I'm a talmudic scholar and former hitchhiker, circumnavigator, and newspaper columnist, living with my wife in St. Louis, Missouri, where I teach, write, and lecture. My forthcoming book, Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for success and happiness from the wisdom of the ages, is due out in July.
Although the recent UC Davis divestment resolution against Israel ended in a deadlock, I suppose there is still some silver lining: at least half the people casting votes can be considered clear-headed. But as for the others, please tell me — what exactly were you thinking?
Did you buy into former President Jimmy Carter’s accusation condemning Israel as an apartheid state? If so, how do you explain Israeli Arabs having a higher standard of living than Arabs in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, or Iraq? or a higher literacy rate? or higher life expectancy? Does it mean nothing to you that Israel is the only democracy in the Mideast? that only in Israel women have equal rights and equal education? that Palestinians who work for Israeli companies like Sodastream oppose the boycott you advocate to save them from oppression?
If you are outraged by the unequal treatment of Israeli Arabs, how do you explain that Israel has Arab members of Parliament proportional to its Arab citizenry? How is it symptomatic of apartheid that Israel has or has had an Arab deputy Prime Minister, an Arab Supreme Court justice, an Arab national soccer team captain, and an Arab Miss Israel?
Where is your outrage toward apartheid in Arab countries that oppress their Jewish minorities? Or are there too few Jews for you to apply the term apartheid in Arab countries that are essentially Judenrein? In case the flight of oppressed Jews from Arab countries is news to you, look at the decline in Jewish populations from 1948 until today:
Algeria: 140,000 to <100
Egypt: 80,000 to <100
Iraq: 150,000 to 40
Lebanon: 30,000 to 30
Libya: 30,000 to 0
Morocco: 500,000 to 700
Syria: 30,000 to <100
Yemen: 55,000 to <200
You denounce the “illegal occupation” of captured territories. Why are you not equally concerned about the Jewish-owned land appropriated by Arab governments — all 38,625 square miles of it (compared to Israel’s total area of 7,992 square miles)? Why do you continue to condemn Israel as intransigent when it was the Palestinian Authority that rejected Ehud Barak’s offer — after the Camp David Accords of 2000 — to return an equivalent amount of territory to that captured in the defensive 1967 war? And by what twisted rationalization do you fault Israel for not sitting down to negotiate with Arab leaders who continue to call for Israel’s destruction and deny its right to exist?
As for those of you who abstained: were you lacking clarity or courage?
Why are you not railing against the far more egregious human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, and myriad other nations all over the globe? Even if political correctness is the explanation, please explain why quantifiable Arab oppression is accepted while fabricated Israeli “oppression” is not.
But if the real reason, as seems likely, is old-fashioned anti-Semitism, then let’s trade in that antiseptic euphemism and call your worldview what it really is: Jew-hatred, plain and simple.
UC Davis was once an institution to be proud of. For the first time in thirty years, I am ashamed of my alma mater.
Rabbi Yonason (Jonathan) Goldson
Class of 1983
Parshas Behar/ Sefiras HaOmer
In this week’s Torah portion we read about the shemittah year, the Sabbatical for the Land of Israel that parallels the weekly Sabbath on which the Jewish people refrain from work.
It’s no coincidence that this parsha falls out in the middle of Sefiras HaOmer, the count of seven days and seven weeks that links the festivals of Pesach and Shavuos as the beginning and end of a process of spiritual growth, providing us with an opportunity to re-experience the transformation of the Jews from a people into a nation.
But what is it about the number seven that it plays such a significant role in Jewish thought, and in the very structure of our world?
Click here to find out.
[Rabban Yochanon ben Zakkai] said to [his students]: Go and see which is the good path to which a person should cleave. Rabbi Eliezer said: A good eye. Rabbi Yehoshua said: A good friend. Rabbi Yossi said: A good neighbor. Rabbi Shimon said: To foresee consequences. Rabbi Elazar said: A good heart. [Rabban Yochanon] said to them, I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach over your words, for included in his words are all of yours.
