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Cheesecake, Double-Negatives and the Truth Behind Shavuos

Rabbi Eliezer Silver, leading four hundred rabbis to Capitol Hill on October 6, 1943 to beseech FDR to help save the remainders of European Jewry.
https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/pa1137751
(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Lillian Silver)
Rabbi Eliezer Silver, leading four hundred rabbis to Capitol Hill on October 6, 1943 to beseech FDR to help save the remainders of European Jewry. https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/pa1137751 (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Lillian Silver)

When I go up to Shamayim, HaShem will ask me three questions: Did you speak the truth? Were you bigger than that? And did you believe G-d could save you? At least this is my modern-day version of the ancient yet timeless Gemara.

Just a few years ago, I had lost one of the most amazing Rabbanim who for 10 years had guided me through all my trials and tribulations. A man who suffered a lot in his lifetime yet managed to keep happy every time I met with him. Not that phony, always smiling type of happy. That inner serenity, strong, I-don’t-need-to-smile-every-minute-to-prove-I’m-happy kind of happy. He used to tell me before he passed away that most of our personal tzaros are because of the pasuk in Devarim, which says תחתאשר לא עבדת את ה בשמחה, because we are not serving HaShem in happiness. Because we stress ourselves out about our observance, get so down and depressed about ourselves and our mistakes, and don’t really believe HaShem can help us.

Rabbi Roth truly lived by this value and often quoted another pasuk—כי בשמחה תצאו, when you’re happy, you’ll get out of all your problems. After being connected to oxygen for over a year and suffering from cancer for a while (as well as other ailments for the longest time), he passed away on Pesach. His son who was by his side told my father whom he was very close to (my father went back with his father at least four decades) that when he was called in to the hospital room once they denounced his father no longer alive, he peeked at his father’s face and saw a faint smile. Despite his own tremendous suffering, Rabbi Roth was a
man of both truth and happiness, a very rare combination you see in people today.

After he passed away, I went searching for a new rav to guide me and give me eitzahs on both the good and bad that life has to offer. I didn’t find someone until two years later. Ironically this heilige rabbi in Tom’s River was also a mekubal from Eretz Yisrael (like Rabbi Roth), spoke mostly Hebrew and was in his 80s. What made the eeriness even stronger was that he was also one of the few truth-sayers of our generation. 

When helping me with a major matter in my life, this new rav of mine said, looking at me straight in the eye, “After a 120, I will go up to Heaven and HaShem will ask me”—as he wagged his finger in the air as if it was God’s own finger—“Did you tell her the truth?” Then he went on to giving me his startling advice—startling not because it was scary but startling because it scared me how on target and right he was without thinking for more than a second, without batting even an eyelash.

Over the eight months I had known him, before he had passed away (also from lung cancer), he used to tell me when I had to make a hard yet truthful decision, “Don’t be scared of nobody.” I loved the double negative even as an English teacher because it emphasized for me how strongly he believed in his words, in the truth.

I think in our days there are many people who put tremendous efforts into public causes and organizations, but there are very few and far in between, even community leaders, who are not scared and who are willing to speak the truth. Both of these rabbonim were the only men of their stature (whom I personally knew) who weren’t “scared of nobody,” not in losing their money or askanim’s support, not in failing to please public opinion, and not in other consequences that hold men and women back from standing up for the truth.

The second question (related to the first), which I think we’ll be asked after a long and meaningful life is, Were you bigger than that? Did you succumb to all the stupidities and what other people hold as important, or did you prevail and in colloquial language, “do your thing”? Doing your thing doesn’t mean exiting social propriety or standards or making a lot of noise that make people want to shut you up after a minute. Doing your thing means just that—doing your thing, without worrying what other people will say. In order to be ourselves and live the way we want to, we have to break our fears, both socially and emotionally. As
the saying (almost) goes in its reverse, fear of fear is the way we can succeed. I wouldn’t want to quote the person directly. As few people are aware: this person ordered his vice president on Erev Yom Kippur 1943 to tell the rabbinic entourage standing on the steps of Capitol Hill that he was out of the country. It wouldn’t be crazy to say that this man enabled more Jewish killings in Europe because he stayed silent, refusing to listen to our people’s cries and to those Americans who chose to act on their behalf. This point also underscores our need to act, conquer fear, and speak up.

