Y ears ago, there was a comedy program that wryly billed itself as a “show about nothing.” How true. But in a very different way, many Jewish stories are also about nothing, like two I heard last week while attending a bris.
The first was told by the baby’s grandfather, who was also his mohel. He heard it from Rabbi Yehuda Schwab z”l of Monsey, whose own father, the revered Rav Mordechai, verified it as true. Rav Yosef Kahaneman was once waiting to speak with the Chofetz Chaim in his home, when an elderly man arrived and asked his permission to go in ahead. The door opened and the Chofetz Chaim ushered the man into his room. After some time, the door opened again and the Chofetz Chaim accompanied his guest not only out the door of his home, but to the very edge of town.
Upon the Chofetz Chaim’s return home, Rav Kahaneman asked about the identity of his visitor, and the Chofetz Chaim said that because Rav Kahaneman had seen him, he could reveal that it was Eliyahu Hanavi who had paid him a visit. Emerging from his meeting with the Chofetz Chaim, Rav Kahaneman asked the others waiting there if they, too, had seen that eltere Yid. All had seen nothing.
As we were partaking of the seudah, the person sitting next to me shared a story he’d heard from a talmid chacham who had gone to the Steipler’s Bnei Brak home to purchase two sets of the seforim he authored, known to bnei Torah everywhere as Kehillos Yaakov. As always, the Steipler explained that he wasn’t a seforim seller and declined to sell anything other than the individual volumes someone might need for his studies.
But when the prospective purchaser mentioned that his wife descended from Rav Mottel Hornosteipeler, the Steipler’s attitude changed. He told his einekel to bring three sets of Kehillos Yaakov for his visitor, and shared this story: When his father’s first wife passed away at a young age and his father sought to remarry, two matches were proposed for him. One was with a woman of means, the other with a poor woman whose yiras Shamayim was exemplary. He consulted Rav Mottel, who advised him to marry the latter woman. “And if you’re wondering,” added the tzaddik, “whether her poverty will prevent you from devoting as much time to learning Torah as you’d like, I bless you to have a child who will spread Torah far and wide to compensate for your lack.” That woman was the Steipler’s mother.
“And that’s why,” the Steipler concluded, pointing to the Kehillos Yaakov, “although there’s nothing in these seforim, the whole world wants them.”
Two tales, both about nothing, from which we learn that when a Jew sees himself as nothing, he creates room in his life for the only true Something to fill.
DESPERATE FOR NORMAL
Over the last several weeks, secular Jewish news outlets were abuzz over the Israeli national baseball team’s improbable string of victories in a tournament known as the World Baseball Classic. Ranked 41st in the world, the team — composed largely of American Jews who, despite little if any connection to Israel, are eligible for citizenship under its Law of Return — wasn’t even supposed to qualify to participate, let alone defeat four teams ranked far higher. Only in the competition’s second round did the Israeli team finally falter, knocked out of contention by losses to the Japanese squad.
As the Israeli team notched victory after victory against all odds, causing Jewish media to gush with pride, apparently setting countless Jewish hearts aflutter, I had an opportunity to gauge my own internal thoughts and feelings, and then place these goings-on under a microscope of authentic Jewish thought and feeling and consider: Was I witnessing triumph or tragedy?
My conclusion was that it was the latter. That’s not because there’s something terrible about baseball or about Jews playing it — there isn’t — nor even because baseball is just silly, a child’s game played by adults — which it is. Silliness does not, in itself, tragedy make.
The tragic nature of Team Israel’s aborted run at baseball greatness and the excitement it sparked has nothing to do with baseball and everything to do with Israel, or at least with the Jewish nation it purports to represent. But isn’t tragedy a rather strong word for this?
Not really. Meet Yankel, a fully functional adult, possessing vast potential to do so much with his life, who, one fine day, decides to make the fashioning of all manner of creative paper-clip chains his all-consuming life’s endeavor. For the casual observer, it’s cute, it’s off-beat, albeit more than a little bit weird, and he moves on.
But not if you’re Yankel’s mother or father. For them, it’s literally tragic. In their surpassing love for him, they can’t bear to focus for even a moment on Yankel’s cute creations which are a waste of their child’s life, the living death of their flesh and blood, and, compounding the misfortune, one to which he is entirely oblivious.
Israel has a destiny, a mission, a world-transformational calling. Not the “Israel” that at its founding in 1948 lifted that venerable name from a Jewish history it largely repudiated, but Yisrael, as in, “Bereishis — bishvil Yisrael shenikra reishis,” as in, “Yisrael asher becha espa’ar,” as in, “Hamavdil… bein Yisrael l’amim.”
Rav Saadya Gaon’s statement that “Ein umaseinu umah ela b’Toroseha — Our nation is not a nation other than by virtue of its Written and Oral Torahs” (Emunos V’dei’os, Ma’amar Shlishi) isn’t a bumper sticker, a neat aphorism. It expresses the most important truth in all of human history, one that echoes off the pages of every book in Tanach.
And it’s phrased with a double negative (Ein… ela) to drive home the exclusive nature of that hard truth: Nothing other than our possession of the Torah plays any role in our national character, nothing whatsoever. Not a common land, language, and culture. Not winning four games, or 15, in a baseball competition. Not ranking on some non-Jew’s list as the world’s eighth-strongest power. Not being a world leader in hi-tech R&D or entrepreneurship or 21st century Nobel Laureates. Not even boasting one of the world’s best-trained and equipped fighting forces.
Of course, we should hope and pray that Israel’s economy thrives, and feel great when it does — and thank the Reason for it, too. That means Jews will have parnassah. Of course we need to be able to defend ourselves against the wolves that encircle us. But there’s a world of difference between feeling good that Jews are secure and have parnassah, and one’s heart swelling with national pride and feelings of “we’ll show them…”
As for the notion of being the eighth-strongest nation, there’s a good case to be made that Israel is the single most vulnerable country on the planet, although it’s a case I can’t possibly expect Walter Russell Mead to grasp. Query: Is there another nation whose very ability to remain in its land has been declared by G-d Almighty Himself to depend on whether it upholds His moral standards?
One so deeply understands the natural human impulse to revel in economic, military, educational, and other achievements, and hold them up to a cruel, unjust world as a vindication of Israel’s goodness or even just its plain normalcy. We all crave to be accepted as normal, yet here is a country that for its entire existence has been treated as grotesquely abnormal, an international leper.
But the truth — so hard to hear, but so genuinely Jewish — is that despite the malicious intentions of the dysfunctional family of nations and its kangaroo courts, they’re right. There’s nothing at all normal about the Jewish people, and the sooner we accept that, the sooner we can stop running down dead ends and start achieving national greatness.
Our history isn’t normal, neither in its magnificent successes nor its epic failures. Our national character isn’t normal, and neither is our mission on this Earth, which is to teach the world by example the spiritual and moral lessons that make life worth living. And for us to neglect that mission and trade it in for baseball games and hi-tech start-ups and military prowess is even more abnormal — and tragic — than Yankel spending his days making paper-clip chains.
Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at email@example.com.