Pirkei Avos, 2:13
The principle applies especially well to education: teach a student information and you add to his reservoir of knowledge; teach him how to learn and you enable him to educate himself for the rest of his life.
For this reason, Rabban Yochanon does not merely teach his students which is “the good path” that a person should follow. Instead, he sends them out to “see” for themselves, to discover on their own the answer to this all-important question.
But where are they supposed to look? And what do their answers mean? A good eye? A good heart? How do these simplistic sound bites define the “good path”? And why does Rabban Yochanon find Rabbi Elazar’s answer superior to those of his fellow students?
The Zohar tells us that before the Almighty created the world, He looked into the Torah as His blueprint for Creation. The best way to understand our place in the world, therefore, is for us to look into the Torah as well.
This was how the students of Rabban Yochanon interpreted their rebbe’s instruction to “go and see.” They began at the beginning, carefully rereading the narrative of Bereishis, looking for any clue through which the Torah might direct us along the “good path.”
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God hovered over the surface of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning — one day (Bereishis 1:1-5).
Independently, each of the students followed the narrative of Creation and each, mindful of Rabban Yochanon’s instruction to find the good path, stopped at the same place: And God saw the light, that it was good. Each student recognized that the Torah’s first mention of the word “good” offered the most likely source for divining the good path they had been commanded to seek.
At this point they all arrived in agreement. From here forward their interpretations diverged.
Rabbi Eliezer said: A good eye
An understanding of the students’ answers, however, requires a closer examination into the Creation narrative. The light of Creation cannot refer simply to the light by which we see, for the simple reason that the Almighty did not create the sun and the stars until the fourth day, whereas He created the light on day one. If so, what was this light of Creation?
The kabbalistic principle of tzimtzum (literally, contraction) instructs us that, since Hashem is everywhere, He could not begin to create the universe until He had first created a place where He was not, a spiritual vacuum that would serve as the blank canvas on which to produce the greatest creative masterpieces imaginable — the universe, the world, and Man. Only after preparing this spiritual vacuum (described by the Torah as void and darkness), could the spirit of God begin the act of Creation as it hovered over the primordial emptiness (the face of the deep), reintroducing the divine energy of the Eternal into the spiritual void — an act that can only be described in human language through the expression, Let there be light!
Through this act of Divine illumination, the Almighty translated His creative blueprint into physical and spiritual reality. The Torah, previously an unformed ideal in the infinite mind of God, manifested as a world created for the fulfillment of spiritual purpose. It is for this reason that the Aramaic name for Torah is oraissa — source of light — for it shows us the path and guides us as we seek to find our way through the darkness of the physical world toward spiritual enlightenment.
Thus Rabbi Eliezer declares that to walk the “good path” requires a “good eye,” the ability to perceive the Divine light of Hashem and follow it through our world of spiritual darkness. The spiritually myopic or, even worse, the spiritually blind, will stumble and stray from the path. Only one who cultivates the spiritual sensitivity to recognize and appreciate the Divine illumination of the Torah will be able to cling to the good path.
Rabbi Yehoshua said: A good friend
According to Jewish law, each 24-hour day actually begins as the evening sun falls below the horizon. Just as the Jewish Sabbath starts Friday evening, so too does every day of the week begin as night falls rather than with dawn the following morning. The biblical source for this is the repeated verse, And there was evening and there was morning.
Why is this so?
Human nature dictates that we truly appreciate only those things we are forced to do without. Just as the light of Creation is essential to human beings, equally essential is our appreciation of that light. With this in mind (together with the mystical reasons already discussed), the Almighty created first the darkness before the light, thereby enabling mankind to fully appreciate the light that would illuminate his world.
The light, therefore, became a good friend to the darkness that preceded it, while the darkness provided the contrast and context in which to value and cherish the light. According to Rabbi Yehoshua, adherence to the good path requires not only spiritual perception but the spiritual framework that gives perception its true meaning — not only a good eye but a good friend as well.
