Teach Him Like the Laws of Pesach

חָכָם מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר?
מַה הָעֵדוֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה׳ אֱ-לֹקינוּ אֶתְכֶם?
וְאַף אַתָּה אֱמָר לוֹ כְּהִלְכוֹת הַפֶּסַח: אֵין מַפְטִירִין אַחַר הַפֶּסַח אֲפִיקוֹמָן.

The wise [son], what does he say? “What are the testimonial rites, the dictates and the laws which Hashem our G-d commanded you?”

And even you tell him like the laws of the Passover [offering]. We do not conclude after the Passover [lamb], a dessert.

This is the last of the thoughts that have been lagging since they crossed my mind during my sedarim. And it’s all about one letter, the kaf of “kehilkhos“. “Like the laws of the Pesach”. Why are we teaching him “like the laws”, rather than the laws themselves?

Later we tell the story of the all-night seder in Benei Beraq:

מַעֲשֶׂה בְּרַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר וְרַבִּי יְהוֹשֻעַ וְרַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה וְרַבְּי עֲקִיבָא וְרַבִּי טַרְפוֹן, שֶהָיוּ מְסֻבִּין בִּבְנֵי בְרַק, וְהָיוּ מְסַפְּרִים בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם כָּל אוֹתוֹ הַלַּיְלָה עַד שֶׁבָּאוּ תַלְמִידֵיהֶם וְאָמְרוּ לָהֶם: רַבּוֹתֵינוּ, הִגִּיעַ זְמַן קְרִיאַת שְׁמַע שֶׁל שַׁחֲרִית.

There was an event with Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah and Rabbi Aqiva were reclining [at a seder] in Beneiq Beraq, and they were telling about the exodus from Egypt that entire night. Until their students came and said to them: Our rabbis! It has come time to read the morning Shema!

Omitted is a similar story of Rabban Gamliel’s all-night seder in that same generation. This is the last Tosafta (10:8) of tractate Pesachim:

אין מפטירין אחר הפסח [אפיקומן] כגון [אגוזים] תמרים [וקליות].
חייב אדם [לעסוק בהלכות הפסח] כל הלילה — אפילו בינו לבין בנו, אפילו בינו לבין עצמו, אפילו בינו לבין תלמידו.
מעשה ברבן גמליאל וזקנים, שהיו מסובין בבית ביתוס בן זונין בלוד, והיו [עסוקין בהלכות הפסח] כל הלילה עד קרות הגבר, הגביהו מלפניהם ונועדו, והלכו [להן] לבית המדרש.
איזו היא ברכת הפסח? “ברוך … אשר קדשנו במצותיו, וצונו לאכול הפסח.”
איזו ברכת הזבח? “ברוך… אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו לאכול הזבח.”

We do not conclude after the Pascal offering a dessert, such as nuts, dates, and candies.

A person is obligated to busy himself [studying] the laws of the Pesach that entire night. Even if [only] between him and his child, even between him and himself, even between him and himself, even between him and his student.

An event with Rabban Gamliel and the elders , that they were reclining [at their seder] in the house of Boethus ben Zunin in Lod, and they were busy with the laws of the Pesach that whole night until the rooster crowed. They removed [the seder table] from before them and left, and went to the beis hamedrash.

The core of the Sanhedrin — its head, Rabban Gamliel, and the elders — made a seder about the laws of the qorban Pesach in Lod. This actually fits what we already know about Rabban Gamliel’s understanding of the seder, also from the Haggadah:

רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל הָיָה אוֹמֵר:כָּל שֶׁלֹּא אָמַר שְׁלשָׁה דְּבָרִים אֵלּוּ בַּפֶּסַח, לֹא יָצָא יְדֵי חוֹבָתוֹ, וְאֵלוּ הֵן: פֶּסַח, מַצָה, וּמָרוֹר.

Rabban Gamliel would [often] say: Whomever doesn’t talk [about these] three things on Pessover, did not fulfill the obligation. They are: the Pesach offering, matzah, and maror.

To Rabban Gamliel, the seder revolves around the mitzvos of the night.

This is in contrast to what we discussed in the prior entry about Rabbi Aqiva, being the rabbi of Benei Beraq he was the host of the other seder, one which some of the members of the Sanhedrin made on their own. (Perhaps it was even the same year? A poetic thought, one we would like to be true, but we really can’t know.) But we saw how Rabbi Aqiva and another attendee, Rabbi Eliezer, focused more on the narrative. As we discussed in the prior blog entry, they counted exactly how many ways Hashem punished the Egyptians.

