By Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum, Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Noach (Genesis 6:9−11:32)
In Parshat Noach, we read about the fabric of societal values eroding so severely that a total reboot was required to get humanity back on track. These kinds of things don’t usually happen in a day. It starts with some subtle, small taking from others, and with a flimsy pretense or justification. Soon enough, it seems normal—even an entitlement to be demanded—up to the point that society is unsustainable. There will always be some narcissism in the world; as long as the rest of the world is not overindulging, it irons itself out. But when everyone is taking and not giving back, it becomes unsustainable.
When the Titanic sank, there were several questions regarding agunot—people whose spouses were missing—thus leaving the question as to whether they could remarry. The main rabbi in America who addressed these matters was Rabbi Meskin of New York. Every year on the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, he would deliver a drasha. In one of his speeches, later reprinted, he said, “Hundreds died in this tragedy. You know why? Because there weren’t enough life rafts, despite protocol requiring them. You know why? Because they said that space for the life rafts would be better used to store more liquor and delicacies to indulge in. So these indulgences were more important than those lives.”
He ended by saying, “We have Jewish children in need of Jewish education, but we have no funds. There are Jews suffering from poverty, but we have no funds. Are we prioritizing our wine and steak indulgences over saving lives again?”
This week’s Parsha is an ideal time to examine our priorities. I work for a wonderful organization that is devoted to giving housing, food, medicine, and emotional support to people in need in our community. The ARK is the ultimate lifeboat. We are blessed to have the support of the great community of Chicagoland, whose priorities are clear about the needs of others. We Chicagoans should never take for granted the good-hearted community in which we live.
Before Rosh Hashanah, I called my mechutan to wish him a good year. He shared with me a story I’d like to pass on to you, about priorities. My mechutan is an accountant, and he was asked to do the books for an aging, childless couple. He normally works with large businesses, but he made an exception for this couple, since they lived in the area. The wife was a secretary, and the husband was a retired firefighter—modest income-earners. They lived in a small, rented apartment, which my mechutan said always reminded him of the Kramdens’ apartment on the “Honeymooners” TV show.
As it turned out, the husband was a clever investor, and had saved nearly $4 million by the time he passed away. His wife then started dabbling in the markets as well, and at the time of her passing had an estate of $50 million! But she lived modestly until the end, and left her entire estate to support Jewish education. The couple had not been particularly observant Jews, but they were impressed with the students from Chabad who would visit them with Shabbos candles or tefillin. While the couple had no children of their own, they in effect had thousands of children, who will be educated as proud Jews.
The wife did allow herself one indulgence: she left instructions for a lavish funeral. My mechutan told me that it cost $250,000!—and included flying in famous chazanim (cantors) and serving a gourmet meal.
Another friend shared an almost opposite story with me, about a man who died suddenly and unexpectedly. An accountant reached out to the family and said, “I want you to know that this is a terrible loss for you—but your husband left you very comfortable, with millions of dollars.” But instead of being relieved, the family seemed more upset.
It wasn’t until later, when they went to settle the affairs of the deceased, that they explained that instead of being relieved that their finances would be very comfortable, they were shocked. The deceased had been miserly towards them throughout his entire life, scrutinizing the smallest household expenditure. (Failing to drive across town to save 13 cents on toilet paper would provoke a tirade.) When his son became engaged, his father told him, “I’m not giving you one cent for this,” so the son went to college and worked two jobs in order to pay for his wedding.
The family had no idea that their husband and father had any money at all, so they were shocked to discover that his treatment of them was unwarranted and cruel. Thus, unlike the first couple, who had no children but treated thousands of Jewish children as if they were their own, this man was blessed with children, but acted as though he were childless.
In all of our affairs, let’s keep our priorities right, and make our voyage in this life an Ark, and not a Titanic.
Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum is Director of The ARK’s Michael E. Schneider Spiritual Enrichment