Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Be Happy


Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This week’s parsha is replete with many blessings for those who follow the Torah. However, it also contains many klalos. Those who stray from the path will end up regretting their actions, as the enormity of the Tochacha will befall them. Regrettably, as we review the pesukim, we recognize much of the history of the Jews in golus.

This week’s election in Eretz Yisroel struck fear in the hearts of many, as several parties campaigned openly against the religious community and appealed for voters by promising that they would get the religious people out of the way. With Iran looming in the background, border states Syria and Lebanon teeming with terrorists aiming to destroy Israel, Gaza inflamed and ready to boil over any day, and the general issues of economic policy and the West Bank that usually come up in any election, you would think that the political parties would have much to debate and discuss. But you would be wrong, because the only thing being discussed was how Jewish the Jewish country should be.

A spokesman for the right-wing Yamina party summed it up, saying, “They are on a hate campaign against anything that has a Jewish aroma to it.”

Now is not the time to debate what led to this hatred for everything Jewish, but it is something that we must recognize and repair. All the kiruv organizations and all the religious and right-wing parties and Binyomin Netanyahu spent the past few weeks spinning their wheels, trying to convince regular Israelis that the religious community is not as terrible as it has been portrayed, and that they should vote for the parties and man who will maintain a strong Israel and respect religion and Israel’s basic foundations as a Jewish state.

Perhaps because the religious and secular communities do not live together, our people can be forgiven for thinking that there is more cohesion and interest in Judaism than there actually is, but many of the tag lines thrown out by the likes of Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and Avigdor Lieberman strike fear in our hearts as we study parshiyos such as this week’s.

After all that our people have been through, personally and as a country over the past seven decades, we would imagine that there would be more of a connection to Torah, to mesorah, to tradition and to Jewish feeling. At times, our public behavior has been lacking, and that definitely should be rectified, but the hatred expressed during this campaign goes deeper than that and is indicative of an infectious rot, indicating a need for broader education and outreach. We dare not sit idly by as a war rages against the concepts of Shabbos and Yahadus that have defined our people throughout the millennia.

Let us daven that when the dust settles, cooler heads will prevail and bridges will be built and traversed, enabling our people to live in the Promised Land without the steady fear that currently envelops them. Let us daven that never again will Torah be under attack as it is now.

That is on a communal level, but on a personal level, as we study the parsha, we come across the posuk (Devorim 28:47) which states that a cause of punishment is “tachas asher lo ovadeta es Hashem Elokecha besimcha uvetuv leivov meirov kol - because you didn’t serve Hashem, your G-d, with happiness and goodness of heart when everything was plentiful.”

It would appear that the Tochacha is brought about because people don’t perform the mitzvos joyfully. In fact, it is deeper than that. As we go through the day, we must think of Hakadosh Boruch Hu and what He wants us to be doing at that time. Our obligation is not only to be happy when performing a mitzvah as we appreciate the gift of following the Torah and obeying Hashem’s word. There is no joy as great as being blessed to be able to live the meaningful, fulfilling and productive life of a shomer Torah umitzvos.

When a person lacks joy, it indicates a latent sadness brought on by an absence of satisfaction with what that person is doing. Someone who is unhappy while performing mitzvos and as he goes about his everyday avodas Hashem doesn’t grasp the greatness of what he is doing and is unaware of what he accomplishes when he performs a mitzvah. For that, he is punished.

At the beginning of the parsha, after discussing the concept of bikkurim and the offering of first fruits, the posuk (Devorim 26:11) says, “And you should be happy with all the good Hashem has given you and your family…” When a person appreciates the goodness that has been bestowed upon him, it is natural that he will be happy.

Those who are blessed “bechol hatov” and don’t appreciate the source of the blessing are unhappy souls, as the posuk of “tachas asher lo avodeta” indicates. They have everything they need and more, yet they are morose, for they don’t appreciate that the source of their blessing is Hashem. If they would believe that what they have is from the source of all good, the Creator of heaven and earth, they would find satisfaction in knowing that He who provides for every living creature in the world decided to bless them with the possessions they have. They would appreciate what they have and be thankful for it.

