We must be on the lookout to reenergize any aspect of our avodah
I was recently privileged to spend Shabbos with members of Samcheinu, an organization that provides chizuk and services for the courageous almanos among us.
It was raining outside Shabbos afternoon, so my wife and I took a walk around the corridors of the hotel. We were approached by a participant trying to find her room. She asked if I was the rabbi scheduled to speak later that day, and if by any chance I was related to the Plotnik family that lived in Boston over 50 years ago.
We soon determined that she had been my classmate back in preschool. The last time we had been in the same building was in second grade, probably in Morah Dowek’s class. What were the chances? We shared updates on our former classmates Stephen, Rochelle, Fanelle, Larry, Mitchell, Chana, Devorah, Feivel... (Keep in mind this was Boston in the sixties.) It was like a trip on the way-back machine, as memories of my youth came to the surface. I must admit I wished it had happened under different circumstances, but it was exhilarating, nonetheless.
There is nothing like feeling young again. It is invigorating, exciting, and refreshing, impossible to substitute for anything else. Chazal tell us, “For everything, there is a replacement, except eishes ne’urim, the wife of one’s youth” (Sanhedrin 22a).
I once found a beautiful explanation of this Gemara that my father ztz”l had written on the back of a bank receipt, as I was rummaging through a bag of his notes. He explained that when a person feels connected to his youth, that motivates and strengthens him to do great things. A person who feels old and disconnected from his youth loses his vigor and his joie de vivre dissipates. Eishes ne’urim is our link to our younger days.
In a terrible tragedy in Eretz Yisrael a number of years ago, a couple were killed in a car accident and were survived by their small child. The orphan’s aunts and uncles decided the best person to raise him would be his grandmother. She refused, on the grounds that the child was entitled to a younger “parent.” The family consulted with Rav Elazar Shach ztz”l, who decided the bubby should raise him after all. As he put it, “Oib m’hot tzu ton mit yunger, bleibt men yung [If you’re involved with young people, you yourself remain young].”
It is noteworthy that the source for “eishes ne’urim” mentioned in the Gemara above is a pasuk in Sefer Yeshayahu that we read during the Shiva D’nechemta haftaros following Tishah B’Av, after parshas Ki Seitzei. “Hashem has called you... like a wife of the youth, even when she is rejected.” Mefarshim explain that despite our shortcomings as a nation, Hashem will never reject us permanently, for we are the eishes ne’urim, kiveyachol. Nothing can replace us. And as the pasuk (62:5) says, “U’mesos chassan al kallah, yassis alayich Elokayich” — Hashem is the chassan and we are the kallah.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT YOUTH that are we being taught about again and again? What does youth offer like nothing else?
A look into Sefer Chochmah U’mussar from the Alter of Kelm (#190) offers us a clue. The pasuk in Hoshea (11:1) says, “Na’ar Yisrael v’ohaveihu,” the nation of Israel is a youthful one, and I love him. A young person experiences the world in a unique fashion; everything is fresh and new, there is great thrill and excitement in everything he encounters.
This is the antithesis to what the Navi bemoans elsewhere: avodah becoming merely “mitzvas anashim melumadah,” simple rote and habit. The Navi warns that that kind of service leads to being punished “haflei vafele,” in incredibly devastating fashion. (The Gemara specifies that one manifestation of this is the death of tzaddikim.) Painfully, that is one of Hashem’s devices to wake us out of our stupor, as we have sadly experienced all too often lately.
One of the more humbling experiences of my life was the first time we took our children to Eretz Yisrael. First time for them, umpteenth for us. After our allotted time at the Kosel was up, I approached one of my sons and told him it was time to go. With tears in his eyes, he simply said, “But it’s my first time.” I felt very small but never forgot it. I was guilty of melumadah. He was the beloved na’ar.
We are being encouraged to retain the zest of our youth, and incorporate it into all that we are expected to do in this world — limud haTorah, avodas hatefillah, or any of the myriad aspects of avodas Hashem the Torah affords us. But it must be done with youthful vigor.
We should always be on the lookout to reenergize any aspect of our avodah. It could be selecting one brachah in Shemoneh Esreh with kavanah. Maybe a commitment to reach out to someone every day. Or maybe being more punctilious in expressing appreciation to a particular individual. Nothing major, just new and refreshed. Perhaps, as has been suggested, this is why we were given the feeling of nostalgia in the first place — to reawaken in us the feelings of youthful exuberance, remind us where we came from and where we want to return. We want to feel new, we need to feel new.
I recall a conversation I had with the Novominsker Rebbe ztz”l about 20 years ago, at a Midwest Agudah Convention held outside Chicago. I had been teaching the same third perek in Bava Metzia for close to a decade and it was getting pretty boring, probably even affecting my performance in the shiur room. For whatever reason, we couldn’t change the curriculum, and I needed an infusion of chizuk.
