One Shabbos, Rav Chaim Leib Auerbach and his young son, Shlomo Zalman, walked from the Shaarei Chesed neighborhood of Yerushalayim to Meah Shearim to participate in a Kiddush. As the two were walking, something caught Rav Chaim Leib’s attention.
To his astonishment, he saw an older man dressed in pajamas standing on his porch smoking a cigarette. Chillul Shabbos was rarely seen in Yerushalayim in those days.
Rav Chaim Leib turned to his son and said to him in Yiddish, “Close your eyes. Don’t look at that sheigetz.”
The sheigetz spoke Yiddish and overheard the conversation. He became very upset and called down to Rav Auerbach in Yiddish, “Are you calling me a sheigetz? How can you call me a sheigetz when I had a conversation with Hakadosh Boruch Hu?”
Rav Chaim Leib was quiet as the man continued: “You heard correctly. Me, the sheigetz, I asked Hashem a question and He answered me. I’m no sheigetz.”
He put down his cigarette and shared his story.
“I was born in Russia to Jewish parents. My father died when I was very young. I grew up with goyim, went to school with them, and was eventually drafted into the Russian army. One night, we were fiercely attacked. Everyone around me was killed. I looked out at the battlefield and was shaking with fear. I was the only survivor. I began to wonder why I was chosen to live.
“I crawled into a foxhole and began to talk to Hashem. I said, ‘I don’t know if You exist. I was orphaned as a young child. I grew up with goyim. I was never in a shul. I don’t know anything. But if You are really out there, please show me a sign. I will stick my hand out of the bunker, and if a bomb or bullet comes and shoots off one of my fingers, I will know that You exist. I will begin going to shul, studying your Torah, and living the life of a proper Jew.’
“And that is what happened. I stuck out my hand, a bullet whizzed by, and it blew off my finger.”
He held up his hand and said, “Take a look. You’ll see that I am missing a finger.”
“Do you hear what I’m telling you? How do you call me a sheigetz? I am a Jew Hashem has spoken to.”
After begging the man’s forgiveness, Rav Auerbach asked the man the obvious question: “So tell me, how is it that you are standing here, smoking on your porch in public on Shabbos in Yerushalayim ihr hakodesh? What happened to you that you ended up like this?”
“After that happened,” the man responded, “I promised Hashem that I would improve my ways. I would daven in shul and begin to study Torah. For months, I looked for a shul and couldn’t find one. Then the army discharged me and I went to live with my mother. I felt bad for her and stayed with her. There was no shul in her town. And so it was that I kept pushing off fulfilling my promise until I forgot about it.”
Rav Shlomo Zalman would repeat the story and say that he remembered it his entire life. He would add that in life, there are times of great inspiration, and when they come, we must immediately act upon them. “That man,” Rav Shlomo Zalman said, “must have had a great neshomah for such a story to happen to him. Had he immediately gone to a shul to daven and learn, he would have become a great person.”
Instead, the man procrastinated and found excuses as to why today is not the right day to do teshuvah. Every day, he pushed it off to the next, until the inspiration to improve was totally gone and forgotten.
This story is a lesson to us all. How many times are we inspired to be better, to do better, to daven better, and to learn more, and then nothing happens? We hear a good speech, we read something inspirational in the Yated, we have a geshmak in a Tosafos, Daf Yomi starts a new masechta that we never got around to learning, or we notice something about Mishnah Yomi. We see it every week on the front page and it seems so easy to do.
And then, what happens? If we don’t grab the opportunity, if we don’t open the Mishnayos when the interest is high, then we forget about it until the next week, when we are reminded again. We are inspired to improve ourselves in some aspect of our lives. But if we push it off until tomorrow, until we are rested, until we finish our work, until we have time, until we are able to clear everything off our desk and concentrate on this new project, then, more often than not, it never happens.
Every fundraiser knows that it is better to leave the meeting with a check than with a pledge. Not because the person is bad, not because he was lying when he pledged, but because the inspiration that caused him to pledge the higher amount wears off, and he forgets, and when he remembers, he is no longer as motivated as he was when you spoke to him about the cause.
This is an introduction to this week’s parsha of Yisro. We wonder why the parsha is named for him and what was so special about him. We know that he must have been a special person to merit having Moshe Rabbeinu as a son-in-law, and we search to ascertain what was special about him.
The posuk relates that Yisro heard about the wondrous things that Hashem did for Moshe and Klal Yisroel. Yisro traveled with his daughter, Moshe’s wife, and their two children, and joined Klal Yisroel as they camped at Har HaElokim. The Torah does not tell us explicitly why Yisro decided to come. In fact, the Gemara (Zevochim 116a) cites a machlokes regarding whether he came before or after Kabbolas HaTorah.
Apparently, the fact that he came is more important and more laudatory than when he came. This is because Yisro was not the only outside person who heard about the makkos, and the many nissim in Mitzrayim and at Krias Yam Suf, but he is the only foreigner who left his home and traveled to join Am Yisroel on their miraculous journey as they left behind centuries of slavery and embarked on becoming worthy of the Am Hanivchar appellation. What about the rest of the world? Millions upon millions of people everywhere heard the fantastic stories that transpired with Am Yisroel. It was on the proverbial front page of the newspapers all across the world, and yet it had no effect on them.
