Monday, Apr 15, 2024

Style, Substance and Sichah

Listen to the speech of a man behind a podium, his words rehearsed and well-prepared, and you know nothing of him or his essence. It's later, when the crowds are gone; when no one is paying attention that you can see what he's about. A person is defined by his sicha, his conversation. Sicha, says the Vilna Gaon, refers to the rustling of leaves, the siach hasadeh. The Gaon explains that “small talk,” or mundane conversation, is also referred to as sicha, since it is the cover for the real fruits, the essence of a person, his Torah, just as leaves cover physical fruits. Rav Yitzchok Hutner explains this as the idea behind “sichas chulin shel talmidei chachomim tzrichim limud.” The speech of a talmid chochom is laden with significance, because it reflects his essence, his deeper self, which is all Torah.

 Sicha, if you will, is the way people speak when the microphones are off, when no one’s recording, when they are unguarded. There we see the difference between people big and small.


Yofah sichoson shel avdei avos.


The maasei avos are to serve as mirrors into our own lives, a way to study our own motivations and middos and hold them up to the perpetual light of their actions. We study these parshiyos of Sefer Bereishis which we are currently laining and aspire to identify with our fathers in their constant encounters with hostile or thieving neighbors.


This week, in Parshas Chayei Sarah, we are confronted by the honest, straightforward approach of Avrohom Avinu versus the dramatic, lofty rhetoric ofEfron.


It’s a battle that is still being waged, and it’s comforting to find its source, like everything else, in theTorah.


Quite often, it feels as if style is more respected and important than substance. Sometimes it seems that whoever is more capable of gifted speech, and whoever possesses a charismatic persona and presentation, coupled with a healthy dose of chanifah, is more successful. People decry this attitude as being a malady of our generation and bemoan the skewed perceptions that seem so prevalent.


The Torahin this week’s parsha tells us that this outlook is nothing new. The struggle between the sweet-talkers and the men of truth is as old as life itself.


Let’s look closer at the exchange between Avrohom Avinu and Efron.


Avrohom Avinuwas looking for a place to bury his wife, Sarah Imeinu. He approached the bnei Cheis, who assured him, “You are a prince of Elokim in our midst, in the choicest of our burial places bury your dead, any of us will not withhold his burial place from you(Bereishis 23:6). A few pesukim later, Avrohom asks the bnei Cheis to intercede with Efron so that he might sell his field.


Why did Avrohom need intercession and further negotiations after the bnei Cheis graciously said that no one would stand in his way and that he could have his choice of plots? Why didn’t Avrohom merely bury Sarah in the Meoras Hamachpeilah without any further permission and interaction with the people of Cheis?


The Chofetz Chaim explains that Avrohom Avinuunderstood the sort of people he was dealing with. He perceived that if he were to act based upon their generous offer, each would say, “Yes, Avrohom, I will do whatever you want, but my neighbor’s field is more suitable for you.” An offer whose opening word is the plural “we” and whose terms are that “any of us will do your bidding” is worthless, since there is no single name attached to it and no one is accountable. The promise or pledge is nothing more than simple, sweet, rhetoric. Therefore, Avrohom Avinu said, “I have a name that I want attached to this kind gesture and that is Efron. I want his kever and I want you, people of such generous pronouncements and offers, to make this a reality.”


We need to learn from our forefather’s honesty and see through the sugar-sweet sound bites that surround us, viewing them for what they really are.


Politicians and world leaders pride themselves in their graciousness, essentially their ability to hide their true feelings and evade bothersome truths from being revealed. At times, they are able to put on a good show, rehearse their lines, display a fictitious facade and fool the public, but it only lasts for so long.


Sometimes it takes longer than others, but eventually the truth is revealed. For those who know the truth, it can be painful to watch as the lie grabs hold and ensnares many in its grasp.


There are still those who insist that our president is a lover of Israel and that he’s been misunderstood and unfairly painted as being opposed to our agenda. But then the bane of all those who work with a formula of echad bapeh ve’echad balev came to haunt him. The president was chatting with Nicolas Sarkozy of France, last week, and they didn’t realize that the microphone was still on, picking up their conversation.


The two men let themselves go, sharing their true feelings about Israeli Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu. President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and those who do their bidding, in search of the Jewish dollar and vote, run around professing Obama’s love for Israel and his loyalty to the state. Sorry, Mr. President, but that ain’t the way people talk about friends.


