Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev once met a Jew who was smoking on Shabbos. He said to the Jew, "Reb Yid, perhaps you forgot that it is Shabbos today."
"No Rebbe, I know that it is Shabbos, " the Jew replied.
"Perhaps you did not realize that you are smoking," said Reb Levi Yitzchak, trying a different tack.
"Rebbe, how could a person not know that he was smoking," answered the Jew.
"Perhaps you forgot, or perhaps you never learned, that it is forbidden to smoke on Shabbos."
"Of course I know that it is forbidden to smoke on Shabbos, " the Jew said, cutting off the last possible defense.
At that point, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev turned his gaze upwards and called out, "Ribbono shel Olam, who is like Your people Israel? Even when I gave this Jew every opportunity to lie and somehow mitigate his offense, he refused to do so. Where is such scrupulous honesty to be found?"
This beautiful story was told by the keynote speaker at the recent London Encounter Conference, the major annual kiruv event of Anglo Jewry. Most of those in the audience were identified, but not fully mitzvah observant Jews, who had grown up in United Synagogue shuls.
For the non-observant listeners, it was a case of the right story for the wrong audience. For most of those in the audience, the story could only serve to reinforce feelings of complacency rather than encourage them to take any positive steps towards increased Torah learning or greater mitzvah observance. Understood in the wrong way, the story could stand for the proposition that "We are all o.k., as long as we don’t deceive ourselves or others about our level of mitzvah observance."
For that audience another version of the same story might have a greater impact. In the less known version, the rabbi in question (no longer Reb Levi Yitzchak) concludes by telling the Jew who was smoking, "Such a level of honesty is not for this world; it belongs in the Olam HaEmes (the World of Truth)."
THERE is, however, an audience that must hear this story, or else it would not have found its way into the treasury of Chassidic tales. Rebbe Levi Yitzchak taught all shomrei Torah u’Mitzvos Jews the necessity of relating to each Jew as a precious gem, and that the way to do so is by focusing on their every ma’aleh.
Unless we relate to our fellow Jews as individuals worthy of our respect, we have no chance of drawing them any closer to a Torah life. Concentrating on what is truly deserving of respect in each Jew we meet – and every Jew certainly has qualities worthy of respect – is the precondition for creating a personal relationship. Those positive qualities must be identified for another reason as well: they will inevitably be the means for any positive move towards a life of Torah and mitzvos.
I was reminded of the story of Reb Levi Yitzchak last week by a remark of a Bais Yaakov teacher in Jerusalem. She was reported to have told her class that all the hoopla about astronaut Ilan Ramon, a"h, was misplaced. "At the end of the day, he was not shomer mitzvos," she said, "and is no hero for us."
The teacher’s concern about Ilan Ramon becoming a role model is understandable. Perhaps she also shared with others in our community a fear of dwelling too long on the debt of gratitude owed to Israeli soldiers lest that gratitude be transformed into a sense of guilt over our own lack of military service.
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, the late Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva, however, was not embarrassed to express the hakaras hatov owed to Israel’s soldiers. During the Yom Kippur War, he compared Israeli soldiers to the two martyrs of Ludkia described in the Talmud. The latter falsely confessed to murdering the daughter of a Roman governor to avoid a decree against the entire Jewish population of the town. Of those martyrs, the Talmud says no one will be able to stand in their place in the World to Come. And the same is true, said Rabbi Shmuelevitz, of those soldiers who sacrifice themselves to save the Jewish people.
To ignore the debt we all owe to the IDF or the magnitude of mesirus nefesh demanded of Israeli soldiers is to involve ourselves in sheker (falsehood), and a particularly pernicious form of falsehood at that. Any failure to acknowledge a debt of hakaras hatov can only end by destroying within us the middah of hakaras hatov, upon which all our avodas Hashem is based. When we uproot from our heart proper feelings of hakaras hatov, writes Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, zt"l, we are engaged in an act of spiritual self-mutilation.
Ilan Ramon was one of the eight pilots who bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981. But for the success of that mission, which involved flying in an extremely bunched formation for nearly four hours to avoid radar detection, not only Israel, but the entire world, would long since have found itself hostage to a nuclear-armed madman. Ramon volunteered to take the eighth and most dangerous bombing sortie over the target because he was the only one of the eight pilots who was not yet married. He told his commanding officer that as the son and grandson of Holocaust survivors he was prepared to give up his own life to prevent another destruction of the Jewish people.
Can anyone deny that Ilan Ramon’s willingness to give up his life for the Jewish people was admirable and demands our acknowledgment?
And that is but the smallest part of the hakaras hatov owed to Ilan Ramon. He was mekadesh Shem Shomayim b’rabbim. There are Jewish children around the globe who today know about kashrus and Shabbos only because a Jewish astronaut stressed their importance even in space.
From the moment that Ilan Ramon was selected to be Israel’s first astronaut, he insisted on his role as a representative of the Jewish people. And he knew that one cannot represent the Jewish people and simultaneously deny the mitzvos that have always defined the Jewish people, like Shabbos and kashrus.
At every opportunity, he pointed out the items that he would be bringing into space as a representative of the Jewish people. "I want to bring on the mission as much as possible of the Jewish people, of the identity of the Jewish people," Ramon said. Among the personal effects he took with him into space were mezuzos, a Kiddush cup, and a tiny sefer Torah that the rabbi of Amsterdam had entrusted to the keeping of a 13-year-old boy in Bergen-Belsen. (That boy survived to become one of Israel’s top physicists and the supervisor of one of the experiments Ramon was carrying out on board.)
For Ilan Ramon that sefer Torah symbolized "the ability of the Jewish people to survive everything, including horrible periods, and go from the darkest of days with hope and faith in the future." That vision of hope is desperately needed today when the only thing being offered our youth is hedonism in the face of despair.
The keruvim in the Tabernacle, symbolizing Hakodesh Baruch Hu and Am Yisrael, faced one another. The two keruvim were identical, for when we turn towards ourselves completely towards Hashem, we become a reflection of Him. That is the definition of Kiddush Hashem.
Turning towards Hashem requires that we first submerge our individual identity in the collective identity of the Jewish people, for it is the Jewish people that has been charged with being the reflection of Hashem in the world.
At some point, Ilan Ramon chose to be something more than an isolated individual and to identify with the collective Jewish people throughout history. That was the source of the Kiddush Hashem that came through him, and why his memory deserves to be honored by all Jews.