Friday, May 17, 2024

The Royals

Today, it is very much in vogue to blame others for failure. Those who don’t make it blame the system, the school, the teacher, the government, the president, or some other convenient scapegoat. People don’t assume personal responsibly for their failures. In the “blame culture,” nothing is ever the fault of the poor victim. It’s always someone else who messed up and caused them to fail.

People don’t realize that everyone is endowed with the capacity to achieve greatness. Nobody is doomed from birth to a life of mediocrity and disappointment. Wake up early and go to bed late, study hard, and use your time constructively, and the sky is the limit. Sleep late, party, goof off, and blame your rebbi, morah, chavrusah, shadchan or parents for your lack of drive and motivation to succeed and you are guaranteed to fail.

The blamer has no accountability. He sees the consequences of his actions as no fault of his own. Because he has no accountability and feels no responsibility, he invests little effort into what he does.

Last week, failed and flawed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton emerged from her post-election reflective time to gratuitously accept responsibility for the electoral loss. With that squared away, she quickly launched into a rant, blaming the loss on FBI head James Comey and on the Russians, who publicized her campaign secrets and information about her illegal server.

Many laughed at her and her obvious arrogance and silliness, but, on some level, many of us do exactly what she did. When things don’t go our way, we comfort ourselves and reassure others that we did no wrong. We create straw men and blame them, as preposterous as it may sound. Anything is easier than accepting responsibility for our mistakes.

We are charged to rise above that and to be honest with ourselves and others. To excel in life and Yiddishkeit, we must act properly, concentrate on our learning and davening, be diligent about kiyum hamitzvos, and be careful about how we treat each other. When we err, we admit our error and agonize over repenting.

A Kelmer talmid is said to have commented, “In yeshivos, they say, ‘Men darf kennen Torah,’ it is important to study and know Torah. Chassidim say, ‘Men darf kennen dem Borei,’ it is important to know the Creator. But among us in Kelm, we say, ‘Men darf kennen zich,’ the path to growth starts with being able to know yourself.”

If you look at others, it is easy to find their faults, but you accomplish nothing by doing that, for it doesn’t help you find and repair your own faults. If you look around you, you might find convenient scapegoats. Find the strength to look inward and you will find the truth.

The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 17) discusses the story of Elazar ben Durdaya the sinner. He was shamed by a fellow sinner and apprised of his situation, with little chance for teshuvah.

Overcome with shame, he fled, finding a quiet place to engage in some desperate self-examination. He beseeched the mountains and hills to plead his case with Hashem, but they refused, for they needed to plead on their own behalf. He asked heaven and earth to intercede, but they also turned him down. He looked to the sun and moon for help, but was similarly rejected. The stars were not much help either.

Finally, he collapsed, his head in his hands, crying from the depths of his being. He stood up and proclaimed, “Ein hadovor talui ela bi. It all depends on me. It’s all my responsibility.” At that moment, he died, and a bas kol announced that Rav Elazar ben Durdaya’s teshuvah was accepted and he was destined for Olam Haba.

Meforshim explain his unsuccessful attempts to find messengers to plead for him. He reached out to the horim to make his case. While the definition of horim is mountains, it can also mean parents. He was trying to blame his parents. Perhaps they had spoiled him or deprived him or hadn’t given him enough love, in contemporary parlance. He tried that, but was turned down.

Heaven and earth represent the environment, the schools, teachers and friends who may have influenced him. Everyone else was also doing it. They picked on me. The teachers were lousy. It’s their fault. Don’t punish me. That also didn’t work.

The sun and the moon represent one’s financial situation. He was blaming his indiscretions on being too rich or too poor; there were too many challenges. He was rebuffed.

Finally, he blamed his guilt on the mazalos, alleging that since stars influence man’s behavior, it wasn’t his fault, but the fault of the star he was born under. This defense was rejected.

He got it. The realization that there were no more options other than “ela bi” overwhelmed, weakened and took the life out of him. He accepted the blame and did teshuvah as he lay dying.

The Nesivos Sholom of Slonim says that Elazar was a sinner, not a rabbi, yet Chazal referred to him as rebbi, because he taught the world the secret of teshuvah, which is to stop blaming others.

In truth, every person has the capacity to achieve tremendous greatness. Every person also has the ability to waste his potential and sink to the lowest levels.

The Shela Hakadosh says that this is the reason the Torah uses the word “odom” when referring to man. The appellation “odom” is intertwined with the word “adameh,” which means, “I shall emulate,” a reference to man’s mandate of adameh le’Elyon, emulating the Divine. Odom is also related to the word “adomoh,” the dirt of the ground, the lowliest substance.

In that one word and name, Hashem invested us with our mission. Every day presents opportunities to soar to lofty heights and tumble to extreme lows. By ascribing blame, a person essentially denies his own power, his own reach. He’s hiding behind other factors, essentially claiming that he isn’t strong enough to rise above injustices visited upon him. Check out the biography of great people and you will inevitably find that they had setbacks – just like you, if not worse – and they overcame them.

Being an “odom” means that we can rise above anything. We must use the awareness of what one person can do to fuel our growth.

The Yalkut Shimoni (Shmuel I, 1:78) relates that prior to the birth of Shmuel Hanovi, a bas kol rang out, proclaiming that a tzaddik named Shmuel would soon be born. Every Jewish mother who gave birth to a boy immediately following the bas kol named her son Shmuel in the hope that he would be the tzaddik foretold by the Heavenly voice. Parents raised their Shmuel to be the Shmuel the bas kol spoke of, because each boy had the ability to achieve that level of greatness.

