The potentially cosmic ramifications of seemingly small deeds and changes in behavior
A long time ago, when there were still newspaper readers — i.e., way before the Kichels — I once read that most readers of newspapers and magazines will turn first to the letters to the editor. I know that's true of me: When the new Mishpacha arrives, I check first to see if anyone took note of the previous week's column.
The letters to the editor are one of the few venues for real debate — even if those debates are often about interpreting the actions of fictional characters. One subject of late has been the proper balance between articles that address challenges facing the Torah world and those that inspire and uplift. My immediate reaction to these debates is relief that I'm not the editor in chief of Mishpacha, who must somehow find the proper balance on a weekly basis.
The truth is that I have dogs on both sides of this debate. The Hebrew Mishpacha first rose to prominence among the Israeli Torah public because of its willingness to discuss issues that had long been swept under the rug. It was a long article on burnout among yeshivah bochurim that first caught my attention and drew me to the magazine.
And for a number of years, I served on the editorial board of Klal Perspectives, an American journal which sought to address communal challenges across the Orthodox spectrum from a variety of viewpoints.
At the same time, I'll soon be publishing a collection of pieces organized around appreciation of what can be learned from lives that might at first glance have appeared rather ordinary, Ordinary Greatness. One of the main thrusts of Rav Yisrael Salanter's mussar movement was to demonstrate the potentially cosmic ramifications of seemingly small deeds and changes in behavior.
WITH RESPECT to the treatment of negative phenomena in our community, it strikes me the principal criterion of judgment has less to do with the subject matter per se, than the way it is presented. Is the approach sensationalistic or not? One criterion of sensationalistic would be whether the entire article is built around a single story or anecdote or even a series of anecdotes, or whether it makes an effort to place the phenomenon under discussion in a context that might include statistics or history. Second, does the article include a discussion of possible solutions, either partial or whole, and describe some of the present efforts in that direction? That does not mean that every communal challenge must be neatly wrapped up in a box with a bright red ribbon signifying the solution. But there is no virtue either in leaving readers with a feeling of hopelessness.
The injunction against the purely anecdotal obviously does not apply to fiction, which of necessity focuses on the specific. And that fiction will have a natural bias toward the negative, following Tolstoy's adage, "All happy families are happy in the same way; each unhappy family in its own way." It is no criticism of a writer of fiction that his or her characters are not all sunny individuals or that the relationships portrayed are not all from Home, Home on the Range, "where seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day." It should be noted though that a whole collection of even the finest stories about dysfunctional families would be a downer, and create a false impression that contrary to most of our personal experiences, the Torah family is not a bastion of stability in a world gone mad.
IN ANY EVENT, this week I'd like to come down on the side of the inspiration seekers, and share two recent conversations that moved me greatly. The first offers a crucial insight into how a sensitive yerei Shamayim pays attention to everything taking place around him.
Last week, my wife and I went out to dinner with a couple whom we first met a couple of years ago when the husband arranged for me to speak in their city. I actually wrote about their chesed at that time. They picked me up at the airport and dropped me at my hosts around 1:00 a.m. My wife was scheduled to arrive at 5:00 a.m. on a red-eye flight from the West Coast, and the plan was for her to take a cab to where we would be staying. But when I went out to wait for her the next morning, I was shocked to see her driving up with the same couple who had picked me up late the preceding night. They were giggling about having tricked us by cutting their night's sleep to a couple of hours.
At the restaurant, we somehow got into one of those discussions about health issues that seem to be growing more common with advancing age. In that context, the husband related a story of someone one or two degrees of separation from him who had suffered a massive heart attack immediately after getting up from the doctor's examining table and being pronounced healthy. Sensing the seriousness of the situation, the heart attack victim recited Vidui, before passing away shortly thereafter.
I've left out a few wrinkles in the story. But suffice it to say that most of us would have recited that story and gone on to the next bite of supper, after appropriate clucking noises. Not so my friend.
He never had the chance to study in yeshivos, though both his sons and his son-in-law are talmidei chachamim and teachers of Torah. His immediate reaction to the story was: What if that happened to me? I don't know Vidui by heart. Nor did he let that thought pass without acting upon it. He took the new ArtScroll siddur he had just purchased for his wife and found Vidui. He then proceeded to copy it out on a large piece of paper, which he then folded up and put in his jacket pocket, where it will hopefully not be needed for many decades to come.
Thus does a baal mussar remain constantly alert to what can be learned and used to improve himself from everything he observes.
WHILE WE ARE ON THE SUBJECT of how we are surrounded in the Torah community by wondrous souls, let me next share the story of a woman we met at a Shabbos table recently. She was introduced as a former Academy Award winner for her work in animation. In Los Angeles, she joined a Reform temple, where her most notable experience was being given psichah together with Dustin Hoffman one Yom Kippur.
She kept pestering her Reform clergyman with questions about why no one was keeping all the commandments mentioned in Chumash, and she was not satisfied with his response that they are "no longer relevant." Sensing that she remained unconvinced, the clergyman gave her a slip of paper with the name of a book written on it and directed her to a local Jewish bookstore.
She walked into the bookstore, attired in jeans and a T-shirt, and asked the proprietor whether he had the volume written on the piece of paper. He looked at her again, and asked whether she was sure that she was interested in Path of the Just ( Mesillas Yesharim). She was.
As soon as she got home, she started reading, and felt an immediate, intense connection to the Ramchal's words. Her next project was Chovos Halevavos. I listened to her account, awestruck that there could be in our day a soul so pure, especially given the world she was coming from, that it could connect at a life-changing level to Mesillas Yesharim and Chovos Halevavos without benefit of any background or teacher.
I took away from that story two points. Reflecting on the Reform clergyman pointing her in the direction of Mesillas Yesharim, I could only marvel how true are the oft-repeated words: Yesh harbeh shluchim L'Makom — Hashem has many agents.
But my second takeaway was of even more practical application. It is commonplace today to lament all the reasons why kiruv is more difficult today than it was 40 years ago. Yet all the obstacles do not permit us to slacken in our efforts as individuals or as a community. If there is one pure soul like the woman across the Shabbos table, there must be many other Jewish souls waiting to be exposed to words of truth.