People who think that they have earned everything they possess by dint of their brilliance and hard work will never have enough. They will always want more. They are never satisfied. Since the reason they have what they do is because of what they have done, when they see that others have more than they do, it indicates a problem with their actions and their intelligence and what they did. They feel incomplete and weak, and are upset with themselves that they haven’t achieved more.

These people are upset when they look at others who have more money, a larger house, and a fancier car. They are overcome by jealousy that they were not able to achieve what the other person did, because they think it is in their control.

If you realize that everything that you have is from Hashem and the amount of money you earn is decided on Rosh Hashanah, then you are satisfied with whatever Hashem gives you.

A believing person does not look at what others have, nor does he become jealous if they have more than him. A person who recognizes that he should be thankful for what he has is content and is oveid Hashem b’simcha.

Happiness is a central part of a productive life and a sign of a person who has perfected his middos of emunah and bitachon. Those who know that nothing that happens in their lives is happenstance do not become depressed when confronted by tragedy and sad occurrences.

Rav Mordechai Pogromansky represented the greatness of Lithuanian bnei Torah. Even when locked in the Kovno Ghetto, surrounded by death, destruction and deprivation, he never lost his calmness brought about by emunah and bitachon. He remained devoted to Torah and was a source of chizuk to those around him. With the Jews walled into a small, constantly patrolled area, he would tell those who would gather around him that he didn’t see the ever-present German beasts. “I don’t see Germans all around us. I see pesukim of the Torah [from the Tochacha] surrounding the ghetto.”

This Torah giant saw what was transpiring as the realization of the pesukim in this week’s parsha that we read quickly and quietly. He saw those words coming to life. He was able to remain calm, because he knew that all that was happening was, in essence, the realization of the verses. He didn’t see Germans. He didn’t fear Germans. He saw and feared Hashem. He knew that whatever was going to happen was preordained by the Ribono Shel Olam.

Bombs were falling, and devastation and hunger were his daily companions, yet, with depth, sensitivity and brilliance, he sensed the stark clarity of the pesukim of the Tochacha and the reality as expressed by the Torah. Everything around him was merely a reflection of that reality, a cause-and-effect built into creation by the Creator.

At every moment, he pondered what Hashem wanted of him at that time, how He wanted him to act and to conduct himself. At all times, he accepted Hashem’s will, for that is how a believer conducts himself.

A Jew is meant to be joyful. The Arizal told his close talmid that all the unprecedented Divine revelations that he received were a reward for performing mitzvos with tremendous joy.

Simcha is attained when there is shleimus, when something is complete. When doing a mitzvah excites a person and brings him to a state of ecstasy, that indicates that he has performed the mitzvah perfectly. Hence the joy.

A sense of calm and satisfaction permeated the Kelmer Yeshiva all year round. Rav Moshe Rosenstein, later of the Lomza Yeshiva, once described what he experienced when he arrived in Kelm for the first time as a yeshiva bochur.

“As soon as I entered, a bochur came over to me. He greeted me with a smile and a handshake. He asked me how I was and when I had arrived. He asked me if I had a place to eat and sleep and about my general welfare.

“He was so friendly to me and I was trying to place him. He had to be an old friend I didn’t recognize. A minute after our conversation concluded, another young man came over to me. He was another long lost friend I didn’t recognize. He smiled at me and was so happy to see me. He asked how I was doing, when I came, and if I had what I need. I assured him that all was well and moved along, embarrassed that I didn’t remember him.

“Then another boy came over, and then another one. By the time I was done, it seemed to me as if the whole yeshiva had welcomed me graciously, with smiles on their faces, as if they knew me. It took a while, but then I came to understand.”

Kelm meant treating every person with kindness, whether the talmidim knew him or not. Everyone created b’tzelem Elokim is worthy of respect and a smile.

In fact, there was a consensus in Kelm to greet people the same way even during the month of Elul and the period of the Yomim Noraim. The talmidim of the renowned mussar yeshiva were overwhelmed with preparing themselves for the Yom Hadin and did not engage in idle chatter during this somber time. Yet, even then, everyone was greeted joyously and with love, with a beaming face and a smile.

The chinuch we provide our children should also involve the joy of doing mitzvos. Too often, mitzvos come across to children as burdens and things they resent because of the harshness with which they are presented. If children are made to feel that the Torah and its commandments are grueling and stress-inducing, they will view them as a burden, and it will be difficult for them to accept them. When they mature, they may be tempted, chalilah, to rid themselves of the shackles placed upon them in their youth.

