Friday, July 19, 2019



          I was eighteen years old, and I had gotten my license a few months earlier. I was driving on a main road near Monsey, feeling very confident and grown-up. I was making a left turn, crossing a busy intersection into a shopping mall, when a car driving on the shoulder to make a right turn, hit me from the side.
          I was convinced that the turn I was making was legal, and I was not at fault, until I realized there was a ‘No left turn' sign that had been obscured from my view. I immediately began to rationalize that I had seen people make that turn many times before, and I had no idea that it was illegal. But I quickly realized that there was no way the cop was going to buy that. If I have a license then I am expected to look for traffic signs, and to determine whether I am allowed to make a turn before proceeding. That’s part of the responsibility that comes along with the privilege of having a license.

   Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Katz zt'l[1] was born into a litvishe (non-Chassidic) family. After a few encounters with Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer Ba'al Shem Tov[2] however, he became one of his most ardent students and followers. In fact, all the teachings of the Ba'al Shem Tov that we have recorded, are from the writings of Rabbi Katz[3]
   One time the Ba'al Shem Tov noted that everything that transpires during one's life is pre-ordained and contains a personal message for that person.
   Just then, a non-Jew knocked on the door of the Ba'al Shem Tov and asked if anything in his house needed to be repaired. The Ba'al Shem Tov replied that everything was in perfect order. The non-Jew replied, "Rabbi, if you look hard enough there is always something that requires fixing." Upon hearing those words, the Ba'al Shem Tov excitedly turned to Rabbi Katz, "Did you hear what he just said? That was a message for us from G-d. It’s teaching us that one may feel complacent with his spiritual level. However, if he reflects within himself, he can always find things that need rectifying.” Rabbi Katz was not convinced. He replied that the non-Jew was merely looking to make some extra cash. There was no divine message in the mundane words he uttered.
          The Ba'al Shem Tov reiterated that the message was true; he just didn’t want to accept it.
   A short while later, Rabbi Katz took leave of the Ba’al Shem Tov. As he was walking, he was preoccupied with the Ba'al Shem Tov's message, until his thoughts were interrupted by the shouts of a local farmer. The farmer was standing next to a heavy pile of hay that had just fallen off his wagon. He asked Rabbi Katz if he could help him reload the hay onto his wagon. Rabbi Katz shook his head apologetically, "I'm sorry but I'm an old man and it's very hot. I'm afraid I can't help you."
          The farmer called back to him, "You could help if you want; you just don't want to!" When Rabbi Katz heard the farmer repeat the exact words he had heard from the Ba'al Shem Tov moments earlier, he hurried back to the Ba'al Shem Tov, now convinced of the validity of what the Ba'al Shem Tov had said: Everything that happens carries a personal message for the person. 

   On Yom Kippur, one of the confessions we repeatedly declare is, "For the sins that we have committed before You
בבלי דעת - without knowledge." One would think that the sins committed out of ignorance would be the least of our concerns. At least for those sins we have an excuse. Why is it necessary for us to confess those sins?
   Sefer Hachassidim (153) explains that during the war against Midyan Moshe became upset at the generals of the nation for not killing the Midyanite women[4]. The generals could have conceivably replied to Moshe that he had never explicitly commanded them to kill the women. However, the generals understood that they were culpable, because they should have realized it on their own. They should have rationalized that if the Canaanites about whom the pasuk[5] states must be completely killed out (including the women) so that the nation should not be negatively influenced from their ways in the future[6], surely then the Midyanites who had already caused a great plague to befall Klal Yisroel should have been killed as well. 
   Sefer Chassidim continues that when Bila'am was traveling with the officers of Balak to curse Klal Yisroel, his donkey pressed his leg against a solid wall three times. Out of anger, Bila'am struck the donkey with his stick. Miraculously the donkey spoke to Bila'am and asked him (Bamidbar 22:28), "What have I done to you that you have hit me three times?" Why didn't Bila’am reply to the donkey that he was only acting naturally by hitting his animal? Furthermore, not only did Bila'am not defend himself but he also admitted his error: "I have sinned for I did not know."[7] If he did not know, what sin did he commit?
   The answer is that ignorance is no excuse. Bila'am was a prophet and therefore he should have understood that all that transpires is preordained in heaven. Even a wicked person such as Bila'am recognized that for a man of his stature, ignorance was not an excuse. His ignorance was the sin. 
          Reb Yeruchom Levovitz zt'l, the Mirrer Mashgiach, once asked his students what the first mitzvah in the Torah is. One student immediately replied that it was to have children, the first commandment instructed to Adam. Another student suggested that it was the the mitzvah of Kiddush Hachodesh - sanctifying the new moon, the first mitzvah instructed to Klal Yisroel[8], but Reb Yeruchom waved off both of their responses.
          The students were perplexed; they didn’t understand what their rebbe was asking them. Reb Yeruchom explained that the first mitzvah is 'Zay nisht a tipish- Don't be a
fool.' His message was that the prerequisite for Torah observance is to also comprehend the message of the spirit of the law.
   Though there are only four sections of Shulchan Aruch[9], the Ba'alei Mussar (master ethicists) refer to a fifth volume, i.e. that of ‘saychel- intellect and logic'. Without ‘common sense', one cannot learn and fulfill Torah and mitzvos properly.
       Rabbi Yehuda Zev Segal zt'l, the Manchester Rosh Yeshiva, would note that in the celestial courts, ignorance is not a valid excuse. If one had the ability to study but did not do so, he is liable for not setting aside time to do so.

   Someone once said, “The world's greatest area of undeveloped territory lies under people's hats.” Ignorance is never a valid excuse unless one can justify his inability to study and learn.
          Noted author J.K. Rowlings quipped that the expiration date for blaming one’s life problems on parents, is when one gets his/her license. Once one is responsible enough to drive, he must be responsible enough for his own decisions and the trajectory of his life. As my rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, once quipped “excuses are wonderful, but they don’t pay the bills.”

          "I have sinned for I did not know."
          “For the sins that we have committed before You without knowledge."

Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW
Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – Heichal HaTorah
Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor

[1][1] c. 1669-1781
[2] the founder of the Chassidic movement, 1698-1760
[3] later known as 'the Toldos'
[4] see Bamidbar 31, parshas Matos
[5] Devorim 20:16
[6] Devorim 20:18
[7] Bamidbar 22:34
[8] See Shemos 12:1; also see the first Rashi in the Torah
[9] the main code of Jewish law


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