Today, marks the third annivesary since the passing of one of our generation’s foremost rabbis and scholars, my beloved mentor, Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz.
Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, lovingly known to his students as “Rav Adin”, was recognized as a “once-in-a-millennium scholar,” who revolutionized the world with his trailblazing translation and commentary of the entire Talmud, Bible, Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, the Tanya, his authorship of many books on Jewish mysticism, philosophy, and sociology, his educational institutions, and his life mission to “let my people know.”
Personally, I miss Rav Adin terribly. For close to 30 years, my mentor and I spoke regularly. He guided my every step, illuminated my every pathway, molded my every thought, and inspired my every action. And now, ever since his passing, our world is so much dimmer, and our lives – so much lonelier.
Nonetheless, his spiritual presence continues to permeate our beings, his sweet voice continues to ring in our ears, his eternal teachings continue to lead our every way, and his marching orders continue to propel us to “do more and more and more,” as were his parting words to me, just two weeks before his passing.
To encapsulate the genius of Rav Adin in words is impossible. Still, here is a humble attempt to provide a glimpse into ten lessons of our beloved Rav Adin that changed my life, and brightened our world:
1. ON THE SEARCH FOR MEANING:
Three ideas ought to be considered before we search for meaning:
a. What am I exactly searching for? Some people think that they are searching for meaning, but they are really searching for a worry-free life that doesn’t exist, somewhere on a beach at the end of the world…
b. How much am I willing to sacrifice? If I am searching for meaning, I must be ready to sacrifice myself for meaning too. For example, some people may find meaning in visiting the sick every day – but are they willing to sacrifice their time and their resources for this deed? The word for meaning in Hebrew also means ‘to listen.’
c. If we are searching for meaning we must be willing to listen to our inner calling and the real needs of the world around us.
2. ON ACHIEVING OUR PURPOSE:
a. In order to achieve our purpose we must ask ourselves: “What can I contribute to the world today?” Many years ago, when I was just seven-years-old, I was on an overloaded bus. I was surrounded by a group of beautiful girls, who were just a few years older than me. Suddenly, one of the girls turned to me and smiled. I had never seen such a beautiful smile. It felt as if I had been walking in a dark street when dazzling sunshine suddenly emerged from the heavens. I don’t think that this girl and I ever saw each other again. But I will never forget her smile. And I will never forget how this beautiful girl came out of her circle, to brighten a little boy’s day, and to fulfill her purpose on that day, with her unique smile…
b. Another important point to remember is that the road to achieving our purpose never ends. We must continue to grow and do more and more every day. The sky above my head which I saw yesterday, should become the floor on which I will tread tomorrow.
3. ON ACHIEVING HAPPINESS:
a. First, happiness is achieved when we can say just one word to all of our materialistic pursuits: “Enough.” The desire for more and more physical possessions stands as an antidote to happiness.
b. Second, happiness is a byproduct of self-fulfillment. Therefore, instead of pursuing happiness, we should pursue the actualization of our true selves, our skills, and our talents, and how we can use them to better our world every day. Happiness will then come to us.
4. ON MARRIAGE:
The problem with marriage is that we think it has to be “romantic.” I once told a young man: “You are dreaming about your dream girl. But you’ll only be able to find her in novels or in Hollywood movies, or… if you marry the person that you see in the mirror.” As a wise man once said: “What is a bride? A bride is a girl who ceases to wait for the knight on the white horse.” When she ceases to wait for that, then she can become a bride. What is groom? A groom is a boy who stopped searching for Cinderella… Instead, brides-and-grooms-to-be should focus on finding a mate that they are attracted to, and that have common values, common goals.
5. ON PARENTING:
a. Parenting is about truly loving our children. And true love means doing what is good for my beloved; not doing what is good for me. Some parents make big plans for their children, but they forget to ask: “are those plans really good for my children? Maybe, those plans are just good for me and my image as a parent?”
b. In a way, parenting is like having a garden. In order to take care of it properly, I first have to know what I have in it. Do I have potatoes, or do I have roses or do I have thorns? And then, I have to take care and nurture each organism according to their unique needs. And just like gardening a garden, one also needs to pray for the best results…
6. ON SELF-CONTROL:
During one of my trips to Australia, a friend took me to see the Koala bears of Australia which I had wished to see for many years. You see, I have something in common with these bears. Although their diet mainly consists of all sorts of eucalyptus leaves, the Koala bears also like chocolate… But, they are not allowed to eat it, since chocolate is potentially lethal for Koala bears. Here’s the lesson: people fall in love with all sorts of things. But at times, these things can kill you in all sorts of ways. Sometimes we simply need to say, no!
7. ON SPIRITUALITY:
Some women experience “false pregnancies” in which they experience many pregnancy symptoms, such as nausea, hormonal changes, an increase of the abdomen, fetal movements etc. But, in false pregnancies, no baby is produced, only air and “gaseous distension of the bowel”. This phenomenon exists in the realm of spirituality as well. Some people spend much of their time meditating and doing all sorts of spiritual exercises. But after these spiritual infatuation, nothing was produced and the person remains the same… Spirituality means bringing heaven down to earth, with true personal growth, and the increase of good deeds.
8. ON EDUCATION:
There exists an essential void in many of today’s schools: It doesn’t seem like there are enough teachers who genuinely love and care for their students. Many teachers are there just to do their job, police the youth and reproach them constantly. But our youth needs mentors who love them and are devoted to them wholeheartedly and unconditionally. I can remember how one of my mentors, Rabbi Shlomo Chaim Kesselman, once came to visit our dormitory at 2:00 AM on a cold winter day, when I was just 16 years old. All of my comrades were fast asleep, but I was still awake. When he came, I acted as if I was asleep and saw how he made sure that every student had a warm blanket. He didn’t have to care for us, especially during the wee hours of the morning. But he was a true teacher.
9. ON JEWISH SURVIVAL:
If you take a tree, and you cut it into several pieces of wood, you can’t say that the tree survived, although some of its parts did. For our survival, we have to ensure that our entire “Jewish tree” lives and thrives. Some people think that Jewish survival means that our culture, our language, or our songs don’t die out. But those are only parts of our tree. Jewish survival means that we ensure the survival of every part of our tree: Our soul, and our bodies. Our minds and our spirits. Our prayers and our deeds. Our spiritual foods and even our physical foods.
10. ON RELIGION:
a. When people are offered an undemanding, feel-good, and cheap version of Judaism, they will reject it. People want to be challenged. People turn to religion to make them grow. Our sages in the Midrash teach that a person is obligated to say: “When will my deeds reach the level of the deeds of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?” This statement speaks to the essence of true religion. True religion must compel us to grow and reach higher levels every day.
Similarly, the Shema prayer that we recite every day, commands us to “love G-d with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our strength.” With all our strength really means that after we’ve served our G-d with both inclinations and with our entire life, we still have to do more… This is how Judaism defines religion.
b. True religion also offers a question that no other field relates to. Science and mathematics for example ask the questions of “what” and “how.” But religion asks “What is the purpose?” That is a question that belongs to every human being. In a way, every human being who dares to ask this question, is religious.