THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF RABBI PINKY SCHMECKELSTEIN
On Global Economic Disparity
I am writing these words while on official “Yeshiva business” in India. From the moment I arrived in India, I observed the tremendous social disparities that define the country. There are people quite literally living in the street, often in feeble shacks at the side of a road that make your ten-year-old pre-fab Sukkoh look like a Borough Park brownstone. There is a stench in the outside air that smells like shul during Minchah on Shabbos afternoon, a few hours after the Kehillah feasted on a cholent-laden Kiddush.
One inevitable question that nags one’s consciousness is: Why do so many people, literally hundreds of millions out of a population of one billion, live in conditions of abject poverty and illiteracy, while you and I are forced to suffer in other ways – say by being denied the opportunity to buy a 50 inch LCD television -- due to the painful burden… errr … groisse mitzvah of paying yeshiva tuition? And this is a question that goes beyond what I am witnessing in India. Eppis, why are billions of people throughout the world living in such dire poverty that they cannot afford even simple shaytels to cover up their wives’ ervadicka heads?
At the root of this of course lies two of the most fundamental questions of all: Why has the Reboinoisheloilum created his world with such disparity? And how do the existence and fate of Klal Yisroel mesh with this broader reality?
I am reminded of a Maiseh Shehoya (this really happened, by the way). When I was a young bochural, I once asked my Rebbe how it was that Klal Yisroel was destined for the rewards of Oilum Habah, whereas the Goyim (Yemach Shmum!) will be unfairly punished for their Pugoom, their damaged state, and will be denied preferred access to the Reboinoisheloilum. Are they to be punished for a fate that is not of their own choosing? How could Hakadoshboruchhu deny a Goy his eternal rewards if he is never given the opportunity to be “chosen”?
Answered my Rebbe essentially the following: The Reboinoisheloilum is inherently fair. Everyone in the world, even the most illiterate native of Bora Bora, has the opportunity to embrace Yiddishkeit and the Aimishteh, even for one fleeting moment in his life. In other words, if that native does not exercise his opportunity to “be saved,” it is his own fault. Or, as Rashi used to say after a few glasses of his Special Reserve Bordeaux – “who freaking cares?”
Now, clearly, my Rebbe was a total ignoramus. This was never more apparent than when visiting a place like India. The locals living in the streets, millions upon millions of people representing generations of poor, illiterate farmers and the dregs of society, could never have had the opportunity to discover the wonders of Yiddishkeit. Let’s face it: they don’t even know how to use a flushing toilet, let alone put on a pair of Rabbeinu Tam Tfilin. So this argument is an ignorant cop out; my Rebbe was probably spending too much time playing “find the milah” with himself to have dedicated real time to pondering this question. (This Rebbe did indeed sit through much of the class throughout the year with his hand down his pants. Seriously.)
There are exactly two ways to think of these questions, as characterized by a famous machloikess between Rav and Shmuel in a Gemara in Baba Basra.
According to Rav, the Reboinoisheloilum is not at all interested in fairness between Klal Yisroel and the Umois HaOilum. We were chosen to be His people, His nation, or, as the Rabbeinu Chananel describes is, “His bitches”. Hakadoshboruchhu intentionally created the world with its many categories of people and animals, and with its own built in hierarchy of capability and Kedusha. Do you expect a cat to type on a computer? Do you expect a monkey to speak in sign language?… errr…Let me try this again. Do you expect a monkey to fly a rocket to space?… errr… Let me try this one more time. Do you except a monkey to take a long position on a biomedical stock? Kal V’Choimer, you should not expect a Goy, a shaygitz, to have a special relationship with the Aimisheh! It is simply not in his genetic code; it is not his destiny. This is the position that is indeed echoed in the words of my old Rebbe.
However, Shmuel takes the opposite position. According to Shmuel, Klal Yisroel indeed does NOT have a monopoly on the Reboinoisheloilum. As proof, Shmuel points to the important role of the galach Yisroi, Moishe Rebbeinu’s father-in-law, in the formation of Klal Yisroel and its legal system. He also points to the basic notion of the Sheva Mitzvois Bnei Noiach, the seven Noahide laws, as a fundamental illustration of the relationship between Hakadoshboruchhu and the Goyim – If they have basic behavioral responsibilities, which imply free choice, they must, therefore, also be recognized as partners in the world, whose behaviors are part of the fabric of Oilum Hazeh, with the opportunity for reward in Oilum Habbah. To support his position Shmuel highlights additional key roles played by Goyim in the Toirah. Did Moishe Rabbeinu marry a skinny Bais Yankif girl from Boro Park whose previous sexual experience was limited to rolling kneidlach and French kissing a mezuzah? NO! He married a hot shiksa, Boruch Hashem. And would you dare to deny that Rebbetzin Rabbeinu was acceptable to the Reboinoisheloilum, you Vilda Chaya?
