This past Friday night, three people separately shared with me stories and divrei Torah, words of chizuk and inspiration. As it turns out, all of the ideas that they shared were closely connected.
The first Yid, Rabbi Abba Perr, shared a story with me. More than twenty-five years ago, he spent his summer with the Masmidim in Camp Agudah. My father zt”l was the mara d’asra of the camp and led the Masmidim program.
Besides the many shiurim my father gave throughout the week, he also joined the Masmidim on all of their trips. This included the annual tubing excursion through the rapids of the Esopus Creek, as that river made its way toward the Ashokan Reservoir, deep inside Catskill State Park. Despite its delicate and docile sounding name, the Esopus Creek has many pockets of galloping rapids that would regularly challenge people’s balance. It was quite a common sight to see one of the Masmidim struggling to wade or swim back to his empty tube, sometimes with the help of a friend who saved the craft from floating away after losing his footing and tumbling into the water.
Before going further, I’m going to ask you to try to picture in your mind what those tubes looked like. Visualize a heavy tractor with its five-foot high tires. Now imagine that those massive tractor-tires had smooth inner tubes just like bicycle tires have. That’s how big the tubes at the Esopus were. The empty space in the middle of the circular tube was partially filled with a wooden board, which was wide enough for a person to sit on and to lean back so that his legs hung over one end of the tube and his back rested against the opposite end. In that manner, one would float and steer his way through the water.
R’ Abba related that he remembers one time when my father became the victim of a particularly fierce confrontation with the rapids. And although he did find and reconnect with his tube, his yarmulka got sucked into the stream and was unfortunately gone forever. The bochurim watched as he stood up, lugged his oversized tube in his hands, and waded to the shore. He then climbed up the embankment to the road that wound its way alongside the river and proceeded to place the tube on top of his head so that it would act as an extremely oversized wooden and rubber shtreimel-yarmulka. In that way, he was able to walk on the road to the bus. R’ Abba clearly remembers the smiles on the faces of the local drivers as they passed by.
The second person, who for obvious reasons will remain anonymous, shared with me a story about his brother. Approximately fifteen years ago, his then twenty-nine-year-old brother, a kollel yungerman, who was settled in Yerushalayim with a growing family, went to the doctor for his annual checkup. The visit was uneventful.
A few days later, though, his doctor called and told him to immediately return for further blood tests. The routine blood tests that he had taken showed a high level of toxins, which pointed to severe kidney failure. They found that his kidneys were, at most, functioning at ten percent. He would need to immediately begin dialysis and down the road would need to have a kidney transplant. Much later, he discovered that kidney disease is sometimes called the silent killer because it can have no symptoms until its advanced stages.
Meanwhile, however, he was terribly shaken up by the news. Considering that he had no symptoms, he had a hard time accepting what the doctor was telling him. He went for a second opinion, which confirmed the painful and frightening diagnosis. He then immediately began dialysis. He made the decision to pursue treatment and search for a kidney donor in the United States. The young family uprooted and moved for the time being to New York.
Soon after moving to New York, he came to my father for chizuk and guidance. After listening to his story, my father told him the following: “The Gemara tells us that it is possible for a person to have an injury or illness that renders him a treifah. Although we know that the term treifah is usually used regarding the kashrus of an animal, it applies to humans as well. The Gemara says that ‘treifah einah chayah,’ a treifah cannot live for long and thus does not retain the halachic status of a living person for the purposes of certain halachos.
“You, however,” my father said to the fellow, “despite your present illness, do not have the din of a treifah. You are a chay lechol dovor. You have the halachic status of a living person. And if you might ask: Lemai nafkah minah? Why is it important for you to know this? The answer is so that you don’t feel like you’re davening to ask Hashem to turn nature on its head by breathing life back into you. You need to know that despite your serious illness, you are a chai, and everyone should double their efforts to daven that you find a kidney donor and have a refuah sheleimah.”
Receiving the chizuk in this way breathed optimism and perspective into his heart. He went home and told his family that Rav Belsky paskened that he has the din of a chai and they should put a lot of effort into davening for his refuah sheleimah!
Shortly thereafter, he received a kidney from a close family member who was found to be a perfect match. It is now many years later and he is boruch Hashem thriving back in Yerushalayim.
In what way are these two stories connected? For this, we come to the third Yid, Rabbi Meir Nosson Hopstein, who also met me this past Friday night and shared with me a vort in the name of the Avnei Neizer (quoted by the Sheim M’Shmuel, Chayei Sarah 1913 and 1919).
We know that there is a rule that an animal that has an injury that causes us to assume that it will not be able to live for another twelve months receives the halachic status of a treifah (see Chullin 57b). The Avnei Neizer explains that the idea behind the twelve-month period is because twelve months is a cycle that includes all the seasons. During a twelve-month period, there is a cold season, a hot season, storms, winds, and rain. If an animal is healthy enough to make it through all the difficulties that arise from the various seasons, it is considered healthy. If it can thrive amidst all the changes in climate throughout the year, it is not a treifah, but rather a chai.
The Avnei Neizer says that the same concept applies to the spiritual life of a person. How do we measure if a person is spiritually alive, if he is tomim, complete? The answer is: If he is so secure with his commitment to his principles that no matter the season his behavior remains the same, he is considered to be whole, complete and alive. If his devotion is such that regardless of any changes in environment, he remains steadfast, that is the sign of a spiritually healthy person, a “chai lechol dovor.” The Gemara (Shabbos 105b) says, “Whoever sheds tears on an ‘adam kosher,’ Hakadosh Boruch Hu counts the tears and places them in His treasury.” What is an “adam kosher”? It would seem to be more appropriate to describe a righteous person as a tzaddik or yorei Shomayim. Some suggest that based on the above-mentioned Avnei Neizer, we can explain that an “adam kosher” alludes to the kashrus of which the Gemara speaks. A beheimah kesheira is an animal that has the ability to withstand all the seasons. And an “adam kosher” is, as we explained, a person whose dedication to Torah and mitzvos is not limited to the easy times.
Our rabbeim would tell us that the real test is how we behave during bein hazemanim, when we are not surrounded by the positive influences in yeshiva. Based on all of the above, we understand that the definition of temimus, and chiyus itself, is closely connected to consistency.
The posuk in this week’s parsha (Devorim 10:12) says, “Ve’atah moh Hashem Elokecha sho’el mei’imoch ki im l’yirah.” Chazal (Menachos 43b; Zohar, Parshas Korach) say that the word “moh” can be read as “mei’ah,” and the lesson is that every Jew must recite one hundred brachos every day. A basic premise of mei’ah brachos, too, is steady and reliable consistency, thanking Hashem throughout the day, every day.
(I thank Rav Shloime Kohn of Telshe Yeshiva and my brothers-in-law, Rav Benzion Berl and Rav Dovid Goldstein, who assisted with this column.)