This concept of not “all or nothing” even manifests itself in halachah l’maaseh
It was on one of our trips out of town, that we were hosted by a wonderful family for a Shabbos seudah. The home radiated a ruach of chesed of the highest order and a great respect for Torah. The conversation ranged over the entire gamut of what is typically featured at your classic Shabbos table, including divrei Torah, lively zemiros, and opinions on current events.
There was one young man present who chose to remain mostly quiet during the meal, until the conversation turned to chinuch-related topics. I do not recall how we got there, but I commented on how I felt about the prevalent tendency to classify teenagers in boxes depending on whether or not they outwardly project the image of a ben Torah. I said, “It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.”
Suddenly, the handsome bochur came to life. Animated and excited, he joined the conversation that clearly struck a deep chord. We spoke about the new yeshivos that have begun to emerge in America and Israel that provide comfortable environments for bnei Torah who aspire to grow but want a different flavor than the classical model. This bochur was himself attending one such yeshivah, and maturing al pi darko, happy to feel understood.
This is not some earth-shattering chiddush, as anyone raising children is surely aware. Mechanchim have indeed recognized the need for a framework for students who don’t fit the standard mold, and have risen to the occasion.
But it’s not merely a matter of coming to terms with reality and surrendering to it. What is really needed is that there be genuine appreciation of these young men and women for what they bring to the collective table. Some may dismiss talmidim who aren’t “standard issue” or don’t don the yeshivish “uniform” as possessing a lower potential for greatness in Torah, despite their other maalos. However, it is not all or nothing, and these young people have considerable potential.
This concept of not “all or nothing” even manifests itself in halachah l’maaseh.
Upon the passing of Rebbetzin Elyashiv a”h, a man insisted on getting an audience with the aveilim, despite the difficulty of even getting in the door. He shared his story with Rav Elyashiv ztz”l and his family. This person had made yeridah from Eretz Yisrael along with his family and had settled in Canada. Sometime later, his daughter left the fold completely and eloped to Europe with a non-Jew to begin a different life, Rachmana litzlan.
One year, shortly after Yom Kippur, news reached her father that his daughter had suddenly died in Switzerland. The distraught man got in touch with the local chevra kaddisha to ensure that she at least receive kever Yisrael, but they refused to bury her in a Jewish cemetery. Out of desperation, the man called Eretz Yisrael with the hope of getting a psak from Rav Elyashiv to allow her a Jewish burial, but it was impossible to reach him.
Somehow, he made contact with the Rebbetzin and implored her to bring the Rav his sh’eilah and plea that his daughter at least be buried as a Jew. Sure enough, the sh’eilah made its way to the great posek, and he asked one question: What did she do the last Yom Kippur of her life? Incredibly, it was discovered that she had gone to Ne’ilah for half an hour. Based on that, Rav Elyashiv ruled that the chevra kaddisha should bury her b’kever Yisrael. Even this situation was not all or nothing.
This teaches us not only how to view out-of-the-box children, but also something extremely relevant to this season.
There is a well-known Ran in Maseches Rosh Hashanah that is worth reviewing this time of year. The Gemara famously tells us that tzaddikim are immediately signed and sealed for life on Rosh Hashanah, whereas resha’im are doomed to death. The obvious question is how to resolve this with observed reality. There are many righteous individuals, at least in our eyes, who do not survive the scrutiny of Yom Hadin, and there are many resha’im walking around with nary a care in the world who have enjoyed many years of life. How could this be?
There are a number of approaches to this question; what follows are the words of the Ran. “The main [intention] of these words is that they are tzaddikim and resha’im in this judgment. Those people, who are meritorious in this judgment because of eizeh zechus [some merit], are referred to here as tzaddikim gemurim, absolute tzaddikim, for they are completely righteous in this judgment, even though their sins outweigh their merits... for Hashem’s trait is to reward [them] in this world because of some meritorious act they performed. So, too, tzaddikim whose merits outweigh their sins: [If] they are found guilty in this judgment, even for a light transgression, in this judgment they are deemed resha’im... and so writes the Ramban in Shaar Hagmul.”
Indeed, the very first topic in the Ramban’s magnificent volume on reward and punishment opens with this gemara, with the same interpretation as the Ran. When the Gemara refers to those fortunate to survive the judgment of this Rosh Hashanah as tzaddikim, it is better translated as “the meritorious ones” and resha’im as “those who are found guilty.” The word “gemurim” does not mean absolute; rather it means that their judgment is immediate and need not wait for the following Aseres Yemei Teshuvah and Yom Kippur. (Sefer Chazon Yoel on Shaar Hagmul, by Rav Yoel Sperka shlita.)
We learn a fundamental principle in the middos of Hashem from this Gemara. Those who seem to us to be total losers, to borrow from the vernacular, can actually be big winners in Hashem’s eyes, and vice versa, chas v’shalom. Who are we to know what that “eizeh zechus,” as the Ran put it, could possibly be that enables the person we dismiss as a rasha to actually be meritorious in judgment?
Pirkei Avos (4:14) teaches us, “The serenity of the resha’im or the suffering of tzaddikim is beyond our understanding.” We cannot assume anything about who even we ourselves are, whether to assume we are classified as resha’im and hopeless causes, or that we are so righteous and are doing all we have to (Tosafos Yom Tov quoting Rabbeinu Ephraim and Ramah).