That is the seder we retell every year.

What do we tell the wise son? This son is fascinated with the laws of Pesach. (He is the proverbial Litvak.) He runs the risk of becoming the person who times each shofar blast with the second hand on his watch, making sure the teqiah is long enough to match the shevarim-teru’ah that preceeded it. And in the meantime, doesn’t hear the call of the shofar in the depths of his soul. In pursuit of a stringency, his loses the entire message.

We do not teach him the laws of Passover until the very last one about not eating afterward. We teach him to be more like that law. We are supposed to go to bed with the taste of the mitzvah in our mouths. Yes, in his discussion of the three mitzvos of the night, even Rabbi Gamliel relates each to the story of the Exodus. But it is Rabbi Aqiva explicitly telling the story of the seder that we repeat as an example.

רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל הָיָה אוֹמֵר:כָּל שֶׁלֹּא אָמַר שְׁלשָׁה דְּבָרִים אֵלּוּ בַּפֶּסַח, לֹא יָצָא יְדֵי חוֹבָתוֹ, וְאֵלוּ הֵן:
פֶּסַח, מַצָה, וּמָרוֹר.

40 or 50 Makkos

There is a dispute in the Haggadah about how to count the plagues. Rabbi Yosi simply says there were 10 plagues in Egypt, and the equivalent of 50 at the sea. Just focusing on the makkos themselves, Rabbi Yoshi looks at each plague as a unit; he doesn’t subdivide them. I wish to look at the dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Aqiva, both of whom subdivide each makkah, but do so in different ways. They both obtain their positions from Tehillim 78:9.

According to Rabbi Eliezer, the verse is read:

יְשַׁלַּח בָּם חֲרוֹן אַפּוֹ

  1. עֶבְרָה
  2. וָזַעַם
  3. וְצָרָה,
  4. מִשְׁלַחַת מַלְאֲכֵי רָעִים.
He shall send upon them the fierceness of His anger,

  1. wrath,
  2. indignation,
  3. and trouble,
  4. a sending of messengers of evil.

Each makkah thus has 4 aspects, yielding a total of 10 x 4 = 40 makkos. (And the five times as many at the Red Sea, 200.)

According to Rabbi Aqiva:

יְשַׁלַּח בָּם

  1. חֲרוֹן אַפּוֹ
  2. עֶבְרָה
  3. וָזַעַם
  4. וְצָרָה,
  5. מִשְׁלַחַת מַלְאֲכֵי רָעִים.
He shall send upon them

  1. the fierceness of His anger,
  2. wrath,
  3. indignation,
  4. and trouble,
  5. a sending of messengers of evil.

Or, 10 x 5 = 50 makkos. (And 250 at the sea.)

Perhaps this dispute between 40 and 50 makkos might really be about
whether there is a difference between teva and neis.

Rabbi Eliezer’s position of 10 x 4 makkos echos creation. “The world was created through 10 utterances” (Avos 5:1) each which Qabbalah expands to aspects in each of four worlds based on Yeshaiah 43:7:

כֹּל הַנִּקְרָא בִשְׁמִי

  1. וְלִכְבוֹדִי
  2. בְּרָאתִיו
  3. יְצַרְתִּיו
  4. אַף עֲשִׂיתִיו.
All that is called by My Name,

  1. for My glory,
  2. I have created it,
  3. I have formed it,
  4. and I have made it.

Thus there are 40 aspects to creation. And 40 days after conception the fetus has a human form. The Jewish People were created in 40 years in the desert. The world was reborn in a flood that rained for 40 days, and a person emerges reborn from a miqvah that holds at least 40 se’ah of water. When dealing with human creation, one element, creation ex nihilo is missing. So, when rest from work on Shabbos, we rest from “40 minus one” categories of constructive work; someone who was punished was lashed “40 minus one” times, and our tzitzis similarly have 39 windings.

So Rabbi Eliezer’s 10 x 4 makkos invokes a parallel to the creation of the natural world. (Even the derivation from their respective verses are similar — both count 4 nouns elaborating the first idea.) He appears to be saying that the supernatural occurances of the plagues are not different in kind than nature. When Rav Chanina ben Dosa’s daughter accidentally filled the Shabbos lights with vinegar, he proclaimed, “He Who commanded oil to burn could command vinegar to burn.” And they did.

