When Yankie Schwartz e-mailed me an advance copy of his new book Contemplations: Wisdom for Living (published by Menucha Publishers) for review, I decided to print out 50 pages to read over Shabbos. After all, I reasoned, 50 pages of mussar and hashkafah essays would be enough for me to form a first impression. Boy, was I wrong. When I was finished, about an hour later, I was scolding myself for not having printed the whole thing. I read through those 50 pages in one sitting, totally absorbed in the insightful and mind-opening pieces. I had thought that an hour or so of mussar would be more than I could handle (even on Shabbos!). To the contrary, Schwartz’s engaging style kept me glued to the page, while opening my mind to a more aware and conscious way of thinking about the world.
Perhaps the most unique thing about Contemplations is the way that it was composed – through simply paying attention to the ordinary. Most people listen to the news, or hear a good story, and skip right on to the next bit of entertainment. Schwartz, with his analytic mind, finds the nuggets of truth and wisdom that lay hidden in plain sight. From current events to stories related to him by peers, he peels back the layers to get at the lessons to be learned from all of daily life.
For example: The frantic preparations for a storm that did not materialize contrast sharply with the lax preparations we make for a guaranteed-to-happen Yom HaDin every year.
Seeing someone clearing his car of snow and then walking away, the author realizes that the man was not clearing it for himself, but for his wife – who may not even realize what her husband has done for her.
Time spent enclosed in an MRI machine, a terrifying experience for many, is a unique opportunity to be totally alone with Hashem.
The sight of a line of ducklings following their mother inspires a discussion about how people, too, often walk straight ahead of them through life without thinking about where they are going.
As varied and intriguing as these ideas are, Contemplations is more than the sum of these parts.
Schwartz’s narrative voice is shot through with optimism and an emunah peshutah that makes one think of the simple shtetl Yidden of yesteryear – a surprising quality coming from an accomplished professional. What is most impressive about Contemplations is the awareness and thought that Schwartz demonstrates in his daily life. It is humbling to see how an ‘ordinary’ layman can have such elevated vision. Beyond the specific ideas presented in Contemplations, it is the clear and ever-present hashkafas hachaim that produced those ideas that is most inspiring.