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9 Sivan 5768 - June 12, 2008 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Opinion & Comment
"I Presumed to Become Wise"

by Rabbi Arye Geffen

The Abused Wisdom of the Unfortunate

"There is a small city with few inhabitants; a great king came to it and encircled it and built mighty structures for siege. He found in it a wise but poor man who saved the city in his wisdom, but no one remembered this poor wise man" (Koheles 9:14).

People plug up their ears so as not to hear opinions different from theirs. The way of the wise is to eat their bread in hardship. It is even said of the truly smart men that, "Bread is not for the wise." We have found it necessary to rouse those who consider themselves clever to rescue the city through the wisdom of that poor sage.

I heard an apt parable from a great person which does him credit: "Provide for the wise and he will grow even wiser."

There was once a ship which sailed in mid sea. All of a sudden the crew and its officers became frantic and stirred up a great commotion. An innocent passenger approached the captain and asked what the fuss was all about, but the captain was evasive. The man continued to press him until he admitted, "Something terrible is wrong with the ship. We have only half-an-hour left before it sinks."

Hearing this dire prediction, the man said, "I am an entertainer by profession. Why don't you assemble all of the passengers and let me amuse and distract them so that they will forget the danger. This will leave you free to take whatever measures still remain to save the ship."

The captain told everyone to go up on deck and the comedian launched into a magic act. He pulled rabbits and chicks out of hats and did all kinds of amazing tricks; he truly succeeded in enthralling the people and making them forget the danger. The performer stopped to look at his watch and noted that only half a minute remained before the ship would blow up. He addressed the captive audience and said, "I will now show you a spectacle never made before. Count with me to thirty and you will witness the ship exploding."

The ship actually did explode with a tremendous blast, casting debris in every direction. People were hurled into the water and attempted to grasp at anything that floated to save their lives.

Our entertainer found himself a plank and held on for dear life. Nearby floated an elderly couple who had likewise found a board to hold them up. Grasping tightly for all he was worth, the old man turned to his wife and pointed to the magician, and, certain that he was to blame for their misfortune, cried, "There he is, the wise guy, ah groisse chochom!"

"I Presumed to Become Wise"

I do not wish to lecture on emunas chachomim, the trust we must place in our wise Torah leaders; this subject is as old as the hills. I would like to dwell upon the `wise guys,' that is, the people who believe in their own cleverness, who think highly of themselves and feel superior to others.

I am not referring to those who choose a different way of life or who were born into a different ideological framework. Each flock has its shepherd; the wise man will anticipate the future, and our camp were wise to think of future developments and plan accordingly.

Periodically, the entire country becomes verbally excited and thrown into turmoil. The wool is being pulled over the eyes of the masses; they are being flattered and deceived, yet their opinion is important to the king makers. Everyone holds himself to be the groisse chochom, to hold the solution to our problems. Could it really be that `the atmosphere of Eretz Yisroel is so conducive to wisdom' that they have suddenly acquired true good sense? Have we then returned to days of yore when the wisdom of the wisest of all men, King Shlomo, enlightened the entire land? "Whoever sees King Shlomo in a dream can expect to become wise."

Well, the wisdom after the act, the hindsight, will soon make us all smarter, when the country will be rudely awakened from its sweet dreams to the harshness of reality. The realization will come with lightning speed, much faster than the flying arrow. The country will admit that if it sought to become wise with its choice of super leader, that wisdom is still very far removed.

"The Wise Man's Eyes are in His Head"

If the wise man's eyes are in his head, where are the eyes of the fool?

The masses are forever complaining about the conduct of their leaders and public figures. Many eyes pop out with envy at the imagined splendor and glory surrounding public figures. They find it difficult to see their leaders behaving like ordinary folk, like the man-next-door, and they begrudge them their prestige. "What good does it do them?" they grumble.

The wise man's eyes are in his head: he looks at his leaders and their real conduct, while the fool only looks at the seat, at the honor, prestige and power they enjoy. The wise man's eyes are at his head — his leader — and the fool, at his seat.

