Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt’l, the Alter of Slobodka
(Transcribed by Rabbi Nachum Meir Karelitz, Chut HaShani, Hilchos Shabbos, p. 31)
We often assume that religious observance, or “service of G-d,” is limited to specific ritual practices, at given times and places. We read from the Torah in the synagogue on Shabbos morning, we recite the evening prayers at nightfall, we say a blessing before and after we eat food, we sit in the Sukkah during Sukkot and we eat Matzah during Passover. What happens to us when we are outside of these given times and places? Since most of the day we are involved in the pursuit of our livelihood in rather mundane and materialistic endeavors and we are not within the contexts for ritual observance, we tend to feel lost; we feel disconnected from G-d.
The truth is that wherever we are, whoever we are, and whatever we are doing, we have the potential to connect ourselves to G-d. The existence of all reality depends on G-d’s will, and thus there exists no time or place in which we cannot serve Him.
This idea is expressed by the Talmud in a fascinating incident (Ta’anis 22a):
Rebbi Beroka Chaza’a used to frequent the market at Bei Lefet, where Elijah would
visit him. Once, Rebbi Beroka asked Elijah: Is there anyone in this market who is
destined to enter the World to Come?
Elijah said that there was no one. A short while later, Elijah saw a man wearing
black shoes (in the manner of the heathens) and who had no thread of blue (Tzitzis)
on the corners of his garment, and Elijah exclaimed: That man is destined to enter the World to Come!
Rebbi Beroka ran after the man and asked him: What is your occupation?
The man replied: Go away and come back tomorrow.
The next day, Rebbi Beroka asked him again: What is your occupation?
The man replied: I am a jail warden, and I keep the men prisoners and women
prisoners separate. I place my bed between them so that they may not come to sin.
When I see that the heathen captors have placed their eyes on a Jewish girl, I risk my life to save her.
Rebbi Beroka asked the man: Why do you have no Tzitzis, and why do you wear black shoes?
The man replied: I dress like a heathen so that I can pass among them undetected.
When they pass a harsh decree against the Jews, I inform the sages so that they may pray [to G-d] to annul the decree.
Rebbi Beroka inquired further: When I asked you what is your occupation, why did
you say to me, ‘Go away now and come back tomorrow’?
The man answered: They had just issued a harsh decree, and I needed to go and inform the sages of it so that they would pray to G-d.
At that moment two others passed by and Elijah remarked: These two are also
destined to enter the World to Come.
Rebbi Beroka approached them and asked: What is your occupation?
They replied: We are professional jesters. When we see men disheartened, we cheer them up. Moreover, when we see two people quarrelling, we strive to make peace between them.
Let’s understand the lesson of this narrative. Of all the people in the world, who could be more distant from serving G-d than these people? A warden of prisoners must feel as though he is a slave to idolaters. Jesters who fill their lives with jokes must feel very little meaningfulness in their lives. Nevertheless, this warden through guarding prisoners and these jesters with their levity achieved the ultimate accolade — they were “destined to enter the World to Come.” They served G-d not in the synagogue, not in the study hall, not even with Jewish garb. They used their professions and their talents in the service of G-d.
Indeed, if a profession exists in the world, then it must have been created by G-d as a tool to accomplish G-d’s will. These people utilized their professions as paths to personal completion, as means for bringing goodness into this world and for acquiring their spiritual world.
If we fail to invest the effort to approach our professions with the understanding that these professions were created by G-d to fulfill His will, then we transform our professions into endeavors of little significance and we miss the opportunity to achieve the greatness for which G-d created us.
This message is relevant not only to our approach to our professions, but also (and even more so) to our approach to life as individuals and to our mission as human beings. Only when we live in harmony with G-d’s will, only when our thoughts, speech, and actions are aligned with our spiritual potential and innate abilities, are we called “humans,” and only then are our lives lived to the fullest. In that sense, even a single moment of true living as a human being makes it worthwhile to have been created.