How do I choose the right path in life?

Thursday, 24 August, 2023 - 7:47 pm

The Jewish physicist and Nobel prize-winner Isidore Rabi, was once asked why he became a scientist. He replied: “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other mother would ask her child after school: “What did you learn today?” But my mother used to ask, instead, “Izzy, did you ask a good question today?” That made the difference. Asking good questions made me into a scientist.”

Judaism is a faith that encourages questions. In the yeshivah, the home of traditional Talmudic learning, the highest praise a teacher can give a student is, “You ask a good question.”

One of the most interesting and fascinating mitzvot in the Torah is the one of “sending away the mother bird” in this week’s portion, Ki Teitzei

This mitzvah has two components, First, if you want to capture a bird to raise or to eat, or you want to take the eggs to eat, but its mother bird is in the nest protecting her baby chicks, or her eggs, you may under no circumstances take the mother bird. The mother must be spared.

Secondly, if you want to take the eggs or the fledglings, even without the mother, you can’t do so while she is still in the nest. You must first send away the mother. Only when she is gone, can you retrieve the eggs.

We can, perhaps, appreciate the rationale behind this law. The Torah allows us to eat kosher birds and eggs. But it wishes to minimize the pain and agony of any creature. Taking the eggs or chicks while the mother is in the nest will cause her acute pain.

What is the Talmud? A Jew is once talking to his Rabbi.

“Rabbi,” the man said, “Explain the Talmud to me.”

“Very well,” he said. “First, I will ask you a question. If two men climb up a chimney and one comes out dirty, and one comes out clean, which one washes himself?”

“The dirty one,” answers the man.

“No. They look at each other and the dirty man thinks he is clean, and the clean man thinks he is dirty, therefore, the clean man washes himself.”

“Now, another question:

“If two men climb up a chimney and one comes out dirty, and one comes out clean, which one washes himself?”

The man smiles and says, “You just told me, Rabbi. The man who is clean washes himself because he looks at his friend and he think he is dirty.”

“No,” says the Rabbi. “If they each look at themselves, the clean man knows he doesn’t have to wash himself, so the dirty man washes himself.”

“Now, one more question.

If two men climb up a chimney and one comes out dirty, and one comes out clean, which one washes himself?”

The man smiles. By now he figured it all out. “Rabbi! He declared triumphantly. Depending on your point of view, it could be either one. If each one looks at the other, then the clean man washed himself. But if each one looks at himself, then the dirty man washes himself.”

No! The Rabbi says, “No. If two men climb up a chimney, how could it possibly be that one man becomes dirty and the other remains clean? They both are dirty!”

The confused man said, “Rabbi, you asked me the same question three times and you gave me three different answers. Is this a joke?”

“This is not a joke, my son. This is Talmud.”

So, is Judaism being rational or super-rational? And the answer is—of course, the classic Jewish answer: It is neither, nor it is both.

Judaism is about truth—the ultimate truth. Is truth super-rational or rational? It is true. Truth transcends our brains. We can never grasp in our finite mind the entire truth. But many aspects and rays of truth can and must be grasped, appreciated, and internalized in our minds. 

At last, we can truly grasp the beautiful meaning of the opening Mishnah in the second chapter of Ethics of the Fathers:  Rabbi Judah the Prince would say: Which is the right path for a person to choose for himself? Whatever is beautiful for the one who does it is also perceived as beautiful by other people.

Of course, Rebbi—the editor of the Mishnah, was aware of the right path to live by: The Divine path of Torah and Mitzvot, given to the Jewish people at Sinai.

What Rebbi is teaching us here is something even deeper. G-d wants us to CHOOSE the right path. He does not only want us to accept it because He said so, and “Pop knows best.” That is the beginning and foundation of Yiddishkeit. But following this premise, G-d wants us to choose by our own volition the proper path in life. He yearns for us to choose Yiddishkeit, by appreciating and internalizing its depth, majesty, and beauty. G-d wants us to be able to truly feel and declare: This is so beautiful, so sweet, so meaningful, so powerful, so deep, so relevant, so healing, so correct!

