Thursday, June 2, 2011

NASO 5771

Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch


NASO 5771


On June 1, 1925, a young baseball player named Lou Gehrig was sent to pinch hit for shortstop Paul "Pee Wee" Wanninger. The next day, June 2, Yankee manager Miller Huggins started Gehrig in place of regular first baseman Wally Pipp. Pipp was in a slump, as were the Yankees as a team, so Huggins made several lineup changes to boost their performance. For the next fourteen seasons Gehrig did not miss a game.

In 1939 Gehrig felt himself rapidly weakening. He was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis1, the disease that would take his life. On May 2, 1939 Gehrig told manager Joe McCarthy to take him out of the lineup. Incredibly, Gehrig, ‘the Iron Horse’ had played in 2,130 consecutive games.

On July 4, 1939 the Yankees proclaimed ‘Lou Gehrig day’ at Yankees Stadium. Special presentations and speeches were presented in honor of the dying slugger. The New York Times said it was "perhaps as colorful and dramatic a pageant as ever was enacted on a baseball field [as] 61,808 fans thundered a hail and farewell."

But undoubtedly the most memorable part of the day was Gehrig’s own speech to the overflowing crowd. In a quivering yet empathic voice his words reverberated throughout the stadium: “Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn't consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day?

... So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”

Throughout their forty years in the desert, the Jewish nation had to be prepared to travel at a moment’s notice. At any time the Divine clouds could suddenly rise and proceed further into the desert. As soon as that occurred the entire nation had to immediately dismantle their camps, gather their children and belongings, and begin to travel in perfect formation along with their tribe.

The Levites had the added responsibility of dismantling the holy Tabernacle and preparing it for travel. The tribal leaders donated wagons and oxen to the Tabernacle which Moshe apportioned to two of the Levite families – Gershon and Merori - to use for the transportation of the Tabernacle and its vessels. The third Levite family however – the prestigious family of Kehas – were not given any wagons. The Torah explains2, “And to the sons of Kehas he did not give; since the sacred service was upon them, they carried it upon the shoulder.” Since they were responsible for the Holy Ark and the other holiest vessels it was not proper for those vessels to be placed in wagons. Rather, they were carried directly, upon their shoulders.

After the Jewish Nation had settled in Eretz Yisroel for a few hundred years, during the time of Eli the High Priest, the Holy Ark was captured by the Philistines. The Philistines held it for a short time, and then sent it back to Israel. For many years after its return the Holy Ark remained in Kiryas Yearim, in the home of a man named Avinadav3.

When King David conquered Jerusalem he was determined to bring the Ark home. He commissioned that it be transported in a wagon pulled by oxen. Uzzah, the son of Avinadav walked alongside the wagon. At one point, when the Ark appeared to be falling Uzzah jumped in to straighten it. It was deemed an affront for him to even entertain the notion that the Ark could fall because “the Ark carried those who (appeared to) carry it”. Because of that act Uzzah was immediately killed.

The gemara4 asks what wrong King David had committed that he was indirectly responsible for Uzzah’s death. The gemara explains that it was retribution for the words King David said5, "Your statutes were music to me in the house of pilgrimage." It was unbefitting for King David to refer to the words of Torah as a song. As punishment he was made to forget a law blatantly recorded in the Torah. The verse says that the Children of Kehas were not given wagons because they carried the Ark on their shoulders. Yet King David placed the Holy Ark on a wagon, instead of having it carried upon Uzzah’s shoulders.

Horav Yehonasan Eibeshitz, zt’l explains that the prohibition to place the Holy Ark in a wagon symbolizes that Torah must be studied with diligence and toil. One must exert himself physically and emotionally to attain a true level of Torah acumen. He cannot ‘set it down comfortably before him as he walks leisurely’. Rather, he must ‘carry it upon his shoulders’, bearing its full weight with devotion and love.

