Giving Honor Where Honor is Due
A remarkable event took place in Bnei Brak the Wednesday before Rosh Hashanah to honor the 3,500 farmers who kept shemittah this past year. One hundred thousand Jews – men, women, and children – packed the streets of Bnei Brak to cheer for thousands of farmer and farm workers who rode in parade on tractors and trucks.
Venerable talmidei chachamim sought the berachos of rough-hewn farmers. At a large gathering in honor of the farmers prior to the parade, the huge crowd cheered after the reading of every single name on the list of farmers who refrained from working their land.
The outpouring of support and admiration was fully deserved. The act of faith required of the farmers is far greater than most of us can even begin to appreciate. Foregoing, al pi derech hateva, one-seventh of their income for a shemittah cycle would by itself be worthy of the highest praise. (Keren HaShviis, despite the extraordinarily generous support of Jews around the globe, covers only a fraction of the lost income.)
But lost income for one year may be the least of the risks undertaken. Many of the farmers have long-time supply contracts with big chains or overseas buyers, which are placed in grave jeopardy by shemittah observance. The farmers cannot, in most cases, be assured that they will not lose the contracts upon which their livelihood depends. In addition, farmers, in general, depend on very expensive machinery. Those machines are almost inevitably bought on credit. Payments must continue to be made during the shemittah year regardless of whether there is any income coming in or else the machines will be repossessed by lenders.
Whether most members of the huge crowd understood the full magnitude of what the farmers have risked -- the effects of which will be felt well into the eighth year as well – they clearly recognized that their mesirus nefesh for Torah is deserving of the highest respect. As Rabbi Reuven Elbaz noted in his address, shemittah is the only mitzvah for which those who keep it are accorded by the Torah the title "gibborei koach – mighty ones of strength."
I would like to note one aspect of the honor accorded to the farmers that will hopefully serve as a harbinger of a positive attitude within our community. Few of those who filled the streets of Bnei Brak knew any of the farmers whom they came to honor personally or very much about them. They did not know their general level of mitzvah observance, whether they wear a kippah, and if so, of what kind, whether their wives cover their hair, and in what way, or how many blatt Gemara they learned during the shemittah year.
They knew one thing, and one thing only, the famers sacrificed greatly to fulfill a mitzvah of the Torah, without any consideration of personal gain beyond the blessing promised by the Torah itself. They had identified themselves as Jews and with the Torah in the most profound way.
Could that not serve as a model for our approach to all our fellow Jews? Should we not be at least as eager to honor them for the sacrifices they make on behalf of the Jewish people and for their identification with the common fate of Jews as we are to note their failure to comply with our own halachic standards?
I'm thinking in particular of the ostensibly non-observant soldiers who left behind letters last summer (to be opened only in the event of death) in which they expressed their pride in having been called upon to sacrifice their lives in the defense of the Jewish people. That is one example. But I'm confident that if we look for the positive in our fellow Jews we will find many other such examples, even if they do not rise to the magnitude of the sacrifices of the shemittah-observant farmers or combat soldiers.
And I'm even willing to bet that if we adopted such an approach, we would find many more Jews who would be willing to acknowledge and honor the mesirus nefesh of talmdei chachamim, who break themselves to plumb the depths of Torah, and their families.
A Delicate Balance
In a recent piece on baalebatim who feel torn in multiple directions by the numerous importunate demands on their time, I mentioned that people tend to grow happier as they age, despite the decline of their physical prowess. And I speculated that that phenomenon might be explained by their acceptance of the fact that they cannot and will not achieve everything that they dreamed of doing in their youth. In short, a realistic acknowledgment of one's limitations and inability to do everything is healthy.
At a mussar vaad prior to Yom Kippur, however, the head of the Vaad spoke of the tendency of older people to become a little too comfortable with the level they have achieved. (With one exception, every participant in our Vaad is over fifty.) The Vaad leader is in his mid-eighties, and besides running a major yeshiva in Jerusalem directs numerous mussar vaadim in North America. So he is entitled to speak about continuing to push oneself.
