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Not Feeling Yourself?

"There’s a chasm even greater than the one between Heaven and earth — the distance between mind and heart"


One lesson to be learned from the teachings of the baalei mussar is the duality of the interplay between intellect and emotion. Even though emotions should not be allowed to dominate unchecked, they actually play an important role in a Jew’s spiritual and ethical life.

True, optimally the seichel rules over the heart, but emotions too are both useful and sacred. They give a person the capacity to experience life deeply and allow him to be transported far and high.

Seichel is the rider atop the horse, reining it in from straying wildly and making certain it gallops in the direction he needs to be heading. But once that horse acknowledges its human rider as master, nothing can compare to the sheer horsepower and raw energy of that lithe, muscular animal for helping its master get to his ultimate destination.

Rav Yisrael Salanter observed that there’s a chasm that’s even greater than the one between Heaven and earth — the distance between mind and heart. Our avodah in This World is that of V’yadata hayom v’hasheivosa el livavecha — to see to it that what I know intellectually to be true, makes its way into my heart and my consciousness as well. And yet, there is another avodah, too, a reverse process in which the feelings of the heart that are consonant with Torah fortify and invigorate the truths I already know in my brain.

Acclimation to a situation over time can be either a blessing or its opposite, depending on the circumstance. But how do we keep a healthy emotion fresh, even raw, fighting the natural dimming of its power with the passage of time?

The other evening, I davened in a minyan I sometimes attend where a boy is saying Kaddish for his father, taken from him suddenly at a young age. There are other aveilim there too, reciting Kaddish alongside him, all of them grown men. The first time I heard his high-pitched voice, so plaintive in its tragic innocence, rising above the others, it ripped through my heart. I felt like running from the room, so unbearable was it.

Since then, I’ve heard that Kaddish a number of times. And as it begins, there’s a natural tendency to steel oneself against the coming emotion, to suppress the reflexive pain one feels and banish it to somewhere deep and unreachable in the psyche.

But I try not to let that happen. Each time anew, I stand there in my place toward the front of the shul, not turning to face the young man who is far behind. But I close my eyes and allow the voice and what it represents to cascade over me, and although I’ll never experience the true pain of the situation, inside myself I can at least feel a tiny glimmer of it.

I do so because I know this is an emotion I need to experience — to share in the tzaar of another Jew, even if there’s nothing I can really do to alleviate it.

And I need to be reminded of that which we all subconsciously work so hard to forget and deny and avoid: That we’re here for but a few brief moments, never knowing when those are up, and we’d better make the very best use of them while we have them. And the sound of this youngster, this little man, bravely declaring to the world that Hashem is just and His deeds are just, is that reminder.

This topic, of the role of emotion and the importance of allowing oneself to be affected by it, has been on my mind these days because of what is happening in Europe. We’ve all read so much about the topic of war, and many of us have close family that experienced it many decades ago. But, in Hashem’s overwhelming chesed to our generation, most of us haven’t ever seen war up close, or haven’t seen it unfolding like this on the world stage.

What is now taking place in Ukraine hasn’t happened in Europe in 80 years, and the Pax Americana that has reigned there since World War II led many to believe it wouldn’t happen again. The world, to be sure, remains an extremely violent place, with cruel dictatorial oppression, wars, and even genocides the norm around much of the globe.

Perhaps this doesn’t rival atrocities like the Rwandan slaughter in 1994, but there was something unusually shocking for the world to witness one wicked tyrant send his armies to invade another sovereign country, to conquer it and commit war crimes against its men, women, and children. Part of the shock is that all of the raw, brazen rish’us of this attack — not a “war,” as Senator Mitt Romney observed, since this is “not a battle between two militaries” but “a brutal invasion of a free democratic people by an authoritarian thug” — is concentrated in this one man.

It was not the decisions of nameless officials or the actions of faceless mobs that have brought hellish fire down upon Ukraine. This horror is owned by one “small, evil, feral-eyed man,” in Romney’s words, who says all he’s doing is “de-Nazifying” Ukraine. As Rabbi Refael Kruskal, who heads a network of Jewish schools and orphanages in Odessa and led an exodus of hundreds of orphans to a refuge beyond the Carpathian Mountains last Shabbos, expressed it, “It’s just unbelievable what one maniac can do.”


As we move closer to Purim and learn again the story of Haman Harasha, it’s striking to observe how one person can be a genocidal monster bent on destroying a nation, and at the selfsame time, a pathetically desperate human being. Haman, after all, had such bottomless neediness that all the money and power in the world were rendered meaningless in the instant that Mordechai Hatzaddik so much as refused to bow before him.

Putin’s wealth, by some estimates, is upward of $100 billion, and he’s surrounded by a coterie of obeisant lesser billionaires. He owns a $1 billion palace on the Black Sea. He rules a world superpower with an iron grip. And he’s a hockey all-star, too.

No, really. He plays in nationally broadcast ice hockey games (a sport he learned to play at 60) against amateur teams in which he scores seven, eight, ten goals per game, and always wins. He’s constantly being photographed in a variety of poses, from hunting wild animals and riding horses bare-chested to deep-water diving to inspect shipwrecks. In other words, he’s a real man, for all the world to see.

But as Haman taught us, the same person can be a walking, self-parodying cartoon and a menace to humanity, too. And the existence of the former doesn’t detract from the horror of the latter.

It’s worth keeping alive within us that initial recoil from the horrific, the shock that registered upon first sight of one man’s seething villainy toward other human beings, even as we eventually tend to tire of the headlines. Because our own humanity depends on it.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 902. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com)

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