For the past several months, we have all been struggling with the terrible COVID-19 pandemic. We have heard our share of sad and tragic stories, and many have had to cope with very frightening events. But, on more than one occasion, we have also read about, and sometimes even witnessed, uplifting and inspiring episodes that have helped us cope with the situation constructively.
One such episode was particularly meaningful to me. I first read about it in a news release originating in Italy, a country which was particularly hard hit by the novel coronavirus. It soon became the “story of the day” for much of the media. Like many such stories, it soon evaporated from public consciousness. But I simply cannot forget this story and its powerful lesson.
There is an elderly gentleman in one of Italy’s northern cities who contracted the virus and suffered greatly. His treatment involved the use of a ventilator, to which he was attached for quite some time. Eventually, he was removed from the ventilator and, soon afterwards, was pronounced healthy and was discharged from the hospital. As he was checking out of the hospital, he was presented with a bill for the use of the ventilator. The bill came to several thousand euros.
He stared at the bill and began to cry. The hospital worker was moved by his tears and assured him that some type of arrangement could be made to reduce the exorbitant fee. However, the old man responded, “I’m not concerned about paying so much money. I can afford it.” “Then why are you crying?” asked the worker. The old man replied, “I have been breathing on my own for over eighty years. I never paid a penny for those breaths. Now I am asked to pay for the use of the ventilator which restored my breath to me. If I owe the hospital so much money for a few days of breathing, how much more do I owe the Creator of the Universe for allowing me to breathe all these many years!”
This anecdote affected me so that I remember it upon awakening every morning. Like every observant Jew, the first words out of my mouth each morning are words of thanksgiving to the King of Kings for having compassionately restored my soul to me, shehechezarta bi nishmati bechemla.
Since hearing this story, I’ve “edited” the prayer, and I thank the Almighty for having compassionately restored “nishmati u’neshimati,” not just “my soul” but “my soul and my breath.”
The old Italian gentleman left us all with a lesson: We must be grateful each morning that we can breathe effortlessly.
This anecdote motivated me to supplement the old adage that there are “two types of people in the world: those who view the cup as half-full versus those who view it as half-empty.” In other words, some people are optimists and some are pessimists.
But the old Italian gentleman went beyond merely saying that the “cup was half-full.” He insisted that the cup was entirely full, “half with water and half with air.” He helped us to realize that even what appears to be of no value — emptiness — is, in reality, of life-giving significance.
In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach (13:1-15:41), we read of two such very different types of people. We read of the twelve men who were sent out from the wilderness on an espionage mission to spy out the land of Canaan.
Upon their return, we discover that ten of them are, to say the least, pessimists. They report that the land is “a land that devours its inhabitants” and that it is occupied by giants who cannot possibly be conquered.
But two of them, Joshua and Caleb, have a different message. They optimistically report that “the land is very, very good” and that “if we but desist from rebelling against the L-rd,” we need not fear, and can easily even defeat, the giants.
The nineteenth-century commentator Rabbi Jacob Mecklenburg, whose work HaK’tav VeHaKabbalah typically unveils hidden nuances in the Hebrew language of the biblical text, points out that our sacred language provides two different verbs to describe these two different types of people, optimists and pessimists.
Two different verbs are used in the Chumash for the term “spy.”
One is latur and the other is leragel. Rabbi Mecklenburg demonstrates that latur is best translated not as “to spy” but as “to explore,” or perhaps as “to wander,” or even as “to tour.” On the other hand, leragel is best translated as “to seek fault,” or “to find weaknesses.”
One who engages in leragel is the classic pessimist. He seeks the negative in every situation and invariably finds it. But one whose mission is latur seeks the positive in his explorations and discovers, to use our metaphor, that the cup is not only half-full but entirely full.
Categorizing all of humanity into just two types of people is an overly simplistic approach and, therefore, not always helpful. However, toward the end of this week’s Torah portion, I discovered another use of the “two types of people” categorization that is extremely insightful and very instructive.
Here I draw upon another of the great nineteenth-century commentators, namely Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, known as the Netziv.
Towards the end of this week’s parsha, we read about the mitzvah of tzitzit, of wearing strings upon the fringes of our four cornered garments. We are instructed that, in addition to the uncolored or white strings, there must be one or two strings dyed blue, called tekhelet.
The Netziv suggests, in a homiletic tour de force, that the white/uncolored strings and the blue dyed strings represent two types of people — more specifically, two types of devout religious people. He argues that there are those Jews whose piety is exemplary but who also engage in mundane matters. They attend synagogue regularly, keep the various festivals and ritual activities, study Torah, and contribute to charity. But they have other concerns, whether in the world of commerce, with the arts and sciences, or with political affairs.
Then there is another type of Jew, the person who is exclusively preoccupied with heavenly matters and has room in his life for only purely spiritual concerns. He has a mystical bent and prefers to avoid the material world.
The white strings represent the first type of Jew, suggests the Netziv, whereas the blue tekhelet strings represent the second type.
The Netziv points out that the passage contains two imperatives, two commands, to gaze at the tzitzis and thereby come to “remember the mitzvot and perform them.” In verse 15:39, we read, “and remember all of the L-rd’s mitzvot and perform them and do not be led astray by your heart and by your eyes”. And in verse 40, we read again, “… so that you will remember and perform all of my mitzvot and thereby become holy to the Almighty.”
“Are not these two verses repetitive?”, asks the Netziv. He answers, and this is his tour de force, that the first verse is directed to the “whites,” to those who observe the religious basics but who can be led astray by their other interests and activities. They are told to be sure to observe the tradition and not to be seduced by the ideologies that their “hearts” encounter and by the attractions that their “eyes” observe.
The second verse, continues the Netziv, is addressed in the religious purists, the “blues,” who wish to “cleave to the L-rd.” They must be reminded that they too must observe all the mitzvot, even those that require intense involvement in everyday affairs, in the needs of the community, and in the establishment of a just society. Only thereby will they become “holy to the Almighty.”
How relevant are the Netziv’s words to all of us today. The “whites” among us have chosen a path that has its moral and ethical temptations. They must creatively and energetically resist those temptations. They must know their boundaries.
The “blues” among us must realize that they cannot remain “in the heavens,” in the proverbial “ivory tower.” They must bring their spiritual gifts to bear upon the imperfect world in which we all live.
We need both types of people, the “blues” and the “whites.”