Opportunities for Greatness

I believe I have some credibility for a bit of lightness. I have written and cried over those who have passed away. I have not forgotten about those who are still in distress and continue to suffer immeasurably. But my mirror just whispered a frightening truth that could also trigger a smile.

I actually don’t look in the mirror often, not because of frumkeit. I’m just not thrilled with the sight. However, after almost two months without access to a barber, I began to wonder. I don’t have much hair on top, but the sides are growing like seaweed. A thought entered my mind that perhaps soon I would look like the Rogatchover Gaon zt”l. Alas, I sneaked a peak and instead I am beginning to look like Ben Gurion.

Now, I am not naïve enough to think that it is our superficial visage that makes us what we are. Chazal (Brachos 58a), in fact, teach us that each one of us has a unique personal countenance. However, it occurred to me that mankind in general and Klal Yisroel in particular has rarely had such an incredible opportunity to remake ourselves. With enforced solitude, little social or even family interaction, we are on our own. But to what end?

One answer would seem to be, as the Sefer Hachinuch often teaches, “ha’adam nifal lefi peulosav – a person is what he does” (Mitzvah 15). It is in seclusion that we can find ourselves and in seclusion that we recreate ourselves. Let us explore a bit how we can tilt toward the Rogatchover, not Ben Gurion, all reference to wildly growing hair aside.

There is a story told about Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz zt”l. His rebbetzin had to take a trip during the zeman, so several bochurim undertook the great zechus of caring for their beloved rebbi. One of the talmidim, who had a flair for cooking, asked Rav Boruch Ber, “Does the rosh yeshiva prefer milichigs or fleishigs for supper?” To the talmid’s surprise, Rav Boruch Ber replied, “We prefer fleishigs.” After the question and answer repeated itself over several days, the “cook” understood that there was a deeper meaning to the totally unmaterialistic gadol’s response. “I prefer fleishigs,” Rav Boruch Ber patiently explained, “because I have to wait longer between fleishigs and milchigs than the reverse. This gives me an opportunity to work on my patience and forbearance.” That’s what life is all about, using every single occasion to develop one’s middos and improve character and personality. This can happen at wonderful occasions, such as the day Rav Chaim Shmulevitz zt”l married off a beloved son. Suddenly, people noticed that he was taking time from his son, the chosson, to give chizuk to an elder bochur who was suffering from anxiety and depression. He could have waited until later, but this opportunity might never come again. On the other hand, a worldwide pandemic provides incredible chances for limitless growth, where we will look back and realize “that was the beginning of my new self.”

Dr. Marvin Schick z”l was a young orphan who barely had enough to eat. Instead of feeling sorry for himself and complaining about his lot, he made a lifetime decision to make sure that poor kids would never be hungry and their parents would never have to worry about paying tuition. He remade himself and all of Klal Yisroel gained from the decision. What is the source of this amazing human power for self-creation?

The posuk (Bamidbar 29:2) states regarding the korban of Rosh Hashanah va’asisem – and you shall make a korban olah.” Chazal (Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashanah 4:5) ask, “Why is it that every other sacrifice is prefaced with the word “vehikravtem – and you shall offer” and this korban is introduced with the word va’asisem? The answer is that Hashem considers it as if you have recreated yourselves.”

Rav Shneur Kotler zt”l (Noam Siach, Rosh Hashanah, page 77) explains, based upon the Arizal, that since on Rosh Hashanah the Soton does not prosecute, there is an opportunity to change oneself totally. It seems to me that we have all gone through a time when the Soton can have little for which to prosecute us. On the contrary, Klal Yisroel has done massive chesed, learned Torah through difficulty, davened to Hashem under unprecedented circumstances, and perhaps we have at least partially beaten the Soton at his game. This may indeed be a time when we can recreate ourselves as well.

One beautiful goal for this recreation might be more recognition for what our wives do for us and our families. I noticed that a number of the wonderful Yated writers recently discussed this concept, but I think a story will illustrate how our current matzav lends itself to this special moment in time.

