By Rav Aryeh Zev Ginzberg
It is never too late in life for someone who thinks he really understood to come to the realization that he never had a clue.
I think it’s fair to assume that many of us feel that while our level of avodah in bein adam laMakom is lacking, our level of avodah in bein adam la’chaveiro is not. After all, a community that has in its ranks Hatzalah, Bikur Cholim, Tomchei Shabbos, gemachs of all kinds, etc., should be able to make the rightful claim that we have reached the pinnacle of bein adam la’chaveiro.
However, recent introspection, self-made and via others, has caused me to come to the realization that I never really had a clue.
The self-awareness came with a statement shared with a friend that manifested, at least for a brief moment, a complete lack of sensitivity to others. Despite my “girsa d’yankusa” (the learning one acquires at a young age), inculcated by my father, Rav Avrohom Ginzberg, zt’l, and my great rebbe, Rav Henoch Leibowitz, zt’l, whose levels of caring and sensitivity for others was the stuff of legends, sometimes the apple does fall far from the tree.
A few weeks back, I received the terrible news of the passing of a young child from a wonderful and prominent Torah-filled home. When I heard the name of the father of the child, I was shocked and sad. That was the very name of an incredible Yid whom I had befriended in the hospital a while back when similar circumstances caused us to spend several Shabbosim and yomim tovim in a hospital together. I truly felt terrible about this painful news. Several hours later, I walked into a store to purchase something for Shabbos and I met this person’s relative. I told him how upset I was to hear the terrible news about his relative. He responded, “It’s not him. It is a distant cousin with the same name.”
My immediate reaction was an expression of, “Baruch Hashem, it’s not this family; I am so relieved.” I thanked him for sharing this with me, and with an extra bounce in my step I returned to my car.
And then it hit me. How could I have been so indifferent and insensitive to the fact that there is a mother and father out there in our community who just today buried their young son, suffering from pain so deep that no one who has not experienced this can ever comprehend it, and yet instead of feeling for their pain, I just experienced a sense of relief that it was not the family that I had thought it was! And despite the assurances from the cousin I met who claimed he understood that I had no intention of being insensitive whatsoever, the fact remains that I had been. Just when you think you are there, you are not even close.
Further awareness of how much we are lacking in genuine bein adam la’chaveiro came in the form of a passing comment made by a dear rabbinic colleague. I had the great z’chus and responsibility to give several hespedim in various venues for the late gadol ha’dor, Maran Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, zt’l. In one of those venues in the Five Towns, I focused a bit upon the great sensitivity that the rosh yeshiva had on so many different levels in his bein adam la’chaveiro.
My colleague, renowned in the community for his many acts of chesed, approached me after the hesped and made the following comment. “You know, Rabbi Ginzberg, while your hesped was inspiring, it was also a little depressing for me. You see, I always understood that I had no shaychus (connection) to the depth of learning, the perishus, and the kedushah of Rav Aharon Leib, zt’l, but somehow I thought that in inyanei bein adam la’chaveiro, we can at least relate. However, after some of the stories about the rosh yeshiva’s level of bein adam la’chaveiro, I realize that even in this area, we are not in the same orbit. And so, while your words were very inspiring, on some level they were depressing.”
My friend’s insightful and honest, heartfelt words were also thought-provoking. What makes the bein adam la’chaveiro of our gedolei Yisrael so much deeper and more genuine than ours? Why do we feel so inferior to the ways of the gedolei Torah even in this area?
The answer is simple. It is a result of their depth of Torah that permeates their entire being. How does it manifest? I would like to suggest that it allows them to feel the depth of someone else’s needs and feelings even though they never had any connection to them or to their experiences.
To illustrate, not long ago, a lengthy article about the Chazon Ish, zt’l, was published and it had a prime example of this level of bein adam la’chaveiro.
