When faced with a choice between two paths... give weight to the one that will have the deepest impact on others
has always struck me that one of the most fundamental things for each person to know is that he or she has a unique mission in life that belongs to him or her alone.
Yet that knowledge only takes us so far, for it is still crucial to know what that mission is. And on that score, we can never know for certain: We are not born with a mission statement tied around our wrists. At best, we can discern certain hints.
Rav Itzele of Volozhin writes in the name of his father Rav Chaim of Volozhin, in his introduction to Nefesh HaChaim, that our purpose in the world is to do good for others. Rabbi Moshe Sherer, whose 25th yahrtzeit just passed, always made that the central message of his annual visit to the Agudath Israel camps in the mountains. And so important did he feel that message was that he insisted that his son Rabbi Shimshon Sherer take him on that annual visit, even at a time when he had been in isolation for months and his doctor had specifically forbidden him from any close contact with the campers.
But if our mission must somehow be connected to benefiting others, that only raises other questions: benefiting whom, and in what ways?
On more than one occasion, Rabbi Sherer told someone who was contemplating a career in chinuch or who was already a successful mechanech that in that profession he would touch at most 20 or 25 lives over the course of the year, perhaps a thousand in the course of a teaching career. But by coming to work for Agudath Israel, he would have a chance to influence 20,000.
I do not quibble with the advice as given to a specific person — in one case Rabbi Labish Becker and the other Rabbi Yakov Horowitz (see Rabbi Sherer, p. 331). Rabbi Sherer knew better than anyone that there are some vital goals that can only be achieved by an organization and not by an individual, no matter how talented. And his judgment that Rabbi Becker and Rabbi Horowitz could be key players in the success of Agudath Israel of America in achieving those goals has been more than borne out by their subsequent success within the organization. In hindsight, the advice as given to them has proven to be excellent.
But I would still enter a caveat against any general rule that one’s impact in the world is best measured by the numbers of those whom one influences rather than by the depth of that impact. As Rav Moshe Shapira used to say, “Many and big are not Torah measures; pure is the Torah measure. From purity, one can reach numbers, but from numbers, one can never attain purity.”
How many people recognize you on the street or want to have selfies taken with you — i.e., fame — is not the measure of one’s impact. Far more relevant will be how many people, when looking back at their lives, can point to something you did for them as having changed their life in some tangible and enduring way.
Many of my closest friends are mechanchim or roshei yeshivah who work with young men who were not ignited by Torah learning in their early years. None of them are household names, but I can never hear too many of their stories of their relationships with talmidim, of how those talmidim arrived in yeshivah and where they are today. Whatever success my friends have achieved has not come primarily by virtue of the great shiur that they said, though many of them are certainly capable of doing so, but because of the relationships they were able to create.
Those relationships often begin with various stratagems to roust the new talmid from bed in the late morning, or with waiting patiently in a largely empty shiur room until the particular talmid finally decides mid-year that as long as he’s already in Israel and his parents are paying his yeshivah good money, perhaps it would be worthwhile to check out the Torah learning.
I frankly cannot imagine myself ever having the patience to do any of those things. A younger brother said to me a number of years back, “You are not nice enough to ever do kiruv,” and I did not deny it, though I think a lack of patience or too great a sense of my own kavod — or perhaps an absence of the ahavas Yisrael necessary to see the pintele Yid in alienated young men as others once saw it in me —was more to the point.
For those reasons, I cannot imagine that there is anyone in the world who would ever ask me to be his mesader kiddushin, even if I were remotely qualified, because without me he could not imagine ever having been able to marry or form a family. And yet each of my friends has served as a mesader kiddushin many times, and is the “father” to many young men to at least as great an extent as their biological fathers. And the children of those young men are their grandchildren as well.
Do I sound a bit jealous? Well, yes, even though jealousy is an emotion to be avoided at all cost.
But that envy too is misplaced. Because no two of us have the same mission. I could not have done what my friends did. But few of them are clamoring to take over this column either, not having been blessed or cursed with the same education that I received.
I may occasionally lament that no matter how great Mishpacha’s circulation grows, the impact of any column is little more than skin deep, a glorified form of entertainment. But my time would be better spent reflecting on the fact that Hashem apparently does not think so; He put me here. And even providing enjoyment to others can make one a ben Olam Haba (see Taanis 22a). And so too providing information, clarifying arguments, stimulating debate, and calling the public’s attention to people worthy of emulation or to works that can deepen their connection to Hashem all have their place.
And then there is the example of the recently deceased Rabbi Moshe Grylak ztz”l, who showed that sometimes it is possible for an individual, armed only with the power of the pen, to have a decisive impact on the lives others. His path-breaking Maariv column decades ago on the Torah and current events was a turning point in the Israeli kiruv world.
What is the bottom line of these ruminations? I’m not really sure. But perhaps it is: When faced with a choice between two paths for which one feels well suited, give weight to the one that will have the deepest impact on others.
Observations on the Passing of the Gadol Hador
Like most of us, I spent a good deal of time since the passing of Rav Gershon Edelstein ztz”l reading about his life. I would like to share two observations:
One of the most fascinating aspects of Rav Edelstein’s life was that he and his brother Rav Yaakov Edelstein ztz”l spent almost no time in the regular yeshivah system until they were already well-formed in learning. They learned exclusively with their father. The same is true of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the Chazon Ish, and, I believe, Rav Moshe Feinstein, among recent Torah leaders.
Leadership depends on the ability to think independently, and that, at least in some cases, is an ability best acquired outside of “the system.”
The second striking thing about Rav Gershon is that he spent his entire eighty-year career in chinuch teaching young students. The same is true of Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz, who served as Rosh Yeshivas Ponevezh L’Tzeirim for 55 years, and who opened the yeshivah together with Rav Aharon Leib Steinman, Rav Edelstein’s predecessor as leader of the generation.
Just as Moshe Rabbeinu demonstrated his worthiness to be the great shepherd of the Jewish People with his concern for every single little lamb in the flocks of his father-in-law Yisro, so the sensitivity to the special needs and character of every young boy in their charge uniquely suited these Torah giants to lead the generation.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 964. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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