This is an actual letter sent as a follow-up to a conversation I had last week with my friend’s eight-year-old daughter. I wish to share my approach in dealing with incorrect ideas taught in yeshiva. The cited sources are intended for parents and teachers.
It was nice seeing you today in town. I always enjoy your questions, and your question today was a very good one. Just to make sure everything we discussed is clear, I want to repeat what we said, so you can tell me if I explained myself clearly, and that you understand it.
Shlomo Hamelech was the smartest man next to Moshe Rabbeinu. The first thing I want to tell you is something that Shlomo Hamelech said: “No person is always good and never sins” (Koheles 7:20). Who was the greatest person? It was Moshe Rabbeinu. And even Moshe sinned. Now, if Moshe can sin, and he is greater than anyone else, then all of us today sin. And what do we mean by the word “sin”? It means that we make mistakes. It is important for you to understand that every person makes mistakes, I make mistakes, you make them, your parents make them, and your teachers make them. This is how Hashem made us, that we make mistakes, until we use our minds and figure out what we did wrong. And the reason we all must make mistakes, is because we are not Hashem, only Hashem has all of the answers, so only Hashem never makes mistakes. A mistake happens when someone does not know something. And when someone makes a mistake, and we can help them, Hashem says in His torah that we must correct the person who we saw make a mistake. This is a way that we are nice to people: we help them see their mistake so they don’t do it again. So I want to help correct your teacher’s mistake.
The first thing we discussed, was what your teacher told you, that when Hashem told Avraham to make Yitzchak a karban on Mount Moriah (sacrifice) that a “bad Malach” made a large river in front of Avraham. You said your teacher told you the waters were so high, it came up to Avraham’s chin. This made it very hard for Avraham to continue walking, and to listen to Hashem and sacrifice his son Yitzchak on Mount Moriah. But Avraham was a very good man, so he listened to Hashem, and not the bad Malach. My response to you was that many times, the Rabbis in Chumash and Gemara would tell us a riddle or a story. They like us to think, so they tell us things that are true, but they say the truth in a way that sounds impossible, and then we have to figure out the riddle. Even Hashem does this. In the Torah, Hashem wrote that when the Egyptians felt so bad after the Ten Plagues (Makos) they said the plagues were “Hashem’s Hand” at work. That is quite amazing, isn’t it? We know Hashem is not a person, because Adam was the first person. And Hashem came before Adam. Hashem is not something we see, but what we do see, is what Hashem made, and the miracles that He performs. So when the Egyptians, the Mitzrim, were so hurt by all the Plagues, they said, “It was Hashem’s finger” (Shimos, 8:15). This does not mean Hashem has a real hand, He can’t have hands! Only people and animals have hands: the sky has no hands, the clouds have no hands, and Hashem too has no hands. So what does it mean? It means that Hashem “made” the Plagues, like man makes something with his hand. The Egyptians were just talking about Hashem like they talk about a man. But they did not see any hand.
I explained to you the story of Avraham and the river in the same way. When the Rabbis said that the bad Malach made a river to stop Avraham from being good, it means something else. Like you told me, Avraham loved Yitzchak and did not want to kill him, even though Hashem told him that he must kill Yitzchak. Now we have to ask, what was stopping Avraham from listening to Hashem? The answer I told you is, it was part of Avraham that wanted him not to kill his son. Avraham’s emotion of love was trying to stop him from killing Yitzchak. Sometimes our feelings of love can be a good thing, and sometimes they can be a bad thing. Like when a person loves somebody who is mean. It is bad to love someone who is mean, because this mean person will then be mean to you, and hurt you. So if you are not friendly with the mean person, he will not be around you, and you will be safe. Here, it is bad to follow our feeling of love. Loving a mean person is not good. Now what about with Avraham? When Avraham was told by Hashem to kill Yitzchak, do you think it would be right for Avraham to show love to Yitzchak and save him? No, it would be wrong if Avraham listened to his feelings of love, and did not kill Yitzchak.
Now what is another way to say that Avraham’s strong feeling of love was stopping him from traveling to the mountain to kill Yitzchak? Well, the Rabbis said Avraham’s feelings of love for his son were so strong, these feelings were “like a river blocking the road”. The Rabbis wanted to teach us how great Avraham was, that he was able to fight his feelings of love, and still follow Hashem. Avraham was “like” a person who was up to his chin in water, but still wanted to walk further to the mountain to kill Yitzchak, since Hashem said so. But he really was not in any water. Really, Avraham was on dry ground. So you see, the Rabbis created this story of the bad Malach and the river, so we can learn an important idea. But the story did not really happen. Something different than the story really happened, but the Rabbis wanted to make us use our minds to figure it out.
The bad Malach is really Avraham’s own feelings of love that could have made Avraham do something bad, and not kill Yitzchak. The “river” really means to teach us how strong Avraham’s feelings were, they were as strong “as a deep river”, trying to stop him from traveling to the mountain.
Another way we can figure out if a story we read is real, or not really true but only teaches a hidden meaning (metaphor), is by thinking if the story makes sense. So I will ask you Rachelle: If Hashem wanted Avraham to kill Yitzchak, does it make sense that Hashem would also make a bad Malach that makes a river, which stops Avraham? This sounds like Hashem is saying to Avraham “kill Yitzchak”, but then says the opposite, by making Avraham stop because of the river Hashem’s Malach made! But it makes no sense that Hashem changes His mind. The Torah says Hashem never changes his mind. (Malachi, 3:6) Because of this contradiction, we can figure out that Hashem did not really make a bad Malach that would go against Hashem. So then, we have to figure out what the story means. I think it means like I said: something “in Avraham” is what the river ‘represents’…meaning, the river is just a story about how powerful Avraham’s love was for Yitzchak, it was as great as a river.
