Evtach V’lo Efchad


The “bedikas matzah” (the search for matzah crumbs in the couch and the carpet) is over.  Post-Pesach, the vacuum cleaners have been recalled into service, and the boxes of Pesach dishes and utensils have been marched back down to the cellar (or up to the attic), silently passing their chametz counterparts being marched in the opposite direction.

The Sedarim took place and their ethereal light shone.  Questions were asked and responses recounted.  Divrei Torah were delivered, and, for the fortunate among us, new insights were granted.

And the haftarah on Yom Tov’s final day (in chutz laAretz) was read.  Were we listening?

The excerpt from Yeshayahu (10:32-12:6) includes the Navi’s vision of the end of history, when the “wolf will dwell with the lamb” and perfect peace will reign among the world’s human inhabitants as well, for they will all recognize Hashem and His people.

The backdrop for the expression of that vision was the massing outside Yerushalayim of the army of Ashur, intoxicated with its successful conquest of much of Eretz Yisroel.  Its king Sancheriv and his henchman Ravshakeh mocked the Jews; brimming with self-confidence, they blustered and blasphemed. But the besieging forces were to meet a sudden downfall, as the Navi foretold, suddenly and miraculously smitten by Hashem’s malach, as recounted in Melachim II (18-19).

Yeshayahu then moves to his vision of a more distant future, when Moshiach will appear, Klal Yisroel will be rescued from all who wish them harm and “the land will be filled with knowledge of Hashem, like the waters cover the seabed.”

Yirmiyahu Hanavi also speaks of that era, giving voice to Hashem’s promise that one day “It will no longer be said, ‘Chai Hashem, Who brought the Bnei Yisrael up from the land of Mitzrayim,’ but rather ‘Chai Hashem Who brought the Bnei Yisrael up from the land of the north and from all the lands to which He cast them, and returned them onto their [own] land’.” (16:14)

In other words, despite the miracles and wonders of Yetzias Mitzrayim, the germinal event in Klal Yisroel’s formation, that geulah will pale beside the one yet to come.

Why, though? Didn’t our ancestors’ enslavement in Egypt seem a hopeless sentence, as we recalled on the Seder nights, and wouldn’t its continuation have spelled the very undermining of the Jewish nation?

The makkos and Krias Yam Suf , though, as powerful expressions of Hashem’s love of His people as they were, were but temporary interruptions of the natural course of things.  What the Neviim presage, though, is a permanent transformation of nature itself.

It has forever been the case that animals are both food and prey; it has always been so.  A world where the lamb will be able to invite the wolf for a visit is a world radically altered in its essence.  As is a world where Klal Yisrael has been gathered from the corners of the earth back to their promised home.  And a world where, instead of the “normative” hatred of Jews, all the nations will unite in humble servitude to Hashem and in reverence for His people.

There are already individuals among the umos haolam, in some very unlikely places, who have already embraced the truths of history, and who, from their distances, venerate Hashem and revere Klal Yisrael.  I personally have corresponded with one such a family, in a Muslim land, for more than a decade.  The day will come, the neviim assure us, that such recognition of truth will, as we might say today, “go viral,” and fill the world “with knowledge of Hashem, like the waters cover the seabed.” A striking simile in this, our world, enveloped as it is by an ocean of information.

The Navi’s vision of the future should intrude on our present.  All the threats against Klal Yisrael these days should remind us of Sancheriv and Ravshaka’s boastful rantings – and of their downfall.

And they should remind us, too, that it is Hashem alone, Who, as in Mitzrayim, will usher in the metamorphosis of the world the Neviim envisioned.  When we knit our brows and announce our confident convictions about whether this or that is the savviest geopolitical course; this or that a leader to be trusted; this or that a wise pundit or a fool, we are really just entertaining ourselves.

The only truth is, as Yeshayahu proclaims: “Behold, Hashem is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid… for great in your midst is the Holy One of Yisrael.”

