The Basis of Our Mesorah: Parents Worthy of Trust
I mention my morning shiur fairly frequently in these pages, partly to indicate how important such a shiur with a rav whom each person in the shiur looks up to as a walking Mesilas Yesharim can be for a pashute baalebos, like myself. Though by far the bulk of the shiur is taken up with Gemara learning, I often feel the fifteen minutes of mussar/hashkafa at the beginning are the most important for me at this stage in my life. In recent years, we have finished the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on Mishlei (twice), Mesilas Yesharim (twice), and most of Nefesh HaChaim (so perhaps I should be careful about writing that the mussar seder has the largest impact).
Recently, we began the Ramchal’s Derech Hashem. In the first chapter, in which the Ramchal specifies what we can know about Hashem, he mentions that all these matters can be derived logically, but that he prefers to rely on the mesorah for his presentation. Elaborating on this comment, the rav made reference to the famous Ramban at the end of parashas Bo, which we have studied together many times.
The Ramban writes that Hashem does not perform open miracles in every generation, and that is why we have so many mitzvos that remind us of yetzias Mitzrayim. The parashiyos of Tefillin, for instance, serve as a constant reminder of what we witnessed in Egypt. And each of us is commanded to “transmit the matter to our children, and our children to their children, and their children to their own children, until the last generation.”
The power of that mesorah from generation to generation – that which assures us that “the matter is true without any doubt” – writes the Ramban elsewhere (Devarim 4:9) is the assumption that “we will not witness falsely to our children.” Because a person will not lie to his child about the most important matters we can rely on the unbroken chain of transmission to verify the miracles recorded in the Torah with absolute certainty.
It follows from the Ramban that any time a parent says anything with even a tinge of falsehood or deception to his or her child, the negative impact is cosmic. For if a parent does so, he or she has thereby undercut in his or her child’s mind the chazaka that a parent will not witness falsely to his child and thus the entire basis upon which our mesorah from generation to generation is based. That is something that should give each of us pause every time we promise our children something and do not follow through or otherwise distort the truth.
I mentioned this conclusion to my teacher and friend, Rabbi Dovid Affen, and he told me a story involving Rabbi Chatzkel Levenstein that confirmed the insight and took it a step farther. Rabbi Affen is the son-in-law of the late Rabbi Aryeh Leib Bakst, Rosh Yeshiva Bais Yehuda of Detroit. Rabbi Bakst spent the entire war together with Reb Chatzkel in Shanghai, and the two became very close.
In the 1950s or 60s in Israel, there was a young child in Bnei Brak, who suddenly began quoting pages and pages of Gemara b’al peh, in a manner that defied explanation. News of the miracle child spread around the Jewish world. Rabbi Bakst in Detroit wrote to Reb Chatzkel and asked him whether he had gone to visit the child and verify the matter for himself.
Reb Chatzkel wrote that he had not. Since his son-in-law had done so, for him to travel to verify the matter would show a certain lack of trust in his son-in-law. And that lack of trust, Reb Chatzkel wrote, would at some very fine level undermine the belief in what others tell us that is the foundation of the mesorah.
The ability to trust one another is the glue without which society cannot function, but it is something else as well: it is the basis of our mesorah.