In the Footsteps of Our Fathers | Pirkei Avos Perek 2 Mishna 3 | By Rabbi Yitzchak Reuven Rubin
In the Footsteps of Our Fathers
By Rabbi Yitzchak Reuven Rubin
Perek 2 Mishna 3
Cast your mind back to a more innocent age. Once upon a time there was a United States senator from some obscure Midwest state. A certain Jewish communal organization was seeking a guest speaker for its annual fund-raising dinner. For some reason, they asked this fellow to do them the honor, and for some reason, he accepted the invitation.
During the months that led up to the dinner, fate played an interesting role. This senator was chosen to replace the vice president of the United States because the holder of that high office had been caught entangled in a tax fraud. The once obscure senator was now a huge macher, and the dinner organizers were over the moon in excitement. (Just for historical information, this fellow soon became the president of the United States upon the early resignation of Richard Nixon. His name? Gerald Ford.)
The Jewish organization was a very religious one, so naturally those invited were from the heimishe crowd. You could imagine the excitement. Every participant would get a chance to see a real live American vice president.
A colleague of mine was one of those honored to receive an invitation. Upon his arrival at the hall, he was taken aback. All the attendees were dressed in rented dinner suits – bowties and all. The ladies were in ball gowns, and dinner music wafted through the air, supplied by a string quartet.
My friend looked around. At the head table sat the organizers dressed the same way. Even a few of the Rabbanim had gone out to find appropriate attire, and there wasn’t a black homburg to be seen.
The young Rav sought out the evening’s chairman. “What’s happened? Everyone looks as if they have come for a Purim shpiel.”
“Listen, young man,” the chairman answered rather sharply. “You can’t expect the vice president to come to a dinner and we should behave like it’s a melave malka. Anyway, it’s all glatt kosher.”
My friend’s reply was from the heart. “My dear chairman,” he said, “the vice president of the United States sees enough dinner suits in Washington. If he came here, you should have shown him how Torah Jews look. The head table should have been full of Roshei Yeshiva with white beards and frocks. There should have been a huge mechitza down the center of the aisle, and the music should have been off of a Pirchei record. Anyway, I’m leaving – I don’t want to be part of this circus.”
With that, my brave colleague turned around and walked out. The host nearly choked on his velvet bowtie.
This little vignette comes to mind at two levels while reading third mishna of chapter 2 of Avos.
“Beware of the authorities, for they befriend a person only for their own purposes. They seem to be friends when it suits them, but they do not stand by a person in his hour of need.”
We live in galus and are often at the mercy of political leaders who have their own agenda. That is difficult enough to accept, but time and again we witness how our own homegrown activists get carried away. They want others to accept us – but in doing so, they sometimes succeed in making themselves into caricatures.
While living in the United States, I had ample occasion to meet many a prominent politician. I can vouchsafe for our mishna’s perceptiveness. Politics is a messy business with very little in the way of loyalty. The one thing politicians admire is a community true to its beliefs. The huge success of Rav Moshe Sherer, z”l, (lay leader of Agudath Israel, a world wide orthodox social movement ) was that he always presented himself and Agudath Israel as a Torah-true organization led by Roshei Yeshiva – flowing beards and all.
As a sad postscript to the above story, let me just add that the organization involved never did get any support from all those big shots. In fact, it ended up ceasing its operations, which were ultimately continued by Agudath Israel.
“Beware of the authorities, for they befriend a person for their own purposes,” says the mishna. The Hebrew word for authorities, reshus, also means permitted actions. The Chiddushei Harim tells us that the evil inclination often hides in permitted areas, imbuing excess with a sense of false sanctity. Such actions seem to be a man’s friend, leading him to holiness. But, says the Rebbe, beware. It is really the evil inclination disguised as a friend doing this for his own agenda – to cause us to cleave to physical pleasures while driving us away from true sanctity.
Make no mistake – the vice president’s dinner hosts were offering the highest grade of glatt kosher fare. In fact, halacha was adhered to in every area – but there was something missing. It was as if the soul went out the door when the rented tuxedos entered.
Today we need not invite a vice president to see this. People spend enormous amounts of money to produce glatt kosher events that drip with excess vanity. But in doing so, we have lost the way. The “permitted actions” have become a springboard for ornate kosher conspicuous consumption. Years of hard work by parents go into weddings that last a few hours and whose unique decor is soon forgotten. People become impoverished and over their heads in debt just so they can live up to standards that are set by others – who are also striving to raise their image. It’s a vicious cycle where all is glatt kosher, everything is done to the highest degree of halachic stringency, yet it’s really all fodder for the yetzer hara. It’s even reached the point where we see this vanity of wealth raising its head in our Torah and mitzvos practice.
Our Gedolei Yisrael (spiritual leaders) have long decried such practices, but somehow, once on the bandwagon, it’s so very difficult to jump off. The Lev Simcha (Gerrer Rebbe of Blessed memory, father of the present Rebbe) instituted a number of rules that were meant to regulate how much one could spend on a simcha. This was a major and daring breakthrough. Rich or poor, everyone would be on an equal basis at their children’s wedding. No one would feel the need to outdo anyone else.
At the time, a particularly wealthy Yid planned to spend a sum far in excess of the Rebbe’s guidelines. The fellow went in to see the Rebbe with a request. “Rebbe, certainly those rules don’t include me. That’s all well and good for everyone else, but, baruch Hashem, I’ve been blessed with wealth.”
“Well, my dear friend,” said the Rebbe, “if you have so much money, perhaps you should buy yourself another Rebbe.”
With that, all talk of overspending was finished.
It wasn’t only because the Rebbe felt that to allow one to spend more than the others would set a bad precedent. It was also because that Yid himself had to learn that everything that is permitted doesn’t necessarily become a mitzva.
Is it necessary to have exotic foods at heimishe weddings? Who really needs it? Must the band come from some faraway place? The decibel levels are just as high played by the bands where you live. One can go on and on.
What about our homes or the way we spend money on fancy cars? This is all “permissible,” but is it not part of the yetzer hara’s battle for our souls?
Some years ago I had the merit to accompany a Gadol baTorah to a wedding. The Rav was born in Poland and had survived the Holocaust, rebuilding his kehilla in America. The wedding was being held “out of town” – meaning out of Boro Park – in a huge mansion that had been transformed into a glatt kosher venue just for this occasion.
Everyone was excited. Such a posh place had never seen the likes of a heimishe wedding before. As we drove up, I could see that the Rav was not very pleased. Such a long drive just for a fancy chuppa?
As we entered the main hall, a sad smile played on the Rav’s lips. The whole place had been done up to resemble an Old World type of scene. On each table stood a decorative oil lamp, and at the far end there was a huge open fire burning in the fireplace. There were no other lights in the area, and the whole room took on a romantic rustic atmostphere.
The Rav turned to me, and in a loud voice he whispered, “Ah, just like in the heim. Candles, oil lamps, wooden tables, dark shadows … I just wonder, where are the chickens?”
What a shame. A fortune was spent to reinvent all the discomforts of the Polishe shtetl, while its true simplicity and heart was buried somewhere deep, deep down.
Let us recognize the yetzer hara for what he is and not fall prey to his glatt kosher pronunciations.