Thursday, Apr 11, 2024

A Tale of Two Centenarians – Lehavdil

A number of literary notables have stated that “all comparisons are odious.” If they were right, then this one is particularly offensive and preposterous. My readers may be correct in objecting that this premise is wrong from its very inception. Why even mention the name of a lifelong tzaddik and gaon in the same sentence as one who was born to frum parents, went on intermarry, and perhaps even sell out his people for a bit of glory and perhaps cash?

The answer may be found in the words of Chazal (Brachos 7b) that when Leah Imeinu named Reuvein, she was in effect declaring what a tremendous difference there is between Reuvein and Eisav. Rav Chatzkel Levenstein (Ohr Yechezkel, Middos, page 12) adds an important dimension to this comparison. He teaches that the analogy between Reuvein and Eisav would indeed be odious except that it teaches us how the tzaddik and the rasha actually live in different worlds, different universes and different dimensions. Eisav remains a human being, but Reuvein rises to levels that are in effect celestial and superhuman. What is truly amazing is that Rav Chatzkel reveals to us that as Jews, and especially bnei Torah, this is expected of us as well.

Interestingly, the Sefas Emes (Vayeishev, page 171) adds that by risking all to save Yosef, Reuvein demonstrated his acceptance of the fact that his own existence and purpose depended completely upon Yosef. Eisav, on the other hand, felt that he needed to establish his own ascendance and priority, thus sealing his fate throughout history. Whenever he attempts to triumph over Yaakov, he falls lower and lower. As the Sefas Emes concludes, Eisav, too, could have had a tikkun, if he had only subjugated himself to Yaakov. We may use a kal vachomer here. If even an Eisav, who is not truly part of Am Yisroel, can achieve his purpose through serving the nation of his parents, all the more so a Jew who is placed in a position of power and influence.

So let us begin our odious but necessary comparison. Both of these individuals lived for about a century during the same era. Yet, Rav Gershon rose to heights that a mere mortal can generally not attain. Yet he did. Henry Kissinger was gifted with a powerful intellect, a persuasive manner and an innovative mind. However, ultimately he may be judged by his people as a cynical turncoat who sold out his nation and brothers at the moment they most needed him.

Let’s do another perhaps more reasonable comparison. The Abarbanel, too, was a loyal advisor to the leaders of his country. However, whereas they failed him, he served them faithful to the bitter end. The Abarbanel had the option of remaining in Spain with glory, honor and wealth. He chose, instead, to join his people in expulsion, poverty, hunger and exile. All because religion and nation come before all else.

My purpose here is not to play historian, pundit or even judge and jury. Dr. Kissinger will be judged by history, Klal Yisroel, and, above all, the Shofet Kol Ha’aretz. The only point here is to examine the options before every one of us on a daily basis. For some, such as the Abarbanel and Rav Gershon Edelstein, these decisions reach the pinnacle of kiddush Hashem for all generations. For others, such as Henry Kissinger, it means suffering the ignominy of one who turned his back on Klal Yisroel, Toras Yisroel and his Maker. From my limited reading of the historical record of the Yom Kippur War and Soviet Jewry, I know that Dr. Kissinger defends himself that he did what he could to help both. However, it seems clear that at the very least, he admits to having manipulated the 1973 attack upon Klal Yisroel by making sure that Israel is not destroyed, but at the same time “not allowing Israel a decisive victory.” He is also on record as advising the president of the United States that “it is not part of United States foreign policy to help the Jews of the Soviet Union.”

Of course, I am in no position to make value judgments about these situations where lives were not only at stake but were lost in great numbers. It is clear from reading Kissinger’s memoirs and other writings that he considered himself an American first and only somewhere much further down the line as a Jew. This may be proper when one holds such high offices as Secretary of State and Advisor to the President, but there is always another option, which is to resign or not join the government at all. Again, we have the more recent example of the Orthodox Jewish advisors to President Trump, in creating the Abraham Accords, who managed to do both. They helped foster peace in the Middle East, which all political factions have sought for decades, and at the same time did not deviate from their role as good Jews.

