That’s Very Personal

The pinnacle of the Exodus might help one exit personal predicaments.

This post is a repost from two months ago, when I entitled it, “O Say Can You See.” I am reposting it in honor of the Seventh Day of Pesach, when the splitting of the Red Sea occurred. Chag Sameach!

A people in bondage for over two centuries was majestically and miraculously led out of enslavement to its national destiny. The capstone of that magnificent exodus was the splitting of the mighty waters just as their persecutors hounded them. The Jewish people paraded through the Red Sea. The Egyptians, following them in hot in pursuit, drowned soon after. Exhilaration filled the air as the nation witnessed the miracle of G-d parting the Sea and flooding the forces of Egypt. The Jews were filled with gratitude and emotion, and erupted unanimously in resplendent poetry and song to G-d.

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Shemos 15, pointed out to me by my friend Rabbi Ari Chechik) highlights a powerful aspect of the Jewish experience at the Red Sea. After the Egyptians drowned, the Sea ejected them onto the shore. The Jews walked along the banks and found the Egyptians that had wronged them. They pointed to the hands that brutally enslaved them and the arms that were merciless to them lying lifeless. They remarked to G-d “You did all these miracles for us, we will not be ingrates. Let us sing praises and song!”

The Midrash is highlighting a paradigm shift in the Israelite mindset. The Jews had experienced their miraculous salvation from Egypt as a people. G-d took His nation out of bondage and redeemed them from slavery. The salvation was on a national scale and the people on the whole were ecstatic. The Jewish people were profoundly thankful and might have expressed their national thanks for communal salvation.

Yet, when each Jew exited the Red Sea, he encountered a new experience of personal emancipation. Each former slave walked along the Sea and saw the specific Egyptian that was so callous and malicious to him lying lifeless. Among the thousands of corpses, each newly free man was able to sense his individuality. When each Jew realized that G-d had meted out retribution on his personal persecutor, the exodus had moved from being a solely national event to an intimate, personal one. Each Jew felt his own, special connection to G-d, and erupted in a personal song of euphoria.

The monologue in the Midrash describes each Jew’s mindset. He was formerly going to thank G-d as part of His nation. When he experienced his newly found intimate religious experience, he declared to himself that he will not lose that realization. He affirmed to notice the personal experience in addition to the national miracle and began to express his exultation as an individual among his compatriots. The Song of the Sea was composed in singular phraseology rather than using plurals. Even though millions of Jews sang it contemporaneously, each one felt his own uniqueness, individuality, and relationship with G-d.

In the United States, two mottos are often used, “In G-d We Trust” or “E Pluribus Unum (out of many – one).” When the Jews emerged from the Red Sea, they seamlessly integrated both ideas. Their trust in G-d was not only national, it was personal. Out of the pluribus of their fellow Jews, each felt unum, an intimate and special encounter with the Divine.

Modern society sometimes emphasizes community belonging and identity, both explicitly and implicitly. Religiously and culturally, we see value in creating a cohesive society of somewhat likeminded individuals. Does that come at the expense of individuality? Can we model our social organization to encourage individual religious feeling and expression like the Jews did after the splitting of the Red Sea? Perhaps greater attention to the beauty of individuality will foster a contemporary euphoric symphony similar to the exquisite Song of the Sea.

Whose Calling?

Is there a sense that navigates your professional destiny?

Do you feel like you are supposed to be working where you are?

Wait! Before you answer, think about the question. Is the word “supposed to” an appropriate way to think about your job? It implies that there is a right answer and a wrong answer. Is that the way to examine your choice of career or place of employment?

In contemporary society, it is prevalent to approach one’s vocational choices with an air of supposition. There are several paths, and some – or one – are more correct for an individual to follow. This is sometimes termed a sense of calling. One can see himself as possessing talents and abilities that can be viewed as a road map to follow toward professional selection and development. For a religious individual, this calling can take on a spiritual directive. If someone observes capabilities that he has, it might be a Divine indication that they are to be developed and manifested in his profession.