If so, Rabbi Aqiva, in contrast, holds that nissim are different in kind than nature. Thus, each makkah had an element beyond the normal fourfold-act inherent in creation. It’s R’
Aqiva who says (Sanhedrin 67b, Tanchuma Va’eira 14) that one frog, when hit, became all the frogs of the makkah. (R’ Elazar b’ Azariah responds with a possibility that while rare, doesn’t defy nature — the frog called the others.)

This might be the beginning of building a broader dispute between these two tannaim. For example, they also debate what it is we build our sukkos today to commemorate. Rabbi Eliezer says we are commemorating the ananei hakavod, clouds of glory Hashem provided for shade, a floor protecting from anything sharp on the ground, and walls keeping out the elements. Rabbi Aqiva says they were actual huts built by the Benei Yisrael. (Sukkah 11b)

Perhaps it is because R’ Eliezer doesn’t see anything about miracles that would we couldn’t represent and recollect through very mundane, albeit holy, huts. Rabbi Aqiva, on the other hand, cannot represent miraculous protection through human imitation, because our imitation could never evoke that 5th element of perception of G-d that miracles reveal.

Rav and Shemuel on Redemption

The mishnah in Pesachim requires that in telling of the Pesach story at the seder, “we begin with degradation, and end with glory.” There is a debate between Rav and Shemuel over what this applies to. In practice, our Haggadah contains both. (Probably because, as the Haggadah itself says, “whomever [says] more, behold he is praiseworthy.”)

According to Shemuel, the focus of the haggadah is the physical slavery and physical redemption. To fulfill his notion of beginning with degradation, meaning lowliness on a material plane, we have the part of the Haggadah immediately after Mah Nishtanah – “Avadim hayinu — We were slaves to Par’o in Egypt, and G-d took us out.”

Rav instead stresses the spiritual side of the holiday. This is where we say “Bitechilah, ovedei avodah zarah — At the start, our ancestors were idol worshipers. And from the days of Terach’s idolatry, we make our way to Sinai and our spiritually redeemed.

It would appear, though, that this debate isn’t only over the proper way to conduct a seder, but part of a larger debate about redemption in general. In describing the messianic era, Shemuel holds, “There is no difference between now and the messianic era except the subjection to [foreign] rule alone.” (Berakhos 34b) To Shemuel, the messianic redemption as well is about Jewish autonomy, a physical freedom. Perhaps, Semuel insists that only man can save himself spiritually. Rav apparently sides with Rabbi Chiya bar Abba’s quote from Rav Yochanan, that redemption involves a literal implementation of all the promises of all the prophets — lions would stop eating lambs, the end of war, the moon will shine as bright as the sun, etc… Redemption is a change in the world on a supernatural level. And that is how he frames his haggadah.

There is a third dispute that I think is related (Gittin 38a). A slave-owner declares his slave hefqer, ownerless. Shemuel says that once the slave is no longer owned, he is fully a freeman. No shetar shichrur, writ of freedom, is required.  Rav says that the servant still needs a writ. After all, a freeman is not only someone who lacks an owner, but is now a Jew fully obligated in all the mitzvos. And this requires a special rite, involving a shetar shichrur.

It would seem that Shemuel says that a person can only be freed physically. Therefore, to him, the freedom of Egypt is the physical redemption. Once a person is freed from physical constraint, spiritual redemption falls to the person himself. Rav, however, focuses on the need for Hashem’s help even in spiritual redemption. Being freed physically isn’t the final roadblock before spiritual liberation. And this shows in his understandings of the laws of slavery, the haggadah, and the final redemption.

Thus the two approaches to the haggadah might well tie into how we view our job in life and our covenant with the Almighty on a day-to-day level. How much do I focus on my work on self-refinement, and how much to I turn to G-d for His Enlightenment and providing me contexts that make such work trivial (or at least easier)?

