Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Of Dolls and Skyscrapers

With the arrival of the Three Weeks and the period of mourning for the Botei Mikdosh, which were destroyed due to our sins, we once again face an uneasy reality. In our behavior and actions, this is a period of mourning.

   We refrain from getting married during these weeks, we don’t listen to music, we don’t cut our hair, etc. As time passes and we come closer to Tisha B’Av, the date of the actual destruction of our Botei Mikdosh, our acts of mourning intensify. We don’t bathe, drink wine or eat meat.

            Yet, for all our acts of mourning, do we feel like mourners? Are we in mourning over a Bais Hamikdosh that was destroyed some two thousand years ago? Do we pass our days in fervent hope for its speedy rebuilding the way one who mourns a family member awaits and hopes and pines for the great day of techias hameisim, when the dead will arise once more and he will be reunited with his family member?

            It would be difficult to say — for most of us, at least — that we feel even a tiny percent of the mourning that we know we should be feeling.

            Why is that? Why is it so difficult for us to relate to the loss of our Bais Hamikdosh, of the days when Hashem’s Shechinah dwelt in our midst? Why aren’t we looking forward to the binyan Bais Hamikdosh with more than mere lip-service?

            In his sefer Yiboneh Hamikdosh, Rav Shlomo Brevda zt”l asks this very question and gives an insightful answer. There are two aspects of our golus, our long exile. One is the physical aspect. We find ourselves in the lands of other nations. The second is a spiritual exile. We are in this world to perfect ourselves, to gain merit, so that our neshamos, our souls, can achieve closeness to G-d and gain eternal happiness and reward. This goal was so much easier to attain when G-d’s Presence dwelt, so to speak, in our midst. In the fog, distraction and spiritual confusion of our exile, though, the true purpose of our lives is so much more difficult to discern, let alone achieve.

            When Jews lived under physical oppression, it was easy to relate to the mourning for our Bais Hamikdosh and the yearning for the end to our long exile. The physical aspect of our golus was immediate and readily sensed. In easier times, such as ours, boruch Hashem, when our physical lives, for the most part, are unthreatened and even respected, our mourning should be for the far deeper and even more important spiritual component of our exile.

            It is quite difficult, though, explains Rav Brevda, for us to relate to the deep ruchniyus void, the spiritual chasm in our lives, when our day to day lives are of such material concern and focus. Simply out, we have a lot, boruch Hashem, but one whose life revolves around gashmiyus simply cannot expect himself to relate on any real or meaningful level to the deep ruchniyus void in his life.


“They Mean This For Real!”

Sometimes, we hear or read something that we understand to be a very telling statement. We may even repeat it to others. In our minds, we understand that there is a lot of truth to it. At the same time, even while we ourselves revel in this latest pithy or insightful saying, we feel that there is a lot more truth to what we are sharing than even we ourselves are internalizing.

The distance between what we know in our minds to what we feel, in the essence of our beings, is often quite substantial. The Torah tells us, and we say every day in davening, (Va’eschanon 4:39), “Veyadata hayom vahasheivosa el levovecha.” You shall know and you shall internalize in your hearts. The first step does not automatically infer the second. It is something on which we must work.

            With this introduction, let us examine a telling and insightful statement that Rav Chaim Epstein zt”l would often relate in the name of Rav Shmuel Berenbaum zt”l. Rav Shmuel was traveling one time by car and had occasion to pass Manhattan. As he noticed the immense skyscrapers and the non-stop movement of cars, taxis, businesspeople and vendors, he noted with a show of amazement, “Zei meinen dos takeh oif an emes! They actually mean this for real!”

            The statement of Rav Shmuel itself is something we recognize immediately — in our minds — to be telling. We know that the world is really hevel havolim. There is nothing lasting in all the hustle and bustle of this world. We will take with us only the good things we do and accomplish in life. All the rest — the millions, the markets, the madness — is but fleeting nothingness.

            We know all this, but even we, who recognize it, do not necessarily realize how attached to the fleeting we ourselves are. It is quite possible — even probable, if we were to be honest — that Rav Shmuel, or any similar individual whose entire mindset is that of truth and Torah, would view us with virtually the same incredulousness and the exclamation, “Zei meinen dos takeh oif an emes!” We, too, really take seriously so much that is mere superficial fluff.

            This thought was brought home recently upon watching a young child — a toddler of about two — at play with her dolls. Surely almost all of us have witnessed such a scene at one time in our lives, perhaps hundreds of times. Many readers may relate to this from years past in their own lives, when they, too, were little tykes.

            Watching a young child at play with her dolls can be amazing sight. The child sits her dolls down carefully, takes a “bottle,” and, just like her mommy, begins “feeding” her dolls. All the time she is talking to herself and to the dolls, quite seriously going about her business of caring for her “charges.”

            There is no doubt, no doubt whatsoever, that in the child’s mind’s eye, the scene is real, and she treats it with the utmost seriousness. She sings to the dolls, talks to them, and cares for them. It’s a beautiful, touching, yet humorous, sight. She means it takeh oif an emes. In her mind’s eye at this point in her life, the little girl means for real the way she is taking care of her dolls.

            We look — and we smile indulgently.

            A shocking thought that might occur to us, though, is that Rav Shmuel Berenbaum would be smiling at us with the very same indulgent look. Do we, who are not toddlers and should know better, look any different as we go about our daily lives and challenges, obsessing over our creature comforts, our homes, our clothes and our cliques with the same seriousness and single-mindedness as the little girl with her dolls?

In the eyes of someone truly in touch with the truth, do we look any less ridiculous or are we any less a case for condescension when we spend weeks over some completely inconsequential hock, over the style of one piece of clothing, or over the “image” we portray in our lives or with our simchos, as that little girl takes oh so seriously the ruffle on her doll’s dress and the “comfort” of the doll in its stroller?

It was one thing to think about and excitedly retell what Rav Shmuel had said about “the people in Manhattan.” It’s something else when it suddenly hits one that perhaps we are no different and equally take our superficial lives “oif an emes,” way too seriously.

This is perhaps what Rav Brevda is telling us. How can we expect to feel, and mourn for, the deep void of meaning in our lives if those lives are almost solely taken up with, and focused on, items far removed from any lasting meaning?

Rav Brevda quotes a Medrash (Pesichta Rus, 2) which speaks of how we are told that Klal Yisroel was punished for neglecting to attend to the levayah and hespeidim for Yehoshua with due alacrity. Why would Klal Yisroel neglect the due respect of so great a leader? It’s not like anyone had any complaint against him.

“At that time,” the Medrash tells us, “Eretz Yisroel was being apportioned [to the various tribes and families]. And its apportionment was chavivah, valued to them, yoser midai, more than warranted. The Jews got busy with their work, this one in his field, this one with his vine, this one with his olive grove, and they neglected to do [proper] gemillus chessed with Yehoshua.”

Surely, not one person questioned the importance of paying just tribute to Yehoshua, the great leader of Klal Yisroel, just as not one of us questions the depth of how much we should be mourning the lack of true meaning and lasting depth in our lives. Yet, as the Medrash tells us, we get carried away, this with his field, that with his home, etc., and we become out of touch with the really important things, the true reality of our lives.

We mean it “takeh oif an emes.” We take our dolls and our toys way too seriously. Perhaps, if we put our toys and distractions down for a minute or two, we might once again feel — on our own and in our true selves — and miss, and yearn for and pray for what is truly meaningful in our lives.



The Holy Count

    This week, in Parshas Emor, we encounter the mitzvah of counting seven weeks between when the Korban Omer is brought on the second

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