When people witnessed the acts and conduct of the Shmuel who would go on to become the novi, they knew that he was the tzaddik referred to by the bas kol.

Every person possesses greatness. Every child has the potential to be a savior like Moshe Rabbeinu and Shmuel Hanovi.

We never give up on another Jew. No one is insignificant, for we are all blessed with a neshomah and the ability to rise above all. If we don’t achieve our potential, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

This understanding gives meaning to the celebration of the yahrtzeit of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai on Lag Ba’omer.

Rabi Shimon bar Yochai revealed that every Jew is royalty, with the potential and capacity for greatness. It is not for us to judge other shomrei Torah umitzvos and disrespect them.

Treat others with love and respect and help them realize their potential. Everyone has a spark of greatness within their soul. Help people light their spark and give it the ruach it needs to flare into a great flame. Care about other people and reach to them with friendship, even if they appear to be on a lower level than you.

Rabi Shimon (Shabbos 67, et al) said, “Kol Yisroel bnei melochim heim,” and ruled as halacha lemaaseh that every Jewish person can wear royal clothing on Shabbos without transgressing the prohibition of hotza’ah, because every Jew is a ben melech.

Beholding the glory and splendor of every neshomah, he appreciated limitless potential of odom, every human being. He learned this from his rebbi, Rabi Akiva, who, for the first four decades of his life, was a simple shepherd who no one thought would ever amount to much. But he, too, was a ben melech, and through him the Jewish people were blessed to be bequeathed the entire Torah Shebaal Peh.

On Lag Ba’omer, Jews light bonfires and sing songs praising Rabi Shimon and his rebbi, Rabi Akiva. They dance, chanting the words of Rabi Shimon’s rebbi, “Omar Rabi Akiva ashreichem Yisroel. Praised be the Bnei Yisroel.”

Thousands stream to the kever of Rabi Shimon in Meron, where the words of the posuk he famously quoted are painted atop the entrance – “Ki lo sishochach mipi zaro” – reflecting the greatness of Hashem, His Torah and His people.

We are familiar with the Gemara that states that Rabi Akiva merited teaching 24,000 disciples. But, because they didn’t display proper respect towards each other, they died during the period of Sefirah.

Describing the episode that transpired after the brothers sold Yosef Hatzaddik into slavery, the posuk (Bereishis 38:1) says, “Vayeired Yehudah. And Yehudah departed.” Rashi quotes Chazal, who say that the brothers removed him from his high ranking. Meforshim explain that they no longer treated him as a king.

My rebbi, Rav Elya Svei explained that the brothers saw in Yehuda the leadership traits and potential for royalty. They therefore accorded him the respect of a king. When the shevotim saw the pain that their act caused Yaakov, they no longer viewed Yehuda as worthy of being a melech.

The talmidim of Rabi Akiva perished for the sin of not treating each other appropriately. It is hard to imagine that the students of Rabi Akiva wouldn’t treat each other well. Perhaps, said Rav Elya, they treated each other with the respect that they deserved according to their status at that time, but they didn’t treat them with the respect they were worthy of, considering their potential for greatness.

The failure to respect them for what they could be in the future was considered sinful and caused the plague that killed them.

This Shabbos, we will read Parshas Emor and hear the song of the mo’adim, the various Yomim Tovim. For a moment, we will feel the freedom of Pesach, the glory of Shavuos, the awe of Rosh Hashanah, and the purity of Yom Kippur, followed by the joy of Sukkos. It’s a reminder of how each of us can lift ourselves above the mundane and enter the realm of melochim once again. The Jewish year is framed by such opportunities – the moadim, the meeting places between man and his Creator – which catapult us into a different dimension.

And since we all have the potential to enter the realm of melochim, we have to treat each other as royalty, as bnei melochim.

Perhaps the reason that the talmidim of Rabi Akiva passed away during the period following Pesach is because on Pesach we celebrate the day that the glory of the Jew was revealed. On Pesach, we saw that Hashem loved us even though we did not have or observe the mitzvos of the Torah. Even before we possessed the refinement that the Torah engenders in us, He lifted us. He saw our potential, He knew whereof we are made and He treated us as such even though at that time we were ovdei avodah zara.

Talmidei Rabi Akiva didn’t learn the lesson of Pesach of how to respect each individual Jew despite their level at the moment. They didn’t appreciate that every one of them was a ben Melech, selected and marked for greatness.

At this time of the year, we walk along the shore between two lighthouses, two towering reminders of the greatness of Klal Yisroel, Pesach and Shavuos, marking the period when we became a nation and when we received the ultimate gift. During this period, as we count Sefirah and engage in our personal climb to perfection and greatness, how can we not view every Jew admiringly, each individual a chosen one by the Creator and granted the abilities to rise to soaring heights?

On Lag Ba’omer, as we dance with the flickering orange of the fire reflected in joyous eyes and strains of Meron’s clarinets crossing oceans to enliven us as well, we can appreciate the words of the piyut in which we pay tribute to Rabi Shimon bar Yochai: “Na’aseh odom ne’emar baavurecha.”

Hashem’s decision of “Naaseh odom – Let us make man” was realized in Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, the absolute example of the tzuras ha’odom, of an odom hashaleim, the complete man. But maybe the words have another meaning as well. Na’aseh odom could mean that each of us can become a man, realize our greatness, view ourselves the right way, and perceive those around us the right way, because of the lesson of Rabi Shimon.

He taught us that we are all bnei melochim. Baavurecha, because of you, Rabi Shimon, we know the truth of how high we can go.

Ashreichem Yisroel.

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