Habit also plays its role. R' Avrohom Mintzberg, rabbi of Yuzefof and grandson of R' Dovid of Lelov, once discussed the power of habit with regard to public activity and said, "After I came to Jerusalem, I was chosen to administer Kollel Poland. The first time a widow came to me in tears, she broke my heart. I was beside myself with commiseration and could not eat a thing. I soon became accustomed to such heartbreaking scenes and they ceased to affect my appetite, though the food was not as tempting as it had once been. I was still depressed over people's troubles. Time passed and I have become hardened to the weeping of the unfortunate to the point that their tears no longer move me or make any impression on me. Who knows — perhaps in a few years time I may not even be able to sit down to my breakfast before I have heard the cries and outcries of some suffering widow or other..."

Anticipating Wisdom

I once saw a skull floating on the water... I asked it: Why are you floating along? Why are you not being washed ashore to safety or sinking to oblivion?

A clear voice rang out from the skeleton and a light shone from the gaping holes of the skull's eye sockets with a lifeless expression, and it said: "I am happy that I found a person who is willing to listen, who is all ears, who is receptive to hear what I have been dying to say all these years."

A strange interchange took place between us.

The floating voice: "Every few years people are suddenly reminded of me. They compliment me on my great wisdom and woo me enthusiastically. Suddenly I am courted on all sides. It would appear to be very pleasant to be thus carried on high and showered with attention."

I asked it: "If, indeed, everyone fawns on you and curries your favor, why are you so naked? Why have your bones not taken on flesh and substance? What prevents you from coming up on land and joining civilization? What, actually, turned you into such a heap of bones?"

The floating voice: "About four years ago I was floating along, enjoying my solitude, when I came upon a mass of great wisdom floating on the surface. I dangled my feet in it but when I tried to return to shore, I was beset by strongmen who cut off my feet and roots. My eyes dimmed as I inhaled poisonous fumes and my tongue was severed from its mooring until I became the bleached, fleshless skull that you see. Even that did not satisfy them and they did not desist until they cast me bodily into the water and would not leave me alone for a moment. Thrown into the treacherous water, I was swept along with the tide that engulfed us all. I look gloomily back to the past and gloomily into the present. I saw the events of the difficult days that had overtaken us but it was too late. I hadn't listened to the warning voice emerging from the bastions of Torah. I thought to myself: What am I? A mere voice. A mere floating voices."

And I replied: "You were drowned by those whom you, yourself, drowned."

Wise Guys in the Dark

There is an entire group of wise guys who persecute the Torah- observant. They operate under the cover of darkness and night, but comes daytime, they attack what others have done. Their cleverness is only superficial. "What do I have to do with politics?" they claim evasively. "Politicians only worry for their own skins," they ridicule openly, adding arguments like, "Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it."

They are the wise men from the Haggadah, wise only in clever repartee. "Wisdom does not bring words and words do not bring wisdom; only actions speak, as it is written, `Many words will not bring an end to sin.' Also, `When the fool is silent, he can be mistaken for a wise man' (Ovos deR' Nosson). Indifference, a Chelmite lack of concern and the desire to remain uninvolved only weakens the hands of those who are active for the communal welfare. Every fool will find a greater fool to worship him. A sad imitation for the indifference blowing from desert wastelands, the modern disinvolvement, the asher korcha, the Amolek-like cooling off of enthusiasm by those who not only refuse to do anything themselves but who also dampen the spirits of those who are active in their defeatism.

But when the time comes, they know the tricks better than the rest. They know how to arrange reductions in the various government offices, which rights to stand up for and demand. Why, the world was only created to serve their interests, while they claim to subsist on a mere measure of carobs. "Give to the wise and he will increase wisdom."

Wise Men After the Act

"Who is wise? The one who learns from everybody." And who is a wise guy? The one who `teaches' everybody a lesson.

Nothing is hidden from them. They know everything about every public figure, their whims and habits, preferences and ulterior motives. They have interpretations and commentary for the rustle of any political leaf, background information for every clandestine whisper. They know everything better than others, and if they had been there, they would have done things differently and better. Fairly and squarely. They, themselves, never had to stand in the shoes of those who make crucial decisions: to perform surgery or not? To excise living flesh or not? They never had to deal with situations involving lives. When they were confronted by crises, they always threw the responsibility upon bigger, heavier shoulders. But when it comes to talking about things, they imagine themselves to be wisest of the wise.

This is what one must say to them: True, you are clever and I am prepared to hear any bit of advice or any bright idea you may have to suggest. But you must be prepared to carry it through, to take responsibility for it. Go forth and heed the call of gedolei Yisroel. This is not the time for words, but for action. You can be wise after the act...

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