Last week the Jewish community both here in Israel and around the world lost a Torah giant. Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the revered Halachic authority and inspirational spiritual leader to a generation of Torah observant Jews passed away.
In Jerusalem, his funeral,though only hours from his death and virtually in the middle of the night, brought together some 300,000 mourners. The tributes for this Gaon came from every segment of society, from secular politicians to Hassidic rebbes. While not everyone always agreed with Rav Elyashiv, he was universally respected and admired.
During these days since his passing everyone seems keen to tell stories of Rav Elyashiv's personal greatness. He was oh so humble and self-effacing. He died at 102all the while self sufficient. He preferred to live his life in a small one bedroom apartment and sleep next to the refrigerator than to move into a more comfortable flat that his devotees and family wanted to rent for him. For more than half a century he woke each morning at 2:00AM after a brief night's sleep to begin his daily Torah study. He was tireless in his committment to meet with and offer advice to those seeking his counsel and blessing.His love for Torah knew no bounds.
But all that being said something troubles me about the legacy of this great rav.
Yes I heard the accounts of Rav Elyashiv's extraordinary service to G-d, Torah and Israel. Yes, I believe he posessed wonderful character traits of humility, kindness, and devotion. The problem I have is that no one has shared anything that Rav Elyashev struggled with, I means a personal struggle.
You and I battle our yetzer hara constantly. From dawn to dusk and beyond we are fighting our inclinations to do the wrong. Whether it be making it to minyan in the morning or davening with kavana or controlling ourselves from speaking lashon hara, and any number of other pitfalls we are constantly struggling to avoid sin.
Did Rav Elyashev have those struggles? Are there stories that someone can tell me about them?
Admire Rav Elyashiv? of course! But can I learn from him? I can only learn to over-come my own issues from others who battle similarly. From their struggle, their successes and failures I learn. Only someone like me can be an example for me.
Their success shows me what I may yet accomplish. Still more, how they succeeded can become a model for me. But if someone has not had my struggle how can they inspire me.It might well be that if they were in my shoes they would do no better than me.
Only from someone who has walked the same road and made it to the other side can I really take hope.
This week we begin the fifth book of the Torah, Devarim, with a portion by the same name. The Book of Devarim is a narrative. Much of it, contains Moshe's retelling of the story of the wilderness journey for a new generation about to enter the Promised Land. This week's reading is an example of that. Moshe recalls for the People how they got themselves to this point. He reminds them of what happened some 38 yrs earlier as their parents were on the threshold of entering Israel. He recounts the story of the report of the spies and the aftermath as the nation in fear and panic rejected the land, thereby bringing about their doom in the desert.
The question we might ask is why does Moshe need to review all the neagative components of the legacy of the generation past. He is talking to the children of that generation. Do they need to be reminded of their parent's flaws. Every person we eulogize has shortcomings. We don't typically mention them at a funeral. We only focus on the positives. Why does Moshe insist on bringing up the mistakes of the past?
The answer is that the Torah long preceeded George Santayana in recognizing that "those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them." Moshe wanted Israel,the new generation, to know their history very well and to confront the mistakes of their parents,difficult though that may be.
Moreover Moshe wanted those who were about to enter the Land to know that their opportunity to take posession of Canaan was a direct result of lessons learned.
Moshe reminded them of the cowardice of their ancestors and its consequences.He then told them that precisely because of the mistakes past and its cost you rose above your fears.You conquered Sihon and Og, two powerful monarchs, every bit as intimidating as the kings of Canaan. You learned from the past that fear only brings despair and aimlessness. You learned that in life there is no alternative to courage.
And so now you are at the doorstep to a new future.
The Book of Devarim teaches over and over that we can grow only by learning from the experiences of others who had struggles similar to ours. Angels can inspire us but they cannot be our teachers. Our teachers need to be mortal like us, flawed like us, those who struggle like us. It is from them and their wherewithall to triumph despite the challenges that we draw inspiration make progress.
Once when I was a boy my father caught me in a lie. It was a pretty serious lie.
He was upset with me. When he repremanded me he said "Yisrael you must never ever lie again. I never lied. My father never lied. And his father never lied."
He then took out a Chumash and made me swear on it that I would never lie again.
Many parents correct their children in a similar fashion. While perhaps not so dramatic, they tell their child that they never would do the wrong their child did.
They say, as it were, "how could you!". And insist the child take the excellence of the parent as the model to get it right.
The problem with that approach is that it is not the way we learn. When others teach us and give us hope to improve it is from their struggle not their excellence.
It would be better for a parent to say, "You know I used to have a similar problem. I was not always so well behaved. And once I did this and this...But I realized...and I managed over time to change..." The more real the parent can make his/her account the more power it has to influence the young.
That's the message Devarim really is teaching us. Only by dint of powerful examples of failure and success can we learn and believe we can change.
The truth is just as Rav Elyashiv had a greatness, each of us has a greatness inside...a greatness that is uniquely ours.
Each of us is called upon in life to realize our unique greatness.
Maybe it is to be a great father or mother, or a great friend or whatever the call of our life. And it is not easy for sure. Mediocrity is oh so tempting.
To achieve our greatness we need to learn from the challenges of others, like Rav Elyashev, what they battled to attain their greatness, as much as we need to know their results.
Tell me of your accomplishments and you earn my admiration. Tell me of your struggle and you become my teacher!