It has become a growing trend to idolize Torah personalities, Jewish leaders and great rabbis almost to the point of total discounting of their human emotions and natural weaknesses. This presents a twofold problem: firstly, well-meaning people who wish to emulate their heroes become discouraged and are left with a poor sense of self when they fail to attain a similar character as is painted in the history books. Secondly, the Torah as a whole and the halachik lifestyle in specific at its very essence celebrates the humanity of each person, and encourages us to allow the human spirit space to develop. Discounting this is a grave error which can lead to much heartache and despair for every human being who encounters struggles between right and wrong in their daily life. For affirmation of this concept, one need look no further than the verse describing the sixth day of Creation, “God saw all that He had created, and behold, it was very good.” (Bereishit 1:31) The Midrash explains, “Very good’ (tov me’od) – this refers to the “evil” inclination, for without it, one would not build a house, marry, beget children, or engage in business.” (Bereishit Rabba 9:7) Judaism and the Torah recognize that man lives in the physical world and is therefore subject to real human emotions. There is no expectation, nor is it praiseworthy, for him live a robotic existence devoid of feeling, weakness, struggle and emotion. Rather, those very same qualities are what lend meaning and boundless joy to our lives.
Rabbi Yehuda Amital of blessed memory, was the founder of Yeshivat Har Etzion and authored the book “Jewish Values in a Changing World.” In this work, Rav Amital cites many examples of this concept of celebrating the human aspects of our leaders. Among others, he relates story from Tractate Kiddushin 33a, “Bar Kappara …was sitting in a bath-house, when Rabbi Shimon bar Rabbi entered and passed by, yet he did not rise before him. He (Rabbi Shimon bar Rabbi) was offended and went and complained to his father: “I taught him two thirds of a third of Torat Kohanim, and still he did not rise before me.” His father said to him: “Perhaps he was sitting and meditating on Torah.” Rav Amital points out that Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi did not chastise his son for having been angry with his disciple for not affording him the proper respect. Rather, it was just the opposite; he validated the perfectly natural feelings of Rabbi Shimon bar Rabbi and tried to set his mind at ease. With this example, Rav Amital is teaching us that human feelings need not be denied or erased from the lives of our greatest leaders—there is what to learn from every aspect of the personalities of our Torah Sages.
We see a similar idea in the verse in this week’s Torah portion. The verse writes, “And Yaakov kissed Rachel; and he raised his voice and wept.” (Bereishit 29:11) Rashi, the classical Biblical commentator, explains that the reason why Jacob wept was because, “…he foresaw with the holy spirit that Rachel would not enter the grave with him. Another explanation: Since he came empty-handed, he said, “Eliezer, my grandfather’s servant, had nose rings, and bracelets and sweet fruits in his possession, and I am coming with nothing in my hands.” Rashi is explaining Jacob’s reaction in completely emotional human terms that we can easily relate to today—tears over the vision that he will not be able to be buried with his beloved wife or sadness at the inability to give her the gifts that he wished he could. However, Rav Amital, pointing to the phenomenon of “rewriting historical personalities” wrote the following on this passage: “When I was in kindergarten, my melamed (teacher) explained this verse to me as follows: when Yaakov saw Rachel, overcome with emotion, he kissed her. His crying, however, stemmed from his repentance for this lapse.” Rav Amital questions why this has to be so? “What have we come to, that we must react negatively to the display of emotion, passion, and even romance!? Romance has a positive connotation in our worldview. The Holy One, Blessed Be He, created angels, and he created people. He created people to feel emotions and use them for His service – both fear and trepidation, as well as joy and happiness. Part of divine service is to enjoy God’s world, and pursue normal human activities within the framework of holiness and worship.” There is a very real purpose and place for human expression, emotion and feeling. We must take care not to disregard its importance or to overlook their place within the pages of Jewish history.
With this idea, Rav Amital echoes a similar message found in the work “Halachik Man” by Rav J.B. Soloveitchik. Rav Soloveitchik, while explaining the difference between a ‘halakhic man’ and a ‘religious man’ writes, “The difference between Halakhic Man and Religious Man is essentially one of orientation; they move in opposite directions. Religious Man starts from this world and concludes in the highest metaphysical realm; Halakhic Man begins in the highest metaphysical realm and concludes in this world. …Halakhic Man’s mission is directed not towards running away to another world which is all-perfect, but rather to bring down that eternal world into the midst of ours.” (Halakhic Man, Book 1, Chapter 8). Judaism and Jewish Law never intends to remove man from his natural place in the world, rather it is designed to recognize that we are only human and, in the words of Rav Soloveitchik, “affirms the value and dignity of man’s physical existence by giving it direction and meaning.”
It is therefore incumbent upon us to emphasize both the intellectual and emotional strengths of our leaders. When we realize that our heroes are as human as we are, then we stand a chance of truly being able to emulate them and follow in their footsteps. It will also serve as great comfort and peace of mind for every human being, who inevitably encounters struggles, to fully understand and accept that Halakha does not negate our physical reality and human spirit but rather channels it as an integral facet of serving God. And finally, with the immortal words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, “Religion and life are one and the same,” we will be able to fully grasp the profound message of this week’s Torah portion: It’s ok to be human.