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Still Waters Run Deep

Yonoson Rosenblum

What Roddie Edmonds did that day is awe-inspiring

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

I n a brief but powerful presentation on technology at the recent convention of Agudath Israel of America, Rav Yosef Elefant of Yeshivas Mir in Yerushalayim suggested that the single greatest threat from modern technology is its impact on our ability to absorb wisdom.

Rav Elefant began his presentation with a letter written by the Alter of Kelm to his son-in-law, Rav Tzvi Hirsch Braude. The Alter opened his letter mentioning that he had experienced a certain feeling 22 years earlier and now felt he had sufficiently internalized that feeling to be able to share it. Had he shared it earlier, the Alter implied, it would not have become his or have shaped him in the same way.

“V’es tznu’im chochmah — with the modest ones come wisdom” (Mishlei 11:2). Tzniyus refers to something that is internal and hidden from the world. Rav Elefant likened a person’s inner world to a shelf upon which wisdom can be stored. Without that shelf, that inner place that is uniquely one’s own, wisdom has no place to be stored and it dissipates.

The prerequisite for retaining chochmah is that there be a receptacle into which it can be poured. And for that there must be individuality, a sense of one’s distinct self. But if everything one does, every flicker of an insight, is instantly shared with the entire world, it never becomes internalized and there is nothing left that remains distinctly one’s own. Modern technology encourages the immediate sharing of everything about oneself. It is antithetical to the development of a private realm, and thus to creating a place within ourselves where wisdom can be nurtured and develop.

An insight that is immediately shared not only loses its power to give sustenance to the one who has it, but it also brings little benefit to the recipient. Someone once asked the late Rav Shlomo Wolbe to share with him his pshat in Ashrei. The mashgiach was aghast. “I’ve been working on Ashrei for decades,” he told the man. Whatever understanding of Ashrei he had attained, the mashgiach explained, was inseparable from the effort invested in attaining it. Thus, he made clear, there was no way for him to transmit his pshat in Ashrei, even had he been so inclined.

JUST AS THE ULTIMATE fulfillment of the individual — the ability to receive Torah, the Divine Wisdom — depends on the development of an inner realm, so does the strength of a couple depend on the existence of a private realm that is shared only by the partners themselves. The more of the relationship that is hidden from public view the more powerful the bond between the partners. On the verse “Kol kvudah bas melech penimah” (Tehillim 45:14), Rav Aharon Kotler once pointed out that kavod is a language of revelation. The animating power of the relationship is that which is revealed, but that revelation takes place only in a manner totally hidden from the view of the world and shared only by the partners themselves.

THE ABILITY TO HOLD things within, to remain silent, is both the tool for the development of the inner self and an indication of how far that development has gone. Last week, I read at the story of Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, who was captured in the Battle of the Bulge, with over 1,000 other American soldiers. When the Germans ordered the Jewish soldiers to step forward, Edmonds, the highest-ranking soldier in the group, ordered all his men to step forward and told the German commander, “We are all Jews.”

Even when a gun was placed at his head and the commander threatened to blow his brains out if he did not identify the Jewish soldiers, Edmonds replied calmly, “If you shoot me, you’ll have to shoot all of us, and after the war you will be tried for war crimes.” The commander backed off.

What Roddie Edmonds did that day is awe-inspiring. But even more awe-inspiring, in my mind, is that over the next 40 years of his life, he never told anyone what he had done. Only when his granddaughter looked through his wartime diary as part of a school project, long after he had passed away, did his heroism come to light. I find it easier to imagine having stood firm in the face of the German officer’s threat than to imagine never telling another person, even a spouse, about such a remarkable deed. Roddie Edmonds was not Jewish, but that day he saved the lives of approximately 200 Jewish servicemen. Rabbi Gedaliah Schorr once explained the verse “The hidden things are to Hashem; and the revealed to us and our children” (Devarim 29:28) to mean that as long as our meritorious deeds remain hidden from our fellow man, they “belong to Hashem,” i.e., stand for our eternal reward. But as soon as they are “revealed” and belong to everyone, they no longer accord the same merit. Roddie Edmonds lived that interpretation.

