Megillas Koheles

On Shabbos Chol HaMoed Sukkos, we read Megillas Koheles, Shlomo HaMelech’s guide to a proper outlook on life. In Koheles 1:18 he writes: “For with great wisdom comes great torment, and one who increases his knowledge increases his grief.” This statement indicates that a wise person suffers more than a fool does over certain mishaps of life, particularly over misdeeds. The Maggid explains Shlomo’s statement as reflecting the fact that Hashem holds a wise person to a high standard, as the Gemara in Bava Kamma 50a teaches. It is written (Tehillim 50:3): “His [Hashem’s] environs are very stormy (nisarah meod).” The Gemara derives from this verse the principle that Hashem is exacting with the righteous to a hairsbreadth (k’chut hasaarah). In Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaYirah, chapter 12, the Maggid elaborates on this principle.
The Maggid begins by presenting a classic illustration of the principle: the death penalty that Hashem meted out to Nadav and Avihu for offering in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) a “foreign fire” that Hashem had not commanded. Their father Aharon was astonished at the swift and severe punishment they received for this misstep. Moshe explained to him (Vayikra 10:3): “It was of this that Hashem spoke, saying, ‘Through My close ones I shall be sanctified, and I shall be honored before the entire people.’” Hashem expects a commoner to guard His honor by not rebelling against His commands. He expects more, however, of His close ones; He invests them with the duty to sanctify Him by acting with the utmost scrupulousness. Nadav and Avihu’s great loftiness made them liable to the strictest punishment.
The Maggid then expands on discuss why Hashem is so exacting with the righteous. He presents three reasons for this mode of operation.
First, a person who is endowed with wisdom and has drawn close to Hashem is expected to have a solid grasp of the rules of proper conduct. As the Midrash puts it (Tanchuma, Vayikra 6), a king gets much angrier when a member of the palace household commits an infraction than when a visitor from the city commits the same infraction, for the palace household member should know better. Since a member of the palace household constantly beholds the glory of the king within the palace, he is expected to know how to act, whereas such knowledge is not expected of a visitor. The same idea applies to the way Hashem relates to a righteous person, who dwells in His environs.
Second, a small flaw in a righteous person causes much more damage to the Jewish People as a whole than a similar small flaw in an average person. The Maggid draws an analogy to the human body. The body comprises a variety of organs, including some of minor importance and some of major importance. Some organs can be injured or even lost without significant effect on a person’s functioning. But other organs, such as the eyes, are so central that an injury to them causes a grave impairment. Similarly, the Jewish People comprises a variety of people, including commoners and great saints. If a commoner sins, the sin does not cause such a great desecration of Hashem’s Name, and thus does not cause significant damage to the Jewish People as a whole. But if a great saint sins, major damage to the entire Jewish People results, for the people all regard the great saint as setting an example of how to act. If a great saint commits a misdeed, the rest of the people will copy it, and a major desecration to Hashem’s Name ensues. Thus, in Yoma 86a, R. Yochanan says it would be a desecration to Hashem’s Name for him to walk four cubits without speaking words of Torah and wearing tefillin, while Rav says it would be a desecration of Hashem’s Name for him to buy meat from the butcher and not pay immediately. The Mishnah in Avos 4:13 states that an inadvertent misinterpretation of Torah law is considered like a deliberate sin. In a similar vein, we can say that an inadvertent sin committed by a righteous person is as severe as a deliberate sin, for when a righteous person inadvertently does an improper deed, he gives others the impression that it is alright to engage in such behavior, and thus leads them to do so deliberately.
Third, a small flaw in a righteous person damages the person himself much more than a similar small flaw in an average person. On a physical level, a tough person suffers significant harm only when he is dealt a heavy blow, but a delicate person suffers serious harm even from a minor blow. Similarly, on a spiritual level, a coarse person’s soul suffers significant damage only when he commits a major sin, but a lofty person’s soul suffers serious damage even from a minor sin. As another analogy, consider bright white garments as compared with garments of a duller color. A few black spots would hardly be noticed on a duller garment, but seriously damage the appearance of a bright white garment. Thus, a person wearing a bright white garment must be much more careful to avoid stains than a person wearing a duller garment. In the same way, a righteous person must be very careful to avoid a even minor sin.
An additional perspective on Hashem’s exacting treatment of the righteous is reflected in another verse in Koheles (verse 7:3): “Anger is better than geniality.” The Gemara comments (Shabbos 30b): “The anger that the Holy One Blessed Be He shows the righteous in this world is better than the geniality that the Holy One Blessed Be He shows the wicked in this world.” The Maggid, in his commentary on Shir HaShirim 1:5, explains this teaching as follows. If Hashem shows a person favor for avoiding gross indecencies, it is because He regards him as a lowly person for whom avoiding such indecencies is a major achievement. And if He subjects a person to an outpour of wrath for a slight infraction, it is because He regards him as a righteous person who is capable of spiritual greatness.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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