If I had to classify myself socially, I’d say that I am reserved in general but extremely expressive about the things I am passionate about. So when I was dating, the thing that was most unsettling for me was the notion of having to carry on a conversation for two to three hours with someone I may not have had anything in common. Once you get past the pleasantries, school experiences, and Jewish geography, if the match isn’t struck it could go downward and be frighteningly awkward from there on. One of the pieces of advice my father gave me at that time, which I may not have fully understood then, was that if there is nothing to talk about, then talk about the fact that there is nothing to talk about.
I retrieved this story from the archives of my mental space when the realization began setting in that I had nothing to write about this week. Before I decided to write my columns weekly seven months ago, it would not have been a big deal. No inspiration, no article; it was as simple as that. Since I made the commitment to write weekly, the thought of skipping a week is just not acceptable.
So I want to expound on the advice I was given and at the same time venture that this article, which was born out of a lack of inspiration, will run longer than many of those in which my thoughts were easily collected, as I will explain.
G-d created the world ex-nihilo, or, in Hebrew, “yesh m’ayin, ” something from nothing. The Eitz Chaim, authored by Rav Chaim Vital and based on the Torah of his rebbe, the Arizal, begins by telling us that G-d withdrew His all-pervasive light to the sides in order to create space for the cosmos. The world that we are inhabiting, and are charged with creating a dwelling place for G-d within, came about through the diminution of His light.
It’s easy and even exhilarating to serve G-d through moments of clarity. It is equally, if not more, challenging to do so when the light isn’t shining and when the events in our lives are not going as planned. We weren’t created to bask in His light but to recreate it from within the darkness, thus adding to the intensity of the light that existed here prior to our creation. As Chazal succinctly put it: “The light is much more intense from within the darkness.”
Now, there are many in the news business who are pressured to generate newsworthy stories, or, in more contemporary jargon, clickbait. The advent of fake news is a direct result of the pressures of having to generate stories coupled with the need to push a specific political narrative. I’d say the Hebrew term for “fake,” as in fake news, is sheker, which means deceit or lie, and when scrambled spells the word kesher.
This reminded me of a story of my great-grandfather and namesake, Reb Yochanan Gordon, whose 51st yahrzeit is just two weeks away. My elter zaide was a shochet from the town of Dokshitz, which was either part of Poland or Russia, depending on who won the war that week. He later moved to Crown Heights where he was the gabbai in the Chabad headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway.
Dokshitz was decimated by the Nazis during World War II when they rounded up the Jews of the town, locked them inside the main shul along with their rav, Reb Leib Sheinin, and set it on fire. Somehow, a Jew who was there at the time managed to escape and later immigrated to the U.S., where he entered the sukkah of my great-grandfather one Shabbos chol ha’moed Sukkos.
The two of them sat and reminisced about their time together in Dokshitz and about the final moments when the shul with all the town’s Jewish inhabitants was set ablaze. The Yid reported to my zaide that the rav, adorned with tallis and tefillin, jumped on a table and began addressing the whole kehillah. He made a blessing of “al kiddush Hashem” with Shem and malchus and requested that the Simchas Torah niggun be sung.
The next day, the newspapers reported that the Dokshitzer Rav had gone out of his mind. The Yiddish term that he used to describe this was “arup fun zinen.” Hearing this, my elter zaide began disapprovingly shaking his head and said, “Nayn, nayn, nayn! Er hut gein nisht arup fun zinen nar aroif fun zinen — the Rav didn’t go out of his mind, rather he transcended the limits of his consciousness.”
The purveyors of fake news are living lowly, within the confines of their consciousness, whereas a Jew who is given the opportunity of sanctifying G-d’s name both in life and in death enters the realm of “ayin,” or, in Kabbalah, the “chalal ha’panui,” which is the vacant space, so to speak, which G-d designated to create the worlds within.
The Gemara tells an anecdote of a convert who came to both Hillel and Shammai, requesting that they teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai rejected him, but Hillel said to him, “That which is reprehensible to you, do not do unto others; the rest is commentary. Go and learn.”
This seems like a ridiculous request. What was it that the convert wanted them to do anyway? The Maggid of Mezeritch explains that the convert wanted these sages to promise him a spiritually smooth-sailing life. His request to be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot was essentially a request for a guarantee of a life without ups and downs. So Shammai showed him the door and Hillel taught him an extremely profound message couched in mundane terms.
