Seeing Righteous People
Va'eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35 )
The Parsha devotes a number of verses outlining the genealogy of the first three sons of Yaakov; Reuven, Shimon and Levi. However, there is a significant difference in the extent of the lists of descendants. With regard to Reuven and Shimon, the Torah only lists their sons, whereas with Levi the Torah also outlines his grandsons.
The Seforno addresses this anomaly; he explains that the Torah only mentions the sons of Reuven and Shimon because they were great people, deserving of being explicitly mentioned by the Torah. However their grandsons were not significant people, and therefore are omitted. In contrast, the grandsons of Levi were people of stature, hence their being named.
The Seforno continues to explain why the grandsons of Levi were greateras they merited to see Levi himself and develop a connection with him, because he lived a very long life. It was because of this direct connection with the great Levi that they became worthy individuals in their own right. In contrast, Reuven and Shimon did not live as long, and their grandsons did not merit to see them.
The question arises of why this one difference had such a decisive effect on the level of these descendants. A Gemara in Eruvin1 can help shed light on this question. It relates that Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi (The Prince) attributed his own greatness to the fact that he once saw the back of the great Rebbe Meir. He added that had he seen Rebbe Meir’s face he would have been even greater. This demonstrates the great significance of just seeing a great person, without even learning from him. Yet it needs to be understood why this is the case.
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz2 explains, in parshas Vayechi, when Yaakov meets Yosef’s sons, the Torah states: “And the eyes of Yisrael were heavy from old age, he could not see and he brought them towards him and kissed them and hugged them3.” The Seforno comments on this verse: “He could not see in order that his blessing would be bestowed upon them, so he kissed them and hugged them so that his soul would cleave to their souls and through this his blessing would be bestowed upon them.” Rabbi Shmuelevitz explains this teaches us that had Yaakov been able to see them, he would have been able to connect with them on a deep spiritual level. Since he could not, he cleaved to them through a different medium.
Based on this, we understand why seeing Rebbe Meir was so significant – the mere seeing such a great man causes a deep connection, and through that he taps into a spiritual influence from Heaven, which in turn gives him the ability to become a greater person. Rabbi Shmuelevitz further offers a fascinating interpretation of the fact that had Rebbe seen Rebbe Meir’s face he would have been even greater. He suggests that while seeing a great man brings a great spiritual benefit to a person, he benefits even further if the great man sees him as well because this causes an even deeper connection. Returning to the grandsons of Levi – they merited to see and be seen by their righteous grandfather, and this played a fundamental role in their achieving greatness, something which eluded the grandsons of Reuven and Shimon.
It seems one of the key areas in which experiencing and seeing great people positively influences a person,is in the realm of Emunah as demonstrated by the following story4: The great Mashgiach (spiritual guide) of the Mirrer Yeshiva, Rabbi Yerucham Levovits once met a secular Jewish professor while on vacation in Marienbad. Rabbi Levovits engaged him in conversation, trying to draw him closer to Torah. After Rabbi Levovits had steered the conversation in the direction he desired, the professor asked him if he had read the works of Immanuel Kant, a famous philosopher. Rabbi Levovits answered in the negative. The professor then asked if he had read the works of Sigmund Freud, the famous psychologist whose views were far removed from Torah. Again, Rabbi Levovits answered that he had not read a word of Freud. The professor wondered aloud, “Well, if you haven’t read the works of these scholars, how do you know that their outlook is incorrect? If you aren’t familiar with their ideas, how do you plan to convince me that the truth is on your side? Maybe they are the ones who are right?”
Rabbi Levovits responded: “I know that our Torah produced an individual of the caliber of the Chofetz Chaim5 as well as a long succession of other righteous, great Jewish spiritual leaders…all of whom were products of the study of the holy Torah…Have any such individuals emerged from any of the value systems you mentioned? Of course not! So, they’re obviously a lot of nonsense! Why should I bother investigating them any further?!
Rabbi Levovits was teaching a pillar of our Emunah is that only a Torah lifestyle can produce people as righteous as the Chofetz Chaim. While he saw the Chofetz Chaim in the flesh, it is more difficult for a person to tap into this resource of Emunah by just relying on second hand stories of their greatness. In this generation, we do not have the merit to see the Chofetz Chaim himself (perhaps this is why there was a such a commotion when a few seconds of video with the Chofetz Chaim were revealed a few years ago). Yet, in each generation we merit to be led by tzaddikim. We learn from the Seforno, Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, and Rabbi Levovits that gaining as much exposure to them as possible can do wonders for our spiritual level.
- Eruvin, 13b.
- Sichot Mussar, Maamer 41.
- Bereishit, 48:10.
- Cherished Conversations, by Rabbi Dov Eliach, pp.126-127.
- Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan – author of the great legal work, the Mishnah Berurah, and the work on forbidden speech, Chofetz Chaim, as well as many other books.