I often attempt, in these columns, to comment on the passing scene from a Torah perspective. People who are kind enough to read my computerized scribbles often send me suggested news reports for such commentary. Although I am grateful for each submission, most remain untouched for a variety of reasons. I had to reread the current story because I simply couldn’t believe its accuracy. Yet, outrageous though it is, it should also be a source of great chizuk for every Jew who tries to live a Torah life. Newsday, the Long Island newspaper, like everything else in the secular world, has some advantages and many deficiencies. It is almost unfailingly antagonistic to the State of Israel to the point of anti-Semitism and total bias. It leans to the far left and glorifies radical ideologies that would virtually destroy society as we know it. On the other hand, it at least attempts to be somewhat family-friendly in avoiding the outrageous excesses of many popular tabloids.
A Newsday article from August 19, 2021, reported on a mistake made by the Farmingdale Public Library. Since this is a newspaper with standards, I will not quote all the terms used, but the headline reads roughly, “Library apologizes after putting [inappropriate materials] in gift bags.” It seems that Farmingdale was celebrating a day when certain free reading material would be distributed to the public. The “distributers use color-coded sheets of paper to separate different categories…in the free bags. Something that was understood to be limited to adults’ eyes slipped through.” Now, to be sure, the library apologized for this lapse of judgment. They called it a “mishap” and “are reviewing guidelines going forward.” In fact, their teshuvah has gone so far as to be “discussing whether to consider the program next year.”
Now, let us treat this story like a sugya lehavdil to which we will apply our Torah-trained minds. If we read carefully, we must conclude that there was no hava amina (consideration) to cease offering offensive material to adults – defined by the library as eighteen and older. In other words, poisoning and contaminating the hearts and souls of those over the age of 18 is perfectly fine. Furthermore, the library considers it their mandate to offer these depraved materials for free. What of morality, ethics and global spiritual pollution? No, these are not only no problem, but the library will help you obtain the tools for ruination in the interest of free speech, the First Amendment, broadening one’s perspective and other worthless endeavors. Let us take note of how far this approach has fallen from what the Torah expects of Am Yisroel.
Should we not declare proudly, with Leah Imeinu when she named Reuvein, “See what is the difference between my son and the son of my father-in-law” (Brachos 7b; Rashi, Bereishis 29:32)? This havdalah has been the clarion call of Klal Yisroel from the moment the first of the shevatim was born. We are different! Rav Chatzkel Levenstein (Ohr Yechezkel, Middos, page 12) explains that Chazal did not merely mean to declare that we are better or higher than the nations. Leah Imeinu was teaching us from the beginning that the Shivtei Kah will collectively give birth to a nation that is a new entity in the universe. As the Kuzari (1:26) teaches, there are four levels to existence, the inanimate, the vegetative, the animal, and man, and then there is Klal Yisroel.
Could any of us even remotely imagine doing what this library perpetrated? They were only somewhat concerned when they allowed the “wrong ages” to receive illicit material. What of the souls of those over 18? It seems that their attitude is “that’s not our problem.” Even when we do fall into forbidden behaviors, we realize that we were at fault and need to do better. The libraries and universities of today have equated immorality with purity and perversion with normality.
Indeed, we know that Leah was correct in differentiating between Reuvein and Eisav. We will shortly be laining the haftarah of Shabbos Shuvah, where the novi Hoshea declares, “Return, Yisroel…for you have stumbled in your iniquity.” The Kedushas Levi of Berditchev famously comments, “A Jew never prepares to sin. He stumbles into it. A Yid never makes a Lesheim Yichud before doing an aveirah.”
It is a sad world, indeed – but we must recognize it as such, when libraries have no compunctions about sending gift bags of pernicious materials, as long as no one can accuse them of corrupting minors. And what of the rest us? Should we be abandoned to the jungles of wantonness and degenerate behavior? At least our leaders and all of us try our best to avoid evil. Society has deviated far from this ideal. Ashrecha Yisroel.
Another recent example is as outrageous as the Farmington Library, but is actually the subject of a fawning book praising the virtues of getting drunk. Edward Slingerland’s book Drunk “extols the pleasures of drinking in moderation – and occasionally in excess – for their own hedonistic sake.” The New York Times Book Review (August 22, 2021), in its mad objective to validate each opinion no matter how irrational, printed two opposing views on this book. The first declared that “in these times of rampant puritanical moralizing about personal health habits, it is wonderfully refreshing” to find a book allowing whatever anyone wants to do. On the other hand, someone with a bit of old-time reservation comments, “Aren’t there enough ads glamorizing alcohol without the Book Review choosing to review a book saying our species needs [to get drunk]”? Once again, we may be justifiably proud of being the children of the avos, imahos and shevatim who gave us rules, regulations, guidelines and a clear path toward kedusha and taharah.
However, there is another madreigah that we should endeavor to follow in this matter of “being different.” Chazal (Zohar Hakadosh, Va’eira 29b) tell us that Leah was originally destined to marry Eisav, but she managed to change her fate through her cries and tefillos. She understood who Eisav was and what she needed to accomplish with the building of Klal Yisroel, storming the heavens until she was able to marry Yaakov Avinu. The Ozherover Rebbe (Aish Dos 2:330) adds that Yaakov Avinu’s original reluctance to marry Leah stemmed from this “stain” that he detected in Leah. He felt that even the fact that she was connected in any way, through her destiny, with the depravity of Eisav disqualified her for being a mother in Klal Yisroel. However, Hashem saw her incredible tzidkus and purity, declaring otherwise. Every Yid feels instinctively the need to disassociate from the turpitude of secular society. Sometimes we temporarily fail, but in our hearts we know that we have tripped and must get up, clean ourselves off and start again. None of us ever think for a moment that it is fine to label obscenity as proper reading material or that to engage in alcoholism is “refreshing.” Ashrecha Yisroel.
Rav Yosef Tzvi Dushinshky, rov of Yerushalayim (Toras Maharitz, page 84), adds a component that can enhance our lives, especially during the Yomim Noraim. He asks: How could Chazal say that Leah named Reuvein with the meaning that he was different than Eisav? The posuk says specifically that he was called by this appellation because “Hashem saw my humiliation.” He answers that Leah felt that Yaakov had not yet had the opportunity to witness her sincerity and commitment to the kedusha of Klal Yisroel. However, if they got married and had children, she would earn his love through the kedusha and mesirus nefesh with which she would raise the shevatim. Indeed, Rav Dushinsky concludes, that explains the seemingly inexplicable phrase “now my husband will love me.” Leah, who gave birth to the majority of Shivtei Kah, embedded in each of us abhorrence for the Eisav type of life and a yearning for the havdalah bein Yisroel la’amim which preserved our existence throughout the ages. Our marriages and Hashem’s love for us are both deeply enhanced when we pour kedusha and taharah into our children and protect them from the spiritual dangers around us.
For the Yomim Noraim, we can take solace from Reuvein’s teshuvah for our own. The Sefas Emes (Parshas Vezos Habrocha) teaches that Moshe Rabbeinu’s brocha for Reuvein to live and be forgiven is based upon his brocha from Leah that he would be different than the Eisavs of the world. The Gerrer Rebbe concludes that even if we are not on the celestial level of Reuvein, just by committing ourselves to be “different” can win us the blessing of a good year. That is the message of Leah and Reuvein for this crucial season. We must carry our heads high because we are Hashem’s holy nation, even when we occasionally fall. We know who we are and we will try to live up to our heavenly mandate. Even if we falter, we need but remind ourselves of our ancient legacy and try to do better in the New Year.
A kesivah vachasimah tovah to all.