Actually, even all this is not the most crucial point of our simile. Rav Edelstein grew up in such poverty that his early life and learning took place under the scrutiny of communist Russia in a slightly expanded chicken coop. People who have grown up in deprivation often seek to compensate with Herculean efforts to achieve wealth and financial security. However, Rav Gershon lived spartanly, reserving his fundraising efforts only for the needs of his beloved talmidim and yeshiva. As our editor, Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, described in his column recently, his home remained unchanged in nearly a century, his picture of the Chazon Ish with the word shlit”a declaring for all the world that only one’s ruchniyus needs to improve, but the physical can remain untouched.

Dr. Kissinger amassed at least tens of millions, yet lost much of it ironically to another renegade Jew, Bernie Madoff. In Kissinger’s own need to improve financially upon his childhood, he embraced, as did others, an unlikely profit opportunity.

Chazal teach that one who has a hundred lusts for two hundred and Kissinger was no different than others who will do anything for another penny or billion.

On another front, what of one’s legacy of a century in this world? Even leaving aside the potentially negative reports, what has Henry Kissinger left behind? Will anyone really be interested in his interpretations of Metternich and his political acumen? Will anyone care about Kissinger’s vaunted shuttle diplomacy? What of his “opening of China” with President Nixon? How does that look right now, with the Chinese Communists emerging as perhaps our greatest enemy? No, the true legacy a Jew leaves behind is Torah and mitzvos.

The story is told of the father who was walking home with his young children after Erev Shabbos shopping. They bought five challos and other Shabbos foods and were approached by a disheveled pauper. The father gave him some cash and slipped two challos into his bag unnoticed.

A bit later, the father noticed the disappointment on the face of one of his sons. “Chaim, how many challos do we have left?” he asked. The eight-year-old answered confidently and sadly, “We have only three.”

The wise father corrected him, “No, my dear son, we have two.”

“But Totty, we all know that five minus two is three.”

“You are right, Chaim,” he explained, “but who knows what else may happen to our three, while the two we gave away are for sure ours up in Shomayim.”

I don’t presume to know what Henry Kissinger will encounter up in Shomayim one of these days. But I do know for sure that Rav Gershon Edelstein’s century on earth, what has been called “a hundred years of light,” cannot be taken away from him. That is the real purpose of this article – not to bash anyone, only to help us realize what incredible or foolish things we can do with our valuable and limited time here on earth.

We must also make mention of the difference between Rav Edelstein’s Ponovezh and Henry Kissinger’s Harvard. No, I’m not even speaking of the incredible difference between Torah and political lectures. I’m not even speaking of the differential between kedusha and the tumah of today’s universities. Rav Edelstein spent a lifetime teaching Torah to seventeen-year-olds. He didn’t seek the glory of saying shiur to elder talmidei chachomim or chavrei kollelim. He sought for a century to train young minds and mold them into the most important entity of all, bnei Torah. Day after day, year after year, decade after decade, new seventeen-year-olds, because “from them will come Torah.” We will continue to learn Rav Edelstein’s Torah, but also that of his rebbi, Rav Shmuel Rozovsky, and that of his rebbi’s rebbi, Rav Shimon Shkop, because that is the nitzchiyus of Torah – unchanging and eternal. What of Kissinger’s writings? I don’t know, but I would guess that eternity is not part of the legacy.

I would like to give Rav Pinchos Koritzer (Imrei Pinchos on Vayeishev) the final word. He asks, as do many, why Chazal had to add another reason for the name Reuvein to that which the posuk attributes to Leah. He answers that Leah had to give an answer, but she couldn’t reveal the real one, which was that Reuvein would eventually save Yosef’s life. We, too, can only do our best, often with tiny actions, but which can have infinite results and ramifications. We often don’t even realize at the time how powerful what we have done may be. Let us learn from Leah Imeinu and Rav Gershon Edelstein to do our own hishtadlus and realize that the Ribono Shel Olam will turn our efforts into the true gold and treasure of eternity.

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