Rabbi Yossi said: A good neighbor
The kabbalists introduce us to the mystifying idea that, in the earliest moments of Creation, light and darkness were not divided as they are now, but were somehow intertwined in harmonious coexistence.
Having already defined the light of Creation not as photons striking the optic nerve but as spiritual illumination of the Divine will, we can take the next step of interpreting light as symbolic of good and darkness as symbolic of evil. Since everything the Almighty does is ultimately for the good, light and darkness — i.e., good and (the perception of) evil — were at first inextricably woven together. But since the ultimate purpose of Creation would require that Man recognize and choose the good path, Hashem needed to enable Man to discern the good that should define his mission and guide his actions.
As the next step in Creation, therefore, God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night.
According to Rabbi Yossi, it is sufficient neither to have merely a good eye to see the light nor a good friend to appreciate it. What is even more critical is a good neighbor, the ability to draw and recognize boundaries between the light and the darkness, between good and evil. As Rabbi Yossi understood it, this is the key to walking the good path.
Rabbi Shimon said: To foresee consequences
The sages explain that the creation of light, although necessary for the existence of Man, presented a profound danger to survival of Man as well.
Just as nuclear technology can produce the energy to sustain all civilization, so too can it produce the destructive power to annihilate all civilization. Even greater than nuclear energy is the power of the Almighty’s Divine light. In the hands of the righteous, Hashem’s spiritual light can elevate humanity to the level of Godliness. In the hands of the unscrupulous it can be perverted to manipulate and exploit the unlimited blessing Hashem has provided for our benefit.
Hashem required, therefore, a plan through which He could limit the access of the wicked to His Divine light. Originally, He intended to allow His light to permeate the entire world, that every tree and stone, every field and mountain would testify to the divinity of Creation and guide Mankind along the good path. To protect it from misuse, however, He withdrew His light from every corner of the world and devised its concealment in a place where the wicked would not go. 
Hashem hid His light in the Torah.
Unlike other intellectual pursuits, the study of Torah is no mere academic discipline. To truly acquire Torah wisdom, the student of Torah must commit himself to the internalization of Torah values and must allow the Torah to transform his character. Although Jewish history does provide examples of charlatans who learned enough to exploit their Torah knowledge, these are exceptions to the rule. For the most part, by the time a scholar reaches the level where he has acquired Torah wisdom, the Torah has shaped him into one of the righteous to whom the divine light of Torah can be safely entrusted.
For this reason, Rabbi Shimon declares that the essential quality to walk the good path is to foresee consequences, to discern and appreciate the divine light not only as it appears at any given moment, but to anticipate what will become of it as one walks the good path in pursuit of spiritual goals.
Rabbi Elazar said: A good heart
It is often said in the name of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter that there is no greater distance than from the head to the heart. Intellectual knowledge is indispensable, but true wisdom comes when we internalize the knowledge of our minds so that it penetrates our hearts, when we allow what we know to become part of who we are.
The first four students of Rabban Yochanon all identified the correct source to answer their teacher’s question, and they all accurately interpreted its relevance. Their argument was about emphasis: which is the most critical factor in adhering to the good path? Perception, context, differentiation, or forsight?
But they erred by failing to recognize that each of the steps they identified is an inseparable part of a process that remains incomplete without the full integration of every component. No one factor outweighs any of the others, since the process itself is an indivisible whole.
Rabbi Elazar ben Arach expressed this understanding as a good heart: only when one has acquired a unified perspective of every facet of the Divine light is he equipped to adhere to the good path; only when he has completed the whole process will he have fully internalized the values of Torah; and only then will he have refined his character to the point where his Torah wisdom will faithfully serve him, and where he will faithfully serve it.
It is the absolute commitment to acquiring a good heart that enables one to walk the good path. This is why Rabban Yochanon declares: I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach over your words, for included in his words are all of yours.