How do I choose the right path in life? How do I make Judaism my own? On this Rebbi teaches us that we must search for Whatever is beautiful for the one who does it and is also perceived as beautiful by other people:

I need to ask myself what will make my life the most beautiful it can be. What will provide my life with the deepest luster, glitter, splendor, grace, and meaning? What will add richness, serenity, and purpose to my journey?

That is the path I want to choose for myself. What will make my days shine?

What will allow my marriage to blossom?

What will give me the most tranquility?

What will foster a deeper relationship with my family?

What will help challenge me to become the most honest and authentic person I can be?

This is the path I want to choose for myself. And this is what G-d wants us to see in His System of Torah and Mitzvot—so we can choose it!

What is more, He wants us to choose that which will be perceived by others around us as beautiful. Judaism should enrich and ennoble my life so deeply that others should be able to exclaim: How beautiful is this! I wish I could have this! This is the type of Judaism G-d wants us to study, discover, learn, and teach to our loved ones and our students.

If it is a Judaism that is presented as truth but not as something that people will choose, then Rebbi tells us, there is something deeply lacking.

In December 1995, Boston businessman Aaron Feuerstein had just returned home from his seventieth birthday party, when a phone call informed him that his Malden Mills textile factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts, burned down. Twenty-six employees had been injured, some seriously.

Three thousand people worked at Malden Mills. When the employees saw the devastation wrought by the fire, they assumed, as one worker put it, "The fire's out of control. Our jobs are gone."

The fire was indeed out of control, but Feuerstein was not. An observant Jew who studies Talmud every day, Feuerstein recalled how his father would quote the Talmudic aphorism "In a place where there is no man, be a man".[25] In the immediate aftermath of the fire, he met with one thousand employees and told them, "When all the textile mills in Lawrence ran out to get cheaper labor down south, we stuck. We're going to stay and rebuild."

Two days later, wages were due. "Pay everyone in full," Feuerstein ordered. "And on time." Along with the payroll checks, Feuerstein included a $275 bonus for the New Year season, and a note: "Do not despair. God bless each of you."

The following day, Feuerstein convened a meeting of his employees and announced, "For the next thirty days, it might be longer, all employees will be paid full salaries." Thirty days became 90 as he arranged for temporary facilities. The total cost of supporting his people after the fire came to $25 million.

Later that day, Feuerstein, himself a leading philanthropic supporter of Torah-inspired causes and various humanitarian projects, went on his annual pre-holiday season route around Lawrence, disbursing $80,000 to such organizations as the Salvation Army, Neighbors in Need, and the Bread and Roses Soup Kitchen.

Did American law require Feuerstein to act as he did? No. That is why his generous actions received national acclaim and were the subject of numerous articles in magazines and newspapers.

Gary Torgow is a friend of mine; he is a Torah-observant Jew who puts on Tefillin every morning, studies Torah daily, celebrates the Shabbat, and is deeply committed to Judaism. He is also Chairman of Chemical Bank in Midland, Michigan. I heard the following story from Gary himself.

One day Gary gets a call in his office, located on the 11th floor of his bank building. On the other line is a man from Dublin, Ohio.

“Is this Gary Turgow, chairman of the bank?”

Yes, it is.

“I looked you up online, and I see that you are Jewish. I want to tell you, that as a Jew you should be ashamed of yourself. You are a disgrace to your people.

“I also see that you used to own the Talmar bank, named after your grandfather. He, too, is ashamed in his grave because of your behavior.”

“What happened?” wonders Gary.

“I am 91 years old,” the man says. “40 years ago, I built a home in Dublin. It cost me 40,000 dollars. I took out a loan for the $40,000 from your predecessor. I paid my mortgage every month. I was never late on a payment.

