Sefer Bereishis is aptly given its name since it is the “first” of theChumashim. The Talmud in Avodah Zarah 25a has another name forSefer Bereishis: Sefer HaYashar or Sefer Yesharim, the Book ofRighteousness. Yashar means more than righteousness. It means straightforwardness,integrity, mentchlichkeit, human decency. Sefer Bereishischronicles the lives of the Avos, Patriarchs, men who exemplifiedrighteousness to G-d and mentchlichkeit to all human beings. In the prefaceto his commentary on Sefer Bereishis, the Netziv, zl, expands on this idea.The Patriarchs distinguished themselves not only in their relationships withHashem, which was on the highest spiritual plane, but also in their dailydealings with non-Jewish people. They demonstrated integrity and esteem forevery human being. Propriety, honesty, and decency were character traitswhich earned them the deep admiration and respect of all people. The non-Jewish world knew not of their spiritual relationship with Hashem. Theyknew only of their yashrus with people.
In his commentary to the first pasuk in the Torah, Rashi questionswhy the Torah, which is primarily a book of commandments and instructionsfor life, begins with an account of Creation, rather than the first mitzvahwhich Hashem gave to the Jewish People. He explains that the Torahanticipated a time when, after we conquered Eretz Yisrael, the nations of theworld would arise and condemn us as robbers and thieves. Thus, from theoutset, the Torah informs us that Hashem created the world and as Creatorand Proprietor of the entire universe, He gave Eretz Yisrael to us. He may doas He pleases. It pleased Him to give Eretz Yisrael to His Chosen People. Weare not thieves. We are simply taking what is rightfully ours.
Everyone has heard of, or studied, this Rashi. Does anybody everwonder about Rashi’s answer? How will our response to the citizens of thegentile world allay their critique of us? They do not care about what is statedin the Chumash. Rashi’s exposition certainly has no place in their minds. Aquotation from Sefer Bereishis is not an argument that would compel the non-Jewish world to rescind their complaints against us. I do not believe thatthis approach will sway them.
Horav Yissachar Frand, Shlita, explains that Rashi is not suggestinga reply to be offered to the nations of the world. Nothing will impress them.They will never abandon their hatred towards us. The response, however, isfor our own edification. As a kind, softhearted, mentchlech nation, we have adifficult time listening to complaints which impugn our integrity. If we hearthe nations of the world calling us thieves long enough, we might even beginto believe them and doubt our inherent right to the land. Perhaps the Torahwas wrong in granting us the land that had until now belonged to theCanaanite nations. These are some of the thoughts that might slowly infiltrateour minds. Before long, we will lose the courage and will to fight for theland.
It is for this reason that the Torah begins by assuring us thateverything it does is with yashrus. The only way to act is with propriety andfairness. The nations that had inhabited Eretz Yisrael did not have eternalrights to the land. Their lease had expired, and it was time for them to moveon. It was now time for the Jews to enter and inhabit the land which Hashemhad given them. If it is written in the Torah, it is yashar and, therefore, theland is ours.
Let me take the liberty of citing a few vignettes to support the ideaand demonstrate the significance of acting with yashrus. In the Talmud Sotah40a, Chazal relate that Rabbi Avahu was a great Torah scholar who had theopportunity to become a Rosh HaYeshivah. This was an enviable position,not only because of the inherent esteem, but also because of the financialrewards that were involved. However, when Rabbi Avahu heard that RabbiAbba, another Torah scholar, who was in deep financial straits also neededthis position, he deferred to him, asserting that Rabbi Abba was more suitableto be Rosh HaYeshivah. This is yashrus at its zenith! Imagine, how muchtime and effort Rabbi Avahu had exerted preparing for such a position. Hehad expended endless hours of study and research to achieve a level oferudition and respect that would render him worthy of being selected as RoshHaYeshivah. He also possessed another character trait that outshone hislearning – yashrus. This trait did not permit him to assume a position thatanother scholar needed. His humility was consistent with his erudition. RabbiAvahu was rewarded with five sons that illuminated the Torah world withtheir knowledge.
Horav Meir Simcha HaKohen, zl, Rav of Dvinsk and author of theOhr Sameiach and Meshech Chochmah, was certainly well-known for hisencyclopedic knowledge of Torah. He was also recognized for anotherunique quality – his relationship with, and the respect he received from, thenon-Jews of Dvinsk. When World War I broke out, Grand Duke Nikolaiordered the expulsion of all Jews from the Russo-German front. Dvinskbecame a dangerous place for the Jews and many fled, leaving their homesand belongings. Even the Rogatchover Gaon, zl, the other rav in Dvinsk, wasprevailed upon by his congregants to leave. Rav Meir Simcha refused tobudge. He said, “As long as there are nine Jews and I am the tenth, I will bethere for the Minyan.” When he was reminded of the constant danger, hisresponse was simply, “Every bullet has a designated address, and none willreach where there is no Heavenly decree that it do so.” Despite the obviousdangers, thousands of Jews and gentiles signed petitions attesting to thenobility of the Rav’s character and his vital importance to the well-being ofall members of the community. He was allowed to remain unharmed. Hisreputation was so widespread that even non-Jews sought his counsel. Indeed,some say his universal acceptability began with a decision he had rendered ina dispute between a Jew and a gypsy. They had been business partners until amajor conflict of interest developed between them. The gypsy suggested thatthey both go to the Rav for a decision. Rav Meir Simcha listened to bothsides and, after his own careful independent investigation, decided in favor ofthe gypsy. From that day on, word of Rav Meir Simcha’s integrity and senseof justice spread throughout all of Dvinsk and even Latvia.
Horav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, zl, was an outstanding tzaddik andundisputed halachic authority. Indeed, he was a man of singular greatness.His ability to “conceal” his greatness was a true measure of his gadlus,distinction. As the head of the famous Ezras Torah charitable organization,he carried on his shoulders the plight of literally tens of thousands of familiesthroughout the world. Their daily well-being was his constant concern. Yet,he never revealed the identity of these families. His weekly salary was apaltry fifty dollars. Indeed, at one meeting, the resolution was passed that his“salary” should be increased. Rav Henkin immediately arose from his chairand exclaimed, “Must I leave Ezras Torah?”
Rav Henkin carried a small notebook with him, in which he kept alog of those minutes during the day that he did not fully dedicate to EzrasTorah. He was not involved with personal business during this time. He hadno personal business. He lived for the klal, general community. Whensomeone would visit to discuss a Halachah, however, or if he would receive a call from anywhere in the world requesting his opinion concerning ahalachic issue, he would immediately look at the time and note in his recordhow many minutes he had borrowed from Ezras Torah. He would then knowhow many minutes he would have to “make up” for Ezras Torah. Yashrus!