Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zt”l, grew up as a normal American Jewish boy in Chicago; he went to Arie Crown day school. He eventually became a revered Rosh Yeshiva at the Mir in Jerusalem, and taught many thousands of students over the years; one of the great Rabbis of the generation. When Rav Finkel died in 2011, the executive director of Yeshiva, Rabbi Grunwald, gave a eulogy for him at the Yeshiva Gedolah of Teaneck, and told the following story:
About 20 years ago, one of Rav Finkel’s students in New York died suddenly and very young, leaving behind a wife and 5 children. Rav Finkel, who had been very close to this student, felt a personal responsibility to the family. He told the children to stay in touch with him through letters, and that they could ask him any question on their minds or write to him about any issue that might come up. Rav Finkel kept photos of these orphans in his pocket as a constant reminder of his “other” family, and he developed a real connection with the children. The kids would write to him about everything, even inconsequential, small things – a sign of real comfort and closeness. And Rav Finkel, with great difficulty due to his Parkinsons disease, would always write a letter in response. This went on for many years until the boys grew up and came to Israel to learn in Yeshiva, where every Friday night, the boys would have dinner with Rav Finkel and his family.
After Rabbi Grunwald completed the eulogy, he was approached by one of the young married men in the Teaneck yeshiva. The man said: “The story about the orphans is an unbelievable one, but it doesn’t end there. You see, in this orphaned family, there were four older brothers, and a little 8 year old girl. And unlike her older brothers, she didn’t know how or what to write to Rav Finkel; she felt awkward and shy, understandably. But then one day, her mother handed her a letter from Jerusalem, addressed specifically to her. She excitedly opened the letter and pulled out the paper inside. It was a hand-drawn picture of a large heart shape with a loving message to her, signed by Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel on the bottom. Since her father had passed away, she had never felt so loved.” The young man said to Rabbi Grunwald – “That little girl is now my wife and, to this day, that letter continues to give her strength and comfort.”
In this morning’s Torah reading, we read about the gripping, challenging story of the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac. An incredible story of Avraham and Yitzchak’s devotion, their willingness to sacrifice everything for God. It’s one of the high moments of history; a game changing moment in the lives of our forefathers, and a game changing moment for our nation as a whole.
But what’s interesting is that our reading ends in a very mundane way; with verses that are both boring and which appear to have little importance, meaning or relevance, certainly to the holy day of Rosh Hashanah:
“It came to pass after these things, that Avraham was told, Behold, Milcah, she has also born children to your brother Nahor; Chuz his firstborn, and Buz his brother, and Kemuel the father of Aram, and Kesed, and Chazo, and Pildash, and Yidlaph, and Bethuel. And Bethuel fathered Rebecca; these eight Milcah did bear to Nahor, Avraham’s brother. And his concubine, whose name was Reumah, she bore also Tebah, and Gacham, and Tachash, and Ma’achah.”
Now, even if these verses are important to teach us about the birth of Rebecca, Yitzchak’s future wife – why include it in today’s Torah reading? And what about all the family gossip about babies and concubines – what do we need this for? After the most incredible story of faith and sacrifice in human history, the whole story ends with a thud!
HL Mencken was one of the greatest journalists of the early 20th century; a man whose sharp pen wounded Presidents on all sides of the political spectrum. In one of his essays, Mencken summed up his view of humanity in a particularly brutal way:
“The existence of most human beings is of absolutely no significance to history or human progress. They live and die as anonymously and as nearly uselessly as so many bullfrogs or houseflies. They are, at best, undifferentiated slaves upon an endless assembly line, and at worst they are robots who leave their mark upon time only by occasionally falling into the machinery, and so inconveniencing their betters.”
It’s a brutal view of humanity – and by humanity, I mean all of us. In Mencken’s view, the vast majority of us will accomplish little or nothing of lasting value in this life; our busy lives, filled with work and deadlines and obligations that seem so important to us now – none of this will be remembered; none of this will matter in the grand scheme of history.
When we hear a statement like this, we feel, in our gut, that it can’t be true; that our lives must have significance! But let’s be honest for a moment; how many of us in this room will be remembered 100 years from now? Will our great grandchildren, and their children after them, even know our names? And how many of our accomplishments, how many of the articles and books we write, will still matter or be remembered even 50 years from now? The chances are not good!