Often this is most highlighted for those that select a career focused on developing the spiritual, emotional, or psychological health of others. Rabbis, educators, and mental health professionals might have felt a sense of calling that motivated them to make their vocational choice and a similar feeling that propels their daily profession. Their occupation is a way of fulfilling the mission that they see within themselves and their lives. Religious professionals can feel that they were chosen to pursue a path of Divine service of facilitating the growth of others. Their dedication to a vocation of that directly helps people might be seen as a fulfillment of a surmised Divine injunction.

Paying attention to an internal or G-dly calling to a professional mission can engender clarity and fulfillment. If the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is difficult, a helpful solution might be: “What Hashem helps me see I should be.” Also, a calling to pursue a specific profession can fill one’s life with purpose that transcends the nitty gritty of one’s job. If the curse to Adam was that by the sweat of his brow he eat his bread, the blessing that might seem to counteract it is a vocation this is spiritually fulfilling.

Conversely, a rigorous philosophy of calling and mission can sometimes be coopted, by constituents, employers, or oneself. Professionals might remain in their posts even if they are underpaid, undervalued, or treated unsuitably. Sometimes the shout of a religious calling drowns out pragmatic, personal, and professional protests. Rabbis, educators, and therapists can freeze in their employment situation and weather a long storm because they intuit that their Divine mission demands it.

General career advisers might suggest that one’s vocation develop a talent or interest he has. It is prevalent for religious people to rephrase that as, “Hashem wants me to choose a vocation that draws on talents that I see within myself.”

Since a sense of calling and mission might be both positive and negative, it is significant to explore more about this powerful force. An intriguing source regarding this powerful sense is found in a comment by Rav Moshe Feinstein (Darash Moshe, Parshas Vayakhel), one of the leading halachic decisors of contemporary Orthodoxy. At first glance, Rav Moshe seems to state that a Divine calling is a significant method to determine or evaluate one’s professional choices and goals. Further examination might indicate that his words do not necessarily support that and give you pause to think about if a sense of calling is a valid way to determine a vocation altogether.

The Torah terms Betzalel as the one who G-d had already chosen by name as the architect of the tabernacle. Yet, Rav Moshe Feinstein observes that there is no earlier verse that details that G-d appointed Betzalel to be the architect. It appears curious that the Torah describes Betzalel as the one who G-d had selected earlier, when no prior verse describes that process. Rav Moshe suggests that G-d did not directly designate Betzalel as the foreman. Rather, Betzalel noticed the unique capability he had as an architect par excellence, and realized that his Divine gift was for a purpose. He saw his talents as a gift from G-d and intuited that he was to be the one to spearhead the building of the tabernacle. Rav Moshe elaborates and expounds that if a person notices that he is gifted with an outstanding trait or blessing, it is important for him to acknowledge that as Divinely granted, and use it in the service of Hashem. For example, if one sees that he is exceedingly financially successful, he should intuit that as a Divine injunction to spread his largesse with needy individuals and institutions. If one notices that he is a talented teacher, he should use that endowment to teach Torah.

Rav Moshe’s comments seemingly fall in line with a philosophy of mission and calling to determine a profession. Yet, if you examine his perspective more carefully, Rav Moshe’s directive seems to be limited. Rav Moshe does not mean that one should necessarily use a sense of calling to determine his vocation. There are at least four distinctions between Rav Moshe’s discussion of heeding a Divine message about one’s talents and using that as a contemporary determinant for one’s profession.

