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Vayeitzei -The Precedence of Jewish Law

The means of keeping Jewish Law (halacha) determines one’s actions, and the consequences are in G-d's hands

Vayeitzei -The Precedence of Jewish Law
Bereishis, 28:16: “And Yaakov awoke from his sleep and said, ‘but HaShem is in this place and I did not know’.”

Rashi, Bereishis, 28:16. Dh: Veanochi: “Because if I had known, I would not have slept in this holy place.”

During his journey to Lavan, Yaakov Avinu lies down to sleep. He is unaware that this place is Har Moriah where the Akeidah took place, which is also location of the future Beit HaMikdash.  While he is asleep, he receives the famous prophecy of the Angels going up and down the ladder and receives promises from HaShem assuring him of future success.  When he wakes up, his immediate response is that the fact that he received such a prophecy here indicates that this is a holy place, and had he known of Its holiness, he would not have slept there. 

The Brisker Rav, Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik zt”l, explains that he was concerned that he had inadvertently transgressed the law of Morah HaMikdash, whereby it is forbidden to act in a casual way in the makom HaMikdash (location of the Temple) and sleeping there is included in that prohibition[1].

This account does not, at first glance, appear particularly noteworthy.  However, the Brisker Rav says that if one contemplates more deeply the context of the dream and Yaakov’s reaction to it, we learn an astonishing lesson.  Yaakov was in a very precarious situation when this dream took place; he had escaped for his life from his angry brother, Esav, who wanted to kill him.  

On his way, he was confronted by Esav’s son, Eliphaz, who took all of his belongings. He was leaving the holy Land for the first time in his life, alone, with an uncertain future awaiting him.  When he finally lays down to rest, he receives wondrous promises from HaShem; that he will have numerous offspring, they will inherit the land upon which he slept, and that he will be protected in his upcoming travails. 

The Brisker Rav points out that it would have been expected that Yaakov would be overjoyed at hearing such good news at such a precarious time.  However, this is not the case, and his immediate reaction is to say that had he realized this was such a holy place, he would not have slept here, in order not to transgress the halacha of Morah HaMikdash.  

The Brisker Rav understands that had Yaakov not fallen asleep at that place at that time, then he may never have received this prophecy, and would not have merited all these wonderful assurances[2]

Accordingly, an amazing idea emerges: Yaakov Avinu would have preferred to forego this dream and everything that went with it, in order to avoid even inadvertently transgressing halacha.  We learn from here that adherence to halacha overrides all other considerations, even when the consequences seem to indicate that keeping the halacha would have negative ramifications.

The Brisker Rav applied this attitude throughout his life: In the early days of the State of Israel, a certain decree that the Gedolim believed seriously threatened the spiritual well-being of the Jewish people, was on the verge of being enacted.  The Chazon Ish zt”l and the Brisker Rav, and other Torah leaders, instructed that this decree must be fought by the Torah community with all its might.  However, some pointed that if they fight too hard in this area, then their opponents might react by fighting back in another area that was also essential to the Jewish people’s spiritual survival. 

Accordingly, it was suggested that it may be prudent to avoid fighting too hard to prevent the decree, in order to not suffer in this other, vital area.
When this point was suggested to the Brisker Rav, he totally dismissed it, arguing that since he understood that the halacha stated that they must fight this decree, they were obligated to do their utmost to resist it.

As to the argument that there might be serious negative ramifications in other areas, he argued that it is prohibited to stray from the halacha for the sake of “strengthening” the Torah, and that it was HaShem’s ‘responsibility’ to deal with the outcome.  He brought a support for this reasoning, based on the Gemara that at the time of the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, the Kohanim climbed up to the roof carrying the keys to the Beit HaMikdash and threw them heavenward, and the image of a hand appeared to catch them. 

The Brisker Rav explained that the message from Heaven was clearly that they had acted correctly. He learnt from here that, “in our case too, if the only way to fulfil the Torah is through permitting the prohibited, we are better off casting the upholding of the Torah back to HaShem.  Let Him take responsibility for His promise, of ‘For it will not be forgotten from the mouth of his seed’[3].”

This is a very important lesson.  A person may fully believe in fealty to Jewish lawbut there may be times when it seems that strictly observing the halacha may have adverse consequences.  For example, if a person has a superior at work who often speaks lashon hara, the person may feel the need to join in or at least listen intently to the lashon hara in order to protect his livelihood. However, there is no heter in halacha to transgress lashon hara in order to keep one’s job. 

Likewise, there may be times where a person feels that strict adherence to the halacha may upset certain people, or even alienate the less observant.  There are guidelines in halacha as to if and when any leniencies may be relied upon in various situations, but if a person has any doubt about the validity of being lenient in such circumstances, he must ask a qualified Rav who can decide if any leniencies do not cross over the boundaries of halacha.

The Brisker Rav teaches us that the idea of ‘the means justifies the ends’ does not apply in avodat HaShem – rather the means of keeping halacha determines one’s actions, and the consequences are in HaShem’s hands.