Soul Searching

When Reb Yaakov Levinson, known benefactor and askan, arrived at the home of the Ponovezher rosh yeshiva and manhig hador, Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach, to consult on matters regarding the tzibbur, he was told by family members that the rosh yeshiva was busy speaking to people and that he would have to wait. Reb Yaakov was perfectly fine with that, certain that it wouldn’t be more than just another few minutes. To his great surprise, the meeting continued far and beyond what he had expected. An hour passed and then another, but the people inside the rosh yeshiva’s room were not leaving. His wonder deepened when he was told that the meeting had begun about an hour and a half before he had arrived.
Three and a half hours? Who, he wondered, could be taking up so much valuable time of the rosh yeshiva? Understandably, he did not say a word. During this time, more and more people arrived to speak to the gadol hador. At one point, the delegation from one of the well-known admorim came to notify that their rebbe was in Bnei Brak and requests a meeting with the rosh yeshiva. But the answer was the same. At this time, the tzaddik was occupied and could not accept anybody, even the rebbe.
Finally, after four hours, the door opened and out stepped a husband and a wife. It was obvious to all that they were not religious. Now it was even a greater mystery. What was a chiloni couple doing in Rav Shach’s room, and what was the meaning of this lengthy conference?
It didn’t take long for the people to find out, as the husband and wife spoke about it openly.
At that time, over 30 years ago, Rav Shach had delivered a public address that was broadcast all over the State of Israel, sending shockwaves throughout the land. This writer remembers it being reported on CBS News here in America and radio talk show hosts commenting on it. He called out passionately to the secular Israelis and challenged them to ask themselves: “What makes me Jewish? If one doesn’t keep Shabbos, or kashrus, or any of the Torah’s laws, what connects him to Hashem and to his ancestors?” The address was discussed by Israelis for many days after.
This husband was shaken up by Rav Shach’s piercing words and decided to take action, returning to his roots and becoming a religious Jew. But he faced strong opposition from his wife. She was not willing to accept the upheaval her husband wanted to bring into their home, such a drastic change in their lifestyle. For weeks, they were engaged in heated arguments about this matter until they finally came to a settlement. They both agreed to go to Rav Shach’s home and to hear his words in person. If he would be able to convince her, they would both become full-fledged baalei teshuvah. But if not, they would return to their irreligious lifestyle.
That is, in fact, what they did. They entered the rosh yeshiva’s home and requested to speak with him. They presented their dilemma, and after four hours of conversation, they left his room with a strong resolve to change their ways and become frum Yidden. How did this miracle happen? What did Rav Shach say to convince them? He simply learned with them.
Rav Shach opened a Rambam to the second perek of Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, where he states, “This great and awesome G-d, it is a commandment to come and fear Him… And what is the path to His love and His fear? When man contemplates Hashem’s actions and creations that are so wondrous and great and he sees in them His wisdom that cannot be evaluated and is endless, he immediately loves and praises and glorifies and has a great desire to know His great name, as Dovid Hamelech said, ‘My soul thirsts for G-d, for the living G-d.’ And when he thinks about these very things, he immediately recoils and he will fear and realize that he is a small, lowly creature…”
It was simple. The rosh yeshiva sat for four hours and learned this Rambam with the secular couple, discussing the gadlus haBorei. And the desired results were not long in coming. Rav Shach’s clear emunah lit up the neshamos of this couple and brought them to recognize the exaltation and fear of Hashem, and from there it was a short road to complete teshuvah.
On another occasion, Rav Shach was mevaker choleh a Yid who was hospitalized for problems with his heart. During this visit, he met the head of the cardiology department, a secular Jew. The professor asked if he could have a photograph taken together with the rosh yeshiva, as this would be a great honor for him. Rav Shach agreed, but he requested that before the picture is taken, the professor answer one question. The professor gladly agreed.
“Tell me,” said the rosh yeshiva, “when did you last buy yourself a new car?”
“Why, just recently,” answered the doctor proudly, not knowing where this conversation was headed.
“And did you buy a new car because your old one wasn’t working anymore?” asked Rav Shach, feigning naïveté.
“Oh no!” said the doctor. “My previous car was just one year old when I exchanged it. I do this just about every year regardless of the car’s condition.”
“And why do you do this?” asked Rav Shach curiously.
The doctor explained patiently, as if speaking to one who has no understanding of these matters, “Every year, new models come out on the market, with new innovations and improvements. I enjoy being at the cutting edge of progress, so I acquire the most advanced model.”
“Interesting. Very interesting,” said the rosh yeshiva to himself. Then he asked once again, “Tell me, what is the limit for improvement? When do you think it will reach an end?”
The doctor laughed at this question, thinking that it was borne of ignorance. “There is no boundary and there will never be an end. There is no limit to the advances and movements of an automobile.”
“Now tell me, as a professor on matters of the heart, if you are asked to come up with improvements to the heart, what would you suggest?”
