By Rabbi Ben Zion Shafier
I had the opportunity to speak at my son’s bar mitzvah, and I told the story of a small sefer Torah that had been in the news then. It went like this:
Joachim Joseph was a twelve-year-old boy when Rabbi Dasberg approached him and said, “It will soon be your bar mitzvah, and I want to teach you to read from the Torah.”
Joachim refused. He just didn’t want to lain. Rabbi Dasberg was persistent. Still Joachim refused. In the end, Rabbi Dasberg persevered, and Joachim Joseph lained from a very small sefer Torah… in Bergen-Belsen.
At the risk of his life, Rabbi Dasberg had smuggled a small Torah scroll into the concentration camp with him. When he saw twelve-year-old Joachim Joseph, so close to bar mitzvah age, he wanted him to lain. So early one morning, before dawn, under the very noses of the Nazi guards, they gathered together a minyan, and Joachim lained from that sefer Torah.
After the bar mitzvah “celebration,” Rabbi Dasberg made another request. He asked Joachim to take possession of the sefer Torah. Again, Joachim refused. How could he, a young boy, take responsibility for such a precious article?
“I’m an old man,” Rabbi Dasberg pleaded. “I probably won’t make it out of here. You are young – you will survive. I want you to take this Torah, and promise me that the whole world will hear about it.”
In the end, Joachim agreed. He took the sefer Torah, and he survived. After the war, he settled in Israel and placed that sefer Torah in a closet in his apartment, where it remained.
Years later, Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut, in preparation for his upcoming mission aboard the space craft Columbia, consulted with Dr. Joachim Joseph about certain issues relating to his assignment. After their discussion, the conversation turned to the sefer Torah in Dr. Joseph’s possession. Ilan asked to take it with him when he went up into space.
The story had a tragic ending, as the Columbia exploded into flames upon its reentry into the earth’s atmosphere. But the promise made fifty-seven years earlier was fulfilled when the whole world learned about the sefer Torah that was on board.
The reason I told this story to my son at his bar mitzvah was to make a point. “Did you choose to be born in the USA in the 1990’s?” I asked. “Did Joachim Joseph choose to be born in the 1920’s in Poland? Neither of you chose your life. But you had better believe that his life was vastly different than yours.”
And that is the point – no one gets to choose. Each individual is born into an exact generation, into a given family, in a specific birth order, with a precise family dynamic. That might include a domineering older brother or a whiny younger sister. It might mean being born with a silver spoon in your mouth or into the grip of poverty. Introverted or extroverted, bold or timid, robust or weak, tall or short, handsome or not. With specific talents and abilities, and an exact level of intelligence, each person is placed into the ideal setting for him. Our lives fit us like a hand in a glove, with each situation custom-designed by our Creator for that individual.
When a person understands this, life itself is fair. If not, then it makes no sense at all. How do you explain why some people have it so easy and yet others have it so hard? Why are some people born talented and others not? Why are some people born crippled? Or deaf or blind? Why is there autism in the world? What about polio?
How do you explain two brothers? One leads an idyllic life; everything he touches turns to gold – he is successful in business, has a great marriage, and his kids love him. But everything his brother touches turns to mud. He can’t earn a living. His marriage is a wreck, and his kids are miseries. You can’t argue that they had different upbringings. They were born to the same parents, raised in the same house, and went to the same yeshivahs. Yet one leads an enchanted existence, and the other is a shlemiel.
Each person is given a specific set of circumstances and a particular set of abilities. The backdrop is set and we are given a role to play. Born into a particular time period, to a particular family, given a very exact set of parameters. You will be so tall, so intelligent, have so much of this talent and so much of that one. Now, go out there and do it! Live your life, ford those streams, cross those rivers, and sail those seas!
At the end of your days, you will be judged. But you won’t be compared to me or to anyone else. You will be measured against the most demanding yardstick imaginable – you. Based on your potential, based on your God given abilities, how much did you achieve?
Whether you are smarter or richer or more talented than the next person is irrelevant. The only issue is: how much did you accomplish compared to what you were capable of?
All of the things that we put such emphasis on – money, honor, and talent – are all stage settings. They are props to be used; they allow us to play our part. But in the end we aren’t judged by the part we played. When we leave this earth, they don’t ask us, “How much money did Hashem give you? How smart did Hashem make you?” The questions are far more penetrating and demanding. “How far did you go with what you were given?”
There is no objective standard or single yardstick that everyone is measured against, and the measure of man’s success isn’t in absolute terms. The system is far more exacting. It is based on your talents and strengths, your abilities and capacities. The only question they ask is how much of your potential did you reach? Eighty percent? Forty percent? Twenty percent? How much of you did you become?