Just before Passover, 1969, I was sitting in the Beth Joseph yeshiva in Brooklyn. Sitting next to me
was Rabbi Jechiel J. Perr. He was broken. His wife's grandfather, Rabbi Avraham Joffen, had died in Jerusalem the night before. Rabbi Joffen, the successor to the founder of the Novorodock branch of the Musar movement, was "the last link," Rabbi Perr was saying in mourning. Now the link was gone.
One reason for Rabbi Perr's description was the simple fact that so many of Rabbi Joffen's students had been killed by the Nazis. There was no remembrance of them then.
In a few years, this changed. I went to Jerusalem in 1972 and was fortunate to study with another Novorodock master, Rabbi Eliezer Ben Zion Bruk. One day, in 1973 or so, he told me that quite by accident he had been shuffling through some old papers in a drawer one day. He had come upon notes that he had taken some 40 years earlier, back in Poland. These notes
were transcriptions of Torah thoughts delivered by promising young students in the Novorodock yeshivas, all of whom were later killed.
Rabbi Bruk was intent on publishing these Torah thoughts. They would become the only memorial to snuffed out lives. Shortly after our discussion, Rabbi Bruk did refine and publish the notes he had found. He called the book "Parchments of Fire" after a Talmudic statement about the martyrs of Rabbi Akiva's time, "the parchments were consumed, but the letters floated
upward." The bodies of the martyrs were consumed, but their teachings remained because Rabbi Bruk published them.
In 1996, Meir Levin published a book that contained a translation of some of the teachings of these young, idealistic scholars. He called the book Novarodok: A Movement That Lived in Struggle, and, Its Unique Approach to the Problem of Man. The excerpt that I reprint from this book is by Rabbi Nisan Bobruisker, murdered by the Nazis in Vilna, Lithuania, in 1941.
I apply Rabbi Bobruisker's Torah thought to Abraham the Patriarch, but it illuminates the ethical (Musar) approach of all the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Their ethical aspirations encompassed their entire lives; in this they were all generalists. But lofty vision must be applied in real life. The Patriarchs and Matriarchs specialized in applying ethics to their every act.
This point is brought out by the martyred Rabbi Bobruisker in a very charming way so charming that one can miss his point.
The rabbi's use of a midrash about a dog and a baker's cart teaches us not to be satisfied merely with lofty visions generalized accomplishments. Each act, no matter how small, is either an ethical victory or an ethical defeat. To overlook a small transgression is to imperil one's entire spirituality.
"Sin crouches by the entrance" (Gen. 4:7). On this Rabbi Tanchum commented: "There are crafty dogs in Rome who know how to obtain what they want. A dog goes and sits in front of a baker and pretends to be sleeping. The baker also falls asleep. The dog then upsets the baker's cart and scatters the breads all over on the ground. Before the baker can gather his loaves, the dog snatches one of them and carries it away" (Genesis Rabbah 22:12).
Why was this specific parable selected to illustrate the tricks of the Evil Inclination ("sin")?
Oftentimes a man who has stumbled and sinned is filled with remorse over his failure. At other times, however, he comes out with pride and satisfaction at his "victory."
For example, a person may be late for work. His Evil Inclination tells him not to put lay tefilin because he is running late. Of course, he doesn't succumb and does put them on, but he hurriedly mumbles the absolute minimum of the required prayers, tears off the precious mitzvah (religious duty) and then speeds off. This man rejoices in his supposed victory and he is proud of his righteousness.
A man argues with a friend. The dispute grows and heats up until sharp words are exchanged. At the last moment, the two individuals draw back from the brink to which they have come. They do not say the insults that could have been said. These ones also take pride in their refinement and the purity of their character.
A wealthy man is tempted to keep his store open on Shabbes the Sabbath. He resists, but gradually the business begins to close later and
later on Friday and to open earlier and earlier on Saturday night. This man is also proud for, he thinks, he has resisted the temptation of his Evil Inclination.
Similarly, there are those who do not stand up to the wicked but would much rather seek compromises. At the end, they pat themselves on the back for keeping these scoffers from an even greater apostasy through their tolerant attitude and their "ways of peace."
The Evil Urge is a very shrewd tactician and a master warrior. It leaves itself room to withdraw in order to pursue its grand design and to attack again. It is a seasoned negotiator; it demands more than it really wants. Above all, it wants its victims not to feel bad, to think they won, to remain smug and contented, not to regret the losses they have suffered. Then they will not gather strength to resist, to close the breaches, to go on the offensive.
The parable of the Sages is precise. The dog did not want all the breads. All he wanted was one loaf. By upsetting the whole cart, he led the baker to believe that everything was threatened. When only one loaf was lost, the baker felt a tremendous relief. He will not learn from this experience for he does not realize that he has been tricked. Next time the baker will be fooled
We can learn from this, each person according to his own level. We must learn not to compromise even as much as a hair's breadth. This is all that the Evil One wants just a hair's breadth and this is where the battle lines are drawn.
Abraham, like the dog, knew that each loaf, each sin, compromises the whole. Abraham specialized in remedying each of his
transgressions in order to sustain his general spiritual stature.