THE APPROACH of the Yamim Noraim is the optimal time to focus on our koach habechirah (power to exercise our free will). Most of us find it convenient – at least some of the time – to play down our range of choices. We prefer to view ourselves as passive victims of circumstances, and to act as if we have been stripped of our bechirah.
One proven way to overcome that temptation is to focus on those who rejected the role of victim. Those who lost most of their families in the Holocaust, including, in many cases spouses and children, and who did not give up on life are one such source of inspiration.
Not long ago, I was in a friend's office when I caught sight of a small newspaper clipping of Tali Hatuel and her four daughters. Hatuel, eight months pregnant, and her daughters were shot dead at point blank range by Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip in May 2004. I must confess that I cannot begin to fathom how her husband, David Hatuel, maintained his sanity. He woke up that morning with a beautiful family and anticipating the imminent birth of his first son, and by 1:00 p.m. all those closest to him had been wiped out.
Yet somehow he did find the strength to go on, even marrying again and starting a new family. At the time of the birth of his first child with his second wife, he said simply that he had been confronted with only two choices: either allow his life to be destroyed or go on. He chose the latter. When we contemplate his example, we should at least hesitate before pronouncing ourselves overwhelmed by whatever circumstances are dragging us down at the moment.
MEETING OTHERS whose range of choices has been severely circumscribed is another means of awakening us to the fact that choices always remain. To that end, I found myself in Kikar Tzion, at the bottom of Jerusalem's Ben-Yehudah Street, until well after midnight on a recent Thursday night. Our "host" Avrumi Weiss introduced a friend and me to the scene by urging us to put on a pair of tie-dyed tzitzis over our white shirts. Our traditional chareidi garb of dark pants and button-down white shirts would otherwise keep the young people from approaching Avrumi's van, he explained.
Weiss has become a Thursday night regular on the street since last Motzaei Sukkos. He drives in from Ramat Beit Shemesh and parks his large van in the square just before midnight. As soon as he parks, kids start to surround the van. They are eager for the slices of pizza, chocolate chip cookies, and cut vegetables he hands out in exchange for a berachah. Sadly, most of the kids seem to be familiar with the berachos, though one would not guess from their attire that they come from religious homes. (One tell-tale sign of kids from religious homes, Avrumi explains to me, is if they have backpacks or handbags large enough for a change of clothes.)
Over the last two months, Avrumi has also handed out two thousand colorful tzitzis. Remembering Hashem, he explains, makes it possible to get better – in every sense of the word. At least one recipient credits the tzitzis with saving his life. He was standing at a school bus stop with a friend, when he remembered that he had forgotten at home the tzitzis he had promised Avrumi he would wear. He ran home to put them on. When he returned, he found the bus stop at which he had been standing destroyed by a bus that had plowed into it moments before.
Six years ago, Weiss tells me, he would have been far too judgmental of the denizens of Ben-Yehudah to engage them in any way. He would have seen their lifestyles as a direct rejection of their religious upbringing. Then he was a successful businessman, running a large catering business in Ramat Beit Shemesh, which serviced many of the local institutions.
That business and the economic self-sufficiency it provided are but a distant memory. January 2005, Avrumi was driving some friends to the airport when his van was smashed into by another vehicle. He was in a coma for nearly a month. When he regained consciousness, it was to learn that both of his legs had been completely amputated. For the next two-and-a-half years, he spent most of his time in hospitals in physical rehabilitation, returning home only for Shabbos or the holidays. Even today, he confides, without pain killers, the nerve pain would be like being constantly plugged into an electrical socket.
Avrumi Weiss could have spent the rest of his life wrapped in self-pity. And in truth, he did not suddenly put on a happy face one day and place what had happened behind him. Every time he wheels himself from one point to another, he is reminded of his loss. But he did eventually find a way that he could still give to others experiencing their own pain, despite his disability. His Thursday nights and related activities closer to his home in Ramat Beit Shemesh provide him with the positive energy he needs to get through the week.
