By Yochanan Gordon
In an old Eastern European town, an indigent vagabond who would circle the streets, going from house to house in an attempt to make ends meet, approached the house of the town miser and sheepishly knocked at the door. Yankel, the cheapest man in town, opened up, whereupon the frail, poor man asked Yankel for a handout. Yankel, in his inimitably gruff style, told the man that he had no time for losers and that he should go to the town’s shul where they would certainly have food for him to eat. The man pleaded, saying that he’d been on his feet all day and that he had no energy to carry on without a bite to eat. The miser asked the man to wait while he went to the garbage and took an old, discarded piece of fish, plated it, and brought it to the poor man. “Here,” he said, “have this piece of fish and be on your way.”
The man only made it a few feet before he collapsed in a heap and was carted off to the local hospital. Later that evening as the miser went to shul for Ma’ariv he learned that poor Yankel had fallen ill and was now in the hospital. He returned home, informing his wife that the man who had come to their door had fallen ill and he felt it was his duty to visit him in the hospital. The next morning, he heard the unfortunate news that the poor man had succumbed to his illness and that the funeral was scheduled for later that day. At the funeral it occurred to him that he should go pay a shivah call to the children of the deceased, which he did, straight after the funeral.
He returned home with a beaming smile on his face. His wife, knowing that he had been busy running from the hospital to the funeral parlor to a shivah house, asked her husband what he was so happy about. He looked at his wife and exclaimed: “Do you see how many important mitzvos I was able to fulfill with one putrid piece of fish? Bestowing kindness, visiting the sick, escorting the dead, and comforting the mourning. How happy I feel!”
This anecdote, which I’ve heard many times from my friend and mentor Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Jacobson, came to mind this week after a personal experience I had in the kitchen. It’s not an experience that is unique to me but perhaps the perspective born in its aftermath is one that anyone who can relate to this experience can adopt.
I had asked my wife one day last week to make a flanken split-pea soup, which I had an unexplained craving for. She put the ingredients together in a pot, based on a preexisting recipe she had made in the past, and asked me to stir it from time to time, which I understand is a routine technique in preparing soup. I must have been inattentive to the large slab of flanken floating in the center of the pot, because I unwittingly grabbed a hard-plastic, milchig ladle from the drawer beneath the stovetop and began stirring the soup as I had been instructed. She then looked up and noticed that I was stirring the fleishig soup with the milchig ladle and we realized that we had a she’eilah to present to a rav.
In my mind, since the spoon hadn’t been used for a week or so I was sure that there was a quick fix to this unfortunate situation. We had set the spoon aside and I had reached out to a number of halachic experts in seeking a general consensus in this specific case. Some maintained that plastic could not be kashered and that while the soup was fine for consumption the spoon would have to be discarded. Others felt that plastic did not absorb and that it was possible for it to be salvaged. In a stroke of siyatta d’Shmaya, last week’s parashah, Matos–Masei, discussed, among many other topics, the prevalent issue of kashering utensils purchased from a non-Jew in light of the war with Midyan and the spoils that the Jews took in its aftermath. What emerged from that halachic treatment was that it was a halachic debate between the poskim in America and Eretz Yisrael with the Eretz Yisraeldiker poskim allowing the kashering of plastic and the American poskim, behind a teshuvah from Rav Moshe, in Igros Moshe, taking the more stringent position and not allowing the kashering of plastic. At the conclusion of the e-mail—and this is in no way an authoritative treatment of this topic—it seemed that the general consensus was that Rav Moshe’s stringency with regard to plastic was specific to Pesach and that his students, the late rabbis Shimon Eider and Avrohom Blumenkrantz, both allowed the kashering of plastic, which they held was Rav Moshe’s true shitah.
The ladle had not cost all that much and it would have been easier and less time-consuming to just discard the spoon and buy a new one, but my research was fueled by the notion that even if at the end of it all the spoon would have to be thrown out, it would have led to a deeper understanding of all the issues at hand and a proliferation of Torah and light in the world, which is, of course, always paramount. And this led to the following thought. The Gemara in Nedarim states: “If it weren’t for the fact that the Jewish people had sinned, we would have only been given the Five Books of Moses and the Book of Joshua alone; however, in the aftermath of the sin we received 24 books of the prophets and all the Oral Torah and Midrashim, which would have been subsumed within the six books we would have received had we not sinned as a nation.
In another place, Chazal state that the only reason that the Jewish people descended into exile was in order to create a proliferation of converts. So, we see a similar theme wherein there is often a need to enter into an uncomfortable environment that we certainly didn’t ask for or initially intend, but which was clearly G-d’s Providence for the purpose of producing something more impressive than before.
The story of the ladle and its emergent lesson is particularly pertinent to this time period. This dairy ladle inadvertently entered a hot, fleishig soup. The initial reaction could have been to just discard the spoon without doing my due diligence in getting to the truth of the matter regardless of what the outcome would be. At the end, I did not keep the spoon. I am convinced based on my research that I could have kashered it through ha’agalah, as all arrows are pointing to the fact that Rav Moshe’s stringency of not allowing the kashering of plastic was limited to Pesach and not the rest of the year.
On a larger scale, our being sent into exile is akin to our being the ladle within the pot of soup. This isn’t, G-d forbid, to suggest that there is any inadvertence in our ending up here but that our attitude within exile should be that we were sent here for a purpose—that while we are in a temporary period of darkness, the darkness itself is part of the process of the emergence of a much more profound light that will illuminate the world as never before with the coming of Mashiach, imminently.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.