So if Hakadoshboruchhu does not distinguish between Klal Yisroel and the Goyim, why are there people in India and elsewhere in the world who are condemned to a fate of poverty and desperation? This was a famous question pondered upon by the noted 13th Century mystic, Rabbi Avraham Abulafia. Abulafia was famous for his deep meditation on Hebrew letters, Gematria, and his own toe nails. In his most famous work, Sefer HaYashar, he writes about his meditative visions of the Reboinoisheloilum holding a (flat) world in his hand:
“And there He was, holding what looked like a Matzoh in His hand. And I asked Him, ‘My Lord, why are you holding a Matzoh?’ to which he looked directly at me, and said, ‘It is not a Matzoh. It is Kol HaOilum Kooloh. And I am holding it because I am hungry!’ He then spread date jam on the Matzoh, and proceeded to eat it. It was at that point that I realized that Hakadoshboruchhu is less concerned about Klal Yisroel and the rest of the world than he is about having a nice snack. So from that point on I gave up on understanding the Aleph Baiz and started meditating on fresh fruit.” Unquote.
It is believed that this passage was critical in the formulation of the MAHARSHAL’s famous introduction to the Chuchmas Shloimoi. In introducing his Sefer, which focuses on identifying and correcting textual errors within the Talmud, the MAHARSHAL writes, “It is high time someone has taken upon himself the task of correcting all of these mistakes in the various manuscripts. Aimishteh knows He isn’t about to do it; He actually enjoys watching us create silly new Halachois and Chumras based on incorrect readings of the Gemara. Frankly, the Reboinoisheloilum likes to play with human beings the same way a boy pulls the wings off a fly.”
So what do these quotes have to do with the basic questions we are addressing: The fundamental inequalities of the world, and the role of Klal Yisroel? Very simple, you mechutziff! In the minds of Abulafia and the MAHARSHAL, the Reboinoisheloilum is disinterested in the day-to-day workings of the world, and that disinterest leads to inherent inequality. And perhaps, in their minds, that inequality falls in favor of Klal Yisroel because of Hakadoshboruchhu’s grand design for His Chosen, as well a few timely investments in the energy markets and several networking stocks.
However, there are two things we must keep in mind: The House of Saud and your great-grandfather. What’s Pshat?
If we were to identify a single group that is devout and universally enjoys all the benefits of wealth in our day and age, it is not Klal Yisroel, It is the House of Saud, the royal family of Saudi Arabia. However, I do not personally believe that the House of Saud is enjoying the Aimishteh’s material rewards for practicing strict Wahhabism. After all – the Gemara never mentioned Wahhabism, so, eppis, how can it be important to the Reboinoisheloilum? These guys don’t even filter their water for crustaceans or eat cholent on Shabbos!
Now, with regard to your great-grandfather, I know you think that he drove a Lexis, worked on the Polish or Moroccan equivalent of Wall Street, and had a wife with a shaytel made out of the finest hair from the Belgian Congo. But, to be honest with you, unless your last name is Rothschild, he probably ate potatoes everyday, if he was lucky, owned one pair of tattered shoes, and sewed on buttons for a living. He also lived in a community rife with disease and subject to pogroms, just for an occasional change of pace. I don’t know about your great-grandfather, but mine wasn’t so much better off than the Aluvei HaChaim – the miserables – of India. Consequently, the fact that Klal Yisroel at this moment in history enjoys relative security and economic stability is something that we should appreciate. But we should not take it for granted, or look without empathy on the sufferings of others.
Now, with regard to the role of Klal Yisroel, I would like to point to the explanation of the Ari Zahl, who viewed Hakadoshboruchhu as being in a form of Galus from Klal Yisroel due to a cosmic accident at the time of creation (the Shattering of the Vessels), and it is up to Klal Yisroel to rescue the Holy Sparks from the evil Klipois in order to restore the world to its intended perfect state. Think of this as trying to get your girlfriend’s bra off while making out in a parked car (a distant memory for many of us who have dedicated our lives to Toirah and Mitzvois, and to monogamy): It takes great exertion to restore your girlfriend to her natural state. She may not even be helpful. But the rewards are plentiful, especially if she is a C cup or greater.
So it is with Tikkun Oilum. Klal Yisroel has a mission, but it is also easy to envision that even the Goyim can share in that mission. They too, through their actions, can contribute to the effort to recover the Holy Sparks of Creation. Alternately, they can at least help out a little when we try to take off their bras.
Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Yeshiva Chipas Emmess