Loss of Depth
Yeridos hadoros (the decline of generations), it would appear, is not limited to Jews as we move ever farther from Sinai. Among the nations of the world the decline might be even swifter as the popular culture becomes ever more degraded and dehumanizing.
These glum reflections were inspired by Doris Kearns Goodwin's remarkable A Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. The team of rivals of the title is comprised of the three men who competed with Lincoln for the 1860 presidential nomination, and whom Lincoln subsequently brought into leading positions in his cabinet. Secretary of State William Seward, who had been considered by many the inevitable Republican nominee in 1860, became Lincoln's closest advisor and confidant.
Goodwin interweaves the biographies of all four men of the post-Revolutionary War generation. Those biographies are based, in large part, on diaries and letters. (Will future biographers examine Twitter accounts?)
Politicians in those days invariably spent much time away from home, and generally did not take their families with them. Nor did they return home by plane every weekend. The only means of communication were the long letters written home. These letters reveal relationships of a depth several orders of magnitude deeper than the virtual "friending" of today.
During those prolonged periods of separation spouses shared a remarkable degree of detail about their daily lives. Even among happily married couples today, I wonder how many take the time to share so much of their diurnal activities with one another, confident that whatever is important to one is automatically important to the other.
Another thing that strikes a modern reader is the depth of emotional intimacy and longing for the beloved's company expressed. That longing for the company of the other was not confined to spouses, but expressed by men for their male friends as well. Friendships too were far deeper.
The point is not just that people of those times gave vent to feelings that we do not. It's worse. Most people no longer have access to such feelings. Our emotional vocabulary has become impoverished and with it our emotions themselves. Contemporary society, with its instant (and frequently illiterate) communication and equally short-lived and utilitarian relationships, does not give rise to deep friendships, much less marriages.
One of the differences between the earlier period and our own is that people were better educated. Lincoln and his "rivals" all read prodigiously in their youth, even though Lincoln had little more than a year of formal schooling. They were grounded in classic texts, which in those days included the King James Bible at the top of the list. The cadences of their writing drew on those of the Bible, and their thoughts dwelt on the big questions of life.
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address took less than two minutes to deliver, but still retains its power today, even far removed from the battlefield on which tens of thousands gave up their lives. The Lincoln-Douglas debates, which thousands gathered to hear in small Illinois towns, standing three hours or more under the sun, are still studied in political theory courses today. What contemporary politician even aspires to more than an instantly forgotten sound bite on the evening news?
Another crucial difference was the omnipresence of death. Many children died in infancy or from childhood diseases against which there were no vaccines. Besides the dangers of childbirth, women died suddenly of diseases that are virtually unknown today – scarlet fever, small pox – and some we have never heard of, like milk fever. Lincoln lost his mother and a beloved older sister early in life. Salmon Chase, his Secretary of the Treasury, buried three wives by his mid-thirties, and never again married.
The shadow of death intensified relationships. Feelings not expressed today might not have occasion for expression later. Long absences from home and the ubiquity of sudden loss encouraged reflection on what one's spouse or friend meant to one.
TOO SOME EXTENT the palpable decline of emotional depth I am describing does not apply to Torah society. We erect barriers against the most degraded elements of contemporary society entering our private domain and attach ourselves to the words of Torah. As a consequence, our marriages and friendships remain on an altogether different plane.
Yet with the physical and metaphorical ghetto walls broken down, our barriers are not impermeable. The preference for quick and shallow communication has infected us as well. When was the last time that any of us wrote a letter conveying to a loved one what they mean to us? Life expectancy has more than doubled since 1860, and with it the tendency to take our most precious relationships for granted and to push off until later working on developing them to their fullest potential.
Already more than eighty years ago, Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz wrote of how rare it was to find a man of contemplation, of real depth – and he was writing from within the walls of the greatest citadels of Torah.
AS I WAS FORMULATING some of the thoughts triggered by the Lincoln biography, the maggid shiur in a nighttime shiur on Eruvin inexplicably pulled out a volume of Rabbi Akiva Eiger's letters one night and read the famous letter occasioned by the passing of his first wife, whom he married at the age of 16.
It would be foolish to attempt to measure societal decline by a comparison of ourselves to Rabbi Akiva Eiger, for even had we been contemporaries, the chasm between us would have been great. But at the very least the depth of feeling he expresses and his description of their marriage gives us an ideal towards which we can strive.
The gaon was responding a letter from a number of prominent rabbonim proposing a shidduch with the daughter of his late wife's sister. He was only 34, and three of his four children were still unmarried. Still he reacted with astonishment to the thought of a match being proposed so soon after the loss of "the wife of my youth, my pure dove, with whom Hashem blessed me . . . . Who will I share my worries with and receive comfort, who will look after me and care for me . . . Who knew her righteousness more than I? Many times we were up in animated discussions about the topic of Yiras Shomayaim, until the middle of the night."
Rabbi Akiva Eiger did not hesitate to bare the depth of his despair, which rendered him, as yet, unfit for marriage: "I am a broken man, in a dark world, I lost all pleasure. I accept Hashem's decree. I cannot answer any shaylos now, the tears make me unable to read. . . . I am unable to eat or keep down any food. . . I cannot daven without distraction or even learn a simple topic. . . ." (Translation by Rabbi Yosef Tropper)
Six months later, he accepted the match with his 16-year-old niece, to whom he was married for 39 years, in a marriage that produced 13 children who survived into adulthood. When she too passed away, he was again broken, and passed away little more than a year later.
Amongst His People
A day before Rabbi Yehoshua Neuwirth, zt"l, passed away, Rabbi Doniel Wolfson, who had served as Rosh Yeshiva in one of the three yeshivos opened by Rabbi Neuwirth, came to visit him in the hospital. When it came time to leave, Rabbi Wolfson wished Rabbi Neustadt a refuah shleimah. The rav immediately added b'soch sha'ar cholei Yisroel – among all the other sick members of Klal Yisroel.
In those few words lies an entire worldview. Rabbi Neuwirth did not conceive himself as an individual apart from Klal Yisrael. Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler explains that the power of tzaddikim to effect a kaparah for their generation lies in their total identification with the Jewish people. The classic example is Moshe Rabbeinu after the chet ha'egel, when he told Hashem, ". . . and if not [i.e., if You cannot bear their sin], erase me, please, from Your book that You have written" (Shemos 32:32). Hashem's great love for Moshe Rabbeinu did not allow Him to exact the full measure of punishment from the bnei Yisroel.
That ability to identify oneself with the Klal and its needs was one aspect of Moshe Rabbeinu's anivus. And that quality defined Rabbi Neuwirth as well. What other gadol of his stature taught practical halacha to seminary girls for decades? Or subjected himself to enormous fundraising burdens, even when he had grown very weak, by opening new yeshivos for boys who did not have places?
The owner of the small Har Nof gym at which I'm too infrequently found worked privately with Rabbi Neuwirth three times a week in his last years. A few days after the levaya, he described Rabbi Neuwirth as "my best friend." He told me how Rabbi Neuwirth would greet him by asking where he was up to in the Gemara he was learning, but then follow that question with many more about the members of his family and whatever else was going on in his life.
That ability to speak freely and openly with a pashute Yid, as one would speak to a best friend, was yet one more aspect of how Rav Neuwirth dwelt fully among his nation.