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A Tale of Two Rabbis

by Rabbi Yisrael Rutman

The story is told of two rabbis in the same yeshiva on the morning after the Passover Seder. One of them entered the yeshiva for morning services in a cheerful, expansive mood; the other looked tense, preoccupied. The former was radiant with the knowledge of all the mitzvot he had accomplished with his family the night before; the re-telling of the Exodus, eating the matzah and bitter herbs, the four cups of wine. The latter was beset by worry: Was there, perhaps, a trace of chametz (leavened bread) that had insinuated itself into the food despite all the efforts to be chametz-free? Had he consumed a sufficient quantity of wine in each cup to satisfy the requirements of Jewish law? Had he maintained the proper level of concentration when performing the mitzvot (commandments) of the night, or had he been distracted by taking care of all his family and visitors?

The contrast between the two rabbis, equally renowned for their scholarship and saintly personalities, was striking. Who could say who was right? Was the first rabbi perhaps guilty of being complacent and self-satisfied? Was the second rabbi merely succumbing to his personal tendency toward anxiety, not to be confused with holiness? And in general, which one should the role model for us? What proportion of joy and solemnity should we feel in our Judaism?

The answer is that both approaches are legitimate. Each rabbi was expressing his own personal experience within the framework of Judaism. Judaism is a big house, and there is ample room for all of us.

Indeed, the search for one’s own approach is an essential part of Judaism, no less important than the technically correct performance of the mitzvah. It’s like body and soul. The physical mitzvah is the body, the individual’s unique way of doing it (albeit within the parameters of halacha) is the soul of the mitzvah.

This principle has relevance for life in general. We have to be true to ourselves, not just go with the flow. “Going with the flow” is a saying from the 1960?s. It meant being sensitive and alive to the present moment, as opposed to pre-programmed behavior. It was cool to go with the flow. But it often masked a conformity of another kind—like protesting the war, the draft and using recreational drugs—going along with what others were doing, even if you hadn’t thought the thing through yourself.

It’s an interesting thing about that metaphor: The ones who go with the flow are the fish that are already dead; the live ones are able to swim even against the current (Pardes Yosef, Shmos, Yisro, Page 154).

Anybody can wear pre-faded jeans and mouth fashionable phrases, but being faithful to your own personality takes a certain fortitude. In the great ethical work, Chovos HaLevovos (Duties of the Heart), it says that a person should seek out work for which he is suited. Library work is not for the outdoors type; forest rangering is not for the bookworm. Holding fast on this isn’t so easy when jobs are scarce and you’re liable to grasp desperately at whatever comes your way. Holding out for the right job for you is not only practical (since you’re more likely to succeed with it than a job you hate), it can be a spiritual choice, a recognition and response to what God wants from you. If a person has a desire for a particular craft or business, he should pursue it, “because God has implanted in him a love for it…” (Sha’ar HaBitachon Chapter 3).

Of course, the choice is not always clear. When Rabbi Aryeh Levin’s interest turned towards community work, his wife protested. She had agreed to share a life of hardship with him for the sake of promoting his greatness in Torah. Helping others was wonderful, but it detracted from his study time.

The couple agreed to present their problem to the revered sage, Rabbi Shlomo Eliyashuv, among whose disciples Reb Aryeh was counted. He heard them out, and then said: “In former times, when there were prophets in Israel, each person knew his role on earth, as the prophet would tell him. Since prophecy has departed from Israel…nobody knows his role or purpose in life. But I have a tradition that someone who sees success and spiritual satisfaction, this is a sign from heaven that this is indeed what he is destined for in this world.”

Reprinted with permission from



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