Bereshit III - BUILDING SECURELY
ONE OF THE GREAT attributes of man that has extolled in literature and art, is his great skill as a builder. In the earliest chapters of the Torah, we are told of Cain who built a city. He was a failure as a man--having committed fratricide, but was presumably good as a builder. Later on in the Bible we are told of Nimrod, the great hunter, who built a tower. Then there were David and Solomon who built palaces an the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem.
Among non-Jews there were the Egyptians who built the pyramids and Sphinxes which, to this day, are some of the great marvels of the world; the Greeks erected lovely artistic edifices; the Romans built aqueducts and roads; and the Chinese built the Great Wall. In the United States we have erected skyscrapers such as the World Trade Center and the Empire State Building, and in France there is the Eiffel Tower. But this morning I would like to discuss with you a different kind of building, more complicated and difficult than those that are fashioned from brick, mortar and lime. I would like to speak to you of building human character, which many consider the most important goal in life.
The very first task in erecting a sturdy structure is to build a solid foundation. Buildings that stand on weak foundations are in danger of toppling over. That, in fact, is what happened to the Broadway Central Hotel in lower Manhattan several years ago. There are structures that stand seemingly stable and secure. Then the crisis comes--a storm or a flood-- and the faulty foundation gives way, and brings death and ruin to many.
It is so with life. We all need solid foundations, particularly in moments of crisis and need. One can't build life on flimsy ideas and fads, just as one can't build a house on quicksand.
Wealth is quicksand upon which one can't build life. It will not bring solace to a person in moments of sorrow or pain. To make money a major motive in life is to reduce man to a beast that seeks only to satiate its hunger by devouring its prey. The acquisitive instinct does not play a decisive role in creative art, the advancement of science or the inspired writings and teachings of the great. Why an Isaiah, a Maimonides, a Rashi, or a Chofetz Chayinz? Why an Einstein or a Lincoln in the secular realm? These men, and countless other luminaries often pursued their quest for truth and beauty despite poverty and physical pain.
Social position is another mound of quicksand. Those who seek prestige and glory to which they are not entitled, live a lie, which ultimately will catch up with them. What one really is will sooner or later be revealed, and the edifice that he built on that faulty foundation will come tumbling down.
What then should one build his life on? What kind of principles should he choose! All we need do is study the lives of the great men who are mentioned in the Torah and see how they chose the foundations of their existence. Abraham built it on chessed-on kindness; Isaac on sacrifice for God; Jacob on a life of study; Rabbi Akiba on kidush ha-Shem; Hillel on gentility and patience.
The next requirement of building a good life is fidelity to details. It is not so much what we do as how we do it that is significant. If a man gives tzedakah let him do it with "a full heart." If he does a favor for someone by extending a loan or credit, or providing employment, let him do it besever panim yafot, with a happy demeanor.
Phidias, the famous Greek artist, was carving a statue to be placed on the shaft of the Parthenon. Someone said to him that since the statue would be very high no one would be able to see any blemishes. To which the artist replied. "You're wrong. Even though the eye of man will not be able to see any defects, the eyes of God will."
There is an even better Yiddish story that stresses the same point. Rabbi Israel Salanter, the saint and sage of Lithuanian Jewry, engaged one summer day, a baal agolah -a wagoner-- to take him to a neighboring town. As they went along the road, the driver noticed fresh-cut hay drying in the sun. He stopped his horse and asked the rabbi to let him know as soon as he would detect anyone looking. When the baal agolah was carrying an armful of hay to his horse, Rabbi Salanter cried, "Men Zeht Men Zeht!" The driver dropped the hay, jumped into the wagon, pulled on the reins of his horse and was on his way again. After a while, he looked around, and noticing that no one was on the road, said reproachfully, "Rebbe, how come you told me a lie?" To which the rabbi replied, "I did not tell you a lie." And pointing to the sky, he continued, "itlen Zeht Men Zeht foon oiben!" "You were seen from above."
Ah yes! In the words of the Mishnah, "Consider three
things and you will not come into the grip of sin--know
what is above you: a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and a book
in which all your deeds are recorded" (Abot 2:1).
The Mishnah presents a good plan for building