 © 2015 Hamodia


Challenges to Tranquility


[This article appears in a new periodical, “InSight,” published by Rabbi Avraham Mifsud of Detroit.]

There are, they like to say, two types of people: Those who categorize people into two groups and those who don’t.  I generally don’t.  But I have found that the “two groups” model does seem to encompass most folks when it comes to facing change.

Some individuals relish changes, are excited at the prospect of new circumstances, thrilled by interruptions of the norm.

And then there are the rest of us, we who are happiest when thing just blessedly stay the same, who are content with predictability, enamored of the status quo.

Changes, though, are part and parcel of life.  And so even those of us who are naturally averse to disruptions of our routines cannot escape them.  And among us, too, are two groups: Those who kick and scream (to no avail), and those who learn to come to terms with change.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with wishing for peace and calm and stability.  No less a personage than our forefather Yaakov, Chazal inform us, “wished to dwell in tranquility.”

But as in Yaakov’s life, challenges to tranquility appear in every life.  Some take place, with Hashem’s help, as a matter of inevitable course, like adulthood and aging.  Others come as special blessings, like (hopefully) marriage, parenthood, grandparenthood, and – with Divine assistance – beyond.

Other changes, though, disrupt not only our status quos but our emotional equilibrium.  Things like illness, family problems, loss of employment, loss of loved ones…

Such uninvited and unwanted guests in our lives are vexing, of course.  They elicit the “Why me?” or “Why now?” or just the “Why?” laments, and can easily lead to feelings of resentment, anger and frustration.

Even Yaakov was not immune to seeing his many trials, even in retrospect, in a bitter light.  “Few and bad have been my days,” he tells Par’oh when the Egyptian  ruler, apparently noting our forefather’s wizened appearance, asks how old he is.

The Midrash considers Yaakov to have erred in that attitude, and even to have lost years from his life as a result.  Yaakov, to be sure, did indeed have a travail-filled life, and the travails were far from minor.  But he is held to account nonetheless for regarding them as negative.

Well, what then?  As positive?

Apparently yes.  It’s not easy, to be sure, but it’s right.

And it’s reflected even in halacha:  “Just as one offers a blessing over good,” Chazal teach and the Shulchan Aruch codifies, “so does one offer a blessing over bad.”

Our first, visceral, understandable, predictable reaction to unwanted change is usually negative.  But it’s misguided.  We need to realize that we need to have a second, more thoughtful, reaction, born of the admonition that even “bad” deserves a blessing – to internalize, and even express, the recognition that what seems unfortunate is, one way or another, for our benefit.

On Purim we celebrated Haman’s downfall.  Imagine, though, how things must have looked when Mordechai refused to bow to the Amalekite.  What a terrible, dangerous move that was.  It was born of Mordechai’s choice, to be sure, not an “act of Hashem,” but it was in accord with His will.  And it was something that certainly seemed to bode ill.  It ended up, to put it mildly, boding well.

Commemoration of Purim’s ge’ulah, the Gemara tells us, must take place in the month closest to the ge’ula of Yetzias Mitzrayim.  Think back about the beginnings of that redemption.  A decree to kill all newborn baby boys.  A baby being abandoned by his parents, left to his fate in the bulrushes.  Which led to his being taken by Par’oh’s daughter Bisya into the royal palace.  All, in the end, for the good.

It’s not only in the Torah, though, or the Megilla, that the inscrutability of seemingly “bad” happenings is evident.  In 1941, my dear father, may he be well, barely a teenager, joined the Bialystok Novardhok Yeshiva, which had relocated, first, like many yeshivos at the time, to Vilna; and then, in the case of his yeshiva, to the Lithuanian town of Birzh.  The Soviets, who had taken over Lithuania, gave the talmidim a stark choice: Become citizens of the USSR or retain your Polish citizenship and be considered foreign nationals.  The former status would mean being drafted and sent to the front, cannon fodder for the German army; the latter, being banished to Siberia.

