal approach.  Not surprisingly, I'm not the first to notice this problem.

            The Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, 1550 -1619) points out that Rebbe Ila'i taught that traveling scholars who don't discuss Torah are worthy of being burned at the stake.  That's a bit extreme.  I'll just consider that hyperbole.  At that point the Kli Yakar explains that there are different kinds of Torah study.  Reviewing Torah decisions would be fine, but debating still as yet undecided legal issues could bring them to trouble and strife.  A reasonable suggestion.  Getting involved with controversial issues while traveling is a bad idea, because of the rigors of the road. But for me the best comment of the Kli Yakar combines this Midrashic approach with the literal meaning that they shouldn't get angry and accusatory with each other.  He explains that while traveling we should stay involved with Torah study and not desist from this mitzvah.  The problem is that if you get angry, you can't really study Torah. The Kli Yakar adds that all anger leads to mistakes.  If you're in a mistake prone mode, you'd better stop studying Torah.  So, Yosef's advice is to stay distant from anger so that you can learn while traveling the road. 

We in Judaism view anger as a very negative trait.  In the seventh chapter of the Laws of Repentance, Maimonides actually counts anger as a sin.   Every one gets angry on occasion.  The goal is to minimize the damage we do while we are angry, and find strategies for ending the episode of rage.

In my life, I've had the sublime privilege to encounter, on a number of occasions, two amazing poskim, decisors of Jewish law.  Both Reb Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) in New York and Reb Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (1910-1995) in Jerusalem were remarkable scholars, with both marvelous breadth and depth of Torah knowledge.  But beyond the encyclopedic nature of their brains, the most outstanding feature of both of these gentlemen was the calm which they exuded.   They exhibited the kind of unflappability that Hillel was famous for in the first century of the Common Era.  Except when deep in thought, they were almost always smiling.  I guess this explains two awe-inspiring phenomena.  First, that people wanted to go to them with their questions of Jewish law, and secondly that they were never (or at least rarely) wrong. 

Now we can begin to understand the advice of Yosef.  Anger has little or no up side.  Please, do your best to avoid it.  Yosef understood that there could be many recriminations amongst his brothers, but there was nothing to be gained, and much to be lost, by airing them.  Add to that the tensions and dangers of the road, and you've got a recipe for disaster.  Later the Rabbis, superimposed another layer of meaning, to advise us that decisions made while angry are not to be trusted, including Torah study.

I don't think that the Midrashic approach describes the original intent of Yosef in the verse, but it ends up giving us valuable, practical advice.  For most of us, travel provides enough anxiety that we should refrain from heavy duty decision making while concerned about the voyage.  And even more important, don't come to important conclusions in the heat of anger.  Important judgments are like a delicate soufflĂ©; no movement, no noise, no agitation are requirements for a satisfactory result.             


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