A yungerman once told me that he was working with a potential baal teshuvah who was just starting to make strides in returning to Judaism and could not come to grips with the fact that he could not shower on Shabbos morning. This fellow has always showered every day of the week, and when he doesn’t shower, he just doesn’t feel like a mentsch. The yungerman wasn’t sure how to proceed.
The obvious answer is that when you’re dealing with a fresh baal teshuvah, you don’t tell him that he can’t shower on Shabbos during your first session together. You allow him to become acquainted with Judaism in stages, and accept each facet upon himself as he is ready for it.
The trajectory the Jewish people took upon leaving Mitzrayim is therefore astonishing. On the Fourteenth of Nissan, they were at the depths of Egyptian depravity. Chazal tell us that the Jews were at the 49th level of tumah at the time of the redemption, and had they stayed a moment longer, they would have sunk to the 50th level from which they could not have emerged. Furthermore, at Kriyas Yam Suf a week later, the malachim declared, “Halalu ovdei avodah zarah, v’halalu ovdei avodah zarah – the Egyptians are guilty of idol worship, but so are the Jews.”
I don’t think your typical baal teshuvah has come close to the 49th level of tumah, and few, if any, were idol worshipers six weeks before their return to Judaism. Yet it is self-understood that we allow them to take things slowly. But here were the same Jews, just seven weeks after the Exodus, and Hashem gives them the entire Torah. How could they be expected to accept all 613 mitzvos at once?
Wasn’t there a danger of them deciding that it was just too overwhelming?
THE RISHONIM TAKE NOTE of a seeming contradiction. The Mishnayos in Yoma detail the preparation that the Kohen Gadol had to go through before Yom Kippur. A Mishnah (Yoma 18a) states that they would have two elders teach the Kohen Gadol the avodah of Yom Kippur, and they would tell him, “Read it yourself, in case you forgot or you never learned it?”
Anybody can forget, notes the Gemara on this Mishnah. Even the Kohen Gadol might forget something he learned. But is it possible that the Kohen Gadol never learned the avodah of Yom Kippur? The Kohen Gadol was supposed to tower above all the other Kohanim – physically, materially, and spiritually. Would they appoint a Kohen Gadol who was such an ignoramus that he never learned the basics of his job?
The Gemara answers that in the first Beis HaMikdash, the Kohanim Gedolim were legitimate, but in the Second Beis HaMikdash it was a political plum – people bought the position. To illustrate, the Gemara relates that a woman named Marta bas Baisus once paid an astronomical sum to Yannai HaMelech to have Yehoshua ben Gamla appointed Kohen Gadol.
Tosafos Yeshanim and the Ritva consider this Gemara a near contradiction to the Gemara in Bava Basra that says that if not for Yehoshua ben Gamla, the Torah would have been forgotten. Up until his time, it was incumbent upon each boy’s father to teach him Torah. If a boy was an orphan or his father couldn’t teach him, he remained an am ha’aretz.
Yehoshua ben Gamla considered this situation untenable, and he set up a system in which there was a melamed in each little township, and he issued a decree under which each child was entitled to a Torah education.
Who was the true Yehoshua ben Gamla, wonder the Rishonim. Was he an ignoramus who had to have the king bribed in order to rise to the position of Kohen Gadol, or was he the father of the day school movement, the man who ensured that Torah would never be forgotten?
Several resolutions are offered by the Rishonim, the simplest of which is that there were two different people, one of whom was actually known as Rabi Yehoshua ben Gamliel, and the other was Yehoshua ben Gamla.
The Sfas Emes suggests an astounding resolution that offers us a window into how Hashem expected Klal Yisrael to accept all 613 mitzvos at once.
We mentioned that the Kohen Gadol is supposed to tower over his brethren physically, materially, and spiritually. What if the most appropriate candidate for Kohen Gadol was a poor man? The Gemara (Yoma ibid.) states that the other Kohanim are supposed to take up a fund to make him the richest Kohen.
The same is true for spiritual stature, suggests the Sfas Emes. Yehoshua ben Gamla was indeed an ignoramus when he assumed the position of Kehuna Gedolah. But the other Kohanim were obligated to elevate his spiritual stature, and they prayed that he should do teshuvah and become truly worthy of the position.
And their prayers worked. Yehoshua ben Gamla underwent a metamorphosis. He started as a sham of a Kohen Gadol, but he grew to the point at which he saved Torah forever.
According to the Sfas Emes, Yehoshua ben Gamla didn’t deserve the job. But once he became the Kohen Gadol, the Kohanim treated him like a regular Kohen Gadol, putting their faith in him, and he grew into the role.
The world says, “Clothing makes the man.” This Gemara is teaching us that responsibility makes the man. If a person is entrusted with a task and given the faith that he can complete it, he can succeed.
That is what happened at Kabbalas HaTorah, says the Tolna Rebbe.
Before Kabbalas HaTorah, Hashem told Klal Yisrael, “V’atem tihiyu li mamleches kohanim v’goy kadosh – You will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation to Me” (Shemos 19:6).
Hashem gave us the ultimate role in the world. We were becoming be His holy nation!
What the Kohanim did for Yehoshua ben Gamla on an individual level, the Ribono shel Olam did for us on a national level. When you get a Mi Shebeirach like that from the Ribono shel Olam, something changes inside of you. From being akin to the depraved Egyptian nation from which you emerged, you become a mamleches kohanim v’goy kadosh.
That pronouncement from Hashem was enough to make the Jewish people capable of the seemingly impossible: accepting all 613 mitzvos in one fell swoop.
This is not merely a history lesson. There’s a message here for all of us, as mechanchim and, even more importantly, as parents. We all want our children to grow into what Yehoshua ben Gamla became, and the Sfas Emes teaches us how to make that happen. Put faith into your children or students, show them that you have expectations from them and that you respect them, and they will become great.
But if we talk to them in derogatory terms, then they may fall to the level that we project for them.
A frum askan once visited a jail with a non-Jewish congressman. As they were walking through the corridors, the congressman told the askan, “You know, when I was growing up, my father always told me, ‘If you’ll study hard, one day you’ll make something of yourself.’
“You see,” the congressman concluded proudly, “my father was right.”
An inmate overheard the conversation and called out, “The same thing happened to me. When I was growing up, my father would say, ‘One day, you’re going to end up in jail. And you see – my father was also right.’”
Shlomo HaMelech wrote, “Al tochach leitz pen yisnaeka, hocheiach lechacham veye’ehavecha” (Mishlei 9:8). This simple elucidation of this pasuk is that it is referring to two individuals, advising us not to give mussar to a leitz, a cynic, because he’ll just reject the rebuke and hate the messenger who delivered it. Rather, we should save the mussar for a chacham, who will appreciate it and love the person who set him straight.
But some commentaries explain that this is talking about one person. If you give him tochachah as though he is a leitz, he’ll reject your rebuke. But you can say the same mussar to him in a tone that lets him know that you consider him a chacham, and he’ll love you for it.
The world today, more than ever before, is a challenging place for Torah Jews. If we want our children to rise to the challenge, to become successful adults, we should be sure to give them the positive messages that Yehoshua ben Gamla got from his fellow Kohanim, and that Hashem sent to us as a nation before giving us the Torah.
Rabbi Yissocher Frand is a Rosh Yeshiva in Yeshivas Ner Yisrael in Baltimore MD. He is the author of the Sefer Ohalei Yissocher on Moed Katan and Temurah and of six books published by Artscroll. His tapes and CDs of his shiuirim delivered at the Agudas Israel of Baltimore are heard worldwide as are his personal appearances.