By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
This Shabbos we are mevoreich the new chodesh and herald the onset of the month of Elul. As we repeat after the chazzan, “Rosh Chodesh Elul yihiyeh beyom…,” we know that in short shrift, the summer will draw to a close and serious days will once again be upon us. We look for inspiration. We seek to be inspired, to rise to the occasion of Elul.
Where can we find inspiration? Why do we so often fall short when seeking to be inspired?
Perhaps we are looking for inspiration in all the wrong places. We look at things, people and ideas far from us, and we expect that, as we approach them, we will be inspired. We look for esoteric seforim, ideas, thoughts and speakers, and we are upset when they fail to work their magic on us, leaving us in the same stale and insipid state we found ourselves prior to our search. And we wonder why.
In the sefer Chiddushei Harim, in Parshas Re’eh, it is related that a man once approached the room of the Rebbe and stood at the door staring at the Rebbe. The Rebbe turned to the man and asked him what he was doing. He responded that he had seen in the sefer Ohr Hachaim on Parshas Re’eh that gazing at a tzaddik can bring one bracha.
The Chiddushei Harim responded, “The posuk states, ‘Ve’ameich kulam tzaddikim.’ Thus, you are also a tzaddik, a righteous person. You would be better off staring into your own soul.”
There are several ways to understand the Rebbe’s message, but for the purposes of this article, perhaps we can say that to be inspired, and to be blessed, it is not always necessary to seek out a great man and study him and his actions. There is something to learn from every Jew. Every Jew has the ability to inspire. You just have to know to look for it.
Of course, the works of Hashem supply mountain-loads of inspiration. Rav Elyakim Schlesinger, noted rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas HaRama in London, writes in his work Hador Vehatekufah about his years as a close talmid of the Brisker Rov. He shares a memory of accompanying the Brisker Rov to Switzerland, where the Rov had gone to rest. He writes of how he sat with the Rov on a bench looking out at a most glorious landscape. Snowcapped mountains rose majestically in front of them, their white peaks seeming to touch the sky. Rav Schlesinger turned to the Rov and remarked to him that sitting in front of those imposing mountains made him feel very small and insignificant.
The Rov looked at him in surprise. “Why do they make you feel small?” he asked. “They were created for your enjoyment. If there would be a full orchestra standing here playing music for your enjoyment, would you feel small and unworthy? You would simply enjoy the music!”
This story came to mind last week while reveling in the awe-inspiring scenery of the great Colorado Rockies. The posuk states, “Ein tzur k’Elokeinu.“ Chazal explain this to mean, “Ein tzayar k’Elokeinu,” that there is no artist like the Ribbono Shel Olam. As you contemplate the fantastic view, you feel the Divine canvas spread out just for you. You drive through caverns more beautiful than any painting and are overcome by the awesomeness of the grandiose panorama in front of you, growing more inspired at every bend of the curvaceous road that winds its way up the mountain.
As the Brisker Rov commented, rather than make man feel small, such sights should embolden and empower man and remind him of his own centrality in the Aibishter’s plan, for he is the audience of this magnificent show. You feel large contemplating that the Master Artist painted a breathtaking landscape for the enjoyment and appreciation of man. Those mountains inspire. The knowledge that they had to be placed there by the Creator inspires. The beauty that the One Above created for us to ponder demonstrates the consequence of man and inspires us to greatness.
While in Colorado last week, I didn’t just behold towering mountains, I also encountered towering people, and they were no less impressive. They were regular, plain, normal people, the type we regularly encounter without being inspired. But just as the soaring peaks provided much inspiration, so can these people, members of a nation that is comprised of “Ve’ameich kulom tzaddikim,” inspire, if our hearts are open wide enough to absorb their shine.
In Colorado, I met my dear friend, Rav Chaim Nosson Segal, who had come directly from a long road trip through the American southwest. He, along with a group of five bochurim, had gone on a summer expedition to Albuquerque, New Mexico. They weren’t after the state’s famed flora and fauna, the mesquite or yucca grass. They were after neshamos.