Learning and Teaching, part II

Concluding the Meshekh Chokhmah’s comment on Devarim 28:61… In the first installment, we saw Rav Meir Simcha haKohein miDvinskzt”l distinguish between Torah, which could only being given via Moshe, and the Sefer Torah, which also includes the last eight pesuqim even if they were transmitted through Yehoshua after Moshe Rabbeinu’s passing. That there is something about the passing of a teacher that is an integral part of the linkage between the abstract Torah and its presence in this world (the sefer). We didn’t get what that is, yet. In the second entry, the Meshekh Chokhmah says that the value of Torah is in teaching it and performing its mitzvos. Learning Torah “simply” to know Torah is something one could even do better as a pure intellect. Or, as the gemara put it, someone who only learns to know, rather than learns in order to do, is better off not having been born. And indeed, the central goal a person should pursue in life is the perpetuation of the human species on the spiritual plane. Teaching, and providing people the physical wherewithal to be students and spiritual beings. (And I noted the difference between this position and that of R’ Shimon Shkop in the haqdamahto Shaarei Yosher, where Rav Shimon defines man’s contribution to others across the world, less so than focusing on spirituality in particular and perpetuation. But in any case, this contrast is far smaller than these two positions and that of Rav Chaim Volozhiner.)

With this what I wrote in my novellae on [tractate] Kesuvos can be understood that which we find in the Yerushalmi Berakhos [1:2, vilna 8a]: Does not Rabbi Shimon bar Yochaiagree that we would stop [learning Torah] to make a sukkah or to set up a lulav? [Does not Rashbi agree that one must study in order to do, and not to study not in order to do, for someone who studies not in order to do is better off not having been born?] In [tractate] Sukkah [25a], Rashi ["sheluchei mitzvah"] explains that those who are going someplace to learn Torah are exempt from sukkah and lulav. I explained there that the gemara is speaking of [travelling to] serve a talmid chakham. (see there)

According to this, the reasoning is astounding: If it were about learning Torah, isn’t that  something he could do before being born? Thus it is only to do. Therefore for the preparation for a mitzvah, such as the building of a sukkah, we also interrupt word of Torah. But to teach, even the preparation for [teaching], is dearer than fulfilling a mitzvah. For the mitzvah of teaching Torah is greater because one can only do the mitzvah via someone else.

As [Rav Zei'rah] the Jerusalemite is quoted in Peiah [22a; a guess since I found this citation, but couldn't find on in the Y-mi Pei'ah], this is the apprenticeship-service of a sage to understand the halakhah as it was established [i.e. with its underlying reasoning], for then one can teach others and without apprenticeship-service of a sage one is not able to teach others. Like they say in [tractate] Sotah [22a], “‘Swallowers of the world’ … — these are the sages who teach halakhah from their study of mishnah [i.e. decided law in without also the mastery principles and having a feel for the mechanics gained through apprenticeship].” For this reason they said in Berakhos [47a] that an am haaretz [ignorant peasant] is someone who learned scripture and mishnah but didn’t apprentice to a sage, because [such a person] can’t help others.

Therefore [summing up the "astounding reasoning], to fulfill a mitzvah we interrupt from learning Torah. For this [the mitzvah] was why he was created, and that he could do even before he was created. And this is That Rav said “eulogize me”, for Rav taught others and many schools. As Rashi explained in the beginning of [tractate] Gittin, “when Rav went to Bavel”, and in Bava Qama he explains. Therefore he wanted that his yeshivos [that he founded in Bavel] and the Torah study he established in his life would persist so that there would be preservation of the species also on the spiritual level. That is over there (in the physical world) persists on the spiritual level also. And understand this.

Rav Meir Simchah haKohein prioritizes mitzvos as followest:

Lowest priority is learning, since we could do that even without being born. Learning derives its value from its being necessary in order to be able to do anything else. Then come other mitzvos. Then comes teaching. And not just the teaching of facts, but the internalization of modes of thought that can come only through shimush, apprenticeship. This is the spiritual development of the next generation, our entire purpose in having been born. In contrast to Rav Shimon Shkop’s notion of imitating Hashem by bestowing chesed on others, where becomes unified with all other people primarily in the now. Rav Meir Simcha haKohein sees a person’s value as being unified with the chain of mesorah and the spiritual progress of the human species.

This was the great truth Yehoshua needed to record in the last 8 verses of the Seifer Torah. Just as Rav left behind his seifer, his academy and students. Moshe Rabbeinu was just that — rabbeinu, our mentor. He contributed to the spiritual development of the species, and in that way endures beyond his lifetime and his transmission of the Torah itself.

Learning and Teaching, part I

Continuing from the previous entry‘s coverage of Rav Meir Simchah haKohein miDvinskzt”l‘s commentary in the Meshech Chokhmah on Devarim 28:61. He segues from the idea that the last eight verses of the seifer Torah were added via Yehoshua to the Torah itself that we received through Moshe in order to teach us about the effect of the death of the righteous on the generation.

