It was the morning of the first day of the camp season at Camp Dora Golding a number of summers ago. I was a division head and was davening next to my campers and counselors. The chazan was finishing his recitation of Chazaras HaShatz when one of my counselors rushed over to me and quizzically said “Birkas Kohanim!” I smiled and motioned that it was okay.
After davening, I asked him if this was his first time outside of Eretz Yisrael. He replied that it was. In Eretz Yisrael, the kohanim bless the congregation every morning during Chazaras HaShatz. Outside of Eretz Yisrael, the custom of Ashkenazim is that the kohanim only bless the congregation during major holidays. Because the Israeli counselor had never been outside Eretz Yisrael, the omission of Birkas Kohanim was foreign to him.
Whenever I have the opportunity to be in Eretz Yisrael, I get excited for the opportunity to be blessed by the kohanim every morning. The fact that I am a Levi and have the privilege to wash the kohanim’s hands prior, only adds to the experience.
Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz once quipped that a Jew outside of Eretz Yisrael is like a polar bear in the Bronx Zoo. The bear may eat, sleep, and have its needs taken care of in comfort. But it’s not in its natural habitat.
When Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner was in Eretz Yisrael, a student asked him if there was anything he missed about chutz la’aretz (living outside the Land)? Rabbi Hutner replied that he missed the feeling of yearning to be in Eretz Yisrael.
The Chida famously writes, “Ein davar ha’omeid bifnei ha’ratzon – nothing stands in the way of desire.” This statement (which is mistakenly quoted as a teaching of Chazal) is often understood to mean that if a person has a strong enough desire to do something, nothing will prevent him from succeeding. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
However, that is patently not true. Many people fail to achieve their hopes and aspirations, despite their most arduous and dedicated efforts.
The Imrei Emes of Ger explained that the Chida is conveying a different idea. Although we are not always capable of bringing our aspirations to fruition, nothing can stop us from desiring them and thereby investing effort to attain them. We can always pine, hope, and aspire. What we dream about and yearn for is very telling about our values and priorities. Even if a person doesn’t actually hope for something, just wanting to yearn for something has an effect and can slowly help him develop greater connection with the object of his wished-for-longing.
In exile, there are many mitzvos we are unable to fulfill. However, we can develop a sense of longing to be able to perform those mitzvos.
There is much worthy discussion and revitalized interest in fulfilling the mitzvah of having t’cheiles on one’s tzitzis strings.
A friend of mine (who does not wear t’cheiles) noted that every morning when he dons his tzitzis and talis and when he kisses his tzitzis during Sh’ma, he yearns for the opportunity to fulfil the mitzvah of t’cheiles.
This friend also said that he makes it a point to recite the passage about the offering of the Korban Tamid each morning and, when doing so, he tries to think about the Beis HaMikdash. He tries to generate within himself a feeling of longing for the return of the Avodah. (It’s worth noting that Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky writes that reciting the Korban Tamid is “close to obligatory.”)
When a person is away for some time, he wants to know that that his absence was noticed and that he was missed. The Beis HaMikdash has been in ruins for over 1900 years. There is something glaringly missing from our lives.
When we have the merit to visit the Kosel, we should remember what an incredible opportunity it is. On the other hand, as we watch the Muslims enter any gate they desire in order to ascend the Har HaBayis, it should cause a painful emotional flutter within our hearts and a longing to return to where we belong.
The power of role models, too, cannot be understated. The people we look up to can mold our behaviors and even our ways of thinking.
I have often told my students that if they admire a professional sports player, they can aspire to play the game the way that player does and perhaps imitate his moves and mannerisms while playing that sport. But they should remember that those players aren’t our role models for life. We have incredible people to look up to and aspire to be like. Our heroes aren’t lauded for natural, physical talents, but rather for spiritual accomplishment through constant and relentless internal focus and effort.
Rabbi Yaakov Bender related that, on one occasion, he was in attendance at a Torah Umesorah meeting for roshei yeshivah in an upscale hotel in Manhattan. When the meeting was over, one of the roshei yeshivah asked Rabbi Bender if he could stay behind so he could speak with him after another meeting he had then.
Rabbi Bender related: “I went downstairs and was waiting for the rosh yeshivah by the entrance to the hotel. I noticed that there was a big commotion in the lobby. Standing next to me was a fellow with a beer-belly wearing a baseball cap, holding a pad and a pen. Every few minutes, a limousine pulled up outside the hotel and the man excitedly rushed down to see who was coming out of the limousine. Each time, he would come back up the steps, muttering dejectedly.
“After watching this happen a few times I asked the man what was happening and who he was waiting for. He replied that the Major League Baseball awards were being given out in that hotel that evening. The best players were arriving at the hotel for the event. He then explained that he only cared to meet and get the autograph of one player, his hero, Yankees pitcher Roger “the Rocket” Clemens.
“When Clemens finally arrived, he was so excited to get his autograph that he looked like a starstruck child. I suddenly had an idea. I always carry a small pad with me so I could record any ideas or thoughts I think of during the day. I decided that I was going to get Clemens’ autograph.
“I waited to meet him and told him that I was the head of a major educational institution, and I asked him to personalize his message: ‘To Rabbi Bender and the students of Darchei Torah (he needed help with the spelling). Best of luck, Roger Clemens.’”
“This happened on a Monday. I waited excitedly until it was time to give my weekly schmooze to the entire Yeshiva on Erev Shabbos. Then I took out the autograph and showed it to them. I asked them who was interested in buying it. Almost every hand shot up. I told them we would start the bidding at two dollars. In a very short amount of time, it was up to $20. I told them to stop. I then took out the paper and, in front of them, tore it to shreds.
“Listen to me,” I told them. “You are willing to pay money for the autograph of this lowly person because he can throw a ball really fast. But you learn Torah! You are princes! He should get your autograph! You are truly great people because you work on growing constantly. A person like Roger Clemens may pitch well, but he isn’t a great person worth having his signature. Appreciate who you are!”
When I related this story to my children, we agreed that if we were there, we would have gathered up the ripped-up pieces of paper and taped them back together. Roger Clemens’ autograph torn to shreds by Rabbi Bender! Now, that’s worth keeping.
The things a lesson yearns for, dreams about, and aspires for help define his values and priorities. In addition, they give a person direction, because he lives his life trying to connect in any way with his ultimate dreams.