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The Systems of the Jewish Year

A Thought for the Week

By Rabbi Yaacov Haber

When we think about a bris milah we immediately conjure up images of a new life, a new beginning and a fresh start. Our Parsha begins when Avrohom Avinu was ninety-nine years old. He had just had a Bris Milah. It is difficult to consider ninety-nine years old a new start for anything or anyone, yet to Avrohom Avinu - things were just starting to fall into place. His goals were starting to materialize. Avrohom now was told that his descendants would survive forever and teach the world about G-d. Avrohom became personally closer to G-d than he ever was before. He was finally able to achieve many of his personal aspirations. At ninety nine years old things started popping.

If we still have energy at an advanced age how will we prioritize our lives? “Enough with mishigasen,” we will say, “enough with political considerations, enough with the things that we had to do but really didn’t want to do.” What we will be interested in? All the gadgetry of life and the empty yearning for possessions will become meaningless. New things will become important.

What did Avrohom Avinu do at ninety-nine years old? Holier and stronger than ever, he removed the doors to his tent and let the world in. He could have become an ascetic, a holy meditator and an untouchable symbol of G-dliness. He could have said, “Enough with the world, I need time alone to write, to think and to pray.” On the contrary, Avrohom removed all borders, took away all barriers and let the whole world in. Avrohom Avinu became the quintessential people person, the quintessential Jew - he became the baal chesed. Instead of withdrawing himself from the world he became more involved with it.

A couple of weeks ago an expert in eldercare made a comment to my wife and me that stuck. She said, “As we get older we become more of ourselves.” It’s a bit scary to think that while looking in the mirror. Avrohom Avinu in his old age became more concerned with people and the world became more important than ever.

Recently all of our priorities have been adjusted. Things that seemed so important just a short time ago have become superfluous and mundane.
Over a cup of coffee recently I picked up a magazine from just a few months ago. As I flipped through the pages I saw in-depth articles about when to rotate tires, when to plant tulips and the new colors for the fall season. I realized that, at least to me, none of this is important any more. I’m thinking about different things these days.

This week I shopped in Costco’s. As I was checking out, the friendly cashier wanted to know why I look worried and upset. He apparently caught me off guard. I was taken with his compassion and I shared with him that just before I came into the store I had listened to the latest news report in the car and it had really upset me. With a look of astonishment he asked me, “Why?! Did the Yankees lose?” I guess our minds are all in different places.

What are our concerns these days? What are we thinking about? Avrohom Avinu, our teacher, taught by example that the first priority has to be the welfare of the world. As we travel through the trials of life the condition of our friends, family and community members must become more important . That is not where Avrohom started, it is where he finished up.

Yesterday one of the greatest leaders of Klal Yisroel passed away. Rav Eliezer Menachem Man Shach of blessed memory left this world after 107 years of contributing to it. Hundreds of thousand of Jews worldwide participated in his funeral. I don’t think most of us understood the venerable Rav Shach. He was born around 1893. He discussed Torah in depth with the Chofetz Chaim and Rav Chaim Brisker. He lived through two World Wars and four Israeli wars. He wrote a scholarly work on the Rambam that is a household sefer. He led the great Ponevitz Yeshiva for decades. He organized the voice of the Yeshiva world in Israel. He had the respect and admiration of every Rosh Yeshiva in the world, even if they disagreed with him. He stood for what he believed to be truth at any expense. He was never swayed by politics, money or honor. He always acted with integrity and everyone who ever had to stand before him knew that their motives had to be pure and their logic impeccable.

I have often told the story of my visit, a few years ago, to Rav Shach. He was around ninety-nine years old at the time. In order to advise me better he asked me many questions. He wanted to know where I had learned, where I had lived, what techniques I use in outreach, where my children went to school and much more. He then asked me what sefer I had in my hand. (I had brought a sefer to read in the taxi from Jerusalem to Bnei Brak). I told him it was Tzidkas HaTzadik, the primary text of Rav Tzadok HaKohein.

The Rav told me he was personally unfamiliar with the writings of Rav Tzadok and asked me to share something with him. At that point I excitedly began telling the sagacious Rav Shach an interpretation of Rav Tzadok on the fifth page of tractate Brachos. Two minutes into my Dvar Torah the elder of the generation took my hand and looked at me with his very aged and saintly eyes and told me to stop. He was crying. With tears in his eyes he commented that what he was hearing from me was different from what he had been learning for the last 90 years. He just didn’t have the strength for anything new any more. This was a powerful experience. He didn’t cry over his dimming eyesight and frail health but rather because he didn’t have the strength at almost 100 to do something new. At ninety-nine years old, after mastering most of Torah, after studying for five generations with the greatest Gedolim, after building one of the greatest Yeshivos on Earth, he cried because he didn’t have the strength for something new. May Hashem listen to his pleas for Klal Yisroel and the whole world and treat us with mercy.

As for us - as long as we are alive we have to grow. Our priorities have to become more and more refined. We have to become greater, higher, kinder, holier and a greater asset to society. Like Avrohom Avinu we can never stop being a productive part of the world. Let us all pray that G-d bless the world with kindness.

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