Monday, June 1, 2020 -
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When I learned a lot from nothing

When you learn something from nothing, it sticks. If I recall that nothing that happened to me even 45 years later, there must be a reason. Permit me to share with you this remarkable story. It illustrates one of the two sides of the essence of Judaism. I will call this side “perspective.”

Here is the story:

In the 1970s I did a lot of research on the Musar movement. I wrote a doctorate on the writings of the founder of the movement, Rabbi Israel Salanter. But I wanted to see how the theory was put to practice. I scoured Israel for the last remaining survivors of the pre-war Musar circles.

It was an exciting hunt. I was rewarded with interviews that excited the people I located because our conversations brought back fond and meaningful memories. This is not my subject today, but I recall one interview in particular with Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kuk, son of the first chief rabbi of Palestine and well known himself as the founder of what we would today call the settlement movement on the West Bank. Except that Rabbi Kuk and I didn’t talk about settlements, not at all.

When I told him that I wanted to talk about his father’s relationship to the Musar movement, he relaxed and opened up, and gave me an entire hour of his time — a rarity! I had the impression that no one had raised this matter with him in 50 years.

Anyway, many of the legendary Musar personalities (or their disciples) were still living and I tracked them down, gained insight from them, and was buoyed by them.

But . . . there is one individual I met whose name I no longer remember. Nor do I remember why it was recommended that I meet him. But the story of our brief meeting is lodged in my mind some 45 years later. He taught me one side of the essence of Judaism — without saying a word. Context is everything.

If you would ask him, he would say that he taught me nothing.

He told me nothing.

He showed me no Musar text and recalled no Musar memory, at least any that I can recall.

He shared no memories of his teachers, at least none that I remember. What I do remember is what he was. That was so much more powerful than anything he could have told me or studied with me.

Here’s the scene. It’s the scene that tells the story.

I entered his apartment.

It was practically barren.

Poverty was rampant in parts of Jerusalem back then, and still is. For many, income was very hard to come by. What we might take for granted in the US, or for that matter in many parts of a very different Israel today, would have been unimaginable luxuries for people like the person I visited.

I recall only two tables in the apartment, and they were not even tables. They were beat up, old, wooden picnic benches. As I entered the apartment, my host was sitting on one bench. Maybe he was studying Torah, maybe he was reading or simply eating, I do not recall. What I do recall is that he was completely at peace. Calm. Unperturbed. Tranquil.

What made this notable were his human surroundings. His wife was apparently not home, but there were three or four young boys in the room. They playing and screaming, running and jumping — including on top of the other bench in the room — back and forth, non-stop, rowdier than any other group of boys I have ever seen.

Now, I have two sons and have seen countless kindergarten classes and playgrounds. But I have never seen a scene likes this for sheer boisterousness. I can be sure of this because, after all, it sticks in my mind some 45 years later.

As I was sitting and talking with the father, he made not the slightest effort to reprimand, teach or discipline his children. He was so calm that it was if no one else were in the room. It was as if the room were totally silent. That is how calm he was.

Our meeting came and went.

But the image of this man, utterly at peace amidst proverbial maniacs left me wondering. 

I inquired of the person who arranged the meeting with me. I described the scene. 

He told me: “This man and his wife were childless for 17 years. These boys were born after 17 years of childlessness.”


Understanding: What is important, what is not.

Ah, the blessings! That is how I came to understand the language of his demeanor.

I took away from this meeting the most important Musar lesson of all: It’s not how it is articulated or formulated. It’s how it is lived.

(Next week: The second side of the essence of Judaism.)

Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor |

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Rabbi Hillel Goldberg
Editor & Publisher

Shana R. Goldberg
Assistant Publisher