Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Four Sons

What does The Wise Son say?

I love Yiddishkeit! It's so inspiring! It's so meaningful! It's so beautiful! And most of all - it's so true! There is nothing more wonderful than knowing that everything we do in our lives, from the trivial to the most significant, is according to the traditions of our ancestors, handed down to us through the ages. Even when there is no tradition about an aspect of life, we know that we can follow the example of our gedolim, and look to their behavior as a guide for how we should live our lives. And to top it off, what is most incredible about our brilliant Torah way of life, is that we have an internal checks-and-balances system, so that if the community considers any activity or idea inappropriate, even if expressed by a respected Rav, we have built-in ways to reconcile the conflict. For example, we sometimes resolve such difficulties by explaining that only certain people (on very high spiritual levels) are able to have such ideas, or behave in such ways. The rest of us, who aren't on such high levels, must follow the established practice. It makes total sense.

We learn this idea from Avraham Avinu. As we all know, Avraham was the forefather of our nation, and since it's well established that "maisa avos siman l'banim" (the actions of the fathers are signs for the sons), we try to learn as much as possible from the life of Avraham, in order to instruct us how to live our lives. But doesn't the midrash teach us that Avraham came to a recognition of God through carefully examining nature and reality and using his incredibly sharp, gemara-honed, critical thinking abilities to conclude that there must be a Divine Creator? And didn't he end up challenging the established idol-worshipping religious authorities in his time? Wouldn't that mean that we should also try to look at life with the tools we have and carefully examine any evidence we have regardless of where it might lead us? Yes, one might think that, but they'd be sadly mistaken. Because the torah also teaches us that "niskatnu hadoros" - the generations have degraded over time (also known as "They were great enough to do that. But we aren't.") We can't compare our puny imperfect selves to the righteousness that was Avraham Avinu. Only Avraham was great enough to use his intellectual faculties to explore reality in the way he did. We, unfortunately, are not great enough to think about such things in that way. Only Avraham had the right to take a personal stand when it went against the popular view. Only Avraham was allowed to challenge God when he felt that God was telling him to do something that went against his personal sense of justice (like we see at Sodom). The rest of us are obviously not at the level of Avraham and must learn to ignore the protests of our conscience when they go against what God (i.e. the torah (i.e. the rabbis (i.e. halacha))) tells us to do.

We see from all this that we must be careful in how we learn lessons from our leaders. When the example of the leader fits our accepted tradition of what's true and proper, then we can be sure that the gadol is leading us properly, and we must follow him exactly as his da'as torah instructs us. However, when the gadol is doing something that we know isn't what should be done, we must realize that only he is able to do such exceptional things, because of his unique spiritual level, just like Avraham Avinu. Only his distinctive ability to understand the true nature of what Hakadosh Baruch Hu wants of us grants him this ability to be different in this rare situation. The rest of us, as we all know, are not on such a high level, and should never be so arrogant to think that we too can behave thusly.

This is the beauty and wisdom of Torah living! Ashreinu Mah Tov Chelkelinu!


What does The Wicked Son say?

Isn't this all a bit dishonest? I don't get it. You say you follow your gedolim, and listen to whatever they say, but you only seem to do so when it's convenient for you, when it fits into how you would like things to be. When the gadol's behavior or ideas doesn't fit with your preconceived notions of how things should be, then you pull out some convenient saying or concept to explain why their example is an exception and need not be followed: "Hora'as Sha", "niskatnu hadoros", "it's a minority opinion", "eis la'asos", "yesh al mi lismoch", "minhag yisroel torah", whatever it is, there's always something you can rely on to write off the opinions and examples that you'd prefer to avoid following. There always seems to be some idea which you can apply to the circumstance to produce the result that you want and still claim a fealty to torah concepts. You clearly have a set way that you want to be, and despite your claim of faithfully following what your leaders ask of you, your loyalty is to your own interests. I'm sorry, I know this doesn't sound kind, but it's honestly how I see it. What, you want me to muzzle myself because that doesn't sound reverent enough? I'm not trying to be disrespectful. I'm trying to be honest. Don't you want my honest opinion? Isn't speaking ones true opinions, no matter how unpopular they may be, a worthwhile value?


What does The Simple Son say?

