Have you ever stopped to contemplate your place in history? A friend and I were discussing the topic the other day. He was harsh on himself.
"I'm just an average guy. I'm not a scholar. I'm not rich," he said, adding for good measure, "My place in history? I don't even rate."
I was taken aback. "You can't begin to imagine how wrong you are. Not only are you very important, even a deed that you might consider insignificant, the Creator considers of major importance."
To buttress my point, I cited a Midrash discussing events recorded in this week's Torah portion.
Commenting on Aaron fulfilling the Divine's command that he go meet his brother Moses atop Mt. Elokim, the Midrash (Vayikrah Rabbah 34:8) notes that the Torah records the incident to teach us a lesson in how we should serve the Creator with a happy heart.
Had Aaron known that his action would be recorded for eternity, then "he would have gone out to greet Moses with drums and dances." The Midrash goes on to cite two other examples of biblical personages who, had they known their actions would be recorded, would have acted very differently: Reuben, in the saving of his brother, Joseph; and Boaz in his giving nourishment to Ruth.
The Sixteenth Century work Yefeh Toar is troubled by this Midrash. At first blush, it appears to be saying that these three men considered saintly and of unfathomable mind and spirit, whose every fiber was devoted to serving the Divine were in actuality would-be limelight seekers concerned with their image.
Rabbi Elya Meir Bloch, the late dean of the Telshe Yeshiva near Cleveland, observes that the Torah is not merely a chronicle of happenings. After all, there are countless people who lived, and even more incidents that transpired, that were never recorded. Rather, Scripture only transcribes those people and events that carry with them eternal ramifications.
When Reuben saved Joseph, he had no idea of the eternal importance of his deed. He surely thought that he was just acting as a responsible older brother in squelching a family quarrel. Had he grasped that his action was paramount in altering the destiny of his People and would thereby be recorded in the Torah he would have done it with much greater vigor. For Joseph's survival was necessary for the endurance of Jewry in the immediate future in Egypt, and, ultimately, for the aspirations of the coming of the Messiah.
|We're conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments, but great moments often catch us unaware...beautifully wrapped in what others may consider a small one. |
Similarly, when Aaron traveled to greet his younger brother, he didn't realize the historic impact that his act would have. He loved Moses and hadn't seen for many years. What Aaron didn't know indeed, couldn't have known was at that point, Moses was still reluctant to accept the role as Jewry's savior. Aaron's elated greeting helped cement Moses' resolve and his role in history as the ultimate leader of his People in both bringing them out of Egypt and delivering the Torah.
And finally, Boaz. As far as he was concerned, he was merely performing an act of kindness by providing food to somebody very much in need. He had no idea that this act was a harbinger for events that would lay the foundation for the Davidic throne, and the eventual coming of the ultimate redeemer, the Messiah.
Had Boaz realized all of this that his deed was so important, that the Prophet would record it he would have done so with much more effervescence.
In all three cases, it was not the thought of any future reverance that would have motivated them. Rather, the realization of their role in impacting history.
Educator and author Avi Shulman expressed this idea so eloquently and succinctly in a recent column: "We're conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments, but great moments often catch us unaware...beautifully wrapped in what others may consider a small one."
It could be a passing comment or a short word of encouragement. Even a small act of kindness that, unbeknownst to the benefactor, can have a cataclysmic effect on those at the receiving end. No, it might not show up in the newspapers. But this does not minimize the importance of the act.
Rabbi Ezra Blum stood dumbfounded, staring at a wedding invitation that he had just received. The name of the groom was familiar to him, but he just couldn't quite picture what he looked like. On the bottom of the invitation was a personal note from the groom stating that it would mean a lot to him if Rabbi Blum would attend.
Why, Rabbi Blum wondered, was he personally being invited to this wedding?
