Like a Rose Among Thorns

Do you have any neighbors who are more religious than you and your family? Who are less religious than you and your family? Who are about the same? What do you think of them? Do you like them, dislike them, look up to them, look down on them, think they are special, weird, great, no good? Do you feel bad for them? Would you like to be their friend — or not? We all have lots of neighbors, all different types. And we harbor all types of different thoughts about them; some charitable, others less so.

Now, what if you had a neighbor around the same age and stage of life as you — Jewish — who happens to be a real-life oved avodah zarah. Yes, you read correctly: he has a cute little idol that he bows down to, in full prostrate position, every morning and evening. He prays to this idol, beseeches it to help him in all his endeavors, polishes it every week, plants a reverent kiss upon it every night before going to sleep — the works!

So, what do you think of this neighbor? But before you answer that question, let’s switch gears slightly for a moment.

When Moshe Rabbeinu commands Klal Yisrael about the korban Pesach in Mitzrayim, he introduces his command with the words mishchu u’kechu lachem (Shemos 12:21). The word kechu (“take,” plural) is no problem to understand; they had to go get a lamb. But why mishchu (lit., “pull,” “draw”)? It seems totally unnecessary.

Answering this question, Rashi (Shemos 12:6) writes, “because they were immersed in avodah zarah he told them, ‘Pull and take for yourselves,’ meaning withdraw your hands from avodah zarah and take a lamb of mitzvah.” Not only did the Jews in Mitzrayim dabble a bit here and there in idolatry, they were awash in it! Steeped in avodah zarah!

And what does Hashem think of these people who are busy bowing down to, praying to and bringing korbanos to idols? Going back to that same Rashi, we find out what Hashem says: “I passed over you and I saw you, and behold your time [has come for] the time of the beloved ones; the time for the [fulfillment of the] oath that I swore to Avraham that I will redeem his children has arrived.” So what is the basic message that Hashem is conveying? “The time has come to develop our love.” To these people — these seemingly crass idolaters — Hashem says, “I want your closeness”!

A story: He survived the war but everything was in a shambles. The Chassidus had to be built up all over again. But Harav Shlomo Halberstam, zy”a, hadn’t survived the horrors of the ghettos and the death camps just to despair and give up now. No, he realized that if Hashem had spared him from the ovens of Auschwitz, it was for a reason; and if he would be forced to work hard to rebuild, so be it.

The first step was to create a spiritual center — a place where Yidden could come to warm their souls with the fire of Torah and tefillah. He started a minyan. With his only surviving son at his side, together they would scavenge for every available Jew to complete their minyan each day, and try to rekindle the fire of Yiddishkeit on these new shores.

One Shabbos, it came to the Rebbe’s attention that there was a Yid sitting on a park bench, not far from the shtiebel, smoking. Yes, desecrating Shabbos in full view of all the passersby! The Rebbe was actually familiar with this individual and recalled that he had served as a popular chazzan in one of Poland’s many Jewish communities.

The Rebbe called over his son and bade him to deliver a message to the Yid in the park. Naftali’s face registered his shock and astonishment, but he uttered not a word. Respect for the individual who was both his father and his Rebbe was paramount and he would dutifully carry out his bidding.

“Excuse me, Reb Chaim, good Shabbos,” said Naftali in a pleasant tone of voice, while inwardly grimacing from the spectacle of blatant chillul Shabbos. “My father, the Rebbe of the nearby shtiebel, heard that you are an expert chazzan and he asked that you do us the honor of leading us in davening for the rest of the tefillos.”

“Reb” Chaim’s response came in the form of a bitter and blasphemous tirade that made Naftali wish he was anywhere but there.

Nu, vus zukt ehr? Did he agree to come?” the Rebbe asked his son when he returned to the shtiebel. “Did he agree to come?” Naftali responded, “No, he most certainly did not agree to come! Tatty, you cannot imagine the foul language and horrible words of apikorsus that I just heard from that wicked man!”

Calmly, yet resolutely, the Rebbe said, “It wasn’t him talking; it was the Germans talking. Next week we’ll try again.” …

As one could well imagine, the next week was a replay of the previous scene. Naftali was subjected to a whole new round of curses and vilification, just that this time it was even more peppery, seeing that, “Didn’t I already tell you last time to get lost!”

Feeling awful, but ever loyal to his father and Rebbe, he reported back on the day’s work. Again, calmly and resolutely, the Rebbe simply said, “It’s not him talking; it’s the Germans talking.”

Eventually, the Rebbe’s non-judgmental and repetitively warm, inviting overtures did manage to wear down Chaim’s resistance. He finally allowed himself to be cajoled into serving as chazzan from time to time, but not without first making it clear to them that “there is no way I am ever going to be religious ever again!” And he certainly kept that promise faithfully. Not long after, though, everyone moved on and the Rebbe lost contact with Chaim.

