Parashas Pinchas 5772 -- Our Walls Have Been Breached; Small Actions Big Results
by Jonathan Rosenblum
July 6, 2012
We have entered the twenty-two day period beginning with 17 Tammuz and culminating on Tisha B'Av. One of the five tragedies of 17 Tammuz was that the walls of Jerusalem were breached leading to the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash three weeks later.
True, the breach of the walls of Jerusalem set the stage for the subsequent Churban. But in what way was it a tragedy in its own right? Once large gaps were created in the walls surrounding Jerusalem, the city ceased to be a reshus hayachid (a private domain). Jerusalem no longer constituted a single domain uniting all those living within, and became instead a reshus harabbim, a domain open to one and all. It no longer united its inhabitants or served to divide between those who belonged and those who did not.
Each to the tragedies of 17 Tammuz has a parallel on the individual level. As individuals, we too have lost our sense of internal unity, of a coherent identity. We perceive ourselves as buffeted from one direction and another by competing impulses and desires. Rather than give shape to these competing impulses and choosing which ones deserve our attention and which do not, we follow each one in its turn.
The literary critic Lionel Trilling once distinguished between an older ideal and a more modern one in a way that helps elucidate the difference between one who forges a coherent identity and one who refuses to enunciate ordering principles for his life. The older ideal of "sincerity" viewed the well-made man as the fashioner of his self, as the author of his identity by virtue of the concrete choices he made.
The more modern ideal Trilling referred to as "authencity." According to the modern understanding a person does not shape his life by deciding what to emphasize and what to suppress. Rather he or she pays homage to each desire and impulse – first this one and then its opposite.
Being true to oneself no longer means determining one's principles and then living in accord with those principles. Rather it means that nothing is suppressed. Wherever the desires lead, there one must follow. To do otherwise is unhealthy.
Our declining sense of privacy reflects our lack of sense of a coherent self. People post the most mundane details of their lives for all to see on Facebook. If someone else does not know what we are thinking or doing (more frequently the latter), it is as if it never really happened. Our own self-knowledge no longer suffices. We share so much because we crave attention and affirmation. We are too unsure of ourselves to savor any small choices that we may make ourselves. We need the approbation of others. Rather than giving shape to our lives according to internally-generated principles we have all become permanent pollsters awaiting the approval of our peers, whether in person or via cyberspace. We have no identity other than what others confer upon us.
The bifurcation of our lives into different realms further signifies the lack of coherent, guiding principles. It is already second nature to divide and compartmentalize our lives into work and play, family and business, private morality and public morality. These are just a few of the dichotomies with which we live. Absent is the essential unity that comes from living each moment in Hashem's presence.
Our sense of time parallels our lack of coherent identity. Life is perceived as a series of moments, each with its potential for pleasure or pain, but bearing no connection to the moment that went before or the one that lies ahead. Each moment is briefly present and then it is dead. Life is an accumulation of such little deaths.
That lack of continuity is also part of the tragedy of this period of bein hameitzarim. The generation that left Egypt was supposed to receive the Torah and then enter the Land. Mattan Torah was the culmination of the miracles in Mitzrayim -- the goal for which we were taken out of Egypt. The Torah given at Sinai was then to find its fullest realization in Eretz Yisrael. There all the mitzvos could be fulfilled and the chochmas HaTorah given concrete expression.
But as a consequence of the Cheit HaEgel, and Moshe Rabbeinu's breaking of the luchos habris, the link between Mitzrayim and Sinai was broken. Subsequently, the Sin of the Spies sealed the fate of those who left Mitzrayim and prevented them from entering the Land. The continuity was broken, and with that break, we lost the clarity of time moving towards a future purpose.
The conception of time as a succession of transitory moments is antithetical to the Torah's concept of time. Commenting on the laws of the Red Heifer as chukkas HaTorah (the law of the Torah), Rashi says that the nations of the world will come and ask us: What is the reason (ta'am) for this procedure? Why does it matter that the nations will tease us and ask? Is it not enough that we ourselves do not understand all the reasons beyond the parah aduma. It is, in the words of Shlomo Hamelech, "far from [us]."
But the question of the nations goes beyond a mere lack of understanding of the deeper meanings. For them the only question is what is the "taste" in this mitzvah. What sensory stimulation does it offer, what possible pleasure is there in this mitzvah, for life is nothing besides a series of opportunities for sensory pleasure.
The Torah perspective unites all the successive moments – just as a reshus hayachid joins together all those within its boundaries. The moments are connected by their movement towards a goal. They are joined by a life of overarching purpose, not just a succession of small deaths. The joy of life is not sensory excitation, but life itself – an awareness of one's existence being connected to the Source of purpose and meaning. That is the chaye olam that Hashem planted in us – not just a reward awaiting us in the world to come, but the awareness in this world of a connection to the Source of Life.
The mourning that begins on Shiva Esar B'Tammuz is a mourning over our diminished capacity to shape a coherent identity that enables us to experience our lives as a never-ending stream from the Source and back to the Source. In order to do so, we need ever greater powers of contemplation and the willingness to make a constant cheshbon hanefesh at precisely that moment in history when everything conspires to make such contemplation more difficult than ever.
Small Actions Big Results
I confess to a fascination with stories of how seemingly small actions can have large repercussions. I recently had the occasion to interview Rabbi Asher Rubinstein, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Toras Simcha in Jerusalem, in connection with a particular project. Rabbi Rubinstein grew up in Far Rockaway at a time when the co-ed Hebrew Institute of Long Island was pretty much the only educational option.
To his good fortune, however, a very learned ba'alebos in the White Shul, Moshe (Morris) Weinberg, the older brother of Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg and Rabbi Noach Weinberg, took an interest in him, and began learning with him every Shabbos morning for an hour before davening. Eventually, with Moshe Weinberg's encouragement he spent part of his high school years in Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland. Later, during a visit of the Ponevezher Rav to Far Rockaway, the senior Weinberg commented to his young chavrusah that he would give a million dollars to be able to learn for a year in Eretz Yisrael. He succeeded in convincing Rabbi Rubinstein to travel to Eretz Yisrael to learn in Ponevezh for a year.
As he stood at the entrance of the yeshiva looking inside, the modern American bochur was seized with a sudden impulse to flee. The whole scene of the beis medrash was completely foreign to him, and he felt that he would be totally out of place there.
Just as he decided to turn and run, however, an American bochur from Chicago by the name of Zalman Goodman, today a rosh yeshiva in Yeshivas Ohr Elchonon, noticed him and came running over with a big smile on his face. He must have seen the panic on Reb Asher's face because he immediately offered him encouragement and assured him that he would get used to Ponevezh very quickly. He then showed him around the yeshiva and made sure he got settled.
Instead of running away, as he had already determined to do, Reb Asher ended up staying five years in Ponevezh Yeshiva, before marrying. And he has been in Eretz Yisrael since, first as a Mashgiach in a major yeshiva and now as rosh yeshiva of his own yeshiva. And all that because one bochur did not hesitate when he noticed his discomfiture, but instead gave him the one thing that could have helped at that moment – a big smile and a warm welcome.
Related Topics: Jewish Ethics, Jewish Holidays, Personalities
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