My father and his colleagues and their Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Nekritz, zt”l, made the second choice, and were put on a freight train headed east to the frigid, forbidding place that would be their home for close to three years.  He remembers how, as the train prepared to depart, the Jewish townsfolk wailed and bemoaned the lot of the Siberia-bound boys.  How must those boys have felt?  Yet they grew in unimaginable ways during their Siberian ordeal.  And they survived the war to marry and have children.  And those children had children.  And those latter children are now raising their own families – two of them, as it happens, my father’s granddaughters, and their husbands,  in Oak Park.

But how dark the future must have looked as that train pulled slowly away and gained steam.

Talk to anyone thoughtful over 60 – or anyone younger, if he or she is a perceptive person – and you can hear personal stories of how changes feared and then bemoaned turned out to be blessings.  Perhaps you can testify to your own.  If not, with Hashem’s help, you one day will.

“Reuvain” was once part of a small Jewish community centered around a yeshiva where he taught.  Over seven years, the yeshiva thrived, the community grew and remained close-knit, and Reuvain was sure that he and his family would live out their lives in that wonderful place.  Then, quite suddenly, circumstances entirely beyond Reuvain’s control dismantled the community and the yeshiva.  He found himself having to move thousands of miles away to become part of another institution and community.  He was devastated.

Eleven years later, Reuvain was still in that new place, and it had become a wonderful home for him and his growing family.  He wanted to stay there until Moshiach’s arrival.  But, once again, circumstances beyond his control, a school administration bent on a certain path, conspired to evict him.  He and his family picked up again, in tears, and moved to a place Reuvain had said he’d never want to do more than visit: New York

It’s been 20 years since that latter move, and Reuvain has grown to recognize the bracha in that move as well.  In fact, when his employment status changed radically and unexpectedly several years ago, a seemingly grave setback to his parnassah, it, too, turned out to be a blessing in disguise, allowing him more creative freedom and opening new doors for income.

“Reuvain,” something of a slow learner, will likely still react with pain at any future seeming setbacks. I know, because his real name is Avi and he is me.  But he won’t have any excuse; just looking back at his own life so far should reassure him that things that seem bad can be very misleading

The idea is enshrined in Rabbi Akiva’s motto of “All that the Merciful One does is for the good,” and in the account related about in the Gemara (Brachos, 60b) his being refused lodging in a certain town.  Rather than express anger or frustration, he simply pronounced his motto to the people of the town, and went off to sleep in a nearby field.  More problems awaited him there, as the candle he lit was blown out by the wind; the rooster that was to serve as his alarm clock was devoured by a cat; and his donkey killed by a lion.

Still and all, he simply reminded himself that all that Hashem does is for the good.  That night a regiment of soldiers invaded the nearby town, taking all its residents captive.  Rabbi Akiva was spared that fate, the loss of his flame and animal having rendered him undetectable in the night.

The Gemara continues, though.  When the townsfolk, marched out in chains, passed Rabbi Akiva, he said to them, “Didn’t I tell you that all that the Merciful One does is for the good?”

It’s a bit disturbing to read that final sentence.  What was Rabbi Akiva doing?  Mocking the unfortunate captives with his own happy escape from their destiny?

I don’t think he was doing anything of the sort.  Quite the contrary.  He was offering them encouragement, strength to face their own futures.  “I experienced adversity yesterday and last night,” he was saying to them, “and in the end it was clearly for my good.  You are experiencing adversity now.  Realize that, even if the change in your lives seems irredeemably evil, it is not.  It is, in some way or other, whether you can imagine it or not, for the good.”

We’re not always able, even in the long run, to recognize the good in what seems bad in our lives.  There are times, moreover, when adversity serves a purpose in itself, in ways we simply cannot see in this world.

But there’s a bottom line here, Rabbi Akiva’s parting message to the captives.  When we feel captive ourselves to changes we didn’t anticipate or want, we’re wise to hear in our heads his admonishing, encouraging words: “Didn’t I tell you that all that the Merciful One does is for the good?”