But if Yiddishkeit is invigorating and joyous, learning is exhilarating, and there is nothing as euphoric as Shabbos, then our youth will appreciate what they have and grow with it as they mature.

Shul should be a pleasant experience, with a meaningful davening among satisfied people happy to thank Hashem for His beneficence and ask for more. School should be cheerful and inviting. People don’t generally thrive or do well under punishing circumstances, with constant pressure and fatigue, or in places where the restrictions are overwhelming.

Perhaps there was a time when negativity and harshness were effective with children and adults, but those days have passed, as is evident by the many dropouts and at-risk youth. We have to bring back the everyday pride everyone felt about being a frum Jew and the merriment with which people were infused.

We all face challenges. The tendency to become saddened and overweighed by life’s burdens is understandable. But why lead a life of sorrow when, no matter how bad a person’s condition is, there is reason to smile and hope? There is always something to be happy about. Hashem created you and watches over you. It is He who has given you challenges, and it is He who will help you overcome them and succeed.

The courage to understand is the theme of Elul.

We read further in the parsha (28:1) that if we adhere to all the mitzvos we were commanded by Hashem and follow His word, we will merit to be ascendant over all the other nations.

It is interesting to note that this posuk is preceded by the one which states, “Arur asher lo yokim es divrei haTorah hazos - Cursed shall be the one who does not uphold [raise] the Torah.”

The Ramban cites the Yerushalmi in Sotah (7:4) that states that this curse is referring to people who are in a position to influence others to come closer to and support Torah but fail to do so. People who shirk that responsibility are included in this arur. Even if a person is a complete tzaddik, if he could draw people closer to the holiness and truth of Torah and doesn’t, he is included in the arur.

The Chofetz Chaim would repeat this Ramban and strengthen its message by quoting the Gemara in Shabbos (54), which says that one who has the ability to protest against wrongful actions of the people of his town and fails do so is punished as well. One who reproaches his fellows and causes them to return to proper behavior, thereby enhancing kevod Shomayim, is showered with the brachos in this week’s parsha that were delivered on Har Gerizim.

The Chofetz Chaim would conclude that to receive those brachos, each person should use his abilities for the causes of Torah. If Hashem blessed someone with money, he should use it to build yeshivos for the study of Torah. If he is blessed with oratory skills, he should use them to raise money for yeshivos and other Torah causes. He should speak out against practices that cause a weakening of our religion.

As the Yom Hadin approaches, we all seek zechuyos so that we will merit being inscribed in the book of tzaddikim.

As the world spins out of control and rogue nations gird themselves with weapons capable of causing colossal damage, we realize that there is no one we can depend on to protect us other than Hashem. We seek to be included with those the posuk refers to as “boruch, the blessed ones.”

Hashem created every person uniquely because it takes the varied capabilities possessed by different people to accomplish things and strengthen a nation. Let us all use the talents we have been blessed with to improve our situation and that of Klal Yisroel.

Let us always be kind and thoughtful, always considering other people, and treating everyone as a tzelem Elokim.

Let us act like mentchen wherever we are. For example, how about starting with improving our driving habits, so that powering a car in a frum area doesn’t become a stress test? Let’s obey common courtesies, such as letting people merge and make left turns and exit from parking lots and parking spaces.

Let us be ever vigilant in our behavior, remaining loyal to the Shulchan Aruch, our mesorah, and what we know is true and proper. Let us maintain the strength of character and purpose necessary to remain upstanding in a tipsy world.

Let us seek to bring the beauty and joy of Torah to our brethren who don’t yet feel welcome in the tent of Yahadus. Let us spread the wealth of Shabbos and mitzvos to the less fortunate who reside in a grayscale world. Let us show that with love, joy and a smile, we can expand the tent of the blessed ones.

May we earn the brachos for a year of success, good health, parnossah, happiness and shleimus.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Going To War


By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The Tur (Hilchos Rosh Hashanah 581) states that Chazal instituted the custom of blowing the shofar during the month of Elul so that people will be alerted to perform teshuvah, as the posuk (Amos 3:6) states, “Im yitoka shofar be’ir ve’am lo yecherodu? Can a shofar sound in a city and the nation will not tremble?” This question demonstrates that the sound of the shofar causes people to be fearful.