  • Rav Moshe’s comments merely mean that one who sees that he has the potential to make a positive impact on the world should not leave those capabilities latent. Rav Moshe does not state that that one who notices particular talents should necessarily use those to indicate his choice of vocation or profession. One might bifurcate his calling and his daily occupation. Perhaps he should avail himself of non-vocational opportunities to maximize and utilize his abilities.
  • A sense of calling can be perceived as a Divine hint for what one should do professionally. Are unsavory work situations, such as overly taxing congregants or disagreeable conditions in a workplace a Divine calling the other way? When internal talents and external situations do not align, on which promenade does one stroll?
  • A sense of calling might mean that a person should not shy away from opportunities that encounter him squarely in the face. If one is blessed financially, he should not turn away those that reach out to him. If one is granted the ability to teach, he should fill a need that arises. Rav Moshe comments center on a clear injunction that Betzalel heard. He saw the need for the tabernacle to be constructed, and he saw that he had the credentials to fulfill that task. There was an unequivocal need and an overwhelming talented individual – the perfect shidduch. Betzalel did not need to create his niche in order to fill it. Does a philosophy of calling demand one to proactively search out opportunities that utilize the talents he has?
  • Some contemporary social scientists differentiate between two groups of people, specialists and multipotentialites. Specialists notice abilities that they have and they can excel at and develop them through life. Multipotentialites can shine in several different areas and have multiple potentials. Although it is can be a blessing, sometimes their life and professional goals can be harder to determine. It can be helpful to see these two categories as extremes, with most of humanity falling between the two. The majority of people have different areas at which they can succeed, fulfill themselves, and be very gainfully employed. If most of us rate somewhat high on the multipotentialite scale, which of those talents is a Divine calling pointing to?

 

A feeling that a sense of calling exists might assist one’s occupational choice and foster a feeling of fulfillment in a job. One might see his profession as being Divinely selected and ordained. This sense can be especially true for those that are in the spiritual or emotional helping professions. Yet, it might be helpful to think about if there is an audible calling that designates which occupation you should have. If you aren’t Betzalel, it might be a hard call to make.

I Am So Different Than You…and Let’s Keep It That Way

Interacting with people can be so hard! Find out why…and how you can think different.

I hate socializing.

Awk- waard!

I have nothing to say at the table.

Everyone else is so different than I am.

They sooo don’t get me.

A chief complaint that we can feel when we are in a group of people is that we are markedly different than the others. Sometimes we might feel inferior – not as knowledgeable, less “with it,” or not too sociable. On other occasions we might feel that we are “better” – more intelligent, further refined, or superior conversationalists. These thoughts can leave us feeling that we have little to talk to everyone else about. We might feel “out of it” or not too energetic as the conversation buzzes around us. Then, the ideas that we had about the group become even more true as our prophesies of difference fulfill themselves.

There is a fascinating background story to this experience. A tension exists deep within us. On the one hand, we deeply desire to feel unique. That yearning was with us since our earliest days, and perhaps before then. We wanted our parents to take care of us, protect us, and show us their love and how we were special to them. As we matured physically and emotionally, we remained with that perpetual desire to feel unique. In addition, each of us really is unique. We are each different from one another physically, and that reflects the exclusive nature of each of our thoughts and feelings. We might know that, but we want to feel it more potently. Each person is distinctive from a religious standpoint, too. The soul that each person has is individual, and represents his connection with the Divine.

At the same time, the perpetual desire to feel and express our uniqueness can backfire. It can cause us to focus on it too much when we are with a group of others. Instead of connecting with the other individuals in a group, we hone in on our uniqueness. This is self-preserving. When we are with a group of people, our uniqueness can feel threatened. Paying disproportionate attention to our uniqueness feeds it and preserves it for us. In our efforts to keep our uniqueness, we create an I – You barrier.

In addition, when we focus unduly on our uniqueness, we often make a judgement about it. We can see ourselves as different and see the others as better than us. Although it might seem strange that we criticize ourselves, it actually works to our advantage. Our tale of woe as being less than everyone else highlights that we are different – and unique. We create a reality that the others shine and we fall short. It might be true that the other in a group have some attributes that we do not. Yet, we can be so desperate for a unique point of differentiation that these thoughts often feel truer than they are. This way of thinking is often painful and distances us from others, and from ourselves.

On other occasions, we might make a judgement of superiority of self. We might feel that the group that we are with is below what is fitting to us. We are smarter, more complicated, or better conversationalists than the other people there. In truth, the delusion of feeling superior also stems from a feeling of inferiority. We are so desperate to feel unique that we hone in on some positive traits or characteristics and favorably compare ourselves to others. This allows us to preserve our uniqueness that we perceive as so fragile.

