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Missing the Best in Those Different From Us

Yonoson Rosenblum

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

In the days leading up to Tisha B’Av and on Tisha B’Av itself, we will all be hearing a lot about the sinas chinam (baseless hatred) for which the second Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, and that therefore forms the root of our current Exile.

I have never quite understood what is meant by the term. For better or worse, I can’t think of anyone I hate. But I’m sure that if I did, it would be for good cause — at least in my own mind. And I suspect that most of us feel the same way. We do not readily identify with the emotions or attitudes said to be preventing the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash.

Perhaps the true meaning of sinas chinam is the failure to fully appreciate the tzelem Elokim in our fellow Jew. In every failure, no matter how small, to recognize what is most elevated about our fellow Jews, there is an element of sinas chinam.

As Rabbi Jeremy Kagan puts it in his remarkable new book, The Choice to Be, about which I shall be writing frequently: We are only blind to the tzelem Elokim in others if we have not fully realized it in ourselves.

Precisely to the extent that our own sense of connection to Hashem is lacking, resulting in a diminished sense of self, do we feel the need to build ourselves up at the expense of others, in the manner of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter’s parable of a little boy who pushed down his friend in order to proclaim himself taller.

The eye, Rabbi Moshe Shapiro points out, is the only external organ to which the terms good and bad apply, as in ayin tovah and ayin hara. Other organs may be instruments of doing good or bad, but they are not themselves good or bad. Our legs may run to do evil, but they are not described as “bad legs” as a consequence.

A good eye sees the world as one of blessing and overflow, in which Hashem’s bounty is enough for all. An evil eye sees a world of fragmentation and disconnection, in which one person’s gain, his larger piece, comes at everyone else’s expense. It is incapable of perceiving Hashem’s unity in His creation. The source of the ayin hara is again a lost feeling of connection to Hashem.

The evil eye manifests itself most strongly in connection with those groups who are closest to us. The closer they are, the more threatened we are by them and the more we feel the necessity to buttress our own choices on the matters that divide us. The less confident that we are of our own path, the greater our need to focus on the failures of those who most threaten us and to ignore their good points, the manifestations of the tzelem Elokim within them.

I RECENTLY HAD the honor of speaking in Chicago on behalf of Chai Lifeline, on the occasion of the third yahrtzeit of Miriam Yocheved Mayefsky Isenberg a”h. Outside of Chicago, I doubt many Mishpacha readers ever heard of Miriam. But she probably had a greater influence on my younger brother Mordechai’s path to becoming a Torah observant Jew than anyone else, and through him on the entire Rosenblum family.

My brother first met Miriam when he was a 15-year-old high school sophomore from a Chicago suburb and she was a high school senior at a religious high school in Chicago. They were part of a Chicago Federation summer trip to Israel that included both Orthodox and non-Orthodox high school students.

At one of the organizational meetings for that trip, Miriam approached my mother and told her, “Don’t worry Mrs. Rosenblum, we’ll take good care of your son.” And she smiled. On the car ride home, my mother told my brother, “That Miriam, she’s special.” I’m not sure that either of them had ever met a religious Jew before, but both my mother and brother instantly sensed that Miriam was qualitatively different from all those they were used to meeting.

On the way to the Kosel that Tisha B’Av, Miriam explained to my brother the tragedy of Tisha B’Av and the significance of the loss of the Beis HaMikdash. At that point in his life, I doubt my brother had ever fasted other than on Yom Kippur. But that Tisha B’Av he fasted. If it meant that much to Miriam, he reasoned, it must be worth doing.

After they returned from Israel, Miriam introduced my brother to her wide circle of friends in West Rogers Park. Under the influence of his new friends, he was ready for a year on a religious kibbutz in Israel and was talking about becoming an Orthodox rabbi by the time he graduated high school.

In time, Miriam married a rabbi, Jerry Isenberg, the head of Hebrew Theological College (Skokie Yeshiva), and became a legendary baalas chesed, both in her job as a school social worker and in the countless ways she found to help others, without fanfare, despite battling cancer most of her adult life. But her special qualities were all there from an early age — the smile, the intensity of her davening, the goodness.