THERE IS ANOTHER TYPE OF DECISION even more directly related to our preparations for the Yamim Noraim illustrated by the following story of Rabbi Boruch Ber Leibowitz and the Chofetz Chaim. (Thanks to my friend Rabbi Ron Yitzchak Eisenman for sharing this ma'aseh in one of his recent Daily Vorts.)
When Reb Boruch Ber's elderly father became ill after World War I, Reb Boruch Ber refused to leave his bedside. He stopped giving shiur in his yeshiva and devoted himself around the clock to his father, to the point that his family and students feared for his own health. Finally, those closest to him prevailed upon him to allow others to spell him at his father's bedside for short intervals.
During one of those breaks, his father passed away. Reb Boruch Ber was despondent over the loss of his father and beset with guilt over the fact that he had not been by his father's side at the time of his parting. All those around him assured him that he had done everything humanly possible for his father, but he refused to be consoled, and even after shivah had ended was unable to resume giving shiur.
At that point, the Chofetz Chaim happened to visit the town and was told of Reb Boruch Ber's despondency. The Chofetz Chaim sat with Reb Boruch Ber, and after a short time, the latter emerged his old self. His students were dumbfounded, and asked what the Chofetz Chaim could possibly have said other than what they had already told their great rosh yeshiva.
Reb Boruch Ber confided that the Chofetz Chaim had taken an entirely different approach. "Let us grant that you should have been at your father's bedside," he said to Reb Boruch Ber, "and that the mitzvah of kibbud av required no less. But what now? Does that free you from every other mitzvah obligation?"
The Chofetz Chaim then quoted the verse, "And now, O Israel, what does the Lord, your G-d demand of you? Only to fear the Lord, your G-d, to walk in all His ways and to love Him . . . ." (Devarim 10:12). Chazal explain that the first word of the verse, "V'ata – and now" refers to teshuva.
Then the Chofetz Chaim told Reb Boruch Ber, "You can wallow in your self-pity and indulge your sorrow or you can do teshuva. You can say, 'I erred, but now what.' Reb Boruch Ber, the choice is in your hands." With that call to simple call to teshuva, Reb Boruch Ber returned to himself.
May we all be zocheh to answer the call, "V'ata" with teshuva and the determination to go on, no matter what the circumstances in which we find ourselves or the nature of our past failures.
The Washington Post ran an interesting experiment in social perceptions a few years back. The paper asked Joshua Bell, widely proclaimed to be one of the world's greatest violinists, to play in a busy D.C. underground station, pretending to be a street busker. Two nights earlier, Bell played a concert before a packed house in Boston, for which the average cost of tickets was $100. But that morning, despite the fact that he was playing one of the most intricate pieces ever composed for the violin, on an instrument valued at $3.5 million, few showed any interest in the underground station. Only six people stopped to listen for any period of time and another 20 dropped a grand total of $32.00 into his violin case, over 45 minutes of non-stop playing.
Presumably had a sign announced that the violinist was the world famous Joshua Bell, playing Bach on a rare Stradivarius, many more passersby would have taken advantage of the free concert. But without any such signals, few discerned for themselves the beauty of the piece or even stopped to listen.
So it is with us. If we know or are told that someone is a major talmid chacham, we will listen to his drashah attentively. But if the same person were to approach us without any advance fanfare and share an insight on the parashah, we would scarcely pay him any attention or instantly try to offer a better explanation. True, not everyone who shares a Torah thought with us is a Rabbi Akiva Eiger in disguise, but many have fascinating insights if we would just listen.
Most Jews have something extraordinary about them, something from which we can all learn. One of my sons recently asked my wife facetiously, "Does Abba intend to write about every Jew in the world?" My answer would be: I only wish that I had the years left to do so, but the project would definitely be a worthy one. Like those subway riders, who did not stop to listen to Bell's playing, we deprive ourselves by failing to pay sufficient attention to our fellow Jews, without categorizing them in advance as worthy of our attention or not.