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My father-in-law, Zt”l, was a real character. The Shver (father-in-law) was a Polish chassidishe Yid, an individual whose character was to focus on Avodas Hashem. Each Polish chossid was unique – and that was no small thing. The idea was for each person to take his uniqueness and use it in a positive manner.

Today this might sound strange. We live in a homogenized society; everyone looks the same. We dress alike and are meant to think as one too. The problem is that such sameness can stifle one’s real avodas Hashem.

The Mishna in the second chapter of Avos asks, “Which is the proper path a man should choose for himself? Whatever is a credit to himself and earns him the esteem of his fellow men” (Avos 2:1). Reb Bunim of Pshischa explains there are many paths to Hashem. Within the gates of the Torah, man can find his unique path that will lead him to his goal of kedusha. By being true to one’s own path, one can relate to and respect others who tread a path that is different in nature, but just as true.

All too often, people opt for the simplest route – imitation. “I’ll just go along and do whatever everyone else does. That way I won’t fall afoul.” The problem is that one isn’t necessarily serving Hashem this way. Rather, he may be serving those who set the guidelines. He may be “in style,” acting according to the trend, yet never interacting with the pintele, the inner being that is his neshoma.

The Shver, was never satisfied with following the herd. He etched out his own way – and that was his gadlus. I never remember him without an open sefer in hand, yet he didn’t push his knowledge or boast about how much he learned. Slowly, steadily, his day would tick by with the soundtrack of his learning. The man said Tehillim all the time; in fact, he knew the entire sefer by heart. How did we realize this? Because although in later years he was to all intents and purposes blind, we could still see him saying holy words, steadily turning the pages of his well-worn Tehillim.

But you had to look a bit deeper to unearth the “character.” For example, the Shver would wake up every morning before daylight, as soon as he was permitted to say brochos and Kriyas Shema. He had a problem, though. He made a point of having others say amen to his blessings (According to the Darkei Moshe, Orach Chaim 60). What could he do? He would never wake anyone from their sleep. Instead he would sit near the bed of one of his grandchildren, and somehow, the silent energy of his anticipation would seep through the sleeper’s dreams. One could actually feel a presence. The sleeper’s eyes would open, and there would be the Shver looking down at him. “Oh, you’re up. Wash neigel vasser and say amen,” he would exclaim joyfully, his powerful feelings apparent.

There are other examples of his character traits. Every morning, after davening, the Shver had a special mitzvah. Dressed in his jacket and gartel, he’d wash the dishes. Then he would sit down at the table to listen to the family discussing plans for a future trip. “Ach,” he would say, “What are you talking about? Moshiach will be here soon.” And when he said those words, you knew he lived them. To him, Moshiach was truly only seconds away.

The Shver refused to follow the current fashion. When people wore wide-brimmed hats, his was small. When everyone decided that from now on neckties were out, he bought his first one. He just didn’t want to let others set his pace. Gedolei Torah respected his ability in learning, while Chassidic Rebbes spoke to him as a dear friend. He chose the “proper path” the Mishna is talking about – that which gave him credibility in his own eyes and the esteem of his fellow man.

One thing was always paramount: He would not lie to himself. As the Kotzker, Zt”l, said, he wouldn’t play the shpiel; he wouldn’t play act to be what others perceived he should be.

We live in times when choosing an individual path is more important than ever. Young people are wandering and becoming lost to our community. Can this be because we’ve locked them into a box that doesn’t fit them?

What of the thousands of Baalei teshuva – those holy neshamos that dearly seek to soak up the warmth of Torah life? Some get caught up with all the do’s and don’ts of this homogenization and become discouraged. They can’t understand why so many are not involved with actively perfecting their own souls and instead are fascinated by the state of others. They are astounded that those blessed with a hiemisha background are not immersing themselves in all the paths, byways and highways of Yiddishkeit.

The paths the Mishna speaks of are unique to each of us. True esteem is earned only when one gains self-esteem. When we float along, doing things on automatic pilot, we can hardly feel any real sense of self-growth.

The Mishna continues, “Be as careful with a minor mitzvah as with a major one.” The Baal Shem Tov used to say that the word zahir, careful, has the same root as zohar, glowing. When performing any mitzvah, one should feel a bren, a fire. One’s heart should be fully engaged in every simple act.

I often watched the Shver’s eyes when he did the most mundane of activities. They burned with fire. Nothing – not old age, the tribulations of war nor any of the ups and downs of life – could extinguish this fire.

Preparing the Shabbos candles was an Avoda just as vibrant as putting on tefillin for Shacharis – a simple act performed with fiery joy. Is it any wonder he was a towering character?

Even in the confines of his home, that place where many let their public image slip, he was glowing with Yiddishkeit: “Stand up for your mother;” “Don’t sit with your back to the seforim shank (bookcase)”; “Have you had pas Shacharis (halachically prescribed breakfast)?” Every step, he took with his own pathos, his own way.

There are days when one feels down, hardly able to face the day and begin davening. “Vus? What?” the Shver would say. “Every tefilah, every bit of Torah study brings brocha to the heavens above. Six million Kedoshim! We are left to bring their kedusha to this world.”

As the Toldos Yaakov Yosef tells us, everything above depends on our Avoda here on earth. It all depends on us. This is the literal meaning of the continuation of the Mishna, “Know what is above from you.”

The characters of old knew this all too well. They chiseled out their path in the midst of great adversity. Life wasn’t easy, yet each one fully accepted that his Avodas Hashem was vital. Those characters lived a life that was entirely aware of “the watchful eye, an attentive ear and all your deeds recorded in a book” (ibid.).

If our deeds weren’t important, surely they would not be recorded. We must realize that our actions have an effect and are important enough to be recorded on high. Every Jew is called upon to find his path, a path that disowns self-delusion or playacting. Every mitzvah awaits our fire.

The Piaseczner Rebbe, Zt”l, writes about this in his own special manner. He says if your life’s aim is to serve Hashem with constant growth and you want to reach old age on a level beyond that of a bar mitzvah child, here is something you can do:

Each year, clarify a goal and imagine yourself as you would be having actualized that goal next year. Visualize who this you will be, his attainments, his daily life, the manner in which he acts, his inner essence. Use this imagined you to gauge how far you will have to go to become that person. Is your present you enough to create the reality of the envisioned future you?

If next year comes and you have not reached your goal, then you will have cut your spiritual life short. You’re still the old you – you’re not growing.

This is the meaning of the verse “And Avraham was old, advanced in years” (Bereishis 24:1). The Avraham of this year was the actualized Avraham, not the Avraham of the past.

These words should cause us all to yearn to be better, but yearning is only of value if you take action. The action has to come from the real you, one person on his individual path to Hashem.

The Piaseczner Rebbe states elsewhere that a person must become an individual with the essence of who he really is. This means bringing forth that which is unique about him and depicts his true self. We must give our young this awareness so they can find their true selves and become really special.

I’ll end where I started. Just hours before the Shver’s petira, he slipped into a light coma. Those present thought he could no longer respond. My Rebbetzin AH approached his bedside. “Tatty, it’s time to say birchos hashachar. Please, this time you listen and say amen.” She started to say those cherished words.

The Shver’s eyes were glazed, yet tears of peacefulness could be seen – and from nowhere, with the pure willpower of that Polish chossid, we all heard, every one of us standing there, “Amen.” Again and again, after every brocha – “Amen, Amen.”

If you don’t mind, give me a character any time.


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