Last week I concluded my column with the story of a Jew who wanted to make changes in the world and inspire people to do teshuvah – to return to their roots, their Divine heritage.
Fortified with the blessings of his Rebbe, he set out on his mission only to encounter frustration after frustration. Disappointed, he returned to his Rebbe who suggested to him that instead of focusing on others he should focus on himself and consider how he might change. That advice of the Rebbe speaks to all of us, but it’s one thing to say these words and something else to apply them to our personal lives.
Some years ago, at one of my Torah shiurim, I touched on this very subject. Following the class, a woman approached me and said, “Rebbetzin, I agree with you. People must change, and this includes me. I must admit I have one major fault – I’m too good! I allow people to take advantage of me.”
Most of us will dismiss such a remark with a wry smile and attribute it to an egocentric, self-absorbed personality. But before we respond so glibly, let us take a few moments to reflect. Don’t most of us believe that while we may have some faults, by and large we are pretty decent human beings? After all, we rationalize, is it not written that there is no man who is without sin? So, everything considered, we assure ourselves that basically we are “pretty good” people. We shrug our shoulders and move on, confident the entire discussion is not relevant to us.
But no matter how confident we may feel in our self-absorption, the month of Elul is upon us and the sound of the shofar summons us, demanding we wake up and answer G-d’s call before, Heaven forbid, tragedy strikes. In the privacy of our chambers, let us take a look in our spiritual mirrors at our neshamas. Let us search our souls and ask, “How can I improve myself?” “How can I become a better person?” “Where do I start?” “What must I do?”
And even as we undergo this scrutiny, let us bear in mind the world is on fire, though most people refuse to see the flames and understand our Jewish lives are at risk.
There is a new Hitler on the earth’s stage who shamelessly, unabashedly, and without fear has proclaimed his intention to launch a new Holocaust. Once again you might dismiss such threats and comfort yourself by saying, “He’s just a madman.” But as a survivor of the Holocaust, I can tell you that madmen have to be taken seriously precisely because they are mad – mad enough to carry out their threats.
Now, if push came to shove, can you think of even one nation that would rise to our defense or even speak out on our behalf? Our long, tormented history testifies that we are a lone lamb among seventy wolves, all standing ready to devour us. Were it not for G-d, “the Guardian of Israel Who neither sleeps not slumbers,” we would long ago have been destroyed. From days of yore to this very moment in time, the Haggadah of Pesach speaks to us: “B’chol dor v’dor – In every generation they rise to destroy us, but our G-d, blessed be His Name, saves us from their clutches.”
Still, the question remains – How should we embark upon this journey of self- change? With which mitzvah should we commence?
The answer should be obvious to all who have some knowledge of our long, painful history. We were launched into our present exile about two thousand years ago because of the sin of sinas chinam – unwarranted hatred, animosity and jealousy between Jew and Jew, brother and brother. It was this sin that sealed the final decree, set our Temple aflame and razed Jerusalem. But, specifically, what does that mean? What bearing does that have on our self-change? Obviously, since unwarranted hatred was the cause of our downfall, we must purge ourselves of that evil and turn to our G-d as one unified, cohesive family.
Again, though, with which precise mitzvah under the canopy of commandments between man and man should we commence?
The answer is the one closest to us – the one mitzvah we have all violated without even being aware of it: kibud av v’em, honoring our parents.
If we learn to have that under control, then the other commandments between man and man will fall into place.
Here again we may dismiss these words and congratulate ourselves that all this has no relevance to us. On the whole, we have been careful about rendering respect to our mothers and fathers, and if on an occasion or two we lost it, it was because we were unfairly irritated, mistreated, and our nerves were on edge.
We are told that in the period of ikvese d’Mashiach, when discerning ears will be able to hear the footsteps of Mashiach, chutzpah will intensify to outrageous proportions. And so those of us who believe we have fulfilled our responsibilities can make such claims only because we have also been bitten by this chutzpah poison and have no clue as to what that mitzvah entails. We are so far removed from the commandment of honoring parents that we do not know what we do not know!
Yet it is on the foundation of this mitzvah of honoring parents that all commandments pertaining to man and his fellow man are built. Our predicament becomes even more complex because we live in a culture in which children are actually abusive of their parents. And that abuse is tolerated and accepted as the norm. There is a saying in Yiddish, “As the non-Jewish world goes, so goes the Jewish world,” meaning the influence of the dominant culture trickles into our own domain and renders us vulnerable and endangered.
(To Be Continued)