Instead of the type of column I usually write, I feel compelled to pen (or type) a certain insight I feel I should share.
Unfortunately, as the title and sub-title of the column indicates, by doing so I am violating the very principle that I will be introducing. Oh well, such is the nature of conundrums.
So why aren’t you saying something about Orot? How come you are not supporting, or condemning, side A or side B? Where do you stand? Where does your shul stand? This is not a time to remain silent! You must show solidarity with (fill in whichever side the questioner supports). If they get away with this, who knows what will come next?!
And so, a column to explain my silence. A column of words to explain my silence? Yes, such is the nature of conundrums.
But first — a story!
Around the year 1855, the Netziv (Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin) became the head of the great Volozhin Yeshivah, founded of course by Rav Chaim Volozhin, foremost talmid of the Gra. The Netziv was the son-in-law of Rav Chaim’s son, Rav Yitzchok, who had taken the mantle of the yeshivah upon himself after the death of his illustrious father. After Rav Yitzchok’s petirah, one son-in-law took over; the son-in-law died an untimely death, and the Netziv, another son-in-law, became the head of the yeshivah. He was joined soon by Rav Yosef Ber Halevi Solovetchik, the Bais Halevi, a grandson of Rav Chaim. These two Torah giants were radically different in personality, talents, and their system of Torah learning. This caused tremendous upheaval in the yeshivah. The different approaches gave rise to a rift between the students, some being attracted to the Netziv’s derech halimud while others found fulfillment in the approach of Rav Yosef Ber. The two roshei yeshivah themselves possessed fine characters, of course, and their humility was the hallmark of their Torah leadership; thus, their supreme interest was in keeping the distinctions from breaking out into machlokes.
Nevertheless, as the differences between them were common knowledge among the students, it became unfortunately impossible to contain the hot-headedness of the youngsters. Emotion and pride ruled the day, and each side championed the correctness of the path their adherents had chosen for themselves. Little by little, debate turned to argument, discussion into strife. Friends became enemies, and violent quarrels broke out, poisoning the atmosphere of the holy yeshivah. The argument (of course) eventually broke through the walls of the yeshivah and spread throughout the Jewish community, with many Torah scholars taking sides in the controversy, debating the relative merits of the different approaches to Torah learning. The situation deteriorated to the degree that the running of the yeshivah and its reputation were in danger.
The gedolim of the generation decided to involve themselves in stopping the conflict at its source. They called an emergency meeting to lay the groundwork for improving relations between the students and for the resumption of the smooth running of the yeshivah. These gedolim held their discussions by their own authority, but they enjoyed the full support of many Torah leaders, the treasurers of the yeshivah, and many, many baalei batim. They finally drafted a ten-point accord, which indeed succeeded in restoring full peace and harmony to the yeshivah and to the Torah community. The drafters and signees were Rav Tevli of Minsk, Rav Yossele Slutsker, Rav Zalmon, the maggid of Vilna, and Rav Yitzchok Elchonon.
The story goes that when Reb Velvele (this is how Rav Zalmon was known) was invited to the conference in Volozhin, he spoke to a group of people who came to wish him well in the mediation. He made the following observation:
“This invitation reminds me of a recurring problem I have every single year, at the same time of year. Here is the problem: As the official maggid of Vilna, one of my functions is to deliver a sermon every Shabbos on the sedrah. Now, one of the secrets of being a good maggid is to highlight the conflicting sides in every story. I eloquently show the good, kind, righteous side, and contrast it to the ‘bad’ side, showing how evil and terrible it is. And I have no trouble doing so in Parshas Bereishis — Adam, obviously, created in the image of G-d, versus the snake, the source of strife and evil and wickedness. Noach versus his evil generation. Avraham Avinu versus Par’oh, versus Anshei Sedom. Rivkah versus Lavan. Yaakov versus Esav, versus Lavan. The Shevatim versus the people of Shechem. Hero against villain.
But when I get to Vayeishev and Mikeitz, and I am forced to choose between Yosef and his brothers, how can I make such a choice? Both sides are in the right, they both acted righteously and according to the dictates of their conscience, both are holy, both are sons of Yaakov Avinu! How can I praise one and heap scorn upon the other? This is my headache, until I once again safely reach the story of Yosef versus Par’oh, the Jews versus Par’oh, Moshe versus Par’oh, the story of the eigel, Moshe versus the spies, Moshe versus Korach, the Jews and Bilam…
I feel the same way about the mission that lies before me, said Rav Velvele. Had I been invited to mediate between the Netziv or the Beis Halevi and one of the many maskilim in Vilna, I would know exactly what to do, or to say. But I have been called to mediate between two holy people. I feel lost, because I hold them both in equal esteem. The Jewish people need both of them and their different talents and approaches. I feel now as I normally feel during the weeks of Vayeishev and Mikeitz!”
(Most of the above story is taken from the book My Uncle The Netziv, an English adaption of a part of the memoirs of Rabbi Baruch Epstein, the Torah Temimah; the full memoirs are called Mekor Baruch.)
Now I see I have run out of my allotted space, and I have to leave my explanation for next week. I will leave you though with one hint — my explanation is almost the opposite, the antithesis, the inverse, of Reb Velvele’s.