The Chazon Ish was very close to the Ponovezher Rav, zt’l, and loved him deeply. The Ponovezher Rav was constantly traveling overseas to collect funds for the yeshiva. One time, his daughter-in-law gave birth to a baby boy, and despite his efforts, he was not able to return to Eretz Yisrael in time for the b’ris. The Chazon Ish served as sandek, and after the b’ris he asked to speak to the baby’s mother. He asked her to return to the hospital with the baby, and explained his reasoning. The Ponovezher Rav had suffered so much loss in his life and finally, baruch Hashem, was zocheh to a new grandchild. Yet even that joy was somewhat diminished by the fact that he couldn’t participate in the simcha in person. Since he would now be returning home, let him experience some extra simcha by being able to visit the mother and baby in the hospital and being present when she brings the baby home. This way he will be able to enjoy more simcha.
This incredible suggestion came from the Chazon Ish, who was not zocheh to have any of his own children, yet he felt the needs of the Ponovezher Rav in such a deep way.
In contrast, the average Reb Yisrael does care about helping and doing for others, yet somehow there is a little bit of “zich,” self, mixed in as well. Years ago, in pre-war Mir, the talmidim came to the rosh yeshiva, Rav Lazer Yudel, zt’l, and complained about the small chalukah that they received, requesting more. The rosh yeshiva said, “While I know that you deserve more, I have to save some for future distributions.”
The talmidim responded, “But we are the rov (majority) and the rosh yeshiva is the yachid (minority), and we know that halachah is like the rabbim.”
The rosh yeshiva responded, “No, in this case I am the rov and you are the yachid, because I am worried about all of you, but each of you is only worried about yourself.” (Story found in Sefer Higyonei Halachah Volume II, page 20, who quoted it in the name of his father who was in the Mir at the time.)
Another incredible story about the Chazon Ish, zt’l, depicts his depth of understanding of the needs of another. After the war, a large girls’ orphanage was opened in Bnei Brak to house the hundreds of young women who survived the war with no parents to care for them.
Once a few neighbors of the orphanage came to the Chazon Ish to complain that on Shabbos, the girls sing zemiros together and one can hear their voices outside the building. “It’s kol ishah and an outrage,” they added.
The Chazon Ish’s face lit up and he responded, “You don’t know how happy you made me today. Yiddishe meidelach, torn away from their parents who were murdered in the camps, with hardly any memories of what the Shabbos table looked like back in Europe, feel so at home in the orphanage and are so happy that they sing on Shabbos. I cannot thank you enough for bringing me this wonderful berurah.”
Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, zt’l, needed absolutely nothing from anyone; he was a porush from olam ha’zeh; yet, despite his own worldview and lifestyle, he cared for countless almanos and yesomim, making sure that they had all their needs met on their own level.
If you have yet failed to see a difference between the level of bein adam la’chaveiro of the gedolei ha’dor and the rest of us, I’ll conclude with the incredible and insightful words of one of the premier ba’alei chesed in our day—a man renowned for helping anyone and everyone with whatever they needed, Chaim Silber, whose first yahrzeit was a short time ago.
One of his close friends shared a conversation that he had with Chaim sometime after being diagnosed with the illness that eventually claimed his life. Chaim said to his friend, “You know what bothers me most? I thought that I really empathized with the people I was helping. I thought that I felt their tza’ar as much as they did. But now that I have gotten sick, my tza’ar is bothering me more than theirs did and that hurts me. I thought that I felt their tza’ar as if it was my own, but I’m sorry to say that my own bothers me more.”
What an incredible, heartfelt admission from a paragon of chesed as to the absolute difficulty of separating the “zich,” the self, from whatever chesed we do, even on the highest level.
And so, what we see is that just as the avodah of bein adam laMakom is never-ending—to the very last breath we take in this world—so, too, is our avodah in bein adam la’chaveiro. Whenever we think we reached the peak of concern and activism for others, we realize that our journey has only just begun.
This article was written l’ilui nishmas Sara Chaya, z’l, bas Aryeh Zev HaLevi.