Everyone knew about the makkos, everyone knew that the sea had split for the Jews and drowned the superior Mitzri army, but nobody did anything about it. They read the paper and discussed the latest news every day over breakfast, lunch and supper, and then they said, “Pass the ketchup,” and were on to the next thing. Any awe that they had for the G-d who had caused all of those wondrous things to happen was immediately lost, as they moved on to the next thing. There must have been some good people, or a few intelligent people, or some people who were looking for direction in life or to improve themselves and their condition. But none of those people, and nobody else, gave much thought to traveling there to check it out for themselves.
Nowadays, people don’t like life in one state and hear that in a different state masks are not mandatory, nor are there onerous taxes. They pick themselves up and move there to try something new and give it a chance. During the period of Yetzias Mitzrayim, only Yisro was astute and honest enough to venture to Har HaElokim and check things out for himself.
He was the only person in the world who was looking to grow and to learn and to improve. Therefore, when he heard about what happened, he didn’t just go on to the next topic of conversation, but used it as a learning and teaching moment, every day getting a step closer to the day when he was prepared to take the big step and make a move to change his life.
I came to this thought last week when I went to Philadelphia to be menachem avel the Kamenetsky family, who were in aveilus upon the passing of Rebbetzin Tema Kamenetsky a”h.
One of her sons told me something very striking. He said that his mother would read the Yated from cover to cover, and each time she finished an article, she asked herself what she could learn from it. What devar mussar or hanhagah tovah was there that she could take from it?
Such is the epitome of an aim b’Yisroel. That is the way a person who seeks to grow and become closer with Hashem reads a newspaper, and that is the way we should all read the newspaper. We should always be looking for opportunities to improve. When we are inspired, we should act upon it and not procrastinate. As Chazal say (Pirkei Avos 2:5), “Al tomar lichshe’efneh eshneh, shema lo siponeh.”
It goes without saying that we shouldn’t be wasting our time with material that has no redeeming value and nothing that we can learn from it. As bnei and bnos Torah, we have to manage our time better and not waste it on reading and discussing meaningless things.
One of the ills of the internet, besides everything else, is that it causes a dulling of people’s intelligence and senses, as they troll through one site after the next, reading silliness and getting lost in superficiality. Their heads then become occupied with shallowness and stupidity. It takes over their conversation and thought process, clouding their vision and understanding. Their senses and intelligence become dulled.
The concept of acting upon inspiration without delay may be included in the middah of zerizus, to begin and to perform a mitzvah with quickness and enthusiasm. This is evident from the admonition of the Mesilas Yeshorim (Chapter 6), where he explains the statement of Chazal (Pesochim 4a) that zerizin makdimin l’mitzvos. He says that “just as it requires perception and foresight to be protected from the yeitzer hora, which seeks to interfere with our actions and prevent us from performing mitzvos properly, so too, perception and foresight are required to grab on to mitzvos and to perform them without losing them. A person who is lazy and not fastidious in pursuing mitzvos and holding on to them will lose them and will remain empty of them.”
Yisro was a zoriz, and the Torah places his story in the parsha of Kabbolas HaTorah to teach us that if we are to properly study and observe Torah, we would do ourselves well to learn from the way Yisro acted. He heard the stories and stopped to perceive them and what lessons they contained for him. When he realized that they demonstrated that there is an ultimate truth in this world that emanates from the Creator, he forsook his high position, good income and comfortable home and surroundings, and quickly rushed to join the Creator’s people in the desert.
With this, we can understand Rashi’s explanation of the posuk (Shemos 18:8) which states that Moshe told his father-in-law, Yisro, everything that Hashem did to Paroh and Mitzrayim on account of Am Yisroel, and also what took place at Krias Yam Suf and during the battle with Amaleik. The question is: Why did Moshe have to tell him everything? The posuk (18:1) states that he already heard everything and that was why he came. Rashi explains that Moshe told him everything to be mekarev him to Torah.
Moshe Rabbeinu did that because all the inspiration in the world and all the goodwill cannot stand up to the nature of man and the interference of the yeitzer hora. Yisro had demonstrated that he was on a higher level than every other existing human outside of Am Yisroel. He did what nobody else did and acted upon the news that he had heard. But no person, as great as he may be, is protected against the yeitzer hora, as the Mesilas Yeshorim writes and as everybody knows from personal experience. As Hillel taught (Pirkei Avos 2:5), “Al taamin b’atzmecha ad yom moscha – As long as you live, don’t believe in yourself.”
Without being grounded in Torah, the inspiration doesn’t last. Without a Torah foundation, the edifice crumbles and won’t stand. Our thoughts and actions must be based upon Torah in order for them to be long-lasting, real and effective.
Recently, all the talk was about teachers’ pay and whether it should be raised and how. Long debates ensued and everyone had an opinion. It was the talk of town in many towns, in the coffee rooms and at the dinner tables. And then a terrible story took place in Eretz Yisroel and everyone seemed to have forgotten about the teacher crisis. People were aghast and distraught, demanding that an investigation be initiated and changes be made. It was a terrible story, a really awful and painful one, and it did demand that changes be made and lessons learned. But then, just like that, the story receded, and everyone found something else to talk about.
Let us learn from Yisro, and from Rebbetzin Kamenetsky, and from other gutteh Yidden, who are zerizin b’mitzvos, and take the time to think matters through clearly and take a mussar lesson from things that happen. Let us always seek to improve our spiritual situation, our middos and maasim tovim, so that we become better people and help make the world a better place, worthy of the coming of Moshiach, speedily in our day.