I read an obituary last week which greatly inspired me. No, it was not in the Yated, it was way too short and besides it wasn’t about the type of person we normally write about.
The article was about an old man who lived to 95. The father of three, “grandfather of three and great-grandfather of three, died February 17 at his home in Carmel, NY.”
That was the first sentence. The second sentence reads: “He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, was a master gardener and raised orchids, and was president of several companies.”
And that’s it. That’s all there is to write about the man from Carmel who lived to 95. One could be excused for thinking that his greatest accomplishment was to fight in the Battle of the Bulge.
Interestingly, the article doesn’t say if he stood out in his fighting ability or earned any medals for his valor under fire.
We can be excused for thinking that he was a simple soldier. He enlisted, or more likely was drafted into the army. Went through training, learned how to shoot, and was sent to the battlefield. Thankfully he survived, though that was not as great an accomplishment as fighting.
Surviving that particular battle was no simple matter, it was the second-most lethal battle for Americans in the Second World War, killing 19,276 American men and boys in a six-week period. Ultimately, the allies won and defeated the Germans, bringing the end of WWII much closer.
The man from Carmel fought in that war. Very impressive. And that’s about it for him. He had three children, which is also an impressive accomplishment. And that’s really basically all there is to say about him. How sad. So many decades spent in this world and so little to say for all that time.
Now, he also gardened, and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it is quite a nice activity. It provides exercise, is calming, and usually is productive, helping the earth to give forth fine produce and flowers. This man apparently took a special interest in growing orchids, something his biographer finds quite important to mention.
Don’t get me wrong, orchids are difficult to grow. In fact, I read somewhere that even professional growers can not keep many of them alive.
The statement that he was president of several companies, seems to indicate that he did okay for himself financially, but we can’t be sure because it is added like an afterthought. His life was about gardening and the Battle of the Bulge.
I hope nobody sues me and I have no hideous intention to libeling this man, but the obituary got me thinking.
There is so much we can accomplish here, but life is so fleeting, and if we don’t set ourselves to it, we may wake up one day and have accomplished little more than gardening and toying with orchids.
Why think such morbid thoughts at the outset of Adar Beis, just a couple weeks ahead of Purim and the most festive time of the Jewish calendar.
Firstly, because everything that happens and everything we read and see should prompt us to learn a lesson and become a better person. Chancing on the obituary was for a purpose, for in our lives there is no chance, everything is for a reason.
This week we read parshas Vayakheil, its name referring to the morning after Yom Kippur when Moshe gathered together the Jewish people as he returned from Har Sinai with the second set of luchos. He spoke to them about constructing the mishkon and the need for their donations of the material necessary for the mishkon and its keilim; and the clothing of the kohanim.
The people rushed to bring of their possessions and craftsmen lined up to assist in the construction effort under the direction of Bezalel.
Donating and working in unison, the job was completed.
This Shabbos we “bentch rosh chodesh” proclaiming the arrival of Adar Beis, the month in which the nes purim took place as the Jews came together as one unit, fasting, praying and doing teshuvah.
This week is also Parshas Shekolim, as we read the first six pesukim of parshas Ki Sisa which speak of the commandment to count the Jewish people. Every man over the age of twenty contributed a half-shekel coin (to the avodah of the mishkon and korbanos tzibur) and those coins were counted. The poor could not give a smaller denomination coin and the rich could not give one that was more valuable. Everyone was obligated to give a half-shekel coin.
Many commentators discuss why the Torah favored a half-shekel, as opposed to each person giving a complete shekel. The oft-quoted explanation was provided by Rav Shlomo Alkabetz, Tzefas mystic and most famously the author of Lecha Dodi, who said that this is to show that each person on his own is only a part, he only becomes a whole, when he joins with the rest of the community.
Rabbeinu Bachya takes it a step deeper and says that since these coins also brought about forgiveness – the posuk refers to their contribution as kofer nefesh – that is caused when a person donates for the greater community. Just as the coins join together and are used for the greater communal good, so too the merits of each individual are joined together with the others and each participant is accredited with the communal accomplishment.
Such achdus has a tremendous power, giving the individual the strength of everyone together. No person can stand up to the microscope of the mishpot of the Beis Din Shel Maaloh, but when the people are united then they all rise together and every individual’s zechuyos are combined into one large communal zechus which belongs to each participant.
The Alter of Kelm doesn’t quote Rabbeinu Bachya, but he takes it a step further, and explains that something that one person does by himself can’t accomplish the same thing as when two people together perform the same act. If one middle class person seeks to invest his money he cannot expect a handsome gain, however if a group of people pool together their money they can create a larger business and profit much more than each person would have on his own with a small business.
The same applies with charity, one person on his own cannot provide all the support the poor need. However, if many people join together and each gives what he can, the poor will have been provided for, and each individual is rewarded as if he had provided for all the poor people the group’s contributions supported.
The mishkon as well could not have been built had everyone not responded to Moshe’s appeal for material and labor; it was only because each person contributed, therefore the credit for construction of the holy edifice was accrued to each person.
It is for this reason that the Torah states than no man can give more than another for the count, to show that since each person did what they can for the greater good, it is considered as if each person built the mishkon.
One person cannot move a heavy rock, but if a large people join together, their efforts receive added strength and they can accomplish what they want.
Our days are numbered, but the more we join with others, the more we come together as a group, the more we can accomplish and the more zechuyos we earn for ourselves. The actions which we can perform in our limited years take on much more effectiveness and eternity when we don’t stand off alone, unaccompanied, but as part of a shul, a community, Am Yisroel.
If you look at a beautifully landscaped field, it is each blade of grass which contributes to the beauty. One blade on its own is barely perceptible, but when you combine one perfect blade with another and another and another, you begin to have something to marvel over.
The same is with a field of flowers, orchids for example. Each orchid by itself needs to be nourished and cared for to survive and stand out for its beauty and colorization. But what is even more beautiful is when you observe a field of orchids.
Every member of Klal Yisroel is like an orchid, with proper care, nourishment and light, it is something beautiful. But the beauty of our people is so much greater if all the orchids join together and provide a display of gorgeous exquisiteness way off into the horizon.
This week we have three achdus markers: Vayakheil, Shekolim and Chodesh Adar.
Let us have had enough of squabbling, of finding fault, of speaking negatively about and to other people.
Let us resolve to join together, to help each other grow, to nurture one another and to see the beauty in each other.
Like one who raises orchids.