Handwriting Analysis Analyzed


The notion that one’s handwriting can evidence aspects of one’s character and predict likely behavior (“graphoanalysis”) is prevalent in some circles, including some Orthodox Jewish ones.

While I have no desire to interfere with the livelihoods of those who offers handwriting analysis services, I do feel a responsibility to offer accurate information to the public.

To that end, I feel it is worthwhile to share an article on the topic of “graphoanalysis” that I wrote for Ami Magazine back in 2011.  You can read it here.  Feel free to share the link with anyone you feel might find it thought-provoking.


Muddy Study


Have you heard the story of the scientist whose area of research was insects’ hearing?  He trained a flea to jump on command.  In the interest of his research, he pulled off one of the flea’s legs and ordered it to jump.  The insect complied, if a bit clumsily because of its handicap.  The scientist recorded the data – the delay in the jump, the distance covered, etc., on a chart. After a second amputation, the flea’s response to the command was even less impressive, and the new results were duly entered on the chart.  After a third leg was removed, the flea’s jump was greatly compromised, and the chart became host to the new data.  Finally, after being deprived of all of its legs, all the flea could do when ordered to jump was buzz about hopelessly on the table.

Solemnly, the scientist consulted his chart, created a formula to reflect his findings, and recorded his conclusion: “Fleas hear with their legs.”

The myopic researcher was brought to mind by a recent article about the work of two French economists, Ruben Durante and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya.  The piece, which appeared at MarketWatch, published by Dow Jones & Co., relates the pair’s investigation of the timing of Israeli military attacks against its enemies over an 11-year period.  The economists’ methodology was simple (and rather simple-minded).  They catalogued Israel’s military interventions from 2000 to 2011, and then compared them to what was going on in the news at the time – noting whether that news was “scheduled,” like a major sporting event, or “unscheduled,” like an earthquake or plane crash.

The scientists’ conclusion, in the synopsis of the MarketWatch article’s author, Brett Arends: “Israel habitually launches its most unpopular and, sometimes, deadly attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to coincide with big news events here in the U.S., so that they don’t get too much public attention.”

In Mr. Durante’s and Ms. Zhuravskaya’s own words: “Israeli attacks are more likely to occur prior to days with very high news pressure driven by clearly predictable events.”  There were statistically significant upticks, they assert, in Israeli military action in the West Bank and Gaza Strip before sporting events, but not before things that the Israeli military could not anticipate.

So here, presumably, is the picture: Israel’s Prime Minister and top generals are huddled in the war room, analyzing a current threat against the citizenry.  They pick apart intelligence data about enemy plans, track militants’ movements by aircraft and satellites, consult weather forecasts and, for nighttime operations, moon phases.  And they decide that a strike is necessary.  “No! Wait!” shouts the Prime Minster. “The Super Bowl’s not until next Sunday!”

A few minor problems here.  First of all, did the researchers factor in the Final Four?  And what about avoiding the attention of the rest of the world, which really doesn’t care much about American sports?  Did the economists take soccer’s World Cup into account?  Hockey’s Stanley Cup?

And if the Israeli military/political complex is in fact guilty of the nefarious machinations imagined by the economists, well, the plot doesn’t seem to have worked very well.  When was the last time Israel launched an attack on her enemies and the world’s residents, glued to their sports event of choice, uh, didn’t notice?

Besides, don’t the Elders of Zion control earthquakes and plane crashes too?

Okay, that last argument was facetious. But no less so than the economists’ study, which proffered a wealth of charts and formulae to try to demonstrate a “statistically significant” correlation between attention-getting events and Israeli military action.  How much of a correlation, though, and how much of it may just reflect chance or statistical static isn’t entirely clear. What is clear, though, is that cynicism, born of the stylish if smelly anti-Israel atmosphere these days, informed the study.

