emunah, tefillah, a little mussar, and a shmeck of geula

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Thinking Past Oneself

EmunahSpeak: Who Do You Put in the Center of Your Picture? spoke of the three possibilities of how one can focus his davening.  It can be about Me, Hashem and Me, or (for the rare few) exclusively about Hashem.  

And people not?

With a slight switch in the cast of characters we can readily see that the same formula also applies to one’s view of the rest of humanity.  Everything that touches our lives is either about us, us and others, or (for the rare few) the focus is on others.

The first two categories we know about.

If you have ever cut a line or eaten in a restaurant that both you and your wife like, you have tasted of both of them.  In EmunahSpeak: Others the bottom line was about seeing the value of others.  But for those who focus is on others it’s not necessary to see anything because it’s enough that there exists something outside themselves.

Rabbi Yigal Haimoff opens a window for us to experience the essence of thinking past oneself:

There was a small shul in Yerushalayim, one of the many where men would come to learn early in the morning before davening.  It seems that the shammes of that small shul served cups of tea to the attendees, but with a twist.  Much to the consternation of those who came to learn, the cups were always only half full, their constant and vociferous protestations notwithstanding.

And this went on for years.

One day the shammes didn’t feel well so he asked his son to get up early in the morning so as to prepare the tea for the participants in the learning.  He also adjured him to make sure that the cups were only half filled.

When the regulars heard from the son that the shammes wasn’t coming that day they pressured him to give them full cups of tea.  The son, who could never make any sense out of his father’s penchant for only filling up the cups half way, finally gave way after much coaxing and prepared a tray of cups of tea filled to the brim.  As he was about to leave this small shul’s excuse of a kitchen his father walked in, grabbed the tray, and proceeded to pour the contents of the cups into the sink.

The shammes told his son that he feared that he might contravene his instructions so he schlepped himself out of bed to make sure that the cups were only half full.  He then asked his son to promise that he would never do such a thing again. 

The son promised on the condition his father tell him why he only filled the cups half way.

After getting his son’s agreement never to divulge the reason to anyone, the shammes told him that there were two elderly members of the early morning group whose hands shook considerably.  Half the cup would spill if he gave them full cups of tea and if he gave half cups only to those two they would be even more embarrassed. 

And what of the woman who was an inmate in one of the hospitality camps in which the Germans interred Jews during WWII.  She had committed some petty infraction of the camp rules and the Germans, at their diabolical best, put her on trial in which all the participants were Jews:  Judge, court officers, guards, and the court stenographer.

And the trial was held on Shabbos.

Amazingly, this woman actually had a defense that could possibly have been recognized by the camp administration, but when asked if she had anything to say in her defense she kept silent because anything she said would have been recorded by the Jewish court stenographer on Shabbos.

And then there is Mrs. Rochel Frenkel.

When the body of her son Naftoli was found (along with the bodies of his two comrades) after an eighteen day search, she was asked her reaction to the fact that Naftoli was killed on the first day of his captivity.

She said that for eighteen days she cried her eyes out, but when she heard that that her son had been killed on the first day she remembered that Naftoli’s favorite mitzvah was putting on tefillin.  Rochel Frenkel knew that had her son been killed on any day subsequent to day one he would have missed putting on tefillin for as many days as he was being held captive and that the fact that he was not performing the mitzvah would have distressed him greatly.

She was somehow able to transcend the nightmare of the eighteen days of uncertainty that culminated in the discovery that Naftoli had been brutally murdered to think past her grief laden self so as to take comfort in the fact that her martyred son was spared the emotional pain of not being able to perform the mitzvah of tefillin. 

Such is the essence of thinking past oneself.