I will soon be heading out for Chaya Weisbard’s son’s bar mitzvah. “How nice”, many of you will be thinking, since you don’t know her. Except for those who do. She runs the women’s Heritage House where some of you began your journey to moving beyond whatever level of connection to Torah you had. Needless to say, her job requires that she be everything to everyone, a job that she pulls off with no only real skill, but with humility, which is so much harder. I just want to share something that typifies her so much. I called to ask what to buy her son-I told her that I was in a book store. I expected her to agree with whatever struck my eye at the moment, so I asked if he would like a sefer hachinuch. This is a great book for reference. It goes through all of the 613 mitzvos, tells you what they are, how to observe them, and what their spiritual root and purpose is. All this in easily readable language! Instead, she stayed on the phone (not long, maybe 3 minutes or so) and told me about her son, his intellectual curiosity and his love of topics that are interesting and different. I looked around, didn’t come up with anything so we went back to thinking in terms of a classic. Then a book of Q and A on contemporary issues written by a real erudite and witty rabbi, Rav Zilbershtein, came into view and that’s what I bought. What blew me away was the fact that she actually knew what her son would like, and that she trusted my sincerity enough to actually think about it instead of going for “Whatever you buy will be just perfect” or something along those lines. This is how she runs heritage house, and how she changes lives.
If any of you have anecdotes about her, or about Gila Manolson when she “served time” in the same role, I would love to share them with the rest of the crowd… Some of you may even recall Rabbi Meir Shuster who started the ball rolling. He was one of least charismatic men I have ever met (and yes, I have met some very non-charismatic individuals…). What made him so effective was that he broke through the “who cares” barrier. In fact, he was a one of a kind. No one comes close to his record in getting people to be real enough to walk through the door or go to a class. The reason that I use the phrase, “real” is that for so many of us, admitting that you don’t know much about your roots is one thing but being honest enough to say ignorance isn’t a great choice is an entirely different story. It was a curious mixture of persistence and absolute sincerity that did it.
Of course, the only reason that Chaya, Gila, R. Meir (or for that matter all of the kiruv front liners, Rabbi Refson, Jeff Seidel and tens of others, maybe even hundreds) are relevant is that the world is imperfect. The contrast between the creation narrative in last week’s Parshah and contemporary reality is so unbelievably stark, that words can’t do the job. Dr. Shlomo Kaphach is a doctor of internal medicine who has a deep interest in the inner workings of cells. ‘When you look at the systems in which each cell “lives”, the nervous system, the immunity system etc., no human mind can even grasp its complexity. His archetypical example is DNA. The “letters” in DNA (its components) are estimated at somewhere between 3 billion and 5.5 billion. If you were to take all 32 volumes of the encyclopedia you would have than a hundred million letters”. Nu. Quite a world He made, no?
Now compare this, to what you read about in the news. More and more painful evidence of how well we managed to take a perfect world and degrade it.
It’s not the story of failure, even though there are certainly enough negative thinkers out there who would disagree. It’s a world in which there is simultaneously the possibility of real victory by dealing with the world as a potential full place of challenge. You have to, to use my Rebbe Rav Freifeld’s words, “be the captain of your ship”. The phrase is actually taken from a Midrash on the words, “biZot yavo el hakodesh”, “This is how go to the Holy Place. In context the phrase is related to how to enter the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of he sanctuary in the desert, and later the Temple in Yerushalaim. There are several answers to “how do you get there”,- how do you become the kind of person who can enter a holy place. One answer is “be the captain of your ship”. What that means is that it is up to you to look at your “ship”, your body, your life situation, your resources, and decide the direction you want them to take. Sometimes that takes you to noticing that you can do far more than you ever planned to. When Rabbi Uri Lupolianski broke his leg, he temporarily required a pair of crutches. Six weeks later, he was more than happy to lay them to rest. The thought occurred to him; “I am not the only person in the world who buys medical equipment that will (hopefully) be used for just a short time. These items are costly, and are often discarded. What a waste!”. Decades later, his organization,” Yad Sarah” has branches all over the world (including Africa!). Yad Sarah purchases medical equipment, take a deposit so that the item returns to Yad Sarah after use, and gets passed on to others in need. It services thousands of people every year. You can also think small. You may not have much in the way of resources, but your power of speech belongs to you. Rav Freifeld told this story:
A woman came into his study. She was visibly broken-hearted. When she moved to her new home in Far Rockaway, she invited her best friend to come over. Her friend came in, looked around, and says, “Its nice but the rooms are so small”. The woman was devastated. What was her friend thinking? “When you speak you have to take responsibility” he said. The Gemorrah tells you that when someone shows you a new purchase, you should praise even if it’s a piece of junk. You’re supposed to make people feel good. It’s too late. They already bought it. At least make them feel good by finding something positive to say. In the story, the woman re into her apartment. She’s living there. Why tell her that her rooms are small. Where’s your sense of responsibility?
I’m also journeying through all of this. I will be in the States from Dec. 6-19. If you want me to come to your shul or your community or campus, let me know by email firstname.lastname@example.org
The real Tzadikim knew about taking responsiblity. Their speech no less than their deeds showed how much they took their lives seriously.
This is a new year! Make a new start, a happy one, in which you take your ship with Hashem’s help to the best and safest and most joyous places.