A mistaken conclusion about how a flea hears is a rather minor matter.  An accusation of underhanded tactics hurled at a country trying to protect its citizens from murderous attacks, quite another.

The noted British psychologist H. J. Eyesenck famously observed that scientists can be “just as ordinary, pig-headed and unreasonable as anybody else, and their unusually high intelligence only makes their prejudices all the more dangerous.”  It’s a truism that, in our understandable and usually merited respect for science, we can sometimes forget.

Scientists are people too; and if they harbor personal biases, their prejudices can inform their “science.”  That’s not just unfortunate but, particularly today, downright dangerous.

© 2015 Hamodia





And In Third Place…


And so the horse trading begins.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has gotten down to the nitty-gritty business of cobbling together a government coalition.  Particularly attractive stallions, thankfully, will be the religious parties, the Prime Minister’s “natural partners,” as he calls them, although, apparently unnaturally, he jettisoned them the last time around.  Their being in Bibi’s good graces (for now) is happy news.

What many may not see as happy news is the remarkable fact that, after Likud and the Zionist Union (Hamachaneh Hatzioni), the third largest winner of votes was… the “Joint List” (Hareshima Hameshutefet) – the new Arab party, comprised of four previous Arab parties.

No one is concerned that the Joint List’s 13 seats will make it an attractive partner to a Likud-dominated government – or, for that matter, any government.  Nor would the Joint List itself consider being part of either.  Its very essence is oppositional.

The genesis of the Joint List, though, holds some irony; and its success, perhaps, something positive.

The impetus for the joining together of the four Arab parties, representing utterly disparate, contradictory, ideologies – communism, feminism, Islamism, and Palestinian nationalism was legislation passed last year raising the electoral threshold from 2% to 3.25%, or at least four seats.  None of the Arab parties saw themselves as viable in that calculus.  So they decided on a sort of multiple-wives marriage of necessity.  And ended up with more seats than their combined catch in 2013.

The irony?  The law that brought them together was pushed through by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose own party, Yisrael Beiteinu, scored only six seats this time around, less than half of the Joint List.

The head of the Joint List, lawyer Ayman Odeh, somehow managed to herd the cats that comprise the list. He also strikes a moderate, unflappable pose.  In a campaign ad, he appears at a Jewish family’s Shabbos table, after the mainstream party candidates have burst in and made their cases.  They leave when Mr. Odeh enters and, smiling, he says to the Jewish family, “We all live in the same building together and we all want the same thing: Equal rights, peace and quiet.”

And in a debate, when Mr. Lieberman told Mr. Odeh that he should better be in Ramallah or Gaza and that “You’re not wanted here,” the Arab, who was born in Haifa, calmly responded to the Russian-born foreign minister, “I am very wanted in my homeland,” and went on to emphasize what he characterized as his party’s universalist and democratic message.

To be sure, some of the cats in his herd are anything but universalist or democratic. Which is why the Joint List’s campaign slogan was the soothing but hollow “The Will of the People.”

So what possible role could the Joint List play in the Knesset?  It will surely use its votes to oppose measures it sees as expansionist or anti-Arab.  But beyond those things, which the liberal parties will oppose no less, are there any other causes such a confederacy of incoherence might embrace?

Practically speaking, the Joint List’s fractious felines can probably come together on the issue of Arab poverty, and Israel’s insufficient assistance to that sector of its citizenry.

Israel ranks high among developed nations in the percentage of its citizens living in poverty.  Economist Paul Krugman attributes that in part to “policy choices: Israel does less to lift people out of poverty than any other advanced country.”

According to a 2013 National Insurance Institute report, the poverty rate among Israel’s Arabs – some 20% of the population – was 47.4%.

The same report estimates the poverty rate at the time among Israeli chareidim (approximately 10% of the population) at 66%.  Both communities’ high poverty can be attributed, at least in part, to low earnings and government cutbacks in child allotments.

So it might not be outlandish to imagine that, however either impoverished sector may feel about each other, both will vote to bolster any legislation put before the Knesset designed to assist poor families.  Stranger unplanned but de facto alliances have taken place.

