By Yochanan Gordon

It seems that for anything to get attention in the Jewish community, it needs to be termed a “crisis.” Thankfully, from a literary point of view, the title I conjured up has a nice alliteration, too.

I’m sorry if I am being a little irreverent regarding a topic of such great importance, but having read many of the letters that were written and submitted within hours of last week’s issue hitting the stands, a little humor or lightheartedness is in order.

But this is not satirical.

It’s almost as if people feel that the more irate they become over people leaving shul for the haftarah, the rabbi’s speech, or both, the more points they receive in heaven, and it precludes them from ever being suspected of being involved in something like that. But nothing could be further from the truth.

The Baal HaTanya was apt to say that we need to live with the times. Lest you misconstrue that as being some sort of progressive party line rhetoric, what it means is that we need to align our lives with the messages buried in the parashah of each week.

It’s a stroke of Divine providence, then, that the publication of this article and the ensuing cascade of public criticism that it precipitated coincided with the week we read Parashas Noach. There is a story towards the end of the sidrah where Noach, who at the beginning of the parashah was dubbed a righteous man, in the aftermath of the flood, upon setting foot on dry land, planted a vineyard, became inebriated, and was downgraded in his status from an “ish tzaddik” to an “ish ha’adamah.” The Torah tells us that Cham, his son, had spotted his father, who had been stripped of his clothing, fast asleep within his tent. Upon witnessing this disturbing scene he went to alert Shem and Yefes, his two brothers, who immediately proceeded to remedy the situation in the most modest and respectful fashion possible.

What are we meant to learn from this incident that warranted its inclusion in the Torah? The Lubavitcher Rebbe discussed this story in a sichah delivered on Shabbos Parashas Noach in the year 1965, and in his classic fashion highlighted a critical life lesson that we ought to learn from this incident.

The Torah is painstakingly clear in describing the circuitousness with which Shem and Yefes entered into their father’s tent to cover him. The first question the Rebbe posed is: Why was it necessary for it to superfluously state that they did not notice their father’s nakedness? If they entered backwards, and they were facing backwards, it follows that they did not observe the nakedness of their father.

Along these lines, the Rebbe inserted a Torah thought of the Baal Shem Tov, who stated that if a person perceives a negative character trait in his or her fellow, it is an indication that he or she struggles with that same deficiency, on account of which he took notice of that act or incident in the first place. Why must it be that way? Why can’t it simply be that this person is spiritually sensitive and therefore observed something in his or her fellow that he is absolved of but the other must work on?

The Baal Shem Tov continues that everything that a person sees or hears during the course of a day or throughout his or her lifetime was Divinely ordained for a specific purpose. Therefore, if he or she encountered a situation which required fixing, it is an indication that he — and not the other person — needs to work on that deficiency.

The reason we need to be made aware of our deficiencies in such a roundabout manner is because people don’t naturally notice their personal shortcomings; Hashem uses our fellows to serve as a reflection of our own reality to inform us when there is something in our own lives that requires fixing. And although the notion exists that one can perceive something in his friend or family member’s life that requires adjustment without that thing being reflective of his personal imperfections, that is specifically when the thing he perceives and the manner in which he conveys it to the subject is done without any pretense or judgments.

So when the Torah was telling us that Shem and Yefes did not see their father’s nakedness, it wasn’t only referring to “ervas avihem” on a literal level; rather, when they proceeded to remedy the situation and cover their father’s nakedness, they did so without any pretense or presumptuousness. It did not change their opinion of their father.

While there are many angles from which this issue can be addressed. Having read many of the letters written in response to the Kiddush Club article, the prevailing tone throughout was holier-than-thou and condescending, which seems to be a more disturbing reality than the existence of Kiddush Clubs in the first place.

There is no question that a Jew belongs in shul on Shabbos, whether it’s for the rav’s sermon, the haftarah, leining, or the like. What I don’t get is their protest of “What message are they sending to their kids?” While of course chinuch is a very important consideration and could be thought of as a motivating factor, the real reason we ought to remain in shul during davening is to further develop our relationship with the Eibershter. Unlike perhaps any time in the past, we live in a generation that is seeking truthfulness and authenticity in the things we do. Perhaps it is precisely their apathetic feeling towards Torah and mitzvos that compels Kiddush Clubbers to stay outside, fraternize and imbibe during parts of the davening. It’s not our job to lift our hands denying any involvement or association with these people, but rather, like Shem and Yefes, without noticing the egregiousness of what was done, to remedy the situation and move forward. Because as we said above, highlighting the evils in others is akin to making an admission of guilt on oneself.

We live in an upside-down world. This is not my own observation; a Gemara in Bava Basra states that the son of Rebbe Yehoshua ben Levi commented after having lost consciousness that everyone he would have assumed to be on top in the next world was on bottom and everyone he assumed would be on bottom was in fact on top.

But the truth is, this is nothing new. Chazal said, “Al tadin es chavercha ad she’tagia l’mekomo.” We just emerged from a month-long marathon of holidays in which we invoked Hashem’s name perhaps hundreds of times in the context of judgment. Nobody ever corrected anyone by judging them. What we can do is train ourselves to be sensitive and compassionate to Jewish souls and sense when a soul is suffering in silence and perhaps expresses that suffering in certain rebellious ways. To be sure, it is not a rebellion, just a call for attention or perhaps help.

I’d like to conclude with a story I heard from Rav Moshe Weinberger this motzaei Shabbos at the annual hillula of the Aish Kodesh. The Bnei Yissachar had a rebbe, Rav Yeshaya’le Dinover, who was himself a disciple of Reb Zushe of Anipoli as well as the Berditchever. This Reb Yeshaya’le had a disciple who wanted desperately to bring his rebbe his chickens for kapparos on erev Yom Kippur one year. While he lived a significant distance from his rebbe, and the luggage was quite cumbersome and the climate frigid, nothing would keep him from carrying out this longed-for privilege of bringing his Rebbe chickens for kapparos.

The journey took a couple of days, and when he got there, he mounted the chicken pen upon a table, but to his great consternation, the chickens had all frozen to death. At a loss for words, and completely ashamed of himself, he apologized profusely to his beloved rebbe, unsure where he’d be able to procure other chickens for his rebbe to perform this longstanding tradition. The rebbe calmed his chassid and repeatedly reassured him that the chickens are not dead, just a little cold. He kept repeating that refrain: they are not dead but just a little cold. The Rebbe took the pen to the fire, and in a matter of minutes the chickens, which the chassid was sure were dead, seemed to miraculously come to life right before his eyes.

Every day, people become resigned to hopelessness. Parents lose hope in their kids, teachers write off their students, and friends part ways. So there is nothing noteworthy about that. What is remarkable, though, is the ability to peer through what seems to be death but is really apathy that needs to be fanned and warmed back to life.

So instead of arguing over how severe an infraction it is to miss the haftarah and how many issurim were committed, we should be spurred to action to correct what needs to be rectified without preaching, pontificating, or opining along the way. 

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