Torah lesson at Rishonim Prison 370.
(photo credit: Courtesy Prison Service)
The frenzied cleaning leading up to Passover ends this coming Sunday night with
bedikat hametz (the search for leaven), which, according to Halacha, should
cover every nook and cranny into which hametz might have reached. The following
morning, we will burn whatever hametz remains in our possession.
final search for hametz is meant to spur us to a more internal search as well –
a search into every nook and cranny of our hearts. Our quarry is the
metaphorical se’or sheb’isa (leavening in the dough), which prevents us from
acting in accord with our deepest desire to fulfill God’s will. This “leavening”
is better known as the Evil Inclination or yetzer hara.
The metaphor is
made explicit the next morning when we burn the hametz.
Many have the
custom, while the hametz is burning, to recite a short prayer invoking God’s
assistance in uprooting our yetzer hara: “[J]ust as I have removed all hametz
from my home and from my possession, so may God, our Lord and Lord of our
forefathers... remove the yetzer hara from us...”
The yetzer hara is our
own private Egypt – i.e., everything that enslaves us and prevents us from doing
what is right.
That connection is made explicit at the end of the
above-mentioned prayer, when we beg God to cause all evil to pass from the world
“just as You destroyed Egypt and all their false gods in those days and in the
present as well.”
THE YETZER hara is described by our Sages as a wily and
ancient opponent, and he has many arrows in his quiver.
One of the most
potent is to distract us from the need for constant self-scrutiny by turning our
attention instead to the faults of others. Too frequently that criticism of
others is salve for our own bad conscience. By finding fault in others, we feel
less bad about those faults we find in ourselves – or would find if we looked
The common human impulse to look down on others always
reflects a distraction from our true task in the world. For, in truth, we have
no basis to compare ourselves to anyone else and thus no basis for looking down
on anyone else.
Each of us was brought into the world for a specific
mission – a mission no one else can fulfill because no one else was ever placed
in exactly the same circumstances, with the same challenges to overcome and with
the same set of strengths to help them do so. Each of us will be judged only in
respect of our own unique mission, and none of us can know with any degree of
certainty how we are doing in fulfilling our mission compared to anyone
Ranking ourselves in comparison to others rather than in comparison
to our own potential is always a mistake, unless we are using others’ admirable
traits to inspire our own growth.
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, founder of the
Mussar movement, once witnessed two boys arguing about who was taller. One of
the boys pushed down the other to advance his claim. Seeing this, Reb Yisrael
commented that nothing would ever come of that boy. Had he jumped up to show
that he was taller, he might have amounted to something, but choosing to push
down his friend instead reflected a very negative character trait.
society, we Israelis spend too much time and effort imitating the boy who pushed
down others to make himself feel taller. Police Chief Yochanan Danino recently
called youth violence “Israel’s No. 1 threat... equal to external
“Anyone looking at the future of the state,” he continued,
“must worry about our youth, their reduced motivation for being drafted and the
reduced level of youth volunteers.”
This attitude receives a lot of play
in the haredi press, as confirmation of the breakdown of morality when there is
But I want my children to focus instead on a different aspect
of Israeli youth.
Twice in the past few months I have received emails
from friends describing how their sons in combat units were freezing for lack of
thermal underwear – one dealt with conditions on the Gaza border during
Operation Pillar of Defense and the other with those on the Golan Heights during
heavy winter rains.
I want my sons who are learning Torah full-time to
feel the sacrifice of soldiers in the IDF. Let them think about soldiers
congregated in open fields, without any protection against incoming Kassam
rockets and unable to get warm, and use that image to spur on their learning. If
they truly believe in the protective power of their Torah learning – and they do
– then they should use those images of the dedicated soldiers at the front line
to push themselves in their studies.
At the same time, the general
society could benefit from asking why youth violence is almost unknown in haredi
society. Hint: the answer is not the passive acceptance of authority. Watch a
clip of Rav Elazar Menachem Schach teaching a class in Ponevezh in his 90s and
you’ll see young men less than a quarter of his age challenging him within
minutes and shouting their questions throughout the hour-long “war of
Those for whom phrases like “doing nothing but sitting on their
butts” or “parasites” come trippingly to the tongue should visit the crowded
study halls of Hebron or Ponevezh or Mirrer in the early hours of the morning or
peer into the synagogues filled with teenagers hammering away at the Gemara with
their study partners throughout Passover vacation. It might provide a different
HATRED IS another form of enslavement.
Even when we
are convinced that our anger is justified, holding on to it damages us more than
the objects of our animus by distorting our worldview and turning us into
negative people. Israeli society suffers from a surfeit of deepseated
On a recent visit to Boca Raton, Florida, I heard from Rabbi
Efrem Goldberg an incredible story involving his wife’s grandfather, Reb Yisroel
Nosson Bruckstein, about the possibility of letting go of hatred by putting
oneself in another’s shoes. One visiting day at a camp in the Catskills, Mr.
Bruckstein was walking along a path with his son when they passed another
elderly man. The two old men nodded to one another and kept walking. The younger
Bruckstein asked his father who the man was, and his father replied, “He was my
havruta [study partner] and best friend in Hungary before the war.”
son was surprised, as he knew all his father’s survivor friends and was sure he
had never seen the man in question before. “Why didn’t you say hello, hug, or
spend any time talking?” he asked.
His father’s second answer was more
surprising than the first.
“When the deportations began,” he said, “I
managed to obtain visas for myself, my wife and our baby. It was not yet time to
leave, so I hid them in a safe place and told no one of the hiding place, except
for my havruta. When it came time to go, I went to get the visas and they were
gone. He saved his family and I lost my first wife and child in
Now the son was even more astounded than before. He could not
grasp the calm with which his father related this story and the lack of any
visible desire to wreak violence on his former friend. His father explained, “It
was a different time and a different place. People were desperate; they did
whatever they could to save their families. While I cannot be friendly or speak
to him, I can’t judge him or be angry either. I should never have put him in
that nisayon [test].”
How much happier would we be as individuals and as
a society if we could cultivate that ability to put ourselves in the position of
those we condemn and attempt to see the world from their perspective.
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column
in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997 and is the author of eight biographies
of modern Jewish leaders.