One day, Rav Shlomo Kluger zt”l was looking out the window and noticed an unfamiliar person passing by. The rov went outside and invited the stranger into his house. He welcomed him in and asked him where he lived. The man told him that he lived in the town of Podheitz.
“That is perfect,” the rov exclaimed. “I have a letter that must go to the rov of Podheitz. Can I ask you to bring it home with you and deliver it to him?”
The visitor agreed. Rav Shlomo went to the next room and returned with a sealed envelope containing a letter.
A few months later, the Podheitzer merchant returned to Brod on business and met one of the talmidim of Rav Shlomo Kluger. The merchant told the talmid of his introduction to his rebbi. The talmid expressed amazement at the “moifes.” Just when his rebbi needed a messenger to deliver a letter to Podheitz, he looked out the window, saw a stranger, invited him inside, and, miraculously, he was from that very town.
“Well, not exactly,” the Podheitzer said. “Let me tell you the whole story, even though it’s quite embarrassing. What happened was that when your rov looked out the window, he saw me eating in the street. He quickly called me in and found out where I was from. He dashed into his study and wrote a letter to the rov of my town to warn him that I should not be relied upon as a witness, since one who is ochel beshuk is posul l’eidus, disqualified from serving as a witness (Kiddushin 40b; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 31:18).
“Your rebbi wasn’t looking for the rov of Podheitz. He was looking for the rov of the city where I lived, so that he could make him aware of my failing and prevent a michshol.”
This story highlights Rav Shlomo Kluger’s astuteness and halachic responsibility. But the anecdote also draws attention to the seriousness with which Chazal view a lack of refinement. Eating is a significant act and one deserving of respect. Someone who eats in public is considered crude and lacking the depth to attentively witness what is transpiring around him. His vision is one-dimensional and thus his testimony is lacking.
He can’t really see, so he is disqualified from serving as a witness for halachic matters.
In Rav Shlomo Kluger’s time, eating in the street was apparently rare. Today, we live in an era when no one thinks twice about it. Vendors and trucks sell all types of foodstuffs on the street. Prestigious businessmen walk through Manhattan carrying coffee-cups as if they are some sort of standard accessory.
Were someone to focus on the greatest failing of our culture, superficiality would be high on the list, along with a general apathy about weighty matters and a fixation on matters of little importance.
The shofar’s blast ushers in Elul, prodding us each day to wake up, focus, and see things deeper.
Elul is a call for awareness, jolting us back to reality.
The Kotzker Rebbe once asked what is meant by the obligation to be “mispallel with koved rosh, deep concentration.”
His chassidim looked at each other, not understanding the point of the question.
The rebbe responded, elucidating his question: “Is there anything that should not be done with koved rosh?”
That is really the message of Elul. Koved rosh. Life is serious business. It is meant to be taken seriously and not wasted with banalities.
Last week, the first Republican presidential debate was held. The country is veering to the left under the current administration, causing angst to Republicans. The country is sinking in insurmountable debt, with taxes consuming a greater percentage of income. Social Security and Medicare are not sustainable. More Americans are jobless than ever before and illegal immigrants are sucking jobs and money out of the system.
The country has gone down a dangerous path in its foreign policy. The Arab world is in shambles, Iraq is a disaster, Syria is wracked by civil war, Afghanistan is descending into chaos, and Iran has been given the path to a nuclear weapon. ISIS is gobbling up more territory with each passing day, and al-Qaeda is more feared than ever. The West is sending billions of dollars into the pockets of the largest supporter of terror, and Hamas, Hezbollah and all the other bad actors out there will thus be redoubling their efforts.
The Iran deal got scant coverage in the Republican debate. Neither did the Russian hacking of the State Department or the “coincidence” that the Iranian terror head, who is under international sanctions not to leave his country, was in Russia the day of the hacking.
President Obama delivered a major speech castigating Israel and its prime minister, portraying them as rejectionist war-mongers. With a mixture of half-truths and bluster, he castigated in ugly terms anyone who opposes his flawed deal. The Jewish senator in line to become Democrat Senate leader was warned by the administration that he will not realize his ambition because he came out against the deal.
With the vindictive administration as a backdrop, 17 accomplished people are vying for the Republican nomination to run for president. You would think that the debate would be a serious moment. You would think that the candidates would be given a chance to clearly explain their positions and offer solutions for the problems the country faces.
Millions of people tuned in to hear the candidates discuss serious issues. Instead, the debate began with silliness, and coverage of it was basically limited to game show aspects. The “gotcha” moments were carefully analyzed along with other trivialities. Media consumers searched in vain to find solutions to real problems.
With so much at stake, America focused on superficiality. We run the danger of the surrounding culture affecting us and causing us to become shallow individuals – irresponsible, uncaring and unthinking.
As always, we search for truth and depth in the parshah. This week’s parshah of Re’eh, like so many of the parshiyos of the Torah, demonstrates what is expected of us as Jews and as people. The pesukim detail how we are to deal with the weak among us, what our obligations are to the poor, and how we are to lead our lives on a higher, more thoughtful plane.
