Chasam Sofer on Responsibility

Abridged and adapted from his Introduction to Teshuvos, Yoreh Deah

The early history of humanity produced many great personalities, people of gigantic spiritual stature. It was not, however, until Avraham Avinu appeared on the scene, that HaKodosh Boruch Hu chose someone to found the Am HaNivchar, the chosen people. Chanoch, for example, was possibly one of the greatest spiritual giants in those early days. He was so great in his closeness to G-d that he was able to convert his matter into spirit. He rose to heaven without dying and became the Sar HaOlam, a senior angel. Avraham Avinu, on the other hand, never reached this madreigo, this exalted level. Avraham never managed to refine himself to the point that his body should become spirit. Yet it is about Avraham that HaShem said, yeda’ativ, meaning, as Rashi tells us, chibboh, love. It is Avraham who is called ohavi, the one who loves Me.

Avraham Avinu never reached the level where his body would become spirit and rise to shomayim. But this was not because he was not capable! Had Avraham wished he too could have achieved what Chanoch achieved. Had Avraham gone into isolation and spent his time in peaceful meditation, contemplation and similar practices, he too would have risen to shomayim and he too would have become a malach.

Avraham, however, chose to walk a different path in life. In his wisdom he decided that HaShem was not particularly interested in people becoming malochim, perfecting their own soul, but ignoring others. HaShem is not interested in tzaddikim leaving behind a community of scoffers and sinners. That is what had happened to the generations of Chanoch and the Flood.

Avraham learnt from history. The experiences of Chanoch and subsequent generations indicated that a person should rather minimize his own perfection and the development of his own neshomo in order to increase Kevod Shamayim, the glory of G-d. It is much more important to minimize the number of rebels against His will and to increase the numbers of His servants and of those who know Him, than to concentrate on one’s own self-development.

Were the great of every generation to concentrate on perfecting themselves to the exclusion of others, only one in a million would achieve perfection. The bulk of society would remain in a state of corruption. The world would be destroyed by the wickedness of it inhabitants and HaShem’s purpose in creation would not be fulfilled.

In truth, the path followed by Avraham should be seen to be the obvious one. To realize this, one has only to consider the neshomo. The neshomo is the G-dly dimension within us and prior to joining the body it is conversant with the deep secrets of shomayim. Once in this world, however, it is trapped in a body which blinds it to the truth. Why did HaShem do this? Why did He deprive it of its high level? What benefit does the neshomo have from finding itself trapped in the lowly body?

In the same way as the soul is only fulfilled by influencing the body, so is the human only fulfilled by influencing others.

The answer is that only in this trapped condition, where its light is dimmed, can it develop closeness and similarity to its Creator. This is done by giving, by influencing others, starting, obviously, with its own body. The neshomo can raise the body to a level which would be utterly impossible for a body without a neshomo. In its original state the neshomo was incapable of giving, only of receiving. Now, it may be “trapped” in the body, but the neshomo has someone to influence; its own body. This will be the greatness of the neshomo and its achievment, for only by giving will it develop.

In the same way as the soul is only fulfilled by influencing the body, so is the human only fulfilled by influencing others. That is why the Torah commands us: “veshinontom…teach your children …teach your students, hocheach tochiach…guide the misguided.” These mitzvos tell us that a person will not fulfill the purpose of creation if he only perfects himself but ignores others.

Thus, we are told in Pirkei Avos: “…and raise many disciples”.

Aharon HaKohen was praised for this middoh. He loved G-d’s creatures and drew them close to Torah.

The Kohanim, as a group were specially entrusted with this mitzva of reaching out and teaching Torah to G-d’s children. “They shall instruct Jacob in your statutes and Israel in your Torah.” In order to achieve this they were to involve themselves closely with the people.

Isolation from society is truly of great benefit for refining the soul and very necessary for a Talmid Chochom. Nevertheless G-d’s desire for the achievements of the purpose of creation demands that the learned also spend some time involved with other people. This has to be done “besever ponim yofos”, with a pleasant expression on the face. If a person is pleasantly involved he will be praised and loved. Subsequently he can influence others with his wisdom, helping them to improve their ways and come back to G-d. His happiness should show on his face and he should welcome everyone with a pleasant countenance. He should love people and bring them close to Torah. He will then take those who are on a lower level and raise them to a higher level of closeness to HaShem.