The Menorah in the Beis HaMikdash was chiseled out of one mass of gold. Regardless of whether we are speaking of the candelabra itself or the base upon which it stands, there is no essential hierarchy, as it all originates from the same block of gold. Hillel imparted to the convert that his ability to convert, make a life for himself, and generate a relationship with G-d was dependent on the inevitability of people on the top falling to the bottom.
Hillel said, “That which is reprehensible to you do not do unto others,” meaning that if it weren’t for the inevitable reality of people on top having to undergo a descent in their spiritual standing, you would be precluded from ever reaching the place where you currently stand. Therefore, don’t pray for the possibility of ensuring an unchallenged existence, precluding others the possibility of finally reaching the place you reached as a result of the tenuousness of life.
In Bereishis, after the entire creation was set in place, immediately prior to the entrance of Shabbos, the verse says that G-d observed all of His handiwork and saw that it was “tov me’od,” exceedingly good. The midrash on this verse states that “tov” refers to the yetzer tov, or the angel of life, and “me’od” corresponds to the malach ha’maves, or the evil inclination.
How could the evil inclination or the angel of death represent the paradigm of goodness even more so than the good without the addition of me’od? The evil inclination and the angel of death are rooted in the sefirotic side of gevurah, which bestows with a greater intensity than its counterpart in kindness. It is easier to serve G-d through periods of light, and the result is commensurate with the amount of effort expended. When a person encounters a challenge and is faced with a situation that everything he’d done up until that point to prepare for it was stripped from him and all he has is his own free choice to fall back on, when he chooses correctly and denies himself the instantaneous pleasures of the moment, the result unleashed is so much more powerful.
This segues beautifully into the opening verse of Parashas Re’eh, which states, “See, I have given before you today blessings and curses.” Along these lines we can cite the verse later on in this Sefer when it says, “I call heaven and earth to testify today, I gave out before you life and death, blessings and curses, choose life if you and your offspring will live.”
This brings to mind another anecdote involving my namesake. As the gabbai in 770 Eastern Parkway from his arrival in the U.S., prior to the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s ascension into the rebbistiver, until his passing on Erev Rosh Chodesh Elul in the year 1969 on the Gregorian calendar, he had the distinction of being the first person to call the Rebbe to the Torah as “adoneinu moreinu v’rabbeinu ben HaRav Levi Yitzchak.” This was an extremely contentious time since the Rebbe’s mother-in-law, Rebbetzin Nechama Dina, saw her older son-in-law, Rav Shmaryahu Gurary, as the heir to the rebbistiver. Some people who were there and recall the emotionally charged environment at the time say that it sucked the oxygen out of the room.
For a short time, Rashag, as Rav Gurary was known, would lead his own minyan alongside the Rebbe until one Shabbos my great-grandfather locked the Aron Kodesh, blocking their access to the Torah for kriah. When the Rebbetzin got wind of what had happened and who was responsible, she cursed my great-grandfather that he not live out the year. It was extremely unsettling for him and he quickly went to the Rebbe to tell him what had happened. The Rebbe said in Yiddish: “Amol a klalah fun a alte yiddene is oichet a berachah — At times, the curse of an old woman of distinction is also a berachah.” My great-grandfather lived for another 18 years, until the age of 75.
I believe this concept is brought out clearly in the exegesis of Rebbe Elazar ben Azaryah in the Haggadah when he mentions the derashah of Ben Zoma that states, “Yemei chayecha ha’yomim kol yemei chayecha l’hovi ha’leilos. Yemei chayecha ha’olam ha’zeh, kol yemei chayecha l’hovi l’yemos haMashiach.” Ben Zoma says that the days of your life corresponds to the recitation of the exodus story during the day and the era of exile, while the addition of the word “kol” is written to include the nights and then again the era of the Messiah. The term “kol” adds force in its ability to include the night within the light of the exodus and ultimately to lead to the messianic age.
Although our ability to serve G-d through clarity is self-actualizing and rewarding on one level, it is limiting in the sense that we can only go as high as we are able to get. However, when a person is confounded in darkness and has no choice but to surrender to the enveloping embrace of G-d, while it seems dark it is essentially light. This light is characterized by the verse “yashes choishech sisro — He places darkness as His screen,” which we should one day, very soon, merit to see and appreciate with the coming of Mashiach.