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THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF RABBI PINKY SCHMECKELSTEIN
On Impulse and Divinity
Baruch Ata Idoin’tknoi Eloiheinu Melech HaOilum Boirei Pri Ha-Etz!
I hope you said “Umayn” after I finished my Bracha and was biting into my kiwi. Otherwise you are an Am Ha’aretz who just missed out on an easy Mitzvah. And you can rest assured that the Reboinoisheloilum has noted down your behavior, you Mechutziff!
We are grateful to HaKadoishboruchhu for the opportunities to have such Mitzvois to engage in and in exchange collect Mitzvah Stamps (TM). (I am planning to redeem mine for the new ArtScroll Erotica series.) As we all know, Boruch HaShem, part of being a Jew, a member of Klal Yisroel, the Chosen People, is that the world affords us opportunities every day to sanctify His name and make His world a better place through specific actions.
And what actions are we talking about? There are many sorts of acts, but the common denominator: These actions reflect our recognition that the world is the Aibishter’s creation, and we sanctify His eminence over all existence through small acts that acknowledge His sovereignty. (We akso acknowledge his sovereignty by paying tens of thousands of dollars in Yeshiva tuition, Shul membership, Yomi Noraim seats, summer camp, trips to Israel, Pesach cruises, etc.)
Case in point: Eating a kiwi. A Sheygitz can eat a Kiwi. So can a child who is a SheEinoi Yoideiyah Lish’ol - too young to understand the cosmic implications of his actions. Or a dog. Or, in the case of a kiwi, a kangaroo. They see it, they grab it, they bite into it, they swallow it. Shoyn!! That is the “unthinking” approach.
However, that approach is not what a Jew does! A Jew lives in the world — HaKadoishboruchhu’s world that includes all matter, energy, space, time, and physical laws — and adds actions or words that turn even the most basic act such as eating a kiwi into an acknowledgement of the Omnipresent. We look at nature as something to build upon, not something to simply accept. We are not animals; on the contrary, we were created “BiTzelem Eloikim”, in the image of HaKadoishbiruchhu.
This of course is the essence of the concept of Tikkun Oilum. This concept is based on the teachings of the Ari ZAHL, who describes a cosmic accident at the time of creation that scattered Divine sparks which became mixed with the worse aspects of existence. Our mission is to recover those missing holy sparks, one by one, through good deeds and acts of kindness - Mitzvois - and through individual and collective acts aimed at making the world a better place - Tikkun Oilum.
This basic philosophy of purpose extends well beyond reciting a Bracha before the eating of a kiwi. We kill our food before we eat it (one of the Sheva Mitzvois B’Nei Noiach) so that an animal should not excessively suffer. We create legal systems and are commanded by the Toirah to adhere to such legal systems, as that is the essence of a functioning society. How many times does the Toirah warn us about the dangers of “false judges” and the importance of honest witnesses? We do not simply say or do anything that meets our immediate need of the moment, that satisfies our hunger, that temporary responds to our impulses. We are not animals; on the contrary, we were created “BiTzelem Eloikim”, in the image of HaKadoishbiruchhu.
And so, it is important that we apply this philosophical construct consistently across all aspects of our lives. We do not eat pork or shellfish. They are plentiful, and YUMMY! But we have self imposed limits. We are not animals...
In this spirit we must address the myriad challenges that we face today. The Toirah was not given three thousand years ago to be simply placed on a shelf and dusted off once a week. It is a guidebook to life that we must bear every single day, either through learning with a Chavrusa in Bais Medrish, reading from a printed copy in spare moments, or listening to Daf Yoimi on a smartphone, Chass V’Sholom.
Let us start with Coivid Yud Tess. Setting aside the political overtones that too often grab the headlines, there is no perfect clarity about what should happen next. Should we open schools and businesses, and if so, how slowly or quickly? Will there be a second surge and how bad? If someone has antibodies, will it protect them? Should we be rushing back to Shul (those of you who have not been attending underground outdoor Minyanim three times a day, like, ahem... me)?
What is nature telling us to do? And how do we build upon, and improve upon, nature?
Here is an interesting thought experiment. Imagine we lived before modern medicine. How many people would have died from Coivid Yud Tess?