“Rav said to Rav Shemu’el bar Shilah: Prepare for me a touching eulogy, for I will be there.” (Shabbos 153a)

It was explained in the beginning that a person exists in his intellectual soul, like all the lofty people and like the heavenly causes. Before he was created, a person was also a seikhel nivdal [separated intellect; i.e. a pure intellect with no body, like angels; metaphysical] which grasped its Creator. As it says in Niddah pg. 30. [The soul] had personal existence and descended into the lower world in order to do mitzvos maasios [mitzvos that are actions] which require material substance. Like Moshe’s answer to the angels [when they asked that Hashem leave the Torah with them rather than give it to us at Sinai], “Do theft etc… have meaning for you?” Therefore they said, “One who learns but not in order to do, would have been pleasanter that his umbilical cord would have prolapsed in front of his face [and he never came into the world." (Yerushalmi ch. "Hayah Qorei" [I found it elsewhere -- Shabbos 1:2, vilna 7b -micha]) Because then [before birth] too he was a seikhel nivdal who grasped his Creator, may He be blessed. (Qorban Aharon, introduction) Similarly if he teaches others then his learning has a purpose, which is to preserve the species on a spiritual level. Therefore also, the one who learns but not for the sake of teaching they thus said, “it would have been pleasanter for him not to have been created.”

Even his creation on the physical level, we find in the Torah that it is for the intent of his preserving the species on a spiritual level. As Hashem (blessed be He) said [of His selection of Abraham], “For I know him, that he will teach his children after him…” (Bereishis 18:19) Similarly, it says in “Yeish Nochalin” [Bava Basra 116a, quoting Yirmiyahu 22:10] “‘Weep for the one who goes…’ Rav Yehudah said that Rav said: the one who goes with no male children. Rav Yehoshua ben Levi said: it is one who goes without a student.” Both preserve the species and to the same effect.

As it says in chapter ”Cheileq” [Sanhedrin 99b, on  Iyov 5:7] “Man was born to toil” that is the toil of learning in order to teach, learning in order to do. For it is only for this that he was born, as we explained.

The Meshekh Chokhmah further develops this idea, and returns back to Rav’s funeral instructions and the importance of the last eight pesuqim of the Sefer Torah. But that’s for an upcoming post; I decided that putting it all here would further delay the post, but worse — would bury the point that made me want to blog his comment on this pasuq to begin with.

Rav Meir Simcha haKohein argues that if the purpose of learning was purely to know, then not only is there not purpose to being born, birth actually interferes with that goal. It is easier to learn Torah as a pure intellect, unencumbered by a body. Rather, we are born because the goal of learning is to practice what one has learned, and to teach others.

It’s an interesting comparison to R’ Shimon Shkop’s version of a person’s raison d’etre. Both define the purpose of life in terms of our contribution to the greater whole.

To Rav Shimon, this is is defined “horizontally”, the community of Jews and all of humanity alive when I am. “[T]o be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator…” And it is fundamental on all levels of interaction — physical support no less or more than spreading Torah.

But to the Meshkh Chokhmah, it is defined down the generations — qiyum hamin mitzad hanefesh, preserving the species on a spiritual level. Even our physical aid is in order to provide people the opportunity to develop spiritually. “And you shall teach your children” includes students because it is the passing down of our values, beliefs and knowledge that is the primary purpose of parenthood, not genetics.

Both visions stand in stark contrast to that of Rav Chaim Volzhiner.  In the 4th section of Nefesh haChaim, Rav Chaim teaches that the essence of Jewish life is Torah Lishmah, Torah purely for its own sake. That this clarifies the soul like a miqvah removing impurity, even in ways that go beyond understanding. In the other 3 sections, Rav Chaim Volozhiner draws a picture of man integrated with the metaphysics of the universe — so much so that repairing either requires repairing both. And it is this repair which is man’s purpose in life.

In contrast, HaRav Meir Simchah haKohein miDvinsk plays down the value of learning Torah just to know Torah for oneself.

RCV’s notion of a person’s job to improve the world around him is on mystical and metaphysical planes. This would of course include R’ Shimon’s “bestowing good” and R’ Meir Simcha’s notion of advancing the species’ spiritual progress. Just as the Meshekh Chokhmah believe in the value of learning, even if it’s not to his mind inherent. These are three approaches to the same Torah . But they are different derakhim, non-identical approaches that yield differences in self-image and thus prioritization.

