| Voice in the Crowd |

Extremely Normal

There is no such thing as normal for a Torah Jew. There is only Shulchan Aruch


AS one fortunate enough to work in the gedolim/inspiration/biography industry, I often hear the add-on, when discussing a great person, “but don’t worry, they were normal too.” Whatever the attribute being mentioned — extreme generosity, concentration, diligence, selflessness, seriousness — there is always that disclaimer.

Yes, he/she was extreme in that way, but don’t worry.

The implication: Extreme is bad; normal is good.

Which leads me to think that the fact that it has to be said, the de rigueur apology (I always wanted to use a term that would allow me to occupy space in this section of the magazine with the intelligentsia, so maybe a fancy foreign term can be my ticket in. Allow me this drop of pretentiousness — I live in a city where you get parking tickets if you don’t know the language, so it’s not pompous to drop a bit of French here and there) means that we don’t really have a balanced view of… balance.

This will sound preachy but bear with me. There is no such thing as normal for a Torah Jew. There is only Shulchan Aruch. End.

As Country Yossi wrote years ago, paraphrasing a secular song, “Oh, once a year I twirl a chicken over my head / And it wouldn’t be that bad if it were dead / And there’s a time when I go outside and burn my bread / Cause I’m a Jew, I do that too.”

Once the Shulchan Aruch rules, that becomes normal.

After the passing of Rebbetzin Temi Kamenetsky last year, a bochur told me about a visit the Rebbetzin paid to his home, along with her husband, yblct”a Rav Shmuel.

This bochur was a ten-year-old child at the time, and his father called him in to the dining room to greet the Rosh Yeshivah, who asked if he had any questions. Yes, the boy conceded, there was something troubling him.

He had learned that one who embarrasses his friend forfeits their share in Olam Haba, and he couldn’t understand how someone who learns, davens, and does mitzvos for 80 years can lose it all because they slipped up once and embarrassed another person. How could one mistake erase a lifetime?

Rav Shmuel wasn’t impressed with the question. Don’t embarrass anyone, he said. That was his solution, plain and simple.

Not, “Don’t worry — that’s not what Chazal mean,” or “Of course, if it’s just once, it doesn’t erase all the good,” or something more “normal” and balanced for a ten-year-old boy.

Just a hardline “don’t embarrass people” — and then you won’t have the question.

Because if that is the reality, then that is normal.

(Before leaving, seeing that the young boy was still bewildered, the rebbetzin called him over and offered a solution. Before Krias Shema al Hamitah, most siddurim have a tefillah in which one expresses mechilah if they have been hurt by anyone, and also the hope that if they have caused hurt to another, they will be similarly forgiven. She told him that likely the embarrassed party would have expressed mechilah and thus reassured him. That’s what rebbetzins do.)

Anyhow, back to the season. Imagine, for a moment, the seudah of Achashveirosh being held today and the reaction of our collective normal-meter.

All the level-headed ones would go, for sure. Team Kiddush Hashem would send a delegation, and the Dina Demalchusa Dina squad would be in the front row. There would be a large delegation of “I don’t actually agree with using the keilim of the Beis Hamikdash, of course, but I have to do this to maintain good relations and even if I’m smiling on the outside, inside I’m crying.”

Write me for the generations,” Esther asked Chazal. Ensure that my story is recorded for posterity.

Each year, we remember the one who chose the not normal route, an enduring lesson that unless and until there is adherence to the Shulchan Aruch, normal is a nonstarter.

One last unseasonably somber thought.

I sometimes listen to children reminisce and reflect on their deceased parents and I’ve noticed that often, the attribute they are most enamored of, the one they repeat again and again, is the one that would be considered least normal.

The “never missing,” or “always saying,” or “wouldn’t step in,” or “every Shabbos, no matter what else was going on” is what lives on, celebrated and cherished by children and grandchildren, meaning that the not normal might just be the most normal.

We are too quick to mock the guy who takes off his glasses on the subway — come on, you have to be normal — or the guy who asks to switch seats on El Al because, according to his mesorah, he isn’t spiritually comfortable in his assigned seat. We feel patronized by the woman who tells the school that sorry, her phone has no text messaging and they will have to call her to share updates, and maybe mildly threatened by the parent who calls before a class birthday party to ask if the food is yashan, and otherwise no problem but their child will pass on the cake.

Don’t they know they have to be normal?

Purim marks the first yahrtzeit of a man who did it a different way. He had a beard when nearly every other bochur in the mainstream yeshivos at the time did not. He learned in a style that veered from the accepted path of those yeshivos and maintained a schedule and lifestyle that transcended the outer limits of normal.

You know the end of that story? Rav Chaim Kanievsky became Rabban shel Kol Yisrael, the most beloved, treasured, revered gadol, a Yid from whom all the “normal” people sought comfort, advice, blessing and direction.

Maybe, just maybe, this message, too, lies in the Purim revelry, costumes and joyous drinking, so unlike the decorum and sobriety of the rest of the year. Maybe the Purim spirit is another way to bring us to a point of ad delo yada bein normal and not normal, to show us that when the Shulchan Aruch says to do something “more than one is accustomed to” (i.e., not normal) then that is healthy, perfect and stable.

There, right there, is exactly where you want to be. L’chayim.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 951)

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