There is no such thing as coincidence. The very fact that the results of the sordid election for president of the United States came at almost the same time as the passing of the great gaon, Rav Dovid Feinstein zt”l, the posek hador for American Jewry, leaves food for thought.
In a couple of weeks, we will read Parshas Vayeitzei, wherein Leah names her firstborn Reuven. She says, “Reu mah bein beni l’ben chami – Look at the difference between my son Reuven and the son of my father-in-law, Eisav.” She points out profound differences between the middos and humility of Reuven in comparison to the combative nature of Eisav.
Rav Dovid Feinstein spent his entire life wishing for anonymity, barely noticing or consciously not wanting to notice any recognition that he was given. The terms humble or self-effacing are adjectives that in no way properly encapsulate the way he totally eschewed any honor. The truth is that he didn’t eschew honor. Rather, he really and truly could not understand why he deserved any honor. He was far more comfortable in the back of his yeshiva than in the front. He just wanted to be left alone to learn and to continue discreetly helping people. He wanted to blend into the unique Lower East Side simplicity. That is how he spent his entire life, learning with tremendous hasmadah and concentration, out of the spotlight, and helping others with his remarkable gutzkeit and simplicity.
Even in his later years, when he was the posek hador, that didn’t change. He rarely, if ever, spoke publicly. Aside from delivering his regular shiurim, he had no desire to be heard. He had no desire to impose his will on others. Even when people came to ask him questions, he didn’t feel that they had any obligation to follow his p’sak.
Now, let us look at the political world and even the non-political world of today. We have just been through a campaign that featured shameless self-promotion, highlighting dubious qualities on all ends and magnifying seeming accomplishments, using every way possible to take the focus off deficiencies or, even worse, taking clear human failings and repackaging them so they look like good qualities.
That is politics today. Not only overwhelmingly about sheker, but, even worse, about an entire industry of self-promotion. Billions of dollars spent on trying to make or transform candidates with extremely blatant human flaws and failings into the saviors of the generation.
Oy, reu mah bein beni l’ben chami!
The Self-Promotion Syndrome
Let us look at today’s world, the world of 2020, not only the political world, but even many corners of the frum world as well.
How many people tell you, “Follow me on Twitter,” “Like me on Facebook,” “Go to my website to find out what I am doing,” or, “Follow me on Instagram or Pinterest.”
Let’s think for a second: What do all those statements of self-promotion mean? You are asking people to notice you? To read your recipes? To look at pictures of you or your children? To imbibe the deep words of wisdom that you shot off on your keyboard without thinking about what you were writing for more than a second? Really? Have we lost our minds?
When a person writes, “Follow me,” what is he saying? He is declaring him/herself to be so vitally important that he is asking people to waste their time following what is going on in his/her life or what he/she thinks about.
Think about the audacity for just a minute.
Now, for another moment, think, lehavdil, about Rav Dovid Feinstein, who wanted nothing more than for no one to follow him or even know that he exists. A Yid who knew kol haTorah kulah, a person who paskened daily on questions of life and death, and yet felt completely comfortable sitting in the coffee shop where he ate breakfast every morning, talking to his beloved East Siders, learned and non-learned, wise people and not-such-wise people.
The Rosh Yeshiva and the Soda Machine
On Motzoei Shabbos, I was speaking to my dear friend, Rav Menachem Savitz, who told me a story he experienced with Rav Dovid, illustrating this greatness and showing how Rav Dovid was the antitheses of 2020 culture.
Rav Savitz was working on a sefer on the halachos of nesuin, marriage. He had a whole host of difficult halachic questions on this topic that he wanted to bring to Rav Dovid for clarification. One summer, during bein hazemanim, when the yeshiva was not in session, he went to the Lower East Side to try speaking to the rosh yeshiva. He was hoping to use the quiet time to have his many questions answered.
It was the summer. No one was around and he had the rosh yeshiva to himself. The rosh yeshiva was so friendly and patient as he listened to Rav Savitz’s questions. They spent approximately two hours together. During their conversation, something happened that Rav Savitz can never forget. Rav Dovid began walking out of the bais medrash with Rav Savitz following behind. He went into the hallway, pulled a key out of his pocket, and began to open…the soda machine. Before Rav Savitz could even register what was happening, he saw the illustrious rosh yeshiva, a man already in his 80s, filling up Mesivta Tiferes Yerushalayim’s soda machine.
Nearly tongue-tied, Rav Savitz begged the rosh yeshiva, “Please, let me do it.”
With a look of wonder on his face, Rav Dovid exclaimed, “Why should you do it?”
“The rosh yeshiva is a zokein,” Rav Savitz protested. “It is not lefi chevodo (not in accordance with his honor).”
Rav Dovid again looked at him, innocently, uncomprehendingly, and asked, “Why not? It brings the yeshiva money. What could be not honorable about that?”
Rav Savitz again begged Rav Dovid to please let him fill the machine, but Rav Dovid would not relent and personally finished filling the machine with soda.
Living in this world of 2020, we cannot even begin to fathom such self-effacement, such tzidkus, such pashtus and such gadlus. But for Rav Dovid? That was just him. That was who he was. He didn’t even realize that there was anything remarkable about it. This self-effacement was seen in a man who knew the entire Shas b’yun and is said to have learned Shas hundreds of times.
The contrast between purity, taharas hanefesh and adinus hanefesh, and, lehavdil elef havdalos, the tumah and the shameless self-promotion of accentuating ostensible qualities that don’t even exist is so jarring.
It made me appreciate more and more the towering greatness of the modesty that Rav Dovid exuded.
Reu mah bein beni l’bein chami…