You know the story about the meshugoyim and the X on their foreheads? Perhaps it is an apocryphal tale, but the lesson it teaches is probably applicable more today than at any other time.
The story transpired in the Soviet Union. In those days, one of the classical ways of getting rid of someone whom the government deemed a troublemaker or a “counter-revolutionary” was to put them in an insane asylum. Certainly, being religious in communist Russia could classify you – in the eyes of the authorities – as utterly insane and deserving to be locked away.
Thus, two Jews found themselves locked up in an asylum full of meshugoyim. After being there for a while, they realized that being together with so many crazy people would eventually influence them and they might forget that they are actually normal. They thus decided to make a sign on each of their foreheads. This way, any time they saw each other, they would be reminded that they were the normal ones and it was everyone else who was meshugah.
The times we live in today sometimes make me feel that way. Values that Yidden have cherished since time immemorial are often seen today as relics of the past. Those who still maintain those values may feel like they are the ones who are insane and everyone else is normal.
From Bayshonus to Self-Promotion
Take the middah of bayshonus, for example. Chazal tell us that Yidden possess three characteristics. They are rachmonim, bayshonim and gomlei chassodim, merciful, bashful and chesed-doers. While there is plenty of evidence of rachmanus and gemillus chesed in our time, the middah of busha seems almost obsolete.
Shameless self-promotion has become the norm. There are those who are so self-absorbed that they livestream themselves doing the most mundane, stupidest things, as if anyone really cares.
As communication, especially interactive communication, develops and advances with social media and its many offshoots affording endless opportunity for self-promotion, it is scary to see what this is doing to our innate middah of bayshonus. People with scant accomplishment in any area make video clips about themselves and try every which way to get their names and “accomplishments” out to the public. Getting a clip of oneself to go viral is seen as a tremendous feat.
In the not-so-recent past, ehrliche Yidden did everything possible to try keeping themselves out of the public eye. Consider a Yid like Reb Moshe Reichmann of Toronto. He ran away from the press, and from publicity in general, like one runs from fire. He was a man of tremendous accomplishment both in the secular world and lehavdil in the Jewish world. Today, those with no accomplishment or very little ones brashly promote themselves as though they are saviors of mankind.
That is a Kiddush Hashem
Recently, I noticed that not only has self-promotion gone off the charts, but now there are those who label self-promotion with titles such as “Kiddush Hashem.” When visibly frum people “make it” or take on noticeable roles in the non-Jewish world, whether it be in the entertainment industry or otherwise, terms like “kiddush Hashem” are thrown around without any thought of what the term really means.
Rav Shmuel Halevi Wosner’s mother had a most beautiful voice. She was offered fortune and fame if she would sing in the famed Vienna opera. She turned down all the considerable overtures made to her. That is a kiddush Hashem. Perhaps that is why she was rewarded with a son who illuminated the world with his Torah and yirah.
Once upon a time, a person who was afforded an opportunity to earn wealth or fame but turned it down due to his values not being in consonance with the venue would be considered a mikadeish Sheim Shomayim. Today, so many of our social commentators seem to think that the opposite is true.
Did I say that we should have signs on our foreheads to remind us who is normal?
“Me? A Rebbe?”
The Machnovka Rebbe of Bnei Brak, Rav Avrohom Yehoshua Heschel Twersky, was a unique tzaddik. A rebbe in the city of Machnovka, during the Stalin era he moved to Moscow, where he continued to minister to his fellow Jews. He was imprisoned in Siberia, and even after being released, he refused to leave Russia, because he felt that the local Yidden there needed him. Only in 1965 did he finally leave Russia and settle in Bnei Brak. He passed away in 1989.
The Rachmastrivka Rebbe of Boro Park related that his father-in-law, the Skverer Rebbe, Rav Yaakov Yosef Twersky, told him that he vividly remembered how following the passing of Rav Yosef Meir of Machnokva in 1917, Rav Avrohom Yehoshua Heschel went to his own uncle, Rav Dovid of Skver. Rav Dovid tried to convince the twenty-year-old Rav Avrohom Yehoshua Heschel to become Machonkva Rebbe in his father’s place. Rav Dovid asked him to sit in a chair, a sign of deference given to a fellow rebbe. Rav Avrohom Yehoshua Heschel refused and burst into bitter tears. He saw himself as so unworthy of being a rebbe that he couldn’t do anything but cry.
