July 25, 2002
The Presence of Greatness
Parshat Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)
Inspirational speeches are sometimes improved by leaving out the words.
Deuteronomy records, for the most part, Moses' farewell address to his people. He begins by rehashing the events of the last 40 years, a story laden with some nasty national failings. Seeing that his audience at this point is hardly brimming with enthusiasm, he attempts to mollify them, arguing that what God asks of them is really a very small list of requirements that are quite easy to achieve (Deuteronomy 10:12). The first item on his wish list is reverence for God.
The Talmud cries foul. Is reverence of God such a small thing? Well, yes, it concludes. "To a Moses, it is a trifling thing." For the spiritual superstars, goes the usual explanation, reverence for God -- i.e., doing exactly what God commands and expects -- is no more difficult than smiting the Egyptians with sundry inconveniences. Piece of cake.
I remember well one eveninglong glimpse at greatness.
Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky was in his 80s when I first met him. At the time (and for many years before) his counsel was sought after more than any other individual in the non-Chassidic world. (Several years after being forced to step down from his official position at the helm of the Torah Vodaas Yeshiva, he asked for his old job back. The board of directors was confused. Had he not retired several years before? "How long can a person stay retired?" was his response.) He had spent a grueling 36 hours on the road, moving from one speaking engagement to another. I had arranged to drive him from Brooklyn to his home in Monsey, N.Y.
Full of nervous excitement, I pulled my old clunker around to the front of the building where he had addressed the final crowd of the day. I opened the front passenger door, but he turned to the rear door, opened it and literally crawled on to the back seat. He emerged with his trademark smile across his face, and explained, "I wanted to make sure that it will be comfortable for my rebbetzin." Leaving me with my jaw hanging, he went back inside, found his wife, escorted her to the back seat of the car, and only then agreed to get in himself.
A friend had persuaded me to allow him to tag along. Both of us had lists of questions, some personal and some general, that we hoped to cram into the journey. We both prayed for heavy traffic.
To be safe, we decided to take a tape recorder along, but we didn't have the chutzpah to ask permission, so we cut some ethical corners and concealed the machine in one of our pockets. Things worked well for about 45 minutes, until an audible click broke through a rare pause in the conversation.
The broad smile across his face now sported an extra twinkle in his eye. "Oh! So you are recording our conversation? That's quite all right." The next words are etched permanently in my memory. "Never in my life have I said anything and taken it back later."
We arrived at his home around midnight, fully expecting to discharge our important personage, and to immediately head back to New York. He wouldn't hear of it, insisting that we come in and rest first before the return trip. Our protests got us nowhere. After sending his wife off to bed, he sat us down, and proceeded to serve us tea and cake. He would not let us help with anything, insisting that it was his mitzvah to serve guests. The conversation was not a brief one. It took quite a while before we persuaded him that it was perhaps time to leave. We said our goodbyes, and headed out to the car. He insisted on walking us to the car, after which he returned to the house. As we readied to back up, we saw Rav Yaakov come back out of the house, hastening to the car. "Are you sure you know the best route back?" he asked before giving us better directions.
My friend and I were floating so high, it was remarkable that the car still hugged the road. We had been inspired by witnessing greatness in action, rather than hearing about it. Our soaring spirits resonated with a different take on the Talmud's parsing of the passage from our Torah reading. This one argues that the original Aramaic should be translated as "around, or near Moses" rather than "to Moses."
Greatness comes much easier to those who have seen it up close. Scrutiny of contemporary heroes has left most of them resembling a statuary store after an 8.5 tremor. We Jews often forget that our community has an impressive record of producing spiritual titans who stand up to close examination.
And they don't just live in the past. A few years back, Sam Orbaum of the Jerusalem Post did a story about a remarkable family in Jerusalem who all love Shabbat and love sharing it with guests. So they do -- 100 or more per meal, every meal, for 18 years straight. Beneficiaries of their largesse include the homeless, groups of German tourists and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The daughter of Rabbi and Mrs. Mordechai Machlis, host and hostess par excellence, will be moving to Los Angeles in a few weeks, as part of the new Westwood Kollel.
Shawn Green move over. You have some real competition coming to town. It should be inspiring for us all.