A person who develops this middoh demonstrates his love for HaShem most powerfully. Whoever loves the King will surely make efforts to bring others under the yoke of His majesty and will attempt to increase the number of His servants.

Avraham Avinu developed this middoh even before HaShem told him to do so. He independently arrived at the conclusion that he had to stand in the open, build altars and proclaim in the name of G-d. He and Soroh raised a generation of disciples — the souls that they made in Haran. It was certainly fitting for Avraham to be called the King’s close friend, “…Avraham ohavi”. HaShem richly rewarded him and offered Avraham His love in exchange for the love Avraham offered him. “…for I have loved him because he will command his children and his household after him, to follow the way of G-d.”

Each one of us should care about improving others as one cares about improving oneself.

Yes, this is the purpose and responsibility of man. A person should make great and mighty efforts to improve others so that “HaShem should rejoice in His creatures.” Each one of us should care about improving others as one cares about improving oneself.

Rabbi Akiva, too, said: “The great rule of Torah is — love your neighbour like yourself.” He was telling us that this is a great rule and basic principle in Torah, that is, in the study of Torah. A person should care about improving the knowledge of others as he cares about improving his own knowledge. That is “love your neighbour”! The desire of the sholem, of the perfect person, is to see others develop perfection. His constant prayer should be that all of humanity from the least to the greatest should come to know G-d.

Having established that each one of us has a duty to help others achieve shelemus hanefesh, let us turn again to Avraham Avinu. Why did Hakodosh Boruch Hu have to ask Himself, “…should I hide from Avraham that which I am about to do?” as He was about to destroy Sedom? We do not find G-d asking himself such a question in connection with other prophets. The answer is that Avraham was not really up to the necessary level of prophecy to be told that Sedom was about to be destroyed. He never had the time to go into isolation and devote himself to the contemplative practices needed to reach the heights of prophecy. He was too busy teaching others, mixing with people and “bringing them under the wings of the Shechinah.” Had these disciples been on a high level they would not have disturbed him from prophetic contemplation. However they were at a low level in their development. Avraham had to encourage them gently and slowly. Initially he had to attract them with indications of reward to be achieved by serving HaShem. Being so involved with people who were so removed from the truth, he was unable to devote his energies to raising himself and his own mind to exalted levels.

G-d in his kindness recognized why Avraham was functioning at a low level, as far as his personal development was concerned. Said G-d: “This is my servant. He has not reached a high level of prophecy, but still, should I hide matters from him? There is nothing intrinsic missing in him. If he does not prepare himself for prophecy it is because he is so busy working for My sake. For My sake he denies himself the highest levels of prophecy. Why should such a Tzaddik lose out just because his love for Me motivates him to serve Me?”

This is how we should understand the posuk. “Is it possible that I should hide from Avraham what I am about to do? I know that his lack of preparation for prophecy is due to his dedication to instructing his family and his children in following My path in life. He brings himself right down to the low level of those he instructs and he does it for My sake, to increase the number of my servants. I shall reward him. I shall give him prophetic revelation even though he has not prepared himself adequately.”

What about us? Should we say “My soul thirsts for G-d. I want to draw close to Him. How could I cut down on my own learning in order to improve somebody else?”

Chazal have the answer to this statement.

“A lot have I learnt from my Rebbes, more from my chaverim, but the most from my pupils.”

Is anything impossible for HaShem? Can He not fill the void you left because you were too busy working for the honour of His Name?

You just go and do what He wants you to do. Go and teach others. He will keep His part of the deal. Make His will into your will and He will make your will into His will. He will fill your soul with achievement and perfection. In the short time left to you, you will achieve much higher levels of understanding in Torah than you would have achieved with your own capacity.

Said Chazal: “Prophecy was taken away from the prophets but not from those who learn Torah.” G-d will reveal to us deep secrets of the Torah even if our puny brains are incapable of it.

“Ani LeDodi Ve Dodi Li.” If I love Him, He loves me.

May he grant us the merit to produce many talmidim.


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One thought on “Chasam Sofer on Responsibility

  1. A spectacular Chasam Soifer that pushes us away from the ivory tower of lomdus at the expense of caring for our brothers in distress.
    His erudition and originality in reading and interpreting “hamechase ani” is breathtaking.

    Please try to read the original full rendition!

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