By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
It is said that the great sage Rabbi Yisroel Salanter once found himself profoundly depressed over the spiritual shortcomings of his students and his community. As the High Holidays approached, Rabbi Yisroel left to search out the company of Jews more passionate about their own relationship with the Divine.
Traveling from village to village, Rabbi Yisroel prayed with one congregation and then another until finally, in a small synagogue in an unremarkable town, he found himself surrounded by individuals who seemed to take their prayers as seriously as he did. Rabbi Yisroel positioned himself directly behind one parishioner who seemed to pray with extraordinary devotion. Here, he thought, he would surely find his inspiration.
The High Holidays service began exactly as Rabbi Yisroel had hoped. The Jew in front of him swayed slowly as he prayed, the whispered words of the liturgy falling from his lips with a quiet intensity that made Rabbi Yisroel feel as if he were being drawn steadily upward on his neighbor’s coattails. When the man intoned, “I am mere dust and ashes before You,” Rabbi Yisroel experienced a profound sense of his own humility before G-d.
The time arrived for the reading of the Torah, and the gabbai of the congregation began distributing honors among the notables of the community. First he called up a Kohein, and then a Levi. Had the gabbai known that the great Rabbi Yisroel Salanter graced his shul, he would certainly have accorded him the prestigious third aliyah. But Rabbi Yisroel had chosen to remain anonymous and thought nothing of it when no honor was bestowed upon him. He assumed that the recipient called up for the third Torah reading must be one of the synagogue’s most prominent members.
For the fourth honor, the gabbai called the name of Rabbi Yisroel’s neighbor, from whom the sage had drawn such inspiration. Upon being called to the Torah, however, the man suddenly flew into a rage. “You called him third,” he cried, pointing to the previous honoree, “and you only called me fourth? Who is he that I should be second to him?”
Astonished and appalled, Rabbi Yisroel rushed forward. “My friend, I can’t believe my ears. Only a moment ago you were saying before the Almighty that you are only dust and ashes.”
The man turned to Rabbi Yisroel, still furious, and declared, “Before G-d I am dust and ashes; not before him!”
Even the great Rabbi Yisroel Salanter had to learn an unpleasant lesson that year about jumping to superficial conclusions. He returned to his community and reapplied himself to the business of spiritual growth.
TWO PATHS THAT ARE ONE
Rabbi Chanina used to say: If one is found pleasing by his fellows, then he is pleasing to the Almighty; but if one is not pleasing to his fellows, then he is not pleasing to the Almighty.
In this teaching (Pirkei Avos 3:13), Rabbi Chanina alludes to a basic principle of Torah observance: The commandments articulated in the Torah comprise two types of obligations — those between man and G-d, and those between man and man.
Many people neglect the first category, believing that as long as one is “a good person,” his relationship with the Almighty can be more casual and subjectively defined. In practice, however, with no absolute authority to define what is good, each person will inevitably judge himself “good” in his own eyes.
Others neglect the second category, believing that if they are ardent in their relationship with G-d, then it is of no consequence how they relate to their fellows. It is this second type of fallacy that Rabbi Chanina comes to refute.
The tablets received by Moses at Sinai are often depicted as heart-shaped, suggesting a deeply symbolic lesson: Just as our blood has to flow efficiently through both the right and the left chambers of the heart to maintain a healthy body, so too does a healthy soul depend upon an interdependence between the two categories of mitzvos.
THE SECRET OF THE TABLETS
Each of the two tablets contains five of the Ten Commandments. The first five are precepts between man and G-d; the second five are precepts between man and his fellow. And each pairing reflects the integral nature of the two categories:
I am the L-rd, your G-d — Do not commit murder
Have no other gods before Me — Do not commit adultery
Do not take G-d’s name in vain — Do not steal
Honor the Sabbath — Do not testify falsely
Honor your father and mother — Do not covet what belongs to your neighbor
The first commandment is I am the L-rd, your G-d; the sixth (which is the first on the second tablet’s group of five) is the prohibition against Murder. Only by acknowledging that there is a Creator who fashioned every human being in His image can one rationally explain why eating steak and swatting flies is any different from shedding human blood. Without such a distinction, we should all be either Vegans or serial killers.