Torah and Sefer Torah

Rav Meir Simchah haKohein miDevinskzt”l writes in the Meshech Chokhmah on Devarim 28:61:

גַּם כָּל חֳלִי וְכָל מַכָּה אֲשֶׁר לֹא כָתוּב בְּסֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת, יַעְלֵם ה עָלֶיךָ עַד הִשָּׁמְדָךְ

Also every sickness and every plague which is not written in this Seifer Torah, Hashem will raised against you until you are destroyed.

Look into Rashi on Parashas Nitzavim. For the tipechah [a pausal trope mark] is under “beseifer” [the book], and the “hazos” [this] is on “haTorah” [the Torah]. That is why it [zos] is in the feminine. (And see there.) Therefore it says “And Yehoshua wrote these things the the seifer Toras E-lokim” on the last eight verses, from “Vayamas Moshe.” It is so that [we can learn that] the death of the righteous is to protect the generation, like Moshe, it is written in the seifer Torah. But it is not Torah itself. After Moshe died there is no more Torah, like it says , “Remember the Torah of Moshe”, and it is an article of faith among the 13 articles.

The truth is that I didn’t set out to blog this part of the MC. However, I thought it was just too fascinating of a thought to elide. According to Rav Meir Simchah, the concept of seifer Torah refers to more than the Torah. The Torah is that which Hashem gave us via Moshe. We can only get Torah through Moshe, as per the Rambam’s article of faith. However, there is an opinion that the last eight verses of Devarim, which discuss Moshe’s death, couldn’t possibly be written by Moshe — that would be too similar to having Moshe lie. Instead they were transmitted via Yehoshua. We are obligated to include in the scroll, in the seifer Torah, not only the Torah but those eight verses as well, to teach us a lesson about how to relate to the death of a tzadiq. His proof is a grammatical point first made by Rashi. The three words in question are “בְּסֵ֖פֶר הַתּוֹרָ֣ה הַזֹּ֑את”, which if we parse as per the trope, becomes “which are not written in the book, this Torah”. And it must be parsed this way, because “Torah” is a feminine noun, “seifer” is masculine, and “hazos” can thus only refer to “Torah” without the “seifer“. Anyway, now on to what I did intend to blog about… in the next post.

What are we?

My son Shuby and I go to shul for Shacharis weekday mornings, ever since Shuby started putting on tefillin. Shuby has Downs, so I wind the tefillin for him, help him with the berakhos, etc… We had a conversation that morning, which started with him declaring me “the boss of the tefillin.” When I explained that tefillin weren’t something I came up with, that it was Hashem’s idea, he asked me why Hashem told us to put on tefillin. I started thinking of a formulation he could understand, and it was difficult.

At Shuby’s bar mitzvah, I retold the story made famous by R’ Paysach Krohn, of boys who let a child with special needs, Shaya, join them in a baseball game. You can even find copies of the story on non-Jewish sites. Artscroll made that chapter of R’ Krohn’s book available on their web site, here. The story is set as something retold by Shaya’s father at a dinner for Shaya’s school, Chush. Some snippets:

… After extolling the school and its dedicated staff, he cried out, “Where is the perfection in my son Shaya? Everything that Hashem does is done with perfection. But my child cannot understand things as other children do. My child cannot remember facts and figures as other children do. Where is Hashem’s perfection?” The audience was shocked by the question, pained by the father’s anguish and stilled by his piercing query.
“I believe,” the father answered, “that when Hashem brings a child like this into the world, the perfection that He seeks is in the way people react to this child.”
… One Sunday afternoon, Shaya and his father came to Darchei Torah as his classmates were playing baseball. The game was in progress and as Shaya and his father made their way towards the ballfield, Shaya said, “Do you think you could get me into the game?”
…The boy looked around for guidance from his teammates. Getting none, he took matters into his own hands and said, “We are losing by six runs and the game is already in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and we’ll try to put him up to bat in the ninth inning.”

Shaya ran towards second base as the runners ahead of him deliriously circled the bases towards home. As Shaya reached second base, the opposing shortstop ran towards him, turned him towards the direction of third base and shouted “Shaya, run to third!”
As Shaya rounded third, the boys from both teams ran behind him screaming, “Shaya, run home! Shaya, run home!”
Shaya ran home, stepped on home plate and all 18 boys lifted him on their shoulders and made him the hero, as he had just hit the “grand slam” and won the game for his team.
“That day,” said the father who now had tears rolling down his face, “those 18 boys reached their level of perfection. They showed that it is not only those who are talented that should be recognized, but also those who have less talent. They too are human beings, they too have feelings and emotions, they too are people, they too want to feel important.”

