Viewing ourselves and our mentors realistically

[Hat tip to R’ Micha]

This is a sobering letter from R’ Yitzchak Hutner ז’ל. He was a very interesting, non-standard, Charedi Rosh Yeshivah, who considered Rav Kook ז’ל as his Rav HaMuvhak for many years; R’ Kook’s picture used to hang prominently in his Succah. The Rayatz of Lubavitch ז’ל arranged for him to have a personal Chavrusa in Chassidus with the last Rebbe ז’ל before he became Rebbe. He was Rosh Yeshivah of Chaim Berlin, and Rabbi Groner ז’ל was also influenced by him and spoke about him. He is best known for his Sefer Pachad Yitzchak, something that’s on my “need to learn properly” list; a list that seems to be getting longer and longer. A generally fiery and charismatic character who some considered to be almost Rebbe like given the Tishes he used to host, R’ Hutner wrote a letter (no. 128) to presumably a Talmid. This letter was translated and published in the Jewish Observer in December 1981.

Unfortunately, as we all know, the Artscrolls and HaModias of the Charedi world tend to never portray the full picture of Gedolim, making them all appear perfect in every possible way. This is of course an exercise in Sheker and a great shame. Furthermore, it can put unrealistic pressure on the ordinary person. Our task is to clone ourselves, but that cloning is to the Middos of Hakadosh Baruch Hu, through adherence to Halacha. We know that we cannot reach that level of perfection. We strive and struggle, but should be under no illusions that we can achieve the type of perfection described by Charedi Hagiography. A dose of realism never hurt anyonw.
Given that we are in Ellul, it’s also a fortuitous moment to re-publish the excerpt below.

…A failing many of us suffer from is, that when we consider the
aspects of perfection of our sages, we focus on the ultimate level of
their attainments… while omitting mention of the inner struggles
that had previously raged within them. A listener would get the
impression that these individuals came out of the hand of their
Creator in full-blown form.

Everyone is awed at the purity of speech of the Chofetz Chaim,
z.t.l., considering it a miraculous phenomenon. But who knows of the
battles, struggles and obstacles, the slumps and regressions that
the Chofetz Chaim encountered in his war with the yetzer horo (evil
inclination)? There are many such examples, to which a discerning
individual such as yourself can certainly apply the rule.

The result of this failing is that when an ambitious young man
of spirit and enthusiasm meets obstacles, falls and slumps, he
imagines himself as unworthy of being ‘planted in the house of
Hashem.’ According to this young man’s fancy, flourishing in the house
of Hashem means to repose with calm spirit on ‘lush meadows’ beside
‘tranquil waters’ (Tehilim-Psalm 23) delighting in the yetzer hatov
[good inclination], in the manner of the righteous delighting in the
reflection of the Shechina [Divine Presence], with crowns on their
heads, gathered in Gan Eden [Garden of Eden]. And at the same time,
untroubled by the agitation of the yetzer hora….

Know, however, my dear friend, that your soul is rooted not in
the TRANQUILITY of the yetzer tov, but rather in the BATTLE of the
yetzer tov. And your precious warm-hearted letter ‘testifies as one
hundred witnesses’ that you are a worthy warrior in the battalion
of the yetzer tov. The English expression, ‘Lose a battle and win
a war’ applies. Certainly you have stumbled, and will tumble again
(a self-fulfilling prophecy is not intended) and in many battles
you will fall lame. I promise you, though, that after those losing
campaigns you will emerge from the war with the laurels of victory
upon your head…. Lose battles but win wars.

Author: pitputim

I'm a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia. I skylark as the band leader/singer for the Schnapps band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel.

6 thoughts on “Viewing ourselves and our mentors realistically”

  1. A near universal super-veneration of Gedolim, Tzaddikim and Roshei Yeshiva has become par for the course.
    The need and or desire to exaggerate has become a near commandment for the “true believers”.
    How many times have we heard such and such a Rav is the Gadol HaDor or Posek HaDor, the Greatest of the great etc etc
    The time has come for a rethinking of this approach.

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    1. I don’t mind people venerating. I don’t mind people calling others GaDol HaDor Posek HaDor, Rabon Shel Yisroel, Manhig HaDor etc
      I think that’s their right and there isn’t anything wrong with that (as long as they don’t ask permission/advice before they pass wind (pardon my crassness) and don’t assume ‘papal’ infallability.

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      1. infallibility is the crux.
        Only HaShem is infallible
        Yes veneration is acceptable and appropriate, I chose the incorrect adjective

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  2. I think that if one learns how to view oneself realistically, but truly realistically, then the mentors will be viewed in the same way.Providing that the mentors instruct correctly on how to view oneself realistically.

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    1. The problem is that our books tend to show the mentors as being perfect in every way. This tends to make people unrealistic about themselves and everything else. It’s a form of brainwashing. The classic example was the banning of the “Making of a Gadol” because it “dared” tell the truth.

      Each week, HaModia tells us about some new incredible person. You get a nice feeling, but how real is all of this.

      I remember how emancipated I felt when I was reading an essay from the Rav, R’ Soloveitchik, when he said he was depressed after his wife, his soul mate, passed away. In our world, that’s a sign of “weakness” … not enough Bitachon, that all that Hashem does is for the GOOD. Yet, the Rav was comfortable writing that he felt very BAD. Does this mean he didn’t have Bitachon? Heck no.

      It’s our crooked, homogenised world. If we were more openly human, maybe, just maybe, some people would see less hypocrisy, and maybe, just maybe, they wouldn’t go “off the derech” because they felt everyone was “full of it” or that they “could never attain it”

      Food for thought

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  3. I dare say that the Rav felt about the passing of his wife, as did Avrohom Avinu aftert the passing of Sarah imeinu… Not a weakness at all… but a very admirable human trait.
    We live in a world where one is quick to criticise and condemn. I know of individuals here within our community who are unassuming, humble and modest, and exceptional baali midois toivois. These individuals are pretty much under the radar because they keep a low profile, yet in my dealings with them I have seen real sincerity and commitment to Torah and mitzvois.Not “full of it at all”

    Like

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