A final insight into Rabbi Elazar’s words comes by calculating the gematria of the word heart, leiv, the numerical value of which equals 32. In the narrative of Creation, we find that from the Torah’s opening word – Bereishis – until the first appearance of the word good we count 32 words, the equivalent of leiv, or heart. Consequently, the phrase “good heart” – leiv tov – alludes to the process that begins at the beginning of the Torah and ends with the heart fully integrating the values of Hashem’s ultimate good.
Not merely the story of Creation but the very structure of the Divine word provides a remarkable illumination of Rabbi Elazar’s lesson. Only by beginning at the Beginning and working steadfastly through to the end can one acquire a good heart and successfully negotiate the good path. Like any physical journey, the journey to spiritual well-being begins with a single step and ends only after the traveler has placed one foot in front of the other until he arrives at his destination.
The days of transformation
Between Pesach and Shavuos we count 49 days, from the korban omer (the offering of the first barley harvest) to the sh’tei halechem (the offering of the first wheat harvest). The sages describe barley as animal food; only bread from wheat flour is truly fit for human consumption.
The 49 days of Sefiras HaOmer, therefore, represent our transition from creatures little better than animals to fully human creations more exalted than the angels. The freedom of Passover, ironically, does not even begin the count. Freedom is mere potential. It is what we do with our freedom that defines who and what we are.
And so it is on the day after Pesach that we begin to count, describing a process of spiritual and moral development through which we strive to re-experience the spiritual maturation of the Jewish people from yetzias Mitzrayim to their acceptance of the Torah, the Divine gift that provides us with purpose and direction so that we might reach the limits of our potential. Each day and each week corresponds to a unique combination of qualities: kindness, discipline, mercy, consistency, humility, moderation and, ultimately, the integration and harmonization of all these into the most elusive quality — character.
Within Rabbi Elazar’s formula of a good heart we find yet another profound allusion. Just as the numerical value of the word leiv, heart, equals 32, so does the numerical value of tov, good, equal 17. Together they equal 49, the number of days we count as we prepare to re-accept the Torah.
Accordingly, we discover that the first 32 days represent a transformation of the heart, where the final 17 days represent the application of our newly elevated moral character into the practice of true good, or tov. The transition point is day 33, the day we call Lag B’Omer, on which we commemorate the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
Days of joy and tragedy
Having attained the highest strata of Torah scholarship, Rabbi Akiva transmitted his incomparable wisdom on to 24,000 students, only to see a plague take the lives of virtually every last one. As great as they were, Rabbi Akiva’s students failed to rise to the level demanded by their tutelage under the greatest sage since Moshe Rabbeinu, the teacher whose most famous lesson was, “Love your fellow as yourself: this is the great principle of the Torah.”
Despite their exceptional scholarship, Rabbi Akiva’s students fell short in the respect they showed to one another. To achieve anything less than perfection in that critical lesson, to miss the mark in the development of character (which is the foundation of Torah observance), to overlook the opportunity offered by the days between Pesach and Shavuos to perfect the qualities that govern one’s interpersonal relationships — all this proved fatal to a whole generation of extraordinary scholars. The season that should have remained a time of joy instead became a season of mourning and self-reflection.
But all was not lost. Among the five surviving students of Rabbi Akiva was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, whose unique ability to bring the mystical secrets of the Torah to light yielded a new era of spiritual illumination for the Jewish people. Amidst the deepening darkness, the light of Torah would burn all the more brightly; and after the loss of so much Torah, the potential to rebuild the spiritual supports of the Jewish nation can be recovered through our understanding of why tragedy befell us, and how each of us carries in his heart a flame to light the world.
And so we commemorate the life and teachings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai by suspending the days of mourning, by lighting bonfires to symbolize the light of Torah dispelling the darkness of exile, and by rejoicing in the mercy of the Almighty who transforms every disaster into the potential for renewal. Through our Torah study and our sincere efforts to acquire the quality and character that defines a true Torah Jew, each and every one of us can hasten the arrival of the End of Days, when the darkness of confusion and despair will be permanently dispelled by the light of the Ultimate Redemption.
