By Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all its grace is as the flower of the field; The grass withers, the flower fades; when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people is like grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God shall endure forever. (Isaiah 40:6-11)
Isaiah’s words, so comforting when spoken during funeral services, likens people to the grass and flowers of the field. It is a profound image and comparison. Grass withers and flowers fade, as do we, but what do we see in our mind’s eye when we consider the beautiful expanse of the fields? From a distance, we see a magnificent sameness. But as we draw closer, we are both delighted and astonished to realize that even the “unanimous green” of the grass – as Whitman would have it – is not unanimous at all. Each blade of grass is different from the others. It is unique.
God has seen to it that each and every blade of grass is special. Lehavdil! How much more so has He seen to it that each of us, the crown of His creation, is likewise special and unique! Yet too often we seek sameness rather than our uniqueness, denying our special gifts and identity in favor of being “like everyone else.”
Yaakov understood that each person is unique and he expressed that understanding when he bestowed upon his sons his many blessings. Not only was each bracha unique, but in most brachos he compared his sons to various beasts of the field.
Different blessings. Different beasts of the fields.
In considering Yaakov’s blessings, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik highlights the uniqueness of each animal, explaining that, “each animal has a unique capability.” Even amongst the beasts of the field, there is diversity. Each to its task. Even animals show diversity and uniqueness.
Lehavdil! How much more therefore, do people! And yet, so often, we simply lump all our children, our students, even entire communities, together as if they are monolithic; a single entity. What’s more, we impose identical goals and aspirations upon each and every one! Such behavior is cruel, not to mention counterproductive and foolish. Yet, we pursue “sameness” with daunting vigor. In some communities, where appearance is strictly controlled, there seems to be the sense that if we control the “outside” we control the “inside”. These communities seek to create a sameness which renders each soul almost indistinguishable from the other. Same hat. Same clothes. Same curriculum. Same Jew. Same, same, same!
More correctly, shame, shame, shame!
Pity the poor outcast in such a community. Pity him the vile looks and whispers. Pity him the various ways a group imposes its will both overtly and subtly.
In her December 17th article in Mishpacha, Barbara Bensoussan highlights the understanding of Rabbi Doniel Frank, a Monsey-based therapist who has made it his mission to return personal integrity to the community or, in my words, give dignity and awareness to the uniqueness of each individual in the community.
Like many, he sees a burgeoning Jewish community that is graced with many blessings but also beset by number of crises, among them, “…older singles, broken engagements, early divorces, unhappy marriages, disaffected adolescents, addictive behaviors, parnassah issues… and the list goes on.”
While these issues may seem disparate and unrelated, Rabbi Frank sees them as symptomatic of a more fundamental issue, one that is deeply related to the need for individuals to be seen as, recognized for and dignified by their uniqueness and individuality, even as they are embraced as members of the community.
Of course, there are those who disagree – not with the problems but with their cause. They see only the evils of the “outside world” and draw the conclusion that more sameness is the necessary response. They see the mission of the Jewish community, individually and collectively, as one of goodness, learning and holiness in a world where there is perilously little of any. They are at least nominally are right. That is the individual and collective mission of the Jew. Yet they draw the wrong lessons from our shared mission. In fact, it is our shared mission that is the reason why Yaakov not only blessed his individual sons with unique blessings but assured that the twelve would form a prototype community to usher in all Jewish communities of the generations to follow, communities that would support and reinforce each of their individual members.
Yaakov’s sons and their tribes share a common destiny, a destiny that relies on each and every one of them. They need each other, not only because they share an historical destiny but because realizing that destiny depends on their unique, individual traits. As Rav Soloveitchik explains, “Zebulun excelled in commerce. Yissachar was engaged in research in the study of Torah, and had an analytical mind. Joseph had a magnetic personality. Benjamin had courage.” Yaakov’s prayer and aspirations was that each fulfill his potential. His wisdom made clear that no two people are the same, and no two possess the very same talents and abilities.
Some will become the great scholars, steeped in Torah learning. Others will fulfill their technical, mechanical, commercial skills. Some will transverse the land and seas, engaged in international trade.