Rabbi Blum decided to go. When he entered the hall, the groom, who he immediately recognized as a casual acquaintance for his rabbinical school days, ran over and embraced him. He practically read the befuddled rabbi's mind when he said: "I know you must be wondering why it meant so much to me that you come. But I want you to know that without you, this moment would not be possible."
Rabbi Blum remained silent. The groom went on to reveal a story that would leave the rabbi shocked.
Though few knew it, when the groom first entered rabbinical school, he was having severe problems keeping up and coping. The fact that he was bashful and too embarrassed to ask anybody for help, only intensified the problems. He decided that instead of addressing the issues, he'd blame G-d. He contemplated not only leaving the rabbinical school, but religious observance altogether.
A few hours before he was to begin his new life, he passed Rabbi Blum. As it was Saturday night, the then rabbinical student wished the future groom warmly and with a smile, "a gutte vach [good week]."
Said the groom: "When you casually asked me how I was doing, I answered that things could be better. You sat me down and we shmoozed for a while. By the end of the conversation I felt much better. The frustration and feeling of loneliness that was pent up within me now seemed to dissipate somewhat. I now thought that perhaps I should give the rabbinical school some more time."
The future groom's attitude changed and so did his situation. For the better. With stability came scholarship and stature and a wonderful fiance from a fine family.
"I can never thank you enough...because I attribute my good fortune to you," the groom ended.
Standing in the wedding hall, Rabbi Blum only vaguely recalled the conversation he had with the groom. He never realized the impact that a simple greeting, a smile, and a few words of encouragement can accomplish.
Getting back to my friend, we often undervalue the various acts of kindness that we do for our families. We view them as something we are merely required to do. In our minds we minimize their importance, impact and subsequent reward.
Rabbi Shalom Schwadron, the famed Jerusalem orator, once met Rabbi Isaac Sher, dean of the Slabodker Yeshiva, and mentioned to him that he was taking his son to the doctor. Rabbi Sher corrected him, saying, "No...you are taking a young boy to the doctor. It happens to be that the young boy is your son."
The message Rabbi Sher was conveying? If we were to take care of the needs of a helpless young child, we would be hailed as practitioners of kindness. The fact that the child is our own son in no way diminishes the kindness.
We'd stand in awe of someone who is described as one who performs acts of kindness every second of the day. Yet you'd be surprised to know that chances are that you are one of those people.
"Praiseworthy are those who maintain justice, who perform righteousness at all times," says Psalms (106:3). Is it possible to engage in "righteousness" at all times? The sages of Yavneh and others say in the name of Rabbi Eliezer, that this is referring to someone who supports his young children. "For the burden is upon him night and day, and it is an act of righteousness" (Talmud, Kesubos 50a, Rashi). Imagine the reward for this when one's livelihood is difficult to come by.
And what about the efforts expended by parents to rear their children in His ways? The Torah says about Abraham: "For I have given him special attention because he commands his children, and his household after him, and they will preserve the ways of the Divine by doing charity and justice so that He will bring upon Abraham all that He has spoken of him." ( Genesis 18:19). This verse is applicable to all who make the proper rearing of their children a major priority. And if it involves a great financial or emotional sacrifice, how much greater the deed.
And what of a person's personal inner struggles in maintaining a closeness with the Divine and high standards of religiosity?
All of the above are not glamorous achievements in people's eyes, but glamour does not a good deed make. It is the importance of the deed in His eyes that counts.
We only cited part of the Midrash at the beginning of this article. It continues: "In the olden days, the Divine would dictate and Moses would record the tales of the Torah. But now that the Torah was sealed, Elijah and the Messiah record the deeds of people, and G-d signs on it." Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky, the late dean of Brooklyn's famed Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, explains that the Midrash is telling us: Do not think that now that the Torah has been sealed, that it is no longer possible to do acts that affect our history. For the history of our people is still in the process of being transcribed by Elijah and the Messiah. Our actions, although not celebrated, still impact the entire nation. We will only learn their full consequences once the Messiah arrives.
May it happen speedily.