Fast forward 50 years. Owing to the indefatigable efforts of Rav Shlomo, the Bobover Chassidus has burgeoned and grown beyond anyone’s wildest imagination — well, perhaps everyone aside from the Rebbe. The Chassidus now numbered in the many thousands. The Rebbe had no choice but to make it his firm policy to only attend simchos of immediate family.

Rav Naftali was quite surprised one day to hear his father’s request that he escort him to a wedding of an individual who was not even a member of the Chassidus. And, not only that, but he was to serve as mesader kiddushin! Ever the loyal son and chassid, though, he agreed without hesitation and kept his reservations to himself.

While sitting at the wedding meal and enjoying the festivities, the Rebbe turned to his son and asked, “Does the grandfather of the chassan look at all familiar to you?” Anticipating his son’s blank stare, the Rebbe immediately added, “Take a look at all of his children and grandchildren — all fine bnei Torah. Do any of them resemble someone you once met?”

Addressing Rav Naftali’s continued silence, the Rebbe explained: “Last week, that man, whose name is Reb Chaim, called me. ‘Rebbe,’ he told me, ‘it’s been 50 years since we last saw each other and you probably do not remember me, but I could never forget you. In one week’s time, I am going to be marrying off my youngest grandchild. Baruch Hashem, all of my children and grandchildren are erliche Yidden, proud Torah-true Jews; and it is all thanks to you and your son reaching out to me when I was a broken shell of a man after the war … I cannot imagine how you put up with me at the time, but all I can say is that everything I have become and everything my family is, is due to the warmth you showered on me back then. I cannot imagine this chasunah without you here serving as mesader kiddushin. Please, Rebbe, this is your simchah as much as it is mine; please accept.”

With his trademark warmth and love, Rav Shlomo met his son’s gaze. “You see, I told you that it was just the Germans talking.”

When the Ribbono shel Olam gazed down on us in the peak of our suffering in Mitzrayim and saw us steeped in idolatry, He did not write us off. The Malachei Ha’shareis said, “Why should the Jews be saved and the Mitzrim drowned? They both are idolaters!” and Hashem’s response was, “What appears to you as the Jews having committed idolatry wasn’t really them; it was the Mitzrim.” Hashem saw the Jewish People for what and who they really were: the illustrious and worthy descendants of the Avos Hakedoshim, whose essence reflected that of their great ancestors, and He desired their closeness.

But what do you do? They’re steeped in avodah zarah!

Simple: Just help them feel how distinguished and magnificent they are — what great potential they have — and, at the same time, provide them with an alternative to what they have been doing up to now. Coming back to the aforementioned Rashi: “He gave them two mitzvos, the blood of the korban Pesach and the blood of bris milah… Withdraw your hands from idolatry and take a sheep of mitzvah.” In one fell swoop, Hashem helped them to realize how special and valuable they are by giving them a precious mitzvah that eternally identified them as the exclusive representatives of the Creator of the universe, while simultaneously providing them with a healthy, positive alternative to the faulty expression of spirituality they had been engaged in up until that point.

Hashem didn’t blast them for their foolishness. He did not exhort Moshe Rabbeinu to castigate them with fire and brimstone. On the contrary, He made them feel like a million dollars, validated their inherent, virtuous drive for ruchniyus, and gently helped them to redirect that drive in a positive direction.

On many other occasions in the Torah, the Jews are dealt with in a much stricter and more severe manner in response to their negative behavior. Apparently, they were afforded deferential treatment in this situation because of the overwhelming burden of suffering to which they had been subject. What is important to realize, though, is that suffering comes in many forms, and emotional suffering can be just as debilitating as physical suffering, if not more so. Emotional and psychological suffering and pain is one of the primary challenges of our generation, on levels and at a scope that many of us, even those of us who are dealing with our own pain, do not even begin to imagine. Therefore, our best bet at positively affecting others is by taking the approach outlined above.

Rav Chizkiyah Mishkovsky delineated that a guiding principle in chinuch is the passuk in Shir Hashirim that says, “Do not see me when I am blackened, when the sun has burned me.” The Midrash explains that what this means is that Klal Yisrael is defending itself to the non-Jews by saying that “even though I may appear blackened and sullied, that is not who I really am. It is but a mum over, a passing blemish like a sunburn.” With our children, elaborated Rav Mishkovsky, the correct approach to take an outlook to maintain is that we do not see them when they appear blackened and sullied. Not that we ignore or overlook negative behavior, but we understand that it does not at all define who the child really is, and we therefore respond accordingly.

When we are aware of the fact that the true reality of the child is that he is a shoshanah bein ha’chochim, a rose among thorns, we realize that all we need to do is carefully and lovingly untangle and dislodge him from those thorns.

Really, this is the approach that we are best off adopting not only with our children but with just about everyone with whom we come in contact; and, perhaps most importantly and fundamentally, ourselves.