By Yochanan Gordon

Back To Basics

The verse in Sh’mos 3:12 states: “When you have freed the nation from Egypt you shall serve G-d on this mountain.” It is clear, then, that the purpose for the Exodus was fulfilled when the Jewish nation camped at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. This period of Sefirah, which connects Pesach with Shavuos, is, in a sense, the chol ha’moed that connects these two holidays.

As such, I’d like to rewind about a month back to Pesach and make an observation of what seems to be one of the many ironies that is a regular feature within the yom tov. The observance that highlighted the first days of the yom tov was the Seder, which, translated into English, means order. However, the yom tov as a whole is known as Pesach, a word that means to “skip over,” which is the antithesis of what order represents. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, in his Haggadah, written in 1943, eight years before his ascension to the helm of the movement that he’d lead for 44 years, explains that the only path towards attaining greatness, a realm wherein we can cover an inordinate surface area of space with very little effort, is through the slow and incremental path of halachah observance. The only path towards limitlessness and infinitude is through the progressive realm of limitations. This is a pertinent lesson particularly for our generation, which seems predisposed to finding the shortest path towards success. We live in a milieu where the world is moving at a pace in progress never before witnessed in history. A consequence of that is the desire to get ahead in life, skipping the hard work and dedication that is required to get to the level of success that many are seeking to attain.

I decided to address this topic now because it just seemed like this lesson kept manifesting itself in a number of different scenarios, which seemed a cue to me that this was a topic that needed to be addressed.

With just about a month to go until the summer solstice and the countdown to the beginning of summer camp, my Sundays are packed morning to evening shuttling one kid or another to a league game of some sort. Two of our boys who are in Little League are of the age where they are becoming acclimated to the fundamentals of the game, which is critical for any kid seeking adeptness at the great American pastime. And while today’s kids don’t necessarily aspire to “Be like Mike” in the same way we did growing up, there is a notion that the path toward proficiency on the sports fields is somehow disconnected from the elemental aspects of the game, like fielding ground balls, catching pop-ups, and knowing instinctively which base to play to when a ball is put in play.

Believe it or not, it was George Washington who said, “The best defense is a good offense.” I’m not sure if that holds true with a regulated offense with a six-run limit or batting around the order, which I certainly understand with the younger elementary school league teams. But the sense that I got in watching the games this past Sunday was that my sons’ teams, both of whom lost their games, weren’t beaten by the opposition but in fact defeated themselves. A little later that evening I had occasion to watch the Mesivta Ateres Yaakov basketball team take on Yeshiva of Far Rockaway in the Yeshiva League playoffs. The Yeshiva, which our oldest son, Nison, attends, is just a block from our home, and although I don’t necessarily follow the league throughout the school year, when they enter the playoffs or finals, which occurs routinely every year, I make it a point to check out the games and root for my neighbor Dov Rosen, who is the starting shooting guard on the team.

For about three quarters it was a hard-fought, close game with a dozen or so lead changes. Entering the fourth quarter, it was anyone’s game to claim. At the end it seemed like YFR had a little more fight in them and they bested the MAY Eagles by 13 points, 54–41, eliminating MAY from the playoffs and sending YFR to the finals. I mention this game because although these kids are already in high school, with many of them graduating this year, it seemed as if a lack of attention to the rudimentary aspects of the game led to MAY losing the contest to YFR. Turnovers and missed free-throws were without a doubt the defining moments of this first-round playoff game. 

A week ago on Friday, I was preparing for Shabbos when a short video with a Rebbe story entered my WhatsApp feed. It was a story retold by a shliach who was speaking at what seemed to be a regional kinus of some sort and it was a touching story that I had not heard before. There was a Jew from Boro Park who was suffering from a number of misfortunes, and he desperately needed guidance and a berachah in order to deal with these issues. As this story occurred a number of decades back, a friend of his advised that he seek the counsel of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. Not a Chabad chassid himself, he wasn’t sure of the protocol to get a meeting or the likelihood of it happening in a timely fashion. His friend reassured him and told him to go one afternoon to 770 as the Rebbe makes his way from the car into Chabad Headquarters, and just approach him there and speak about his troubles.

It seemed highly unconventional but with little else to fall back on the Jew arrived just as the car pulled alongside the curb. As the Rebbe made his way from the car to the building, the man approached and politely asked if he could speak with the Rebbe about his travails. They stood there, for at least five minutes, on the path leading to 770, as the regular onlookers who would watch the Rebbe striding from his car to the building looked on. As is regularly the case with these things, there were a couple of zealous students who thought that this Jew acted brazenly, out of convention, and they felt it was their duty to stand up for the Rebbe’s time. Completely unaware as to the severity of the issues plaguing this man, they approached him and began lambasting him for disrupting the Rebbe’s schedule, saying if he had an important issue, he could have made an appointment like everyone else to get a yechidus. The man felt very guilty for having taken of the Rebbe’s precious time and he composed a letter, which he sent through the secretariat to the Rebbe, apologizing for disrupting the Rebbe’s schedule. A few minutes later, the mazkir returned with a reply that read: “Who asked these bachurim to mix in? A Jewish soul is born into this world for seventy or eighty years for the purpose of doing a kindness for another Jew. Perhaps my soul came into this world just to help you in your time of need.”

It seems like such a simple story, but at the same time it is so profound. The line: “A Jew comes into this world for seventy or eighty years just to do a favor for another…” is an entry in Hayom Yom, with which every Lubavitcher is familiar. But I marveled at the simplicity and immediacy with which the Rebbe viewed these words. I was even more deeply struck by the line: “Perhaps my soul came into this world just to help you in your time of need.” In plain sight of everything the Rebbe accomplished during his life and the immense impact that he had and continues to have almost thirty years after his petirah, to live with the attitude that perhaps the purpose of it all was to help a solitary Jew from Boro Park just staggers the mind. But more than anything else it draws a clear correlation between fundamentals and the attainment of greatness, or, as the Rebbe put it in his Haggadah, between the realms of limitation and limitlessness.

Just recently, following the passing of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, zt’l, someone said that Rav Chaim was asked how he sits for hours on end learning Torah without a break. He answered: If you told me at the beginning of a four-hour study session that I had to learn for four hours without break I probably couldn’t do it. But one hour I could do, so I think if it in increments of one hour and it gets done. These are just two examples of greatness through attention to the fundamentals of life, but I’m sure there are countless other examples.

While much of this article was born out of my observances of a couple of Little League games and a JV league game, the message is a universal one—and that is to be attentive to the seemingly trivial details in life because it is through them that we fulfill our purpose and attain greatness. 

Yochanan Gordon can be reached at ygordon5t@gmail.com. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.

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