Social situations can acutely bring out our deep desire to perpetuate our uniqueness. Ironically, true uniqueness is tautological. It is the very defining trait of who we are. One is unique. One is not unique because of something. “Unique” is not the middle of a sentence. It is followed by a period.

An apocryphal story tells of a man who walked into a restaurant in the South and ordered sausage and eggs for breakfast. When the waitress brought him his order, he noticed a white mound on the plate, too. He asked the waitress what they were. “Grits, sir,” she replied. “But I didn’t order grits,” he responded. “Sir, you don’t order grits, they just come,” she exclaimed. Similarly, our uniqueness is not something we need to rationalize or explain. At its core, it just is – it’s who we are and who we will be.

This was the eternal paradigm provided by the Machatzis Hashekel, the half-shekel that was required to be collected yearly, and is described in the beginning of Parshas Ki Sisa. The Torah highlights that each person was required to donate a half shekel coin for the needs of the Temple in the coming year. The Torah emphatically states that an affluent person may not increase his donation, and an indigent one may not decrease it. The lesson, highlighted by many commentaries, is that each person is central and important in maintaining the Temple. Those with deeper pockets do not have more gravitas than those with shallower ones. By extension, more or less intellectual ability, personality, or capability does not make a person more unique. Uniqueness just is.

When we think about our uniqueness as being an integral and immutable part of ourselves, it can allow us the freedom to foster it and still connect with others. We might even allow ourselves to see value in being in a group because others will enjoy our uniqueness. The more we are in touch with uniqueness as an integral part of who we are, the more it can begin deep conversations within ourselves and with the others that we associate with.

Put Your Money Where Your Self Is

What does your apparel oft proclaim?

“It’s not the $1000 suit, it’s the $1000 car,” a rabbinic leader recently explained to a group of yeshiva students. He was gently exhorting the young men to limit excessive spending in their future lives as young Torah scholars. His approach is partially rooted in traditional Jewish ethical works. It is also often communicated in contemporary Orthodox society. It its current presentation, it stems from an emphasis on spirituality, and an effort to counter the influence of greater society’s material excesses. It also grows out of the financial realism that one is likely going to need to be spendthrifty when he dedicates a period of his life to Talmudic study and Jewish spirituality.

In seeming contrast, the grandiosity of the Tabernacle in the wilderness was stunning. The structure and its basic fixtures were made of pure gold, silver, and rare animal skins. The lavishness of the Tabernacle’s construction bespoke its lofty use. Similarly, the clothing of the kohanim, and specifically the kohein gadol, were beautiful and extravagantly designed. The Torah expresses that they were “for honor and glory” of those in the Divine service.

There appears to be a friction between two opposing ideals, one focusing on spirituality and curbing personal material involvement, and the other embracing liberal financial expenditure for a spiritual goal. The tension might be highlighted by two contradictory rules that exist regarding spending for the Temple and its service. Firstly, the Talmud states that “there is no poverty [in financial behavior] in a place of wealth.” When one is focusing on religious grandiosity, it is inappropriate to be thrifty. Rather, one should buy the best and not restrict himself in any way. Conversely, the Talmud also declares that “the Torah is concerned about wasting money” in ritual spending. How do these two contradictory forces coexist? Rav Moshe ibn Chabib (17th century, often known eponymously as the Kapos Temarim, Rosh Hashana 27b s.v. Gemara Mai Shna) suggests that both approaches are true and necessary. There are two strains of thought, and it became the duty of the sages of the Talmud to wisely determine and resolve when it is appropriate to emphasize one of those rules, and when the other is more apropos. Sometimes the grandiosity and sense of magnificence that is created by constructing the Tabernacle or Temple of the finest materials is a worthwhile usage of funds. On the other hand, sometimes it is significant to hold back on spending and count one’s pennies.