Obama and Sarkozy were trapped by sicha. While their public oratory is so much more gracious, their private conversation gave them away.


The circus that is the political arena in this country provides many examples of this type of double-talk, or of words that aren’t backed up by emotions or even thoughts.


Last week, the American public looked on uncomfortably as a prominent politician was exposed as being pure style, without basic substance. Rick Perry is the three-term governor of the largest of the United States. He was prodded to run for president and was sold as the best candidate to defeat the current president in the upcoming election.


His handlers and a compliant media portrayed him as a conservative champion, a tough guy with cowboy boots, who knows how to wage war, create jobs and rally voters to the cause. The money flowed in, filling his coffers. The polls showed him atop the pile.


When he speaks on the campaign stump, he sounds like just another politician reading from a text carefully written by a well-paid packaging committee, but the media and the public were still drawn to him.


His campaign had its ups and downs as he traverses the country plying his well-rehearsed lines over and over again in different locales across the fruited plain, but last week, the real Rick Perry was on display for all to see.


During a presidential debate, he wasn’t able to recall a major component of his platform. It was a dramatic meltdown. He was shown to be the wind-up, made-for-TV, plastic politician he really is. He has no core, he has no real beliefs, and his speeches and policies are in fact poll-driven and spoon-fed by his managers. He is “an empty suit.”


After this revelation, the question begs to be asked: How has he survived until now? He has been a successful governor for three terms and was able to attract a wide national following. It was a momentary gaffe that did him in and caused the truth to emerge.


Another example of someone propelled to national attention by the impending election is Herman Cain, a conceited man who is projecting himself onto a stage upon which he doesn’t belong. He is clearly not knowledgeable enough on domestic and world issues, though he is not short on snappy responses and the coining of simplistic slogans, like his 9-9-9 solution to the economic mess. He changes his stories as time passes, but because he has a golden voice and is personable and witty, he occupies a close-to-the-top position in the race for a chance to spare us of another four years of unmitigated disaster.


Perry is a lackluster, mediocre candidate who has trouble impersonating a principled leader. But Cain, with his towering conceit, brazen lies and golden tongue, may be more dangerous and delusional.


“Arba mei’os shekel kessef mah hi?” crowed Efron, the glib lines dropping from his lips with ease. The facade was perfect. He was conversing with Avrohom Avinu, a prince among the people, and winning him over. He was a gifted politician.


But Avrohom Avinu wasn’t fooled. He saw right through it.


Perhaps this is the idea of “yofah sichoson shel avdei avos,” the value of studying the simple conversation of those avodim, the people who merited living in the shelter of the avos.


Last week, we were devastated by the loss of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l. Ripples of grief spread throughout the Jewish community. We mourned the loss of a man of complete and total substance, pure tochen. By the standards of the secular world, he wasn’t meant to be a leader; he was simply too limited by his physical condition.


In our world, he was a king. In our world, he was revered and cherished and loved, a role model in every way.


Two days after his passing, the Torah world sustained another loss, on a smaller scale, but similar in the sense that, like the rosh yeshiva, Rav Yitzchok Dovid Schechter, was a man of genuine substance.


Rav Yitzchok Dovid was a beautiful ben Torah, the type who learns the entire dayduring bein hazemanim and is never late for a seder, yet somehow always has time to chat with a friend and share a smile with the people around him.


He was destined for greatness until a massive heart attack incapacitated him. Hospitalized, blinded, wheel-chair bound, and shackled by physical inability, it became evident that forty years of hasmadah and intenseyiras Shomayim had prepared him for this nisayon.


The most important feature of his life over the past few years was his chavrusos, a steady stream of volunteers who came to be inspired by the connection between Rav Yitzchok Dovid and his Torah. The word he used most, as his brother, Reb Avrohom, testified by the levaya, was “veiter.”


“Please read veiter. More Gemara. Read Tosafos. Explain the sevara.” He inhabited a world in which there was nothing by way of enjoyment besides the bliss of “lulei Sorascha sha’ashuai…


Rav Yitzchok Dovid lived on a plane of “veiter,knowing that a Yid has to ascend, even when his world has shrunk. He completed masechtos and made siyumim and moved on, desperate to begin the next masechta, bound by the same ambitions for growth he’d always possessed, as evidenced by the words of sicha he was able to utter despite his handicaps.


At the levaya, his son referred to the fact that he was slated to become his father’s talmid in ninth grade, but the heart attack had changed everything. “So instead, Totty, you became my rebbi for the last eight years!”