And so I ask all of you: as arrogant as he may be, as heartless as he may sound – Is Menken right?
In his Laws of Repentance, Maimonides makes an astonishing statement – a statement that flies in the face of everything Mencken believed:
“Through the year, a person must always regard himself as if he were equally balanced between innocence and guilt, and as if the whole of human kind were also equally balance between innocence and guilt. Therefore, if he performs one sin, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of guilt and brings destruction upon himself and the entire world. But if he performs one Mitzvah, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of merit and brings deliverance and salvation to himself and others.”
What is Maimonides trying to tell us? Does he really believe that one small action, for good or for bad, can change the fate of the entire world? And what does it mean that we should see ourselves “As if” the world’s fate in hanging in the balance? There is a lot to digest in these few lines.
But if there’s one thing Maimonides wants us to absorb, to build into our consciousness, it is this: Our actions matter more than we can possibly understand!
It’s true – as Mencken tells us, the vast majority of human beings, ourselves included, will die anonymously; the coming generations will not remember our names. But Mencken, says Maimonides, is making a colossal mistake. You see, in Mencken’s does not grasp that fame and significance do not correlate, one with the other. To change the course of world history, to bring, in Maimonides’ world “deliverance and salvation” – this has nothing to do with fame or reputation! Mencken doesn’t understand the extraordinary spiritual impact, the eternal significance, of the life of an “average” human being!
Why does the story of the Akeidah end with triviality? Why does the Torah shift so quickly and awkwardly from one of the greatest moments in human history, to the lineage of Avraham’s second cousins?
Explains Rav Soloveitchik: The Akeida should have shaken the world at its very foundation; it is the only thing that people should have talked about! They should have rushed to Avraham, to ask him about his awesome experience; they should have clamored to understand how it affected Avraham, the impact the experience would have on world history, and on our relationships with God.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, Avraham encountered a world that was uninterested, unaffected, and unmoved. A world in which no one understood, in which no one paid attention. One of the greatest moments in spiritual history went entirely unnoticed!
This is why our Torah reading ends with smallness. Because instead of changing their lives in response to the Akeidah, the people of Avraham’s time continued living as if nothing had happened, as if nothing had changed. They continued to fill their lives with smallness, with triviality, sharing snippets of gossip, catching up on the latest family news. They missed it, they missed the whole thing.
This was another aspect of the great test of the Akeidah: to be unnoticed and forgotten by the world, and yet to persevere, to believe in the deep and eternal significance of your life and your actions. After the Akeidah, Avraham learned that society can be shallow and small; that all too often, the most significant moments of life are destined to be ignored by our fellow man.
At the end of her classic novel, Middlemarch, George Eliot writes: “the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
This, says Rav Soloveitchik, is the lesson which every Jew must take with him or her from Rosh Hashana: that though we may live “hidden lives”, and rest in “unvisited tombs,” the fate of this world rests upon the shoulders of each and every one of us.
This is a truth that Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel understood; a truth that he felt in the deepest way, and sought to share with others. His message to that a broken 8 year old girl was a message that all of us need to hear, now more than ever: YOU matter! Your life is consequential – even if nobody notices!
And it may be that giving THIS message – to our spouses, to our children and to all of our fellow Jews – is the greatest kindness that we can do for each other.
מצוה על כל אדם לאהוב את כל אחד ואחד מישראל כגופו, שנאמר “ואהבת לריעך כמוך.
Hard as it may be, we must love our fellow Jews as we love ourselves. But HOW do we do this, practically? Explains Maimonides:
לפיכך צריך שיספר בשבחו
Therefore, you must praise him
How can we express our love for our fellow Jews? First and foremost, praise them! Pay attention to each Jew’s uniqueness; notice their strengths; and tell them about it! Tell them how kind they are, how inspiring they are – how consequential they are – and that it doesn’t matter whether or not anybody else notices! This is what it means to love another Jew!
May the King of all Kings, who remembers all and forgets nothing, remember us only for good, for health and for blessing. And may He also help US remember, and never forget, how important WE – and the lives we live – are to Him. Shana Tovah!