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Isha Bekia

A tribute to Rabbi Beller

Nov 11, 2019 | Tributes


It is a privilege to write words of Torah in honour of Rabbi Danny Beller, of blessed memory – a brilliant talmid chacham, a deeply compassionate human being, an inspirational leader, a dynamic, animated personality, and a passionate lover of klal yisroel and humanity. I was particularly fortunate to count him as a friend.
During his 53 years on this earth, Rabbi Beller accomplished so much. Yet those who knew him were left with the inescapable sense that he could have accomplished so much more, that his time here was too short, that much of the work he devoted himself to was tragically left incomplete. Undoubtedly, there was much Rabbi Beller still had to offer the Jewish people and the world at large. The poignant words of Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, come to mind: “We are born in the middle of things and we die in the middle of things.”
How do we cope with this painful reality of life? As human beings, we have a deep-seated need to see things to the end. The human condition is to not be satisfied, to not let our minds rest, until we do what we set out do to. Yet life is messy – full of loose ends, false starts, unfulfilled objectives. The question is, what should our attitude be to this unsatisfying state of affairs?
The mishna in Pirkei Avot states: “It is not on you to complete the work, but nor are you free to desist from it.” (Avot 2:16). Though, as many commentators point out, it is referring specifically to the mitzvah of Torah learning, which being G-d’s infinite wisdom, by definition can never fully be comprehended or “completed”, it applies no less to every mitzvah we perform, and all of the objectives we pursue over the course of our lives.
We can also draw wisdom from parshat Masei, where G-d gives Moshe the mitzvah of designating the cities of refuge – safe spaces for those who have inadvertently taken a life to escape to, to seek refuge from avenging parties and reflect on their actions. There were six cities of refuge to be established – three east of the Jordan River and three west of the Jordan River. The eastern territory had already been conquered by this stage, and to get things started, Moshe was tasked with establishing these first three cities. He did this, but he never got to establish the three western cities, because he didn’t end up crossing the Jordan River and leading the Jewish people into the land of Israel. That mission was left to his successor, Joshua.
Analysing the verse, Rashi comments that the six cities were a single bloc, and that none of the cities would be operational until all six were established. This means that the three eastern cities that Moshe set up did not become operational until Joshua conquered the western side of the Jordan River and established the other three. In other words, not only did Moshe not have the chance to complete the task, he never got to see any of the fruits of his efforts realised. The Gemara (Makot 10a) says this was a mark of Moshe’s greatness – that his passion for fulfilling G-d’s will was such that he threw himself into the task of establishing these cities even though he knew he would never complete it.
We need to appreciate each moment, each accomplishment, each step along our life’s journey. It is not about completing the journey, because in a fundamental sense the work is never completed. Every moment of life is precious. We learn this from pikuach nefesh – the principle that virtually all of the Torah’s laws are suspended in order to save a life. Even if it’s to prolong that life for a few moments. Life is nothing but the sum of small moments. Each moment is sacred because life is sacred.
Torah learning provides a good illustration of the importance of small moments and small victories. The Mishna teaches that the mitzvah of learning Torah has no fixed limit. The Vilna Gaon has a novel reading of the Mishna. He says that this teaching applies at both ends of the spectrum – there is no upper limit on the amount of Torah one can learn, but there is also no minimum amount; each word of Torah we learn is a distinct mitzvah with eternal value.
Kindness is another example. We have a Torah mandate to make this world a kinder, gentler place. But the mitzvah of chesed is fulfilled through incremental actions and gestures – a kind word, a small gesture, a brief embrace. And consider tzedakah– a mitzvah performed one coin at a time. Or prayer. All it takes is one moment of intensity, one moment of devotion and concentration to make it all worthwhile. We can try, but we don’t – nor are we expected to – maintain that intensity throughout every moment of prayer, day in and day out.
This idea of finding joy in the process could also be the message in a curious passage of the Torah chronicling the journey of the Jewish people in the desert in painstaking detail. Each leg, each stopover of the 40-year journey is mentioned by name. Why is that? If anything, there’s good reason not to dwell on the drawn-out journey, which only became necessary because of the sin of the spies. But perhaps the verse does so to underline that each step of a journey is important, each moment is significant, each mitzvah is a milestone. We should not look at life as one unit. We should savour each of its components.
The arc of Moshe’s life embodies this idea. He was appointed with the mandate to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, bring them to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, and then, as the culmination of this process, to lead them into the land of Israel. Due to events in the desert, Moshe’s mandate to lead the people into Israel was transferred to Joshua. And so in a certain fundamental sense his mission was incomplete.
The fairytale ending would have been Moshe triumphantly leading the people into the land of Israel. But the Torah is a book of truth. It’s a description of life as it is. And in real life, “We are born in the middle of things, and we die in the middle of things.” There are no neat beginnings and endings, no neat resolutions. G-d is the master of the universe and it is not in our hands to complete our arcs and wrap up our lives in a neat little bow.
All we can do is focus on and appreciate each moment; take each task and each mitzvah one at a time; ensure we win life’s small victories. All we can do is live with complete faith that Hashem will give us the time we need on this earth to do what we need to do – what we were born to do – even if it feels messy and unsatisfactory, even if it feels that things are incomplete.
The key is to live with humility and appreciation – the humility that comes with understanding that we don’t control everything, and the appreciation that comes with savouring each moment and each small victory. And we need to encourage that attitude in our children. To encourage them in each milestone accomplished, each mitzvah performed, each moment of grace and kindness, no matter how seemingly small.
As Jews, we believe in a Final Redemption – an era in which the world is perfected, peace reigns on earth, and human history is brought to a glorious close. We all long for such a time. And yet there is only one generation that will merit to witness this closure. We hope and pray that we are that generation – that the redemption happens “speedily in our days” – and yet we carry on with our lives with the peace of mind that every good deed we do, every step we take in the right direction, every small difference we make in improving the world we live in is part of the unfolding of human history and leading inexorably towards the time we all long for.
Rabbi Danny Beller lived his life this way. His life, like all lives in the deepest sense, was cut short, in the middle of things. And yet, we are humbled by his awesome achievements, his countless mitzvot and overflowing compassion and wisdom, and take great pride and satisfaction in all that he accomplished, and all the lives he touched, in those 53 golden years, every day of which was filled with abundant acts of eternal merit.