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Thomas Wheeler, CEO of the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company, and his wife were driving along an interstate highway when he noticed that their car was low on gas. Wheeler got off the highway at the next exit and soon found a rundown gas station with just one gas pump. He asked the lone attendant to fill the tank and check the oil, then went for a little walk around the station to stretch his legs. 

As he was returning to the car, he noticed that the attendant and his wife were engaged in an animated conversation. The conversation stopped as he paid the attendant. But as he was getting back into the car, he saw the attendant wave and heard him say, “It was great talking to you.” 


As they drove out of the station, Wheeler asked his wife if she knew the man. She readily admitted she did. They had gone to high school together and had dated steadily for about a year. 

“Boy, were you lucky that I came along,” bragged Wheeler. “If you had married him, you’d be the wife of a gas station attendant instead of the wife of a chief executive officer.”

“My dear,” replied his wife, “if I had married him, he’d be the chief executive officer and you’d be the gas station attendant.” (from Chicken Soup for the Couple’s Soul)


In this week’s haftarah, we find Devorah giving chizuk to her husband Barak, encouraging him to fight a battle against Sisera. In fact, even before this she had brought him to great spiritual heights.

Devorah’s husband was unlearned (am ha’aretz). She said to him, “Let me make you wicks and you’ll take them to the Mishkan in Shiloh. You will be among virtuous people there and you’ll learn from them, ultimately meriting the World to Come. He made thick wicks to increase their light, and that’s why his name was Lapidot (“torches”). Hashem said to Devorah, “You intended to light up the Mishkan, I, too, will make your light shine in Israel and Yehudah, and among all the 12 tribes.” (Eliyahu Rabbah, Chapter 9)

Her plan worked and Barak became a military general and the spiritual leader of the Jewish People.

How did Devorah inspire him? How did Barak succeed so remarkably?

Part of his success was the fact that he began as an am ha’aretz, an ignoramus.

Listen to a story.

We’ve all heard of the term tinok shenishba but we probably never heard it used in the following way.

Rav Shlomo Wolbe was the Mashgiach in Yeshivas Be’er Yaakov. One day, a bochur who was a baal teshuva was admitted into the yeshiva and quickly became one of Rav Wolbe’s favorite talmidim. He was a complete neophyte in Torah study and knew next to nothing about mitzvos, yet Rav Wolbe admired his passion and saw great potential in him. Lo and behold, after just two years, the young man became one of the best bochurim in the yeshiva.

A few of the bochurim who had been veterans of the yeshiva and were frum from birth, felt a slight chalishas ha’daas, they were dejected that this bochur had surpassed them in many ways after only two years of being in yeshiva. They had been learning Torah their whole lives. How could this young man be more successful than them? This question was gnawing at them for days so they decided to ask Rav Wolbe.

Rav Wolbe listened with compassion and understood their pain. But he didn’t have the heart to answer them. “Don’t ask me,” Rav Wolbe said, “go ask him.” Rav Wolbe felt it would be most powerful if they heard it from the bochur himself.

They went to the bochur who had an immediate answer for them. He had thought deeply about the question himself.

This is what he told them, “In halacha, there’s something called a tinok shenishba, a child who was born Jewish, but was kidnapped and held captive since he was a baby, never knowing he was Jewish until he was an adult. Such a person is not held accountable for his lack of mitzvah observance until he became aware of his Jewishness. Why? Because there was no way he could have known better. This applies not only to someone who was actually taken captive, but also to someone who grew up perhaps knowing they were Jewish by nationality, but was never taught what that truly means in terms of Torah and mitzvos.”

The bochur continued, “I’m a tinok shenishba and only became aware of the purpose for my existence three years ago. I fought very hard to learn and catch up in my shemiras hamitzvos and limud haTorah. I learn with a passion, always knowing I am way behind and have much to do. Boruch Hashem, I have made some progress. But I want you to know something. You are all tinokos shenishbu!”

The other bochrim looked at each other in amazement and said, “That is not true. We were all raised in frum homes.”

The new bochur explained, “Yes, but you have been raised in a culture where all too many people perform mitzvos without feeling and passion. You were held captive by people who were always doing mitzvos by rote. You only learn, daven and fulfill mitzvos because it’s routine, it is what you have grown up with. But there’s no fire or passion. The difference between you and me is that I have known for a while I’m a tinok shenishba, while you are just finding out now!”

The Navi decries mitzvah observance that is done without newness and vitality. In Yeshaya it says (29:13), “b’fiv ub’sefasav kibduni v’libo richak mimeni vatehi yirasam osi mitzvas anashim melumadah – with his mouth and lips he honors Me, but his heart is distant from Me, and their fear of Me has become like a commandment from a human; done by rote.” Mitzvas anashim melumadah is enemy #1 for all Jews who wish to truly grow in their avodas Hashem. Hakadosh Baruch Hu wants us to be passionate about our Yiddishkeit. As Rav Hutner once said, “We have to be so full of life for Torah that if it would be possible to cut our desire with a knife, blood would spill forth!”

This was Barak’s secret of success.


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Rabbi Boruch Leff is a rebbe in Baltimore and the author of six books. He wrote the “Haftorah Happenings” column in The Jewish Press for many years. He can be reached at