Let's say someone retires, and post retirement he returns to the beis medrash for one complete seder. He is likely to feel pretty pleased with that accomplishment. Indeed it is an impressive accomplishment of a type that few manage to achieve. Yet, at the same time, the rosh havaad pointed out, he is unlikely to ask himself why he is not learning two sedarim, even though his mental acuity and learning skills make him capable of doing so.
As preparation for Yom Kippur we were instructed to imagine that we had just learned that we had 24 hours to live. What regrets would fill our thoughts? What would we wish that we had done or at least tried to do? What would feel like a failure to maximize our G-d-given gifts or to fulfill our particular mission?
Now, imagine that you have been granted a reprieve – that the twenty-four hours might actually be 24 years. In light of our previous regrets, how would we restructure our lives to ensure that when the end does actually come we are not filled with the same regrets?
I'm not introducing this exercise to suggest that my original observation was wrong or that the recognition that one cannot achieve everything is not a sign of health. But just to point out how delicate the balance is in this area, as in pretty much every area of our lives. On the one hand, one must learn to experience satisfaction in one's accomplishments and blessings; on the other hand, one should not become too satisfied.
Yaakov Avinu, the culmination of the Avos, achieved such perfection that his likeness is engraved on kisei hakavod as the ideal human form. And surely he had every cause for satisfaction for having maintained his mitzvah observance fully intact in the house of Lavan and after surviving the confrontation with Esav.
Yet even Yaakov Avinu received a sign from Heaven that there is no peace, no rest, for the righteous in this world (see Rashi to Bereishis 37:2). There must always be an element of striving in this world. Standing still and resting on one's laurels is not possible. No matter how much we have achieved the minute one feels it is enough, there is no further reason to go on living.
Hillary's No Friend
Hillary Clinton's private server problems have placed her inevitable coronation as the Democratic nominee in doubt. In the drip-drip of the scandal, the emails produced by long-time Clinton consigliere Sidney Blumenthal in response to a congressional subpoena have not been given prominent media attention, other than to prove that Clinton lied when she said that she had turned over all emails pertaining to official State Department business.
But the content of the Blumenthal emails is relevant to those interested in her attitude to the state of Israel. (As a senator from New York, Clinton learned the basics of pretending to be an ardent supporter of Israel.)
In one of those emails, Blumenthal engages in a bit of psychobabble analysis of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He comments that Bibi's father adored his oldest son, Yoni, and that Bibi "never measured up." The desire to win his father's approval, Blumenthal speculates, explains Israel's decision to board the Turkish ship the Marmora as it attempted to break the Gaza blockade: "The raid on the ship to Gaza resembles the raid on Entebbe."
That, of course, is rank nonsense. Even had the boarding of the ship been executed much more successfully it would not have constituted a military mission impossible, as Entebbe was. '
Somewhat contradictorily, Blumenthal goes on to argue that the "inevitable" outcome of the raid was to kill "the peace process, such as it is" and to profoundly humiliate President Obama on the eve of Bibi's scheduled visit to Washington. And the Israelis knew that.
As a proud father, he also sent Hillary a number of columns by his son Max, whose oeuvre includes Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel and The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza.
Reviewing the latter in the far left-wing Nation, Eric Alterman, himself a frequent Israel critic, wrote that it could have been subtitled The Israel Hater's Handbook and been a Hamas Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Blumenthal fils has frequently called for the end of Israel and the rule of its non-indigenous population.
Hillary encouraged Blumenthal's emails on foreign policy issues, despite the fact that the Obama administration had explicitly nixed him for any State Department post. And at no point, did Hillary suggest to Blumenthal that she did not have the time or taste for his son's columns.
Her response to his Marmora analysis was to forward it to her closest advisor, Jake Sullivan, with the subject line: fyi and itys (I told you so.) It was Sullivan, by the way, who acting upon Clinton's orders opened up the secret negotiations with Iran leading to the Vienna deal.
The evident relish with which Clinton harangued Netanyahu for 45 minutes, after the announcement of a low-level approval of new building in the religious neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, during a visit by Vice-president Joe Biden to Israel, and the subsequent publication of the transcript of that harangue should have been proof enough of her real attitude towards Israel. The Blumenthal emails are just one more piece of evidence.