Posted in Education and Parenting on April 4, 2014
I am honored to learn that I will be recognized at this year’s Block Yeshiva Scholarship Gala, acknowledging my 18 years of service to the school. Mostly, it has been my privilege to be part of an institution that can justifiably claim so much success: our students and alumni consistently strike a beautiful and delicate balance between Torah and secular culture, between the spiritual and the material worlds, and between meticulous observance of Torah law and development of moral character. Perhaps our greatest shortcoming has been our limited success in highlighting all we have achieved.
To learn more about Block, take a look at our blog.
For gala reservations and ad journal tribute opportunities, click here.
At first glance, the soggy, green downs of Ulster bear little resemblance to the parched and craggy hills of Israel. But a gentle tugging at the cultural fabric of either place unravels an unmistakable common thread: two peoples, impossibly close geographically, impossibly distant ideologically, with more than enough fuel for hatred between them to burn until the coming of the Messiah. Tromping over hills and through city streets, however, first in one place and then in the other, I discovered a more compelling similarity: the bitter struggle of humanity in exile.
“Which are the bad parts of town, the ones I should avoid?” I asked the owner of the bed-and-breakfast where I passed my first night in Belfast.
She dutifully pointed out the Shankhill neighborhood on my map, cautioning me to steer clear of it. I thanked her and, with sophomoric self-confidence, proceeded there directly.
It was the summer of 1984, and central Belfast exuded all the charm of a city under martial law. Policemen on patrol wore flack jackets. An armored personnel carrier idled at a major intersection waiting for the signal to change. Blown out shells of buildings sprouted weeds, and street signs warned, DO NOT LEAVE CAR UNATTENDED. But as I worked my way up Shankhill, I discovered even more disconcerting landmarks: elementary school yards swathed in barbed-wire and churches pocked with scars from automatic-rifle fire.
I stopped in at a corner pub and took a seat at the bar beside two locals. Each was nursing a pint of Guinness. Another glass, two-thirds full with boiled snails, rested between them. The men took turns using a bent eight-penny nail to dig each snail out of its shell before popping the meat into their mouths.
Enjoy this blast from the past.
According to a survey — before the recent economic downturn — about 20 percent of Americans believe themselves to be among the wealthiest one percent of the nation. Another 20 percent anticipate that they will one day claim membership among the wealthiest one percent. In other words, two out of every five Americans believe that they are or will possess enough wealth to be in the top one out of a hundred.
One might describe this kind of rosy optimism as wishful thinking. One might better describe it as delusional.
The potency of imagination powers the engine of human achievement. Whether we aspire to fight for civil rights, to seek a cure for cancer, to write the great American novel, or to win the New York marathon, we never take the first step until we envision our own success, no matter how certain or improbable our chances of success may be. But as the line between reality and fantasy grows increasingly blurry in Western society, imagination does not spur us on toward success but prods us blindly toward the precipice of self-destruction.
Such was the myopia of the Jewish people under Persian rule 2,365 years ago when King Ahasuerus and his viceroy, the wicked Haman, conspired to annihilate the Jewish people. The Jews had thought to appease the king by attending his party, a banquet conceived to celebrate their failure to return to Israel after 70 years of exile. They thought to appease Haman by bowing down to him and the idolatrous image he wore upon a chain hanging from his neck. They thought appeasement and compromise and contrition would preserve the comfortable life they had grown used to in exile, far from their half-forgotten homeland.
Despite all their efforts, the axe fell. But the executioner’s blow never landed, checked in mid-swing by the divine hand, which concealed itself within a long series of improbable coincidences.
The contributions were enough … and there was extra (Shemos 36:7).
This week’s parsha continues the narrative of the mishkan, beginning with an accounting of all the materials donated by the Jewish people. When Moshe had appealed for donations, the Jews had responded with such eagerness and enthusiasm that Moshe had to ask them not to bring any more.