The professor thought for a moment or two and answered without hesitation, “I would not change a thing! The heart is a perfect machine capable of carrying out its purpose with the greatest efficiency. It needs no changes whatsoever!”
Now Rav Shach got to the point of this conversation. “Do you see?” he said with a smile. “That is the difference between a creation of Hashem and that of a human being. Creations of man can always use improvements and changes, as you yourself admit that they have no limits. In contrast, the creation of Hashem is fully complete, not needing any additions or changes” (Orchos Hachaim, Maran Harav Shach zt”l).
Rav Shach called out to secular Israelis to be truthful with themselves and to do some soul-searching: What makes them Jews?
But we, too, have to do some soul-searching. How much do we love Hashem and fear Him? Do we feel this strong urge to know His name and to praise and exalt Him? Do we think about His chassodim and recoil in fear of His greatness? It is one of the most fundamental mitzvos in the Torah, and we say it three times daily in Krias Shema: “You shall love Hashem, your G-d, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources.”
The Rambam lays out clearly before us the roadmap to reach this destination of loving Hashem. Why, then, don’t we feel it? One of the reasons stated by the Chovos Halevavos in Shaar Habechinah is that we are too busy to stop and think. We are so preoccupied with worldly matters and its pleasures that we don’t even begin to reflect on Hashem’s chassodim and how grateful we have to be for them.
Rav Avigdor Miller, in his commentary on Chovos Halevavos, compares this to a child who was given a large ice cream cone. He becomes so absorbed in eating it that he does not take the time to ever think about saying, “It’s good. Thank you.” We are so busy enjoying the world that we have no time to stop and think how good it is and to thank Hashem for it.
There is so much wisdom and chesed in one limb of the human body, most certainly in man’s entire anatomy. It has filled countless volumes of medical books. One needn’t explore outer space or the deep sea to find new vistas of Hashem’s wonders. There are new discoveries being made every day regarding the human body.
Imagine if your entire body was compromised of only a head. You possessed full mental faculties and were totally cognizant of everything that was going on around you, but you are incapable of any physical activity. Then, one fine day, someone attached a neck, shoulders and arms to the body, explaining what you could do with them. You would be overjoyed with this new innovation. But you would still be helpless, because the arms by themselves would not know when to move. Now a communication system is installed, connecting the brain to the arms that instructs them to move. You rejoice.
But you are still lacking the fuel and energy to allow these limbs to function. You are now instructed to eat and allow the system to convert the food into energy. This, in and of itself, is a most complicated machine, beginning with the teeth to chew and break down the food, the saliva with its enzymes to lubricate the mouth and the esophagus, allowing the food to go down to help in the digestion process, and the intestines and its chemicals to break down the food even more and help distribute it throughout the body.
But how will the nutrients travel to nurture the different limbs? Ahh… Now you’re given the circulatory system, the heart and a network of blood vessels long enough to go around the world close to three times. It will pump blood containing all the nutrients to every single cell in your body.
“Will I have to manually pump my heart the entire day?” you wonder. “Then my hands will be occupied and I won’t be able to use them for anything else.”
“Not to worry,” you are told. The heart is controlled by the brain and it will function on its own, pumping at a rate of about 30 to 40 beats every minute.
Without oxygen, however, you are lacking a basic ingredient for survival. Now a most complex mechanism is installed: the respiratory system. It includes the lungs and the branches inside of them that interact with the circulatory system to perform outstanding work in transporting oxygen throughout the body.
One by one, different appendages are added with an explanation of the need for all of them and how they function. Can you imagine the gratitude one would feel, especially when he reaches completion, realizing how every single part interacts with the other? And we haven’t even scratched the surface. It blows the mind. This is only regarding the human body, which is infinitesimal compared to the rest of the briah. How much more is man’s astonishment when he develops an awareness of the chassodim inherent in the entire universe?
Hashem gave man a nature of curiosity. It is meant primarily for us to explore the different areas in the Torah, to plumb its depths, to analyze concepts, to compare various cases and to differentiate between them. It can be used for discovering and innovation to build up the world. But it is also meant for us to open our eyes and recognize Hashem’s infinite chassodim to us so that we can appreciate them, thank Him, and in the process come closer to Him.
Unfortunately, however, this inquisitiveness can be wasted on space exploration…cyberspace that is. Or it can be squandered on being in the know of every minute detail of the latest news, which is manipulated by a subjective news media. This accomplishes nothing more than arousing within you disappointment, anger, and a feeling of helplessness, as the world is obviously on a downward moral trajectory. The choice is ours to use curiosity as a tool for closeness to Hashem and happiness or to absorb empty chatter that only makes us bitter.
Appreciating Hashem’s chassodim means more than just saying thank you. We must ask ourselves: What are we doing with these favors? By utilizing them to serve Him better through our own Torah and tefillah and helping others, we are sanctifying the goodness that He has endowed us with. In the process, we are performing the greatest kindness for ourselves, leading fulfilling lives in this world and assuring our happiness in the World to Come.