As we will soon sing in Hallel in the psalm of Lo Lanu, some put their faith in crafts that do not see, touch or speak. In other words, there are those who invest in objects and concepts that have no life and value, as they do not hear, they do not smell, and they do not know how to raise their voices. And in the end, they become this faith: כמוהם יהיו עושיהם,  those who make these glitzy idols of gold and silver and worship them become just like them, lifeless entities that can snap in half from fear of people, from standards focused on extreme materialism, from shock of a person actually crying out the truth. Their ears have no drums, their hearts have no beats. They’re living, but not really.

This week, I was speaking to a couple, and the wife, whom I’m friends with, recounted how she sent her son into yeshiva with a memory game to keep him busy during late stay. Soon after he brought this game into school, she got a call from the principal, who told her she needs to run these things by him first and get it approved. So I raised my eyebrows like Wow, what a move, and I asked her husband, “So are you thinking of switching schools?” He said, “Maybe. They are too religious.” Without a thought I answered him, “That’s not called being religious. That’s called being controlling.” As if I hit it on the nail, his wife, my friend, nodded her head looking at her husband as if to say, Honey buns, this lady’s got some truth.

Interestingly, I see this standard all the time: We have to know the difference between religion and control, zealousness and bad behavior, concern over fashion/presentability and superficiality—as many ignore the ugly (or less attractive) reality underneath.

I wonder what our communities would be like if we stopped hiding from the truth and obsessing over pettiness, and instead, embrace our flaws and call out dysfunction—if we stopped being afraid of what others would say after us.

I wonder what Jewish life would be like, albeit it wonderful and glorious in many
many ways, if we somehow lessened social pressures and brought out the big guns of transparency and forgiveness.

On this note, over shalosh seudos today, I met two amazing women from Williamsburg at a neighbor’s house, and they both knew Rabbi Roth (also from Williamsburg) who had helped many women in and out of his community. They both told me two opposite stories of forgiveness in how the rav had advised them.

One lady spoke of calling Rabbi Roth years ago and telling him how she was so hurt by an individual and how toxic this person was. In spite of these strong feelings, she felt obligated to forgive this person in her heart, but how? She was taught from a very young age how mechilah was so important and that we have to overcome our personal feelings, but she honestly felt too much towards this person to forgive. Rabbi, how could she help herself forgive?

This chassidishe rav, who had no pomp or flair whatsoever (just a regal pair of white peyos), enlightened her and unloaded her heart by saying, “You’re human, we’re all human. Why, you think you don’t have feelings? You think we’re not supposed to feel? HaShem was the One who gave us feelings! Of course it is hard to forgive!” I’m not sure if he said more to her, but that little bit satisfied her guilt, in knowing from someone she respected that it’s okay if you can’t forgive right now. That’s what makes you human.

As simple and as straightforward as that conversation sounds, sometimes we need to hear those kinds of things. Sometimes we hide behind the fakest of smiles from the simplest of truths. Sometimes we need to be reminded of things we should know really well yet are too scared or ashamed to face.

The second lady at the table told me the next story, which emphasized the power of forgiveness. She had also called Rabbi Roth years ago when her infant daughter had grown a small lump on her face. This new mom panicked immediately and sought medical help, and along the way she had thought it a good idea to call this wise man. The rav suggested that maybe she had hurt someone from the past and should seek forgiveness. Instantly this woman remembered a time a few years prior when a new principal had come to the school where she was teaching and the rest of the staff had made a lot of fun of her. This woman herself hadn’t joined the mocking, yet she remained silent. She didn’t do anything about it.

So after her small flashback, the woman called up her former principal and talked about this time in their professional lives. Eventually in the conversation, the principal admitted that she was very hurt from it all, especially since she had moved from far and worked very hard for this job. Soon after the woman’s phone call and asking for forgiveness, her infant’s lump disappeared. In disbelief, she took her baby for another MRI and a few exams, and miraculously the lump was altogether denounced problematic or existent.

