Welcome Remarks by Dr. Chani Tessler for Blitstein Institute

The theme of this year’s Blitstein 2017-2018 Student Manual says, “Make it Yours”.  As new students starting the new academic year in the post seminary experience the time has truly come to “Make it Yours”. This can refer to the idea that “This is my Life” – it is I who now will be responsible for taking the reins and guiding the direction of my life. Up to this point, every year of elementary school and high school was required attendance, required participation, required homework, progressing in lock step formation with the rest of the cohort moving through life. That era has ended for you. You are now at the amazing, wonderful, incredible, mind-blowing point in your life where you are blessed with the opportunity to “Make it Yours”. Your spiritual life, your educational life, your physical life, your social life, the workings of your day-to-day life are now your responsibility. This is an awesome moment.

As we move through the weeks of the summer, we study Pirkei Avos each Shabbos.  Hillel Hatzaddik, says in the Mishna, “Im ein ani li mi li -  If I am not for me, who will be for me? “ The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon – Maimonides 1135-1204) says that no one can motivate you to accomplish great things in your life. This is up to you. You might rely on the righteousness of your ancestors and the strength of your parents to help you, however, the Chasam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Schreiber 1762-1839 ) expounds on the words “mi li”- Who will be for me?  He expresses the thought that your forebears cannot take the place of you yourself. In fact if you don’t live up to the potential set forth by your predecessors, their greatness might illuminate your own iniquities. It is your moment to make it yours.

Mi li? Only you know your strengths and your deepest personal weaknesses, only you know what tends to impede your forward growth. You alone know yourself best and even you might not be fully aware of all that you might be capable of achieving. Rav Avraham Yaakov HaCohen Pam 1913 – 2001), the revered Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodaas, had a famous parable of the “Poor Millionaire”. He would beseech his students not to live spiritually impoverished lives when in reality they were millionaires. He would describe the affliction of tzoraas on the walls of houses belonging to those who had sinned with Lashon Hora (gossip / slander). The affliction on the walls necessitated the demolishing  of those walls of the house. This was obviously considered a great punishment, resulting in the wailing and despondency of the inhabitants. However,  Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040 – 1105), in his commentary on Parshas Metzorah, describes how when the walls were torn down, gold and jewels that had been hidden by the previous Cannanite inhabitants were exposed. This led to great joy as opposed to the tears of devastation.  Prior to the revelation of the hidden jewels these inhabitants were “poor millionaires”,  unaware of the riches they owned.

War veterans tend to reflect fondly upon their war years. Even though those years may have been arduous and grueling, replete with deprivations in the most difficult of living conditions. Whence the fond memories and nostalgia? These soldiers, while recalling the physical punishments, filth and hunger, also recall being pushed to the very limits of their abilities and surviving. They remember the moments of losing any hope of success and nevertheless succeeding. They recall the selfless devotion to their comrades in arms and the support gained from those deep bonds of loyalty.  They were the ultimate poor millionaires. They were in the very worst of physical conditions but they were in the position to learn what greatness lay hidden within and what they were capable of doing for their fellow man.

This leads to the second part of the Mishna. Hillel continues, “U’chsheani l’atzmi ma ani – and if I am only for myself, what am I?”.  Rabbi Moshe Francis, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Chicago Commuity Kollel, recently spoke at Blitstein’s Rosh Chodesh Projeect for Women presenting an address to mark Chodesh Elul. He repeated the gemara, “Kol hamerachem al haBrios, merachamim alav min HaShamayim – all who show mercy to their fellow creations, He receives mercy from the Creator.”

As you take charge of your lives, you acquire ownership of who you wish to be and how you will get there – raise your eyes and look around. Who needs you? Who needs a smile, a meal, a chat? Who needs you to look away from your own needs so that you might see theirs.

May Hashem bless all of us, as we near the Yemai Hadin – the Days of Awe, with bracha and hatzlacha. May you all dig deep, become aware of the greatness of which you are capable and “Make it Yours” . May we raise our eyes and attend to those who need our love and support and be granted Hashem’s rachamim. May we all receive the blessings of  K’siva v’chasima tova so that we can take the blessing of a new year and “Make it Ours”.

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Leiber, M. (1996) Pirkei Avos, Ethics of the Fathers, The Sages' Guide to Living. Artscroll Mesorah

Smith, S. (2012) Rav Pam on Pirkei Avos, Artscroll Mesorah

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