Being A Talmid Chacham And The Point Of Inflection In Jewish Law – When Stupidity Becomes Wickedness

It’s not farfetched to say Kabbalah and Judaism work in paradoxes. One who considers himself a Talmid chacham, Mekubal or a humble person is by definition not one.

There are exceptions, of course.

Like when Moshe Rabbenu writes in the Torah that there never was anyone as humble as him. Or when the sages in the Talmud list their own praises. But here we are talking about people that have expunged every last shred of arrogance and pretense, and live their lives entirely L’Shem Shamayim. To be able to reach self-effacement and not care about whether one insults you or praises you, while not aiming for any title is, paradoxically, the pinnacle of such a title.

Surprisingly, the Torah does not mandate one to be a Talmid chacham, but Rebbe Nachman of Breslov does. Contrary to what a few Breslovers I met believe, Rebbe Nachman does say in Likutey Moharan one needs to be a Lamdan, be wise, and know the entire Torah. He even wishes people were “like him” in all these regards. Rav Berland blesses people to be able to study 8+ hours of Gemara every day, because one first needs to reach this rung before “being able to dance 8 hours a day”.

There are many definitions as to what a “Talmid chacham” or even “Mekubal” actually is.

While some say a Talmid Chacham is someone who only studies Torah all day long, I’ve heard people say it refers to someone who is fully committed to Torah. By definition the very word “Chacham” is an allusion to the Sephira of Chokhmah (divine spiritual wisdom) which leads credence to fact it’s about one who is chasing that wisdom. And, as the Zohar says, there’s no “wisdom”, except the “wisdom of Kabbalah.

Talmid Chacham

What makes a Talmid Chacham according to Kabbalah

The wisdom of Kabbalah, as I wrote about many times before, is one of the most powerful Tikkunim for the soul, as it can greatly expand our capacity to understand the Torah. It’s not for nothing that Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai) is makpid against those who only study the Pshat (Talmud, Mussar and Halacha).

Sadly, these are the people who are most likely going to reject the idea of Tzaddikim in general or a Tzaddik Yesod Olam, because it seems to contradict many basic principles of Torah. Of course, you don’t “need an intermediary to reach Hashem” and of course, you are “judged on your merits”. Of course “no one will free you from your Judgment” and of course “we are all important and holy”.

Yet, a real Tzaddik can inspire you to reach greater levels, irradiates Chokhmah (which comes from his Chaya), gives real advice, and yes, as Rabbi Chaim Vital writes in Shaar HaGilgulim, can also remove many of the wicked from Gehinom when he passes away. Another important teaching is that the Arizal told him to picture his face in front of him at all times (imagine that), like the Shiviti Meditation of keeping the יהוה in one’s mind’s eye.

Be that as it may, having a Tzadik whom you can trust is a great way to ground you while pulling you up. It is life-changing to realizer that fulfilling the entire Torah is not an end in itself, but the entrance gate to holiness and closeness to Hashem.

(technically, it is an end in itself because we do get reward for mere performance but one should hardly be proud of doing the basics without actually looking to reach higher to experiencing Hashem)

Either way, this brings us to the exact opposite of a Chokhmah perspective, which is to see events as separate and unrelated. Chokhmah, by the way, is the source of one’s light since we learn in Kohelet 8:1:

חָכְמַת אָדָם תָּאִיר פָּנָיו

Which means: the wisdom of a person illuminates his face.

Without it, one may come to hate those that study Kabbalah, like the contemporaries of the Ramchal (R’ Moshe Chaim Luzzatto) did, and not have proper fear of Hashem, as we learn in Tehilim 111:10:

רֵאשִׁית חָכְמָה יִרְאַת יְהוָה

Which means: the beginning of wisdom is fear of Hashem. (truly, one should have fear of Hashem to merit wisdom as the Pasuk says, but the reverse is also true: Wisdom brings one to fear Hashem, we can interpret it both ways, and there are many sources to that)

A person with real Yirat Shamayim (fear of Heaven) and Chokhmah, will:

  • Not be angry quickly
  • Not judge quickly
  • Accept reality as it is
  • Realize his own smallness
  • Appreciate others and look for their goodness
  • See things as inter-related and as a message from Hashem
  • Be humble
  • Be happy
  • Think a lot before uttering a bad word about anyone
  • Have an open mind

It’s also worth noting that the essence of Ruach HaKodesh is devekut (bonding with Hashem) and keeping a high level of Yirat Shamayim and Chokhmah.

The list goes on. Sure there are infinite levels of everything, but from here we can understand the exact opposite of what to expect from one who has no Yirat Shamayim and no Chokhmah.

One might think these people would be excused for the things they do, after all, they lack all these wondrous qualities. Hashem would certainly not “judge” someone because he doesn’t know any better, right?

But such is not the case.

There are times when stupidity becomes wickedness. And, as the legal saying goes: one cannot excuse himself from keeping the law by claiming ignorance.