The Torah’s injunction to see, “Re’eh,” is actually a call for depth, just like that of the shofar. Look, observe, and contemplate, and you will see that blessing comes with learning Torah and observing its mitzvos, while those who choose the opposite, end up dejected and empty.
We are reminded that the blessed life is arrived at by following the mitzvos, not through vanity and hedonism.
Go beyond the superficial, look a bit deeper, and you will see it.
Rav Yechiel Mordechai Gordon zt”l, the Lomza rosh yeshiva, had an interesting habit. He would stop at a particular corner of the bais medrash each day and spend a few moments in silent contemplation, as if in prayer.
One day, a talmid mustered the courage to ask the rosh yeshiva about the intriguing minhag. If he was, in fact, davening, why at the rear corner, facing the wall?
Rav Yechiel Mordechai explained that in that corner, there was a small plaque marking the gift of a certain donor. “I realized that it’s all too easy to forget and overlook his contribution to our yeshiva, so I wait until seder is in full swing and, with the happy noise and commotion of lomdei Torah filling the room, I pause by the plaque and remember his kindness.”
The Lomza rosh yeshiva was teaching his talmidim that mindless observation isn’t enough. One has to look and think.
The parshah begins with a commandment to look, to see deeper, and to consider the ramifications of mitzvos and aveiros. Towards the end of the parshah, we are commanded to give tzedakah generously. The posuk provides a reason to be charitable, telling us that we should give “ki lo yechdal evyon mikerev ha’aretz – destitute people will not cease to exist within the land” (Devorim 15:11).
We need to understand why the fact that there will always be needy people is a reason to give. If there will always be poor people, why bother waging a war on poverty? We give charity because we have compassion on the less fortunate and don’t want others to go to bed hungry. We give because we don’t want people to suffer due to no fault of their own. However, there are people who are not that altruistic and actually only care about themselves.
Some Rishonim explain that the Torah is speaking to those people and offering an incentive for them to give. The Torah says to them, “Even though things are going good for you and you don’t really care about the poor, give anyway, because no one is assured that one day they won’t need to ask for tzedakah.
When Rav Pinchos Hirschprung zt”l was a member of Montreal’s vaad harabbonim prior to his ascension as rav harashi, one of the dayonim passed away. The local rabbonim and lay leaders gathered to discuss creating a pension fund for the widowed rebbetzin so that she could live in basic dignity.
One of the rabbonim resisted, arguing that the widow could go to work or find some other means of support and the campaign was unnecessary. “It is not our responsibility to worry about someone’s wife,” he callously remarked.
Rav Hirschprung was normally a mild-manned, soft-spoken individual. However, upon hearing that response, he became irate. Instead of lecturing the selfish individual, he looked at him and said, “We don’t only mean his wife. We also mean your wife!”
The message hit home.
When we analyze with depth and responsibility, and ponder the future, the correct course of action becomes obvious.
The posuk tells us to give generously, because when we see deeper, we realize that no one is assured that they won’t ever be forced to accept tzedakah. By doing our part and making the world a better and more charitable place, we ensure that there is enough tzedakah money to go around should we ever need it, G-d forbid. The Torah trains us to think responsibly and act selflessly at all times.
Elul is here and it’s time to live seriously.
One year, on the Motzoei Shabbos of the first Selichos, a simple Sephardic Jew set up a small table in Bnei Brak near the Vizhnitzer bais medrash in order to sell Selichos booklets. “Selichot. Selichot,” he called out, but no one even stopped to look. Everyone was arriving with their Selichos in hand, and the poor man stood there hearing empty echoes of his lonely calls. “Selichot. Selichot,” he continued to shout, thinking that maybe people would stop by and purchase a booklet or two.
Finally, his faith was rewarded. The Vizhnitzer Rebbe, the Imrei Chaim zt”l, passed with his entourage. The rebbe saw the humble Jew with a pile of unsold Selichos booklets and grasped the situation.
The rebbe walked over and took his place behind the table.
“Selichos,” the rebbe called out. “Ver vil koifen? Who wants to buy?”
Immediately, a crowd formed. Which chossid would turn down an opportunity to use a Selichos received from the rebbe’s own hand? In no time, the booklets were sold out.
“Do you have more?” the rebbe asked the vendor.
“Yes, I have another case in my machsan,” he said.
“Then hurry and go get it,” the rebbe said, maintaining his post.
The rebbe sold out the second batch as well, handing the dumbfounded seller piles of money he no doubt put to good use.
With that done, the rebbe continued to the bais medrash to recite Selichos.
The rebbe had taught his chassidim a valuable lesson. He demonstrated the glory of helping another Jew. He showed them that the opportunities are everywhere, and those blessed with good vision take advantage of them. There was no introduction more fitting to Selichos for those looking for Heavenly mercy.
Do you want “Selichot”? Do you want Hashem to forgive your sins? Help another Jew. Look beyond your comfort zone and take note of what is going on around you. “Re’eh.” Look. Really look and you will find the “Anochi nosein lifneichem hayom brochah.”
Re’eh. See opportunities. See the needs of other Jews. See your own potential.
Open your eyes to the reality of life. Open your eyes to the opportunities for greatness, growth, forgiveness and blessing.