The Rebbe, out of ahavas Yisrael and wanting to build me up, inquired if I had ever undertaken to “review” Mishnayos Zeraim in depth. (This of course assumed I learned it in the first place. I will leave that to your imagination.) He suggested that taking on something new would infuse my entire being with a freshness that would automatically spread to everything else I needed to do — even teaching Perek Hamafkid for the 11th time.
I have shared this simple but ingenious piece of advice with a number of friends and colleagues over the years. It never fails.
NOT FOR NOTHING was Yehoshua called a na’ar, despite his mature age when the Torah introduces him as Moshe’s understudy and eventual successor. It was only because Yehoshua retained that virtue of na’arus that he was able to attain the heights that he did. His rebbi’s Torah was fresh, his avodah was constantly being recharged, thus enabling him to become the next manhig Yisrael.
The Torah describes Moshe himself in a similar fashion, as one whose eyes did not dim. In fact, as Rashi points out at the end of V’zos Habrachah, Moshe retained this freshness even after he departed this world. This is a great lesson to us, highlighting an outstanding virtue of manhigei Yisrael throughout history. We have often marveled at their incredible display of cheshkas haTorah and fervor in avodah for as long as their physical bodies would allow.
Ask anyone who was present at Rav Shach’s shiurim, well into his nineties, to paint a picture of his youthful passion when explaining a Tosafos or a difficult Rambam. It defies description. Similarly, the Chofetz Chaim would learn Chumash with the same cheder niggun and sweetness he had as a little child. He was reliving the charmed years of his youth.
Megillas Eichah ends with the well-known words of hope and supplication, “Hashiveinu Hashem eilecha v’nashuvah, chadeish yameinu k’kedem.” Literally translated, it means, “Return us to you, Hashem, and we will return, renew our days as they once were.” It is an expression of ultimate nostalgia. We remember who we are, where we came from, and where we want to return.
The Midrash, however, finds a deeper message: it says the word k’kedem alludes to Adam Harishon, as the pasuk says, “Gan Eden mikedem.” Simply put, it is an expression of longing for our return to the highest spiritual levels, akin to Adam before partaking of the Eitz Hadaas.
B’derech drush, we may offer that this pasuk describes an action plan to achieve that lofty level. Adam Harishon epitomized experiencing his’chadshus, a sense of newness. The world was just beginning. Everything was new, no experience had ever taken place before. We are therefore proclaiming our ambition to renew our own avodah as the best and most meaningful way to “Hashiveinu v’nashuvah.” If we do our part and attempt to make our days brand-new and fresh, Hashem will see our efforts and bring us back to Him, in the purest form, with the coming of Mashiach speedily in our days.
RAV MORDECHAI SHAPIRO ztz”l quoted Revid Hazahav on the connection of rote avodah to geulah. The pasuk (I Shmuel 20:27) describing Shaul’s inquiry as to Dovid’s absence from the seudah he had prepared, says, “Why has Ben Yishai not come, gam temol, gam hayom” — literally, neither yesterday nor today. The words can also be interpreted to mean, “You know why the descendant of Yishai [Mashiach] has not yet arrived? Because our avodas Hashem today is the same as yesterday’s.”
We lack renewal in our avodah. It is merely melumadah, rote and habit. If we really yearn for an existence of nonstop inspired avodah, we need to show our ambition for it now. Routine won’t cut it.
We are emerging from what feels like the endless period of mourning for the Beis Hamikdash and Yerushalayim b’binyanah. We are forever attempting to find that one thing that will put our zechuyos over the top and bring us the eternal geulah.
We can take a lesson from the Keruvim that rested on top of the Aron Kodesh. The Baal Haturim comments on the word Keruvim, “K’ravya, ki na’ar Yisrael v’ohavei’hu”, the very pasuk we opened up with. Rav Elya Svei ztz”l explained that the purpose of the Mishkan was to bring the Shechinah into our midst. Its main dwelling place was there, between the Keruvim. They were formed to look like children, alluding to the middah we need to merit hashra’as haShechinah, the youthful virtue of na’ar. This, in turn, arouses Hashem’s love for us; He sees our constant striving for a renewed relationship with Him.
We remember who we are, and who we once were. We want to transcend time and go back. We want to earn our special calling as eishes ne’urim. This is in our reach, if we are constantly on guard not to allow our avodah to slip back to routine and habit. And with renewed vigor, we will merit to see the day we daven for, “And let our eyes see when You return with mercy to Tzion.”
Rabbi Plotnik, a talmid of the yeshivos of Philadelphia and Ponovezh, 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 870)
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