Like a Rose Amongst Thorns

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By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman

Do you have any neighbors that are more religious than you and your family?  That are less religious than you and your family?  That are about the same?  What do you think of them?  Do you like them, dislike them, look up to them, look down on them, think they are special, weird, great, no good, feel bad for them, would you like to be their friends, or not?  We all have lots of neighbors, all different types.  And we harbor all types of different thoughts about them; some charitable, others less so.

Now, what if you had a neighbor around the same age and stage of life as you, Jewish by the way, who it just so happens is a real-life oveid avodah zarah.  Yes, you read correctly: he has a cute little idol that he bows down to, in full prostrate position, every morning and evening.  He prays to this idol, beseeches it to help him in all his endeavors, polishes it every week, plants a reverent kiss upon it every night before going to sleep – the works!

So, what do you think of this neighbor?  But before you answer that question, let’s switch gears slightly for a moment.

When Moshe Rabbeinu commands Klal Yisrael about the korban pesach in Mitzrayim, he introduces his command with the wordsמשכו וקחו לכם (יב:כא)?  The קחו (take, plural) is no problem to understand, they had to go get a lamb; but why the משכו (lit. pull, draw), it seems totally unnecessary?

Answering this question, Rashi (יב:ו) writes, “שהיו שטופים בע”ז אמר להם משכו וקחו לכם משכו ידיכם מע”ז וקחו לכם צאן של מצוה, because they were immersed in avodah zarah he told them ‘pull and take for yourselves’, meaning withdraw your hands from avodah zarah and take a lamb of mitzvah.”  Not only did the Jews in Mitzrayim dabble a bit here and there in idolatry, they were awash in it!  They were steeped in avodah zarah!  This is not like a kid who is experimenting with drugs, this is like a full blown drug addict!

And what does Hashem think of these people?  What does He think of these people who are busy bowing down to, praying to, and bringing korbanos to idols?

Going back to that same Rashi we find out what Hashem says: “ואעבור עליך ואראך והנה עתך עת דודים הגיעה שבועה שנשבעתי לאברהם שאגאל את בניו, I passed over you and I saw you, and behold your time [has come for] the time of the beloved ones; the time for the [fulfillment of the] oath that I swore to Avraham that I will redeem his children has arrived.”  So what is the basic message that Hashem is conveying?  “The time has come to develop our love.”  To these people – these seemingly crass idolaters – Hashem says, “I want your closeness”!

A story: He survived the war but everything was in a shambles.  The Chassidus had to be built up all over again from the ground up.  But Rav Shlomo Halberstam hadn’t survived the horrors of the ghettos and the death camps just to despair and give up now.  No, he realized that if Hashem had spared him from the ovens of Auschwitz, it was for a reason; and if he would be forced to work hard to rebuild, so be it.

Slowly, slowly he went about his holy work.  The first step was to create a spiritual center – a place where Yiddin could come to warm their souls with the fire of Torah and Teffilah.  He started a minyan.  With his only surviving son at his side, together they would scavenge for every available Jew to complete their minyan each day, and try to rekindle the fire of Yiddishkeit on these new shores.

One Shabbos, it came to the Rebbe’s attention that there was a Yid sitting on a park bench, not far from the shtible, smoking.  Yes, desecrating Shabbos in full view of all the passerby’s!  The Rebbe was actually familiar with this individual and recalled that he had served as a popular chazzan in one of Poland’s many Jewish communities.

The Rebbe called over his son and bid him to deliver a message to the Yid in the park.  Naftali’s face registered his shock and astonishment, but he uttered not a word.  Respect for the individual who was both his father and his Rebbe was paramount, and he would dutifully carry out his bidding.

“Excuse me Reb Chaim, good Shabbos,” said Naftali in a pleasant tone of voice, while inwardly grimacing from the spectacle of blatant chilul Shabbos, “my father, the Rebbe of the nearby shtible, heard that you are an expert chazzan and he asked that you do us the honor of leading us in davening for the rest of the teffilos.”

“Reb” Chaim’s response came in the form of a bitter and blasphemous tirade that made Naftali turn white and feel as if someone was tearing off his skin with a red hot iron comb.

