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Viewing Ourselves Honestly

I find my friend’s self-scrutiny impressive in the extreme



ore than a decade ago, I wrote a brief pre–Yom Kippur column about a friend of mine, and how he had found within himself the power to forgive someone who had defrauded him.

My friend moved to Israel with a fortune by Israeli chareidi standards, with the intention of starting a side business manufacturing for the Israeli chareidi market. Hoping to learn most of the day, and knowing nothing about establishing a manufacturing operation in China, he decided he needed to take an Israeli partner. Here is how I described what happened next:

Unfortunately, like many a naïve American before him, he was unlucky in his choice of partners, and did not heed various warnings that a kippah on the head is not always a certificate of honesty. Somehow his partner convinced him that he should be the sole name on the bank account, and chose for the accountant his brother-in-law, without revealing the relationship.

The business did well, but one day my friend awakened to find that everything had been stolen out from under him, and he had lost not only his profits but his considerable initial investment.

My friend consulted a rav, who told him that the only way to move on with his life was to forgive the person who had defrauded him of between a quarter and half a million dollars. And that’s what he did. (Something that was almost unfathomable to me.)

Until here, chapter one.

A little over a month ago, I received an email from the same friend, asking whether I could dig up that earlier column for him. Why did he want to see that column? Because, as he explained, he had come to doubt whether his forgiveness had been quite as complete as he had thought at the time.

Recently, a new shul was completed on the street near my friend’s home, and he purchased the row of seats behind the rav so his sons could grow from watching how talmidei chachamim daven. One night, he came to his seat and found the person who had stolen his business from him in his seat. He politely explained that it was his seat, and that he had purchased the entire row for his sons. But the man only moved down one seat. That scenario played itself out for three months, until one Motzaei Shabbos, my friend’s antagonist’s son sat in his seat.

My friend held on to both his seats and his sanity, until father and son eventually disappeared from the shul. But he had been sufficiently unnerved to wonder whether he had presented himself as being on a higher spiritual level than he actually is. He reasoned that if he had become so upset by the invasion of his seats, perhaps he had not put earlier events as far behind him as he had thought. (Remember, I never mentioned him by name.)

Frankly, I cannot understand his concern. Even if he totally forgave his former partner years ago, he is still entitled to feel aggrieved by a deliberate attempt to get under his skin today. Even without the backstory, the recent provocations would get anyone short of Hillel upset. Yet my friend never lost his outward composure or spoke negatively against his antagonist. He simply made clear that he could not be provoked.

Nevertheless, I find my friend’s self-scrutiny impressive in the extreme. That mindset of continually checking ourselves and our motivations is the baseline work of our Elul preparations for the Yamim Noraim. On the verse beginning, “Ani yesheinah v’libi eir — I sleep, but my heart is awake” (Shir Hashirim 5:2), the Netziv writes that this refers to a generation that does not arouse itself to constant cheshbon hanefesh, for without that, falling into bad actions is inevitable. Nature will inevitably drag down anyone who is not constantly striving to go upwards.

The Netziv chooses Rechavam, the son of Shlomo Hamelech, as his paradigm. Though in his youth he followed the straight path, as he had been educated by his father, nevertheless, as king, he fell into great evil, because “he did not prepare his heart to seek Hashem” (Divrei Hayamim 12:14).

I now owe my friend thanks for two lessons in how to prepare for the coming judgment.

The Perfect Gift

At the beginning of the first volume (of seven) of the longest novel ever written, Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the narrator is sent into a reverie of childhood memories that goes on for dozens upon dozens of pages by the scent of a madeleine (some type of French pastry). The phrase “madeleine de Proust” has even entered the French language to describe something that brings up many associations.

I too recently had occasion to experience how evocative objects, smells, and sights can be of someone no longer with us. Some friends of ours spent a Shabbos with us while visiting children in the neighborhood, and presented us with three teacups with a backstory.

These friends live right next door to one of my brothers in another neighborhood, and my parents would stay with them when they spent Shabbos with my brother’s family. On one of those occasions, my mother a”h gave our friends the set of cups in question. The wife never even bothered to open the box in which they were housed. But once a year, during Pesach cleaning, she would come upon them again and wonder whether she should pass them along as a gift or use them herself. And so they remained untouched for twenty or so years.

After my mother’s recent passing, however, the wife decided to give us the cups. To anyone who knew my mother, the cups are instantly recognizable as ones my mother would have loved. They are all in the earth tones that were her trademark, whether in clothes, furniture, or household objects. And as the oldest son, I inherited all her tastes.

As she downsized over the years and went out less and less, my mother also loved to give away clothes still in good shape to those whom she thought could get more use out of them. The beneficiaries included daughters-in-law, granddaughters, and even friends of her children. As the first daughter-in-law, my wife was likely the biggest beneficiary, starting with her wedding gown, which had been my mother’s thirty years earlier.

In any event, whenever I see some item of clothing of my mother’s, no matter who is now wearing it, I can instantly identify it as having once been hers. And so it is with the cups. Every time I pick one up, or wash it out, or drink from it, I’m instantly reminded of my mother — something that fills me with much happiness.

Each cup brings back not just her tastes but her generosity as well.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 977. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com)

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