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Operation Inspiration

Operation Inspiration

While enjoying Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz’s new book on a recent Shabbat, I was reminded of a fantastic 1960 movie I saw as a child. “Pollyanna,” a Disney film based on a book published in 1913 by Eleanor H. Porter, was about an orphaned child whose life had been characterized by a series of obstacles, but she nevertheless looked at life through the lens of her self-directed “glad game,” i.e., finding something to be glad about in every situation. The word Pollyannaism became part of psychological literature in 1969, with the Pollyanna hypothesis described as a universal human tendency to use positive words more frequently and diversely than negative words in communicating. Evidence appears, from my non-professional opinion, to present a view that people live longer and have happier lives if they adhere as closely as possible to the Pollyanna principle.

I can’t think of a rabbi, or a writer, whose words carry more positivity than Rabbi Gewirtz’s, who seems to play the glad game every waking hour of the day, bringing home the point that everything carries a lesson and everyone is of value in this world. He applies the Pollyanna principle to his life experiences and to the words of our sages in equal measure to elevate his mitzvot, to be a better husband and father, and to try to make his family and community function better. His recently published book, by Feldheim, is a collection of writings from his column and they are short, pithy and indeed very inspirational. As each chapter is a self-enclosed column, this is a book that can be picked up for five minutes for a short burst of inspiration, or it can be sat down with for several hours.

Rabbi Gewirtz, of Wesley Hills, New York, who has semicha from Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland, has a day job in healthcare and works as a freelance writer and ghostwriter. Articles in his long-running “Observant Jew” column, for which his first book, published in 2014, was named, have just been retired after 14 years, but never fear: he only changed his column title to “Operation Inspiration,” which could not be more apt. (The Jewish Link will continue printing his columns occasionally in this new iteration, as we have with his original.) For the past 20 years he has also written the weekly Parsha Sheet Migdal Ohr, and he is the “Jewish speech writer” behind “Jewishspeechwriter.com.”

From his Torah study to more mundane activities such as carpool drives for his two daughters who attend JEC/Bruriah in Elizabeth, and bringing his wife an occasional latte, he finds ways to deepen his faith, constantly seeking to observe the machinations of Hashem working in our universe.

Rabbi Gewirtz relays several observations that can be applied to careers: Once, when davening in a shul with a high ceiling, Rabbi Gewirtz and his fellow daveners notice a bird stuck high in the rafters, trying unsuccessfully to get out. Even as the congregants opened windows and doors, the bird flew away, high above them, scared of the humans, assuming they would hurt him, yet frustrated, agitated and scared for himself as well. “Watching the bird’s behavior reminded me of human beings and what we do so often. Here was a bird trapped somewhere he didn’t belong, but he couldn’t free himself because he was trying to maintain his altitude. Instead of lowering himself and flying out the window, from where he would be able to soar to the heavens, he kept banging his head on the glass because he wanted to be on top,” Rabbi Gewirtz wrote.

Herein lies the lesson. A career does not always go higher and higher, and sometimes big obstacles appear in a life that so far has been characterized by immense success. “There are people who are leaders, honored people who have risen to a certain level in their own minds and are now trapped. Maybe a successful teacher or a rabbi opened a school, but it didn’t work out, or it was successful for awhile and now it’s time for it to close down… People like this won’t know who they are anymore, so they keep up appearances, insisting on honor and fancy titles, all the while succumbing to pressure, illness and unhappiness,” he wrote.

Shlomo Hamelech didn’t follow such a view, Rabbi Gewirtz relates, when he was deposed for three years by the demon Ashmedai. “King Solomon was the same person whether he had accolades from others or not. When it comes down to it, we are not in a race with others but only with ourselves,” he wrote.

A key theme of Rabbi Gewirtz’s book is realizing that if something has a role in this world, then everything must have a role in this world. Relating another story from Melachim, Dovid Hamelech asked God why certain things exist, noting that he saw a wasp getting caught in a spider web and questioned the necessity of both beings. He also asked God why there is a need for crazy people in the world since they suffer so much and cause sadness to so many. Hashem told him that one day he would understand.

“Once when Dovid was running away from Shaul Hamelech, he ducked into a cave. Hashem made a spider come and spin a large web over the mouth of the cave. When Shaul arrived, he thought, ‘If Dovid had entered, he would have broken the web.’ He moved on and Dovid’s life was saved.” Rabbi Gewirtz relayed two more incidences of Dovid being saved, once by a wasp and another time by pretending he was crazy.

Rabbi Gewirtz revisits his theme again and again, noting that his “order theory” maintains that nothing in the world that happens is random, but rather part of God’s plan for his creations, noting that even a tiny mosquito slows down a car going 60 miles an hour by one-millionth of a mile per hour. “The Maccabees fought a guerilla war with small groups against the massive Greek presence, and it didn’t happen overnight. They fought for three long years… when you think you can’t do anything important, remember the Maccabees and remember the mosquito who managed to slow the car down even an infinitesimal amount. Then look to see what you can do to make the world a better place,” he wrote.

One of my favorite examples of how Rabbi Gewirtz sees meaning in the most mundane and common of experiences comes from his work as a computer
specialist. When experiencing computer problems, he spent several hours scanning for viruses and running disk checks only to find that his “human interface device” was the culprit. That meant that the mouse he was using to access his computer was faulty, and switching that tiny $10 part out fixed the whole problem. Rabbi Gewirtz applied the entire experience to Judaism and to those who think that we need a “Sinai 2.0,” or ways to somehow make religion more accessible. No, he said.

“As long as you have a bad mouse or keyboard you can be using the latest and greatest computer system with the fastest processor and the most memory, but you will end up with lagging responses, incorrect data, and a feeling that you have wasted your time,” he wrote.

“When we recognize the possibility that the fault isn’t in our Judaism but in us and how we interact with and relate to Hashem and his Torah, we can take the steps necessary to improve our interaction and start experiencing the use of a powerful, labor-saving tool to get things done with a feeling of joy that is second to none.”

*This review was originally published in The Jewish Link of New Jersey (12/19/18).