Letters - June 2014

Moshe Ben-Chaim

What Determines Character: Knowledge or Action?

Question: Rambam writes , “Anyone who performs all that is written in Torah and knows Torah/God with a complete and proper knowledge, he merits the afterlife and in proportion to his acts and the greatness of his wisdom is he meritorious.”  

My question: is one’s Hashgacha Pratis (personal divine providence) a function/result of both knowledge and action, or just knowledge? Or, does action affect the mind?

Moshe — New York, NY

Answer: Your quote from Rambam (Hilchos Teshuva 9:4) says, “who performs…”  Thus, action is required, since action is the barometer of human conviction. Without action, one is not fully convinced that the act is proper. God designed man as a being that is motivated to act upon all matters of which he is 100% convinced of their truth, and value. Just as it is impossible not to bleed when cut, it is equally impossible that one should not act when convinced of the truth and value of any act. One who is unsure of either the reality or value of an act, fails to act. This also teaches that clarity of thought assists in overcoming all internal obstacles.

God’s Character

Question: How do we know that God didn’t lie at Sinai? Maybe He said He was good, compassionate, and promised us reward…but it’s all a trick? Why believe that God is truthful?

Dev K. — Via email

Answer: Your question is clearly not based on knowledge. Granting us senses, God wishes we accept what is real and reject what does not register on our senses. We therefore reject views that stars govern our will or events, what we call astrology. But we accept evidence, like gravity and medicinal cures. In His Torah, God granted numerous laws: all display His concern for mankind’s well-being, health, wealth and happiness, such as laws of charity, kindness, laws prohibiting stealing, rape, murder, cheating, cursing, misleading and evil speech. God punished those intending to hurt others physically or psychologically. Those who acted properly were even miraculously protected. 

Study the Torah and creation. You will find a clear answer to your question.

Question: OK, agreed. Also, how do we know that God is really perfect, and all-controlling? How do we know that He is the force controlling all, and has no limits?

Answer: “Perfect” means not lacking. As nothing controls God, but He created and controls the entire universe, he does not lack anything, and this is His perfection. This also means without limits, since nothing can affect its Creator. Thus, nothing impedes God’s will, meaning His abilities.

Character Improvement

Question: I have 2 important areas in my spiritual growth that need improvement. I am currently trying to work on my speech; trying to stay away from problematic conversations and watching what comes out of my mouth. However, my very good friend has a little problem of shemiras halashon (guarding the tongue), and sometimes when we talk, she slips up and discusses bad things about Jewish teachers, and classmates. She doesn’t always realize that it, so I try telling her but she sometimes forgets. So, this is my challenge in this area. My second important area is kibud av va-em (honoring parents); specifically not responding disrespectfully. I am really trying to work on both, but I am realizing that I need to work on 1 more thoroughly than the other, if I really want to improve in that area. So in short, which area is more important and should be taking precedence over the other: Shemiras halashon, or kibud av va-em?


Answer: I compliment you on taking action to perfect your character. You sound capable of addressing both matters. And I feel it is good practice to contend with multiple areas of life, as this is necessary as an adult. But if you need to focus on only one for now, focus on Lashon Hara, since it is far more grave a sin than disrespectful responses to parents. Maimonides says Lashon Hara equates to the 3 cardinal sins (Hilchos Daos 7:4). In Hilchos Teshuva 3:14 he states that a frequent speaker of Lashon Hara forfeits his afterlife. 

To cease from Lashon Hara, we must fully grasp its destruction of reputations. Torah teaches that part of the sinner’s requirement is to free a blood-stained bird free over an open field, simulating irretrievable evil speech (Lev. 14:7) which is akin to a bloody chirping bird. Recognizing that bird can’t be caught again, we hopefully are impacted by the equally irreversible damage our bloody speech has brought upon another person. 

Lashon Hara is a weakness where the speaker cowardly seeks support from others for their aggression. And with what intent; to somehow “set things straight” with this character assassination? One fools themselves with this notion: nothing in the world has change after Lashon Hara has been spoken. One must ask why they are so bothered by what another person said or did. This is an insecurity, where we crave peer approval, and talk down about people who don’t approve of us. We must only desire God’s approval. Some young women feel their friends are getting away with something they wish to do. Others are jealous of a peer’s popularity. And still others speak Lashon Hara as a response to a personal attack. If so, we must confront others and share how we feel about their words against us. There are many factors and there is no single approach to addressing Lashon Hara, without knowing what exactly transpired. The specifics must be learned. But to denigrate others is not the constructive method of resolving conflicts, and it is prohibited. Bearing this in mind we can more easily restrain our tongues. I suggest you continue to point out to your friend when she needs to curb her discussion, or simply leave her presence so you don’t partake of the sin by listening. Let her know it’s nothing personal, so discuss this with her at present. 

Regarding honoring parents, again we must fully grasp God’s will in this command. We are created as infants so as to slowly learn the concept of authority. These many years as a dependent child are meant to cultivate a respect for parents, which ultimately we use as a model for our respect of God. Without such dependency during our youth, we rebel as Adoniyahu did against his father King David, since King David never rebuked him as a child (Kings I, 1:6). If we can view our parents as God wishes, as a means to learn the fear of God, this will help us bear more of the common friction we endure as teens. We can ask our parents to sit down with us and discuss where we disagree, and arrive at some compromise so both parties are happier. Parents will actually respect such an approach, and this will cause them to ease up on any control issues they might have, which many parents do. The more they view you as an adult, the more they will be apt to treat you this way. Understand that talking back only exacerbates friction, and this is not what you want. And the more you control your responses, and learn patience, the easier it will get. Think about if what you say helps or hurts the situation. It is also better not to respond when passions are hot, and wait until emotional flare ups subside. So keep in mind God’s will for us to honor parents, that it is really for our own benefit, and that disrespectful responses only hurt our goals.