Biden’s Directive: “Be Nice to Others or I Will Fire You” and Slabodka

Biden’s Directive: “Be Nice to Others or I Will Fire You” and Slabodka 1
President Joe Biden / The Alter of Slabodka

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5tjt.com

It happened during the swearing in ceremony itself. “If you’re ever working with me, and I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect, talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot,” President Biden told his new aides following his inauguration. “On the spot.”

“My dad used to have an expression: He said everyone, every single person, regardless of their background, is entitled to be treated with dignity,” Biden said. “I expect you to do that for all the folks you deal with, all the folks we work for, the American people.”

“No ifs, ands or buts – everybody, everybody is entitled to be treated with decency and dignity,” Biden concluded during his remarks Wednesday.

A JEWISH VALUE

Treating others, all others, with respect is a true Jewish value and it is one that all of us should adopt. The greatest of our leader, Rishonim, Acharonim, and Roshei Yeshiva have discussed it.  The area in which it is discussed stems from the concept of Gadlus haAdam, the inner greatness of mankind.

The Orchos Tzaddikim (middle of Shaar 28) explains that Hashem had placed mankind above all other creatures in this world to demonstrate the greatness of man, Gadlus HaAdam, and the honor that we must give others based upon this. He writes that the mouth cannot sufficiently describe the capabilities inherent in man.

Rabbeinu Tam in his Sefer HaYashar writes on the pasuk “l’ha’ir al haAretz” that the Heavens were created for man.  In other words, the universe and all that it contains, was created for the purpose of mankind and not for Hashem.  Reflecting upon this notion allows us to appreciate man’s greatness and to realize how we must, therefore treat others.

Rav Yoseph Yavetz (not Rav Yaakov Emden but the one who was deported from Spain in 1492) in his commentary to Pirkei Avos (3:18) explains that man was created erect to point to the Creator – in that man was created b’tzelem elokim – in the image of G-d.  Treating people with respect is an obligation in that all humanity was created in the Divine image.

Of course, this perspective cannot and should not make us into haughty individuals.  The Ramban in his Iggeres to his children writes that one should avoid looking at others straight in the eye in haughtiness but should look at others as being greater than him – even if he is not as intelligent or not as high in socio-economic stature, because that other person could be more desirous in Hashem’s eyes than you are and we must assume this perspective at all times.

SLABODKA

Perhaps never in Jewish history was the concept of Gadlus HaAdam emphasized as much as in the mother of contemporary Yeshivos – the Slabodka Yeshiva.  In the late 19th century and the early 20th, there were essentially three movements affecting European Jewry.  The first two were the Chassidic movement which helped invigorate Torah observance and the Haskallah movement which threatened Torah observance.   But how could the non-Chassidic observant Jews deal with the threat of Haskallah?  The Mussar movement emerged and, to a certain degree, helped fill the gap.

Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, also known as the Alter of Slabodka, however, felt that more needed to be done.  He shaped and formed a new Yeshiva with an emphasis in three areas:  1] Enormous depth in Talmud study 2] the study of Mussar and 3] Gadlus haAdam – contemplation of the greatness of man.

The latter of the three had two components:  The intellectual focus of this concept and its practical implementation too.  Slabodka students were impeccably dressed and groomed.  Suits, ties, polished shoes.  The Yeshivas students could have appeared on the covers of fashion magazines had they existed in turn-of-the-century Pale of Settlement.

The results of the Alter’s new emphasis were very impressive.  By and large, Torah Jewry survived.  Most of the Yeshiva movement today is a direct result of what happened in Slabodka under the Alter.

In the United States, for example, his students established and or led the various Yeshivos that we have today:

  • Torah VaDaas – its Roshei Yeshiva were Rav Dovid Leibowitz and Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky – both students of the Alter.
  • BMG in Lakewood – established by Rav Aharon Kotler – a student of the Alter of Slabodka
  • Yeshiva Ner Yisroel in Baltimore – established by Rav Yitzchok Ruderman – a student of the Alter
  • The Mir Yeshiva in Brooklyn – Its original Rosh yeshiva was Rav Lazer Yudel Finkel, son of the Alter
  • Yeshiva Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn – Its Rosh yeshiva was Rav Yitzchok Hutner student of the Alter
  • Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Queens – established by Rav Dovid Leibowitz, student of the Alter

In Eretz Yisroel as well, most of the Yeshivos and the entire Ashkenaic infrastructure had studied in Hevron or in one of the Yeshivos that were built or fortified by the Alter.

  • Hevron – a branch of Slabodka where the Alter actually taught
  • Mir Yerushalayim – Its Rosh Yeshiva was Rav Lazer Yudel Finkel, son of the Alter
  • Ponevech – Its Roshei Yeshiva had studied in a Yeshiva fortified by the Alter.
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