Monday, Jul 22, 2024

Beware of the Small Stuff




In case we thought that The New York Times could fall no lower, they have once again cheapened their journalistic credentials even further. After ignoring the destruction of European Jewry for six long years, after bashing the State of Israel since its infancy in 1948, after ignoring the massive corruption of one president and beleaguering another for similar matters, they have hit a new low.

Just last week (August 27, 2023), in the “Sunday Opinion” section, they finally and officially come out in favor of evil. Hiring thirteen writers of a similar mind, page one announces that they will highlight “The Pleasures of Being a Little Bit Bad.” The introductory paragraph to the page 6 symposium cried out in large letters, “The virtues of being bad.” One writer (Jamieson Webster), a clinical psychologist no less, encourages us to “listen to your worst instincts and darkest desires.” The title of her peccant piece is “The Case Against Being a Good Person.” Another participant (Lauren Hough) actually encourages taking drugs “because it’s fun.” Still another (Delaney Rowe) espouses “drunk lying,” wherein otherwise decent people get drunk and “tell a big wet booze-induced lie.” To this particular author, this is “irresistible.”

Should I go on? Just a bit more, since I fear that people will not believe me, but it should be obvious that “you can’t make this stuff up.” Vauhini Vara, a journalist by profession, lauds anyone who speaks lashon hara: “Gossiping is a habit I inherited from my mother, who is the biggest gossip I know.” (Imagine what the Chofetz Chaim would say to that sentence alone!). She continues, “They say you should treat others as you want to be treated. I’ve been told that what makes my love of gossip unusual is that I also love to be gossiped about.”

Finally, one writer (Thomas Morton) admits to not only shoplifting (it’s apparently easy at the airport “Free Store”). Not only does he have no regrets, but he claims that “what I love is having and using things I didn’t pay for.”

Again, these people are ripe for analysis by baalei mussar more than the psychologists they love to frequent, but the egregious evil behind their joint statements is astonishing.

What exactly is all this about?

I would venture to suggest that these phenomena reflect the death throes of our modern societies. There have always been sinners, transgressors and immoral and unethical people. But now we have ostensibly seasoned journalists, writers and the “Newspaper of Record” extolling such behaviors in the name of “good feeling,” “freedom” and other such denials of traditional morality and the boundaries that define civilization and decency.

Perhaps all of this requires no refutation from us, especially during Elul. We all try to be on our best behavior now and certainly not to seek new sins to perform for a cheap thrill. Yet, there is one lesson we should draw from the Times and the people they have chosen to highlight as role models. The common denominator between all of them – including the editors of the Grey Lady – is that small things don’t count. As long as you are not committing murder or stealing a lot, it’s not only okay, it’s actually recommended and a virtue. As we have noted in this column before, declaring the differences between “us and them,” between society at large and a Torah outlook, is a mitzvah and what our people have always done.

Let us begin with our Mother Leah. When she named her son Reuven, she was in effect declaring, “Look at the difference between my son and the son of my father-in-law. He (Eisav) sold his bechorah (rights to be firstborn) to Yaakov, but this son (Reuven) did not sell his to Yosef, did not take out a claim against him, and even tried to rescue him from the pit” (Rashi, Bereishis 29:32). What is the purpose of such comparisons? It seems that these are reminders to us that we are different than those around us, and it behooves us to act that way, even when it is difficult.

The egregious New York Times compilation was meant by those who have already shed any vestige of traditional values (by their own admission) to normalize and encourage others to do the same. Our obligation, on the other hand, is to follow Leah Imeinu in making distinctions and strengthening our boundaries.

On an even deeper level, there is one parsha in the Torah that is devoted to this teaching. Parshas Eikev, as is well-known, begins with the words, “And it will be when eikev you will listen.” Rashi famously comments that “eikev refers to the easier mitzvos that people tend to step on.” The special connection to the Yomim Noraim is that Chazal (Avodah Zarah 18a) teach that mitzvos that we carelessly transgressed because we didn’t realize their severity surround us on the Day of Judgment.”

It is interesting to note that the societal deterioration that we are witnessing also began with those who chose to ignore “minor” matters. In New York, when Rudy Giuliani was mayor, he stressed immediate correcting of the “small offenses,” which later became referred to as the “broken windows theory.” This was, among other things, a reference to the “squeegee guys” who stop cars to demand payment for wiping windshields. When people refuse, they will often smash the windshields, wreaking havoc and damage. The mayor wisely realized that if seemingly minor actions are neglected and overlooked, they soon balloon into major crime, which we are tragically witnessing these days. We now suffer from district attorneys who refuse to prosecute crimes that involve less than a thousand dollars, with the result that shoplifting has become so commonplace that even store guards don’t bother stopping the robbers.

For us, of course, dealing with the eikev is crucial. The Chofetz Chaim was known to have revealed (see Otzros HaTorah, Eikev, page 92) that the Reform movement began with the cancelling of the Yekum Purkan prayer. One incursion into the siddur results eventually in chillul Shabbos, eating of treife foods, and all the other desecrations of the Torah that the Reform leaders brought about.

So there is really nothing minor, and being “a little bit bad,” as the Times gleefully encouraged, leads to the destruction of an entire civilization.

Our holiest people made sure that nothing was considered minor.

The Kaf Hachaim (30:48) records that the Arizal once touched his beard on Shabbos, promptly remembering that it might be forbidden to pull his hand away lest he pull out some hairs. He therefore kept his hand exactly in place for the entire Shabbos. The Vilna Gaon was known to have fainted when he almost touched something that might have been muktzah according to some opinions.

Rav Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky, the Steipler Gaon, was famously drafted into the Russian army, where he had to stand guard on Shabbos. The custom was that each guard left the only winter coat hanging from a certain branch for the next one. However, the Steipler wouldn’t touch it because of the rabbinic prohibition to take anything from a tree, even though it was not attached. He realized that he might be in danger of frostbite or worse, but managed to get through the night out of fear of transgressing a derabbonon. “Minor matters”? No such thing.

All of this is very true. But there is an incredible silver lining to the problem of living in a generation where morality, ethics and certainly religious law are trivialized and marginalized.

Rav Chaim Vital (Sefer Hachezyonos) quotes from his rebbi, the Arizal, that in such a generation, even apparently small accomplishments are considered to be colossal achievements because of the prevailing moralities. Since this was said and written over four centuries ago, we can take tremendous solace and chizuk that if we are resolute in adhering to rabbonons, minhagim and things that others are ignoring and even denigrating, our reward will be tremendous and well worth the difficulty engendered.

We should add to this the words of the Bnei Yissoschor (Maamorei Chodesh Elul 1:20) that Parshas Eikev begins with the word Vehayah, which generally signifies joy. What is this great happiness? We might suggest, in addition to the Bnei Yissoschor’s own approach, that in light of the Arizal’s promise, we should be grateful and b’simcha that Hashem has given us the opportunity in our days to be in the vanguard of those who battle against the myopic view that we can ignore the “small matters,” since we do understand and appreciate their true importance.

May we go forward to Rosh Hashanah with our heads held high that we carry the torch of Torah, the flag of immutable rules that are time-honored and will not be taken down by wayward would-be philosophers and sybaritic writers of any stripes. With this in mind, we can go b’simcha to the upcoming Yemei Hadin.




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