Rav Dovid Cohen, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Chevron, points out that the posuk, which is widely repeated and mentioned as the source of the custom to blow shofar during Elul, does not directly refer to teshuvah or Rosh Hashanah. The posuk mentions the shofar and its ability to evoke fear as a tool of war. When the shofar sounds, people panic, because they know that war is imminent.

How, then, is this posuk, which refers to war, a source for the shofar we sound during these days of Elul which is a call to people to do teshuvah?

Rav Eliyohu Meir Bloch, the Telzer rosh yeshiva, would begin each Elul by announcing to his talmidim that “mir zennen yetzt in ah tzeit fun milchamah, we are now in a time of war.”

The Zohar sees this message in the opening of this week’s parsha, Ki seitzei lamilchamah al oyvecha,” where the Torah is ostensibly discussing the Jewish people going to battle against their enemies and the capture of an aishes yefas toar. The Zohar indicates, and commentators such as the Arizal and later the Ohr Hachaim learned, that these pesukim are teaching us how to battle our eternal enemy, the yeitzer hora.

The posuk states that the woman cries for her parents for a period of one month. The Zohar and the Arizal teach that this is an indication of the month of Elul, which is the time of teshuvah.

Elul is referred to as the chodesh harachamim, the month when Hakadosh Boruch Hu relates to us mercifully, as He seeks for us to restore our relationship with Him. Since it is a month of rachamim, it is advantageous for us to do teshuvah for our sins and bring Hakadosh Boruch Hu back into our lives during Elul, not waiting until Tishrei, when the din is upon us.

Doing teshuvah involves going to battle against our enemy, the yeitzer hora, who seeks to distance us from Hashem and proper observance of mitzvos. Therefore, just as in a time of war, leisurely pursuits are limited, so too, during Elul, that same serious mindset and attitude must pervade. Activities that are acceptable throughout the year have no place now.

The sense of urgency and desperation generated by war is the rule of this month. There are no atheists in foxholes, and there shouldn’t be any apathetic people during Elul. Every action we undertake should be weighed to determine whether it will bring us closer to Hashem’s embrace or r”l further.

Those who are aware of the season are shaken to do teshuvah when they hear the sound of the shofar, because they recognize it as a call to battle and are reminded that they have to fight hard to defeat the yeitzer hora. Since they are spiritually sensitive and attuned to the realities of the season, they are aroused when they hear the sound, because they know that it is relevant to them.

Those in sync with the ratzon Hashem are alert to the kol shofar. They are engaged in the milchemes hayeitzer that defines life for a human being. Thus, when they hear the sound of the shofar, they tremble with the knowledge of “hinei yom hadin.”

They recognize that sound from the last war, from the last time they had to battle the yeitzer hora, from last year’s yemei hadin.

The Sefer Akeidah (Shaar 97) compares Elul to the four seasons of the year. He says that the body declines over the winter and comes back to life along with the rest of nature during the spring and summer. When it is cold and snowy, the hibernation factor kicks in and man is driven indoors, unwilling and unable to navigate the roads of life amidst the cold and ice.

When spring and summer arrive, people awaken. Their moods improve and they spend more time outdoors, exercising and engaging in activities that increase physical pleasure. As the flowers and trees bloom and the weather warms, man’s physical strength and temptations increase.

Lehavdil, the Yomim Noraim are for the neshomah what summer is for the guf, says the Akeidah. It’s the time when our souls come alive. Elul is spring, the month in which the neshomah begins preparing for the growth of Tishrei. A sense of anticipation, optimism and hope fill the air. Much like a family will spend happy hours in the spring planning their summer vacation, Jews map out their spiritual course during Elul for the coming season of din.

The Alter of Slabodka once returned to his yeshiva during Elul after having spent the previous weeks in a resort town recouping his strength. The talmidim of the yeshiva ventured forth to greet their mentor. Upon receiving them, the Alter delivered a short shmuess.

