There are many unsung heroes among us, most of whom will never be recognized at all — and likely want it that way. Some are struggling with disease; others are dealing with multiple familial issues at one time. Their heroism does not lie in the magnitude of the issues they face, which are rarely the result of any conscious choices on their part, but rather in the smiling faces they offer to the world, when we cannot even imagine how we would get out of the bed in the morning in their circumstances.
But what I want to focus on is an even subtler type of heroism — dealing with disappointed aspirations. I suppose most of us fall into that category to one extent or another. In our youth, we dream of being president, or a fireman, or, even better, the next Rabbi Akiva Eiger. Ortega y Gasset once wrote, “The charm and insolence of youth is that they are everything in potentiality and nothing in actuality.” The possibilities are unlimited. Few of our lives measure up to the dreams of youth.
There are few professions in which the potential for disappointment is so great as the rabbinate. What reader of these pages will ever forget Rabbi Chaim Simkowitz’s faded yellowing raincoat in the opening episode of Dov Haller’s “Waiting for the Rabbi.” Purchased by his wife, Eve, at the outset of his rabbinical career, when she harbored no doubts that he was destined to be a rising star in the firmament of the American rabbinate, Rabbi Simkowitz is still wearing it five decades later, after Eve has passed on, taking along with her the dreams of a prominent rabbinical career for her husband.
The potential for disappointment in the rabbinate is greater precisely because the idealism of those who enter the profession is so high. Every year, dozens of talented young men, eager to inspire congregants with the beauty of Torah and mitzvos, enter the rabbinate. They imagine congregations filled with youth whose own idealism is just waiting to be stirred by a dynamic young rabbi.
Sometimes that happens — everything aligns perfectly and the rabbi ignites a spark that dramatically changes the lives of his congregants. I have been in a number of shuls where the rabbi has been able to raise the level of an entire congregation, and attract new members also seeking inspiration. I have nothing but admiration for the rabbis in these shuls. The ones who are successful are without exception distinguished talmidei chachamim who have dedicated themselves to their task with incredible energy.
But I have also been in many older shuls, built to hold a thousand or more mispallelim on the Yamim Noraim, whose glory days are long past. The few hundred congregants on Shabbos sitting in the cavernous sanctuary remind me of nothing so much as the sparse end-of-the-season crowd at Wrigley Field in late 1969 after the Cubs had irretrievably blown a huge lead over the Mets. Sometimes these shuls are located in older neighborhoods from which all the young couples have fled. In others, the children have grown up and now daven in younger, more yeshivishe minyanim.
The walls of the shul, with pictures of determined-looking past presidents, attest to dreams long since put to rest. The man who picked me up at the airport on a recent trip to a new city joked that he might not be at my talks on Shabbos because at 55 he is still in the youth minyan.
The difference between the dynamic, growing shuls and the fading ones lies not in the quality of the rabbanim — their status in learning or their dedication to the congregants. By the time I awakened at 5:30 on Shabbos morning in the home of one rabbi of the latter type of congregation, the Shabbos table was already piled high with seforim. In another such shul, I eavesdropped on several daf yomi shiurim in which the rabbi explicated difficult sugyas in Me’ilah (improper use of sanctified items) with such clarity that even those with little or no yeshivah background could follow the shakla v’tarya (the give and take of the Gemara).
The rabbis in the shuls past their prime are quiet heroes in my eyes. These fine talmidei chachamim spend hours each day visiting the sick, calling almanos (widows) to check up on them and to remind them of the yahrtzeits of loved ones, and giving Chumash shiurim to older women. That, of course, is part of the job. But what awes me is the way they perform these tasks with care and concern, without any bitterness or feeling that these tasks are beneath their abilities.
I don’t know them well enough to speculate about whether there are ever moments of reflection on the distance between their expectations upon entering the rabbinate and what they are doing today. I assume, based on the fictional Rabbi Simkowitz, that there are. But that’s not what comes across. What one feels instead is a mature recognition that ministering to the needs of one’s fellow Jews, no matter what stage they are in life, is a holy task.
Rabbi Paysach Krohn tells the story of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Perr, the father Rabbi Yechiel Perr, rosh yeshivas Derech Eyson, who insisted on being buried in the beis olam (cemetery) of the congregation he had served for decades. His family tried to dissuade him from being buried together with many who were not even shomer Shabbos. But he would not be deterred. He expressed the hope that maybe the adult child of one of his former congregants would notice his simple, unadorned matzeivah on a visit to the grave of a parent and have a pleasant memory of the rabbi who used to teach about Shabbos or kashrus in the shul’s Talmud Torah. “That will be a zchus for me,” he said.
There is nobility in that dedication to one’s flock. Not by accident did HaKadosh Baruch Hu test the greatest leaders of the Jewish People — Yaakov Avinu and Moshe Rabbeinu — through their dedication to even the smallest lamb in the flocks with which they had been entrusted.
Heroism often consists of nothing more than acceptance of the hand one has been dealt and the determination to make the best of it. But I have noticed that the heroes whom I have been describing are often blessed with the greatest reward: fine children. The model of a father who has learned to find sipuk (satisfaction) not in the fulfillment of youthful dreams of glory, but in accepting responsibility for one’s fellow Jews at whatever level they are holding, tends to produce more serious, less egotistical children.
Ever since Internet was recognized as an unprecedented threat to kedushas Yisrael, there has been a debate raging about how to confront the challenge. One approach was to place an absolute ban on the use of Internet. Such an approach offers two advantages: first, clarity; second, it sends an unmistakable message of the magnitude of the danger.
Its drawback, however, is that it abandons all those who choose to ignore the bans. Once they transgress the ban, they tend to act as if they can now do as they please.
The other approach is to try to minimize the damage of Internet by developing filters, buddy systems in which someone else sees every site one visits, and the like. The disadvantage of this approach is that it dilutes the message, and turns the Internet into something like a car — a necessity of modern life that has to be used with care. The offsetting advantage is that those who might make a one-time decision to transgress a ban can no longer act as if that decision is the end of the matter and they might as well expose themselves to the worst of dangers.
The balance, it seems to me, has now shifted towards the bidi’eved approach, and the decision made that the perfect should not become the enemy of the good. That was the clear import of the original advertisements for the Citi Field event: “Can’t live with it; Can’t live without it.”
I found confirmation of this approach in a surprising source: the message to last week’s Citi Field gathering from Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, someone of whom we can say with confidence has never used a computer. Rabbi Kanievsky’s message began with the strongest possible description of “great destruction” wrought by Internet and the devastation it has brought to countless Jewish homes. But the message also mentions filters: “The matter is clear that to use this instrument [i.e., Internet] without any filters has no heter whatsoever” (emphasis added).
As important as the asifa was for arousing public awareness, the most important event may well have been the meeting of 150 rabbanim from around the world the next morning, led by Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon, the moving force behind the asifa, and Rabbi Aharon Feldman, rosh yeshivas Ner Israel, to develop strategies to limit the dangers of the Internet, in light of the fact that bans will have limited impact on most communities. The message of that meeting was that no Jewish home will be turned into a hefker velt just because the parents cannot or will not adhere to the only perfect protection — no computer or handheld devices with Internet.
But even if the problem of filth could be fully cured — which cannot yet be done — the battle would not be won. As Rabbi Feldman so eloquently reminded us last week, the greatest danger is the threat to our collective humanity from being constantly online, both in terms of our ability to contemplate and in terms of the quality and quantity of our communication with those dearest to us. Much harder than developing ever more sophisticated filters will be developing the attachment to kedushah beside which the attraction of the Internet pales completely.