That was the way ehrliche Yidden of previous generations viewed the spotlight. That’s how they viewed positions of honor. “Me? A rebbe? I am unworthy! My heart is not pure. How can I be a rebbe to others if I have so much work to do on my own?”
The Botei Broide/Rand neighborhood in Yerushalayim was one of the storied areas where some of the greatest tzaddikim lived in poverty and simplicity. (Rav Zundel Kroizer was one of the last elder well-known Yerushalmim who lived in that neighborhood.) In the same building in that neighborhood lived two elder chassidim, one named Rav Chaim Hersh Eisenbach and the other Rav Mordechai Hersh Schmerler. Rav Chaim Hersh lived on the top floor and Rav Mordechai Hersh lived on the bottom floor. These chassidim were exalted, fiery ovdei Hashem and tremendous talmidei chachomim. The Rachmastrivka Rebbe of Boro Park related that his father told him that for more than fifty years, Rav Chaim Hersh never missed waking up before chatzos to begin his pre-Shacharis learning seder. Perhaps more than their greatness in Torah or their yiras Shomayim, what was remarkable about them, the Rachmistrivka Rebbe explained, was their shivron lev, their absolute humility and knowledge that they still had so much to accomplish. The rebbe related, “On one of my trips to Eretz Yisroel, I decided to go and visit Rav Chaim Hersh in his home. At that time, he was a zokein muflag, and aside from everything else, he was a repository of stories about the great tzaddikim whom he had merited to see and serve three and four generations earlier. As I was about to go to the upstairs apartment to visit Rav Chaim Hersh, I thought to myself, ‘If I am already here, it is only right that I first stop in at Rav Mordechai Hersh Schmerler’s apartment on the bottom floor to visit him.’
“Upon entering, I found Rav Mordechai Hersh bent over a Gemara, completely immersed in learning. When he saw me, the first thing he exclaimed was, ‘You came to me? Why would you trouble yourself? I will see you on Shabbos at your father’s shalosh seudos tish. We will talk then. Why would you even think of troubling yourself to come to me?’ When I saw how bothered he was by the fact that I came, I felt compelled to tell him that I had been on the way upstairs to visit his neighbor, Rav Chaim Hersh, and figured that once I was there, I would stop to visit him as well. There was such relief on his face when I said this. ‘Ahh, Rav Chaim Hersh,” he told me. ‘Certainly for Rav Chaim Hersh it is worth it to come and visit…’ The implicit message was: ‘But for me? No way!’
“This was the anovah and shiflus of the chassidim from previous generations I knew,” the Rachmastrivka Rebbe said. “They themselves were the greatest, most exalted ovdei Hashem. They were tremendous talmidei chachomim in all areas of learning and they saw no one in the world as unworthy as themselves.”
In last week’s parsha, the posuk says, “Not because of your greatness did Hashem desire you over all the peoples, for you are least of all the peoples” (Devorim 7:7). Rashi explains, “Since you do not aggrandize yourselves…you are the ones who belittle yourselves.” The posuk is telling us that Hashem chose us and loves us because we don’t aggrandize ourselves. We don’t self-promote.
A Topsy-Turvy World…
We live in a topsy-turvy world. Today, whoever screams the loudest gets the most attention, and whoever gets the most attention is the most talked about.
Our children, who have not had the exposure to greatness that many of us have had, grow up with this idea that in order to be considered a “somebody,” you have to make a lot of noise. How many children know the names of the latest entertainer but have never heard of Rav Meir Hershkowitz, the venerated rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Bais Binyomin? Rav Meir, a gaon olam, a tzaddik yesod olam, and one of the few remaining great talmidim of Rav Aharon Kotler, is the epitome of humility and shiflus. He has never sought the spotlight. On the contrary, he runs away from it. There should be people lined up at his door day and night seeking to talk with him in learning and seeking his brocha. Instead, they are talking about the latest viral video clip.
How low we have fallen!