9 Kislev 5781 / Wednesday, November 25, 2020 | Torah Reading: Vayeitzei
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Bookworm in the Mikva    

Bookworm in the Mikva

I couldn't believe it. There he was, sitting on the bench in the corner of the communal dressing/undressing area in the mikva, reading a book and impervious to the whole world...


I couldn't believe it. There he was, sitting on the bench in the corner of the communal dressing/undressing area in the men's mikva, reading a book and impervious to the whole world.


For sure, I was making no mistake. Rabbi Yochai is my good friend and neighbor; it was him. He is a distinguished teacher in one of Ashdod's finest Chassidic yeshivas, in his early 50's, and the father of nine or ten children. Everybody in the neighborhood respects him. He's called a “tzaddik the son of a tzaddik”, because his father, now 92, not only survived Auschwitz but came out of the Holocaust with unscathed emuna.


I had so many questions in my mind. Doesn't Yochai know that one isn't supposed to read in the mikva? In all fairness, he wasn't reading a Torah book but a general history book instead. Even so, since when does he waste time reading non-Torah books? What's more, it was getting late and candle-lighting time was in less than two hours. Doesn't his wife need help at home with the Friday afternoon pre-Shabbat mad rush? How can he sit so calmly in his corner, ignoring the world and reading about Rome's conquest of Mesopotamia? Has he gone mad?


Then, I was getting upset with myself. “Hey, Lazer,” I chastised myself, “what about the Chofetz Chaim? What about the obligation to give a simple person the benefit of the doubt? What about the obligation to avoid doubting a righteous person altogether?” But for the life of me, I couldn't understand what Yochai was doing. I never saw anyone reading in the mikva and sitting so calmly with only ninety minutes or so left until Shabbat is ushered in. What's more, Yochai is not only a rabbi but an educator with an impeccably respected reputation. These are crazy times...


I wrapped a towel around myself and headed toward the showers. And then the truth hit me, right between the eyes...


The elderly Rabbi Pinchas, Yochai's holy father, was shuffling his bony 92-year-old frame out of the shower and in the direction of the mikva, the ritual bath.


So that's what Rabbi Yochai, the tzaddik son of a tzaddik was doing! He was monitoring his father, making sure that nothing detrimental happened to him. Yet, he was avoiding to look at his undressed father as Halacha requires, but he was nearby if his father would need him. What's more, so that he wouldn't look at other undressed people, he buried his nose in a book. Everything Yochai did was in total adherence to religious law and to the most exacting standards of personal holiness. He had put aside all his own affairs to fulfill the mitzva of honoring his elderly father by accompanying him to the mikva on Friday afternoon.


The one tiny missing detail – seeing Yochai's father in the mikva – was the difference between my harboring a dozen questions in my heart about Yochai's apparently strange behavior and between realizing what a righteous individual he is.


If one missing detail throws us completely off track, then how can we possibly judge what Hashem does in the world when we're missing millions of details?


Our holy Second Temple was destroyed because of intramural hate. Most of intramural hate stems from failing to judge others fairly and to give them the same benefit of the doubt that we would want for ourselves. If we'll be crying once more this Tisha B'Av, it means that we too haven't yet corrected this sin, for if we did, our Holy Temple would be rebuilt already.


We can imagine that this will be one of a person's most embarrassing moments when he or she arrives in the Heavenly Court. The Tribunal will chastise us and tell us how easy it could have been to bring Moshiach and to rebuild the Holy Temple – if only we would have judged one another more fairly...


A weak muscle requires more exercise and the same goes for a weak character trait. I decided from that Friday afternoon in the mikva that my imagination is still too weak, that even if I can't think of a way to judge the other guy fairly, then I should invent a way. Even better, I should avoid judging altogether. Like everything else, “Thank You” Hashem for showing me what I need to do after Shavuot if I'd prefer dancing this coming Tisha B'Av instead of sitting on the floor and crying lamentations. Have a healthy summer and a safe and enjoyable vacation season!



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