“We arrive from the physical vacation to a spiritual vacation. We come from the summer months spent outdoors and begin the months of the yemei haratzon, which we spend in the yeshiva. What distinguishes this vacation from that one?” he asked. “Just as vacation is necessary to fortify the body, so is vacation necessary to fortify the soul - even more so, in fact, for everyone is considered sick and in need of a vacation in regard to the neshomah. There is none so hale and hearty that he doesn’t require this treatment…”

Apparently, the Alter was echoing the teaching of the Sefer Akeidah. A person’s body requires downtime, a time when it doesn’t feel pulled in every direction, thrust onto a merry-go-round of pressure. The neshomah does as well. Elul is the time when we disconnect from everything else to focus on pleasing the neshomah.

Elul is the time when we can escape the year-round commotion and meet our spiritual needs by bringing ourselves closer to Hashem. Elul is, in essence, a resort of healing and therapy for the soul. This is why we proclaim twice daily during this period, “Shivti bevais Hashem,” expressing the hope that we will be strong enough to provide ourselves with this essential break from year-round apathy to be with Hashem in His home.

Those who take their physical vacations seriously are constantly on the lookout for exotic destinations, scenic locales and peaceful venues. Spiritual seekers are no different. When the Chofetz Chaim passed away, his talmid, Rav Elchonon Wasserman, who was accustomed to spending Elul in Radin with his rebbi, set out to find a new environment for Elul. He settled on Kelm and its mussar master, Rav Doniel Movoshovitz. When he returned home after spending a month there, he said that he had discovered “ah vinkele fun erentzkeit, a small corner of sincerity.”

We all need to find a place for ourselves where we can adapt to feel the effect of Elul and spend time refining our neshamos and calling out to Hashem when He is close. As the posuk (Yeshayahu 55:6) states, “Dirshu Hashem behimatzo, kera’uhu behiyoso karov,” and the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 18a) explains that behimatzo refers to the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah and kera’uhu behiyoso karov refers to Elul.

Sophisticated people invest effort and resources to find the proper place for these all-important Elul days, realizing that the success of the entire next year depends upon them. The more we are able accomplish during Elul, when Hashem accepts our teshuvah more easily, the better we will fare during Tishrei.

Elul isn’t merely a chance to catch our breath before the intense days of Tishrei. It is a month that requires serious preparation. The Me’iri (Chibur Hateshuvah 2) compares Elul to the idea of “dorshin hilchos haPesach kodem hachag shloshim yom,” the requirement to study the laws of Yom Tov during the thirty days prior to its arrival. So too, prior to the yemei hadin, we prepare ourselves during the month-long period of Elul.

Rabbeinu Yonah, at the end of his Sefer Hayirah, explains it a little differently. He quotes the posuk in Koheles (3:1) which states, “Lakol zeman ve’eis lechol cheifetz tachas hashomoyim - Everything has its appointed season, a time for every matter under the heavens.”

The Jew lives with ittim, the times of the year. Just as during the joyful period of Purim we increase simcha and mishteh, and during the sad period of Av we are mournful, from the beginning of Elul until the end of Yom Kippur a person should be chareid, fearful, of the awesome judgment he faces. That is the call of the season.

Chazal teach that every soul will face questions on the Day of Judgment after 120 years. One of them is, “Kavata ittim laTorah?” Literally, the question is whether the person set aside special times for learning Torah during his life.

The Sefas Emes understood the question differently. He says that the Heavenly tribunal will ask us: Kavata ittim? Did you establish the ittim, the various time-periods listed in the posuk in Koheles – a time to be glad and a time to be sad, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to do battle and a time to make peace, a time to love and a time to hate?

Each emotion and action is preceded by the word “eis”: eis le’ehov ve’eis lisno, eis milchamah ve’eis shalom… The Sefas Emes explains that the word eis teaches that our behavior in each situation must be dictated by the Torah. A person will be asked if he danced when the Torah said to dance and if he cried when the Torah said to cry. “Kavata ittim laTorah” refers to the way you conducted yourself in every eis described by the posuk and whether it was in accordance with the precepts of the Torah.

The battle against the yeitzer hora during Elul is a serious one, the most serious of all battles we face. Life is too short and too serious to ignore the opportunities we have for change and growth. Teshuvah is too precious a gift to be ignored as we struggle to make a living, run carpools, meet deadlines, go to simchos, travel for business or pleasure, and run to shiurim or events. We must all take a break to think.