Armed with little more than what Avrohom Avinu had in his time, they gathered forgotten souls around a campfire, offering Torah, the strains of a guitar, some charred hamburgers, and a connection with eternity. In Albuquerque, Aspen and Boulder, in rented hotel rooms and public parks, they drew people close.
This year, it was a kumzitz. Next year, in the larger city, it may be a Project Seed program. And then? Who knows? Maybe a shul with a minyan every Shabbos, and then a day school to educate the next generation, and then perhaps even a kollel.
This group of weary travelers came through Colorado for a night to rest and rejuvenate themselves at the Werner Brothers KMR hotel where I was staying. They were flushed with the sense of accomplishment that comes from working lesheim Shomayim. We discussed where they had been, what they had done, and what had been accomplished.
While we were speaking, a waiter came and brought some food. One of the boys said to him, “You are an inspiration.” The waiter was very touched. They all smiled. I asked them what it was about the waiter that inspired him. More smiles. It was obviously an inside joke that I wasn’t getting. I asked them to explain.
They related that Rabbi Segal had trained them in how to succeed in opening the hearts of the people they would encounter. They met all sorts of people during their journey, and each person they met, they conversed with, connected to, and then closed their first conversation with the line, “You’re an inspiration.”
They said it to all those searching people who showed up at their events, drawn by curiosity, boredom, a natural inclination to connect to their Jewish roots, or perhaps something more. But each one had a story and each one was a source of inspiration. Here they were living in Albuquerque, with little or no connection to Torah, and they were attending a Shabbaton in the Sheraton. Nobody forced them to be there. That is inspiring.
It was truly inspiring for the boys from Brooklyn who grew up on blocks packed with Jews and basically only interacted with Jewish people. And the people who came were touched when told that they were setting an inspiring example.
When told that they were an inspiration, they became more attached to the group and their interest in pursuing their connection to Torah Judaism grew.
It worked because it wasn’t a glib sales pitch. They weren’t empty words void of feeling. The sweet, charming yeshiva bochurim had learned to perceive the inherent nobility in every Yid and to find the area in which each individual inspires. With their words of inspiration, they achieved great things.
They looked at each attendee at their classes and barbeques and expressed the impression that was made on them and how inspired they were by their guests. This comment was itself a catalyst for further inspiration, opening the hearts of their guests still wider.
In the famous tefillah composed by Rav Elimelech of Lizhensk, it says, “Shenireh kol echad maalas chaveireinu velo chesronam.” We ask that we merit seeing the positive attributes of the people around us and not their negative characteristics. Rav Elimelech understood that every person has maalos. If we just choose to see them, they’re there. Each and every person can be, and should be, an inspiration.
Yisroel Besser, who lives in Montreal where he learns, writes, and moderates the Yated‘s Chinuch Roundtable, once told me the story of Aharon the shlepper, an elderly Holocaust survivor who was a familiar sight in Montreal, a steady at all local simchos. Aharon, stooped and unkempt, would fill his pockets and bags with whatever food he could salvage at a bris or bar mitzvah.
He would be seen walking the streets with his shopping cart at odd hours. He was a strange figure, inspiring more pity and derision than anything else. He would wander the dining room at the yeshiva, hoping for a bowl of soup from lunch or some leftover fruits from snack. When the children would see him coming, they would scatter, shouting in mock terror that the “scary man” was coming.
The menahel of the yeshiva at the time was Rabbi Dovid Engel, a member of our chinuch panel. Feeling that he had to do something to protect the respect and dignity of this harmless old Jew, he called a special assembly.
Rabbi Engel spoke to the boys about the Holocaust and the horrific events of more than half a century ago, and he described the spiritual heroism that was necessary to emerge with faith intact. He explained to the young Canadians that a generation suffered for us and that a debt of gratitude is owed to the kedoshim who perished and the kedoshim who survived, each of them sanctifying Hashem’s Name in different ways.
“Boys,” he said, “we here in Montreal have such a Jew among us, and we should honor him.”
Rabbi Engel turned towards the door and Aharon was led into the auditorium.
“Boys, please stand up for Reb Aharon,” said the menahel.
