Thursday, February 18, 2010


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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  • As a young man Abe Lincoln was a failure as a businessman and then as a lawyer. He turned to politics and was defeated in his first efforts to become a legislature, again defeated in his first attempt to be nominated for congress, defeated in his application to be commissioner of the General Land Office, defeated in the senatorial election of 1854, defeated in his efforts at the vice-presidency in 1856, and defeated in the senatorial election of 1858. It was at that time that he wrote to a friend, “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth.”
  • Winston Churchill repeated a grade during elementary school. He twice failed the exam to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. He later wrote, “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to the convictions of honor and good sense. Never, Never, Never, Never give up!”
  • Thomas Edison’s teachers said he was “too stupid to learn anything”. He was fired from his first two jobs for being un-productive.
  • Albert Einstein didn’t speak until he was four years old and didn’t read until he was seven. He was later expelled from school.
  • R.H. Macy failed seven times before his New York City store was successful.
  • Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor because “he lacked imagination and good ideas”.
  • Charles Schultz’s comics were rejected by his high school yearbook staff. Walt Disney wouldn’t hire him.
  • Twenty seven publishers rejected Dr. Suess’s first book “To think I saw it on Mulberry street”.
  • Twelve publishers rejected J.K. Rowling’s book about a boy wizard, before a small London house published “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone”.
  • Babe Ruth, not only held the home run record for years (714) but also the strikeout record (1,330). In his words, ‘Every strikeout brought me closer to another home run’.
  • Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team.

The Mishkan (Tabernacle), its vessels, and its priestly garments were made from thirteen types of raw materials listed in the verses at the beginning of parshas Terumah. The nation was so eager to donate the materials and to have a share in creating a ‘resting place’ for G-d’s Presence, that those in charge of the work appealed to Moshe to stop the contributions.

The final two materials mentioned were, “Shoham stones and stones for the settings, for the Ephod and the Breastplate.” The Ohr HaChaim questions why the stones - which were so valuable and precious - are listed last?

He answers by quoting the Gemara1 which states that the precious stones needed for the Mishkan miraculously fell from clouds near the Jewish camp. The Ohr HaChaim explains that because those stones required minimal effort and did not entail any self sacrifice because they did not have to be donated per se, they are listed after all of the other materials which required effort and sacrifice in their giving.

The Torah’s value system is often at odds with our value system. While precious stones may seem invaluable to us, in regards to the materials donated for usage in the construction of the Mishkan they were the least valuable because they entailed the least personal sacrifice.

The final chapter of Mishley, known as “Aishes Chayil”, read every Friday evening prior to the recitation of Kiddush, begins with a seemingly degrading statement about women: “A woman of valor - who can find? Far from pearls is her value.” Prima facie, it sounds as if Shlomo Hamelech is saying that there are no accomplished women of valor, a seemingly harsh condemnation of women. However, it seems illogical that that was his intent for later in the same paragraph he explicitly states otherwise. “רבות בנות עשו חיל - Many daughters have accomplished valor, but you surpassed them all.” How are we to understand this seeming contradiction?

Rabbi Zev Leff explained that the key to understanding Shlomo Hamelech’s message lies in the conclusion of the opening verse. What does it mean, “Far from pearls is her value”? It is well known that a pearl forms on the ocean floor in a most unusual manner. Pearls are not molded by craftsman; it is simply a matter of ‘chance’ whether one will have the good fortune of finding a pearl or not. A diver or fisherman can stumble across a pearl effortlessly, or he can fruitlessly search for weeks. Finding pearls is essentially pot-luck.

Shlomo Hamelech begins his description of the Woman of Valor by declaring that no woman reaches such levels simply by chance, or by getting lucky. You can’t just ‘find’ a woman of valor because she isn’t something that just happens. In that sense her value is ‘far from pearls’ which are a matter of luck. Many women have made themselves2 into Woman of Valor, albeit only through great effort and introspection.