People of substance.


The genius of the quintessential eved avos, Eliezer’s process of finding a suitable shidduch, was that he was looking for the girl who would go beyond niceties and sweet offers and really perceive what was right.


Others might say, “Come, have a drink.” He was looking for the one who would say, “Vegam legmalecha ashkeh.” Would she hear the unexpressed pleas of the thirsty animals? Would she only give a drink to a human, as is common among decent people, or would she go beyond the expected and also provide water for the animals? Would she bring drinks only for those capable of gratitude and spreading her good name or would she also have mercy on animals, which are incapable of expressing appreciation or rewarding her work?


To build a nation, Eliezer knew, a person of substance was required. He wanted her conversation to be lofty and special, not just consisting of rehearsed remarks. He wanted graciousness and compassion that went to the root, to the essence.


The Jewish way has always been to value connection to the eternal above all, to remain unimpressed by sweeping rhetoric and winning oratory, and to focus on what is real.


We should not be impressed by external displays of avodah or the dramatic performance of mitzvos. It’s the silent, unseen avodah, the daily grind of people like Rav Nosson Tzvi and Rav Yitzchok Dovid, that Hashem cherishes.


To emphasize this, Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach would retell a story about the amazingly brilliant Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin, one of Klal Yisroel’s greatest tzaddikim and geniuses. On Erev Yom Kippur, this man of fire, who inspired awe in those who merely beheld his shining countenance, wanted to visit a certain elderly Yerushalayimer bubbeh to ask her for a bracha.


Histalmidim asked why her brachos were so valuable, and he recounted how once, while he was walking down the street, this elderly woman had called out from her window, “Rebbe, please give me a bracha.”


He went inside the apartment and encountered the site of a bedridden woman, weak and infirm, capable of little, barely able to look out of the window from which she shouted her wish for a bracha. He asked her what type of bracha she wanted, and she responded that she wanted a bracha for arichas yomim. He was surprised and asked her why she, whose life seemed to hold little joy, wanted to extend her days.


She told him that, once a week, a nurse comes to her home to clean her up and change her bedding. “And then, rebbe, I am completely clean and pure and I can make abracha. I want to live long just for that moment each week when I can make abracha. That’s what makes my life worth living!”


From that holy woman, Rav Yehoshua Leib concluded, he wanted to receive a bracha.


She knew what a bracha was. She appreciated its value and significance. That was her sicha.


Rav Yitzchok Dovid Schechter knew the value of a few more lines of Gemara. When the world was dark and constricting, the Gemara was his lifeline and his source of happiness. That was his sicha.


A short while ago, there was a hachnosas Sefer Torah at Yeshivas Mir-Yerushalayim, with the writing of the final osiyos in Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel’s home. The rosh yeshiva was scheduled to speak, but he was having a difficult day. He tried to speak, but he was too weak to get the words out. Unable to utter a word, he raised his hand and pointed to words written on the mantel of the new Sefer Torah. Those words read: “Moh ohavti Sorasecho kol hayom hi sichosi.” That silent “drashah” resounded louder than any speech could have.


The Mirrer rosh yeshiva redefined accomplishment and success, not by physical strength or ability, but by more Torah, more tefillah, more ahavas haTorah and ahavas habriyos, and more personal growth.


That was his sicha.


Kol hayom.


And that is the legacy he leaves behind.


And like Eliezer teaches us in this week’s parsha, these are the people entrusted with buildingKlal Yisroel. We are a nation built with bricks of substance, because on style alone nothing can stand for long.


Perhaps that’s theyofi, the beauty, of the small talk, the sichoson shel avdei avos. For people of depth, nothing is unimportant, nothing is insignificant. Sichoson, each word, carries untold lessons.


To us, the most important words are the ones uttered when the microphones are off. They are the stories in last week’s Yated special supplement and the ones that are being told and retold around the world by people who interacted with Rav Nosson Tzvi. A good morning to a simple bochur, making time to learn with another, letting another know that he would be waiting for him at the beginning of the next zeman, helping a bochur get into Yeshivas Brisk, helping another settle in to the Mir… The stories seem endless.


It is the genuine love, the simple words, the sichos, and the quiet acts of chessed when the microphones are off and the cameras are put away that define great men and are the stuff real legends are made of. 



My Take On the News

  Elad Katzir Murdered in Captivity It’s hard to know where to begin. Should I start with the news of another hostage who was found

Read More »


Subscribe to stay updated