Wednesday, February 19, 2020

A Man in the Streets and a Jew at Home

Brachos 48

Rabbi Yonasan Eybeschutz was one of the great Talmudic minds of the eighteenth century.  Already recognized as a child prodigy, he demonstrated wisdom far beyond his years, time and again.  On one occasion, the local Jewish grocer who lived next door to the non-kosher butcher had reached the end of a long day in his store and was counting his earnings.  He laid out each coin and banknote with great care as he counted and then recounted the cash.  Unbeknownst to him, however, a pair of eyes was watching his every move through a crack in the wall between the two homes.

Early the next morning, the poor fellow received a loud knock on the door.   A burly policeman threw handcuffs on him and carted him off to the station.   It did not take long for the entire town to hear about the “crime” of the Jewish grocer.  He had stolen a large sum of money from his neighbour, who was able to describe each note and coin in the bundle of money under the grocer’s bed, perfectly.  There was no doubt in the minds of the townsfolk that this Jew was a thief.  Before long, the entire Jewish community was being vilified for the “crime” of the Jewish grocer.

The matter was brought to the attention of the town’s rabbi, Rav Noson Nota Eybeschutz by the leaders of the Jewish community.  He listened to the story and then let out a deep sigh.
“What shall be done?” he commiserated with his brethren.

Just then, a little voice pipes up from behind the rabbi’s desk.  “How about we test the coins?” suggested young Yonasan.  “Let’s ask the authorities to place the coins in a pot of water.  If they indeed belong to the butcher, they will be covered in grease, having handled them in between meat carvings.  The grease should then float to the top.  If there is no grease, then we will know that the money does not belong to the butcher, and that the grocer is the rightful owner!”

אַבָּיֵי וְרָבָא הֲווֹ יָתְבִי קַמֵּיהּ דְּרַבָּה. אֲמַר לְהוּ רַבָּה: לְמִי מְבָרְכִין? אָמְרִי לֵיהּ: לְרַחֲמָנָא. וְרַחֲמָנָא הֵיכָא יָתֵיב? — רָבָא אַחְוִי לִשְׁמֵי טְלָלָא. אַבָּיֵי נְפַק לְבַרָּא, אַחְוִי כְּלַפֵּי שְׁמַיָּא. אֲמַר לְהוּ רַבָּה: תַּרְוַיְיכוּ רַבָּנַן הָוֵיתוּ. הַיְינוּ דְּאָמְרִי אִינָשֵׁי: בּוּצִין בּוּצִין מִקִּטְפֵיהּ יְדִיעַ.

Abaye and Rava (as children), were seated before Rabba. Rabba said to them: To whom does one recite blessings?  They said to him, “To Hashem.”  “And where is Hashem?” he asked.  Rava pointed to the ceiling. Abaye went outside and pointed toward the sky. Rabba said to them, “You will both become Sages.” It is as the popular saying goes: A cucumber can be recognized from its blossoming.

What exactly was Rabba asking the little children and why was he so impressed with their answer?  Rabbi ASB Sofer (CS) paraphrases Rabba’s question: How can I tell whether you children are serious about your Judaism?  How can we tell whether someone who appears to be righteous is truly devout?

Rava points to the ceiling, as if to say, the key to identifying a person’s true character, is to examine how they act when they’re under their own roof.  Some people are so sweet and nice to everyone they deal with throughout their day, from clients to colleagues, to employees.  But no sooner have they crossed the threshold of their home than their inner-monster is let loose.  All their pent-up frustrations they take out on their spouse and children.

The test of a person’s true character is whether he can be just as kind and generous when he is behind closed doors and nobody is watching.  Are we able to control our tongues and emotions with our family members to the same extent that we would with strangers?

Abaye steps outside and points to the sky, as if to say, the key to identifying a person’s religious character is whether they are the same Jew inside the house and outside the house.  It’s one thing to be dedicated to tradition within the confines of one’s home.  It’s quite another to take it with you every step of the day.  Haskalah leader, YL Gordon, famously recommended that one should “be a man in the streets and a Jew at home.”  Judaism doesn’t work like that.  Godliness must permeate all aspects of our lives.  Otherwise, the Torah’s message has been lost on us. 

Some people will tell you that they keep strictly kosher at home.  But outside the house, they relax their standards.  Or they’re less strict when on vacation.  Or they’re not really on top of their daily davening routine while on holiday.  Is Hashem everywhere, or do we close the front-door and leave Him in the house, before we leave for work each morning?  When Abaye points to the sky, he demonstrates that spiritual commitment means recognizing that Hashem is constantly above us, no matter where we are.

We all reach these conclusions at different stages of our lives.  We are not all on the level of maturity of Rava, Abaye, or Yonasan Eybeschutz.  Nevertheless, the Almighty accepts our wholehearted service whenever we turn to Him.  King David declared, “I was youthful and I have since matured, and yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken.”  Despite whatever decisions you made, or attitudes you held, in your youth, as long as you commit to righteousness going forward, Hashem will not forsake you.  Hashem is with us at home, in the streets, and abroad, as long as we invite Him into our lives.

There was once a time when we could maintain multiple identities.  Our persona in the office was not necessarily our persona in the home, or our persona in the community.  The rapid-rise of social media has brought all our lives together.  May you be true to yourself, your family, and Hashem, in every aspect of your life!

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