Wednesday, December 22, 2004


By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

In Parshas Vayechi we learn that as Yaakov Avinu was approaching the end of his life, he called for his son, Yosef. The aging father asked the powerful son for one last favor. “Swear to me that I will not be buried in Mitzrayim.”

In justifying his request to Yosef, Yaakov refers to the tragic episode of Rochel’s death which had taken place many years earlier, when he was returning from Padan Aram after his long sojourn with Lavan.

Va’ani bevo’i mipadan meisuh alai Rochel b’eretz K’na’an, baderech, be’od kivras eretz lavo Efrasah, va’ekbereha shum be’derech Efras, hi Bais Lochem. Rashi, in words that have been chanted with a special nigun by cheder children for hundreds of years explains that Yaakov was saying to Yosef, “I am troubling you to bring my body back to Eretz Yisroel for burial, though I didn’t do the same for your mother, Rochel, (when she died on the journey, after giving birth to Binyomin). I didn’t even bring her to Bais Lechem, and I knew that you were unhappy with what I did.”

“Now I want you to know that I acted according to the Divine wishes, for when the tyrant Nevuzradan will exile the Jewish people from their land they will pass by the grave of your mother, Rochel. She will then go out onto the kever and cry and beg the Ribono Shel Olam to have mercy on the Jewish people, as the posuk states in Yirmiyahu, “Kol beRamah nishmah, nehi b’chi samrurim” (A voice is heard in Ramah, bitter weeping…”)

And Hakadosh Boruch Hu answers, “Yeish sechar lifulasaich ne’um Hashem, veshavu vonim legvulam.”

Yaakov explains to Yosef that he buried Rochel just outside of Bais Lechem because of an event destined to take place centuries later. The rationale is puzzling. Does it seem fair that Rochel Imeinu should be left in a lonely, deserted kever for millennia because of a single moment in history—albeit one of great importance—when she would intercede for the Jewish people and win the promise of Hashem’s salvation?

Perhaps the lesson here is that yes, indeed, a single act can be of such sweeping, far-reaching importance that it transcends every other consideration, and justifies enormous sacrifice. That act may be the defining moment of a lifetime. It may have the potential to alter a person’s or nation’s destiny.

It takes wisdom to recognize such an act for what it is. And often great courage to carry it off.

Most of us have no interest in being ordinary, insignificant cogs in the wheel. That’s for the “hamon am.” We want the satisfaction of knowing that we make a difference. We await our own defining moment, eager for the opportunity to do something heroic, or at least noteworthy. It’s not a matter of ego, but of knowing that we’re not just passing time in this world. Knowing that our lives and labor count.

In the scope of our day-to-day, humdrum lives, though, it is hard to feel that we are accomplishing anything grand, anything that could not be done by somebody else. The sneaking suspicion comes upon us at times that we may be ordinary, after all. And for some people, that is a depressing thought.

But it wouldn’t be, if we only realized that the big moment is just around the corner. During the course of life, one encounters many pivotal moments when a specific action or inaction may be the ticket to eternity, but they arrive so quietly they are barely noticed. Without a splash and lots of hoopla, those special moments are often missed. It may be an act of great self-restraint or self-sacrifice that is asked of us. It may be an act of Kiddush Hashem, mesiras nefesh for a mitzvah, or for an ideal.

It may be as uncomplicated as an admission of truth, a sincere apology, or a kind greeting. It could be an act of simple giving that is waiting patiently in the wings for us to seize the moment.

Rarely is one told, as was Esther Hamalkah by Mordechai, “mi yodaiya, im l’ais kozos higaat lamalchus.” Mordechai told her that the entire chain of events leading her to the heights of wealth and power had been orchestrated for this defining moment. But even people who don’t achieve wealth and power have a defining moment. Don’t fumble the ball! Don’t mess up when it comes your way.

The big moments invariably come to us well-cloaked in mundane trappings that we tend to treat them with carelessness, if not disdain.

How important is that one phone call, after all, to someone who knows someone who knows someone closely connected to a top specialist who might be able to save the eyesight of your friend’s father?

How important is that note of recommendation on behalf of a student who’s a bit of a lo yutzlach, who will probably not end up staying in yeshiva anyway, who has family problems and no money to pay tuition?

