001 The Amazing Chiddush of the Chayei Adam

Why be good, anyway?

Who was the Chayei Adam?

As we start out on our journey of avodas Hashem, it is worthwhile to understand the context, the gravity, and the value of the subject at hand. And to that end — we will start with a question.

To start, we will look at a sentence written by the Chayei Adam. Who was the Chayei Adam? Reb Avraham Danzig (1748–1820) was a Dayan (judge) in Vilna, at the time of the Vilna Gaon (Reb Eliyahu of Vilna, 1720–1797). Now, it goes without saying, one who is capable of serving as a Dayan at the time when there was an explosion of Torah in Vilna is an exceptional Talmid Chochom. In fact, the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (Reb Shlomo Ganzfried, 1804–1886) used the works of the Chayei Adam as one of the main three sources that the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch was based upon. Needless to say, the works of the Chayei Adam carry great weight.

Make your choices with wisdom

The sefer Chayei Adam is a halachic sefer; in it he explains how one should fulfill the various mitzvos that present themselves during the year. When it comes to Hilchos Yom Kippur (143), Reb Danzig explains the focus of the day — how one should review their actions they have performed throughout the year, and do teshuvah. He discusses how one should resolve to do what they can to come close to Hashem, to leave their old ways behind, and to focus on what Hashem asks of His people.

And then he writes the most amazing paragraph. “One’s Yiras Shamayim (fear of Heaven) alone will not help without learning Torah. After all, how does it help to want to do what’s right if one doesn’t know what exactly to do?

“Nevertheless, it is much better to be a person who has Yiras Shamayim, even if he absolutely knows nothing, much much better than to be one who knows Torah, but does not have Yiras Shamayim.”

It may take a moment to digest — let’s explore why this statement is so revolutionary. Many of us may feel that it is important to be a ‘good person.’ This value seems to be universal, and although humanity may differ on the exact definition, most people view ‘being good’ as a goal, and want to be considered as such.

However, the Chayei Adam adds an important point. He says that, if given the option between the two, it is better to be the Yarei Shomayim than the Talmid Chochom. Let’s put that in context. On the one hand, you have an individual who is extremely learned, has spent years understanding every aspect of halachah. There is no esoteric question that you can pose to him for which he does not know an answer. However, he is lacking in his fear of Heaven.

On the other hand, you have an individual who doesn’t know the basics of Yiddishkeit. He eats matzah on Sukkos, and sits in a Sukkah on Shabbos. He simply has no knowledge of what is needed or required of him. However — he wants to do the right thing.

Between the two, who is following the Torah? Who is closer to what Hashem wants? The Chayei Adam says the second individual; if you must choose between the two, be the second fellow!

What is the basis for the Chayei Adam’s statement?

And thus, we have arrived at our question. The Torah is full of commandments, telling us what to do and how to do it. Based on this, one would think that it is extremely important to know halachah, more important than anything else. If so, why is the Chayei Adam telling us, if given the choice, to be the second fellow? Based on what source, what passuk, what Gemara, does the Chayei Adam say that it is better to be the second fellow?

Let’s explore this further in our next video, “The Surprising Reason Sefer Bereishis was Written.”