A similar conflict can manifest itself throughout one’s own life. If one is dedicated to a life of spirituality, intellectualism, or religious value, where does material expenditure fit into that framework? It is a global issue and it is hard to make unilateral declarations or decisive statements. The decision which is right might require wisdom and prudence, similar to that advanced by the sages of old.

Specifically regarding one’s clothing, there might be room to think about emphasizing spending resources to make sure that one’s clothing is of good quality. This was impressively phrased by Shakespeare as the father Polonius gives timeless advice to his son Laertes in Hamlet (Act I, Scene 3. Polonius uses the word “habit” to refer to clothing):

Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,

But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;

For the apparel oft proclaims the man.

Shakespeare wisely declares that the type of clothing that one wears has ramifications beyond indulgence. It conveys a message regarding who the person is.

“Apparel oft[en] proclaims the man” perhaps most importantly to himself. When one puts effort into his appearance and dress, it can convey a sense of self, or helps create one. One who disregards his clothing might be making a statement that he does not fully exist. Conversely, one who struggles with his own sense of self might take steps to ameliorate that by dressing better than he does presently.

Alternatively, external accoutrements can be a superficial defense mechanism where one deludes himself into believing that he feels good about himself. In reality, he feels good only about his clothing and how others see him as he wears them. It might take an honest conversation with himself to understand if appropriately good clothing create a medium to give him the message that he is a wonderful, respectable human being, or allow him to be a mere mannequin touting name brands for a popular designer, without an internal feeling of self.

One of the most well known and formative social psychologists is Dr. Phillip Zimbardo, professor emeritus of Stanford. Zimbardo extensively researched time and how individual perspectives on time extensively affect decision making processes. He autobiographically expressed that for many years, he focused on the future and succeeding, sacrificing todays for tomorrows. Later in life, he realized that he needed to add a focus on himself and enjoyment of life. It helped him become more productive and happier. One might see it as him also increasing his sense of self:

And it resonated for me. I grew up as a poor kid in the South Bronx ghetto, a Sicilian family — everyone lived in the past and present. I’m here as a future-oriented person who went over the top, who did all these sacrifices because teachers intervened, and made me future oriented. Told me don’t eat that marshmallow, because if you wait you’re going to get two of them, until I learned to balance out. I’ve added present-hedonism…so, at 76 years old, I am more energetic than ever, more productive, and I’m happier than I have ever been.

How and on what one spends money might is a large discussion that it is sometimes easier to close than to open. There are many factors involved, including sociocultural religious ideals. It might be worthwhile to give specific thought as to how you spend money on clothing. Perhaps yours will not only “proclaim the man,” but appropriately and tastefully serve “as honor and glory” for a formidable and glorious self that is within.

The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat 

Can you embrace both?

Jubilation abounded as Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law, came from his native Midian to join the Jewish encampment in the wilderness. Moshe related to him the details of the miraculous Israelite exodus and the splitting of the Red Sea and Yisro reacted with intense emotion. The Torah uses a unique word to encapsulate Yisro’s feelings – “Yichad”. (It is so distinctive that it is a hapax legomenon – a word that appears only once in Scripture.) Rashi interprets that expression in two ways. Superficially, it is a shortened form of the more common word “chedva,” which means joy. Yisro was overjoyed at the Israelite salvation. (Other commentators suggest that the etymology is from the Aramaic/ Targum – “chadi,” which is has the same meaning. Interestingly, in contemporary Persian, the word “chadi” means happiness and is sometimes taken as a family surname). Rashi then quotes an additional, Midrashic interpretation. The word originates from “chad” – which means sharp.  Yisro developed sharp stress marks on his skin as he heard Moshe’s narration of the decimation of Egypt. Since Yisro originally came from the country of Midian, near Egypt, he felt solidarity with the stricken Egyptians and their downfall pained him.