Yeah, sure I love Yiddishkeit. It's wonderful knowing that we're living our lives properly, acting according to Hashem's will. Yeah, it's true, sometimes the things we're supposed to do don't really seem so appropriate to me, but that's ok, because whenever I speak to my Rebbe, he shows me just how to make sense of it all. It's my fault actually. I get confused too easily. Because I don't try hard enough in gemara class. After all, doesn't the gemara say, "If you didn't succeed, you must not have really tried hard enough!" So, I know I'm just not at the level to always understand things properly. Like, the other day, when I learned in yeshiva how we should always follow the example of our gedolim, and I decided to try to be just like Rav Levi Yukelovich who I had just read was always friendly to people on the street (I read it in the new Artscroll biography about him). I figured, hey, that's a good thing to do, I like people, why not? So the other day when I was on the bus going to yeshiva, I decided to chat with the shvartza woman sitting near me. She seemed nice and was reading a book I had heard about so I asked her about it. We had a brief but pleasant conversation about it, and I thought I had just done a pretty cool thing, but later on that day, Rav Shmuel, the principal, called me into his office to talk to me about it. I'm not sure how he knew about it, but I think I noticed Chaim Yankel Friedman was on the bus too and he must have said something. Anyway, Rav Shmuel explained to me that I shouldn't be talking to goyim, ever; that it was best if I didn't even look at them. I asked him why, and he told me that they could be a bad influence on me. When I told him that that couldn't be true because the book said that Rav Levi talked to strangers all the time, he explained to me that I had misunderstood what the book meant. First of all, he explained to me, Rav Levi probably only talked to strangers who were frum Yidden. (That made sense. I'm not sure why I didn't think of that.) And additionally, he said, Rav Levi only did this sort of thing when he was older and could protect himself from their negative influence, not when he was only a young yeshiva bochur. Back when he was my age, he no doubt only spoke to people from his frum neighborhood. You see, this is why it's important to have a rebbe who you're close to, so he can explain to you when you're not understanding things right. It's so important. And afterwards, when I asked the principal why Rav Levi would have to protect himself from the negative influences of strangers, if they were anyway frum Yidden, he told me that if I would only try as hard to understand Rashi and Tosfos like I do his own words, I would most definitely be at the top of my class, so why was I being lazy all the time? He's right, I guess I am lazy. That's another reason to have a close rebbe, so he can always encourage you to try harder and strive for gadlus. Like Rav Levi Yukelovich.


What does The Son Who Does Not Ask say?

He doesn't say anything, just sits there quietly, thinking to himself, watching those around him, trying to make some sense of the contradictory rhetoric that he hears from everyone around him. Should he speak up? Last time he chimed in, his brother reprimanded him for not speaking with the proper respect. How was he supposed to know that you have to refer to the rabbi a certain way?! He was just trying to make sense of the man's commentary. Oops, did it again! Can't say that! It's not just "some man's commentary" - it's "the heilege Ramban"! Well, he didn't care who the guy was, the explanation just didn't seem to ring true to him. And the other time he spoke up, he wasn't trying to take a position, but his other brother pounced on him for being so gullible. Why is he so cynical anyway? All he did was mention how he liked the way the writer explained the issue from a psychological perspective and his brother laughed at him for taking things so literally. Geez! Why say anything that's in his head anyway, he thinks to himself. He knows that to really be accepted, he'll have to toe the party line anyway and stifle the thoughts that are really running through his head. If he really expressed himself, he's be thrown out of yeshiva for saying the things he believes, so why should he risk opening his mouth? Better to stay low, pretend to everyone like he's fully on board and bide his time until he's free to make his own choices. Of course, he's aware that course of action might not work out so well either, as evidenced by the recent goings-on with his friend Moishy. He grimaces inwardly as he reminded himself about that recent fiasco. Moishy's brother had just started attending college in the city. Now Moishy's sister was having shidduch problems and Moishy's father had started going to another shul. "Why'd his idiot brother have to go ahead and do that?!" he thinks to himself. "Now my family is always whispering about the Schwartz's and I'm not allowed to hang out with my best friend anymore." Selfish bastard. "Why can't his stupid brother just suck it up and go along with the routine like everyone else does? If I can fake it my whole life, and keep my mouth shut about what I really think, why couldn't he?"

"Yes," he thinks to himself. "Better not to speak up at all," he concludes, as he nods along politely while his family continues their discussion.