Keep in mind, those who despise stories when Rabbonim call us out on our suffering due to past sins, that Rabbi Roth was a legitimate mekubal and one of a kind. This suggestion came purely from a place of care, compassion, and rectification. A man who tells you you’re suffering because of the evil you had done years ago and gives you no solution (and charges for such advice) is not made of the same smoke.

(Interestingly, another woman at the Shabbos table told a story of a man who got cancer. Someone (stupid) decided to call his ex to tell her to finally forgive him—that this cancerous man is suffering because of her grudge against him and anger. This remarried woman consulted with a Dayan, after such a shaming blow, who obviously dismissed the whole thing. You don’t need a Dayan to tell you this is mad!)

Both women’s stories highlight the need to focus on our values, on what we can admit to ourselves that which we hold so dearly, and that is, our humanity and vulnerability. And to overcome our fear, whatever is holding us back, to do what’s right.

Were you bigger than that? Did you outgrow other people’s pettiness and your own? Or did you succumb to it?

Did you stand up for what’s right, despite the incessant whining of others, and did you tell the truth ? Did you hide from it and help others hide from it, or did you stare it straight back in the eye til it could no longer stare at you and even got a little cross-eyed? The things we get fixated on only because we’re scared…

If current events have taught us anything, it is to not be scared. To show up and support those rallies despite intimidating threats, to make some noise and make a stink out of things instead of retracting into our shadows, and to come together as one.

The upcoming holiday of Shavuos teaches us and reminds us of the first time we had accepted the Torah, as a unified nation with a healthy, thumping heart (to almost quote Rashi on Shemos). As the Gemara writes, the Torah is one, HaShem is one and so are His people.

One thing we need to do more of is learn from our history. Did the Nazis differentiate between their untermentschen? Did they pull us aside, one by one, before shoving us all into cattle cars, to ask us, Are you a Mussar Jew, are you a Haskalah Jew, do you hold by beards? No. Our great grandparents were all shaved, gassed and humiliated the same way.

This yuntif, let’s reflect on truth. Let’s recognize where we fall short in our own happiness and inner peace, and how we can make it better. And let’s stare fear in the eyeball (yes, it’s only a grotesque one-eyed monster) and stand up for what’s right—not only on a global level but even more so in our own communities.

During times of Shmad (or religious coercion and anti-Jewish persecution), we always came together. Since the times of Esther, when Mordechai gathered everyone in shul to daven together (לך כנוס את כל היהודים), whether the women wore colorful turbans or black snoods or long, laced sheitels; whether the children wore this kippah or that koppel; and whether their Tattys or Abbas wore white or blue checkered shirts—with or without a Borsalino. We always came together, through Helifornus’ reign and Yehudis’ bravery, and up until this day, when we’re learning—like fresh toddlers gradually learn how to walk—not only the importance of being color blind but the importance of taking off our magnifying glasses and start seeing people—rabbis, activists, professionals, our neighbors and community leaders—as just who they are: people. We need to start getting rid of the double standard, where you need to respect me, but I don’t need to respect
you, and to come to a point where respect and integrity are mutual. As traffic laws
teach us a simple truth: it’s a two way street (unless there’s a one-way sign).

This brings me to the last question in Heaven: Did you believe G-d could save us? I think as a whole nation, fortified and undivided, we can say yes.

This Shavuos, let us learn not just the pages of Gemara all the way through
midnight, but let us integrate all these truths into our minds, as we tell G-d (with our beautiful double negative), we don’t need no more messengers to teach us the great big lesson of togetherness. As we learn, from our present and the past mistakes of Rabbi Akiva’s Gaonic students, to show each other genuine respect. To cry together, to laugh together once more, and enjoy some celebratory cheesecake.

About the Author
Este Stollman is a Yeshiva English teacher and has a Master of Arts in Jewish History from Touro Graduate School of Jewish Studies. She has a small sushi-making party business and lives in Lakewood, NJ with her husband and children.
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