Rashi frequently quotes more than one interpretation of a word or an idea in his commentary. It can sometimes seem like each explanation is bifurcated from the other. Here, the two approaches espoused by Rashi, one of elation and the other of distress, seem in opposition. Upon further examination, Rashi might be suggesting an integration of both approaches. (This is possibly the truest meaning of how to understand multiple hermeneutical methods, such as peshat – simple meaning, and drash – homiletical meaning. They are meant to be combined and interwoven. A similar observation is made by Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky, Emes L’Yaakov, beginning of Vayigash.) How can that be in the description of Yisro’s emotions?  Did Yisro react with both jubilation and grief?

The Torah is accenting the beauty and complexity of the human experience. On the one hand, Yisro experienced joy at the miraculous salvation of the Jewish people, including his daughter and son-in-law. At the same time, Yisro felt dread and terror at the punishment of the Egyptians. Yisro embraced both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, simultaneously.

We can frequently find Yisro-type experiences in our own lives. Our minds can harbor several feelings about someone or something; these feelings can even be contradictory. We often, perhaps always, experience mixed feelings for a person, situation, or object. We might appreciate some parts and dread other characteristics or facets. For instance, it is common for people to enjoy the financial remuneration they receive from their employment, but not the job itself.  Alternatively, they might appreciate both of those, but bemoan the need to leave their homes or their families.

This can even be true in one’s most close familial experiences and relationships. For example, it might be significant for a child to be in touch with the pleasurable experience of security and nourishment that parents give, as well as the restriction and demands they might place on him. It is natural to appreciate the former and resent the latter. The same can be true regarding other relationships. It might be beneficial to think about the strains of emotions people evoke within us and feel comforted that there are usually webs of them, and they can often seem to be in opposition.

Yet, it can be hard to allow ourselves the reality of all parts of an experience. It might be easier to focus on one aspect of a person or experience than on multiple pieces. It seems more streamlined and simple. The urge to simplify our thoughts and emotions might cause us to think more about one aspect of an experience than another. Sometimes it takes some effort to become in touch with the multiple feelings and emotions we have about someone or something. It is not always comfortable or pleasant, but it might be more truthful.

This might be especially challenging in a world where people portray themselves technologically and usually emphasize one dimension of themselves, and see others that way. When culture encourages choosing who to date or connect with by means of a simple swipe of the finger, it is hard to buck the trend and notice that we usually have multiple feelings about people, not simply likes or dislikes and yeses or nos.

When the Jews encamped around Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, they are described as doing so with singular mind, like one individual. Chazal describe that as “kish echad b’lev echad” – as one person with one heart. It seems redundant – if they were like one person, weren’t they of unified heart? The Torah might be emphasizing that even one individual may have different thoughts and feelings in his heart. The unique nature of the Jewish encampment around Sinai was that they were so singular of purpose there was no fragmentation whatsoever. But that is the exception that proves the rule. We can often experience many thoughts and feelings, “b’ish echad” – within our own selves. It can be difficult and untidy, and complicated – and honest.

O Say Can You Sea?

The pinnacle of the Exodus might help one exit personal predicaments.

A people in bondage for over two centuries was majestically and miraculously led out of enslavement to its national destiny. The capstone of that magnificent exodus was the splitting of the mighty waters just as their persecutors hounded them. The Jewish people paraded through the Red Sea. The Egyptians, following them in hot in pursuit, drowned soon after. Exhilaration filled the air as the nation witnessed the miracle of G-d parting the Sea and flooding the forces of Egypt. The Jews were filled with gratitude and emotion, and erupted unanimously in resplendent poetry and song to G-d.

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Shemos 15, pointed out to me by my friend Rabbi Ari Chechik) highlights a powerful aspect of the Jewish experience at the Red Sea. After the Egyptians drowned, the Sea ejected them onto the shore. The Jews walked along the banks and found the Egyptians that had wronged them. They pointed to the hands that brutally enslaved them and the arms that were merciless to them lying lifeless. They remarked to G-d “You did all these miracles for us, we will not be ingrates. Let us sing praises and song!”

