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Small Measures, Big Payoff

Eytan Kobre

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Just in time for Elul, the New York Times featured a story about how Toyota has been assisting the Food Bank in New York City and about 20 other charities, not with monetary donations, but by applying a Japanese concept called “kaizen,” meaning “continuous improvement.” It involves “thinking outside the box and making small changes to generate big results,” and has been a “main ingredient inToyota’s business model and a key to its success,” which it is now sharing with these nonprofits.

Toyota’s engineers made aHarlemsoup kitchen more efficient, for example, by cutting down the wait time of those standing in line to eat from an average of 90 minutes down to 18, thus enabling more of them to be fed. All it took was a few small changes, like giving an employee the sole duty of spotting empty seats so they could be filled quickly.

Perhaps Toyotacan next lend its expertise in efficiency to help solve the shidduch crisis.

One line in the story was striking:

“[Businesses] give money and time and we’re grateful,” [Food Bank president] Ms. Purvis said. “But it’s very rare for people to come and say, ‘You know what, this is the model that made our company great and we will share it with a charity….”

This brought to mind a recent conversation with my son Reuven Moshe about the fact that for all the great amounts of money donated and time and services volunteered in our communities, one area that is perhaps underdeveloped is doing chesed with words. Simple, sincere, kind words. Warm words of encouragement, of thanks, of appreciation of another’s qualities or accomplishments, uttered in person with a smile, in a phone call out of the blue, or even by mail in an actual handwritten note.

It’s truly exemplary to share one’s money and skills, but nothing quite compares with sharing oneself, pushing oneself to actually say those things that usually “go without saying,” and the more unexpectedly, the better. To thank those who do thankless jobs, like the baal tefillah and baal korei — or the mother and wife; to comment on a friend’s strengths and thereby build him up immeasurably.

Or just to notice another person and really, really, acknowledge his existence.




One fascinating aspect of the writings of Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin ztz”l is that he published many essays addressing political and social issues of the day, setting forth a clear Torah hashkafah on how to relate to such phenomena as the State of Israel, anti-Semitism, the secular American Jewish establishment, and postwar Germany. He based his views on these, and many more matters, on an extremely wide range of sources, including episodes in Tanach and later Jewish history, on the statements of Chazal in Shas and midrashim, and of gedolei Torah he had known.

Looking at Rav Henkin’s deeply sourced and compellingly argued essays, one can’t help but contrast them with, l’havdil, what often passes for Torah-based arguments in contemporary discourse. In the recent controversy over the draft of bnei Torah, for example, one comes across articles in which the same handful of sources are recycled endlessly to oppose the very notion of long-term commitment to learning and teaching Torah. There’s the Mishnaic dictum of yafeh Talmud Torah im derech eretz, and that hardy perennial, the Rambam (Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:10), who writes that one who takes money to learn creates a chillul Hashem.

One must really wonder what people who quote these sources as discussion-enders are thinking. If one has a question about how to reconcile a mishnah with the halachic practice of multitudes of very observant Jews for centuries, then by all means pose it, earnestly and humbly, and seek out an answer. But these sources are cited triumphantly as conclusory evidence against the position of today’s greatest halachic authorities and the gedolim of the past century and beyond, who not only permitted but highly encouraged kollel study.

It’s impossible to even imagine another field of highly complex knowledge in which a neophyte would be so foolish and so lacking in humility as to pronounce every acknowledged master of the discipline mistaken for having missed a basic piece of information. But let the conversation turn to something Torah-related, and it’s the Wild West, with every man and his Judaic six-shooter for himself. Rabbi Aryeh Zev Ginsberg recently wrote of having accompanied Rav Elyashiv ztz”l to and from a funeral, with pen and pad in hand to record the various questions people would inevitably ask. In the course of this 40-minute experience, Rav Elyashiv answered more than 70 sh’eilos, exhibiting his breathtaking mastery of the gamut of Torah. Yet we are to believe, it seems, that in nearly a century of nonstop learning, he somehow missed a mishnah in Avos and a Rambam.

Don’t those who fling these elementary sources about know that sophisticated Torah learning is all about posing contradictions between sources and resolving them through contextualization and the drawing of subtle distinctions? This is precisely why Chazal (Sotah 22a) refer to those who derive halachic conclusions from mishnayos as mevalei olam, destroyers of the world.

Let’s look, for example, at the Rambam mentioned earlier. In a newspaper interview this past February, Yair Lapid’s handpicked choice to fill the big, black yarmulke-wearer slot on Yesh Atid’s Knesset list was asked by the interviewer: “How did we get into this situation of mass full-time Torah study, and vast numbers of Haredi males not working? This is anti-rabbinical, this is not authentic Orthodox Judaism.”

To which he responded: “Right … I was on Haredi radio and I quoted the Rambam. This is the same Maimonides that we’re sitting there [in yeshivah] and analyzing every little nuance of what he says about marriage. The Rambam says: ‘A person who decides to study Torah and not work and force other people to support him, that person disgraces Torah, disgraces G-d’s name and has no portion in the world to come’…  So what does the guy [interviewing me] say to me? He says to me: ‘You want to tell me that you’re relying on the Rambam?’ That’s a quote. He says, ‘That was hundreds of years ago.’ I said: ‘That says it all.’ If you have an answer for me, okay. But you have no answer, and your answer is, how can you rely on the Rambam from hundreds of years ago? I told my wife later: we are not a hundred percent right. We are a thousand percent right. That was the moment where it just all came together for me.”

Now, it’s easy to blame that radio interviewer for a nonsensical response, which launched the interviewee on his anti-Torah crusade. But that would be letting the interviewee off far too easily. He is, after all, someone who studied for several years in beis medrash and beyond, has rabbinic ordination, and presumably knows how to research a basic halachic issue. Here, then, is what he could have discovered with no more than 20 minutes’ worth of research: That the Kesef Mishneh, on the page alongside the Rambam; the Rema (Yoreh Dei’ah 246:21); the Shach (ibid.); the Aruch HaShulchan (Yoreh Dei’ah 246:40-42); and Igros Moshe (Yoreh Dei’ah 2:116) all rule that one may, without any hesitation, receive funding to learn Torah full-time.

Rav Moshe Feinstein’s concluding passage in Igros Moshe is particularly instructive:

Thus it is a clear and simple din that was accepted in all the generations … that it is permitted to learn Torah and to be supported by a stipend … and one should not desist from this even as middas chassidus….Therefore you should not let enter your mind the counsel of the yetzer hara that there is any sin or lack of bitachon for one to receive a kollel stipend … which is merely an incitement to leave the study of Torah. Would that there were to be found generous people to support many talmidei chachamim, then the numbers of bnei Torah, gedolei Yisrael, and baalei hora’ah would multiply in keeping with the will of Hashem who has naught in His world but the daled amos of halachah.


Can this fellow truly be blissfully unaware of all this, or is he indeed aware of the relevant halachic sources and is engaging in intentional falsification of Torah to mislead the public? Either way, hostile or ignorant, it doesn’t bode well.




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