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A Partial Achievement Is Still an Achievement

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein

Adapted by Binyamin Fraenkel

Translated by Kaeren Fish



“They were informed that they were destined to sin”


Following three chapters that discuss various mishpatim (civil laws), we encounter the following verse:


“Behold, I send an angel before you, to keep you in the way, and to bring you to the place which I have prepared. Take heed of him, and obey his voice; do not provoke him, for he will not pardon your transgressions, for My Name is in him.” (Shemot 23:20-21)


Rashi, citing the midrash, explains:


“‘Behold, I send an angel’ – here they were informed that they were destined to sin, and the Divine Presence would tell them (Shemot 33:3), ‘for I shall not go up in your midst.’”


This seems to tell us that sin is known in advance; it is anticipated as part of the reality of an incomplete world. The harmonious, romantic image that we might create for ourselves does not really exist; the physical world has in-built defects.


The same idea arises from other midrashim about the digging of tunnels under the Temple Mount at the very time that the Temple was being built, for the purpose of hiding the holy vessels when Destruction would come:


“[An omer of manna was deposited in the Mishkan] as a keepsake for the time to come, because the container of manna and Aharon’s staff, with its almonds and flowers, and the Ark and its poles, and all the vessels of the Temple, were buried beneath [the Temple in] the tunnels of the Sanctuary. Who hid them? It was [King] Yoshiyahu who hid it, when Chilkiyahu, the Kohen, found the Book of the Torah open in the Sanctuary, and in it was written, ‘The Lord shall bring you and your king… to a nation which neither you nor your fathers have known…’ (Devarim 28:36). Right then he arose and hid all of them, as it is written, ‘And the king said to the kohanim who taught the people…’ (Divrei Ha-yamim II 35:3).” (Lekach Tov, Shemot 16:32)


The fact that fast days were not nullified during the Second Temple period likewise reflects the knowledge that there would be another Destruction – because that is the nature of the world.


Moshe Rabbeinu is initially quite certain that once Am Yisrael have left Egypt, within two weeks they will reach the Promised Land:


“And Moshe said to Chovav son of Re’uel the Midianite, father-in-law of Moshe: We are journeying to the place concerning which God said, ‘I shall give it to you’; come with us, and we will be good to you, for God has spoken well for Israel.” (Bamidbar 10:29)


However, this is not how things worked out. There is no such reality as “eleven days from Chorev.” It takes much longer.


“He who is content with his lot” – how?


The same fundamental imperfection of existence on the general level exists in relation to the individual, too. Life is tragic, full of disappointments and difficulties that challenge us again and again.


The Mishna teaches: “Who is rich? He who is content with his lot” (Avot 4:2). How can a person be ‘rich’ even though he lacks so much? Many people think that the solution is to lower the value we attach to money. A poor man who envies Rothschild can comfort himself with the fact that he derives great pleasure from his children, from Torah study, etc.


However, it seems that there is another way of understanding this teaching. What happens if this person is lacking not money and material possessions, but rather the critical elements of life: family, Torah study, health, etc.? What happens if we are lacking not in the financial realm, which we understand to be of minor importance, but rather in values that we are not prepared to relinquish?


Here is where a person must learn to be content with what he has. Something is better than nothing; a partial achievement is still an achievement. A person has to know that he will leave the world without having even half of his wishes fulfilled. And this applies not only in the material realm, but also in the realm of spiritual aspirations.


A person must never give up his dreams and aspirations. The Rambam says that every person has the ability to reach the level of prophecy; one must never relinquish that dream. On the other hand, when we discover our failures and weak spots, we must be able to deal with them.


Positive consciousness


Just as Am Yisrael is “destined to sin” in the collective sense, so the lives of individual Jews are full of disappointments. When a person compares himself to others, in the realms of life that are most important, he will discover that there are others who are better than he is; these others suffer less failure and disappointment. A person has to deal with this reality.


How is he to do this? Through a positive frame of mind, a positive atmosphere that he creates in his thoughts. One who is humble understands that his dreams will not always be realized, and he has to make the best of what he has.


It is very difficult for someone who is not married, and who had anticipated that his life would take a certain course, to discover that the path is more difficult than he had imagined, and to face repeated disappointment. It is difficult for a couple to deal with fertility problems, or to discover that a close relative has a serious health problem. It is even more difficult for a person in such a situation to function in an environment where the situation of others is better: for a bachelor to attend a wedding, or for a childless couple to sit watching children at play in a park.


Nevertheless, a person must internalize the fact that he will not necessarily receive everything that he feels entitled to. Life brings not only pleasant surprises but also difficulties, and an awareness of this makes it easier to cope with.


Parashat Mishpatim – sin and repair


On the national level, too, this seems to be the message that the parasha is conveying. A moment after the Revelation at Sinai, instead of reliving and prolonging the awe, the thunder and lightning, the Torah speaks of a broken, defective reality: theft, Hebrew servants, seduction of virgins, guardians who are not faithful, and various types of sins.


But the Torah also deals with methods of repair. Total and complete repair will never come about through human hands – “For the poor shall never cease out of the land” (Devarim 15:11), but nevertheless man must take responsibility for society.


Some describe the entry into the land as bringing about a dramatically positive social change. However, we find – time after time – that this is not so. Am Yisrael were redeemed from Egypt, and instead of reaching the Promised Land in a quick and painless transition, they sinned at Kivrot Ha-Taavah, in the episode of the golden calf, and in other places. And once they enter the land, they likewise encounter repeated problems, including idolatry and civil war.


Ezra returns to the land after the Babylonian exile, and once again the situation is far from utopian. Ezra invests great efforts in social repair. Today, too, there is no need to elaborate as to the social problems facing Am Yisrael.


The process of entry into the land did not change the face of society all at once. Such a change will occur at the end of days, but until then we are obligated to work and act on the public and communal level, just as we strive to improve ourselves as individuals.


Although we will never be able to achieve complete repair, we must create an environment of repair and action, an atmosphere in which the dream, the vision, and the aspirations continue to motivate us, alongside the recognition of the defective nature of reality.


Indeed, our parasha offers reason for hope:


“I will send the fear of Me before you, and will destroy all the people to whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. And I will send hornets before you, which shall drive out the Chivvi, the Kena’ani, and the Chitti, from before you. I will not drive them out from before you in one year; lest the land become desolate, and the wild beasts multiply against you. Little by little will I drive them out from before you, until you are increased, and inherit the land. And I will set your bounds from the Sea of Reeds to the Sea of the Pelishtim, and from the desert to the river, for I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you.” (Shemot 23:27-31)


(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit on Shabbat Parashat Mishpatim 5774 [2014].)