The Eiffel Tower: A Symbol of Falsehood
It is written, “You are standing today, all of you, before the L-RD your G-d: The heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers – all the men of Israel” (Deuteronomy 29:9).
The Sages have explained the expression, “You [atem] are standing today” by rearranging the letters of the word atem to form emet (“truth”). On Rosh Hashanah, we must stand before G-d with a sincere attitude, differentiating between truth that is mingled with falsehood (which does not resemble truth) and truth that is pure and unadulterated. It is only by acknowledging the reality of G-d in the world that we can distance ourselves from evil and completely repent of our wicked deeds before Him.
During my trip to the Ukraine in Elul 5766, I visited the graves of the tzaddikim, men such as the Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, may their memory protect us. It is a practice that I’ve adopted in the past few years, to travel to the graves of the tzaddikim during these days of forgiveness and mercy, just prior to the ten days of teshuvah, in order to pray and beseech Hashem to protect us by the merit of the tzaddikim, and for us to be inscribed in the book of life and peace.
In the past the Ukraine, which was under communist rule, completely forbid Jews from living a life of Torah and mitzvot. A few exceptional individuals exerted every effort to sustain a Jewish spark in the country, and thank G-d the situation has so dramatically improved that today an outside observer would be hard-pressed to imagine that this was the same place where Jews were persecuted and forcefully prevented from fulfilling mitzvot.
The road that leads to the graves of the tzaddikim is crossed by horse-drawn carts. I therefore used this form of transportation, one that has been employed for hundreds of years. While on the road I began to think of the Concorde, an airplane that cost multiple millions of dollars, and yet today is no more, being mothballed in some forgotten corner. As for the horse, it has existed since the world’s creation, and despite all the technological progress of the last centuries it continues to be used in numerous regions around the world.
The Concorde, which some of the greatest minds in the world worked on, has completely disappeared from the field of aviation. On the other hand, the horse is still being used by man after thousands of years. Neither the technological revolution, the development of machines, or the arrival of the automobile has prevented the horse from being man’s faithful servant.
The horse, a creation of G-d, has continued to fulfill its mission century after century, whereas the Concorde, made by beings of flesh and blood, represents a complete failure. By looking at things closely, we note that the majority of animals continue to exist. Certainly some species have been hunted into extinction (such as for their skin or fur) and certain natural events have led to the extinction of others (such as the drying up of marshes and so on). Notwithstanding these exceptions, all the works of G-d, created by His hands, will continue to exist and function as they did when the world was created.
On the other hand, the only objective behind the construction of the Concorde was to spread French fame and enhance national pride. In fact this project was like “the apple of the eye” of France, like a jewel that one proudly displays to everyone. The French did not have altruistic intentions when they created this airplane. They pursued one objective only: The honor of the Concord’s designers and the nation.
Conversely, when G-d created the horse, His constant aim was to look for ways to benefit His creations. In reality, G-d created everything in this world for His honor, for when people use horses to travel from one place to another, they praise and bless G-d for having created such an extraordinary animal. This means that by creating the horse, G-d established a dual objective for Himself: The first is to benefit His creations and increase the level of comfort in their lives, and the second is to spread His glory throughout the world, for those using the horse will praise Him.
The famous French airplane, on the other hand, was created solely for honor and splendor, and therefore it was unable to continue helping people travel by air. The moral lesson behind this comparison is very important, namely that an act without a true and sincere intention cannot hope to endure in this world, and it will eventually disappear into thin air.
Likewise when we look at the Eiffel Tower, the symbol of Paris that endeavors to shine with all its lights and which, at first glance, seems beautiful and attractive, we notice that it is actually synonymous with darkness and obscurity. How so?
The builders of this illuminated monument, along with the entire French people, have been extremely proud of their extraordinary creation and happy to call it their own. However all honor and praise belongs to G-d, for He is the One Who created iron and light, and He provided the necessary intelligence for the builders to achieve their goal. Everyone who admires the Eiffel Tower and praises its builders forgets that all expressions of wonder should be directed to the Creator, Who gave discernment and intelligence to the designers of this monument so they could achieve such an impressive result. As for the horse, it was created from nothing, emerging into a world of tuhu-buhu and darkness. At the center of this void, G-d created the horse in order to serve man, whereas the Eiffel Tower was made from metal that came from pre-existent materials. Even the intelligence that inspired the Eiffel Tower’s designers came from G-d.
We clearly see that whenever the tzaddikim of this world encounter amazing deeds or miracles of nature, they are awestruck and greatly moved, proclaiming it to be from G-d. For example, when Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, he did not try and claim that the interpretation stemmed from his own intelligence, but acknowledged that it came from G-d.
It is written, “Truth will spring from the earth” (Psalms 85:12), which means that it originates from the earth and grows in it much like flowers do. Just as flowers exude a pleasant fragrance that everyone enjoys, likewise the truth encapsulates the odor of Gan Eden and intoxicates everyone with its scent. No one can cheat with the fragrance of truth, for it is found in the world, and whoever wants to recognize and acknowledge it cannot ignore the fact that it is here, alive, its heart beating, crying out to the heavens.