The second commandment is the prohibition against Idolatry; the seventh is the prohibition against Adultery. The former is faithlessness in one’s relationship with the Almighty; the latter faithlessness in the sacred vow of marriage.
The third commandment is the prohibition against Taking G-d’s Name in Vain; the eighth is the prohibition against Stealing. The Almighty placed everything in this world for our use, conditional only upon recognizing that everything comes from Him. To misuse His name is to fail in that recognition, rendering all benefit from the material world the equivalent of theft.
The fourth pair of commandments includes the requirement to honor and keep the Sabbath, and the prohibition against Bearing False Witness. Since the Sabbath testifies to the creation of the world, one who violates it is in effect testifying falsely against the Creator.
The final pair includes Honoring Parents and the prohibition against Coveting, or seeking to acquire what belongs to one’s fellow through manipulation. Although the former appears to belong in the category between man and man, it teaches us to appreciate that our parents are the connection between us and our Creator. Just as parents withhold from their child that which they believe is not good for the child, similarly will G-d withhold from each of His children that which may not serve their spiritual best interests. One who internalizes this will never feel envy toward his neighbor.
The Torah commands us to serve the Almighty “with all your heart,” suggesting that our service of G-d is imperfect as long as our relationship with others is incomplete. Rabbi Chanina does not mean that we should curry favor with our neighbors through flattery or bribery. Rather, he comes to teach us that through genuine concern for our fellows we will transform ourselves into G-dly human beings.
Adapted from an article originally published at Aish.com
YOU CAN HELP!
I’ve published the first chapter of my new book online: Here’s the “cover” blurb and the link:
Take a guided tour beneath the surface of the world we live in with this marriage of King Solomon’s Book of Proverbs and Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, reexamining Solomon’s eternal wisdom through the lens of news stories, scientific discoveries, the natural world, folktales, historical vignettes and, most notably, through the mystery and brilliance of the Mona Lisa – all woven together in a lyrical and engaging medley of the human experience.
Please take a few minutes to read the short introduction. If you like it, read the first chapter. If you have any critiques, I’d love to hear them. And if you really you like it, click on the “vote” button, then repost it and spread the word. You may have to create a Wattpad account to view it, but that only takes a moment.
ARE YOU READY FOR THE END OF TIME?
Whether or not you’re a fan of science fiction, it’s always intriguing when our life in the present imitates the art of our past.
In Robert A. Heinlein’s first published story, Life-line, Professor Pinero builds a machine that can predict any person’s day of death. To verify Pinero’s claim, a committee of scientists submit to his examination, after which their names are sealed in separate envelopes, each with the date-of-death printed on the outside, and locked away for future verification. The first to die is Pinero himself, murdered by zealots who believe he is tampering with Fate. Upon learning of Pinero’s death, the chairman of the science committee calls for the box of envelopes and, after determining that Pinero had accurately predicted his own demise, burns the whole batch of envelopes to ashes.
So… what would you do? If it were possible to predict the day of your death, would you want to know?
Well, now you can.
More or less.
Fredrik Colting has already taken 3000 orders for his new digital watch, the Tikker. Instead of a single row of numbers, the Tikker has three. One row tells the time like any ordinary watch. However, a second row displays years, months, and days, while a third row displays hours, minutes, and seconds, inexorably counting down toward — you guessed it — the day you will die.
Mr. Colting has nicknamed his invention the happiness watch.
By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
WHY G-D IS CLOSEST WHEN HE FEELS FARTHEST AWAY
Then Moshe and the Children of Israel will sing …
As if with one voice, the commentaries wonder at the future tense employed here by the Torah. The meaning of the verse is clear: then, after the splitting of the sea and the destruction of Pharaoh’s chariots, the Jews sang their praises of the Master of the World who had provided their miraculous salvation.
If so, why the future tense?
All the commentaries begin with Rashi: Then, when [the nation] saw the miracle, it felt inspired to sing. But what has Rashi added? Is it not obvious that their song of praise was inspired by the events through which they had been saved?
Perhaps we can find a clue in the structure of our daily prayers. The weekday Amidah, the standing prayer, is divided into three distinct sections. The first three blessings are expressions of praise, through which we acknowledge that we are standing before the One who hears supplications and has the power to answer them. The final three blessings are expressions of gratitude, wherein we thank Hashem for listening to and considering our entreaties.