Even in our day, when the attention span of people has shrunk to an infinitesimal fraction of a second and superficiality is the mode of thought and conduct, we must preserve the ability to rise above the shallowness and engage in serious thought and introspection.

Rabbeinu Yonah begins his classic Shaarei Teshuvah by referring to teshuvah as “min hatovos,” a supreme gift from Hashem. Just as we thank Hashem for the many favors He bestows upon us, such as good health, happiness, nachas and sustenance, so must we gratefully thank Him for providing us with the curing gift of teshuvah.

Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz was vigilant in the mitzvah of kibbud av vo’eim, going to extremes to care for his parents. During the First World War, his father joined him as he was exiled along with his family and yeshiva. The refugee experience took its toll, and upon their return, his father became ill. Rav Boruch Ber sat at his father’s bedside day and night, engaging him in conversation and encouraging him to carry on.

Rav Boruch Ber’s talmidim noticed that this was taking a toll on their rebbi and they began to worry about his own health. They managed to convince their rebbi that it would not impact his father’s health if he would leave for a couple of hours at night and get some rest. They would take turns spending the night there and ensuring that all Rav Leibowitz’s needs were taken care of.

In time, the rosh yeshiva’s father was niftar. Rav Boruch Ber was consumed by guilt that he didn’t constantly remain at his father’s side. He felt that allowing talmidim to replace him at the bedside for a few hours at night was a mistake and that he had failed in his mitzvah of kibbud av. He became distraught and met the Chofetz Chaim to discuss what he should do.

The Chofetz Chaim did not attempt to assuage his feelings of guilt and tell him that he did as much as was physically possible and was not deficient in his obligation to his father. Instead, he discussed with him the topic of teshuvah. He said, “There is a marvelous creation called teshuvah. Even if a person sins, the path of teshuvah is always available to him. When a person engages in this process, not only does it cleanse him of his sin, but once a person has done teshuvah, he becomes a new man.

“You have done teshuvah for not being there. You are not the same person now as you were when you left him. You are a new person, with a new metzius. The person who did that aveirah is not you. There is no reason to be distraught.”

Rav Boruch Ber left the room with the heavy load lifted from his shoulders. He said, “I am a new person. The past is gone. The Chofetz Chaim brought me back to life.”

Teshuvah grants us rebirth and a new life. The old mistakes cease to hold us back.

In line with the explanation of the Akeidah, we can appreciate this idea. People return from vacation revitalized and restored, glowing with good health. They feel like new people.

Elul is like a vacation. It restores our life and vitality. When we emerge from Elul and Tishrei, we can exude spiritual health and vigor and actually be entirely new people in every sense of the word.

Just because we did something wrong yesterday does not mean that we are doomed for life. An ehrliche Yid should never feel that he is in a rut. Aveiros get you down. Teshuvah lifts and rejuvenates.

We all echo the request of Dovid Hamelech in his ode to teshuvah: Lev tahor bera li Elokim, grant me a pure heart, veruach nachon chadeish bekirbi, and grant me a new spirit.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Tzedakah


By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

With Elul upon us, the mood in Jewish communities is changing. The frivolity and care-free attitude of summer are gone, having faded out for the more severe tone of Elul. Serious days are ahead and we need to prepare.

A person who stands trial and groups awaiting a governmental decision on their fate as independent citizens look for people to write letters for them, sign petitions, and submit amicus briefs.

With so much at stake, Elul is a time when we rectify our actions so that we may be judged as righteous people. We also engage in specific mitzvos, which serve as “petitions” to Hashem on our behalf. We engage in tzedakah, as Chazal have taught that engaging in charity is a source of merit and protection.

The Arizal found a hint to this, for the last letters of the words “utzedakah tihiyeh lonu ki” in a posuk in Devorim (6:25) spell the name of Hashem.

The avodah of Elul is to bring ourselves closer to Hashem. We do that mainly by atoning and ridding ourselves of our aveiros of the past year, because sins cause a separation between us and Hashem. Another way to endear ourselves to Hashem and become closer to Him is through engaging in acts of tzedakah. When we put a dollar in the hand of a poor person, we are, so to speak, sending a letter to Hashem, indicating our righteousness.

Tzedakah is not only performed with money. It includes helping people, speaking to them, or cheering them up with a smile, while offering encouragement and giving them the strength to withstand a difficult period.