The boys rose as one and the elderly Yid was helped to a chair. Then, the entire student body lined up and passed this distinguished Jew, giving him “Shalom.“
Maybe, just maybe, Aharon, whose own childhood had been spent not running or laughing, but rather hiding and crying, felt a sense of peace and tranquility as he shook their warm hands and smiled back.
He had been sent a message: You are an inspiration.
Rav Eliezer Geldzahler, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Ohr Yisroel, was tragically killed at a young age as the bus he was riding in crashed near Meron in Eretz Yisroel. A few years later, his daughter was driving on the Garden State Parkway. She stopped for gas and noticed that the attendant was a midget. As he began to wash her windows, he caught sight of a large picture on the passenger seat. He became visibly excited as he pointed to it.
“How do you know that man?” he asked in a state of agitation. “I’ve been looking for him for more than two years. Where is he?”
The girl gently informed him that the man in the portrait was her father and that he had passed away from injuries sustained during a bus accident. The fellow stared at her, disbelieving, and then began to cry silently.
“You know,” he said, “I do this job day after day, morning after freezing morning. There aren’t many jobs available for someone like me. Cars pull in here every few moments, but everyone averts their eyes, feeling uncomfortable by my strange appearance.
“Then, one day, your father pulled in. He looked me straight in the eye, like no one else had ever done. ‘My friend,’ he said to me, ‘you are an inspiration. You were born with what might appear to be a great handicap, but you refuse to play the role of the victim. You get up in the morning, go to work, and earn an honest living. You are a role model. You teach that circumstances should not dictate the terms of a person’s existence.
“‘I am on my way to New York, where I have a large school. Today, I am going to tell my students all about you, so that they might learn from your example.'”
With his eyes glistening, the gas station attendant completed his tale. “Of course, I so looked forward to seeing your father. He made me feel tall.”
When we choose to look at people and perceive them as great, each in their own area, they respond accordingly. It’s the difference between the ayin tovah of the talmidei Avrohom Avinu and the ayin ra’ah of the talmidei Bilam Harasha. We inspire them and they inspire us.
One day many years ago, after davening, I saw my then-young son Dovid’l at the other end of the shul in conversation with an elderly Yid. It seemed to be a serious conversation. The man was clearly very emotional and Dovid’l was looking at him very intently. I was wondering what he could have done to the old man to make him cry. I was very worried. By the time I made my way over there, the man had left.
I approached Dovid’l and said to him, “What was that all about?”
“I asked him for a bracha,” my son told me. “I don’t know what happened, but he started crying as he was bentching me.”
“Why did you ask him, of all people, for a bracha?” I queried.
“You once told me that the Satmar Rebbe said that if you see a person with numbers tattooed on his arm, you should ask him for a bracha,” my son responded. “While that old man was taking off his tefillin, I saw that he had those numbers, so I waited until he finished and I asked him for a bracha. He bentched me and he began crying.”
So many of us have heard that memrah of the Satmar Rebbe, yet few of us have taken it literally enough to act upon it. However, if you are a young, innocent boy looking for growth and you see those hallowed numbers, you take advantage of the situation and you emerge from the interaction not only blessed, but also inspired. And if you are a Holocaust survivor and a precious little boy asks you for a bracha, you are inspired to recognize that you are an inspiration.
For if you want to be inspired, you can be inspired by ordinary people too. The inspiration is everywhere. We just have to ensure that our hearts are open wide enough so that we can find it.
We can be inspired by a midget and by majestic mountains, by Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin sitting in jail, locked up but retaining his faith, and by Jews of Albuquerque who are only now beginning to believe. We can be inspired by people who lived through the Holocaust and by those who are inspired by them.
And I say to my new friends, the yeshiva bochurim I met in Colorado, that each and every one of you is an inspiration.
With Elul upon us and Tishrei not far behind, now is the time to inspire and be inspired. As we usher in the month of Elul, we prepare to be scrutinized and pass under His gaze k’vnei maron. Let us try to view others the way we would want to be seen – shenireh kol echad maalas chaveireinu. We will thus be doubly blessed and emerge zakai bedin.