By Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum, Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)
This week we start the Book of Devarim (“words”) in which we hear the words of Moshe. The very same Moshe who proclaimed, “I am not a man of words” (Shmos 4:10), now has an entire book of words to teach us. Today, we live in an unprecedented time in which we are inundated with words and opinions, and frequently those words have no substance or are harmful. Moshe learned to channel words of such substance that they are now a portion of our Torah.
This upcoming Monday night we conclude the three-week period of time called the “bein hametzarim” (between the boundaries), in which we commemorate the destruction of the two Temples of Jerusalem, and we mourn the loss of spiritual heights that were once the domain of every Jew. The Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred between Jews. The Talmud tells us that the calamity began with a Jew’s feelings being slighted by another Jew, a situation which then escalated to all-out hatred and the murder of many Jews. The resulting destruction of the Temple was a calamity whose effects we still experience; our rabbis tell us that any generation which doesn’t merit rebuilding the Temple is guilty of the same crime of hatred of his fellow Jew.
The Hebrew name of the destruction of the Temple is the churban. One of the pillars of the Chassidic movement, Rabbi Pinchos of Koretz, who lived in the Ukraine in the 1700s, wrote that the Torah relates about Esau, “al charbecha tichye” (you will live by your sword.) The Hebrew word for “sword” is similar to the word for “destruction,” since Esau lived for seeing others get destroyed. Rabbi Pinchos commented that sometimes people watch sports not to see a winner, but because they like to see a loser get “klopped.” (The World Series or Super Bowl are never described as “the best team” and “the really excellent second best team”—it’s always the winner and the loser.)
Another Pinchos, Rabbi Pinchos Friedman, who is a protégé of the Belzer Rebbe of Jerusalem, noted that the Rebbe would send him to speak at every contest or Torah study competition in their community, but would never attend himself. The Rebbe explained that he never liked competitions in which everyone works hard, but many leave feeling like losers. “But you, Rabbi Friedman,” he explained, “when you speak at those events, you are so uplifting that everyone leaves knowing he’s a winner.” We as Jews need to always remember that there is always a win-win option if selfishness and narcissism are set aside.
There is a story about a Jew in England who opened up a small medical clinic, and quickly became very successful. His service and surroundings were exemplary, and as the word got out, a competing clinic in the neighborhood began seeing mass defections. The competitor didn’t take it sitting down; he began threatening the Jew with legal action, and even persuaded local bureaucrats to make the Jew’s life a nightmare. But the Jew’s reaction was, “this too shall pass,” and he was ready to tough it out.
But as the competition got hotter and harder to handle, the Jew began to despair. A friend told him, “You know, there is a very wise rabbi in Israel named Rav Aron Leib Shteinman. You should ask him for advice.” The Jewish clinic owner wasn’t terribly observant or connected to rabbis, but out of desperation, he booked a flight to Israel.
When he arrived at Rabbi Shteinman’s apartment in Bnei Brak, he was immediately taken by the simplicity of this famous Rabbi’s home. He related his woes to the Rabbi, who told him, “I’m 103 years old, and in my long life I’ve never seen a person who was not rewarded for relinquishing his desires for the sake of peace.”
“What are you telling me?” the man asked. “To close my clinic?” “Yes,” the Rabbi replied. “But I have leases and contracts with staff!” the owner protested. “It would be a huge financial loss!” The Rabbi responded simply, “You won’t lose by compromising or giving in. G-d will repay you 100%.” He held out a telephone, and said, “Call them.” The owner, despite his doubts and confusion, recognized the purity and sincerity of this elder sage. He took the phone from the Rav’s hand and made the call, telling his competitor, “I’ll close my clinic.”
The competitor was surprised. “What made you decide to do this so suddenly?” he asked. The Jew responded, “A Rabbi in Israel advised me to do so. I am trusting his wisdom.”
The competitor assumed that this must be some devious trick, and that he was being led into a trap of some kind; he surmised that the Rabbi must be in on a deal that would get him a huge windfall. So he decided to fly to Israel himself to meet with this wise rabbi, and ask him, “Why would he do this? What’s the angle?”
When the competitor saw the Rav’s extremely modest apartment, it was immediately obvious that there was no financial trick involved. The Rav explained to the competitor that he had never seen a person who gave up a legitimate claim for the sake of peace lose out. But the competitor wasn’t entirely convinced. “If he closes his clinic, people will think we played dirty and forced him out, and it will ruin our reputation. What should we do?”
The Rabbi answered, “Your competitor proved that he is very capable in this business. Why don’t you hire him?”
The competitor shook his head. “He’ll never work for me as just an employee—he was an owner!”
“Then make him a partner,” the Rav suggested, “and have him open a clinic out in a nearby city.”
As the competitor was leaving, he placed 3,000 British pounds on the table. “This is what we pay our business consultants,” he explained. But the Rav refused the money. “A consultant works for financial gain; his profession is built on that payment. The wisdom I have comes from studying the Torah; money would only cloud my judgement.”
The competitor returned home, and considered the Rav’s advice. After some time, he approached the Jew, and they agreed to follow the Rav’s suggestion. A new clinic was opened in Manchester, and there was enough business for both clinics to thrive. Eventually, both partners were enriched significantly.
I am privileged to work at The ARK, where Jews of all backgrounds and persuasions work together as a team to help our fellow neighbors. Each person may be very different from the next, but we all share a sincere bond of loving our fellow Jew and a desire to help each person in any way we can. If we all heed the words of Rav Shteinman’s 103 years of wisdom, perhaps this will be the last bein hamtzarim before we overcome our self-imposed limitations and open up the limitless boundaries of ahavat Yisroel and Jewish unity.
Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum is Director of The ARK’s Michael E. Schneider Spiritual Enrichment Program.