Why bother redding the shiduch or pushing it along, neither side is really interested; since when is it your responsibility to help them see where they may have misread the story on the way to meeting their designated mate? Let some yenta worry about getting the world married, it’s not your job, you’ve got other things to do.

Why keep someone on the job who’s not producing the way he should, who you could replace with someone far more efficient, accommodating and best of all, cheaper? So what if he won’t find another job? Are you supposed to take care of the whole world?

Why give a loan to someone in deep financial trouble? It’s probably a bottomless pit and who knows if you’ll ever see the money back?

Why yield to your spouse’s demands when you’re always the one giving in? Isn’t it about time you drew the line?

When the time comes to find a job, why take the job which will enhance the Jewish community and give meaning to your life? Why not take the job that pays more, even though it may be one which consists of performing mind-numbing activities all day, it pays well; and who says you are responsible for saving the human race. Let someone else do that while you earn money doing something which contributes little or nothing to benefit humanity.

Why go out of your way to be friendly to the new family on the block when you know from reliable sources that the husband is crooked in business and the kids are brats?
What do these issues have to do with “big moments?” The answer is that in each instance, through our actions or inactions we might indeed be deeply impacting lives and altering destinies —our very own or that of others. But if we pass up the moment because we don’t have a clear grasp of how high the stakes are it is often too late to reverse course when awareness finally dawns.

There is no one who stands by ready to whisper in our ear that this is our chance to achieve immortality and to give our lives purpose and meaning. It is only by doing all that we do properly, and as if it counts for something, that those small moments aren’t missed.

The few kind words you wrote to a teacher, student or colleague may be what propels them onwards to greatness. You may never know it, but that little slip of paper upon which you wrote an encouraging line or two may hang alongside their bed giving them comfort every night. Don’t scribble your lines, write them neatly and clearly so that they may stand the test of time, for you never know, they may mean the world to the recipient.

A rabbi delivers sermons every Shabbos and feels as if he doesn’t get through. It is only months later that he realizes how he has impacted the life of the man in the back who seems to sleep thru the speech week after week. Were he to get dejected by looking at this person, he would have stopped delivering his messages and then this sleepy old grouch would really have been lost. But because the rabbi kept at it, a whole family was turned around.

As a teacher you may have a student you reach out to, but he never reciprocates the friendship. You may feel as if you are wasting your time, but it may very well be that he simply has trouble expressing appreciation but your acts are what keep him attached and together. You may never know it until years later when he finally opens up and admits that you have been his godsend.

You really don’t want to go to that dinner. It’s boring and they have lots of speeches. But your attendance means so much to the poor frazzled executive director that by showing up and showing him that you care about him and his cause you energize him to persevere in his mission to bring the light of Torah or Chesed to yet more people.

Your friends are making a Simcha and you are tired and not in the mood of going. Besides, you won’t know anybody there. But you go anyway and your friends tell you how much it meant to them that you came. Years later they still remind you how nice it was of you to shlep there.

You were offered a chance to do something great but turned it down because the money wasn’t right or because it wasn’t presented exactly the way you would have liked it to be. Right there you missed your chance.

The regret of missed opportunities is one of the most bitter kinds of pain, Chazal say.

Life is composed of a long string of individual moments, many of which are pivotal, or “crossroads” moments in disguise. The true greatness of an individual lies in his ability to roll back the disguise and recognize the moment for what it is.

True greatness lies in choosing to do right even bechadrei chadorim, away from the limelight in the belief that every act of bechirah triggers a powerful reaction in both the physical and spiritual spheres.

Every circumstance of one’s life—the most gratifying along with the most painful and frustrating—is orchestrated to provide one with opportunities for growth. Only by treating the seemingly “small” challenges as we would the big moments, are we capable of mining every opportunity for greatness.

We may be called upon to step outside our comfort zone, or deny ourselves what we feel entitled to; we may have to embarrass or lower ourselves by admitting we were wrong; sacrifice until it hurts; pay a price monetarily or in terms of prestige.

But what price is too high for nitizchiyus? What shouldn’t we be prepared to do to attain the eternity of Rochel Imeinu?


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