The Midrash is highlighting a paradigm shift in the Israelite mindset. The Jews had experienced their miraculous salvation from Egypt as a people. G-d took His nation out of bondage and redeemed them from slavery. The salvation was on a national scale and the people on the whole were ecstatic. The Jewish people were profoundly thankful and might have expressed their national thanks for communal salvation.

Yet, when each Jew exited the Red Sea, he encountered a new experience of personal emancipation. Each former slave walked along the Sea and saw the specific Egyptian that was so callous and malicious to him lying lifeless. Among the thousands of corpses, each newly free man was able to sense his individuality. When each Jew realized that G-d had meted out retribution on his personal persecutor, the exodus had moved from being a solely national event to an intimate, personal one. Each Jew felt his own, special connection to G-d, and erupted in a personal song of euphoria.

The monologue in the Midrash describes each Jew’s mindset. He was formerly going to thank G-d as part of His nation. When he experienced his newly found intimate religious experience, he declared to himself that he will not lose that realization. He affirmed to notice the personal experience in addition to the national miracle and began to express his exultation as an individual among his compatriots. The Song of the Sea was composed in singular phraseology rather than using plurals. Even though millions of Jews sang it contemporaneously, each one felt his own uniqueness, individuality, and relationship with G-d.

In the United States, two mottos are often used, “In G-d We Trust” or “E Pluribus Unum (out of many – one).” When the Jews emerged from the Red Sea, they seamlessly integrated both ideas. Their trust in G-d was not only national, it was personal. Out of the pluribus of their fellow Jews, each felt unum, an intimate and special encounter with the Divine.

Modern society sometimes emphasizes community belonging and identity, both explicitly and implicitly. Religiously and culturally, we see value in creating a cohesive society of somewhat likeminded individuals. Does that come at the expense of individuality? Can we model our social organization to encourage individual religious feeling and expression like the Jews did after the splitting of the Red Sea? Perhaps greater attention to the beauty of individuality will foster a contemporary euphoric symphony similar to the exquisite Song of the Sea.

I Caught the Cold

Sometimes it’s easier to avoid the warmth.

On an exceptionally rainy and cold winter morning, Rav Yehoshua Trunk of Kutna, a great 19th century Russo-Polish rabbinic scholar, was intensely studying with his students. Suddenly, he closed his Gemara and invited them to accompany him on a stroll. The students looked at one another quizzically. Gradually, they followed him to the outskirts of the city and walked toward the intercity road. As they neared the way, they saw a peddler laboring intensely in the mud just created by the heavy, icy rain. His cart was full of merchandise and his lone horse was powerless to free the cart and pull it to the road. The peddler was concerned that his meager investment would perish as it was exposed to the elements. He also worried that his only horse would collapse from the exertion. He forlornly looked heavenward and cried for help. Rav Yehoshua motioned to his students and they joined together to wrench the cart free of the muck and to the road.

The very grateful peddler, unaware of the identity of his helpers, assumed that he had the Providence and good fortune to encounter a skilled group of haulers. He asked them about remuneration. Rav Yehoshua responded that each of the men were to be paid a kopeck (the former Polish/ Russian version of a penny). The man then turned to Rav Yehoshua, who he presumed was the foreman, and asked him how much he wanted. Rav Yehoshua responded that he should be paid three kopecks. The man promptly compensated, and expressed his unceasing thanks as he made his way on the road to peddle.

The next day, Rav Yehoshua and his students heard vigorous pounding on the door in the middle of their studies. They opened the door and saw the peddler that they had helped yesterday, distraught. He apologized profusely for taking advantage of them. He bemoaned that he had the audacity to make use of the time and effort of a leading Torah luminary and his students for his own service.

Rav Yehoshua swiftly comforted the man. He gently explained to the peddler that he did not gratuitously make use of Torah scholars. They had an ad hoc business arrangement and he had paid for their services properly and fairly.