The body of the Amidah, the thirteen central blessings, are expressions of request, wherein we ask Hashem to bestow upon us the basic necessities of life so that we can serve Him by studying His Torah and upholding His commandments. By recognizing that G-d is the source of all blessing — of intelligence, health, sustenance, justice, and all things physical and spiritual — we remind ourselves of our own responsibility to direct our lives toward fulfilling the higher purpose for which we were created, and we turn our attention inward to assess whether or not we are living up to our individual potentials.
Of this central group of petitions, the final blessing poses something of a curiosity. Shema koleinu – Listen to our voices, we cry out, and accept our prayers with favor and mercy. But is the value of asking Hashem to listen to our prayers? If He is already listening, then this request is superfluous; if He is not listening, then it is pointless. Moreover, why is it positioned at the end of our list of requests? Presumably we should ask G-d to listen before we begin to ask, not after we have finished asking?
I heard a variation of the following from Rav Dovid Gottleib: If I ask my friend to lend me ten dollars, and he lends me ten dollars, naturally I respond by saying, “Thank you.” However, if my friend tells me he doesn’t have the money, but he will get it for me, I also respond by saying, “Thank you.”
In the first case, I’m expressing appreciation for having gotten what I want. But in the second case, even though I still don’t have the ten dollars, I express my appreciation nonetheless. And in this second case, my expression of thanks describes a higher level of gratitude, not merely for having gotten what I want but for my friend’s interest, concern, and effort, which ultimately mean more to me than mere money.
Similarly, in the blessing of Shema koleinu, we are not asking the Almighty for what we have already requested; rather, we are asking Him to allow us to recognize His involvement in our lives. More than the things we have requested, we want to feel that Hashem cares about us, that He is responsive to our needs and our desires — and we want the accompanying confidence that when Hashem withholds what we want it is because the fulfillment of these requests is not in our own spiritual best interest.
At no time are we closer to G-d than when He is in the process of granting our petitions, for it is then that He is most actively involved in our lives. The moment our requests are answered, we once again feel a sense of independence, which is a manifestation of the illusion that we can survive and prosper without the grace of G-d.
If we apply this principle to the splitting of the sea, we can understand that the Jews had two different ways they could have praised Hashem for their salvation. They might have expressed their gratitude after they had been saved, seeing then that they were truly secure from the threat of the Egyptian army. However, a higher expression of gratitude would have been to sing the praises of Hashem as they were passing through the sea, for it would have been at that moment, with the walls of water towering above them and Pharaoh’s chariots bearing down upon them, that Hashem was closer to them than ever before. In that instant, their trust in the inevitability of their salvation inspired a song like no other, describing their gratitude for the greatest gift any human soul could desire — true spiritual intimacy with the Divine.
Nevertheless, for the Jews to stop and sing in the midst of their flight to safety would have shown needless dependence upon Hashem’s miraculous intervention. Per force, they waited until their survival was assured. But the Torah testifies to the feelings that motivated their song. Then, when they were still fleeing from the Egyptians between the walls of water, the Children of Israel would sing. Even if their mouths did not form the words until later, their hearts were already inspired to sing in the greatest possible expression of gratitude and closeness to their Creator.
WHY IS THIS PLAGUE DIFFERENT FROM ALL OTHER PLAGUES?
At the outset of the Second Temple era some twenty-five hundred years ago, Ezra the Scribe oversaw the division of the Torah into parshios – portions, and set in place the practice of reading successive parshios publicly as part of the Sabbath morning prayer service. In this way, the Jewish people would collectively review of the entire Torah from year to year. The divisions of these parshios followed either historical, philosophical, or narrative patterns, so that each was, to some extent, self-contained with a particular thematic focus.
It is curious, therefore, that Ezra saw fit to place the first seven of the of the Egyptian Plagues into last week’s Torah portion, while leaving the final three for this week.
But that is not the only question. The commentaries explain that the plagues can be arranged into three sets of three, with the final Plague upon the Firstborn in a class by itself. Consequently, if it were necessary to divide the plagues at all, presumably it would be better to place the point of division after the sixth plague – which completes the second set of three – rather than after the seventh.
