True Wisdom

Mi ha’ish ha’yarei v’rach ha’leivav (Devarim 20:8)

 In listing the people who are permitted to return home from the battlefront, the Torah includes (20:8) one who is afraid and weak-hearted. Rashi explains that this refers to a person who is fearful that the sins that are in his hand will cause him to die in the battle. It is difficult to understand the use of this peculiar expression. In what way is it possible for sins to be in a person’s hand more than they are in his heart or soul?

Further, one of the examples given (Menachos 36a) is a person who speaks between putting the tefillin on his arm and placing the tefillin on his head, mitzvos that are presented in Parashas Va’eschanan. Since this isn’t one of the more severe sins that require Yom Kippur to effect forgiveness, why doesn’t he merely confess and repent his sin, which will effect immediate forgiveness and allow him to remain and fight?

Harav Shalom Schwadron suggests that Chazal specifically referred to the sin as being “in his hand” to hint to the fact that he has yet to relinquish his improper actions and is still figuratively holding on to them. The reason he is unable to simply repent his actions is that he doesn’t want to. Nevertheless, although he is unwilling to admit the error of his ways and correct them, he is still intellectually cognizant of their impropriety and, therefore, fears the consequences of placing himself in the danger of war. Although he recognizes that his actions are inappropriate and could lead to his death, he is still unable to release them from his hand and properly correct his ways due to the tremendous force of habit.

Harav Yisrael Salanter is quoted as saying that the greatest distance between two places in the world is the gap between a person’s mind and his heart, which we see illustrated here. The soldier believes in something in his mind, but unless he can find a way to internalize it in his heart and know it with every fiber of his being, it won’t affect his actions.

For this reason, Hashem told Moshe Rabbeinu in Parashas Tetzaveh that the unique garments that were worn by the Kohanim during the time that they served in the Beis Hamikdash were so special and holy, they couldn’t simply be made by anybody who possessed the necessary skills and craftsmanship. Rather, Hashem instructed Moshe (Shemos 28:3) to command the wise of heart to make these special garments for Aharon and his sons.

The Torah recognizes that the primary criterion for evaluating wisdom lies in the ability to connect one’s mind, and the information stored therein, with his heart, which guides and determines his decisions and actions. It is for this reason that Hashem stressed the importance of selecting the truly wise — the wise of heart — to make the special garments worn by the Kohanim.

Although the society in which we live holds wisdom and its pursuers in high esteem, we must recognize that our study of Torah cannot become just another source of intellectual stimulation and knowledge. The Torah is described as a “Toras Chaim,” for it is intended to provide us not just with intellectual stimulation, but to shape our actions and to guide us in every decision that we make in life. Therefore, as we pursue our studies, it is important to be cognizant of the Torah’s message about the true definition of wisdom.

As we begin the difficult work of honestly evaluating ourselves and attempting to improve and grow throughout the month of Elul, the first step is to understand that whatever we study must penetrate our hearts and become part of us so that it influences and guides our future actions and makes us truly wise, a recognition that will allow us to loosen our grips on our sins and completely release them from our hands.

Q: The Torah admonishes (16:19) judges against accepting bribes and warns that doing so will blind the eyes of the wise and twist the words of the righteous. Why does the Torah forbid the judge to take a bribe but not similarly prohibit the parties from giving a bribe??

Q:One who kills accidentally is required to flee to one of the cities of refuge and to remain there until the death of the Kohen Gadol (19:4-5). In the event that he exits before this time, even temporarily, the go’el ha’dam — redeemer of the blood — is permitted to kill him (35:26-27). If the accidental murderer encounters the blood-avenger, is he permitted to kill him in order to protect himself, or is that considered an act of murder?

A: Harav Boruch HaLevi Epstein suggests that if the Torah explicitly forbade litigants to bribe the judge, they would be even more inclined to do so. Because they would know that the other party was unlikely to do something that is prohibited, they would be tempted to offer a bribe in an attempt to gain the upper hand in the judge’s eyes. However, in the absence of a prohibition against giving a bribe, they will assume that there is no reason to do so. In other words, by not forbidding this undesired behavior, the Torah actually made it much less prevalent.

A: The Mishneh L’Melech cites the Gemara in Sanhedrin (82a) that rules that when Pinchas entered Zimri’s tent to kill him for engaging in forbidden relations, Zimri would have been permitted to defend himself by killing Pinchas who was pursuing him to kill him. He suggests that the situation with Pinchas and Zimri should be analogous to our situation, in which the redeemer of the blood is planning to kill the accidental murderer, which would indicate that the murderer is permitted to kill the redeemer of the blood in self-defense. However, he ends off by noting that this proof is not conclusive.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email