During the last few decades a plethora of ‘gedolim books’ have been written3. These books, written with painstaking effort, offer a glimpse into the regal lives of our greatest leaders. But there is one notable fault inherent in these books. Very often they characterize the gadol as being otherworldly, as a person who transcended the challenges and struggles that we encounter every day of our lives. This not only makes the gadol seem ‘out of reach’, it is also simply untrue.

The Torah does not mince words when it comes to the shortcomings and failings of our greatest leaders4. This, despite the fact, that the ‘failings’ of the Biblical personalities were so subtle and exacting that for the common person those same actions may be even be considered meritorious. The Torah wishes to teach us that every person struggles and at times fails; it’s part of the human experience. What differentiates great people from the masses is that they do not allow themselves to wallow in their mistakes. They dust themselves off and get back in the ring.

Harav Aharon Feldman shlita eloquently expresses this point5: “With a few noteworthy exceptions, these books frequently ignore the self-sacrifice and dedication which of necessity must have gone into the development of every gadol. They often overlook the fact that certainly these men must have had moments of self-doubt, error, and human frailty, and that each had times when he needed encouragement, love, and friendship. Great men are humans just as much as other men; on the contrary, they are great because they faced and overcame the human shortcomings that they had. Because the book focuses its attention of the superficial picture and not on the personal details, these biographies can emerge as unreal and difficult to identify with, thus undermining their educational impact…

“When some forty years ago the Ponovezher Rav, Rabbi Yosef Kaheneman zt’l, decided to found a kollel in Bnei Brak with the express purpose of producing gedolim, his initial idea was to admit to this kollel only young men blessed with brilliant intellectual faculties. When he presented his plan to the Chazon Ish, the latter expressed his reservations. “Shouldn’t there be a kollel where a future Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan can develop?” he tersely asked. The Chazon Ish was implying that Rabbi Yitzcahk Elchanan Spektor, the fabled Rav of Kovno, author of major halachic works and recognized as the undisputed leader of European Jewry at the turn of the (19th) century was not a natural genius. By restricting his kollel to gifted minds, the Chazon Ish was saying, the Ponovezher Rav might be denying the next generation of leaders of this caliber.

“True, many gedolim in Jewish history were blessed with prodigious mental gifts, but this was not why they grew to be gedolim. Rabbi Aharon Kotler zt’l, founder of Bais Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, N.J., and a full fledged genius if there ever was one, used to cherish Edison’s adage (which one of his students once cited to him) that “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” It was obvious to listeners that he held his own accomplishments to be, not the result of his instantaneous grasp and phenomenal memory, but of his hard work.”

The brief anecdotes mentioned at the beginning are inspiring and intriguing. But they involve individuals who went on to achieve great physical accomplishment and distinction. It was because they were persistent and did not succumb to their previous failings that they eventually persevered. But their situations are a far cry from the spiritual world in which effort alone is invaluable. If the individuals mentioned at the beginning would not have achieved greatness they would have been relegated to the dust-heaps of history. But in the spiritual world it is predominantly effort that matters and creates greatness.

True greatness is not accomplished overnight. It takes persistence, relentless effort, powerful ambition, and most importantly, resilience in the face of setbacks.

The invaluable stones needed for the Mishkan were listed after all of the other materials, because they required the least effort, and therefore contained the least spiritual value.

Like any really valuable commodity in life, to become a Woman of Valor or a gadol requires work and sweat. It takes great people to build great families to ensure the continuity of our great nation. Only those who are up to the challenge can build a House of G-d.

“Shoham stones and stones for the settings”

“Far from pearls is her value”

1. Yoma 75a
2. The word עשו literally means ‘made’, thus the verse reads, “many women have made themselves into Women of Valor”
3. ‘Gadol’ literally means ‘great one’; the word is used to refer to our greatest Torah leaders
4. It is most interesting to note that in the New Testament there is never a mention of sin attributed to their “great ones” (so I have heard).
5. Quote from his new book, “The Eye of the Storm: A calm view of Raging Issues”


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