Curiously, the Torah seems to contradict itself in its description of how much the people contributed: first we are told that they brought enough; then, in the same verse, we are told that there was extra. Did the bring enough or more than enough? It cannot have been both.
Explains the Ohr HaChaim: Yes, the people had brought more than enough. But those who had donated so selflessly deserved to have their contributions accepted, not turned away. Therefore, Hashem miraculously adjusted the needs of the Sanctuary to meet the amount contributed so that everything the people had given would be incorporated into the construction of the mishkan, the place where G-d and the Jewish nation were to meet.
Here we find a profound insight into ha-kores ha-tov, gratitude and appreciation. It is human nature to be grateful when we are in need. However, it is also human nature to lose our sense of appreciation once our needs have been fulfilled. Out of sight, out of mind is one of the more unfortunate attitudes common to the human condition.
Really, it should be just the opposite. We should be even more grateful for the past once we are no longer in need, since it was past acts of kindness and charity that enabled us to reach our present circumstance of independence and security. To forget those who helped us in the past simply because we no longer need them is a crass disregard for Torah values.
After a long and successful career, Mr. Rosenberg closed his New York law practice and retired to Florida, where he lived on an annuity purchased with his savings. And every year, he happily gave a donation of $5000 when the Ponevizher Rav came fundraising for his yeshiva.
One year, the Ponevizher Rav’s driver advised him not to visit Mr. Rosenberg, explaining that the elderly gentleman’s annuity had run out and that the rav would only embarrass him by asking for a donation that he could no longer give.
But the Ponevizher Rav insisted on making his visit nonetheless. When Mr. Rosenberg began to apologize that he could not help, the rav cut him off. “You don’t understand why I’m here,” he explained. “After you supported us for so many years, it is now our turn to support you.” For the next eight years, the Ponevizh yeshiva sent Mr. Rosenberg a check every month in the amount of his expired annuity.
It is easy to show appreciation for what others are doing for us now. It is a sign of genuine gratitude to remember what others have done for us after we no longer need them.
Adapted from last week’s drasha by Rav Menachem Tendler of U. City Shul
By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
And Moshe said to B’nei Yisroel: “See, Hashem has proclaimed by name Betzalel ben Uri ben Hur of the tribe of Yehudah… to perform every craft of design” (Shemos 35:30-33).
In the 1930s, Rav Elchonon Wasserman travelled to America to raise funds for his yeshiva in Baranovich. Addressing an affluent congregation one Shabbos morning, Rav Elchonon asked the parishioners to consider giving a donation of $180, which could support a bochur in his yeshiva for an entire year.
The rabbi of the shul, worried that his congregants might resent being asked for so large a contribution, added that even a donation of one dollar would also be helpful. Not surprisingly, Rav Elchonon received many one dollar donations and not many $180 donations.
Recognizing that he had undermined the rosh yeshiva’s appeal, the rabbi offered an apology for scuttling his efforts. Rav Elchonon replied with the following moshel:
When Hashem instructed Moshe to appoint Betzalel as the chief architect of the mishkan, Moshe immediately went to the camp of Yehudah and began asking people if they knew Betzalel. With over 74,000 adult males in the tribe, it took a while before Moshe found someone who could direct him to Betzalel.
Said Rav Elchonon: “Did Moshe become angry with the people who did not know Betzalel? Of course not. If they did not know Betzalel, then Moshe would have to keep searching for someone who did.
“Supporting a Torah institution is exactly the same,” continued Rav Elchonon. “Whatever money Hashem intends to provide for Torah education will come through the means that Hashem has prepared. The only question is who will have the merit to participate in the support of Torah. If one person does not have the merit to be such a participant, there is no reason to become angry with him. Someone else who values the importance of educating students in the ways of Torah will step forward to act as Hashem’s agent, and that person will be rewarded in the next world in proportion to his generosity.”
And so we have to ask ourselves every moment of every day: are we eager to accept the job as Hashem’s agents to bring about the fulfillment of His will, or are we all too eager to leave that job to others?
