We often hear or read about “today’s world” and “today’s nisyonos” as if many of our trials and challenges are unprecedented. We speak about the dangers and pitfalls of technology, for example, and we assume that the earlier generation could surely never have imagined any of the difficulties that are part and parcel of these advances. After all, so much of what we see and experience in our world today simply never existed back then.
How amazing, then, is a short piece in the Sefer Chovos Halevavos – written by Rabbeinu Bachya, a Rishon – which seems to almost prophetically address our lives in this very day and age.
Before we get to those words of the Chovos Halevavos, however, it may be worthwhile reflecting for a moment or two on some of the more humorous aspects of our involvement with technology nowadays. Being not long after Purim, it is appropriate to begin with an observation I once heard from Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky. Rabbi Orlofsky was describing a typical Purim scene, which included a few inebriated bochurim as part of the festivities. One of the young women from the host family is in a state of near-constant panic as she keeps shrieking, “Oh my gosh! He’s going to vomit all over the carpet!”
After an hour or so, one of the boys indeed seems to be unable to handle his drink and grabs at his stomach. “Quick!” the woman gasps. “Get him to the bathroom! He’s going to throw up!”
A friend drags him there, he empties his stomach, and all is well.
“Oh!” the young lady shudders in horror.
“That was close. At least they just made it.”
“Just made it?” Rabbi Orlofsky would quip, “She’d been watching him for well over and hour!”
This came to mind not long ago when I overheard one fellow telling his friend about how he’d managed to get in on a deal for a luxury outdoor grill at an insanely cheap price. “You don’t understand,” the fellow was saying, “I managed to get it just when the store dropped the price for one day, but before it sold out! There were only about ten models in this particular store, and it was the only store that did a price-drop!”
As I heard him going on about his “lucky break,” I couldn’t help but smile to myself. I happen to know this fellow, and I know as well how he’d been obsessively trying to get this model cheaply for at least two months. Anyone could be talking to him – on line at the hardware store or just outside the shul before going in – and he’d suddenly be thumbing his phone and nodding distractedly. He’d eventually look up sheepishly and apologetically say, “Sorry. I was just checking to see if my grill went on sale yet.”
He had set up alerts from countless websites to notify him if the price of this model happens to drop. He checked and rechecked a list of “deal” sites constantly, waiting for his lucky break. After two months of this obsessive activity, he was now happily retelling the tale of how he “just managed to grab the deal” during the short window of opportunity!
Listen, you’ve got to at least let the man enjoy his moment…
I’ve been told that while it used to be that people enjoyed their family, friends and neighbors’ appreciative looks given when their children were sighted in cute, matching, designer outfits, nowadays, just as important as the label is the story behind how the items were acquired.
“You got them for how much?”
“For 2.98 apiece!” Mommy is smiling like the cat who ate five canaries. “My sister-in-law had a promo code she didn’t need, ‘cause there weren’t any in her kids’ sizes, so she let me use it.”
“But you still had to pay shipping.” This from the neighborhood deal-queen.
“Yeah, it did kind of ruin it, but it was still worth it.”
“Totally.” Heads nodding all around.
“I’m almost sure,” one woman can’t help saying, “that these are exactly what my co-worker Tzivi got for her kids, also for 2.98, with the same code, only in a floral print. But she got it with free shipping, ‘cause she ordered them with her Chase card through their Shop n’ Ship plan.”
Suddenly, our first Mommy looks like she’s about to send all five canaries back up – and no one’s been watching her for over an hour…
Perhaps, whereas until now the name-brand itself on the label used to suffice, we should now add a line or two:
30% Off Code plus $10 CashBack
With Free Shipping!
Calvin & Hobbes Klein
Clearance – Discounted 70%!
Booties were free with each dress!
Free Next-Day Shipping
Eat Your Heart Out!
With these few lines of added information, the approval we used to seek by displaying the brands we’d bought could now be better had as we share our shopping experience. It’s not just the brand or the look any longer. It’s knowing where to get it, knowing who has the best tips on steals and deals, and always being one step ahead in the game.
A Thousand Years Ago…or Today?
