03 Aug RE’EH- WHO WE REALLY ARE – AND WHO WE COULD BE
Many communities, including Syrian Jews, have the custom to recite throughout the month of Elul the 27th chapter of Tehillim, which begins, ≠’ה†דודל†יעשיו†ירוא†– “[A Psalm] by David: Hashem is my light and my salvation.”
In this pasuk, I believe, David prays to Hashem to give him the “light,” the vision and clarity, that he needs in order to earn his העושי†(“salvation”). If we want to earn Hashem’s help and blessing, then we must first see ourselves clearly and accurately, and we must therefore pray to Hashem for His “light,” to give us a clearer picture of who we are and who we could be.
So often, we don’t know who we really are. There are many nasty, mean-spirited people who think they are nice and pleasant. They simply don’t realize the way they come across. There are people who think they are funny, and so they repeatedly tell jokes, but the jokes aren’t funny at all. They don’t have an accurate picture of who they are.
It happens every so often that a movie is released which receives dismally poor reviews by all critics across the board. When this happens, we can only wonder, what were the people involved in the film thinking? The film was made by professional, experienced, perhaps even award-winning screenwriters, producers and actors. How did they end up producing such a poor film that nobody liked? The answer is that they could not see the flaws of their movie precisely because it is their movie. Since they made it, they saw it with a biased, jaundiced eye, and were blinded to its low quality.
We so often do the same. We feel comfortable with who we are and what we do, without realizing the things we do wrong. We all think that everybody who is more strictly religious than we is a fanatic, and everybody who is less stringent is sinful. We all think that those with less money than us are depriving their children, and those with more money than us are either corrupt, ostentatious, or both. We feel comfortable with the way we are, with our lifestyle, and feel that anything different is wrong. Our goal during the period of Elul and the High Holidays is to try to shine some “light” on ourselves and our conduct, to assess ourselves with greater clarity, accuracy and objectivity.
The Tears That Created a Torah Sage
There is a famous story told about the Netziv (Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin of Volozhin) which has always haunted me since the day I heard it, and which underscores the kind of honest introspection and self-evaluation that we are to be doing.
Once, when the Netziv was an old man, he made a siyum celebration. But this was no ordinary siyum. The Netziv was celebrating his 1,000th time completing the entire Shas!
At this siyum, he revealed an incident that happened when he was a child, around the age of ten. He was struggling in school, and was not succeeding in his Torah studies. One day, he stood behind the door to a room in his home and heard his parents talking. They were saying how it seems their son is simply not cut out for advanced Torah study, and that it was perhaps time to take him out of his Torah school and teach him a trade, rather than continue watching him struggle. The Netziv heard what his parents were saying and watched as his mother began crying, heartbroken by the reality that her son would not become the Torah scholar she had wanted him to be.
The Netziv said that at that moment, as he saw his mother’s tears of distress, he resolved to redouble his efforts. He ended up staying in school, and grew to become one of the greatest Torah figures of his time, leading the great yeshiva of Volozhin, authoring many seminal works of Talmudic scholarship, and completing Shas one thousand times.
“I can only imagine,” the Netziv concluded, “what would have happened if I had not overheard that conversation. I would have likely ended up being a shoemaker, and probably being a good shoemaker. I would have been a fine Jew, praying three times a day, attending Torah classes, and raising an observant family. But when I would leave this world, I would come to heaven and be shown a large stack of Torah books. I would ask what these are, and I would be told, ‘This is what you could have become. You could have written all these books. Instead, you made shoes.’”