By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
The Gemara relates (Yoma 66b) that a wise woman asked Rebbe Eliezer: Since all the people that worshipped the Golden Calf committed a serious sin, why do we find that they received different punishments? Some were killed by the sword. Others died in a plague. Yet others died as a result of a sickness caused by ingesting water mixed with the ashes of the Golden Calf. Rebbe Eliezer answered, “There is no wisdom for women except in the spindle, as the verse says (Sh’mos 35:25), ‘And all the women that were wise-hearted spun with their hands.’”
This enigmatic exchange followed a series of other cryptic exchanges between Rebbe Eliezer and his students. The commentators offer wildly different interpretations of those exchanges. In this instance also, explanations vary greatly among the commentators. Rabbi Yitzchak Eliyahu Landau (1801–1876) offers the following explanation: Why is the woman referred to as wise in the beginning of the exchange? In Pirkei Avos (4:1) we learn: Who is wise? Ha’roeh es ha’nolad—one who sees consequences of actions. The woman was asking Rebbe Eliezer, it is true that people served the Golden Calf in different ways, but they all caused a public chillul Hashem. Does it make a difference if one slaughtered a sacrifice to it or merely hugged it? Both lend validity to the Golden Calf, which besmirches the honor of Hashem. The consequences of both actions are the same. The very question the woman asked demonstrated that she was wise because she was able to view a situation from the perspective of seeing actions for their consequences.
However, Rebbe Eliezer answered her from the unique praise that the Torah offered to the wise-hearted women. Chazal tell us that these women were so skilled that they were able to spin wool while it was still on the sheep! These women performed this extraordinary feat to supply beautiful wool for the Mishkan. This unique skill was not readily noticeable in the end product. While looking at the fibers, one could not ascertain whether or not they were spun while still on the sheep. Yet presumably it made some difference. Perhaps it extended the lifetime of the fibers or increased their strength. However, if we simply looked at the final product we could not see the difference.
The Torah here is teaching us a lesson to focus on the method and process and not just on the final product. This was the message Rebbe Eliezer was imparting to the wise woman. Just as the Torah praises the women for skilled labor that led to the final wool product, so too the various actions that led to the chillul Hashem are significant. While it is meritorious to be able to see the consequences of one’s actions, that shouldn’t blind us from seeing the process and methods themselves. Offering a sacrifice to the Golden Calf is more involved and is worse than merely hugging it.
Rav Hutner, zt’l, once wrote a letter to a student who was discouraged with his lack of spiritual progress. He said that when people view tzaddikim they tend to just see the final product. They don’t see the process that led to the attainment of his spiritual greatness: “A failing many of us suffer from is that when we consider the aspects of perfection of our sages, we focus on the ultimate level of their attainments . . . while omitting mention of the inner struggles that had previously raged within them. A listener would get the impression that these individuals came out of the Hand of their Creator in full-blown form.
“Everyone is awed at the purity of speech of the Chofetz Chaim, zt’l, considering it a miraculous phenomenon. But who knows of the battles, struggles, and obstacles, the slumps and regressions that the Chofetz Chaim encountered in his war with the yetzer ha’ra? There are many such examples, to which a discerning individual such as yourself can certainly apply the rule.
“The result of this failing is that when an ambitious young man of spirit and enthusiasm meets obstacles, falls, and slumps, he imagines himself as unworthy of being ‘planted in the house of Hashem.’ Know, however, my dear friend, that your soul is rooted not in the tranquillity of the yetzer tov, but rather in the battle of the yetzer tov. And your precious warm-hearted letter ‘testifies as a hundred witnesses’ that you are a worthy warrior in the battalion of the yetzer tov. The English expression, ‘Lose a battle and win a war’ applies. Certainly you have stumbled, and will stumble again (a self-fulfilling prophecy is not intended) and in many battles you will fall lame. I promise you, though, that after those losing campaigns you will emerge from the war with the laurels of victory upon your head. . . . Lose battles but win wars.” (Translation courtesy of the Jewish Observer, December 1981.)
The following anecdote is not meant to detract from the above, but to clarify one particular point. While it is true that the Chofetz Chaim had struggles on his level, it seems that he never uttered a word of lashon ha’ra when he became of age.
Rav Sholom Schwadron, zt’l, related: One Purim a tipsy bachur in Radin approached the Chofetz Chaim and requested a guarantee that he be in Gan Eden together with the great gadol. The Chofetz Chaim demurred and replied, “How do I know if I’ll have Gan Eden?” Still the adamant bachur refused to give in. It was time for the Purim seudah and the Chofetz Chaim needed to depart. Finally the Chofetz Chaim said, “I don’t know if I’ll have Gan Eden or not, but on account of one zechus I think I will merit Gan Eden. From the day I reached understanding, I never uttered or listened to a word of lashon ha’ra. If you assure me that from today on you will neither speak nor listen to lashon ha’ra, I assure you that you can be with me in Gan Eden.” The boy sobered up rather quickly but could not agree. He felt that he could not live up to such a commitment.
Rav Schwadron explained that the Chofetz Chaim felt that if the bachur had made the commitment, he would have merited Divine assistance enabling him to fulfill it. Apparently, Rav Schwadron was familiar with the bachur and said that he still merited to become a great Torah scholar. But he could have merited being even greater, if only he had agreed. (This final point is only mentioned in the Hebrew sefer Sheal Avicha, page 41. The rest of the story can also be found in The Maggid Speaks by Rabbi Paysach Krohn.) v
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead and is a rebbi at Mesivta Kesser Yisroel of Willowbrook. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.