In memory of Alan Dutka z”l

A eulogy delivered by Gil Student

There are those who say that religion is the easy way out. Answers to all the questions of life; clarity to all the ambiguities of the world. It is an escape for those psychologically unable or unwilling to face the uncertainties of life. They are wrong.

One of the fundamental contributions that Hegel made to modern philosophy is his concept of the dialectic. To Hegel, everything starts out as a conflict between two opposing ideas - the thesis and the antithesis - and is ultimately concluded with the synthesis - the superior resolution that includes the best of both ideas. As Rav Soloveitchik pointed out, Hegel was wrong. Hegel and his followers were called Idealists and with good reason. In their own theoretical world they can see every conflict neatly resolved with a synthesis but in the real world, in the day-to-day struggles of everyday life, conflict is everywhere and synthesis almost non-existent.

One of the many conflicts in life can be best illustrated by asking a question that every nine year old in yeshiva can answer. What is the most important rule in Judaism - what is the kelal gadol ba-Torah? Every child will immediately say - or sing - “Amar Rabbi Akiva ve-ahavta le-rei’acha kamocha zeh kelal gadol ba-Torah” - Rabbi Akiva said: Love your fellow as yourself this is a kelal gadol ba-Torah. However, there is another less famous opinion. Ben Azzai says it is the verse “Zeh sefer toldos ha-Adam.” This dispute between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai is very profound and I will offer just one way of understanding it. Ben Azzai says that the most important rule in the Torah is “Zeh sefer toldos ha-Adam” - a verse that introduces a lit of the descendants of Adam. What possible significance could this verse have? Let us look at what Rabbi Akiva is saying. Rabbi Akiva tells us that the kelal gadol ba-Torah is loving your fellow. Taking their needs and desires into account. Including in every action you make the calculation of how it affects others. Putting concerns of others into the forefront.

Ben Azzai, however, is saying the exact opposite. “Zeh sefer toldos ha-Adam” - one person - Adam - populated the world. He brought forth great people and great nations - and all this from one person. Ben Azzai is telling us not to underestimate the importance of the individual - of you. You have tremendous potential so make sure that you take care of your own interests. Now, Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai do not really disagree, and I could prove that from a Gemara if we had the time. They only disagree on which rule is more important but they agree that both rules are important.

Here we have, literally, a conflict of interest. When you hear of a job opportunity do you pursue it yourself or do you tell a friend about it and give him a chance? When you have some free time do you use it to relax and have fun or to volunteer in the community and help others? When you’re in a group and you start to speak at the same time as someone else, do you push forward and speak so that you can be heard or do you think, “Let him speak first. He probably wants to be heard.”? This conflict between the needs of oneself and of others affect almost every mundane and holy thing we do.

Even though every Jew, even a beggar, is biblically obligated to give at least 1/3 of a shekel a year to tzedakah - maybe a dollar or two - we know that we should be giving at least 10% of our income away. However, the Gemara in Bava Metzia tells us “Efes ki lo yihyeh becha evyon” - there should no be among you a poor person. The Gemara emphasizes “becha” - in you. Make sure that you won’t be poor and only then help others. But, the Gemara adds, if you make that your creed, your motto, and always place your own interests first you will be punished by Hashem and eventually become poor yourself. Again, take care of your own needs but also take care of others. Make your own interests a priority but also make those of others a priority.

But how? How do we know when to take the opportunity for ourselves and when to give it to someone else? When to speak first and when to speak last? How do we resolve the tension between our own interests - the “zeh sefer toldos ha-Adam” - and those of others - the “ve-ahavta le-rei’acha kamocha”? Where is the comfortable answer religion is supposed to give? Where is the synthesis?

The answer, I believe, is in the famous saying of Hillel. “Im ein ani li mi li” - if I am not for myself - If I don’t look out for myself and promote my own interests - who will? However, u-ch-she-ani le-atzmi mah ani” - if I only look out for myself and I don’t give priority to the needs of others, if I don’t promote their interests, what am I? So what is the answer to this conflict? How do we resolve this tension? “Ve-im lo achshav eimasai” - we don’t, just do it. Keep up the struggle and go through life. Don’t stall into inaction but thrive and grow from the struggle. Keep trying and growing. You don’t have to get it right because there is no exact right.

Let me repeat this because it needs explanation. An actuary’s job is to estimate and when you estimate there is no single right answer. If the answer is approximately 100 then 99 is just as correct as 100 and 101. There is no right answer. But there is a wrong answer. 20 is wrong. Similarly, finding the correct mix between one’s own interests and those of others is not a matter of finding the one answer. Rather, it is about struggling and, through this daily struggle, getting better at it. Now, there are halachos to guide the struggle that provide a framework for what a wrong answer is. But within the halachic framework there is plenty of room for individualism and growth. Most importantly, through this struggle, through consciously thinking about your interests and those of others, you become more sensitive. You become more aware of people’s importance. Even when you put your own interests first, if you have struggled with that decision then you have brought to the forefront of your mind other people and exited the selfish mindset.

In a way, Alan was the exact opposite of us here. In our generation we have no trouble with the “zeh sefer toldos ha-Adam.” We instinctively and automatically promote our own interests, which is not necessarily wrong. However, we have to be taught to think of others because if it isn’t taught to us, if we don’t have “ve-ahavta le-rei’acha kamocha” drilled into our minds, we don’t do it. We all know “im ein ani li mi li” but have to struggle to remember “u-ch-she-ani le-atzmi ma ani.”

Alan was the other way. To Alan it was only natural to put others first. Everything he did reflected his concern for other people. I can’t even count how many times he came up to talk to me while I was waiting in line and the first thing he would do was assure the person behind me that he was only there to talk and not to cut the line. Then, a few minutes later, he would repeat it to make sure the person didn’t think he was cutting.

It seems like every conversation with Alan began and ended with an apology. He so valued other people that he felt he could always have been more attentive, more responsive, more anything. To Alan, his comfort was always secondary to everyone else’s.

No one could know Alan without immediately seeing his compassion, his concern, his true respect and love for others. What is so difficult and foreign to us was Alan’s way of life.

As we said before, the goal is not to find an answer but to struggle and, through that, grow. I’d like to suggest that the key to our struggle is Alan. When we are in a rush to get to work and need to squeeze on a train and make everyone else uncomfortable, think of Alan. Think of how apologetic he would be if he would even do it. Think of Alan and let the memory of his dedication to others cause us to struggle with our own decisions. Let the contrast between his selflessness and our selfishness guide us to greater appreciation.

Yehi zichro baruch - may his memory be blessed.