Simple souls: Importance of valuing everyone

Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum

By Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25)

This week’s Parsha starts out by telling us that, on the heels of listening to G-d’s rules, we will be blessed with several physical rewards in this world. The Rambam famously explains that the reward for doing mitzvoth is reserved for the next world, but that G-d grants us the tools to do mitzvoth in this world. If one needs a car to assist his or her parents to go shopping, or to get to doctors’ visits, G-d will give him/her a car. Unlike the way we normally think—“I have some resources, so I’ll use them to do a mitzvah”—the reality is that you have the opportunity to do a mitzvah, and therefore you are given the necessary resources.

In my own life, I have been blessed to see this principle in action as clearly as daylight.

The short version of this story: on the day I had my first date with my wonderful future wife, I received a letter in the mail—an acceptance letter to Columbia University’s Graduate School. (This was astonishing, given my lackluster performance in high school and not having an undergraduate degree.)

I eventually married, and my new wife and I moved to New York. She began seeking work, sending out copious numbers of resumes. (For all of you younger readers: sending resumes was the prehistoric method of seeking employment.) After a month had passed and no job offers had come in, she was beginning to get frustrated; but finally, one lone response came—from Columbia University, of all places. So not only did I get to eat lunch every day with my newlywed bride, I also got about $185,000 of free tuition because I was married to a university employee.

When I finished school, my wife wisely decided that we should move back to Chicago so our kids could know their grandparents. Newly resettled in Chicago, I went to daven mincha at the Chicago Community Kollel one afternoon, and Rabbi Moshe Francis, upon introducing himself and hearing that I was looking for work in social service, called over Dr. Binyomin Sokol, one of the founders of The ARK, and the next thing I knew I was working at The ARK.

Today, 35 years later, I still have the privilege of serving our community through this amazing organization. I love going to work every day and being a member of a dream team of colleagues of the finest people the Jewish community has to offer. So, in keeping with the message of the Parsha, G-d gave me a mission and the tools to accomplish that mission.

Rashi comments that using the word “Ekev,” which means “the heel,” refers to the mitzvoth which often get forgotten, or “trampled over.” Sometimes we “trample over” people, ignoring them or taking them for granted. This could include the cleaning staff at our offices, for example. Sometimes they work overnight and we don’t even see them, although we may recognize their contribution to our lives.

I recently attended a funeral of a fairly young man who had died suddenly in his sleep. He was a somewhat modest and humble person. At the funeral, Rabbi Yochanan Nathan, the scribe, approached the microphone and said that now that the young man was gone, he (Rabbi Nathan) could share the fact that for many years the young man had given of his modest income to buy tefillin for poor boys for their bar mitzvahs. Other than the young man himself, Rabbi Nathan was only person who knew this. Next, Rabbi Ephraim Twersky approached the microphone, and commented that the young man had been davening in his shul for the past few weeks. He was treated nicely, but he didn’t particularly stand out. Rabbi Twersky said that this is a good example of how a person could be very special, but we sometimes just shuffle by him/her without taking notice.

This Parsha is a good time to do some inventory of who we aren’t noticing, and of the greatness often lurking inside the seemingly simple soul right next to you.

Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum is Director of The ARK’s Michael E. Schneider Spiritual Enrichment Program.

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