For Jews who perceive Israel in nationalistic or religious colors, the emergence of an Arab party with 13 seats in the Knesset may seem like a violation of the idea of the state.  Those of us, though, who see Israel as a wonderful democracy and haven for Jews but who are not flag wavers or Yom Ha’Atzmaut celebrators  might dare to hope that the Joint List, the abhorrent nature of some of its members notwithstanding, might end up actually helping advance the Israeli societal good.

© 2015 Hamodia


Persian Diversion


It was a tad early for “Purim Torah,” but on Taanis Esther, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zari responded to a question from an NBC correspondent by insisting that Iran cares deeply for and is entirely protective of its Jews.

Asked about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent assertion in his speech before the U.S. Congress that “Iran’s regime is not merely a Jewish problem, any more than the Nazis were a Jewish problem,” Mr. Zarif bristled and changed the topic to the Israeli leader’s citation in his speech to Megillas Esther.

“He even distorts his own scripture,” said the Iranian about the Israeli. “If – if you read the book of Esther, you will see that it was the Iranian king who saved the Jews.”  We needn’t engage Mr. Zarif on the finer points of the Purim story, but the question in the end, of course, isn’t what Achashverosh was or did, but what Iran is and does (and wants to do).

(Mr. Zarif, incidentally, also proudly cited Koresh, as having granted the Jews of his time permission to rebuild the Beis Hamikdash – apparently oblivious to the irony of the fact that the aforementioned edifice was to be built, and in time was built, in Yerushalayim.)

The Iranian foreign minister animatedly explained how “We have a history of tolerance and cooperation and living together in coexistence with our own Jewish people, and with – with Jews everywhere in the world.”  And he added, “If we wanted to annihilate Jews, we have a large number of Jewish population in Iran” who presumably could provide a convenient first stage opportunity.  But, Mr. Zarif went on to proudly state, Jews “have a representative in Iranian parliament allocated to them, disproportionately to their number.”

A recent CNN article happily swallowed that sunny Iranian party line, describing the Iranian Jewish community of Esfahan in warm and delicate tones.  It characterized the community’s members as happy, and interviewed several.  Not one of them had anything negative to say about the current Iranian regime, clear proof of its benevolence (or, perhaps, of the very opposite).

Esfahan Jewish community leader Sion Mahgrefte, the article noted, while he “declined to comment directly on political matters, especially in the current heated environment,” did assert that the members of his community felt very much at home in Iran.”  Puts one in mind of James Baldwin’s line about home being “not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”

The NBC interviewer was, thankfully, less meek.  She presented Mr. Zarif with a statement made by Iran’s “supreme leader,” Sayyid Ali Khamenei, in which he declared: “This barbaric wolf-like and infanticidal regime of Israel which spares no crime [and which] has no cure but to be annihilated.”  “Can you understand,” the interviewer asked, “why Jews and others would take umbrage at that kind of language?”

He could not, of course, and insisted that “annihilating” a country of six million Jews (evocative number, that) is one thing; hating Jews elsewhere, something entirely another.  Slippery fish, that distinction between Jews and a country of Jews.

Iran’s Jews may not be overtly persecuted these days, but there are subtle sorts of repression too.  No Iranian Jew can dare speak up in defense of Israel in any way, for fear of his life.  And not long after the inception of the current “Islamic Republic,” the Jewish community’s leader at the time was arrested on charges of “corruption” and “friendship with the enemies of G-d” and executed.  Other Iranian Jews have likewise been executed over ensuing years for being “spies.”  (One wonders how thin the line is between being a Jew in Iran and a spy.)  Criticism of the Iranian policy of appointing Muslims to oversee Jewish schools, moreover, resulted in the shutting down of the last remaining Iranian Jewish newspaper, in 1991.

