We are an orphaned generation.
At least that’s what they say. There is a tendency in the Orthodox community to look at our greats of yesteryear and decry the lack of leadership and righteousness today.
Modern Orthodox Jews say, “Since Rav Soloveitchik passed, we have no leader.”
Chabad chasidim say, “Since the Lubavitcher Rebbe passed, we have no leader.”
Others long for the days of Rabbi Henoch Leibowitz, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Eliezer Schach, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Rabbi Aharon Kotler, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, the list goes on and on.
What happened to the leaders of yore?
Rabbi Yochanan taught: Throughout his life, the righteous Choni the Circler was troubled by the meaning of the Psalm, “A Song of Ascents, when G-d brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like dreamers.” Is it possible for a man to dream continuously for seventy years?
One day he was journeying along the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree.
He asked him, “How long will it take to bear fruit?”
The man replied, “Seventy years.”
He then further asked him, “Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?”
The man replied, “When I was born, I found carob trees in the world. Just like my forefathers planted these for me so I too plant these for my children.”
Choni sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept a rocky formation enclosed upon him, which hid him from sight. He continued to sleep for seventy years.
When he awoke he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and asked him, “Are you the man who planted the tree?”
The man replied, “I am his grandson.”
Thereupon Choni exclaimed, “It is clear that I slept for seventy years!” Indeed, he then recognized his donkey that had given birth to generations of offspring!
He went home and asked them, “Is the son of Choni the Circler still alive?”
The people answered him, “His son is no more, but his grandson is still alive.”
He then said to them, “I am Choni the Circler.”
But no one believed him.
He then ran off to the study hall and he overheard the scholars say, “The law is as clear to us as in the days of Choni the Circler, for whenever he came to the study hall, he would resolve any difficulty that the scholars had.
At which point he called out, “I am he!”
But the scholars would not believe him nor did they give the honour due him. This hurt him greatly and he prayed for death and died. Rava taught: This is the meaning of the saying, ‘Either companionship or death.’
Our “orphaned” generation is no different to any “orphaned” generation that preceded it. The generation after Choni felt the same way. ‘We wish Choni were here, because he could solve any problem!’ But then he shows up and fails to fit into the later generation. He feels so dejected that he asks the Almighty to take him.
Very often, people conclude the story of Choni with the piece about the grandson who is eating the fruits of the tree that his grandfather planted. And they think, ‘How wonderful! Our grandparents preserved and prepared the world for us and we in turn preserve and prepare it for our grandchildren!’
But that’s not the punchline of the story. The story ends with Choni realizing that he has no place in the new world. You see, the Almighty places the right leaders in each generation. Choni had his time and was the right leader for his generation but then it became incumbent upon the sages of the new generation to take the reins.
Recently, a friend of mine shared a bizarre story with me. He had a toothache and so he emailed the “Ohel” – the resting place of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe OBM for a blessing for healing. And I thought to myself, when Rabbi Schneersohn was alive he would receive dozens of letters a day seeking his advice and blessing. Imagine he was alive today in the time of email – he would need a secretariat of hundreds to respond to the thousands of emails that he would be receiving daily from every person asking his blessing for a toothache!
The Almighty knows what He is doing. He places the right leaders in each generation. Some generations need incredible scholars, others need incredible pastors, others need incredible visionaries. But He never leaves us bereft of leadership.
The problem that most of us face is that we are not prepared to be the leaders that our forebears were. And that’s the point of the first part of the story of Choni.
“When I was born, I found carob trees in the world. Just like my forefathers planted these for me so I too plant these for my children,” said the man. He didn’t shirk responsibility and contend that he lacked the strength of character of his forefathers. He didn’t sit back, content with enjoying the fruits of his grandfather’s labour. No, he committed to being the grandfather – the leader – for future generations.
And the Talmud then goes on to tell us wonderful stories about Choni’s grandchildren. Were they as great as Choni? Perhaps not. But they were the right leaders for their generation.
I often encounter a related phenomenon amongst many sincere, goodhearted laypeople. I’ll enter their homes and they’ll point proudly to the picture of Zaidy (grandpa) on the wall – very Jewish-looking, like something out of a scene from Fiddler on the Roof. The late singer, Moshe Yess, is famous for his song Zaidy, where he tells the story of his grandfather who kept the family committed to Judaism.
He concludes with the line, “Who will be the Zaidy of my children? Who will be their Zaidy if not me? Who will be the Zaidy of our children? Who will be their Zaidy if not we?”
You were chosen to lead! Whether as leader of our generation or leader of your family, you must step up to the plate and stop living nostalgically in the past. Choni wouldn’t make it today. You can. You must. You were placed in this generation, because the generation needs you. The same way that your Zaidy preserved our heritage for you, you must preserve it for your grandchildren.