Rabbi Yonason Goldson
By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
From last week’s Mishpacha Magazine
The reason is simple: I hated her. We all hated her.
My second-most poignant memory of Mrs. Campbell is the time I came to her during recess with a stomachache bad enough to make me cry. Mrs. Campbell said it was my conscience bothering me for talking during class.
But it is a different incident that replays most often in my memory. Mrs. Campbell had left the class alone for a few minutes while she went off to do who-knows-what, instructing us to wait without talking until she returned. How an experienced teacher could leave a room full of six-year-olds unattended and expect them to remain silent remains an unsolved mystery. Predictably, we began chattering the moment the door closed behind her and then, too late, buttoned our collective lips the instant she reappeared.
“I said that no one should talk while I was gone,” she scolded. “Now, when I dismiss you for lunch, everyone who was talking will remain seated and only those who followed directions will stand up to be excused.” She paused to let the instructions sink in, then said, “Stand up to go to lunch.”
Every single child in the room stood up. Everyone, except me.
Mrs. Campbell then broke character and did what any competent educator would do. “Now I know that Jonathan wasn’t the only one talking,” she said. “Since he told the truth, he is excused for lunch and the rest of you will have to wait.”
I tried not to look smug as I walked out alone and headed for my locker, already imagining the day when I would tell my children about the time I was the only one who told the truth. (Eventually I did, although my kids were not nearly as impressed as they ought to have been.)
Full disclosure: I am not George Washington, and if I were ever caught chopping down a cherry tree it’s an even bet I would have lied about it, to go along with the assortment of fibs I told during my formative years. And although I now look back on Mrs. Campbell with a measure of affection, the question that continues to resurface is why – why was I the only one out of two dozen first-graders who refused to lie that afternoon?
Only one explanation has ever come to mind: it just wasn’t worth it.
In Robert Bolt’s masterful drama A Man for all Seasons, Sir Thomas More asks why his protégé, Richard Rich, has testified falsely to condemn Sir Thomas for treason against the King of England. The prosecutor, Oliver Cromwell, reports that Rich has been appointed attorney-general for Wales.
Sir Thomas looks into Rich’s face with pain and amusement and replies, “For Wales? Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . . But for Wales!”
(In terms of prestige, the office of attorney-general for pre-Elizabethan Wales might be comparable to lieutenant-governor of North Dakota today.)
In other words, the betrayal of a friend and mentor might be understandable – if not defensible – for a princely sum or extraordinary power, but never for a pittance. At least let the reward be commensurate with the crime when forsaking one’s portion in the World to Come.
I imagine the workings of my own mind so many years ago in much the same way. Certainly I was capable of lying. But why waste a perfectly good lie on such a trivial advantage as a few extra minutes on the playground? It simply wasn’t worth it.
And even though I have already confessed to the occasional untruth, I cannot deny that from that moment forward lying never came easy to me. Every impulse to prevaricate met a quiet but insistent voice – Mrs. Campbell’s? – warning me to distance myself from the nearest false word.
In hindsight, it seems obvious that Mrs. Campbell had reinforced some innate sensitivity to Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s lesson of s’char mitzvah k’neged hefseida: “Calculate the reward of a transgression against its cost” (Avos 2:1). If that lesson appears to have grown increasingly incomprehensible to our generation, quite possibly it is because we can no longer appreciate the preceding lesson, “Calculate the cost of a mitzvah against its reward.”
In his classic essay on the nekudas habechirah – the point of free will – Rav Dessler explains that the clash between yetzer hara and yetzer tov rages on the battlefront where there is an even balance between the ratzon ha’emes and the ratzon hadimyon, between our perception of truth as it is and our perception of truth as we want it to be. For those of us willing to take a cold, hard look at ourselves, Rav Dessler’s formulation offers a solid defense against the relentless erosion of priorities.
The unpleasant truth is that we give far too little thought to either the value of our mitzvos or the consequences of our transgressions. If we did, would we consistently scurry into davening even five minutes late, let alone stroll in halfway through Pesukei D’zimra? Would we find trivial small talk so compelling that we casually interrupt Chazaras Hashatz and Torah reading, indifferent to the warnings of Shulchan Aruch?
