|The traffic is edgy, Rabbi Olshin is not|
|Page 2 of 2|
WE often think that because a person holds a high position, he is special.
We forget that it is the other way around. Because he is special, he came into the high position.
At least that is the way it should be; and when it is, that which made the person special continues to shine through even after he has attained the high position.
Lord Acton said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. A well taken point — but also a limited one. For when a person is special, and attains power only because of that, then not only does his power not corrupt him, his humility continues exactly the same as before.
I was thinking about this as I drove Rabbi Yerucham Olshin to the airport last Monday morning. Rabbi Olshin is one of four deans, or rashei yeshiva, of the largest yeshiva in the world, popularly called “the Lakewood Yeshiva” in Lakewood, NJ — officially Beth Medrash Govoha.
Perhaps the most famous yeshiva of the last 1,000 years — since the end of the famous Babylonian academies — was the Volozhin Yeshiva in Eastern Europe, 1801-1892. It had some 400 students.
The Lakewood yeshiva today has some 6,000 students!
A little reflection and one might conclude: If a single yeshiva has 6,000 students, it must be fragmented, maybe even incoherent, full of divisions working at cross purposes.
Then again: Say about the Lakewood yeshiva what one may say of a special person: The yeshiva is not special because it has 6,000 students; but the other way around. Because it is special, 6,000 students have flocked to it.
If 6,000 students flock to a single place, it must be because of the coherence, unity and inspiration of that place’s vision.
RABBI Olshin was in Denver for one day last Sunday to speak on behalf of the Denver Community Kollel; but it would be a waste to limit a person like this, on a one day visit, to a single audience. He met multiple audiences, not least the 150 people, including schoolchildren, who greeted him at the airport upon his arrival.
A waste? Yes, but again, not because he is the “head of the Lakewood yeshiva.” Rather, because of his sweetness, his humility, his capacity to communicate, to find just the right metaphor, and to elaborate on it.
On Monday morning, he spoke for the briefest time at Yeshiva Toras Chaim before heading for the airport. This was his metaphor, based on a point made by the founder of that Volozhin Yeshiva, Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner; and preceded by a question.
Why on Rosh Hashanah do we pray that G-d grant us “life”? Not a “good” life, just life?
Do we not have free will?
Is it not up to us to choose the good, to act in a way that pleases G-d?
And if we do, is not our own destiny, so to speak, in our own hands?
Why do we need to pray that G-d grant us life?
The Torah says that if we choose the good, G-d will grant us life; and if not, not.
Should not the Torah therefore say, “Choose the good”? But it doesn’t. It says: “Choose life.”
At which point the question circles back to itself: Why pray to G-d to grant us life if He already told us to choose life?
A mosaic of questions with a single answer, based on a single metaphor:
The Torah, it states in Proverbs, is a “tree of life to all who hold fast to it.”
Said Rabbi Olshin: Imagine getting caught in a roaring river. It can drown even the strongest swimmer. The struggling swimmer suddenly sees a tree. He grabs on! The river is tugging and pushing and slamming against him. It is painful. O how nice it would be to relax his grip for just a few seconds to alleviate the pain and get some rest.
But if he does, he will lose his life.
This is why the Torah says “Choose life” and why we pray to G-d that he grant us “life.” We are pushed and pulled by terrible moral choices. We are surrounded by temptations — to cut corners, to yield to unworthy desires, to do the wrong thing. Yes, of course, we should choose the good.
But to do so, we must first have life — we must withstand all the moral and ethical forces that would pull us away from the good, from “the tree of life,” the Torah.
In being asked by G-d to choose life and in asking G-d to grant us life, we are focusing on the essence: preserving our grip on the tree, keeping to our moral and ethical position.
But we are doing more.