Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1) Adapting and Thriving in a New World

These days, we all find ourselves living in a new and different world. It was just this past Purim that we sat together in shul, next to one another, listening to the reading of the Megilla and sat in close physical proximity to our friends, and the phrase “social distancing” was not part of our vocabulary. We felt secure economically and were busy planning travel to distant places. Our calendars became filled with social events. How drastically has our world changed. Even as many communities have gradually “reopened,” we now realize that things may never be quite the same as they were just a short time ago.This brings to mind the story of Choni HaMaagal , a sage who lived over two thousand years ago. Choni Hamaagal was a very pious man whose prayers were always answered. The nation turned to him to pray for rain in times of drought. One day, he passed a man planting a tree. He asked the man how long it would take for that tree to bear fruit. When the man responded that it would take many years, Choni asked, “Then why do you bother planting?” The man replied that he was not planting for himself but for his son, or perhaps even for his grandson, who would eventually enjoy the fruit. Soon afterwards, Choni lay down to rest in a nearby cave. He fell into a deep sleep and awoke. He passed by the tree and, sure enough, there was a man there plucking fruit from the tree. It soon became apparent to Choni that the man enjoying the fruit was indeed the grandson of the man he had earlier encountered. He eventually discovered that he had been asleep for seventy years. Choni returned to the local study hall and was accepted there because of his evident Torah scholarship. But gradually, Choni realized that he couldn’t relate to this new generation. The world had changed, people had changed. He could find no friend, no person with whom he could share his thoughts and feelings. He exclaimed, “oh chavruta oh mituta, either companionship or death.” The notion of living out the rest of his years in a thoroughly changed social environment was so displeasing to him that he preferred to die. In this week’s Torah portion, we read that Moses, cognizant of his own imminent death, did not wish to leave his people leaderless and beseeched the Almighty to designate his successor.Moses made peace with his ultimate demise and felt responsible for finding a successor, and accepted that his disciple Joshua would fill his shoes. This brings us back to the story of Choni HaMaagal. The world changes from one generation to the next. As the older generation ages, it becomes increasingly aware that it has no place in the new world. It is outdated, almost irrelevant, out of touch with the challenges and resources of the new reality.Choni preferred death to the lack of companionship and Moses, at least according to one Midrashic approach (Devarim Rabba V’Eschanan), surrendered only when he realized that he had no meaningful role to play in Joshua’s new world. Rabbi Chaim of Zanz was one of the greatest authorities of Jewish law in the 19th century. When he was seventy years old, he stopped adjudicating any law matters. It wasn’t because he felt his intellect was waning, rather, he believed that he was not, and could not be, sufficiently familiar with the realities faced by a new generation. He was thus unqualified to offer it authoritative legal guidance. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, former dean of Yeshiva University and internationally known for his sharp and penetrating Talmud analysis, once commented that he struggled to be able to understand each new generation of his students sufficiently to adapt to their cultural backgrounds and claimed that he was confronted with an entirely new generation of students every five years. For example, he decided to change the language in his lectures from Yiddish to English. But, he lamented, “it was eventually no longer a matter of mere language. I began to feel that I had outlived my usefulness.”Today, old and young alike, we all face circumstances which will force us to doubt our ability to cope successfully, let alone live full and meaningful Jewish lives in the new world in which we find ourselves but must not yield to these doubts. Instead, we must draw upon our own inner strengths and upon the vast creative resources of our collective community, which allow us to tap into the minds and souls of others.Our job is to learn how to adapt and strive with everything we’ve got to make the “new normal” a “greater (Jewish) normal.”  (Based on a drasha by Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb)
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