Horses for courses
By Harav Y. Reuven Rubin Shlita
Some things are so preposterous that you could never make them up. Just imagine this: a group of academics are sitting somewhere in California thinking about how they can get some funding. One says to the other, “I know, we will get a horse …”
“A horse? Where are you going to get a horse here in the middle of the city?” retorted his incredulous associate.
“Just give me a minute, we will get this horse and put him in a room with a student …”
“Forget it, you’re crazy!”
“No, no … I mean it, just listen …”
One could well believe that we have reached the highest possible level; yet we all know this is not the case
From such implausible beginnings, a whole new educational door has been opened. There is now a course available in a major university in America that leads to a degree in “human animal interdisciplinary understanding.” What this means is that some genius has figured out a new way to get gullible shleppers to part with their money. The theory is that you take a middle management candidate and put him in a room alone with an un-tethered horse. This poor schlimazel then has to be able to talk to the horse and get him to see things his way. The brilliance of this exercise is meant to be that if you can control a horse in such a situation then you can control a business.
Forgive me for sounding stupid, but it seems that the real result is to show that the middle management fellow is in truth a monkey!
I share this nugget of academia with you for a purpose. It seems humans are increasingly tending to act as if they are nothing more than horses. They turn to foolishness, seeking some sort of direction because society has well and truly lost its way.
The story is told of how one of the great Sages in pre-Holocaust Europe came to visit a large city. His many students came out in droves to greet their illustrious leader. In a marked gesture of respect, a group of youngsters unhitched the four horses that drew the Rebbe’s carriage and took their place, schlepping the wagon. The Torah Sage turned to his followers and said, “All my life I have tried to make horses into humans, and now I see humans trying to become horses.”
In truth it is not for us to sit down in a room with a horse so as to learn proper understanding; rather, we must keep striving to rise above the animal nature that lurks within our heart.
The Rebbe, Reb Bunim of Pshischa, once said, “I learned the need for self improvement from a Polish nobleman on the timber market in Danzig. Once when I was still a lumber dealer, I came to the timber yard of a Count who owned huge tracts of woodland. I was unwilling to pay the price he was asking and made a counter offer. During the lengthy negotiations that followed, the nobleman kept saying in Polish, ‘You’ve got to better yourself!’ What he meant was that I should raise my bid. I did increase my offer, and the deal was done. This taught me an important lesson: if you want to reach your goal, you must constantly improve yourself.”
We are blessed with a multitude of learning opportunities, our shuls are comfortable, and the level of our kashrus is superlative. One could well believe that we have reached the highest possible level; yet we all know this is not the case.
On Rosh Hashonoh one should face his personal reality and truly confront where he is going. This day commemorates the creation of humanity. No more horses, no mere imitation of barnyard denizens. On this day we were created betzelem Elokim, “in the Image of Hashem,” and as such we must achieve greater levels of spirituality everyday.
A chassid came to the Rebbe Reb Mordechai of Lechovitz, asking to be taught the proper way to serve Hashem. The Rebbe replied, “Hashem does not need your service. Do we not say during Ne’ila, ‘If man is righteous, what can he give You?’ Instead of asking me to teach you how to serve Hashem, you should ask me to teach you how to serve yourself. For it is you, not Hashem, who benefits from your prayer, your mitzvos and your Torah.”
This is a powerful message! The purpose of Yom Tov should be to allow ourselves to see Hashem’s Will in our own lives. We do not live for others; we are not here just to go through the motions. We are given a limited time here on earth to do more. No matter how much we feel we have accomplished, it is and always has been for ourselves, not Hashem. We grow closer to Hashem through our mitzvos, and that closeness is what is real in our lives.
Listen to what our great teachers have sought for us. If we miss their intent then our lives will be wasted. I have the opportunity to share much with Yidden who have not yet been blessed with a Torah understanding. I feel so broken for them; their lives are so distraught. They want to find something worth loving but are too steeped in the secular world in which they find themselves.
In America I had the zechus to spend some time with a special neshama, a Rav in Queens, Long Island, named Rav Yaakov Teitelbaum, zt”l. I remember him telling us how he sat and learned from chassidishe Yidden who found themselves living in Vienna after the First World War. Rav Yaakov had eyes that shone with a loving fire of warm Yiddishkeit, and whenever he talked about those Jews his eyes would burn even greater.
He often related how certain Ruhziner Chassidim would sing old Yiddish songs after davening, one of which had particularly poignant words. “If I had the strength, I would run through the streets, I would run through the streets crying out, ‘Gut Shabbos, Gut Shabbos, Gut Shabbos!’ He told this tale, and we felt the Shabbos and we too wanted to cry out in the streets Gut Shabbos.
In Bobov when the Rov zy”a still lived in Crown Heights, we davened in a remodeled car garage. I still remember the paintings on the walls which depicted certain aspects of the Torah and the huge bookshelves in the back. Every year, on Rosh Hashonoh and Yom Kippur, the Rov zy”a would take the Mussaf service and would sing niggunim that had been created in a different time and place. One special melody was the one he sang for Veye’esayu, “then all shall come to serve You.” The niggun came via Belz, because the Rov had married a Belzer descendant and he wanted to bring that extra zechus to our tefilos. In the back sat a butcher, a simple, yet warm Yid. He would start to sing along and soon he was thousands of miles away. He was with the angels, telling them how the Yidden want to extol Hashem’s greatness wherever they find themselves to be.
I was a youngster then and watched entranced as this plain Jew flew up to the heavens.
Sometimes I fear that today’s young will never hear nor see such souls, nor ever understand that this is what the truth is.
Shabbos is not for making Hashem happy with our latest fulmination in shul about another’s frumkeit. No, Shabbos is about feeling the need to cry out its holiness within your own soul.
The Kotzker Rebbe was once discussing the state of Yiddishkeit with his close student, the Chiddushei Harim. Suddenly the Kotzker sprang up and went to the window telling his talmid to look out with him. “What do you see?” The Chiddushei Harim did not answer. The fiery Kotzker went on, “Watch! On either side, the people walk and in the middle of the road only the horses go.”
We are often too frightened to allow our feelings to show, to give our souls some elevation.. We walk in the middle of the road with the horses so as not to be different, not to be off centre. Maybe allowing our souls to expand beyond ourselves all year long and reaching up to something lofty is a bit difficult. It may be beyond our abilities. But on Rosh Hashonoh, the birthday of our souls, why not? Why not indeed! Rejoice and try something new.