Rav Yitzchok Ziberstein (Simcha Babayis, page 847) quotes Rav Don Segal, who said that he often heard his mother commenting upon the endless nature of housework. “It doesn’t really provide satisfaction,” she would bemoan, “since after the cooking is done and eaten, the food is gone. The house has been cleaned, but almost immediately it is in disarray once again.” Rav Segal reports that a certain talmid chochom solved the problem by taking a “tour” of the house when he came home on Erev Shabbos. “My dear wife,” he would marvel, “the house is so beautifully clean. My eyes are literally lit up from the immaculate picture the house presents.”

Rav Zilberstein notes that the Alter of Kelm did exactly the same. Every Erev Shabbos, he, too, would take the tour. “All the rooms are so beautifully clean, the table is set royally, and the beds are made in honor of Shabbos. The fragrant aroma is wafting from the kitchen throughout the house, elevating every corner of our home. Thank you for everything you do every single day.”

Undoubtedly, there are many wonderful things we need to say about the men and fathers in Klal Yisroel. However, many of us who rarely arrive home for Shabbos earlier than the very last minute have been observing a weekly ritual of which knew little. G-d willing, we will probably all return to last minute arrivals, but we shouldn’t forget the extraordinary sights we have been privileged to see during these special weeks and months.

We have already seen that on Rosh Hashanah we can recreate ourselves. However, my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner (Pachad Yitzchok, Shavuos 25:20), the Shevet Sofer (Parshas Noach, page 34) and the Rachmastrivke Rebbe (Millin Kadishin, Parshas Noach, page 11) and others cite many Medrashim that just by performing mitzvos and learning Torah we can “recreate and reinvent” ourselves any time of the year. Perhaps the words of the Zohar will offer us a path toward this ideal, which can carry us aloft until this horrible crisis is over, be’ezras Hashem. When Bisya (others say Basya), the daughter of Paroh, discovered Moshe floating on the water, she heard the cry of a child – na’ar bocheh. The Baal Haturim characteristically notes that the gematria of these words is the same as “zeh Aharon Hakohein.” Rav Aharon Toisig zt”l makes an extraordinary point. Bisya grew up in the home of the cutthroat mass murderer Paroh, who bathed in the blood of Jewish children and issued edicts of mass murder and genocide. Suddenly, she saw a three-year-old crying over the fate of his tiny brother. Unfamiliar with this trait of rachmanus, she inquired as to the reason for his cries. “My mother could not hide him at home,” he explained amidst heaving sobs. “The wicked people now want to murder him.” Bisya could not process this show of emotion for someone else, but the sight entered her bones and she decided at that moment to convert to the religion that taught its children compassion and caring for their brethren.

What was the ultimate result of this momentous decision? Not only was she privileged to save the savior of Klal Yisroel, who would take his people out of the bitter exile and give them the Torah, but for all time, the Zohar (Parshas Shemos) teaches, she merited being the focus of all the holy imahos: Every morning, Sarah Imeinu leaves her heavenly abode and goes to Rivka Imeinu’s heichal. They bid each other good morning and go to Leah and Rochel. The four then visit Yocheved, finally arriving at the fortress that is Bisya’s heavenly home. They thank her for rescuing Moshe Rabbeinu and proceed together to daven for Moshiach. Of course, these are imahos kedoshos who are also helping us get through these difficult times. But they can also represent every one of us who cries, like little Aharon, for his endangered brother. Every bit of chesed we perform for someone who is suffering, who is still barely “floating along,” changes our own soul, as well. Just as Basya created a new reality for herself, somehow being megayeres when the concept didn’t even quite exist, we, too, can become something truly different and unique while this gezeirah still lasts.

I’m still afraid to look in the mirror, but now I know that it’s not about hair, peyos or externals. Hashem “looks into the heart” and knows exactly what we are becoming and where we are going. Let’s recreate and reinvent ourselves for the better every day of this long nisayon. Perhaps each of our transformations will lead to what the Maharal calls the coming of the “new fruit which is Moshiach” (Chiddushei Aggados, Bava Kama 38b).