While clearly people in and out of our community find the story inspiring, and this idea that “they too are people, they too want to feel important” is worth repeating, my first exposure to it left me depressed, feeling sorry for this father and his son.

I lack the intellectual capacity of the Vilna Gaon, I lack the memory of R’ Sacks (a rabbi in town with edietic memory), the capacity for compassion of the person who chooses a social worker’s salary in order to help others, etc…

We are all limited.

Early in Shacharis, assuming you come early enough to say it, is the prayer about accepting a willingness to commit one’s life to Hashem’s service, “Le’olam yehei adam yarei Shamayim — Always a person should be a fearer of [the One in] heaven”, or alternatively, “Always be (1) a mentch, (2) a fearer of [the One in] heaven…” But I want to reflect on a later section…

מָה אֲנַחְנוּ מֶה חַיֵּינוּ מֶה חַסְדֵּנוּ מַה צִּדְקֵנוּ מַה יְשְׁעֵנוּ מַה כּחֵנוּ מַה גְּבוּרָתֵנוּ. מַה נּאמַר לְפָנֶיךָ ה’ אֱ-להֵינוּ וֵא-להֵי אֲבותֵינוּ הֲלא כָל הַגִּבּורִים כְּאַיִן לְפָנֶיךָ וְאַנְשֵׁי הַשֵּׁם כְּלא הָיוּ וַחֲכָמִים כִּבְלִי מַדָּע וּנְבונִים כִּבְלִי הַשכֵּל כִּי רב מַעֲשיהֶם תּהוּ וִימֵי חַיֵּיהֶם הֶבֶל לְפָנֶיךָ. וּמותַר הָאָדָם מִן הַבְּהֵמָה אָיִן כִּי הַכּל הָבֶל: אֲבָל אֲנַחְנוּ עַמְּךָ בְּנֵי בְרִיתֶךָ

… What are we? What are our lives? What is our charity? What is our righteousness? What is our strength / potential? What is our heroism? What can we say before You, Hashem our G-d and the G-d of our fathers? Are not all the heroes like nothing before You, and famous people like they never were, and the wise as though without knowledge, and the smart without inspiration? For their many actions are naught, the days of their lives vanity before You, and the advantage of people over people is nothing, for all is vanity. However, we are Your nation, the people of Your covenant…

Compared to the Almighty, we are all infinitesimal.

Our job is to climb the ladder, not be on a given rung. And that’s just as true of Shaya as it is of the most brilliant among us. I feel sorry for Shaya’s father, who had an easier time seeing the perfection in the other boys in the game than seeing the value inherent in his son. He introduced the story, by saying “that when Hashem brings a child like this into the world, the perfection that He seeks is in the way people react to this child.” But this is very wrong: No person’s worth is contingent on someone else’s!

Shaya or Shuby aren’t playing life by different rules than the rest of us. My difficulties explaining the purpose of tefillin to Shuby are no different in kind than my limitations understanding their true purpose. That I may reach the same limited comprehension as most others who ask the question is only a statement of quantity — qualitatively it’s the same.

The most transcendental quality of man is our very ability to transcend. Our lives may not compare to much in the face of G-d, if it were not that He entered with us (and Noachides as well) into a covenant, the means to continually go beyond today’s limitations.

A person is not a better sculptor because of the quality of his materials. It is all about how we progress, not where we progress from.

After all, Rachmana liba bai — Hashem wants our heart. And who can say “vetaheir libeinu” or veyachad levaveinu“, that we should have pure and united hearts to serve the Ribbono shel olam, better than the boy who runs up to greet me when I get home from work, bouncing with joy he just can’t contain? Or who fidgets with excitement when mom brings home something for him — even if it’s just a new pair of socks? Who better captured the wholeheartedness we find in Rivqa, when she gets so lost in meeting Yitzchaq he falls off her camel? Or of Yitzchaq, as he stood there praying?

Shuby double-checks with me every night before going to bed, by making three diagonal strokes with his finger across his arm, while saying “Tomorrow we…” I may comprehend a bigger negligible sliver of why Hashem commanded us to wear them. He excitedly anticipates going to shul and putting on tefillin.

That is a perfection I can only aspire to.