Back to School: A Tale of Unintended Consequences

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Many months ago, I shared something that the rabbi of my shul had discussed on Rosh Hashana. He talked about George Nagel, AKA the Yabloner Rebbe. Here’s what I wrote then:

In the 1920s, the Yabloner Rebbe (born Yechezkel Taub) moved much of his community to Israel in anticipation of Moshiach’s arrival. Things went poorly and the Yabloner Rebbe had to sell most of the land they had bought. In the 1930s, in danger for his life from angry followers, he went to America to raise funds. While he was there, the war broke out in Europe and he heard that his entire Hasidic sect had been eradicated. Absolutely devastated and with nowhere to go, the Yabloner Rebbe took off his yarmulke, shaved off his beard and became George Nagel of Los Angeles. Some forty years later, in 1980, the residents of Kfar Chasidim, grateful that George taking them out of Europe had saved all their lives, tracked him down and persuaded him to return. Nagel not only returned to Israel, he returned to Judaism and resumed the position of Yabloner Rebbe, a role he retained until his death in 1986.

One detail of Nagel’s story that the rabbi had mentioned, which I didn’t include there because it wasn’t relevant to the point of that article, was that in 1975, a 79-year-old Nagel became the oldest graduate of California State University, Northridge, beating the second-oldest graduate’s record by several decades. Despite having had a long career in business, Nagel decided to pursue a degree in Psychology. (He earned his Master’s three years later, in 1978.)

The rabbi’s drasha inspired me, though probably not in a way that he intended. Obviously, the point of the drasha was Nagel’s return to Yiddishkeit and reinstatement as the Yabloner Rebbe, a powerful message of teshuvah. But I was also impacted by the fact that Nagel had gone back to school and reinvented himself in his 70s and 80s. This inspired me – still several decades Nagel’s junior, thank you very much –  to take a class in at my local community college, which I’m sure was a result not even on my local rabbi’s radar.

I earned my Master’s degree in 1991 and I hadn’t set foot in a college classroom in nearly three decades but I was motivated to take a class in – are you ready? I’m sure you won’t guess it – Music Theory. You see, I love music but I’ve never demonstrated any musical aptitude. (I’ve studied the drums for a few years, though I always tell people that saying I “play” the drums is probably a little too generous.) I have no actual need of music theory but when I hear something like

It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift,
The baffled king composing “Hallelujah.”

I want to understand it. And now, having taken Music Theory, I do. But the fact that I was inspired in this way was completely an unintended consequence.

While I consider this particular unintended consequence to be a good thing in my own personal life, it’s pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Other unintended consequences can have serious positive or negative repercussions.

My own story reminded me of an incident from the early 1980s, when I was in NCSY. Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky, now a renowned lecturer, was my Regional Director. One of our advisors, and also our band leader, was a fellow named Lenny Solomon.

After getting married, Rabbi Orlofsky took a sabbatical to study in Israel for the year. At our Regional Convention, he gave a heartfelt havdalah speech about how he desperately wanted to return to continue learning but the rav he had consulted said he was needed in America. The rest of us, he said, were not constrained in this way and were therefore free to pursue our lofty goals.

After delivering this message, Rabbi Orlofsky was approached by Lenny, who said, “Your havdalah really inspired me.”

“Great,” Rabbi Orlofsky replied. “So what are you going to do?”

“I’m going to give up accounting and go into music full time!”

“I think you may have missed the point.”

But Lenny hadn’t missed the point. He went on to use his God-given talents in the service of the One Who had given them. He created the band Shlock Rock, which uses musical comedy to teach Torah. Shlock Rock is now going on its third generation of kiruv and chinuch as many of the teens and 20-somethings who were among Lenny’s original fans are now the grandparents of young children being raised on songs like Abarbanel (to the tune of Barbara Ann), Achashverosh (à la Rock Me, Amadeus), and my personal favorite, To Unite All Jews (With or Without You).

I asked Lenny if it was okay to share this story and he said it was, though he mentioned that Rabbi Orlofsky’s speech wasn’t the sole deciding criterion; this career move was something he had been seriously contemplating at the time. But that doesn’t change the fact that Rabbi Orlofsky’s speech was a factor, without which the world might not have songs like Rashi, My Menorah and Minyan Man.

However, as noted, unintended consequences can also be dire. We see this no more than in the case of Antigonos of Socho. Antigonos is quoted in Pirkei Avos (1:3) as saying:

Do not be like servants who serve their master expecting to receive a reward for it. Rather, be like servants who serve their master without expecting a reward…

This is a pretty straightforward statement, I think: don’t serve God for the purpose of receiving a reward. However, this statement led to some serious unintended consequences. Avos d’Rabbi Nosson (5:2) explains:

Antigonos of Socho had two students (named Tzadok and Baisos) who learned from his words and taught them to their students, and from there to their students’ students. There subsequently arose after them those who interpreted his words, saying, “Why did our ancestors say this? Is it possible to work all day and not be paid at the end of it? If our ancestors knew there was an afterlife and an ultimate revival of the dead, they never would have stated this dictum.” These people then separated themselves from the Torah and created two factions, the Tzadukkim (Sadducees) and Baisosin (Boethusians), after Tzadok and Baisos…

The Sadducees in particular may be familiar as ancient antagonists who denied the oral tradition and created trouble in the second Temple era but both they and the Boethusians were heretical sects that were ostensibly created because no teacher between Antigonos and their founding found it necessary to clarify, “Of course, there is a reward, it just shouldn’t be our motivation.”

And this is why we should be careful with our words. This is another lesson taught in Avos (1:11), by Avtalyon:

Be careful with your words so that you don’t incur the penalty of exile to a place of evil waters, where the students who follow you will drink and die, thereby desecrating God’s Name.

The whole “students drinking evil waters” thing is a metaphor for words of Torah being misinterpreted in a heretical fashion. The Bartinuro says explicitly that this mishna refers to the misinterpretation that led to the Sadducees and the Boethusians.

The things we say often have repercussions beyond anything we can imagine. Maybe someone in your audience will run out and take an elective course. Maybe they’ll start a worldwide musical phenomenon. Maybe they’ll start a heretical sect. We can’t control other people’s actions but we can learn to be more discriminating with our words in the hopes that the unintended consequences we generate are always a kiddush Hashem and never, God forbid, a chillul Hashem.


Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon. Rabbi Jack also serves as Educational Correspondent for Jew in the City. Follow him at facebook.com/rabbijackbooks.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.