By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
was privileged to have had several informal “off the record” conversations on the topic of Jewish eduction with a well-known sage from a previous generation, who shall remain anonymous. He complimented the then-current state of early elementary education for younger students, but not from the stage onward.
In a later conversation, he added this thought: “It is not just in teaching texts that we must adjust our teaching to the maturity level of our audience. We must do so all the more when we discuss the nature of the divine. We cannot allow the kindergartner’s perception of the Almighty to persist into adolescence, adulthood, and beyond. Our understanding of the nature of the Lord must grow as we grow older.”
Since then, I have discovered numerous texts which speak of “spiritual maturity,” albeit in a different terminology.
One text is authored by the great medieval moralist, Rabbenu Yonah of Gerona. His classic work, Shaarei Teshuvah, or “Gates of Repentance,” contains these words:
“…Say not to yourselves, ‘The Lord has enabled us to possess this land because of our virtues…’ It is not because of your virtues and your rectitude…” (Deuteronomy 9:4-5). We have hereby been exhorted not to attribute our success to our righteousness or the uprightness of our hearts, but to believe and to know within our hearts that it derives from the lovingkindness of the Exalted One and from His great goodness, as Jacob our father, may Peace be upon him, said, “I am not worthy of all the mercies and of all the truth” (Genesis 32:11).
This teaching has its roots in the words of Jacob in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (Genesis 32:3-36:43). There, Jacob returns to the Land of Israel after years of exile. He prefaces his prayer of gratitude with these memorable words: “Katonti–literally, I am too small–to have merited all of the mercies and all of the truth that You have bestowed upon me…”
Rabbenu Yonah insists that these words in Deuteronomy are not merely spoken to the generation of the Children of Israel near the end of their sojourn in the wilderness. Nor are Jacob’s words just for the historical record. Rather, there is a message here for each of us for all eternity. As the author of the work known as Sma”k (Sefer Mitzvos HaKatan) states so clearly: “One must never be a tzadik in one’s own eyes.”
In the eloquent words of the author of the Derashot HaRan (Sermon 10): “When the Children of Israel are victorious against a mighty enemy, the Almighty is not concerned that they will attribute their victory to their own might. After all, the enemy was much mightier than they. He is much more concerned that, although they will concede that their victory was due to His intervention, they will credit themselves for His assistance, believing that it was their piety that caused Him to perform miracles on their behalf… Man attributes his successes to himself, one way or another.”
Rabbi Bahya ben Asher comments on the verse in this week’s parasha: “We must all reflect, in our prayers, upon our own insufficiencies and deficiencies in contrast to the Master whom we serve. We deserve nothing. He owes us nothing. Whatever we receive from Him stems from His pure lovingkindness.” The successes we experience are drawn from His otzar matnat chinam, His treasure house of freely given gifts. Then we achieve “spiritual maturity.”
“Spiritual maturity” also informs our personal prayers. We need the Lord’s help not only for our health, wellbeing, and material success. Additionally, we need His help to achieve “spiritual” benefits” – to control our darker passions and to become better people. We must pray for His succor as we struggle with the moral, ethical, and, yes, political challenges of our times.
Rabbi Avraham Godzinsky, a Holocaust victim, said it well in an essay written shortly before his murder, posthumously published in the collection of his writings, Torat Avraham:
“One must never delude himself into thinking that the spiritual aspects of his life are in his control, that he is the one who improves his behavior, that he is the one who repairs his character, since after all he has free will, and he chooses his way in life on his own. The truth is that all a person can do is to will and to commit to the good. But good actions are ultimately not in his control. Life and health are necessary for effective action, talent and skill are necessary to perform mitzvot, inner strength is necessary to overcome the evil urge. But for life and health and talent and skill, man is utterly dependent upon divine assistance.”
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president, emeritus of the Orthodox Union.