With this introduction, allow me to share a few lines from the Chovos Halevavos. In Sha’ar Cheshbon Hanefesh (Perek 3, cheshbon 12), the Chovos Halevavos speaks about how we should reflect upon the time and effort we spend pursuing worldly matters versus how much we invest pursuing matters that truly make a difference. The Chovos Halevavos lived about a thousand years ago (even earlier than the other Rabbeinu Bachya, who wrote the peirush on the Torah), and his examples were indeed pertinent to many a businessman back then when merchants traveled to marketplaces in the big cities or crossed oceans by ship to try their hand at international trade. It is uncanny, though, how his examples seem almost custom-written for our own day and age!
A person must reflect, he says, about “how on the one hand he puts every effort, every thought and every resource into what he might gain in this world, and weigh that against how little effort or thought he puts into what he will gain for eternity. …He will find that his thoughts regarding this world are what are uppermost in his mind.” (How many times a day do we check our phones? How many times an hour?)
“His heart and mind keep turning to these thoughts day and night… He awaits the times when he can buy at a bargain (this was long before Black Friday existed!)… he constantly keeps tabs on what he can get discounted, what’s overpriced, and on the what he can get for a higher or lower price from lands in all corners of the globe (Ali from China, airline tickets through Russia or Turkey etc.).”
How prophetic were his words! While they surely applied in his own day as well, reading the words in the sefer itself feels like one is virtually reading a description of so many of us and so many of our friends and neighbors. Boruch Hashem, many still keep pure homes and pure pockets and are not constantly shopping with their fingers almost ceaselessly day and night. The Chovos Halevavos, however, is speaking to all of us. The others – whether they do it with a hechsher and out of necessity or otherwise – simply bring his words to life. All of us, however, are equally enjoined by the Chovos Halevavos to reflect on how the emphasis of our lives are on what we can get out of this world, while we almost completely neglect that which would benefit us in ways that truly matter.
How can one make an effort to change in this area? We’re human after all; what can we do to help us focus on what’s real rather than on what’s fleeting?
Dancing at Seder’s End
This past week was the fourth yahrtzeit of Rav Ovadia Goldblatt zt”l. While many knew him from their summers in various camps, he was someone who lived away from the limelight. He lived an elevated life, one filled with meaning at every moment, yet he saw himself as just a simple Yid, a friend with whom one could share a vort, a meal, even a good joke. Even his name – while we called him Red Ovadia, he called himself (and thought of himself) always as Obi, the name his family and friends called him since he was a child.
While there are so many precious memories of Rav Ovadia shared by all who knew him, for his family – his sister, her children and her grandchildren – one particular memory seems to override almost all others. Rav Ovadia was not married and lived alone, so he spent every Pesach (besides perhaps the last two in his life) with his sister’s family. There is no question that when pressed to come up with one particular memory, every one of them will recall the way he danced at the end of the seder while singing Leshanah Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim. His face suffused with sublime joy, he would raise his hands and dance and dance and dance. His excitement was palpable, his simcha real and his joy contagious.
How did someone who lived alone, whose life was not without numerous hardships, manage not only to never seem depressed, but rather to always have a ready smile, a good line and a warm greeting? The Seder night may have been the apex, but his entire life was one of joy and meaning.
How does one do that?
Perhaps one major factor is in reflecting on that which the Chovos Halevavos teaches us. When one’s focus is on this world, it is indeed difficult to remain in a state of joy. Every thrill passes, and when it does, what do we have to fill it until the next thrill? Nothing.
When one focuses, though, on what really matters in life, his view is not just a little different, but becomes changed entirely. If he learned a Mishnah, if he helped someone out, if he greeted a friend, if he shared a moment, if he thought about how to do improve something, if he spoke to his Creator – whether an entire Shacharis or just a brocha of shehakol – his entire life is suffused with meaning. Thoughts that might have bogged us down for hours are suddenly almost besides-the-point. We don’t have to change ourselves to become happy; we have to change our focus.
We can all make the deal of a lifetime, and we need no instant access to worldwide markets to do so. All we need is to focus on what’s truly important in life. That, in itself, is a deal of a lifetime, one that will bring us eternal dividends.
So why not dance at the Seder’s end? Be joyous. Be happy. We were taken out of Mitzrayim to draw close to Hashem. That’s a deal of a lifetime!