Not All Unexpected Consequences Are Bad

I suspect that many Mishpacha readers may have already read the following true story involving an out-of-the blue luncheon invitation from the South Korean ambassador to the UN to Mr. Shlomo Werdiger. Though the events in question took place almost two years ago, they were reported for the first time just a few weeks ago.

Shlomo Werdiger is the chairman of the board of directors of Agudath Israel of America. But he is also the founder and CEO of Outerwear, a licensee of almost all the major sports leagues in the United States for the production of children’s clothing bearing the logos of professional teams. At the start of the luncheon in question, the South Korean ambassador, Mr. Oh Joon, confessed to Mr. Werdiger that he had always harbored certain negative feelings about Jews and Israel. But over the preceding year his daughter had been employed as a designer by Outerwear, and what she told him about the company had completely changed his perceptions.

Four things in particular had stood out. First, the way all the male employees stopped whatever they were doing promptly at 1:30 p.m., every day, to enter a room and pray. Second, the way the office shuts down completely early Friday afternoon for all employees, whether Jewish or not. Third, the way she had been treated with respect and dignity as an employee. And fourth, the stream of visitors to the office soliciting for various causes, and the way each one went out with a check in hand.

The change in attitude had gone so far as to affect Mr. Oh Joon’s votes as South Korea’s representative to the UN Security Council. On at least one occasion, he had abstained on a Security Council resolution to force Israel to abandon all areas beyond the 1949 armistice lines within three years. That abstention was the crucial vote preventing passage of the resolution.

So impressed was Mr. Oh Joon that he took out his checkbook and offered to repay his daughter’s entire wages over the preceding year, an offer that Shlomo Werdiger rejected out of hand. “Your daughter earned her salary and rightfully deserves her pay,” he told her father.

THIS PARTICULAR STORY reminds me of one that I heard from Detroit philanthropist Gary Torgow at a Torah Umesorah convention well over a decade ago involving Rabbi Berel Wein and the then-editor of the Detroit Free Press. At a meeting between the two, likely arranged by Gary (I don’t remember), the editor made a point of stating that he had never allowed an editorial critical of Israel in his paper and never would. And he proceeded to tell Rabbi Wein the story behind that decision. The editor’s mother, Mary, arrived in Detroit direct from Ireland as an 18-year-old serving girl. Her first employer was an Orthodox Jewish family. The paterfamilias was the president of the Orthodox shul just down the street from his house. In late December, the family went away on vacation to friendlier climes. They were scheduled to return the evening of December 24. Mary, who in all likelihood had never before met a Jew in her life, realized to her horror that they would come home to a house without an X-mas tree and without adequate time left to purchase one. So she used the money with which she had been left to purchase a tree and shiny ornaments with which to festoon the tree and the house.

Thus did the president of the neighboring Orthodox shul return home to find a X-mas tree prominently on display for all and sundry passing his house. Perhaps he noted on Mary’s face her eager anticipation of the effect of her “surprise.” Perhaps not. But in any event, he invited her to his study. And instead of reprimanding her for her stupidity for not knowing that Jews do not celebrate X-mas, he told her that her genuine gesture was the “most beautiful thing anyone had ever done for him.” And he rewarded her with a $100 bill, a very large sum indeed during the Depression.

As a consequence of that deed, the editor of the Detroit Free Press told Rabbi Wein, Israel was above criticism in his paper.

Both stories serve as crucial reminders of the unexpected impact that our conduct as Orthodox Jews can have, and the benefit it can bring to the entire Jewish People. But there is a difference between the two. Few of us can say with confidence that we would have acted as the protagonist in the X-mas tree story. Maintaining one’s composure when one is extremely embarrassed, and being able to recognize the pure intentions of the source of that embarrassment, takes a rare degree of self-control.

But all of us try to daven Minchah with a minyan, leave work early enough to greet the Shabbos Queen in a relaxed fashion, and to treat those we meet as human beings worthy of our respect. We probably also imagine that if we were as wealthy as Shlomo Werdiger, we would be as generous as he is (though that may well be a bit of unwarranted self-flattery).

In other words, the first story does not depend on the possession of extraordinary middos. All we have to do is behave as loyal Torah Jews are supposed to, and we have the power to make an immense kiddush Hashem with far-reaching consequences.

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