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WHAT IS SIGNIFICANT IN YOUR LIFE?

Friday, 4 January, 2019 - 8:54 am

The patient tells the doctor after he took care of him from a potentially serious situation: Since we have become such close friends, I will not pay you. I don’t want to insult you by offering payment. But I want you to know, that as a sign of deep gratitude, I did put you in my will for after my death.

“That is so kind of you,” said the doctor. “But give me that prescription I just gave you; I’d like to make a little change in it.”

The Baal Shem Tov once said: “A soul comes down for 70-80 years just to do a favor to another Jew—a material favor, or a spiritual favor.”

Does this make sense? A life of 80 years is long, tedious, painful, exhausting, and packed with action. The person living this life may have spent 20 years on educating himself, building a career with sweat and tears, constructing a life, a family, and a reputation. What’s the ultimate purpose of it all?

Comes the Baal Shem Tov and says: To do one favor to another person!

Really? 80 years my soul needed to toil in this world with all of the anxiety and agony that comes with life, to do one favor for one person?  Where did this Baal Shem Tov get this from?

The Baal Shem Tov deduced this principle from the final verse of The Haftarah of this week portion Vaera Ezekiel chapter 29. G-d states clearly that cataclysmic earth-shattering world events, a massive showdown between the two great superpowers of the time, contain one major purpose: that more Jews should realize that Yechezkel was an authentic prophet of G-d.

We do not always profess the proper perspective what is significant, and what is meaningless. What we consider the “news not fit to print,” may be as important as the front page headlines in all newspapers and websites. “The stone that the builders rejected became a cornerstone,” says the Psalmist.

In 1840 the First Opium War took place between China and Britain, it was a conflict about foreign trade in China. Finally, in 1842, the Treaty of Nanjing was signed, which turned Shanghai into an international city, open freely for trade for people of all countries.

If you were reading a newspaper in 1842, you would not see in this story anything essential or significant to you as a Jew. Just another bloody and tragic conflict in the East.

But exactly 100 years later, we all discovered that this was part of a tapestry of events that saved generations of Jews. There was only ONE CITY in the world where Jews, fleeing Hitler, can enter and stay without a Visa. IT WAS SHANGHAI! They were refused entry into every other country, including the US, Britain, and Palestine. As a result, some 60,000 Jews were saved from the gas chambers by fleeing to Japan and from there to China where they remained during the Holocaust. There are hundreds of thousands of Jews alive today because in 1840, a war between Britain and China opened the gates of Shanghai to refugees.

So can I ever know what the newspaper story is really significant?

On the night of April 14, 1912, the watchman assigned to the crow’s nest post atop the Titanic had a problem. The binoculars he needed to keep an eye out for large obstacles (icebergs, say), were inside a locked locker—and the key was missing. Right before the ship left port, the cruise company made a last-minute decision to replace the ship’s second officer David Blair with Charles Lightroller. In his haste to make the switch, Blair forgot to hand over the keys to the locker.

So do I ever know what a significant story is? Forgetting to give you the key to the binoculars seems quite trivial to me. But, as it turns out, it changed the lives of thousands of people forever, and is seared into the imagination of millions.

We often make the mistake of seeing major significance only in “big events” that unfold in the lives of “big people.” Judaism teaches otherwise. The center of spiritual gravity can sometimes be found in an isolated, apparently small gesture or act.

It was Maimonides who wrote: 

A person must see himself and the world as equally balanced on two ends of the scale; by doing one good deed, he tips the scale and brings for himself and the entire world redemption and salvation.

Should I really invest time in doing a favor for one individual? How significant is it to put a smile on the face of an elderly lonely woman? To give hope to a struggling teenager? To help a friend struggling in his business? To inspire a couple to enhance their marriage? To embrace a tormented soul?

Comes the Tanach and teaches us a fabulous and remarkable lesson. Two Super Powers are having it out with each other: Comes G-d and says: I want you to know that as significant and as vital these world-changes are, there is another component here that is as vital and crucial: that a few Jews embrace the true prophet of G-d! Sometimes the world turns over so that one more Jew can learn Torah or do a Mitzvah!

Of course, this does not explain to us the mysteries of history. Why did so many people have to die on the battlefields of human history? Whatever the purpose may be, so much of world events are beyond our finite mind. It is easier for a frog to grasp quantum mechanics than for me to grasp G-d!

But the point is that in the grand scheme of things, the purpose of major upheavals in the world may be related to one Jew serving G-d!

Rabbi Mendel Baumgarten once related a personal experience:

In the 1940s I used to read the Torah in a particular Shul on East N.Y. Ave, in Bklyn. Among the worshippers was a wealthy man who apparently disliked Chabad. He would often make disparaging remarks against Chabad and the sixth Rebbe.

And then suddenly one Shabbat, before the Torah reading, the man marched to the center of the shul and banged his hand on the lectern. “I would like to make a public apology to Lubavitcher Rebbe,” he announced.

I was shocked. What happened?

The man continues to share this story. One day this man’s brother was diagnosed with cancer. Since he lacked health insurance, the wealthy man paid for the medical expenses out of his own pocket. The brother recovered. However, the wealthy man was now left penniless. In fact, his financial situation was so dire that he placed an appeal in the Yiddish daily newspaper, the Morning Journal. Lacking money even for the ad, he wrote just one line: “A Jew needs help. Please call this number…”

To his sorrow, nobody responded. If you would see a tiny ad in a newspaper “a Jew needs help,” would you respond? Who does not need help? I also need help! He did not even get one response.

Except for one person. A few days after the ad ran, he gets a call from a man who identifies himself as a secretary of Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. “The Rebbe saw your ad, A Jew Needs Help, and he wants to know what is it that you need?” He shared with the Rebbe his dire financial situation.

A few days later an envelope full of cash from the Rebbe arrived at his home.

This is a Rebbe, a person who embodies the noblest values of Judaism. You see an ad: “A Jew needs help,” and you respond! Because, as the Baal Shem Tov would say, who knows if your soul did not enter this world just to do a favor to that Jew?!

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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