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A mother's hug

I was recently witness to a heartrending scene; a young single mother had to tell her son that they may lose their house. He tried to hold back his tears and was almost successful. She told him not to worry, they would always have a roof over their heads and a bed to sleep in. "That's not your job", she told him, "it is my job. Your job is to be happy and do your best in school." I even heard him murmur, "This is not helping." Then she just hugged him; and he was soothed. He needed that hug, not the words. A bit later I asked him later what was his main worry (I wondered why those reassurances had not helped); and now we calmly discussion the situation. Now he needed the words and was able to process them in a mature way.

After thinking about this for a few days, I have a new understanding of a chazal that I seem to have misunderstood for years. That gemara in Shabbos, 112b, says:
אמר ר' זירא אמר רבא בר זימונא אם ראשונים בני מלאכים אנו בני אנשים ואם ראשונים בני אנשים אנו כחמורים
R' Zeira said in the name or Rava; if the earlier generations are angels, then we are human; if the earlier generations are human, then we are like donkeys.
If we understand that amoraim as saying the best they can be is human, what is the hope for our generation? Or, as I have seen it so starkly put, "If those great cedars can speak about themselves like that; what can we, who are barely moss on the walls, say about ourselves?" I always wondered what to do about that. "Great", I thought, "maybe I can strive to be an amoeba as I bump though life." How is that supposed to inspire? How am I supposed to strive to anything?

But I think now that intent is as follows. What is the real difference between a person and an animal? An animal only reacts; a person acts. When the bills are (over)due, and the new boss is a pain, and the house needs repairs, and the kids need attention, and... and... and... On some days I feel that I am doing really well to just react; rather than being paralyzed into inaction. Act? Are you kidding me? Maybe I should just strive to be a donkey, keeping me head down, and just plodding through. Yet chazal, the eyes and heart of klal yisrael, tell us we can be human. How?

"R' Zeira said in the name or Rava; if the earlier generations are angels, then we are human..."

When I had cancer 15 years ago, I had the z'chus to meet R' Matisyahu Soloman, shlita. The mashgiach came to my house. I was barely frum, my wife and I had just made a major life decision to move to Chicago so our children would have a proper Torah Jewish environment and education -- and I get cancer. So I asked the mashgiach, "What does HaShem want from me?" It sounds trite, but his face was glowing. I didn't feel that I was looking at a human being, I was looking at an angel. I will never forget the feeling I got from his beautiful countenance and the tone of his reply; I felt hugged. His wise counsel was said with such confidence and concern that I absolutely felt that everything would be ok. That feeling carried my through chemotherapy and beyond. I now had the yishuv ha'daas, the presence of mind, to take a step back and make decisions. I felt human. (He said something *very* important, but it was something I could not really appreciate at the time; though I have often repeated it and tried to make it real to me. That is for another time.)

"...if the earlier generations are human, then we are like donkeys."

If I had looked at the mashgiach, shlita, as a person -- albeit a great person -- I would have felt, "Sure, he can handle life, because he is a great person. I am not a great person, I feel barely human, so I can't handle it." That is what R' Zeira is saying. The only way to be human is to connect yourself to HaShem. The only way to connect yourself to HaShem is "shimush chachamim" -- dedication to learning and living Torah as transmitted to us generation after generation from Har Sinai till today. What is an angel but a messenger from HaShem. If we take the lessons from the previous generation and look at them as messengers from HaShem, then we can be human. If we look at them as human, then we are not connecting to HaShem, and we are barely donkeys.


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