Nu, vus zukt ehr?  Did he agree to come?” the Rebbe asked his son when he returned to the shtible.  “Did he agree to come?!” Naftali responded, “No, he most certainly did not agree to come!  Tatty, you cannot imagine the foul language and horrible words ofkefirah and apikorsus that I just heard from that wicked man!  I have no idea why you sent me to him in the first place – regular Shabbosdesecrators don’t hold a candle to this guy!  What rishus!”

Calmly, yet resolutely the Rebbe said, “It wasn’t him talking, it was the Germans talking.  Next week we’ll try again.”  For a fleeting moment, Naftali felt as if he must have taken leave of his senses; there is no way he could have heard right.  But he did hear right!  “Tatty!  How could you possibly want such a despicable person to lead us in davening?!  What point is there in speaking to him again?  He is only going to spew more blasphemy!”  But the Rebbe would have no more of it and conclusively brought the conversation to a close: “Next week, we’ll try again.”

As one could well imagine, the next week was practically a replay of the previous scene.  Naftali was subjected to a whole new round of curses and vilification, just that this time it was even more peppery seeing that, “Didn’t I already tell you last time to get lost!”

Feeling as though run over by a truck, but ever loyal to his father and Rebbe, he reported back on the day’s work.  Again, calmly and resolutely the Rebbe simply said, “It’s not him talking, it’s the Germans talking.”

Eventually, the Rebbe’s non-judgmental and repetitiously warm, inviting overtures did manage to wear down Chaim’s resistance.  He finally allowed himself to be cajoled into serving as chazzan from time to time, but not without first making it clear to them that “there is no way I am ever going to be religious ever again!”  And he certainly kept that promise faithfully.  Not long after, though, everyone moved on and the Rebbe lost contact with Chaim.

Fast forward 50 years.  Owing to the indefatigable and ever-energetic efforts of Rav Shlomo, the Bobover Chassidus has burgeoned and grown beyond anyone’s wildest imagination – well, perhaps everyone aside from the Rebbe.  He had his eye on the ball from the very beginning.  The Chassidus now numbered in the many thousands.  So much so, that the Rebbe had no choice but to make it his firm policy that he could only attend simchos of immediate family.  Otherwise, there were so many simchos in the Chassidusthat he would not have a minute to do anything other than go from simcha to simcha.

This policy having been in place for almost a decade now, Rav Naftali was quite surprised one day to hear his father’s request that he escort him to a wedding of an individual who was not even a member of the Chassidus.  And, not only that, but he was to serve asmesader kiddushin!  Ever the loyal son and chassid, though, he agreed without hesitation and kept his reservations to himself.

While sitting at the festive wedding meal and enjoying the festivities, the Rebbe turned to his son and asked, “Does the grandfather of the chasan look at all familiar to you?”  Anticipating his son’s blank stare, the Rebbe immediately added, “take a look at all of his children and grandchildren – all fine Bnei Torah – do any of them resemble someone you once met?”  Addressing Rav Naftali’s continued silence, the Rebbe explained: “Last week, that man, whose name is Reb Chaim, called me.  ‘Rebbe,’ he told me, ‘it’s been 50 years since we last saw each other and you probably do not remember me, but I could never forget you.  In one week’s time, I am going to be marrying off my youngest grandchild.  Baruch Hashem, all of my children and grandchildren are erlicheh Yidden, proud Torah-true Jews; and it is all thanks to you and your son reaching out to me when I was a broken shell of a man after the war who would spend hisShabbos’s smoking in public on a park bench.  I cannot imagine how you put up with me at the time, but all I can say is that everything I have become and that my family is, is due to the warmth that you showered on me back then.  I cannot imagine this chasunah without you there serving as mesader kiddushin.  Please, Rebbe, this is your simcha as much as it is mine; please accept.”

With his trademark warmth and love, Rav Shlomo met his son’s gaze, “You see, I told you that it was just the Germans talking.”

