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Essential Reading   

Governments rise and governments fall, but our essentialness will never fade


So in their fit of zeal to make this round of Covid at least as serious as the last one and make sure their citizens understand just how scary it is, the Canadian government has come up with rules, restrictions, and limitations that they hadn’t yet thought of in 2020.

(Side he’arah from someone living in a lockdown state where shuls and schools are officially closed and there is a nightly curfew: Asking people why they don’t move is socially off. People have lives, businesses, friends, children in school, shuls, and rabbanim they feel deeply connected to. And when this is over, im yirtzeh Hashem, we will still be able to get our children into school without having to pledge to donate a major organ or any future Powerball winnings.)

Among the government’s brilliant new legal innovations is the removal of the “essential” label. Until now, an essential worker could cross the border into the United States for work and return home without having to quarantine, but no more.

Under the previous regulations, media was considered an essential service (insert your funny joke here, and then think about what happened last time the delivery guy messed up and you didn’t get Mishpacha and you know it’s true) and I benefitted from this designation for the last two years. So as I go back to being unessential, permit me a few final thoughts, a last hurrah for a person watching his essentialness evaporate.

The idea of more essential people and less essential people is not one rooted in the beis medrash.

“Who says your blood is redder than his? Maybe his blood is redder than yours?” (Sanhedrin 74a)

We’ve heard many shmuessen about every single Yid being important, all rooted in Chazal, but one of the greatest contemporary messages on this subject comes from our national paytan.

I was once in a car with a wise rav, and the driver was playing Abie Rotenberg’s “Atheist Convention in L.A.” The lyrics tell of three atheists on their way to celebrate their shared (lack of) ideology under the sunny California skies, when the airplane they’re on experiences engine failure. Faced with imminent death, all the atheists sudden cry out in prayer. (No word, at the time, if they were allowed to lower their masks as the plane was in free-fall or not.)

The plane miraculously rights itself, and a nearby passenger sarcastically wonders, “With your true colors showing, will you three still be going, to the Atheist Convention in L.A.?”

The song’s final verse gives us an update about where they’re up to today. “Peter’s now a priest in Cincinnati, Mohammed built a mosque in Santa Fe. And Howard’s still a dentist out in Woodmere — but now they call him Chaim’l, and on Shabbos he wears a shtreimel…”

And the rav in the front seat got excited. “The gadlus here,” he explained, “is that the writer of the song didn’t follow the pattern and make Howard into a rabbi, similar to what he did with the others. He didn’t feel compelled to, because it is in other religions that only the cleric is holy. But by us, Howard remains a dentist and that is the happy, holy ending!”

At a recent convention, I heard something astounding from my friend Reb Eliyahu Zaks of Lakewood. We were both in the hallway during what was surely an inspiring speech, but the story he shared compensated in part for whatever inspiration I missed inside the room.

(He’arah about frum speeches: The first three rows near the podium are usually empty, but there’s invariably a huge crowd filling the doorway and spilling outside into the hall. Those are people like me, too ADHD to commit to staying inside but also blessed with a touch of anxiety, so they worry that they might miss something.)

Eliyahu shared a detail about the wedding of his grandfather, Rav Mendel Zaks. Reb Mendel married Faiga Chaya, the daughter of the Chofetz Chaim. His father, the avi hachassan, was Reb Yaakov Mordechai Zaks, a merchant from the town of Shidlova. Sometimes he sold fish, other times he sold whiskey, but he was just an ordinary Jew who served his Creator and dreamed of seeing his sons become talmidei chachamim, like thousands of other litvish Yidden.

And he did not come to the chasunah.

His son was marrying the daughter of rabban shel Yisrael, and he missed the wedding.

On purpose.

He reasoned that if he would go, the crowds would no doubt try to ascertain who the mechutan was. And when they would see that it was a simple merchant, that would lead to a bizayon for the gadol hador.

In an era of simchah picture centerfolds and mechutanshaft as a means of social ascension, it is hard not to be awed by the pure sensitivity of a “simple” litvish Yid who chose to stay home, worried about the potential embarrassment he could cause the Chofetz Chaim.

But until the end of his life, Rav Mendel Zaks remained pained by his father’s decision. “If my father would have known how my shver looked at ordinary balabatim, the way he viewed an erliche Yid… he would have realized that the Chofetz Chaim was honored to be his mechutan!” he’d explain. “Mein shver hut davka lieb gehat — he had a special love for such Yidden.”

L’halachah, as always, we follow the Chofetz Chaim.

Governments rise and governments fall, but our essentialness will never fade.


 (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 894)

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