As I read this story recently in a Hebrew book, I began wondering about the legal permissibility for Rav Yehoshua and his students to leave their Torah study to help that unfortunate peddler. Torah study is a serious matter and is not permitted to be interrupted. Maimonides codifies the absolute significance of Torah study (Laws of Torah Study, Chapter 3, 3 -4):

There is no commandment among all the commandments that has a weight equal to Torah study. Rather, Torah study is equal to all the commandments, because study brings to deeds. Therefore, study takes precedence over deeds in every regard.

If one has the opportunity to do some [other] mitzvah or to learn Torah, and the mitzvah could be done by someone else, he should not interrupt his learning. Otherwise, he should do the mitzvah, and return to his studies.

How did Rav Yehoshua divert his attention from Torah study and direct his students to follow? I began to reason that Rav Yehoshua and his students were covered by the latter clause in the Rambam. There were probably few groups of people that could have banded together to help the poor vendor. Therefore, assisting him fell under the caveat that if the mitzvah cannot be done by anyone else, one may interrupt Torah study to perform it.

Afterward, I began chiding myself. I could have basked longer in the shine of the story and imbibed its statement about the majesty of assisting others. Instead, my mind raced to contemplate the legalistic justification of Rav Yehosuha and his students. My internal give and take was rational, logical, and contained an appropriate question. Yet, I noticed how quickly my “go to place” was to probe and understand the Halachic validity of the story.

I reminded myself of the Jewish joke that explains the difference between two similar terms used for hapless or pesky individuals, schlemiel, schlimazel, and nudnik. The pithy explanation is that the schlemiel is the one who spills the soup, the schlimazel is the one who the soup spills on…and the nudnik is the one who asks what type of soup it was.

I felt a tinge of being a nudnik. I moved away from a beautiful example of kindness, selflessness, and thoughtfulness to the realm of the legal. This seems to have been in contrast to Rav Yehoshua of Kutna in the story. Rav Yehoshua was not a prophet. He probably did not know that a specific merchant needed his help. His deep perception and attentiveness to the needs of others led him to believe that people would probably be in great need of assistance in the rain. On the other hand, my initial thought was to focus on the rational and legal exploration of the story.

Relegating the human experience to analysis and exploration in an official way is sometimes an easy route. When we examine something legally and analytically, it allows us to observe it as an outsider. It side-swipes the messiness of being human. This can prevent the exchange or experience from touching us. That might even be the reason that we run to do it. Legal analysis is complex, but is it safe. We don’t need to feel, explore, or be in touch with the world of emotions of ourselves, or of others.

I then observed that I was not alone in seeking safety in the non-human part of the story. The Hebrew book that I was studying had an epilogue: When a contemporary Torah scholar heard this story, he was perplexed. The Talmud states (Bava Metzia 32a) that since it is a mitzvah to assist one’s neighbor load or unload a struggling animal, one may not take payment for that actions. The scholar was bothered how Rav Yehoshua and his students allowed themselves to be paid for their good deed. The scholar’s reaction contained a different question than mine, but was still focused on the legalistic nature of the story. That scholar himself might have marveled at the beauty of Rav Yehoshua’s benevolence. Yet, the brief analysis in the book and its juxtaposition to the story left me with an impression of analysis instead of feeling and scrutiny instead of humanity.

In contrast, our Sages observe that the first description the Torah gives of Moshe (Moses) in Egypt was that he observed the suffering of his nation in slavery and was tormented. Moshe was sheltered in the protection of Pharaoh’s court, but went to see and experience the anguish of his nation. Importantly, the Torah describes that it was the first thing that Moshe did when he matured. Moshe’s joining the distress of his people was both a result and a statement of his maturity. Moshe’s extraordinary empathy is closely related to his success as the most renowned and revered teacher in Jewish history.

The contemporary educational system sometimes places great emphasis on analysis and legal understanding. The skills, techniques, and knowledge that one learns are invaluable in further study, and in life. Yet, they are one part of an important scholastic corpus. One’s struggle with the complexity of the human experience, both his own, and those of others, is important to keep in mind. Focus on legalisms and rationality can sometimes leave one, or his neighbors, struggling helplessly in the cold.