When the Ribbono shel Olam gazed down upon us in the peak of our suffering in Mitzrayim and he saw us steeped in idolatry, He did not write us off.  The Malachei Ha’shareis said, “הללו עובדי עבודה זרה והללו עובדי עבודה זרה, Why should the Jews be saved and theMitzrim drowned?!  They both are idolaters![1]”, and Hashem’s response was, “What appears to you as the Jews having committed idolatry wasn’t really them, it was the Mitzrim.”  Hashem saw the Jewish People for what and who they really were, the illustrious and worthy descendants of the Avos Ha’Kedoshim, whose essence reflected that of their great ancestors, and He desired their closeness –ואעבור עליך ואראך והנה עתך עת דודים.

But what do you do?!  They’re steeped in avodah zarah!

Simple, just help them to feel how distinguished and magnificent they are – what great potential they have – and, at the same time, provide them with an alternative to what they have been doing up until now.  Coming back to the aforementioned Rashi, “נתן להם שתי מצות דם פסח ודם מילה…משכו ידיכם מע”ז וקחו לכם צאן של מצוה, He gave them two mitzvos, the blood of the korban pesach and the blood ofbris milah…withdraw your hands from idolatry and take a sheep of mitzvah.”  In one fell swoop, Hashem helped them to realize how special and valuable they are by giving them a precious mitzvah that eternally identified them as the exclusive representatives of the Creator and director of the universe, while simultaneously providing them with a healthy, positive alternative to the faulty expression of spirituality that they had been engaged in up until that point.

Hashem didn’t blast them for their foolishness.  He did not exhort Moshe Rabbeinu to castigate them with fire and brimstone.  On the contrary, He made them feel like a million dollars, validated their inherent, virtuous drive for ruchniyus, and gently helped them to redirect that drive into a positive direction.

On many other occasions in the Torah, the Jews are dealt with in a much stricter and more severe manner in response to their negative behavior.  Apparently, then, they were afforded deferential treatment in this situation because of the overwhelming burden of suffering to which they had been subject.  What is important to realize, though, is that suffering comes in many forms, and emotional suffering can be just as debilitating as physical suffering, if not more[2].  Emotional and psychological suffering and pain is one of the primary challenges of our generation, on levels and at a scope that many of us, even those of us that are dealing with our own pain, do not even begin to imagine.  Therefore, our best bet at positively affecting others is by taking the approach outlined above.

Rav Chizkiyah Mishkovsky[3] delineated that a guiding principle in chinuch is the pasuk in Shir Ha’Shirim that says, “Do not see me when I am blackened, when the sun has burned me[4].”  The Midrash[5] explains that what this means is that Klal Yisrael is defending itself to the Gentiles by saying that even though I may appear blackened and sullied, that is not who I really am.  It is but amum oveir, a passing blemish like a sunburn.  With our children, elaborated Rav Mishkovsky, the correct approach to take and outlook to maintain is that we do not see them when they appear blackened and sullied.  Not that we ignore or overlook negative behavior, but we understand that it does not at all define who the child really is, and we therefore respond accordingly.  When we are aware of the fact that the true reality of the child is that he is a shoshana bein ha’chochim[6], a rose amongst thorns, we realize that all we need to do is simply to carefully and lovingly untangle and dislodge him from those thorns.

Really, this is the approach that we are best off adopting not only with our children but with just about everyone we come into contact with; and, perhaps most importantly and fundamentally, ourselves.

[1] עיין רש”י פ’ בשלח פרק י”ד פסוק י”ט ובספר ווי העמודים (להשל”ה) פרק כ”ב

[2] עיין שו”ת ציץ אליעזר חלק יג סימן קב שכתב באמצע דבריו “ויסורים וכאבים נפשיים המה במדה מרובה הרבה יותר גדולים ויותר מכאיבים מיסורים גופיים

[3] Mashgiach of Yeshivas Orchos Torah and Yeshivas Gaon Yaakov in Bnei Brak, and popular speaker.

[4] א:ו

[5] מדרש זוטא א:ה, ילקוט שמעוני פ’ חקת רמז תשס”ד

[6] שה”ש ב:ב


  1. What a powerful lesson from a staunch oheiv yisroel – the Bobover Rebbe zt”l!! Al tistakel bekankan elah al ma sheyeish boi!!
    A lesson in being dan lekaf zechus , especially with the holocaust survivors who went thru so much pain and humiliation!!!!

  2. The Bobover Ruv, ZY”A, was a malach among men. His concern for the individual was legendary. And the hadras ponim! Oh, how I miss it.


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