We Can't Build Ourselves by Putting Others Down
In the days leading up to Tisha B'Av and on Tisha B'Av itself, we will all be hearing a lot about the sinas chinam (baseless hatred) for which the Second Bais HaMikdash was destroyed, and which therefore forms the root of our current Exile.
The truth of the matter is that I have never quite understood what is meant by the term. For better or worse, I can't think of anyone I hate. But I'm sure that if I did, it would be for good cause – at least in my own mind – and not baseless. And I suspect that most of us feel the same way. We do not readily identify with the emotions or attitudes said to be preventing the rebuilding of the Bais HaMikdash.
Perhaps the true meaning of sinas chinam is the failure to fully appreciate the tzelem Elokim in our fellow Jew. In every failure, no matter how small, to recognize what is most elevated about our fellow Jews, there is an element of sinas chinam.
As Rabbi Jeremy Kagan puts it in his remarkable new book, The Choice to Be, about which I shall be writing frequently: We are only blind to the tzelem Elokim in others, if we have not fully realized it in ourselves. That lack of realization diminishes our awareness of our own tzelem Elokim, and, as a consequence, our awareness of it in others.
To the extent our own sense of connection to Hashem is lacking, resulting in a diminished sense of self, do we feel the need to build ourselves up at the expense of others – to look for the negative rather than the positive.
The eye, Rabbi Moshe Shapira points out, is the only external organ to which the terms good and bad apply, as in ayin hatov and ayin hara. Other organs may be instruments of doing good or bad, but they are not themselves good or bad. Not so the eye.
A good eye sees the world as one of blessing and overflow, in which Hashem's bounty is enough for all. And an evil eye sees a world of fragmentation and disconnection, in which one person's gain, his larger piece, is inevitably at the expense of everyone else. The possessor of an evil eye lacks a vision of Hashem's unity. The source of the ayin hara is again a lost feeling of connection to Hashem.
The evil eye manifests itself most strongly in connection with those groups who are closest to us. The closer they are, the more threatened we are by them and the more we feel the necessity to buttress our own choices on the matters that divide us. The less confident we are of our own path, the greater our need to focus on the failures of those who most threaten us and to ignore their good points, the manifestations of the tzelem Elokim within them.
I RECENTLY HAD the honor of speaking in Chicago on behalf of Chai Lifeline, on the occasion of the third yahrtzeit of Miriam Yocheved Mayefsky Isenberg, a"h. Outside of Chicago, I doubt many Mishpacha readers ever heard of Miriam. But she probably had a greater impact on my fourth brother, Mordechai, becoming a Torah observant Jew than anyone else, and through him on the entire Rosenblum family.
My brother first met Miriam when he was a fifteen-year-old high school sophomore from a Chicago suburb, and she was a high school senior at a religious high school in Chicago. I'm not sure which high school Miriam attended, but it was definitely modern Orthodox. They were part of a Chicago Federation summer trip to Israel that included both Orthodox and non-Orthodox high school students.
At one of the organizational meetings for that trip, Miriam approached my mother and told her, "Don't worry Mrs. Rosenblum, we'll take good care of your son." And she smiled. On the car ride home, my mother told my brother, "That Miriam, she's special." I'm not sure that either of them had ever met a religious Jew before, but both my mother and brother instantly sensed that Miriam was qualitatively different.
On the way to the Kosel on Tisha B'Av, Miriam explained to my brother the tragedy of Tisha B'Av and the significance of the loss of the Bais HaMikdash. At that point in his life, I doubt my brother had ever fasted other than on Yom Kippur. But that Tisha B'Av he fasted. If it meant that much to Miriam, he reasoned, maybe it was worth doing.
After they returned from Israel, Miriam introduced my brother to her wide circle of friends in West Rogers Park. Under the influence of his new friends, he was ready for a year on a religious kibbutz in Israel and talking about becoming an Orthodox rabbi by the time he graduated high school.
In time, Miriam married a rabbi, Jerry Isenberg, the head of Hebrew Theological College (Skokie Yeshiva), and became a legendary ba'alas chesed, both in her job as a school social worker and in the countless ways she found to help others, without fanfare, despite battling cancer most of her adult life. But the special qualities were all there from an early age – the smile, the intensity of her davening, the goodness.
On that first trip to Israel, she confided to my brother that many of her friends were having difficulty on the religious kibbutz on which they had been placed because the kibbutz members frowned on the slacks they were used to wearing in Chicago.
But those same modern Orthodox teenagers were the catalyst for four non-observant Jewish brothers to become observant Jews. The chareidi branch of the Rosenblum family now numbers over 60 members. I'd like all those descendants who never met Miriam to know that they are likely here today as shomrei Torah u'mitzvos in large part because of a group of teenagers whom they might be inclined to dismiss as insufficiently frum if they saw them on the street today. Perhaps that knowledge would help immunize them from the temptation to puff themselves up at the expense of others whose religious standards appear less stringent, while missing all the maalos that those not exactly like them possess.
I only wish I were more optimistic about my immunization program – even with respect to myself.
The Cabdriver Has the Last Word
The late Irving Kristol once described the job of the neo-conservatives as explaining why the cabdrivers are right and the cultural and academic elites wrong on most issues. Cabdrivers are an almost endless supply of insights, surprises, and even mussar for me.
Returning home from the airport at 4:00 a.m. last week, I asked my driver whether he had always driven a cab. He replied that he had foolishly given up his previous job as a bus driver. Then he added that there had never been money enough growing up to obtain an education and secure a more lucrative and less physically draining job. His parents, he told me, were illiterate Kurdish-speaking immigrants. His father supported his twelve children working for the Jerusalem municipality repairing potholes.
But he and his siblings had encouraged their own children to obtain the education they had not. His oldest son, he told me proudly, had been offered a partnership in one of Tel Aviv's largest law firms after only three years in the firm. Another nephew was the deputy head of the Shabak secret service, and the family boasts numerous doctors and lawyers.
That Horatio Alger story was a refreshing welcome back to Israel.
Two nights later, my wife and I climbed into a cab late at night, returning from the levaya of Maran HaRav HaGaon Rav Elyashiv, zt"l. I wasn't sure how interested the driver would be in the levaya – actually, it later turned out he had been listening on the radio. So I decided to make small talk about the terrorist attack in Bulgaria that same day. I mentioned that my wife and I had been scheduled to go to Bulgaria the year before, when the tour was cancelled.
He responded with a snort to my wasting his time with this bit of useless information:
"You could also have landed five minutes before or five minutes after the Israeli tour group targeted by a suicide bomber, and it wouldn't have made any difference. If Hashem wants to take you He will, and if not, not."
Properly chastened by his clear expression of emunah peshutah, I refrained from any further efforts at small talk.