The Gemorah tells that when Rabi Akiva noticed that his talmidim were becoming sleepy, he would intersperse some fantastic and startling statements in his lessons to rouse them.
My rebbi, Rav Mendel Kaplan zt”l, borrowed that strategy with his own students. He would say, “Ich hub a Chicagy maaseh, I have story from Chicago to relate to you,” and our sleepy, nodding heads would snap to attention.
Last week, I was in Chicago and heard what would pass as a “Chicagy maaseh,” a tale with a strong message.
The story was told that a world-renowned basketball player came across a small boy who was playing basketball in his driveway. Overcome with an urge to shoot a few baskets, he ran over to the boy and asked him for the ball. The boy stood in open-mouthed amazement as the giant jumped around with his ball, shooting and hitting one basket after another. Finally, the celebrity had to go. He handed the ball back to the little boy and said, “No one will ever believe you!” With that he was gone.
So much of what we do in our lives is fueled by the desire to let others know what we have done. The activity itself – whether good or bad – is secondary to the satisfaction and pride that comes with people knowing about it and talking about it. If nobody knows you went on a wonderful trip somewhere, if no one knows what you did when you were there, it’s almost as if it was a waste. If the greatest star comes by and plays ball with you but nobody will believe you, it is a source of consternation instead of happiness.
Why is that? What is behind the constant craving for attention? Perhaps it is due to an innate insecurity about what one truly believes and what one stands for. A confident, secure person doesn’t seek the constant reinforcement and approval of friends, neighbors and society in general. He is confident in what he is accomplishing and in the values he lives by.
As we count down to Shavuos and kabbolas haTorah, we would do well to make that strength of character our own gold standard.
People whose core is weak derive support from what others say about them. People who need propping up look around at what others are doing to know what they themselves should be doing. Those weak in Torah and avodah seek approval from others similarly lacking in depth of character and strength of purpose. These people constantly look over their shoulder, trying to fit in with what is most popular, afraid to stand up for what is right and true.
And what does such behavior lead to? Where do those with such moral ineptitude end up? If they are private people, they end up being quite unhappy, until they discover the truth and return to the path of Torah. If they are public people, they continue pandering to the masses, often ending up on the ash heap of history alongside people like themselves.
Following the last election in Israel, most people didn’t think things would end up the way they have. The party, Kadima, touted as the future of Israel, took office with much hope and promise. War hero Ariel Sharon had fashioned the new party as the future of Israel and said it consolidated within its ranks the best and brightest of Likud and Labor. Who could argue with that?
But G-d had different plans and removed Sharon from the world stage. The people of Israel continued to be drawn by the magnetism of the man and his idea and swept the party into power in the last election.
Though it was headed by Ehud Olmert, a political and moral lightweight, who seemed to excel at little else but back room deals designed to enrich himself, the people voted for Kadima anyway. Olmert cobbled together a government in his image, staffed with people whose egos by far outweighed their abilities. A labor rabble rouser became the Defense Minister, an abuser the Justice Minister, a thief the Finance Minister and so on.
No one cared, no one had the intelligence and honesty to rise up and say, “Stop. This is madness. This will lead us straight to disaster.” And so these leaders were left to reel from one catastrophe to the next.
It may very well be that the jig is up and the game of musical chairs is about to begin again. Olmert will be shoved off to an ignominious retirement and Peretz will go back to shutting down the country to preserve archaic labor conditions for a slew of lazy workers. Newcomers, not much better equipped than their predecessors, will attempt to take the steering wheel of the floundering country as it bops around a deeply rutted path.
It would be almost comical if it were not so sad; it would be unbelievable if it weren’t true.
“Reishit tzmichat geulateinu.” Is this the portent that will lead to the arrival of the Messiah? Can anyone still really believe that? Is this the way people who believe in their mission act? Is there a person in that government who sets as his or her primary agenda the salvation of the people of Israel? Is there anyone in that government who cares about the downtrodden of Israel? What of the fate of the Jews evicted from Gaza? Does anyone give a thought to them? Or the Jews in Northern Israel who huddled for so many days in their bomb shelters during the Lebanon War last year? For the elected leadership of the country, it’s all about me, me, me. My ego, my pocketbook, my future.
As Ari Shavit wrote in Haaretz this week, “For many years, Israelis sought a government without the religious. In Olmert’s government, they got a government without G-d. It is now clear that a government without G-d is also a government without talent. Without a moral compass, without a political agenda and without a grip on reality.”
The Gemorah relates in Sotah 49b that in the time of Moshiach, the generation will appear like a dog. The explanation is offered that just as a dog runs ahead of its master but keeps turning around to see which direction the master takes, so too, in the time of Moshiach, people will lack the intelligence and courage to act sensibly on their own. They will take their cue by watching and copying others – who are just as confused and directionless.
The Gemorah there states that at that time, we will have nowhere to turn but to our Father in Heaven. With that woeful situation so plainly on display in our time, may we merit rachamei Shomayim and a speedy redemption. Amen.