And so, Iran’s claim of love for its Jews, and some Iranian Jews’ claim to feel safe and protected, has to be taken with a grain, or perhaps a nuclear missile silo, worth of salt.  It is belied not only by Iran’s execution of Jews and its declared wish to annihilate a country with arguably more Jews than any other, but by the less guarded words of Iran’s allies and proxies.

Like Hassan Nasrallah, a leader of Hezbollah, the group conceived in 1982 by Iranian clerics and still funded by Iran.  “If they [Jews] all gather in Israel,” he said in 2002, “it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.”

Thank you, Hassan, for your candor.

© 2015 Hamodia





The Differences We Make


In Baltimore’s Yeshivas Ner Yisroel, in whose yeshivah gedolah I was fortunate to study in the 1970s, the custom was that each beis medrash bachur would learn during night seder with a high school-age boy.  I enjoyed the experience and it probably set me on a path to become a mechanech, in which role I was privileged to serve for nearly two decades.

At least one of my night-seder chavrusos, as it happened, followed me into the field of Jewish education, becoming, as I learned years later, the principal of a middle school in New England and then of a Bais Yaakov in Rockland County, the position he currently occupies.

I had only seen him once since our youths, when I was a rebbi and principal in Providence, Rhode Island, where he had brought a group of students from his school there for a Shabbos. That, though, was more than twenty-five years ago, and so it was a special pleasure to find myself at a meeting not long ago that, as it happened, took place in his home.  It was an even greater pleasure to hear what he told me when he took me aside before the meeting began.

“You should know,” he told me, “that something you said when I brought those kids changed the life of at least one of them.”  He went on to recount that a young woman among the group had discovered that, although she was raised as a Jew, she did not meet the halachic standard of Jewishness. At the time of the visit, she was deeply conflicted about whether she wanted to become a giyores or just accept her non-Jewish status and forge a life apart from the Orthodox Jewish world.

According to my former chavrusa, the young women he had brought from his school joined the Providence Bais Yaakov for Shabbos seudos, one of which my wife and I and our daughters were invited to attend.  He told me that I spoke to the group about the parasha and, although I had been oblivious to the presence of a potential giyores, had made some reference to illustrious geirim and descendants of geirim in Klal Yisrael.

“It made a tremendous impact on her,” my former chavrusa told me, and recounted how the girl underwent giyur shortly afterward and went on to get married and move to Eretz Yisrael, where she is the mother of a large and wonderful family.

The story, as might be imagined, warmed my heart.  The only problem was that I had no recollection of ever having spoken to the group, or of speaking about geirim to any group of visitors.  I strongly suspect that the orator at issue had been one of my wonderful colleagues in Providence at the time. Whatever.

But the story, whomever it concerned, was one worth pondering, and still is.

One can never know the effect of an offhand encouraging word or positive comment.  If we think about our own lives, most of us can readily remember something said by a teacher, parent, friend or even a stranger, that subtly (or not so subtly) put us on this road rather than that one.  Sometimes it may even, as the famous Robert Frost poem goes, have made all the difference.

Unfortunately, the same, it must be thought as well, is true about discouraging or negative comments; the difference they can make can be devastating.  Anyone who is thinking of entering the field of chinuch needs to realize that, while being a Jewish educator relieves one of many of the ethical challenges of other professions – doctors, lawyers and businessmen face all sorts of dilemmas – there are dangers in the seemingly idyllic vocation of teaching Torah too.  Like the possibility of inadvertently saying or doing something that might negatively affect a young person.

I might not remember saying many of the things that erstwhile students of mine have told me made a positive difference in their lives.  But I remember more than a thing or two I said in frustration or under pressure that certainly could have, chalilah, had the opposite effect.  And those students won’t likely call to let me know.

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue,” Shlomo Hamelech informs us (Mishlei 18:21).  And while that organ may be physically soft and feeble, it can have the effect of a protective fortress or a sharpened dagger.

An important realization for every mechanech.  Actually, no less important for us all.

© 2015 Hamodia