Three Weeks of Achdus and Brotherly Love

The Three Weeks have arrived, and after three lonely months, we are beginning to gather together. In shuls, in yeshivos, at simchos and, unfortunately, on sad occasions as well, we are beginning to see each other without a screen. What’s the message?

Perhaps it is actually quite obvious. One of the unavoidable subjects of the next three weeks is the sinas chinom – the baseless hatred – that caused the second churban (Yoma 9b). Now is the time to be grateful for the presence of our fellow Jews (see last maamar, Maamorei Pachad Yitzchok, Pesach). Now is the time to erase meaningless divisions. Now, indeed, is the time to awaken in ourselves the baseless love that we are taught is the antidote to the pandemic of sinah which has often plagued us since then.

But how do we do this?

Each of us has a certain derech in our Yiddishkeit. There are different looks and ways to daven. Although there is one Shulchan Aruch, there are many ways to set that ancient table and different vessels with which to adorn it.

My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l, wrote (Igros, page 195) that the essence of the Shulchan Aruch is that it is a sefer composed by a Sephardi (Rav Yosef Karo) and an Ashkenazi (the Rama) in two different countries (Tzefas, Eretz Yisroel and Cracow, Poland), unifying all of Klal Yisroel with its rulings.

How do we, too, learn to respect or at least tolerate each other a bit better now that we all look forward to human interaction once again? Let us explore a few ideas, options and teachings.

Rav Chizkiyahu Yosef Karelenstein once approached Rav Chaim Kanievsky with a shaalah. His wife had just given birth to a baby girl and he was to name her the next day. It was his wife’s turn to choose a name and she had her heart set on Michal. Rav Chaim reacted with a smile: “A very beautiful name.” The new father, however, expressed his hesitation. “But rebbe,” he inquired, “it says in the novi that there were taanos (complaints) against her. How can I name my daughter for someone against whom people had taanos?” Rav Chaim responded strongly, “Taanos, you say? Against whom are there no taanos? Were there no taanos against the avos? And yet they remain our holy avos. Were there no taanos against Moshe Rabbeinu for the Mei Merivah? Is he no longer Moshe Rabbeinu? Men shtarbt nisht fun taanos – One does not pass away from taanos. Michal remained Michal despite any taanos against her.” Rav Karelenstein learned a life’s lesson, which we should access as well. Shlomo Hamelech (Koheles 7:20) taught us that no one is perfect and we shouldn’t reject anyone for being human.

Despite all that we have gone through since Purim – yes, it seems like a lifetime away – we still often focus on our differences instead of the major things that unite us. Some are wearing masks, some are not, some are making indoor weddings, and some have remained outdoors with social distancing. But let’s try to remember that even if our bodies are four amos apart, our neshamos should still be tightly holding hands. We have lost too much recently to give up on any fellow Jew so easily. Of all the things that have driven Jews apart over the bitter millennia, let us not be rent asunder by a mageifah that makes no distinctions.

Rav Karelenstein heard a father teach this lesson to a yeshiva mashgiach. A chassidishe bochur who was a strong masmid was granted entry into an elite yeshiva. For a while, he continued to learn well, but then he began to slide. The mashgiach spoke to him, he improved, and then he faltered once again. After this happened several times, the mashgiach gave up and called the parents to a meeting. For twenty long minutes, he detailed the young man’s precipitous descent. Finally, the mother responded softly, “We understand the situation. What should we do now?”

The mashgiach answered bluntly, “You don’t seem to understand. Please take your son home with you.”

Now it was the father’s turn to teach. “My dear mashgiach,” he began respectfully but firmly, “I am a long-time cardiologist. I currently have 24 patients in my unit of the hospital. I cannot possibly keep constant track of all of them and examine them countless times a day. However, each of them is attached to a monitor, which I access on my screen. If everyone is doing well, there is a zig zag line for each patient. But if, G-d forbid, there is a flat line, it tells me that someone has passed away and Misaskim must be called. Honored mashgiach, my son is boruch Hashem alive, which means that there are ups and downs. Do you really want him to flat line?”

Most of us knew people who passed away during the early days of Covid-19.

They have already been judged in heaven and are surely getting closer to the Throne. As for the rest of us, this is the season to stop judging others and be happy with the fluctuating line on the screen.