When David compared Torah to music, he unwittingly implied that adherence to Torah is effortless and can be mastered with nonchalance, much as one sings an enjoyable song6. To demonstrate David’s fallacy G-d caused him to forget the law which symbolizes the opposite of his words. Torah indeed requires effort because one can easily forget it and be the cause of serious transgression, as Dovid forgot a simple law.

Rabbi Elazar Shach zt’l asked7 that if, in fact, David erred when he referred to Torah as music, why is that verse included in the book of Tehillim?

Rabbi Shach explained that comparing Torah to music/song reflects two different ideas: First, it suggests that observing G-d’s mitzvos are as simple and natural as melodious music. That is simply not true as it is often challenging to perform mitzvos, and there are often many impediments that one must contend with.

Second, the spiritual pleasure and ultimate reward one experiences through Torah study is so great that no earthly pleasure can measure against it. One who engages in deep sincere Torah study enjoys a feeling of fulfillment and joy that cannot be expressed in words.

It is the second meaning that we refer to when we repeat King David’s words in Tehillim. True, it is not always easy to keep the Torah. However, one who does so realizes that Torah is like a song which bursts forth from within the deepest recesses of his soul like a harmonious ensemble.

Rabbi Shach then relates that, as a young boy, he was very poor. He was sent to the renowned Slutzker Yeshiva where he had no food, no drink, and no clothes. He had only Torah.

When the First World War broke out, the Jews of Lithuania were exiled and dispersed throughout Europe, and the students of the yeshiva were sent home. Rabbi Shach however, had no idea where his parents were and therefore had nowhere to go. He made the town shul his home, sleeping on the benches and living off whatever food he could solicit. He only had one change of clothes, which he washed every Friday on the roof, and then waited for them to dry. Few people noticed him or cared much for him and his hair grew long. This went on for a number of years until the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Isser Zalmen Meltzer, zt’l welcomed him into his home.

Rabbi Shach then concludes, "If I were to write down all the agony and misery that has been my lot throughout my life, I would fill volumes that would be much thicker than my Avi Ezri. I can honestly say that I never had a good day in my life! I never had any pleasure in this world. ובכל זאת מיום עמדי על דעתי עד היום אני הבן אדם הכי מאושר בעולם - Yet, despite everything, from the day I began to understand things until today, I am (consider myself) the luckiest man on the face of the earth. There has never been a moment in my life that I have not been filled with joy. Why? Because I learn Torah!"

Every person has goals and aspirations, and those aspirations and hopes largely define who he is and what is important to him. Every person has a different response to the question of ‘Who is a lucky person?’ and ‘what would it take for one to ‘consider himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth’?’ It depends on one’s value system and priorities.

One man considered himself the luckiest man on earth because he was an all-star player with a legendary sports franchise, and gained tremendous fame and acclaim throughout his career. Another man stated that he did not have ‘a good day in his life’ and yet he too considered himself the luckiest man in the world, because he was bound with the eternal meaning of life and enjoyed the greatest fulfillment possible. Interestingly enough, their weltanschauung could not have been more diverse and, they would never have traded places.

The Yom Tov of Shavuos is a relatively short holiday. The gemara8 states that on Shavuos one is obligated to eat a lavish meal and enjoy the day physically to demonstrate that the Torah enriches our physical lives too.

It is a one day9 celebration of what is truly important to us and why we - the eternal people – are truly the luckiest people on the face of the earth.

“Your statutes were music to me”

“They carried it upon the shoulder”

1 Later to be known as ‘Lou Gehrig’s disease’
2 7:9
3 See Shmuel I 7:1
4 Sotah 35a
5 Tehillim 119:54
6 Although this was surely not King David’s intent he was held accountable for its implication. Great personalities are held accountable with extreme precision.
7 In his preface to his magnum opus, Avi Ezri on the Rambam
8 Pesachim 68a
9 According to the Torah it is only a one day holiday, and that is how it is observed in Eretz Yisroel; outside of Eretz Yisroel we observe an extra day, like all major holidays


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