Certainly, then, we cannot make any assumptions about anybody else. Do we know their capabilities? Do we write them off as useless due to their lack of learning skills and appreciation for yeshivish lifestyle or other perceived shortcomings, or are we bold enough to actually see beyond the exterior and truly appreciate whom we are looking at? Is it all or nothing?
What better example can there be than Yaakov Avinu, who was petrified of his brother Eisav due to his outstanding kibbud av, despite Eisav being the standard bearer of evil for all time? Yaakov fears his brother because of his “eizeh zechus.” And let us not forget that Eisav’s head wound up in the holiest burial ground on earth, the Mearas Hamachpeilah. Is it all or nothing?
Rav Moshe Scheinerman shlita in his sefer Ohel Moshe (Eikev note 53) records the following incredible anecdote that brings this point home in a very stark way. Rav Mordechai Gifter ztz”l had a seder every Erev Shabbos with the legendary Rav Mottel Pogremansky of Telshe. From time to time, the great genius would ask his young chavrusa to write down what they had learned together.
One day, the young Mordechai Gifter asked his mentor why he wasn’t writing the chiddushei Torah down himself; surely they would have been transcribed with more clarity and depth.
Rav Pogremansky answered him, “I cannot even write the form of an alef, that is why I ask you to write.”
The future Telsher Rosh Yeshivah asked, with even more incredulity than before, “But are you not the gaon among geonim, the wisest of the wise? How is it possible that something so easy is out of your realm?”
The response was shocking. “I don’t understand you. Just because I’m such a baal kishron, it means I have to know how to write? Hashem gave me the ability to be a gaon in Torah, but not the ability to write. Therefore I cannot write.”
What a powerful lesson. Many of us are born with limitations, but despite these deficits, we can become great. It is not all or nothing.
We are entering the Yemei Hadin. The sefer Tomar Devorah famously writes that by committing ourselves to the middos of Hashem, we can in turn merit His Heavenly grace by becoming recipients of those middos. These middos are represented in the Mi Keil Kamocha recited at Tashlich. One of those middos is “Yichbosh avonoseinu”; literally, He hides our sins from sight.
Among the various attributes included in this trait is the ability to ignore the bad in a person, so as not to detract from the good. Hashem views us the way we view others. If we focus on the negative and classify our fellow man accordingly, we will be viewed exactly the same way. We need to single out the good qualities in others, ignoring the shortcomings and focusing on what they do have, and what they have done right.
Rav Aharon Kotler ztz”l (Mishnas Rav Aharon Rosh Hashanah, p. 193) quotes the Yalkut Shimoni in Tehillim, “Renew your deeds, and I will cover your sins.” A commitment on our end to focus on the good of others enables Hashem to exercise this middah of “yichbosh.” But we must first do the same.
It is unfair to expect every teenager, or adult for that matter, to exhibit every middah tovah. Rav Mottel Pogremansky taught us that even some great people may never master skills that smaller people can. If we judge others based on all or nothing, what can we expect in return?
There is a story about the Vilna Gaon that I have heard from my own rebbeim, but as with many stories from yesteryear, there is more than one version. According to one version, the Gaon was imprisoned for some trumped-up offense and was incarcerated over Tu B’Shevat. He asked the warden, who was also Jewish, for a fruit on which to make a brachah. After the warden fulfilled the request, the Gaon asked him if he would also like to make a ha’eitz.
His response was, “It is a long time already that I do not make brachos.”
The Gaon was unimpressed and used the opportunity as a teaching moment. He said the warden probably thought that when he was asked in the next world about his habitual refusal to make brachos, he would simply pass it off as one collective infraction.
“But in truth,” the Gaon told him, “you will be taken to task for every single brachah you did not make!”
According to one version of the story, the warden was so shaken by the realization of what he would be accountable for, he became a chozer b’teshuvah.
There is no such thing as all or nothing here, either. Every single brachah is an opportunity to acknowledge Hashem. Ignoring all brachos in general will not give us an E-Z Pass to avoid responsibility for each individual one. And on the other hand, just because we may have been negligent in saying brachos or performing any particular mitzvah doesn’t mean we will not reap the reward for the ones we did perform properly. Because it is not all or nothing.
There is a powerful mashal written in the name of the Chofetz Chaim that gives us some perspective. A woman was selling apples from her cart when it suddenly tipped over, sending fruit rolling in every direction. The dazed woman stood paralyzed with distress while she bemoaned the loss of her livelihood.
A bystander admonished her, “Lady, instead of standing and doing nothing, at least save whatever apples you can!”
Sometimes we feel helpless and on the verge of surrender — we have done so much wrong, is there really any hope? Yes! There is plenty of hope, for despite all we might have failed at, there is still so much we can salvage. It is not all or nothing.
If we can commit to a mindset of overlooking our friends’ shortcomings and stop passing judgment on them as either all good or all bad, we can, in kind, merit Hashem’s chesed in deeming us good enough to merit a year of chayim b’soch acheinu kol beis Yisrael.
As we look for zechuyos at this special time of the year, let’s tap into the segulah of the middos we are exhorted to follow. Then we can merit the glorious title of tzaddikim gemurim in a year of yeshuos for us all.
Rabbi Plotnik,a talmid of the yeshivos of Philadelphia and Ponevezh, has been active in rabbanus and chinuch for 25 years and currently serves as ram in Yeshivas Me’or HaTorah in Chicago.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 874)
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