Yaakov knew that God’s promise would be fulfilled so long as the individuals of the generations, with their uniqueness intact, unite as one People serving the will of God.
We must learn from Yaakov’s example and always encourage our children and students to develop and pursue their unique strengths and gifts. Sadly, in too many of our communities, the mere idea that each student has a “real you” to be explored and realized is hateful. As a consequence, rather than realizing their gifts, individuals are afraid to discover who God fully intends them to be.
Rabbi Frank advocates for a fully examined life, one in which people live in accordance with the teaching of his mentor, Rav Yaakov Weinberg z”l who was “…adamant that his talmidim become thinkers, not passive recipients of information.” Given the choice between becoming a happy robot or an unhappy thinker, he urged them to be thinkers.
Rabbi Frank seeks to get students and young people interested in answering the tough questions that will lead to self-awareness and self-discovery. In other words, in wrestling with the thoughts and ideas that will help them discover their individual gifts and their unique blessings.
Yet, unlike Rabbi Frank and his mentor, so many cower from “free thinking” or rigorous inquiry. They seem to fear that Judaism is built upon a foundation of matchsticks that cannot withstand questioning.
Judaism has thrived because of Jews’ determination to ask hard questions – of themselves and of God. No one should ever be made to feel afraid to discover who they are, and what their gifts truly are. Faith in God presumes that all genuine gifts will benefit the Jewish people and community if they are allowed to be realized!
And this then is the true meaning of conferring blessings – not the pouring of all into a single mixing bowl so that the result is a single, smooth, bland sameness. God forbid! Of course, we bless our children and students with the same love and commitment to God and His Torah, but not to be indistinguishable from one another, to become little more than drones in a hive-like community. God has graced each of us with the crown of holiness; we must each pursue what that means in our lives.
Yaakov did not gather his sons and bless them all with one universal blessing. He didn’t simply tell them, Zeit ge’bentscht. Rather, he blessed each tribe individually, focusing his blessing to the characteristic and ability of each. This then teaches us what it means to truly bless. First and foremost, it is to recognize the uniqueness and gifts of the one (one!) being blessed. It is then to support and to guide the one being blessed to fulfill the potential of his or her uniqueness and those gifts.
Imagine how powerful our communities would be if each parent and every teacher were to bless this way! If each were to follow the model of our patriarchs!
Rav Kook urged us to do precisely that. “Every person must know and understand, that in the depth of one’s being there burns a candle and one’s candle is not at all as your friend’s candle… and there is absolutely no one that has no candle. Everyman must know and understand that it is his goal and responsibility to divulge the candle’s light publicly, and to allow one’s candle to be lit as a great torch that will give light to the entire world.”
During Chanukah, did you gaze at the menorah? Did you see that the candles, so similar when first lit, burned differently; no two candles burn alike? Likewise, no two people are the same. Each has a light to share with the world. It is not enough to simply allow it to be ignited. To truly bless another, we must recognize that light and then encourage and guide its glow.
In seeing the uniqueness and blessing of each person, Rav Nachman of Breslav sees not the image of a candle, but hears the notes of song. “Every Jewish child has a nigun miyuchad, a unique melody. The job of parents is to nurture, cultivate and fully develop that unique melody. When they do, the most beautiful symphony evolves…”
Teachers, do you hear? Rebbeim, Moros, are you listening? Parents, are you paying heed? Let’s bring Rav Kook and Rav Nachman into our current trends in child rearing and student orientation! Let us listen to the wisdom of Rabbi Frank. Our children are precious. Each shares the gift of God’s spirit yet each is unique. Isn’t it time we allow them to be who they were meant to be?
Let us allow our young boys in particular to develop their natural gifts and talents. Art, music, writing, science, medicine. If we insist that they turn away from who they truly are, and the gifts God has blessed them with, they will turn away from us! We do many such young boys harm to insist that they sit for hours at a time and “learn”. They are not learning. We are not making them a blessing, we are cursing them – and ourselves!
Let us bless our children and our students with the gift of themselves, nurtured by those who love them and care about them, so that they will become everything that they are capable of being, strengthening themselves, the community and the Jewish people.