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Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz

Once Upon a Time

I recently came upon a book of stories that had originally been shared at melaveh malkah, the traditional “Farewell to the Shabbos Queen” meal held on Saturday nights. It seems that there is a custom at this meal to tell stories of great and righteous people. One story stuck out in my mind, presumably because of a personal family connection.

Before my great-grandfather came to America in 1898, he went to get a blessing from R’ Chatzkeleh Shinover, R’ Yechezkel Halberstam z”l, famed son of R’ Chaim Sanzer, z”l. The story I read involved him.

It seems that his much younger brother, Shulem Lazer Halberstam HY”D, had a special table in his home which he valued so much that he moved it with his belongings whenever he moved, despite it having a broken tabletop. In fact, it wasn’t despite the table being broken, but because of it.

The story goes that one day, R’ Chatzkeleh had used the facilities and was saying the Asher Yatzar prayer afterwards, praising Hashem for the miracles of the human body. He stood there for some time with his eyes closed, brow furrowed, and lips moving. It was assumed that after Asher Yatzar, he had continued with the other morning brachos, which would explain the lengthy time he spent in prayer.

Suddenly, he exclaimed, “…Rofeh chol basar u’mafli laasos! – Healer of all flesh Who does wondrous things!” the end of the Asher Yatzar brachah. As he did so, he clapped his hand to the table in emphasis and he broke the tabletop! His brother kept this as a proud memento of his brother’s greatness.

After reading this story, and thinking about it, I found it impressive that someone had so much concentration in the brachah of Asher Yatzar that he was infused with such passion and energy. Then something else bothered me. If he was so passionate about this brachah, shouldn’t there have been many broken tabletops?

Obviously, since there was only one, this was likely the only time he said it with such conviction and energy that manifested itself in this way. And yet, it was memorable.

R’ Shimshon Pincus, z”l, wrote about this type of event. He suggested that we grab flashes of greatness. If guarding one’s speech constantly like the Chofetz Chaim did is greatness, then guarding our speech even sometimes is a flash of greatness. It’s something to be treasured and not ignored.

We shouldn’t feel, “I can’t learn Daf Yomi every day so what’s the point?” Learn whatever days you can and you’re ahead. Have you ever heard of someone saying he was unable to go to work one day so he just gave up on the whole week? Of course not. Whatever we do is important.

I think there’s more to it as well. Why did R’ Chatzkeleh’s brother treasure that table? Because it showed the heights to which his brother could ascend, even sporadically.

When we act as our very best selves, even once in a while, it is a reflection of who we truly are and who we can be. Think of the time you were tempted in an argument to say something hurtful and nasty, but you felt it was going too far and you bit your tongue. There may have been other times that you didn’t bite your tongue; times when you said something you ought not to have, but that doesn’t take away the fact that you are someone with the innate ability to control yourself.

Every spiritual victory is to be savored, but it should also be a reminder to us of just how much greatness we can achieve.

During Elul and the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, we try to act on our best behavior. We try to accept things upon ourselves to improve, and when we write correspondences we end with a blessing for a good new year, showing a love for each other. It is brought down in Shulchan Aruch that we do not eat pas palter (bread baked by a non-Jew, even commercially) during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Even if we know we will not adhere to these additional actions later on, it is not hypocrisy. On the contrary, we are taking the opportunity to grow and show ourselves what we’re really made of. I even think of it like a bagel.

Some people like to order a bagel “scooped out.” Much of the inner bread is removed, thus lowering the carb/calorie count. However, when it is being filled with tuna fish or egg salad, the “scoop out” allows the bagel to hold more of the food.

When we do things that stretch our souls, I feel like we’re scooping out the physicality and making more room for the G-dliness. Even if we don’t do these things all the time, we’ve carved out a channel in our being for the flow of kedushah.

So, revel in the moments of greatness, knowing that they matter tremendously, and that each one brings us closer to the ideal of who we should want to be… even if it’s only once or twice upon a time.

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