“My wife died this year. We have no children. Her death shattered me and I became disoriented and confused. As a result, I missed seven payments on my mortgage.

“Now I gathered myself together, I got back into things, and I opened the mail. I received a letter from your bank that due to my lack of payments, my house is up for foreclosure.

“So I wrote out a check for all the seven payments, I mailed it to the bank and explained to them what had happened.

“Your bank sent me back a letter that it was too late to do anything. It’s a done deal. The house is already up for foreclosure. They sent me back my money and said there was nothing they could do.

“Shame on you! Shame on you!” The man cried. “You are a disgrace to the Jewish people. I am 91. I have nothing but this home of mine. This house began at 40,000; now it is worth $850,000 and you guys are going to take it away from me!”

The man was beyond devastated.

Gary Turgow says: “I am so so sorry to hear this. Please give me your address and telephone number; let me investigate the situation.”

Gary goes down to the 4th floor of the bank, where the offices dealing with foreclosures are located. He approaches the head of that department and asks him to look up the name of the house owner in Dublin, Ohio.

The manager looks up the information. He confirms that the story is true as the old man said it was.

Gary says to him, “Can we just forget this foreclosure?”

The head of the department says: No! The mortgage was already bought by a servicer. Our bank does not own it anymore. There is nothing we can do.

Gary asks him to look up how much is owed on the house, all in all, to pay up the ENTIRE mortgage, including interest and penalties due to the late payments.

The amount came out to $5,200.00! Yes, five thousand, two hundred dollars.

Gary was astounded. The man might lose his precious home due to $5,200?! Gary writes out a check for $5200, and tells his employer: “Send the servicer this check overnight, I want to buy back the mortgage from them.” This he does.

Gary sends a letter to the Jew in Dublin: “The home is yours. All were paid up. You need not pay anything more. The seven payments, plus all future payments, were taken care of. You own nothing in the home. Enjoy it for many years to come. I deeply apologize for the aggravation and the pain this incident caused you. Yours, Gary Turgow.”

Gary never hears from this man again. Life moves on, as we say. He almost forgets the story.

Six months pass. One day Gary gets a call from a lawyer in Dublin, Ohio.

“Is this Mr. Turgow?” Yes.

“Remember the man who had an issue with a home in Dublin”?

Gary has to remind himself. And then he says: Yes. Sure. Did he get my note? Was he satisfied?  Yes, the lawyer says.

“Great. I am glad it worked out. How is he?”

The Lawyer says: “He died yesterday. I am his lawyer. When he got your note he changed his final Will. He called me in and he said that he wanted to redo his will.

“You see, he was so moved by what you did for him, that he legally left entire the house to you. He instructed that the house be given to you for you to give to a charity of your choice.

Not a bad deal friends: for a 5200 check, he gets a home worth 850k!...

Gary asks the lawyer: “What was this man’s passion?” The lawyer says: He was a Jewish man, and he loved Israel.”

Gary emails the lawyer a list of ten beloved charities in Israel. He instructs the lawyer to sell the home and distribute the money to these Israeli charities.

The lawyer then turns to Gary and says these words:

I lived all my life in Dublin. I am catholic and I have been practicing law all my life in this little city. I have always read the Bible. But I never understood why did G-d made the Jews His Chosen People. The Bible does not give a reason for this. Why did G-d choose Abraham and his descendants?

Now, at last, I understand why you guys are the Chosen People!

That day, ten yeshivots in Israel—places where the values of Judaism are taught, ingrained, and are the focus of the studies of the students—received each a check for $85,000.

Which is the right path for a person to choose for himself? Whatever is beautiful for the one who does it is also perceived as beautiful by other people.

Judaism, Torah, and Mitzvot is the path to choose and embrace—as they can add so much beauty to your life and will make your life beautiful in the eyes of so many others around you, who will be inspired, uplifted, and invigorated by you.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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