Nevertheless, a careful reading of the narrative reveals that the seventh plague does mark a watershed moment, not by virtue of the nature of the plague itself, but because of Pharaoh’s unprecedented reaction.
After each of the previous plagues, Pharaoh had either stubbornly refused to yield or else promised to send the Jews out, only to revoke his permission once the plague was over. But after the seventh plague of fiery hail, Pharaoh makes an astonishing admission: This time I have sinned; G-d is righteous, and I and my people are wicked.
In a discussion concerning the laws of marriage, the Talmud proposes an unlikely scenario, in which a man said to a woman, “You are betrothed to me on condition that I am atzaddik – a righteous man.” The Talmud concludes that the betrothal is binding and the woman is married, even if the man is a person of dubious reputation. Why? Because it is possible, the sages explain, that at the moment he spoke he may indeed have repented the sins of a lifetime and became a truly righteous man (Kiddushin 49b).
If so, perhaps Pharaoh’s sincere confession when confronted by the irrefutable suspension of nature — as the incompatible forces of fire and ice were forced into partnership for the express purpose of punishing the Egyptians — opened a window of opportunity for him and his nation.
From the very beginning, the Almighty had made clear His plan that Pharaoh would not let the Jews go free, providing just cause “to multiply My miracles upon the land of Egypt.” After each of the first five plagues, Pharaoh cooperated by hardening his own heart and refusing to let the people go. In contrast, after each of the last plagues before Pharaoh’s capitulation, it was G-d who hardened Pharaoh’s heart: once Pharaoh had discarded every opportunity to submit to the Divine Will, he forfeited the freedom to turn from the course he had chosen for himself through his earlier decisions.
After the seventh plague, however, we find both expressions: first Pharaoh hardened his own heart; subsequently, G-d informs Moses that He has hardened Pharaoh’s heart. How can both be true at the same time?
The power of teshuva – repentance – is unimaginable. In an instant, any individual can rewrite his past, erase a lifetime of misdeeds, and transform himself into the most righteous of men, if he sincerely desires to change and puts into effect a plan to embrace virtue. Even Pharaoh, the paradigm of wanton evil, possessed the human potential to return to the path of justice and truth. Having endowed every human being with the capacity for human renewal and redemption, G-d Himself cannot stand in the way of the truly repentant.
We might suggest, therefore, that when Pharaoh acknowledged both his own wickedness the justice of the Almighty, G-d had no power to further harden Pharaoh’s heart. In that instant, Pharaoh had positioned himself at the threshold of true righteousness, and no force in the universe could stand in his way if he chose to take the final step forward.
No force, that is, except himself. Pharaoh saw that the rain, the hail, and the thunder had ceased, and he continued to sin; and he made his heart stubborn…
The moment for change was lost and, having forfeited his chance, Pharaoh’s fate was assured. Instead of seizing his opportunity and stepping forward into a new future, he stepped backward and toppled into the oblivion of his past.
And so last week’s parsha ends: by flirting with repentance, Pharaoh held in his hand the opportunity to end the siege of plagues and halt the systematic destruction of his country. But he failed to follow through, and so the plagues resume as this week’s parsha continues on.
How often do we find ourselves looking through a window of opportunity, offered the divine gift of sudden clarity into the condition of our souls and direction of our travels upon this earth? How often are our eyes granted the vision to look upon our lives with true objectivity, to recognize in sharp relief the contrast between what we could achieve and how far we have fallen short of our potential?
And what do we do with these opportunities? Do we rise to the challenge and resolutely chart a new course into the future, or do we take notice only for an instant and then, like Pharaoh, reflexively follow the promptings of pride and stubbornness by returning to the habits of the past? Every such moment is ours for the taking or ours to discard. The way we choose will determine our future, in this world and in the World to Come.
Students of Torah literature know that serious scholarship begins (and often ends) with the commentaries of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, familiar to the Jewish world as Rashi. His synthesis of Talmudic law, allegory, and mysticism, together with the multifaceted brilliance of his insights and his economy of language, places Rashi in a class by himself. With deceptive simplicity, he draws our attention to the most profound nuances and gently forces us to consider scriptural anomalies, weaving the breadth and depth of Torah wisdom into his pithy explication of Biblical and Talmudic passages.
