Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The importance of being earnest

[Posts I enjoyed recently: The Pesach Problem at A Mother in Israel and Pesach Money Saving Tips at Orthonomics]

I read a striking passage from Rav Klonymus Kalman Schapira’s Bnei Machshavah Tovah (Seder Emtza’ei v’Yesod –haChevra 15) the other day. It’s part of a great theme on asserting the nefesh [soul], rather than the sechel [intellect], in one’s life.

He wrote:
Guide yourself in simplicity and sincerity in all of your affairs, for sincerity is the rule of the nefesh over a person and his deeds. Cunning is the absence of nefesh, the reign of the sechel – and not the sechel which comes from the nefesh, but worldly sechel, the customs and situations of the world and its inhabitants. Fools call this ‘sechel’, and according to this sechel they act, speak, plot and conduct their lives.

Or in the Hebrew:
תנהג את עצמך בפשיטות ותמימות, בכל עניניך, כי תמימות היא ממשלת הנפש על האדם ומעשיו, וערמומית היא חוסר הנפש, וממשלת השכל, ולא השכל שלו שבא מן הנפש, רק שכל העולם, כלומר מנהגי ומצבי העולם ואנשיו שהטפשים קוראים לזה שכל וכפיהם עושים מדברים חושבים ומתנהגים.

And so Rav Schapira gives the following counsel for the way we should respond to people’s questions:

“Answer questions earnestly, as is in your heart, in sincerity and simplicity, and use your intellect only to determine that an answer is not incorrect. Even your intellect should be simple and earnest, a tool to serve the earnestness and simplicity of your heart, to help her and to bring her intent into action.

“And if you find that this answer will harm you, or there is some other reason you cannot give this answer, then say, ‘I don’t know,’ as the sages instructed, rather than bend and corrupt with a twisted answer, without earnestness and without simplicity.”

Or in the Hebrew:
ראשית כל תענה ברצינות (הערנסט) כאשר עם לבבך בתמימות ופשטות, ובשכלך תשמש רק להבחין אם אינך טועה בתשובה זו, אבל גם שכלך זה יהיה פשוט ורציני (הערנסט) מין כלי שמוש יהיה שכלך לשמש את רציניות ופשטות לבך לעזור לה ולהוציאה לפועל. ואם מצאת שתשובה זו תזיק לך, או מניעה אחרת בתשובתך, תאמר איני יודע כמצות חז"ל ולא תעקם ותעקל תשובה נפתולה בלא רציניות ובלא פשטות.

[I believe his “as the sages instructed” refers to Kallah Rabti 4:22, “‘Teach your tongue to say, ‘I don’t know,’ lest you lie and be trapped.”]

Golden advice.


  1. Sigh. I wish more educators read the Piaseczner. I wouldn't have had to rescue my kids' love of Torah from the failure of some to say "I don't know."

  2. IMHO the reisha is unrelated to the seifa - imho some folks resonate to the soul approach and others to the intellect approach (or as chazal or sly stated -different strokes for different folks) but both need to learn to say i don't know. fwiw, young professionals need this lesson the most in my experience.
    Joel Rich

  3. "I read a striking passage from Rav Klonymus Kalman Schapira’s Bnei Machshavah Tovah (Seder Emtza’ei v’Yesod –haChevra 15) the other day. It’s part of a great theme on asserting the nefesh [soul], rather than the sechel [intellect], in one’s life."

    When I read this paragraph, my Litvisher ancestors saw the words through my eyes and started crying out in horror.

    A Mussarnik would wonder how one can really achieve sincerity without actually working on eliminating all those ulterior motives that color every decision. Or at least identifying and compensating for them.

    Your primary thesis, having the honesty and bravery to say "I don't know", is something with which I fully agree. But how you get there... I was happier when Anti-Academic Judaism was on the defensive.


  4. This has some pertinent comments on knowing and not knowing:


  5. Ruti-

    Joel, R' Micha -
    Are you referring to the inner intellect or the worldly intellect, as defined by R' Schapira? I suspect we are on the same page, just using different terms.

  6. Unrelated to your post, but related to your Daf Yomi shiur today from YU Torah (which is always excellent, I might add):

    Regarding the meaning behind the salting of korbanos, you may find the Kli Yakar's explanation to be of interest. He describes salt as a product of sunlight/water, which represent din/rachamim. With every korban, we express our belief that everything that happens in this world in from Hashem's interplay of din/rachamim as opposed to Shtei Reshuyos. Obviously, he says it better than I can retell it.

  7. Interesting, Michael; thank you, and thanks for your compliments re: the Daf. I'm glad it is useful.

  8. A week behind the rest of the world, but this post is well received by me.