In his first chapter of Mishley (1:6), Shlomo Hamelech says that the Rabbis talk in riddles and hints. Rambam’s son Avraham said the same thing in his introduction to a book called Ain Yaakov. We have to read the Rabbis words, and then figure out the puzzle. It’s like I told you, “I am so hungry, I can eat a horse!” Now we both know that I can’t eat a horse! I really mean that I am “Soooooooooo very hungry”…as if I can eat a horse! With this type of talking, I tell you a really strong point, its called, “exaggeration”, when I say something that is not really true, just so you will listen, and figure out what I am saying. The Rabbis did the same thing, they said things that were really not true, like a made up story, but they did that to make the story interesting, so we would listen, and then we would try to figure out the real meaning. This is a very important lesson. And when we do this enough, and we think about the deep ideas inside of the Rabbis words, we make ourselves smarter! By thinking, we become smarter, and this is what Hashem wants.
Is Hashem Inside of Us?
The other thing you told me was that your teacher said that Hashem put a piece of Himself in all of us. You must know Rachelle, Hashem never said this in His Torah, and no great Rabbi ever said this. Even our siddur says that Hashem “created” our neshama (Elohai Nishama prayer) and not that He just took a piece of Himself and put it in us. Rambam also says this in his 13 Principles, and in his Mishneh Torah (Yesoday HaTorah, 1:7) So why did your teacher say this? Sometimes, even teachers will repeat what they heard, even though it does not make sense, and even though they do not have any proof. It also sounds nice to feel like Hashem put some of Himself inside each of us. But we should not say things just because they sound nice. When we learn, we must be looking to learn what is true.
Many people make a big mistake and say this, even though they cannot explain it. Rachelle, a very, very important rule for you know is this: if you can explain something clearly, and it makes sense, like 2+2=4, then you can be sure the idea is true. It does not matter if people say the opposite, that 2+2=5. We know this is false, even if one million people say it is five, we know they are all wrong. Even if a book says 2+2=5, the book is wrong, and we are right. Hashem created every person in a way that we know the difference between “true” and “false”. So you also have this ability, and you can use your thinking to find out if something is true, or false.
Now, if someone tells you something, even your teacher or your parent, and it is not clear to you, you should ask them to please explain exactly what they mean, until it is clear to your mind. You must make sure that you completely understand something, and then it will be “true”. What do we mean by “the truth”? It means that when we learn, we want to make sure we learn how the world or the Torah really is. We don’t want to learn what is false, because then, we didn’t really learn anything! We don’t want to make a mistake. I know that when I go to a class, I want to understand what the teacher or Rabbi is saying, and not every teacher or Rabbi is saying something true. They are not being mean and they do not want to fool us, but sometimes, they just did not study enough and they make mistakes. Even teachers and Rabbis make mistakes. We all do.
So let’s study this point, and listen very carefully, because this is not such an easy thing to talk about: Did Hashem put a piece of Himself in us, or not? Your teacher said yes. Well, does this make your teacher right, just because she said so? Let’s say another teacher disagrees with your teacher. Now what do you do? How do you know who is right, and who is wrong? Do you agree with your teacher because you like her better? Of course not, because we can like someone who makes a mistake, right? Do you agree with her because she told you first? No, that does not matter who talks first, because someone who is wrong can talk before someone who is right. Do you see, that we are using reasoning to find out the right thing to do.
The only way to decide truth is to use your mind and think about it, just like we are doing right now. So let’s do that. But let me tell you some more things.
One of the greatest Rabbis named Rambam said that Hashem is not something “physical”, which means Hashem is not something we can see or feel. (Yesoday HaTorah, 1:7) When we got the Torah, Moshe Rabbeinu told this to the Jews at Har Sinai. He reminded the Jews that they did not see Hashem, but only heard His voice. (Devarim, 4:12) He said this to them because he wanted to make sure all the Jews have the correct idea about what Hashem is. He is invisible, like you told me today. Hashem has no body, no face, no hands, and He is something that we cannot know. Even Moshe Rabbeinu did not know what Hashem is, and Hashem told Moshe he cannot know Him (Shimos, 33:20) Since we don’t know what Hashem is, we cannot describe anything about Him, like we describe things that we do know, like what paper is. We cannot “touch” Hashem, but we can touch paper because the paper is something “physical” and we can control it with our hands. We can also cut paper into pieces. Can we cut Hashem into pieces? The answer is no. This is why we say that Hashem has no pieces. Only something we can touch can be divided into pieces. So Hashem cannot be cut into pieces, and therefore, there is no piece of Hashem in us. Our Neshama is a thing Hashem made from nothing, just like He made the whole world from nothing. And Hashem can do that.
The reason why I spend time writing you is because the most important ideas we can have are ideas about Hashem. And if we start off with wrong ideas when we are young, it is harder to correct our mistake when we get older, because we start to like the idea, and then we don’t want to learn that we are wrong. So it is very important that now when you are young, that you make sure as best as you can, that you understand what you are taught. If something is not clear to you, then always ask your teacher to prove what they mean so your mind agrees. And remember, teachers are not always right, they make mistakes too, just like you and me. And don’t be afraid to ask questions, because that is why you are in school, to learn! Even the Torah says don’t be afraid to ask question, “For a person who is afraid to ask questions will not learn”. (Pirkei Avos, 1:6)
As you continue to learn, keep asking questions, and you will start to see the difference between what is true and what is false. You will start to become smarter than you are now, and you will be able to prove things…all by yourself! And then you will be able to help others learn too.
I look forward to hearing any questions you have on what I said.”
I ask all those involved in Torah education to insure that you are training our youth in the fundamentals of Judaism, for they are our next generation of teachers.