Consequently, few things make scholars more nervous than Rashi appearing to point out the obvious. And nowhere does Rashi offer a comment more seemingly pointless than at the outset of this week’s Torah portion.
The Time Machine
When Yonason ben Shaul, heir to the throne of Israel, witnessed both the heroism of Dovid as he faced the giant Golias and the humility of Dovid after his victory, we read that “the soul of Yonason became bound to the soul of Dovid.” Yonason had never even spoken to Dovid, but he could not fail to recognize the nobility of spirit that was the essence of the future king.
Such was the persona of Dr. Lester Zeffren, who projected the qualities of majesty and humility so forcefully that no person of spirit could resist his magnetism or not devoutly wish to revel in the splendor of his presence.
How does such a person flourish in a world of spiritual and moral mediocrity?
Dr. Zeffren loved to recount how his mother would become deaf whenever he began complaining about his teachers in school. She didn’t argue, lecture, or rebuke; in fact, she didn’t appear to notice at all, thereby silently overruling his objections.
It was hard to imagine that Dr. Zeffren, whose head resembled a cue ball, could have ever sported a stylish chup. But it wasn’t hard to imagine how, when he phoned home from yeshiva to complain that his rabbis were violating his rights by insisting that he get a haircut, the connection suddenly failed so that his mother heard none of his protests.
But parents only lay the foundations. True character must be cultivated and fashioned from within.
In his short story The Time Machine, Ray Bradbury writes of two young boys who visit their wizened neighbor, listening to reminiscences so vivid and detailed that they felt they were transported back to another age. Lester Zeffren was such a time machine, taking us back not to places or events but to a world where integrity, respect, discipline, gratitude, and human dignity were not merely ideals but part of the fabric of civil society.
“I’m sorry you didn’t get to hear me speak in shul yesterday,” he said to me one Sunday morning. “I talked about the time I joined the board of the Academy. We were young, eager, idealistic, and committed to making a difference. We were going to overhaul the system and make big changes. We had the greatest of intentions.”
He paused for dramatic effect, then continued:
“And we knew nothing!”
Of course, youth is wasted on the young, as is the wisdom of experience that the young have yet to acquire. But Lester’s voice, a lone echo holding back the gathering darkness, filled me with hope. What else could I do but step forward and wrap my arms around him?
Lester never passed up an opportunity to express his admiration and appreciation for teachers of Torah, and he constantly admonished me to persevere against the community’s growing inexplicable resistance to instilling Torah values in their children.
“Your father is a great man,” he told my son in shul. “He holds this community together. Do you know that?”
My son, about seven years old at the time, nodded solemnly, without an ounce of comprehension on his face.
But Lester wasn’t finished yet.
“And he suffers! You’re lucky to have him as a father.”
Of course, that was the way Lester talked to everyone. But unlike so many who seek to ingratiate themselves through flattery and empty compliments, you knew that Lester meant every word he said.
Which is not to say that Lester Zeffren had a pollyanna outlook on the world. He was as critical in his views as anyone, and never shy about arguing his position. But he did so with such sincerity and authenticity, such intellectual and moral authority, that even those who despised his opinions couldn’t help but admire him. He was from another age, and even at that an anomaly: a man who could fearlessly speak his mind and retain the respect of all around him.
Even in medicine, he was a rare breed. When I mentioned my reliance on chiropractic — a sure way of drawing the scorn of “real” doctors — Lester simply remarked, “If it works, it’s better than conventional medicine.”
But there could be no compromise in the way he administered his practice. “Lester will never become rich,” commented one medical colleague. “He cares too much about his patients to shortchange them.”
In an age of non-judgmentalism, political correctness, and touchy-feely educational philosophy, in a generation of moral equivalence and moral anarchy, Lester Zeffren was our lifeline to a saner and nobler time. Now that he’s gone, our connection with the past grows ever more tenuous, and our hope for the future grows ever more desperate.
May his family take consolation from the giant footprints he left behind, and may they be comforted among the mourners of Tzion and Yerushalayim.
Rabbi Yonason Goldson