5773 - #01

Nitzavim / Rosh Hashanah


            One of the great challenges we face in our relations with others is, what we may term, the definition of distinction. Within one perspective, we clearly recognize all human beings to be equal; that no human being has any greater worth or value than another. In halachic terms, this principle is clearly expressed in the command that individuals must forfeit their own life rather than murder another, for who says that your blood is redder that the other’s.1 This idea is also found in various halachic conclusions that a limited resource is to be distributed on a ‘first come, first served’ basis, again reflecting an equality in the rights of all.2 At the other end of the spectrum, though, we also find within the halachic literature, a recognition of distinctions between people that is precisely intended to guide us in prioritizing one above the other. The last mishnayot in Mishna Hurayot, Chapter 3 specifically deal with this issue. The fact is that any command to honour, a command of kabed, inherently reflects this value for it places one above another, inherently challenging equality. It is clearly one of our questions to balance these opposing principles, to know when to prioritize with honour and when to project equality.3 Part of this difficulty is the various reasons for prioritization and the determination of which factor to apply in any given moment or situation.

            There are actually many different factors that we are to apply in distinguishing one from another. One, for example, is family – we differentiate in how we behave towards another based upon our relationship with this person. A halachic illustration of this principle would be the directive that we are to prioritize family members in our distributions of tzedakah, charity.4 Another example would be the honour that we are to extend to Torah scholars as reflected in the directive to stand in their presence.5 A problem emerges, however, when these two principles of distinction conflict in any given situation. What are we to do when we are confronted with the honour due a parent and the honour due a Torah scholar? Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah 5:1 clearly addresses this issue in regard to a rebbi muvchak, one from whom a person has learned most of his Torah, stating that the rebbi muvchak has precedence over a father. However, even within this halacha, Rambam makes clear that if the father is a scholar in his own right, he actually has greater precedence even if he did not teach his child the most. It is also specifically this teacher, not a generic Torah scholar, who is given this precedence over a father – although if we consider the leader of the generation, the matter may become more difficult. The fact is that the determination of which standard of distinction to award precedence in any given situation is a most challenging issue.

            T.J. Hurayot 3:5 actually presents a clear example of this type of challenge in portraying how Moshe and Yehoshua, in their respective last charges to the nation, presented different orderings in the honour they bestowed on segments of the nation. In Devarim 29:9, Moshe addresses the roshim, the political leaders within the nation,6 before the zekanim, while, in Yehoshua 24:1, Yehoshua addresses the zekanim before the roshim.7 The gemara is bothered by the different conclusions reached by these two great leaders of Klal Yisrael in regard to which grouping in the nation should be given precedence in honour, the Torah scholars or the political leaders of the nation. Moshe Rabbeinu’s choice would seem to have been the latter; Yehoshua’s would seem to have been the former. In attempting to answer this question, the gemara actually presents four different possible explanations for the different conclusions and why Yehoshua favoured the zekanim and Moshe the roshim.8 The fact is that, in viewing this, the gemara actually touches upon objective and subjective considerations and looks at the uniqueness of the two different situations. There would seem to be no one right answer to apply in all circumstances.

            It would seem that what is of first importance is just simply the recognition of these factors that affect our consideration of others – to know the various values that must be measured in our response to another. Then, though, it would seem we cannot rely upon a simple formula or codified direction as to what is proper for what is demanded would seem to be our personal evaluation of the situation and determination, with guidance from the sources, as to the proper conclusion. Sometimes, we must even considerer who we are as we also attempt to understand the other. The specifics of the situation must also, always, be a factor. Meshech Chochma, Devarim 29:9, while not specifically addressing our issue, also notes the need to recognize a distinction between the individual and communal persona. There are times when a person is simply a person and times when he/she represents a group or even the nation. That is often a judgment call as are often most of these questions.

            Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Kol Ram, Vol. 3, Devarim 29:9, in conclusion, adds an interesting perspective to this exercise. It is obviously important to make correct decisions in regard to our determination of priority and honour for we thereby instruct ourselves and others as to what is important. We, furthermore, lay down thereby the foundations for the society in which we live. Rav Moshe adds another, most important, perspective. We also learn thereby how to look at ourselves.10 The challenge of Torah is one of personal growth, not just over our lifetime but from minute to minute. The call is not an objective one but a subjective one. How have we done – pursuant to our personal challenges? Teshuva is not just an objective evaluation but it is a subjective judgment call. Part of the manner by which we learn to properly look at ourselves and make the proper judgment calls in this regard is from how we look and make the proper judgment calls in regard to others – the challenges of which we speak.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht



1 See T.B. Sanhedrin 74a.

2 For an interesting presentation on this, including a discussion on this entire issue of this challenge of prioritization, see Dr. Fred Rosner, The Rationing of Medical Care: The Jewish View, Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 6:21.

3 A greater challenge may actually be how to reflect these two principles at the same time which may often indeed be the Torah requirement.

4 See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Matanot Ani’im 10:16.  

5 See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah, Chapter 6.  

6 Rashi refers to them as the heads of the tribes.   

7 See, also, Yehoshua 23:2.    

8 The reader is invited to view these various reasons as they each demand further study in their own right. 9 Two examples of subjective considerations would be that (a) all the scholars were students of Moshe while all were not necessarily students of Yehoshua (so Moshe placed the roshim first), and (b) that Yehoshua extended more yegi’ah, effort, than Moshe in his acquisition of Torah knowledge (and so Yehoshua placed the zekanim first). One can also see, from these examples, why these explanations do indeed demand further study.  

10 See, also, Ntziv, HaEmek Davar. 

Nishma 2012


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