Rav Nissim Yagen used to tell a powerful story about Reb Don Eibschutz, a son of Rav Yonasan Eibschutz who had briefly gone off the derech. Reb Don did a complete teshuvah and then led an idyllic life of Torah and mitzvos in the way of his great father. One day, a distinguished group of people, consisting of a well-known av bais din and his entourage, arrived in his town to celebrate a tennaim. Reb Don prepared his home for them, including an elaborate feast befitting the occasion. The av bais din offered many excuses for not partaking of the food and his family followed suit, humiliating Rav Don and his mishpacha. Within a year, the av bais din, father of the chosson, then the chosson himself, and eventually the kallah’s father had all passed from this world, r”l.

Rav Yagen concluded that although we certainly do not understand all of Hashem’s ways, passing judgment on a baal teshuvah and humiliating him can carry the most dire results. In this season, especially, we must endeavor to avoid judging anyone. If we must judge at all, Chazal have already warned us to always to judge favorably. These three weeks and the two months of Elul and Tishrei which follow are times to look inward, without condescension or rancor toward others.

A beautiful story about Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, the Ponovezher Rov, will illustrate the mandate to think of others before we consider ourselves. I had the zechus of visiting the rov in his yeshiva in 1968. I felt as if I was in the presence of a malach from heaven, as I soaked up every inspiring word he shared with me. I could only imagine the plight of the meshulach from the Slabodka Yeshiva who found himself as the next speaker after the rov in an American shul. Each was there to represent his yeshiva, but the meshulach had given up on making a penny knowing that the eloquent and charismatic rov was to speak first. He decided that he might as well enjoy a good drasha and perhaps come away with a hearty line he good use at his next stop. The rov did not disappoint, regaling his audience with stories of the old days in Europe, the plight of the poor bochurim and the incredible rewards for supporting Torah. All of a sudden, the rov pointed to the meshulach sitting up front. “Here with us, we have the privilege of hosting the official representative of the Slabodka Yeshiva, the rov intoned. To the shock of the meshulach, the rov proceeded to portray the importance of Slabodka and the needs of the yeshiva. Later, the great builder of Torah explained to the dumfounded meshulach: “If we’re here to support Torah, it doesn’t matter where the money goes. Come, let’s collect together exclusively for Slabodka.”

That’s what it means to negate oneself and think only of the other person. And that should be our clarion call during this season as well.

A well-known story about Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach also illustrates this tremendous middah of ayin tovah, taking pleasure and looking favorably at other people’s happiness and accomplishments. One of his close talmidim, Rabbi Dinkel, came to notify the rosh yeshiva that after many years, he was moving from a secular neighborhood to live near the yeshiva. Rav Shlomo Zalman offered him brachos with his usual radiant smile and then added an offer. “Nu, with such good tidings, we must drink a lechayim in your new home.” Knowing his rebbi’s carefully calibrated schedule, where every second was accounted for, he was surprised that the rosh yeshiva even offered to put up a mezuzah. The appointment was set for 4 p.m. Rav Shlomo Zalman arrived punctually and was taken to the beautifully prepared table for the lechayim. To Rabbi Dinkel’s surprise, Rav Shlomo Zalman asked to see the kitchen, then the other rooms. It was almost as if the great posek was checking for chometz. The Dinkels were puzzled, but excited beyond any expectations.

When the new resident finally had the opportunity, he asked his rebbi to explain his unusual behavior.

“Don’t you know?” Rav Shlomo Zalman beamed. “We Yerushalmis are quite concerned about ayin hara. If this is true for the men, it is all the more so for the women, who tremble about someone inflicting an ‘evil eye.’ They even try to hide every new thing they acquire out of this fear. Now imagine,” Rav Shlomo Zalman concluded, “if that is the power of an ayin hara, how much more force can an ayin tovah have. We know that a good measure is more powerful than its evil counterpart by 500 times. My little tour of your new home was to spread the aura of an ayin tovah. I am so happy with every part of your new home. I am so excited about your good fortune that this will outweigh any potential ayin hara, G-d forbid, from ever harming you.”

This is the time to be happy for every chosson and kallah, every delayed bar mitzvah, everyone finally able to take a vacation, everyone who has gone back to work and everyone who has overcome Covid-19, boruch Hashem. Let us smile from under our masks or with no masks at our beloved brethren and merit the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh bimeheirah beyomeinu.