The Tisch: Broken watches, broken souls

Like a watch that needs maintenance, specks of dirt enter our delicate souls and disrupt our spiritual mechanism.

When Rabbi Shlomo Shapiro (1831-1893) reached marriageable age, he traveled with his father, Rabbi Elazar of Lancut (1808-1865), to meet the prospective bride, Haya Frima Rivka (d. 1887), daughter of Rabbi Yekutiel Shmelke of Sasov (1800-1861). After marriage arrangements were agreed upon, the young groom and his father began the journey back to their home town. Along the way they made a detour to visit the well-respected hassidic master, Rabbi Meir’l (1783-1850) of Premishlan (today Peremyshlyany, Ukraine).
R. Meir’l welcomed the visitors and in the course of the conversation noticed the new pocket watch that the young groom had. Until this day, in many communities a groom receives a watch as a gift from his prospective in-laws. Spying the glistening new watch, R. Meir’l took the opportunity to comment on its symbolism: “A watch is like a human being: When it is new, it keeps time faithfully, just as the watchmaker intended. As the years pass, it may break – not the hands or the face, but the delicate balance wheel or hairspring may become worn or specks of dirt may disrupt the fragile mechanism. Maintenance and adjustment is necessary. The only solution is to take the watch to a watchmaker, who opens the watch and dissembles it into a myriad of tiny pieces until he locates the problem. After he has identified and corrected the problem, he takes all the pieces and puts the watch back together again. Once again, the watch keeps time faithfully.
“This is the nature of a person,” explained R. Meir’l. “God created people to live their lives faithfully. Alas, specks of dirt enter into our delicate souls and disrupt our spiritual mechanism. The only solution is break down our egos, identify our failings, clean our souls and then reconstruct ourselves.”
R. Meir’l drew a parallel between the watch-human imagery and the shofar blasts on Rosh Hashana: “This process is indicated by the way we sound the shofar. We begin with a tekia, a single, pure, unbroken blast. As we deal with the vicissitudes of life, we become a shevarim, a broken blast that bespeaks fragmentation and loss of purity. At that time, we must become a terua, a sound broken into innumerable, tiny pieces; uncomplicated by intricate mechanisms. Only after we have become a terua, can we then reconstruct the pieces and sound the tekia once again indicating that we have returned to our pure, unified self of old.”
With that R. Meir’l concluded the parable and its explanation, leaving a lesson in the minds of all present as they pondered the symbolism of the watch.
And then R. Meir’l leaned over to R. Elazar of Lancut, himself a hassidic leader and a scion of a famous hassidic family, and added in still, silent voice: “All this, I said to the young lads who are just beginning their journey in the service of the Almighty. A leader, however, must take a different approach.”
Perhaps R. Meir’l looked deep into the eyes of his colleague R. Elazar as he continued: “Leaders should not announce their failings to all, lest they precipitate depression among their charges, or create a gloomy atmosphere that would undermine their own ability to lead. Indeed the appropriate approach for leaders is indicated in a verse from the Torah: And when you convoke the congregation you shall blow long blasts and not short ones (Numbers 10:7).”
R. Meir’l explained: “Moses, the paradigm of Jewish leadership, was instructed to appear before the community as a tekia, an unbroken, pure blast of the shofar and not as a fragmented terua blast.” To be sure, the inner fragmentation of a leader should be confronted, but according to Rabbi Meir’l of Premishlan, it should not be broadcast.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.