By Rabbi Eli J. Schochet, AJRCA Professor of Talmud
I dearly treasured my friendship with Professor Pinchas Peli (ob”m). It was he who suggested the title for my book, Amalek: The Enemy Within.
Peli was a remarkable scholar and a prolific author, gifted with the capacity of being able to sensitively and dramatically interpret the wisdom of our Jewish tradition. His lectures at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute ignited religious fervor in many an apathetic and indifferent Jewish, college student. As a matter of fact, quite a number of young people were inspired to choose the rabbinate as their life calling because of Pinchas Peli.
In his volume, Torah Today, Peli recounts a famous legend associated with the renowned Kabbalist and mystic, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, better known as the holy ARI. It seems that early each and every morning, before commencing the study of Torah, the ARI would stroll quietly along the banks of the Nile River.
Why did he engage in this peculiar practice? The ARI explained that he did so in order to attempt to hear an echo of the cries of baby Moses who was hidden there in a little basket amidst the reeds of the Nile River.
Why? The ARI believed that before one can truly comprehend and properly interpret the Torah of “Moses the Law-Giver”, one must first be able to hear the cries of “Moses the Child”.
Peli recounts this story without explication of polemic. However, its message speaks eloquently for itself. Does it not? It is a reminder to those of us who speak in the name of “Moses the Law-Giver” that religious enactments and legislation must never be divorced from the human condition.
It is not enough for a rabbi to know halakhic sources. It is not proper for a religious decisor to perfunctorily proclaim “That is forbidden” as a reflex reaction. One must first feel the pain in the heart of the questioner and understand his/her condition as a human being. Only then can a legal decision be wisely and compassionately rendered.
Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector, of Kovno, Lithuania, the greatest halakhic decisor of his generation would tell his students, “When a woman comes to you erev Shabbos with a chicken and a Shaileh, you have to do two things. Not only must you look at the chicken to ascertain its kashrut standard, but you must also look at the woman.” In other words, let her cries of economic deprivation also be an important factor in rendering your legal decision. Stringency and leniency in legal interpretations should be intimately associated with the personal plight of the questioner.