There it was: the prominently-featured sign. It went up every year, reminding the members of the legendary yeshivah of Kelm of the focus at this time of year. Every year, the same message. Every Elul, in this unique institution, a sign emblazoned with the words “V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha” would appear. “Never should a person think,” the Alter of Kelm wrote, “that it’s enough to distance oneself from evil. Rather, try to always show others superlative respect.”
Why was this message deemed specifically appropriate for the Yamim Nora’im?
Recently, a little boy made headlines. He brought home a little worksheet — pretty standard fare. But on it were five letters that shook the boy’s father to his core. It was an “All About Me” project: “I am _____ years old.” “My favorite food is _______.” “My teacher is _______.” The boy’s answers seemed straightforward enough. Eleven years old. Favorite food is pizza. And so on. One fill-in-the-blank, though, silently trembled. “My friends are” was followed by a big blank. But this boy had only five letters to put there: “no one.” You see, this boy is on the autism spectrum. Apparently, it left him socially isolated.
Shaken, the boy’s father — Bob Cornelius of New Jersey — photographed the worksheet and posted it on social media. Within hours, the post was viewed by tens of thousands. Since then, the boy has received thousands of letters, cards and drawings. A local police officer stopped by the boy’s house to play ball with him. It was like a global-village outpouring of compassion.
Whether or not this turn of events will improve this boy’s social standing in the long run remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: the raw, guileless pain expressed in those five letters — “NO ONE” — hit a collective nerve, resulting in a sense of injustice interwoven with compassion.
To walk in the ways of Hashem, Chazal explain, means: “Just as He is merciful, compassionate and kind, so too must you be merciful, compassionate and kind.”
“This mitzvah,” said Harav Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, “of cultivating ourselves in the likeness, as it were, of Hashem, encapsulates the core purpose and goal of the entire Torah, the entire purpose of Creation.”
“Man was not created,” Harav Chaim Volozhiner said, “but to help his fellow man.”
The Ramchal — at the very beginning of Mesillas Yesharim — clarifies the overarching purpose of Creation: to take pleasure in Hashem and benefit from the brilliance of His Shechinah. “The indescribable pleasure of Olam Haba,” Rav Weinberg explained, “is essentially the ongoing experience of true being. Actual existence. Hakadosh Baruch Hu is the only true, inherent Being. In Olam Haba, we are completely davuk to Hakadosh Baruch Hu. We experience His absolute Oneness and intrinsic Being. That means that we have to become close to Him. To forge an actual, real relationship with Him. And to do that, we have to become as much like Him as we possibly can. Mah Hu af atah. Emulate Hashem’s ways and forge your character in His likeness. Tzelem Elokim.”
Elul, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: It is at this time of year that we are empowered to take a sweeping look at life — to step out of the box and really think about the direction we’re going in. Is this really where we want to be? Are we involved in activities that reflect what it is that we truly want out of life?
Many are fortunate that the answer to these questions is a resounding “Yes!” Learning. Doing mitzvos. Chessed. Raising and providing for a fine, frum family. What could be better?
But we are creatures of always wanting more, aren’t we? Surely we can all find those areas in which, perhaps, we could be doing even better. Or accomplishing even more. A bit of adjustment here and there. And sometimes there may even be things that could really use some correction.
It’s wholly possible that there isn’t anyone upon whom the blame can be cast for the five-lettered “no one” of that lonely little boy. People sometimes get lost between the cracks. It happens. Still, while we’re engaged in the reflection and introspection of the Yamim Nora’im, as we approach the pinnacle of Ne’ilah and concretize our kabbalos for the new year, let us try our best to recall the Alter of Kelm’s message that distancing ourselves from evil — important as it is — is not the whole story. Let’s try to figure out if perhaps there are any people within our concentric circles of life who may be slipping between the cracks. Let’s do our best so that “no one” will not be someone’s answer to “Who are your friends?” but rather our collective answer to the Ribbono shel Olam when He asks us, “Who was left behind?”