I was once speaking with an extremely wealthy man, and I asked him what he thought of life. He told me that he was very worried about living in a generation of material abundance, a generation in which money regrettably intoxicates its possessors and can even blind the wise and make them attribute honor to their own abilities and thereby forget its true source. I was quite pleased that this man had recognized the truth and did not try to escape it, for by the very fact of acknowledging it, a person has the ability to remain on the path of righteousness and goodness.
On the other hand, another person that I crossed paths with on several occasions would boast about being friends with wealthy and high-ranking individuals, never once saying be’ezrat Hashem (“with G-d’s help”). This attitude made me feel very uncomfortable, for he claimed to be in control of the events and timing of everything that was happening in his life. He failed to recognize the simple reality that everything is decided above and that G-d alone determines what will happen to any given person. I made it clear to him that I planned on cutting all ties with him because his way of speaking made me feel very uncomfortable. Severing the ties between us gave me the ability to understand how distasteful it is to see a being of flesh and blood attributing his success to his own abilities, all while forgetting just Who rules the world and directs everything. In reality, this person is like the Eiffel Tower, which is awash in light despite the fact that its name designates afela (complete darkness). This is because its admirers fail to realize Whom to address their praises for this extraordinary monument.
When the war in Lebanon broke out in 5766, Jews from all segments of society, religious or not, distinguished themselves by their sense of mutual love and aid, not differentiating in any way between one person and the next. As I went into the street, I raised my eyes to Heaven and said: “Master of the universe, who is like Your people Israel? See how Jews are helping one another, without worrying at all about their money, their time, or their energy?” On the other hand, many Jews continued to go about their daily lives without ever questioning why this tragedy struck the country. In fact when the residents of northern Israel had to flee their homes in a panic, the beaches began to fill with people. They were all content on spending their summer vacation at the beach, without the least bit of concern for their brothers who were suffering and needed help.
In comparison to this, during the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, everyone was at the front and participated in the war effort, be it directly or by giving aid to the wounded and their families. We need to understand the reason for the difference between the former wars and the war in Lebanon. Perhaps it is because in our time, money is a source of excess in every public place, to the point that it has become an idol in our time. It is unfortunate to see how, instead of bringing much needed help to their brothers in distress or to prisoners, some people devoted themselves to unending calculations on the financials markets, trying to invest their money at the best possible rate, all so as to stay safe despite the precarious situation of the country. However if we go back to the beginning of the state of Israel, the economic situation was hardly great. In fact people’s hearts and minds were not preoccupied with money and wealth. People did not hide themselves from the difficult realities of the time, which is why everyone, both young and old, mobilized to help the community.
“He who loves money shall never be satisfied by money” (Ecclesiastes 5:9), and one who has one hundred wants two hundred. This idea is confirmed by the following story: After an automobile accident, a woman fell into a comma for several months and eventually died. She had been a devoted and loving mother, and she had also managed her money well, leaving a large inheritance for her children. Her son called me late one night to inform me of her passing. “I’m at peace,” he said. “We won’t be in need of anything anymore, for now she’s in Heaven and she can intervene on our behalf for all our desires and material needs to be completely satisfied.”
When I heard these words, I tried to reason with the man. I said to him, “But what are you lacking? Your mother has just left you a large inheritance, and instead of doing something for the elevation of her soul – donating some money to a synagogue or studying Mishnah – you’re only thinking of what personal gain her passing will bring to you! What’s become of your love and gratitude to your mother for what she’s done during all these years?” The man, who was feeling quite ashamed at that point, stopped his petitions and approved my words by remaining silent. As we have said, money blinds the wise.
Rav Shach Zatzal once said that it is impossible for a person to completely submit himself to his Creator if he puts all his efforts into the pursuit of money. We need to establish and pursue the right priorities for ourselves, since materialism and serving G-d are incompatible with one another. This does not mean that we should not possess money, but that we are responsible for drawing a clear distinction between what is essential and what is not. We must realize that serving G-d is our goal, and that money is simply the means, something to which we cannot attribute great importance. Along the same line of thought, the Baal Shem Tov explained that a person who wants to attain the fear of G-d must first devote himself to his Creator with all his soul, something that can only happen when he detaches himself from frivolous material pursuits, which are awash in deceit and falsehood.
The prohibition against wasting things, which enjoins us to give people things that we do not need (rather than to discard them), has the goal of sensitizing man to the fact that everything he possesses comes to him from his Creator, and that he cannot discard things without a definite purpose. He must give them to the poor, who will also demonstrate gratitude to G-d for such gifts. There is therefore a two-fold benefit to not wasting: First, a person will become sensitized to the Divine origin of what he owns, and second, by giving to the poor, a person will lead them to recognize that everything they have comes from G-d.
The Torah and our Sages teach that Elul is a month of mercy and forgiveness, and that its objective is to rectify what has been damaged by the impurity and falsehood of the world. To me, the Eiffel Tower is the best example of such falsehood, for on the outside it shines and sparkles, but on the inside it is actually empty. This tower vividly represents the progress and materialism that traps countess victims, for although it shines with a thousand lights and draws all eyes to it, in reality it brings nothing good to the world.