Turning Shortsightedness Into Infinity

One of the most important lessons in the Torah – one particularly relevant during the Yomim Noraim – is taking the long view. We often become so preoccupied in our immediate and present concerns that we literally become shortsighted and myopic about the long haul. The idea of olam haba’ah – an as-yet-unseen afterlife – is too far from our radar to be a factor in our lives. Our Baalei Mussar have struggled for centuries to set our sights higher than the animal world’s immediate trough or even the next check coming in the mail. They instruct, cajole and sometimes harangue us to remember that there is more to our fate than today’s lunch or tomorrow’s vacation. And yet, despite their entreaties we often remain besotted with the ephemeral rather than the infinite.

Interestingly, a recent book, The Optimist’s Telescope by Bina Venkataraman (reviewed in The New York Times Book Review September 8, 2019), strongly bemoans the human failing of shortsightedness. The author demonstrates empirically that in several industries, “decisions…are heavily distorted by impatience.” She offers the sad case of farmers who “typically plow their fields each spring to plant annual crops rather than perennial varieties which have lower yields but deeper roots that limit erosion.” Although the author is herself somewhat preoccupied with “the climate crisis,” her focus is often upon the simple fact that “shortsightedness is ingrained in human nature.” She shares with us a fascinating quote from “economist A.C. Pigou’s observation in 1920 that “shortsightedness is rooted in our faulty telescopic faculty.” She explains that by this he means that “the future is an idea we have to conjure in our minds, not something that we perceive with our senses. What we want today, by contrast, we can often feel in our guts as a craving.”

We have described in these pages that one of the major aspects of a gadol b’Yisroel, in the words of Shlomo Hamelech (Koheles 2:14) is that “the wise man has eyes in his head.” Rashi explains this to mean that “when he begins something, he looks at the consequences of his action.” When Chazal (Bava Basra 12a) tell us that a “wise man is greater than a prophet” they may mean that while not everyone can be a novie – in fact these days nobody can – anyone has the ability to calculate the ramifications of doing or, in some cases, refraining from doing something. Indeed, of course it is true that the greater one is, the more he can see. The Brisker Rov zt”l was known to have said of his father, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik zt”l that “my father can see sixty years ahead. I can only see what is happening today. However many others think that they see what is happening now but in truth they see nothing at all.” How do we extend our spiritual sights from the narrowness of being nearsighted to the near prophetic vision of becoming farsighted? The truth is that we don’t need foreign experts from other fields. The Torah itself gives us corrective lenses more far-reaching than any telescope. Let us explore some of these vision-aides during these crucial Elul days.

First of all, it would be wise to learn from the master of imagining the consequences of every action, the Chofetz Chaim himself. It is well known that he never wrote anything in his seforim which he did not apply to himself and his own life. He writes (Toras Habayis, page 19) that that often even extremely honorable and religious people don’t seem to become alarmed at the repercussions of their sins and transgressions. “The reason is,” he explained, as we noted above, is “that people only notice what is right in front of their very eyes. The idea of leaving this world, being punished for our misdemeanors is far away from us because down deep we believe we will live for a thousand years…However, our sages teach that “who is wise? He who sees what is coming (hanolad). Therefore, a person should use the power of imagination to depict for himself the punishments and suffering which will come upon him for his sins.” How did the Chofetz Chaim actualize this process? Reliable witnesses (see Tenuas Hamussar 4:80) describe the scene:

“During the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah the Chofetz Chaim would imagine that he had died and was being brought to judgment before the heavenly tribunal. An announcement was made that all the defendant’s merits and iniquities should be brought forth. Entire platoons of angels arrive bearing either mitzvos or aveiros – merits or demerits – and all are weighed and evaluated. After serious adjudication, the Chofetz Chaim is declared a beinoni! – an average Jew – and Hashem is heard to ask the court, “is Yisrael Meir at this time dead or alive?” When the court responds that he is alive, the verdict is delivered that he still has time to repent. After repeating this determination, the Chofetz Chaim would break into sobbing and scathing self-criticism. Such was the Chofetz Chaim’s description of what was occurring in heaven at that moment.

Rav Elya Lopian zt”l also (see introduction to Lev Eliyohu) would interrupt his mussar shmuessen – admonition lectures – by suddenly speaking of himself. “From whom do you hope to draw inspiration? From someone like me who has one foot on the ground and one in the grave?” He pointed to his white beard and bent low to the ground to which was referring so eloquently. Such was the power of imagination and realism which tzadikim evoked just a generation or two ago to help them do teshuvah and take their lives seriously. In truth, this tool of life can be used positively as well. I recently had the moving experience of helping a 99 year-old survivor to unbutton his sleeve so he could show me the numbers tattooed upon his arm. He patiently explained to me how each of the numerals gave him the chizuk he needed to live until liberation seven decades ago. Two of them added up to chai and two others totaled 13, which he reminded me was the gematriah of echad – the number 1 – which he was convinced told him that Hashem would be with him until he was freed. He told me this at his great-grandson’s Bar Mitzvah, where he not only shepped nachas but achieved the ultimate vengeance against the Nazis yem”sh. This proud Yid, also, used his power of imagination wisely to imagine a future which at that moment logically must have seemed totally impossible.

Finally, we may learn the lesson of taking the long view from the second Gerrer Rebbe, the Sefas Emes (Rosh Hashonoh 5653), he teaches that just as the body has a head which contains the brain, the seat of all our thoughts and decisions, so does the year have a head and brain, which is the driving force for the entire year ahead. He quotes the posuk in Koheles which we mentioned earlier about the wise man having eyes in his head. The rebbe reminds us that we must look ahead on Rosh Hashonoh and imagine what we want the year to look like. During the days of Elul, we must indeed make sure that we are not being shortsighted, thinking small, trivial or petty. Many gedolim have conveyed the same searing parable of the king whose life was saved by one of his loyal soldiers. At the ceremony celebrating his bravery, the grateful king invites the private to ask for anything he wishes for the coming year. The foolish young man thinks for a moment and whispers to the king that his immediate superior officer has been cruel to him. “Could I please be transferred to another division with a kinder officer?” he requests tearfully. The king replies kindly but sharply, “of course your request is hereby granted, but you are a fool. You could have become the officer or even more, but alas you can’t seem to imagine greatness or total change.”

Let’s be much smarter than that perennial private. Our Elul and Tishrei opportunities are for absolute transformation. We can become anything we wish, as long as our purpose and goal is to serve our King. Let us emulate our gedolim by looking beyond our comfort zone and small-minded limitations. The Medrash tells that the word for Man – Adam – also spells me’ohd, which means great. My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l explains that we are not just very tall or very smart. We are the embodiment of “very,” meaning that our possibilities are infinite. Let us look ahead with both wisdom and the commitment to change completely, as is our power and infinite potential.