the sweetest challenge

לעילוי נשמת עובדיה בן יעקב אהרון ורחל מתנה

I spoke this past sunday at my grandfather's (Albert Jacob's) shloshim. (My father asked each of us not to only talk about our grandfather, but also to teach some Torah as well.) Here are the (paraphrased rough) contents of the speech:

My grandfather, who I called Papa, taught me tremendous depths of wisdom but always through the simplest and most basic of lessons.

When writing a business letter, he said, always start with the other person, don't start with your self. "Dear Sir, I would like.." Was the wrong beginning whereas, "Dear Sir, Would you be willing.." was something closer to acceptable. Put the focus on the person you are writing to. Make them important.

This is such a deep and true lesson that we find the same thing in the Torah. HaShem's name is the third word mentioned in the Torah, while the first is בראשית. Rashi immediately explains that בראשית means that through the Torah (which is called ראשית) HaShem created the world, and that the world was created for Bnei Yisrael. (who is also called ראשית, His first born son.)

But why did Rashi mention the Torah first, and Bnei Yisrael second?

This we can only answer by asking another question about Avraham Avinu and Yitzhak Avinu. Avraham was all about giving without holding anything back. How is it that Yitzhak could be seen as a continuation of Avraham's path, if Yitzhak was all about gevurah, about holding back, about denial? What was the chidush, the revelation, by Yitzhak such that we don't feel that he rejected and rebelled against his father's path, but rather carried it a step further?

To understand the answer to this question I had to understand my loss a little better. Papa was such an upstanding figure, a person with the highest of values, and he always lived up to this astronomical assessment of human capability. Over the past month I've been trying to look at myself through this lens and find a way to live up to what Papa expected of me, but I can't.

So now it's clear to me what I've lost. Papa's values he passed on to me and to all of my family, but as long as those values resided within a body, within the loci of a person, I knew that he would love me and view me mercifully, in a positive light and overlook my failings. Now that he's not here in the same way, I'm left with only the values, the judgements, and without the loving grandfather who always smiled at me. I'm left without his rachamim, his sweet mercies.

This was the chidush of Yitzhak Avinu. Avraham Avinu's path was an unbelievable one, to overcome selfishness utterly, to give everything for HaShem's sake and not to take for one's own sake. But, Avraham's path couldn't really be appreciated as it was. All the converts that Avraham and Sarah Imenu converted were lost to history, they didn't have a continuation in their day. Yitzhak Avinu's din, his judgement, his gevurah, his holding back, it created a background, a framework in which Avraham Avinu's loving kindness could find a continuance a permanence and a true appreciation in the rachamim, the sweet mercies of Yaakov Avinu.

In order to really see this point in its fullest depth we need to examine one more thing, the failing of Elisha ben Avuyah, who turned away from Judaism. In Pirkei Avot, Elisha ben Avuyah says that teaching a child is like writing on a fresh leaf of paper, while teaching the elderly is like writing on a paper that has been degraded through many erasures.

Papa taught me a very simple lesson: When you are doing math, never use a pen, you have to use a pencil. Why? Only a fool uses a pen. In math everyone makes mistakes and you can't erase a pen, use a pencil and you can work out the problems properly.

From this lesson I took away a teaching that solves Elisha ben Avuyah's conundrum, a child learns a little bit and thinks he knows everything and he is correct. He doesn't yet know he will make mistakes. A person more advanced in years has erred many times and sits to learn with the knowledge that he will make many mistakes, misunderstand many points. At the same time, this person also knows that mistakes can be erased and fixed, that life is full of new oppurtunities and that the only way to learn is to take the risk of making mistakes. A child fears errors and upon encountering a difficulty gives up altogether.

Without the knowledge that we are going to screw up, that we are going to make monumental mistakes, we can't truly begin to learn anything at all. This is why the learning of an elderly person is so much more precious for its wisdom and its humility than the learning of a child. This was Acher's mistake. This was my grandfather's lesson.

This also, incidentally answers the question of why Rashi mentioned the Torah first and then Bnei Yisrael.

First we must have the astronomical values, all the laws and the judgements, to propel us to our best efforts our highest goals, six hundred and thirteen mitzwoth, each one rife with hundreds if not thousands of microscopic halachoth. Then, since we know we will fall and screw up along the way, HaShem tells us we are His children, and like a father teaching His child, he will always shower us with sweet mercy, pick us up, and help us to work a little harder, learn a little more. But if he didn't expect the world from us, we'd never be able to grow at all.

Even more important, if he didn't challenge us, then all His love and all His mercy would never mean anything to us either.

I loved Papa, and everything I achieve in this world and the next is because he challenged me to grow beyond any boundaries that ever bound me.

[actually if you've noticed that I've been posting a lot less it is because my writing is temporarily offline--i'm trying to compile all of what I learned from Papa's teachings in a more comprehensive way.]


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