“Sharing the Blanket”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The Rambam (Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204), states in The Laws of Teshuva, chapter 3, that all people’s deeds are judged in heaven as if upon a Divine scale. If a person’s merits outweigh his sins, then he is judged favorably for life. If his sins and transgressions outweigh his good deeds, then he is judged unfavorably for death. But Maimonides states that an individual’s judgment also affects the world’s fate. Each person’s merits or transgressions could very well tip the balance that determines the collective fate of the entire world, for salvation or destruction.

In Pirkei Avot–Ethics of the Fathers 1:14–the Mishna records one of Hillel’s most famous statements in which he teaches three things:

1. Im ayn ah’nee lee, me lee?
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

2. Ooch’sheh’ah’nee l’atz’mee, mah ah’nee?
And if I am for myself only, what am I?

3. V’im loh ach’shav, ay’ma’tay?
And if not now, when?

Hillel teaches that perhaps the primary responsibility that each person has in life is to his or her own self. Each of us has to decide what we wish to do with our lives, and to work to mold ourselves into the type of human being that we aspire to be. It is the labor and work that each of us must invest in ourselves that is the most prominent feature of the High Holy Days, and especially the Ten Days of Penitence between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, known as Aseret Y’may Teshuva.

It is during these ten days, with the knowledge that not only our own personal destiny hangs in the balance, but that the fate of the entire world may very well be resting upon our shoulders, that we are impelled to make extra special efforts to improve ourselves. That is the reason why during the Ten Days of Penitence many Jews try to be more punctilious about their religious observance, pray more often and with increased sincerity, and go out of their way to do special deeds of kindness and generosity.

And yet, when Hillel states, “And if I am for myself only, what am I?” he is warning that being overly self-absorbed is defeating and destructive, and may very well nullify a person’s own positive accomplishments. Hillel therefore concludes by saying, “And if not now, when?” implying that since we never know what tomorrow has in store for us, we must not waste a moment, because time is so precious. Therefore, we must resolve to accomplish as much as we possibly can in the time that we have available to us. What then is the essence of life? How do we determine how to make our lives more meaningful?

I recently came across an essay that appeared in the Columbia Business School magazine Hermes, written by Howard Schultz, the founder and chairman of Starbucks Coffee. It was based on a speech that he delivered at the Columbia Business School.

Schultz writes about his downtrodden father, who worked delivering diapers, exchanging dirty diapers for clean ones. As a young lad of seven, Schultz recalls coming home one day from school to find his father with a full-length cast on his leg. He had been injured on the job and was laid up at home, unable to work. Because there was no Worker’s Compensation in those days, the family went hungry until he healed. This tragedy left a deep impression on young Schultz, and he determined at that moment that if he were to start a company, he would make sure that the employees would be taken care of properly.

And so, when Schultz and his partners started Starbucks, they made each employee an owner by giving them shares in the company. And although they didn’t have much money to advertise, because the employees all felt like owners, word spread like wildfire and today Starbucks has over 3,500 coffee shops worldwide.

In his essay, Schultz recalls a meeting that he and several high-powered American executives had with Rabbi Nosson Zvi Finkel of the Mirrer Yeshiva in Jerusalem. While on an executive tour in Israel, someone had arranged for them to meet for a few minutes with the head of one of the largest yeshivas in Israel. The executives waited in the room for Rabbi Finkel to arrive. When the rabbi entered the room, they saw that he was terribly handicapped from advanced Parkinson’s disease. Although he is a man in his sixties, it is well known that Rabbi Finkel refuses to take medications for the disease, afraid that they might compromise his mental faculties. Embarrassed by the sight, the visitors turned their eyes away from the rabbi. Painfully, Rabbi Finkel sat down and banged on the desk and said, “Gentleman look at me. You’re very important people, and I only have a few minutes with you. Can you tell me what lesson we can learn from the Holocaust?” Rabbi Finkel’s trembling voice and unclear speech was even more painful to hear than to see his physical disabilities. The high-powered executives were like fifth grade students in a class, afraid to look up.

Rabbi Finkel called on one of the executives who replied: “We must learn, never to forget.” Rabbi Finkel dismissed the answer, even though Schultz thought it was a rather good response. He realized that Rabbi Finkel was waiting for another answer. The powerful executives would have rather hidden under the desks, than face the music.

Rabbi Finkel finally called on another one of the visitors who suggested, “We must learn never to be a victim or a bystander.” Schultz thought this was a wonderful answer, but Rabbi Finkel dismissed it saying: “You guys just don’t get it! Ok, gentleman, let me tell you what is the essence of the human spirit.”

Rabbi Finkel went on to describe how the Nazis went from town to town rounding up the European Jews, men, women and children, herding them into cattle cars and transporting them in inhumane conditions for days to the “resettlement” camps. The cars were so crowded, many died of asphyxiation, others died of hunger and thirst. When they finally arrived, the passengers were covered with human excrement and could barely open their eyes because they had been in darkness for so long. They were then brutally separated. Husbands and wives went in different directions and mothers were forcefully separated from their children whose cries filled the air around.

When the Jews were sent off to sleep in barracks, the German soldiers came at night to distribute one blanket for every six prisoners. It was at that moment, said Rabbi Finkel, that the person who received the blanket had to decide whether he was going to cover himself from the bitter cold, or was prepared to share the blanket with five others who would all be cold, but together might perhaps survive. They chose to share the blanket.

Rabbi Finkel then told the American executives, “Go home to America and share the blanket. That is the essence of the human spirit!”

It is during these ten days of Teshuva that each of us must work on ourselves personally. But, if we are only for ourselves, then what are we? We need to share the blanket–we need to improve ourselves and in the process improve others. We need to gently teach others all that we know and have learned that is good and noble. Those Jews who are more knowledgeable have to share with their less knowledgeable brothers and sisters the beauty of the Jewish tradition. The goodness that is to be found among the unaffiliated and marginally-affiliated must be shared with the so-called committed community as well. We need to share the blanket. We need to make sure that not only do our merits outweigh our transgressions, but that we’ve done our part to tip the balance of the fate of the world to life and goodness, and not, G-d forbid, to oblivion and destruction. And finally, we must realize that now is the truly propitious time for action, for as Hillel says: “If not now, when?”

May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life, and may we merit to see the redemption of our people Israel and all humanity in the very near future.

Yom Kippur begins at sundown on Wednesday, October 12, 2005 and continues through nightfall of Thursday, October 13th. Have a meaningful fast.

May you be blessed.