Too often, we are utterly disconnected from the lessons that are right before our eyes. Pictures of the Chofetz Chaim hang in every house without making a perceptible dent in the steady flow of lashon hara. Shammai tells us to greet every person pleasantly, yet we can’t manage a smile or even a passing glance for either our gentile neighbors or our fellow Jews.
Even when we prevail over the temptation, our victories can be hollow. We make time for learning, but we neglect the review necessary to retain what we learn. We pay for our children’s Torah education, but we begrudge the expense, even though we would willingly lay out the same money for luxuries of no intrinsic value. We sacrifice to give charity, but we bristle or sigh when a knock on the door interrupts our dinner or our recreation.
Clearly, our vision of the emes is anything but clear. What can we do to regain clarity?
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah offers this allegory:
A man went to the pond to cut a bundle of reeds. It was too heavy for him to lift, so he cut more and laid the new bundles atop the first until someone came along and helped him carry them all (Bechoros 8b).
Explains the Vilna Gaon: Because the Jewish people neglected the Torah, they found themselves exiled from their land. Nevertheless, we – their descendants – persevere in keeping the mitzvos. Despite the added hardships of exile, we shoulder the additional burdens of rabbinic mitzvos – like the reed-cutter adding to his load even though he cannot carry what he already has – all the time waiting for Moshiach to redeem us so that we can resume our proper service before the Master of All.
We have to refocus so that we see things as they really are. And, simplistic as it may seem, the way to take things more seriously is to treat things more seriously. Can’t get to davening on time? Schedule your arrival 15 minutes early to say korbanos or the day’s Tehillim. Feel too strapped to give charity? Double your usual donation.
When approached by a simple Jew who claimed he had only half an hour a week to learn Torah, Rav Yisroel Salanter famously advised him to learn mussar (works of Torah ethics). The baal habayis questioned why Talmud or practical law was not a higher priority, to which Rav Yisroel replied: “Learn mussar, and you’ll find that you have more than half an hour available to learn.”
In other words, by putting in more effort we discover what we should have known all along: it’s worth it.
And it really works. Taking my cue from Rabbi Benzion Twerski of Milwaukee, I began giving a weekly class in prayer, hoping that my own uninspired davening might benefit from the course of study. Five years and 35 printed outlines later (and still less than halfway through Shemoneh Esrei), my davening has been transformed into a wholly different experience.
And the rewards extend vastly beyond my own tefillos.
On one occasion, when my son was a high school senior, I chided him for the supersonic pace at which he davened. “You don’t understand,” he replied. Then, derisively: “You like to daven!”
But the message got through. Imagine my delight when he informed me, a few short years later, that he had just switched to the local Agudah for morning minyan. “That other place davens way too fast,” he complained.
Now there’s a story I can tell his children.
In memory of my father, Yochanon ben Yaakov, whose neshoma left this world on Rosh Chodesh Adar. Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 17 June 2001.
I was ten or twelve years old. My father and I had arrived at the stadium early, and I felt a thrill of excitement as we stood up for the Star Spangled Banner. Down on the field, our home team, the Los Angeles Rams, stood in a line holding their helmets under their arms. And in the row in front of us, a middle-aged man stood with his hat perched casually upon his head.
“Take off your hat,” my father said.
The man didn’t respond. “Hey you,” my father said, louder, “take off your hat.”
The man grunted an unintelligible, though clearly dismissive remark.
“You unpatriotic SOB,” growled my father; he didn’t abbreviate, either.
“Dad!” I whispered, mortified and afraid, but also faintly confused. My father had never before demonstrated any dramatic displays of patriotism.
The national anthem ended, the game began, and I guess I forgot about the incident because I never discussed it with my father, never asked him to explain an indignation that seemed entirely out of character.
But now I’m a father myself, and I don’t find my father’s action thirty years ago perplexing at all.