Somewhere between 40 and 100 million people died during the Influenza of 100 years ago. What if Coivid was around 400 years ago? Perhaps 30% of people who contracted the virus would have died without modern medicine. The saving grace would have been the lack of global inter connectivity that we have today, so perhaps 30% of the local, national or continental population might have died. But it would not have had the global reach we have now.
Let’s say we actually listen to nature. Perhaps nature is telling us that human society has expanded like a swarm of locusts and it is time for a population adjustment. Forests have natural forest fires; it is part of nature’s cycle of balance and renewal. Perhaps nature is engaging in a normal cycle of destruction for the sake of balance and renewal. Painful but necessary, like trimming one’s Payis.
So the Shailah is Azoy: How should we respond to this reality as a society? How should we respond as Jews?
Should we consider the Machalah Coivid Yud Tess to be the will of the Reboinoisheloilum and let nature take its course? Or should we see this as a cosmic imperfection in which holy sparks are scattered and embedded, and view this as an opportunity to rescue the holy sparks through actions designed seek cures and prevent casualties?
(This is known as a rhetorical question, you Mechutziff, so please do not wait around for a direct answer. I have dinner plans.)
The answer is of course an obvious one, but the debate - and challenge - lies in the details.
Another question: How should we think about the unrest that has broken out across the United States following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis who was photographed resting his full weight on the Floyd’s neck for eight minutes after Floyd had already been restrained? There have been massive protests across the country and, in fact, across the world, following this latest example of a black man being killed through excessive force, which this time was captured on video.
While there have been worldwide statements of revulsion and calls for large scale change, there are also many who would rather ignore or dismiss this latest example of brutality directed at someone who did not pose a physical threat. Many of those people voice partisan positioning. And many in our own community repeat those words and those sentiments.
How should we respond to this reality as a society? How should we respond to this as Jews?
Perhaps we should listen to nature. What is nature telling us? We need only look at societies around the world to understand that majorities often mistreat minorities. What nation knows this lesson than Klal Yisroel? Perhaps we should accept this sad reality as an inevitability, just as we know that night follows day and that gravity keeps all of us anchored to the ground.
But... we are not animals; on the contrary, we were created “BiTzelem Eloikim”, in the image of HaKadoishboruchhu. We do not simply surrender to primal impulses; we do not simply “eat the kiwi”. We do not pursue the “unthinking approach”.
I am reminded of a true story told to me by a friend. This friend, who studied with me in Yeshiva many years ago, once shared that he was scheduled to attend a professional event hosted by a Catholic organization. He recalled how when speaking to his father, he spoke dismissively of priests and nuns, echoing the tone that many of us grew up with in our strictly religiously observant upbringing. To his surprise, his father screamed at him, “DON’T YOU EVER SPEAK LIKE THAT AGAIN!”
His father is a survivor of the Shoah, and like many survivors (including my own late father), apparently preferred not to talk about his experiences, perhaps to avoid the pain of revisiting the horrifying nightmare of his youth.
As it turns out, his father and other family members, running from the Nazis and their collaborators, were sheltered within a Catholic School and Church complex. Catholics - Priests and Nuns and others - risked their lives to save them - for the Nazis systematically murdered people who protected Jews.
If we were those Priests and Nuns and others, would we have reconciled ourselves to the Nazi terror and refused to shelter Jews, accepting the systematic gathering and murder of the Jews as the sad nature of social reality at that juncture in time? Would we perhaps have turned in the Jews for a reward? Would we have posted memes and articles mocking Jews? Would we have posted pictures of Jewish criminals and suggest that all Jews were tantamount to criminals? Or would we have acted like those brave souls, risking their lives to save some unknown innocents whose only crime was being born into this world as Jews?
We are told in the Gemarrah, “Kol HaMekayaim Nefesh Achat, Ma’aleh Alav HaKatuv KeEelu Eebayd Oilum Mallei”. “Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” (Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 22a) The same sentiment appears numerous times in the Midrash.
Nature often tells us to destroy, or to look the other way. But the Toirah tells us that even in the bleakest places and at the bleakest moment there are holy sparks to be rescued.
Ah Gutten Shabbos You Minuval
Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess