SALT - Thursday, Lag Ba-omer, 18 Iyar 5779 - May, 23, 2019

  • Rav David Silverberg
This week's SALT shiurim are dedicated in memory of
David Moshe ben Harav Yehuda Leib Silverberg z"l,
whose yahrzeit is Thursday 18 Iyar, May 23
            The harsh tokhecha section of Parashat Bechukotai, which tells of the calamities that God threatened to bring upon Benei Yisrael should they abandon His laws, ends on a conciliatory note, assuring the people that even if God punishes them and drives them into exile, He will never breach His covenant with them.  God proclaims that even if Benei Yisrael need to be punished, “I shall remember My covenant with Yaakov, and I shall remember also My covenant with Yitzchak and also My covenant with Avraham…” (26:42).
            The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 36:1) references this verse in the context of a seemingly peculiar debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai as to whether the heavens were created before the earth, or vice versa.  Beit Shammai maintained that God brought the heavens into existence first, before the earth, whereas Beit Hillel argued that the creation of the earth preceded the creation of the heavenly spheres.  The Midrash then cites Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai as challenging both opinions: “I am startled how the patriarchs of the world [the disciples of Hillel and Shammai] disagreed about the creation of the heaven and earth!  For I maintain that heaven and earth were created like a pot and its cover” – meaning, at the same time.  Rabbi Shimon contended that the heavens and earth were created simultaneously, and thus he objects to both the position of Beit Shammai and that of Beit Hillel.  The Midrash proceeds to cite Rabbi Shimon’s son, Rabbi Elazar, as drawing proof to his father’s contention from the fact that whereas the Torah usually mentions the heavens before earth (“shamayim va-aretz”), in one instance it states, “eretz ve-shamayim” – mentioning the earth before the heavens (Bereishit 2:4).  This was done, Rabbi Elazar asserted, to demonstrate that heaven and earth are equal, as neither preceded the other.  Rabbi Elazar brings several examples of instances where the Torah presents a list in an unusual sequence on one occasion to emphasize that all items on the list are equal in stature.  One example brought by Rabbi Elazar is the aforementioned verse in Parashat Bechukotai, which lists the three patriarchs in reverse chronological order (Yaakov, Yitzchak and Avraham).  Rabbi Elazar explains that the Torah intentionally reversed the sequence in order to indicate that all three are equal in stature.  By the same token, the Torah in one context places the heavens before earth to inform us that they are both equal and were created together.
            How might we understand this debate between Beit Hillel, Beit Shammai and Rabbi Shimon?  Of what interest is it to us whether the heavens were created first, the earth was created first, or they were created simultaneously?
            The Slonimer Rebbe, in Netivot Shalom, suggests that this argument in truth revolves around the practical question of how to approach spiritual growth.  The issue being addressed is whether we should focus first on the “earth” – on fixing our flaws, or reach straight for the “heavens” – for spiritual greatness.  Should we first ensure to cleanse our beings of our faults, and then pursue lofty goals?  Or, should we first reach for the “heavens,” as this quest will necessarily lead us to correct our faults?  Beit Shammai taught that we should strive for high standards, because it is through the process of working to achieve these standards that we will correct our character flaws.  Beit Hillel, however, felt that we should first concern ourselves with the basics, and work to identify and correct our faults, before setting ambitious goals and reaching for the “heavens.”
            Rabbi Shimon, the Netivot Shalom writes, was baffled by this entire discussion, wondering why his esteemed predecessors assumed that these two endeavors are mutually exclusive.  In his view, we must do both simultaneously – strive to fix our faults, and strive for greatness.  Both are equally important.  We should not sell ourselves short by focusing only, in the words of the Netivot Shalom, on “sur mei-ra” – avoiding wrongful conduct, without reaching higher, to the standard of “asei tov” – achieving greatness – but nor should our lofty aspirations lead us to neglect our more basic religious responsibilities.
            The Netivot Shalom suggests explaining on this basis why Rabbi Elazar points to the verse in Parashat Bechukotai to support his father’s viewpoint.  The three patriarchs are often viewed as representing different qualities, as each one excelled in, and embodied, a certain attribute.  Rabbi Elazar understood that the Torah reversed the sequence to demonstrate that the various values and principles embodied by the three patriarchs are equally important and demand equal attention.  And thus Rabbi Shimon felt that the question debated by Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai is one that we should not be asking.  We should strive for both “heaven” and “earth” – to correct all our character flaws and also to strive for great achievements, because the Torah demands comprehensive commitment, that we work towards excellence in all areas, to the best of our ability.