DALL·E 2024 04 01 12.17.08 Two ancient Jewish men are engaged in a fierce discussion in a historical courtroom setting. The men are dressed in traditional Jewish attire relevant

I have a little chiddush from Massechet Sanhedrin

We find in the very last chapter full of Hagaddot, in Sanhedrin 109b about 3 very interesting minhagim from the “justice” system of Sodom.

The first one is that when a person would wound his fellow and would be brought to court, the “judge” would condemn the victim to pay for the “bloodletting” treatment. At that time, people used leeches to draw out blood in order to stimulate the body to create new blood. Isn’t it amazing? Since the victim had some of his blood taken out (even though it’s by an assailant), he nevertheless got a benefit and is now obligated to pay!

The second minhag was concerning someone who owned a donkey. A criminal comes and cuts off a piece of the donkey’s ear. Lo and behold, the court decrees that the criminal should keep the animal until the ear grows back to give it back to the original owner. Obviously, that never happens, but that was accepted “justice” in Sodom.

The third one is probably the most infamous and I will be honest, it took me 3 readings to realize whether what I understood was really what I was reading. It concerns a married pregnant woman who gets assaulted by someone and miscarries her fetus. Get this: The court magnanimously decrees the assailant should keep the wife and “return” her in the same pregnant state as she was before to her husband.

Clearly, Sodom was a horrible place to live in and we would know it without the stories. So, what do they come to teach us? Obviously, the sages don’t just tell stories for fun. Besides the Kabbalistic meaning behind which all of them have, they also are filled with powerful Mussar insights.

In fact, as I was pondering these anecdotes, another more troubling question came to my mind: Technically speaking, what would be a problem with these rulings?

No, seriously.

All the tens of thousands of Halachot are given over to us Jews, and the other nations have the 7 Mitzvot of Bnei Noach plus whatever laws they enact. As long as they have a functioning court that administers justice, they have the freedom to judge as they see fit, as long as it’s consistent. For example, they can, contrary to common sense, decree all thieves are put to death, that non-kosher food should be the norm (and that violators should be fined), and that Jews are forbidden from visiting their land.

These are all perfectly legal (albeit very idiotic) rulings, according to the Torah.

But they are free to decree so.

As the title suggests, I believe the sages are establishing the boundaries or, should we say, inflection points when stupidity becomes wickedness.

There are limits to what can be considered “justice”, even in non-Jewish courts. A court that delivers a wife to an assailant is certainly not doing anything except encourage this degeneracy and wife grabbing. Even sanctioning “milder” things such as when an assailant receives the property he damages (like the donkey) – that is nothing less than institutionalized theft.

With these practices and enough time, society inevitably collapses.

The Midrash teaches that the straw that broke the camel’s back and sealed the decree of Sodom was when a little girl gave Tzedaka to a poor person. She was sentenced to being smeared with honey and left hanging outside the city walls so she’d be stung by bees and die.

DALL·E 2024 03 05 14.17.46 Recreate the scene of an ancient Beit Midrash in Jerusalem ensuring all sages are wearing small turbans typical of traditional Jewish attire of the

So, we have three main examples of absurdity from Sodom, reflecting 3 very delicate areas of justice that should be upheld at all times:

  1. Marital Relationships (the woman who lost her baby)
  2. Rights to property (the man who lost the donkey)
  3. Civil/Health Rights (the man who was beaten and condemned to pay)

Hashem is basically saying “do not test me in these 3 areas”.

You may choose to enact whatever retarded laws you want, like forbidding people to eat with forks or that you should only dress in purple, but if you don’t want your cute little metropolis to become a smoldering pile of ash, do not mess up in these 3 areas.

The irony is that many of us would dismiss Sodom’s behavior as just the stupid ravings of illiterate barbarians. However, in truth, we see these types of things everywhere nowadays. One doesn’t need to be a Talmid chacham to realize that the world is going in a very bad direction.

It’s up to us to cultivate awareness in Kedusha (holiness) and realize that the true path to peace and blessings in this world and the next one is squarely inside the Torah, both the Nigleh (revealed) and the Nistar (concealed).

That story in the Talmud had somewhat a happy, funny ending, when Eliezer, the servant of Avraham Avinu went to visit Sodom. Someone thought he could earn some cash from him and hit him in the head. Eliezer took the guy to court.

When the judge “decreed” Eliezer should pay because he was receiving “bloodletting treatment, Eliezer took his staff and struck the judge.

When asked “what was that for?!”, Eliezer retorted “Kindly pay my bill”.

May we merit days in which the behavior of Eliezer becomes the norm.

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Chaim Apsan

Chaim is a teacher and Kabbalah enthusiast. He loves helping Jews connect with true Torah teaching and enhancing their spiritual growth. With a focus on meditation, he guides individuals on transformative journeys of prayer, contemplation, and connection with Hashem. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and kids, and is committed to sharing the wisdom and power of Kabbalah in a genuine way.

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