Every man a columnist
by Jonathan Rosenblum
February 24, 2005
Not long ago, I attended a certain shiur for the first time. It was the week of the tsunami, as well as a public machlokes in a major yeshiva. The rav focused on what he viewed as improper ways of relating to these calamities. That led to a brief digression on a third great calamity – the charedi press, in general, and, in particular, charedi columnists, who must fill up a certain amount of space every week whether they have anything to say or not.
I promptly looked for a pillar to hide behind.
Apparently someone recognized me and told the rav that I had been present because the next morning he called me to assure me that he had not directed his strictures at me.
I did not feel absolved. Every one who writes frequently has experienced the dread of having absolutely nothing to say and a deadline fast approaching. Sometimes the results are close to ba'al taschit with respect to the trees felled to produce the paper upon which that column is printed.
But there is another side of the story. Pressure to come up with new ideas can be positive. In a Torah context, we see this in the relative paucity of insights of modern mefarshim on those parshiot read during bein hazemanim. Pressure makes a person more attentive to everything taking place around him. One reads more closely, listens to other people more carefully, and is more attuned to the many mosholim that are all about us awaiting the proper nimshal.
For most of the past sixteen years, I have been writing one or more columns a week, with one hiatus of several years. During that latter period, I rarely experienced the flash of insight. As soon as I stopped writing, I simply went dry. And when I resumed writing regularly, I once again saw something interesting everywhere I looked. The world came alive again.
That quality of attentiveness is one that every Jew must cultivate. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, the founder of the mussar movement, once brought a pair of shoes to an elderly shoemaker for repair. The shoemaker was already working on one pair of shoes, and Reb Yisroel saw that his candle did not have long left to burn. He told the shoemaker that he would come back the next day. But the shoemaker insisted that he would yet complete the repair that day. "As long as the candle burns, one can make repairs."
Those simple words pierced Reb Yisroel's heart and gave concrete expression to one of the basic ideas of mussar. As long as the candle still burns – i.e., as long as we are still alive – it is not too late to repair ourselves.
On a recent visit to Atlanta, I was hosted by Rabbi Kalman Rosenbaum, the principal of the local day school. As we were talking, he told me that he had once served as a rabbinical advisor on a college campus. Since two of my closest friends had become religious on that campus during the same period, I was very interested in Rabbi Rosenbaum's experiences.
My questions triggered a memory that still brought a big smile to his face over three decades later. There had been no kosher kitchen on campus, and Rabbi Rosenbaum had set up a kosher kitchen off-campus. But he fretted that perhaps the location he had obtained was too far from the campus, and that students who might have otherwise been persuaded to eat kosher food would not make the effort.
One day he asked a young woman who frequented the kosher kitchen whether she thought it was too far from the main campus. She replied, "Rabbi, if you want it, it's not too far." He was so delighted with that remark that for the next several weeks, he went around singing, "If you want it, it's not too far." Even in retelling the story, he broke out again into song. Somehow the young woman's chance remark had crystallized the idea that if we truly value something we will be able to overcome many obstacles to obtain it.
There is so much chochmah in the world if we would just open our eyes to see and our ears to hear. A rosh kollel recently described standing at a bus stop with a group of high school girls, whom one would not have described as coming from the upper echelons of our world. One girl commented to her friend that when she rides the bus of the mehadrin companies, on which the drivers do not collect fares, she sometimes does not pay.
Her companion's eyes widened and she admonished her friend, "Oh, you'll surely come back as a gilgul for that. The more they rely on your honesty the more careful you have to be."
That girl's spontaneous comment, said the rosh kollel, captured a fundamental concept that even some bnei Torah do not fully appreciate: the responsibility that goes with being trusted. He related how when he opened his kollel everyone advised him that he must install a system to ensure that the avreichim arrive at the beginning of seder. He could not bring himself to do so. But he was shocked by the widespread assumption that a system of checks and incentives was necessary, and that he could not simply rely on avreichim to fulfill their responsibility to arrive on time.
Not all of us have to face the constant pressure of staring at a blank screen waiting to be filled. But there are plenty of other incentives to remain alive to the many the lessons the world around us has to teach.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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