Taking control: Helping ourselves by helping others

Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum

By Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum, Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47) – Parshat Parah

On the show “Jeopardy,” very bright people are challenged with very hard questions. The intrigue of the show is when the genius gets stumped. (My favorite is the apocryphal question: “How many I’s in C-A-T?” Answer: 2.)

When the wisest man in the world, King Solomon, said, “I have acquired wisdom, and this is still beyond me” (Kohelet), we have to take pause. This week, we read Parshat Parah, which stumped the wisest of all men. What exactly confounded him? Many mitzvot are mysterious, and yet they didn’t stump him. Many commentators say that the anomaly of this mitzvah was befuddling; namely, the one who administers the purification process becomes impure, while the recipient becomes purified. While that is anomalous, it’s also not so hard to find that in nature: a medicine fixes one problem but causes another one. If you’ve ever tried to wash a muddy pig (not recommended for the cultured readers of this publication), the pig will get clean and you will get filthy. So what is the great mystery here?

This week there is a yahrzeit of a childhood friend of mine who died young; perhaps our history can help solve King Solomon’s mystery. I attended a public school as a child, and there were very few Jews in my school. Like all kids, I wanted to fit in somewhere. I wasn’t a jock, and I wasn’t an artist or an actor (the school didn’t have a brainy crowd), all of whom had cliques in school. The only group that seemed to have rolling open enrollment was the delinquent drug user group. The kingpin of that group was a rough, tough fellow who reminded me of the Rodney Dangerfield line, “My school was so tough, they had a staff coroner.” It turned out that this kingpin was Jewish, despite all evidence to the contrary. I started to hang out a little with his crowd, and one day he pulled me aside, grabbed my collar, and said, “Listen, kid—I’m involved in drugs over my head. You seem like a nice Jewish kid. Don’t go down this road. If I see you using drugs, I personally will break both your legs.” This was a credible threat—he had references who vouched for his work ethic. That conversation probably saved my life.

Fast forward: 18 years later, I was interviewing a new client at The ARK. Two minutes into the conversation, I said to him, “I know you from somewhere.” His name was unfamiliar, but the face and voice somehow reminded me of someone. As it turned out, this was my former classmate, who had saved my life. He was homeless and very sick—now it was my turn to be there for him, and help him get the urgent medical care and housing that saved his life. He told me that the reason I didn’t recognize his name was because he had been in a foster home, and had taken the last name of the family who cared for him. He and I rekindled our old friendship, and he became more involved in Jewish life, observing Shabbat and kashrut completely.

For the next 25 years, we spoke almost every day, until a medical condition forced him to move into a nursing home. When he moved, he gave me the mezuzah from his front door (which I originally gave him), and it remains on my office door to this day. Whenever I look at it, I ponder how he “purified” me because he was on the other side, and how G-d blessed me to be able to repay him.

His illness eventually ended his life. I officiated at his funeral, and spoke about the mezuzah that protected him (and later, me) and about our intertwined lives.

King Solomon perhaps was mystified by the fabric of life, and its timing; the fact that some people are in the right place, and grow from the most humble roots; and others, sadly, travel in the other direction—and why and how. That’s the truly unfathomable mystery of life.

According to Rabbi Yehoshua in the Talmud, this Tuesday is the birthdate of Creation (culminating with Adam and Eve six days later, on Rosh Chodesh Nisan. Rabbi Eliezer contends that Creation started on the 25th day of Elul, culminating with humanity on Rosh Hashanah.) This time of the year is one of miracles—Purim, Pesach, etc. Elul is when we are circumspect about our conduct, doing self-inventory, making changes for atonement and repentance.

While the tones are different, the idea is the same. We are constantly living with change. Some comes from G-d in the way of open and concealed miracles, and that is the Creation happening in Nisan. On the other hand, there is the constant rebirth and re-creation of ourselves, which we have free choice to pursue.

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter said it is harder to change our habits than splitting the sea. In fact, the same miracle of G-d controlling and changing nature, celebrated on Purim and Pesach, is demonstrated by all of us during Rosh Hashanah time, gaining control and changing the parts of our nature that need improvement.

The great Chasidic pre-war luminary Rabbi Elazar Rabinowitz of Munkatch used to not have his kittel cleaned (the white robe-like garment worn on Yom Kippur and at the seder) until after Yom Kippur, so that he would see the wine stains and remember that just as G-d changed the world’s nature with plagues and miracles on Pesach, so too are we capable of growth and change.

There was a very creative psychiatrist named Milton Erickson. When someone would approach him for help in breaking a habit (e.g. smoking), he would ask the person how much he smoked. Then he would tell the person, “Tomorrow I want you to smoke the same amount, but add four more cigarettes.” The person would usually agree. Erickson’s point was to demonstrate that the same way the person could add a few cigarettes and change his habit, he could also reduce the amount. First, one has to be convinced and aware that he can control and change his habits.

In a few weeks, we will celebrate Pesach. I always joke that the Jews are the only nation in the world who could limit 95% of their diet and still gain copious amounts of weight. We control chametz intake. Maybe Rosh Hashanah is the time to focus on the volume intake. Either way, that is the lot of a Jew—to always grow in values, and control our baser instincts.

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

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