(No, it’s not about COVID)
My brother-in-law, Jonathan Spero, who is staying with my sister at my father’s house for a few weeks, came across a chumash in pristine condition, which belonged to my grandfather, Rabbi Dr. Yoel Jakobovits zt”l. My grandfather was a rav and dayan in Berlin during the years leading up to World War II. The chumash was inscribed by him and read, translated from Hebrew: “Purchased in honor of my Master from my own funds, Parshas VaYishlach…” Then he added something that we had trouble understanding. He wrote the following Hebrew letters with a dot on top of each letter: “taf, reish, ches, and tzadik sofis,” which phonetically spells “tirchatz.”
At first, we had trouble figuring out what he meant to write. Then it occurred to me that the year was 1938. The traditional Hebrew equivalent for that year is 5698. That should correctly be spelled in Hebrew “taf, reish, tzadik, and ches.” But my grandfather realized that that would actually spell the word “Tirtzach,” which means “You shall murder.” He thus switched the lettering to spell “Tirchatz,” which means “You shall wash (or bathe).”
Similarly, you find in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) that instead of numbering Chapter 270 as reish-ayin, which would mean “evil” in Hebrew, the author, Rabbi Yosef Karo (sixteenth century), wrote it as ayin-reish, which would mean “awake.”
It is so inspiring that in our tradition as Torah Jews we are careful about even approaching anything inappropriate in our lexicon. The Ramchal (Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, 18th century), as quoted by my Rosh HaYeshivah Rav Chaim Yaakov Goldvicht zt”l, would describe foul language as “z’nus ha’peh,” adultery of the mouth. Inappropriate language is considered like committing the worst possible sin.
The irony is not lost that my grandfather did not even want to remotely refer to murder or killing, compelling him to reverse the lettering of that year to spell “bathe.” Yet, here is a man who, a year or so later, spent the rest of his days fleeing from the greatest murder machine of all time – the Nazis – who arose from his own host country, Germany. Following the war, he spent endless time in trying to resolve the awful agunah crisis, in which countless women did not know their marital status due to their missing husbands. He died before age 50 due to a broken heart, it is said.
A few years ago, my friend Rabbi Yaakov Luban and I would go to the local gym everyday near the OU office. We would go early enough so that we were just about the only ones there. Often, the music played by the management of the gym was rap. The “N-word” flowed freely through the sound system. At some point, I went to the desk to complain about that music. I told them I’m not from the most politically correct people in the world, but I find that word highly offensive and asked them to stop playing it. The gentleman looked at me incredulously and stated that “if it doesn’t bother us (a minority) and it doesn’t bother other people here, then why should it bother you – especially since the composers are Blacks?” I responded that I don’t care what they think; I don’t want that word floating in my head. Finally, they did agree to stop that music, for the time being. It’s not that I’m such a purist. But as a Jew, that word should not be in our lexicon. We need to keep our language, even if it only smacks of inappropriateness, far away from our psyche.
In Pirkei Avos (3:1), Akavia ben Mahalal’el taught, “Observe three things and you will not come close to sinning…” Remember the parking signs Mayor Ed Koch posted: “Don’t even think of parking here!”? We Jews are implored not to even think of sinning. The way we do that is not just by preaching against sin, but by making it part of our persona. We shudder at the thought of alluding to murder, even in the most indirect reference as part of a spelling of a Hebrew calendar year. That is why even our haters confess that we are the merciful people.
The Gemara (Sotah 47a), in early editions, records that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Prachyah was at an inn and was treated very properly by the hostess, prompting Rabbi Yehoshua to remark to one of his students how nice she was. The student in response said to Rabbi Yehoshua, “Yes, but her eyes are dreary.” Furiously, Rabbi Yehoshua rebuked that student and said,” You wicked one, is that where your mindset is (sizing up the looks of a married woman)? I was referring to her sterling character!”
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz (Sichos Musar 85) explains that it was not that the student mistakenly thought that Rabbi Yehoshua was thinking of the physical appearance of that woman that irked him. It was the fact that the student was so immersed in sinful thought that he could not imagine that his mentor meant otherwise.
We are in the month of Elul. The Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, are upon us. Over the years, I would quote a longtime member of our shul, Ruby Ulman a”h, who grew up on the Lower East Side in the earlier part of last century and remembered it so fondly. He would love to recall that in his days during Elul in the very Jewish streets of the East Side, “even the trees would shake, and the fish in the river would tremble!”
I’m afraid those days of shivering in fear during Elul are gone. But the days of trying to be good Jews are still with us. It doesn’t take all that much. We simply need to be careful that our everyday conversation and our everyday sense of values remain on high levels despite all that militates against it in the unhinged society in which we live. Behave like a Jew. Don’t even think of stooping to the low standards society has set for itself, tempting as it may be.
As my grandfather keenly felt, don’t pollute your thoughts with un-Jewish behavior for one fleeting moment. Cleanse your mind instead.
I wish everyone a meaningful and productive Chodesh Elul.
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.