Futility of Futilities

Amidst the senseless violence and the wave of tragic suffering, many in the Jewish community fixed upon the fate of Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg and his wife, whose selfless commitment as representatives of the Chabad Chassidic Movement to serve a tiny number of transient Jews in Mumbai ended last week with their brutal murder.

The representative of Chabad here in St. Louis, Rabbi Yosef Landa, offered a unique perspective with the following thoughts:

Many Jewish outreach organizations define success in terms of bringing Jews distant from their roots back to Jewish observance or, at least, to Jewish awareness.  Indeed, to toil in any effort without seeing the fruits of one’s labors can become profoundly depressing and, as human beings, we need to feel that our efforts make a difference and that we have had some impact upon the world around us.

The Chabad philosophy is significantly different.  Any mitzvah, any Torah precept observed by any Jew at any time is a transformative spiritual event.  Every single act of compliance with the Divine Will brings the soul of the one who performs the act closer to his Creator, enhances his connection with his spiritual essence, elevates the spiritual level of the Jewish people as a whole, and brings all mankind closer to the final redemption and the ultimate return to Eden.  What becomes of the Jew afterwards in terms of his religious commitment is a separate matter entirely.  The spiritual benefit of a single mitzvah is incalculable.

To take Rabbi Landa’s thoughts a step further, the sages tell us that King Solomon wrote the words (introducing the Book of Ecclesiastes) Hevel havalim — futility of futilities — in response to the prophetic vision of the civil war that would divide his kingdom, the exile and assimilation of ten of the twelve tribes of Yisroel, and the destruction of the Temple he had built in Jerusalem.

How did King Solomon respond to his vision of ultimate futility?  Tzipporah Heller explains that he recognized that only the physical manifestation of the efforts would not endure.  His spiritual accomplishments, however, would go on forever.  The Temple he built would be destroyed, but the spiritual foundations he laid would eventually support the Jewish nation’s secure return to its homeland in the messianic era.

This is the inspiration offered us by the lives of Rabbi and Mrs. Holtzberg, who exiled themselves to a place far from the Torah observant community and toiled for their spiritual ideals with no expectation of ever seeing their their efforts come to fruition, sustained by their profound faithfulness to the values they believed in and the good they knew they were doing.  Despite the tragedy and senselessness of their deaths, their lives benefited others in unimaginable ways, and their example should motivate all of us to devote ourselves to the cause of spiritual selflessness.


  1. #1 by Dave Weinbaum on December 1, 2008 - 8:12 am


    Inspiring column that gives hope to non-observant Jews like myself to do as much good as we can when we can.

    What an example the Holtzbergs were…to everyone.

    Thanks for the insight.

    Dave Weinbaum

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