Miriam came from a Modern Orthodox background. On that first trip to Israel, she confided to my brother that many of her friends were having difficulty on the religious kibbutz on which they had been placed because the kibbutz members frowned on the slacks they were used to wearing in Chicago.

But Miriam and the Modern Orthodox teenagers to whom she introduced my brother were the catalyst for four nonobservant Jewish brothers to become observant Jews. The chareidi branch of the Rosenblum family today numbers over 60 members. I’d like all those descendants who never met Miriam to know that they are likely here today as shomrei Torah u’mitzvos in large part because of a group of teenagers whom they might be inclined to dismiss as insufficiently frum if they saw them on the street today. Perhaps that knowledge would help immunize them from the temptation to puff themselves at the expense of others whose religious standards appear less stringent, while missing all the maalos that those not exactly like them possess.

I only wish I were more optimistic about my immunization program — even with respect to myself.


The Cab Driver Speaks

The late Irving Kristol once described the job of the neo-conservatives as explaining why the cabdrivers are right and the cultural and academic elites wrong on most issues. Cabdrivers are an almost endless supply of insights, surprises, and even mussar for me.

Returning home from the airport at 4 a.m. last week, I asked my driver whether he had always driven a cab. He replied that he had foolishly given up his previous job as a bus driver. Then he added that there hadn’t been enough money when he grew up to get an education and secure a more lucrative and less physically draining job. His parents, he related, were illiterate Kurdish-speaking immigrants. His father supported his twelve children working for the Jerusalem municipality repairing potholes. But he and his siblings encouraged their own children to get an education. His oldest son, he told me proudly, had been offered a partnership in one of Tel Aviv’s largest law firms after only three years in the firm. Another nephew was the deputy head of the Shabak secret service, and the family was filled with doctors and lawyers.

That Horatio Alger story was a refreshing welcome back to Israel.

Two nights later, my wife and I climbed into a cab late at night, returning from the levayah of HaRav HaGaon Rav Elyashiv ztz”l. I wasn’t sure how interested the driver would be in the levayah, but it actually turned that out he had been tuning in on the radio. So I decided to make small talk about the terrorist attack in Bulgaria that same day. I mentioned that my wife and I had been scheduled to go to Bulgaria the year before, when the tour was cancelled.

He responded with a snort to my wasting his time with this bit of useless information: “You could also have landed five minutes before or five minutes after the Israeli tour group targeted by a suicide bomber, and it wouldn’t have made any difference. If Hashem wants to take you He will, and if not, not.”

Properly chastened by his clear expression of emunah pshutah, I refrained from any further efforts at small talk.


What a Thank You Might Accomplish

In his parshah shiur two weeks ago, the Tolna Rebbe speculated about the causes of the gezeirah hanging over the heads of the entire yeshivah world. He called upon the chareidi public to openly express our hakaras hatov for those Jews in uniform whose blood is being spilled on our behalf, and suggested that our failure to adequately do so might lie behind the current threats against yeshivah students.

Part of the reason for that failure might lie in a simplistic understanding of what is meant by the protective power of Torah learning, as if Torah learning negates the need for an army at all. In truth, it should be much easier for we who believe in Torah to appreciate the necessity of an army than it is for secular Israelis to appreciate the invisible power of Torah learning, for the Torah itself makes clear that an army is necessary.

In Parshas Mattos, “… those who go out to battle” — 36,000 in total — split equally with the rest of the nation the spoil of Midian, in recognition of their greater contribution. And in Parshas Masei, Moshe sharply criticizes the bnei Gad and bnei Reuven for their apparent lack of willingness to participate in the conquest of Eretz Yisrael and the demoralizing impact it will have on the other Tribes.

The Torah is filled with the laws of warfare.

I’m not much given to speculation about Hashem’s calculations. But if the Tolne Rebbe detects a failure in regard to our expression of hakaros hatov, I’m prepared to take that quite seriously.



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