JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review / Sept. 16, 1999 / 6 Tishrei, 5760

A door that's never closed

By Rabbi Y. Y. Rubinstein

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- A FEW YEARS AGO, I was concluding a lecture in London when, after the hall emptied, one man remained. He approached me and asked if I lived in Manchester. When I confirmed that I did, he went on to inquire as to which specific area. I told him. His next question was whether I knew a certain person who lived there and, again, I answered positively.

"How is he getting on?" the man asked. Next there tumbled a whole series of questions from my inquisitor. What did this person do for a living and how many children did he have and how old were they. I tried my best to answer but as I didn't know the person very well, I couldn't be sure about some details.

Then it was my turn to pose a question: "How do you know him?" My questioner looked at me intensely and a very sad and pensive expression passed across his face. He hesitated, looked down at the floor and very quietly replied, "He's my son."

I was taken aback and after a moment asked, "How is it that you don't know how many grandchildren you have?"

I listened to his tale of a rebellious teenage son who had "gone of the rails" in a big way. The parents had tried every device they could think of to make their son see sense. They had tried bribery and threats and had got other people to try to talk to him but nothing had worked. One night in both frustration and desperation, the father had screamed at his son, "Get out. Get out and never come back!" and that's exactly what he had done.

Fifteen years later the son had settled down and built his own family but he had never come back or had any contact with his parents.

I listened with great sadness and told the father although I didn't know his son too well, I felt sure he would like to see him again. The father shook his head firmly and replied, "It's too late now, too much water has flowed under the bridge." Then an idea struck me. I suggested that if he gave me his address and phone number I could send him regular reports on how his son and his family were getting on. The father liked this idea and so we parted with me promising to keep him in touch.


When I returned to Manchester, by coincidence I bumped into his son (you can always arrange coincidences.) I told him I had just returned from London and had met someone there who was asking after him. He inquired who it was and I paused and then replied "Your Father." He looked at me and said, "How is he getting on?" It was obvious that the son was as concerned for the father as the father was for the son.

I told him that I thought that his father wanted to see him and uncannily he replied in the identical manner as his father had, " I don't think so, too much water has flowed under the bridge."

I tried to persuade him he was wrong and then tried a different approach. " By coincidence I am going back down to London in three days time, suppose I were to take you to see your father?" The son hesitated and I carried on persuading till eventually he agreed.

When I came home I phoned the father and asked him if he would be at home on that Thursday at one o'clock. He probably assumed I intended to phone with a report and confirmed that he would be in. I told him that I was bringing his son to see him and before he could reply I said goodbye and hung up.

Leiters Sukkah

The drive to London passed unusually quickly. We located the house straight away and I walked with my very nervous companion towards the door. I rang the bell and a very long time seemed to elapse before it opened. The man who had so many questions a few days before stood anxiously looking at the face of the son he had missed for fifteen years. I watched as tears welled up in his eyes and started to course down his cheeks.

I turned to the son and he too had tear filled eyes.

The son took one step towards his father and the father rushed towards his son and they folded each other in a hug. After a few moments they turned and walked into the house. I found myself wonderfully redundant and paused to wipe the tears from my own cheeks before smiling my goodbye and getting into my car for the drive back to Manchester.

A few months afterwards the son bought a house in London and moved with his family, to be near his father.

The Dubno Magid asks a question about Birchas Cohanim, the Priestly Blessing. The Cohanim face the congregation and proclaim "May the Creator bless you and keep you." Surely they should face the Holy Ark and ask the Creator to bless and guard the congregation.

He answers with a parable of a son who had behaved so badly that his Father turned his face from him and in shame the boy fled the house. The young man sought refuge with a neighbor and when he told his story the neighbor offered to mediate and reason with the father. The father listened as the neighbour pleaded with him to take the boy back and then replied, " You are a fool. He's my son and I love my son with every ounce of my being. If you want to help the boy go and explain to him what he's done wrong and how he should put it right. My door is always open to my son help him correct his fault so that he can come back, I'm eagerly awaiting his return."

The priests do not have to turn to ask G-d to give His blessings to Jewry. His door is open to shower blessing on us always. All we have to do is make ourselves worthy to receive them and walk towards the door.

On one recent Rosh HaShana eve I opened my machzor (holiday prayerbook) to insert an important piece of paper. Copying the practice of some Baalei Mussar, I prepared a list of the things I needed to repent for. As I opened the pages I found a piece of paper from a previous year. I took it out and held both lists together. They contained the same list of faults in almost identical order. This happening was hardly a coincidence, the Satan had nearly achieved his goal.

I felt disheartened and a hypocrite.

It's a thought many people have told me crosses their minds during the Days of Awe, whether they write down their shortcomings on a piece of paper or not. We ask: "Aren't I trying to do teshuva for the exact same things this year as I did last year and the year before. I slipped back into the same old faults then, won't I do so all over again?"

The Alter of Slabotka, Reb Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt'l quotes the verse in Genesis (1:31): "G-d saw everything that he had created and it was very good."

The Medrash comments, "this one was very good; the others were not!" The L-rd created other worlds before ours and had destroyed them as they were not 'very good.' How many worlds had HaShem created before this one? Nine hundred and seventy four!"

The obvious question is how could the Creator ever make something, which was not perfect, "very good?" And even if, Heaven Forbid, He had made "failed" worlds and destroyed them all because they were not "very good."

What a shocking Medrash! How could he Creator ever make something that wasn't perfect?

The Alter explains with a classic interpretation. G-d creating of our world upon failed worlds was quite intentional. He tells us about them so that we will realise that binyan, building, comes from churban, destruction. It is similar to a Hava Amino, hypothesis, and a maskono, conclusion in a Dvar Torah. One doesn't reach the correct conclusion without having toyed with a hypothesis --- or even several which were incorrect. The lesson for us? We are not expected to reach the maskono until we have tried -- and perhaps failed -- many times. Even if we fail no fewer than 974 times before we get it right. G-d created that number of failed worlds and told us about it to encourage us not to let our present lack of perfection prevent us from persevering towards our final goal.

The dean of the Sunderland yeshiva, Rabbi Shamai Zahn, shlita, often tells his disciples not to become frustrated with what they see as their lack of progress. As an example, he asks them to imagine the sort of clocks that used to be found in train stations and some times still are. These machines are enormous and have huge hands. On some clocks, the minute hand moves dramatically and abruptly from minute to minute. Stationary at five past the hour, it will suddenly fall, to position itself at six minutes past. On other clocks the minute hand moves slowly and imperceptibly so that it gradually arrives from five to six minutes past.

"Some students," says Rabbi Zahn, "will expect to see progress like the hands of the first clock, sudden, dramatic and obvious. More usually however, change comes about slowly and gradually."

We are not expected to "get it right" straight away. It may take many High Holy Day seasons before we compare lists and find that one of the items from last year is no longer on the new one. But as long as we are sincerely trying to repent, we should feel no hesitation about standing before the Holy Ark. After all, G-d is Avinu Sh'BaShamayim, our Father in Heaven. His door is always open, particularly to us who received His assurance and encouragement, Bonim Atem L'HaShem Elokeichem, "You are the children of Hashem your G-d."

JWR contributor Rabbi Y. Y. Rubinstein, an international lecturer, is a commentator for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). He was cited by the U.K. paper, Independent, as being among the five most regarded people in the Britain to turn to for advice. Send your comments by clicking here.


©1999, Rabbi Y.Y. Rubinstein