It is not always difficult to enhance the life of another, but the reward is immeasurable, for by doing so, Hashem will enhance our lives and those we care about. It is always a good idea to be a giving person, but during the month of Elul, it is most advantageous, for “tzedakah tatzil mimovess,” charity saves people from death.

Over a century ago, on an Elul night, the Alter of Kelm had a dream. He dreamt that Rabbeinu Yonah was coming to visit Kelm. A sign went up announcing that at a certain time, the great Rishon, author of classic mussar works studied throughout the ages, would be delivering a discourse in the large shul in the center of town.

Everyone in town headed for the shul. Men, women and children left their homes to hear the Torah giant. It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and nobody wanted to miss it. It promised to be the greatest Elul shmuess in many centuries, and if there were people who could appreciate that, they were the residents of Kelm.

There was no way everyone could fit into the shul, so the local machers placed security guards at the door. Only men they recognized to be great would be allowed in. Everyone else would have to stand outside the windows and hope to hear a few holy words here and there.

Of course, to hear even one word spoken by Rabbeinu Yonah would be special, but who could be satisfied just with that?

The Alter of Kelm, when hearing about the special guest, also headed for the shul, but when he got there, a guard refused to let him in. The guard asked him his name. He replied, “I am Simcha Zissel of Kelm.” The guard replied that he never heard of him and that he would have to leave and make way for the important people of the town.

Although he was usually very humble and would have walked away without making a commotion, this time was different. There was no way the Alter would forgo the opportunity to see and hear Rabbeinu Yonah, so he began to pester the guard. He started mentioning his yichus, but that was of no help. Then he said, “Do you know who my rebbi is? I am a talmid of Rav Yisroel Salanter.” That was also of no help. “I heard of Rav Yisroel Salanter,” the unlearned guard said, “but I never heard of his student, Simcha Zissel.”

The Alter was getting nowhere, when suddenly, the guard asked him if he had other relatives whose names he had not yet mentioned. He started mentioning his children. “I am the father of Nochum Velvel.” The guard interrupted him, as he was quite impressed. “You are the father of Nochum Velvel? Now that is a whole other story. Nochum Velvel’s father gets in. You may enter the shul.”

At that point, the Alter awoke, shaken from his dream. He quickly sent for his son, Nochum Velvel, to find out what zechus he had that in his merit the door was opened to enter the Elul shmuess of Rabbeinu Yonah.

Reb Nochum Velvel went to his father and heard the story. He could not think of anything special that he had done to be a greater source of merit than the zechusim of his father, the famed mussar great and head of the yeshiva.

After much prodding by his father, the humble son sat and contemplated all he had done over the prior months. And then he told his father the following:

Due to his poverty, he walked around town with worn-out shoes. They were not only worn, but also torn and held together with string. During one of his many trips to the shoemaker, he saw a nice, new, strong, comfortable pair of shoes for sale. As much as he needed them, he couldn’t afford them. That day, he began saving up money to purchase those shoes. He had very little money to begin with, so the project took some time.

Finally, his pennies added up and he had enough money to buy the shoes. He headed to the shoemaker and purchased the footwear, which were not only comfortable and protective of his feet, but also befitting his stature and position in the yeshiva. He suspected that they would also help him make a better impression when he went to see wealthy individuals on his fundraising missions.

That night, there was a snowstorm and a cold wind was blowing fiercely. He was anticipating going out to daven with his feet covered for the first time in a long time, but before he got to go anywhere, there were knocks on his door. Reb Nochum Velvel opened the door to find a poor man with ripped clothes, shivering from the cold. He brought him into the house, warmed him up, gave him a few kopeks, and was about to send him on his way.

But then he looked down at the man’s feet. The poor guy had no shoes and was trudging about in the snow with shmattes wrapped around his bloodied feet. The man saw the rov looking at his feet and explained that he could not afford shoes.

Rav Nochum Velvel went over to his new shoes, the ones he had saved up for over so long. He didn’t say anything. He just picked them up and handed them to the beggar. End of story.

The Alter looked at his son lovingly. He now understood why he would be allowed into the Elul shmuess of Rabbeniu Yonah in the merit of his son.

The zechus of tzedakah is such that it breaks down all barriers, as we say in the tefillos of Yomim Noraim, “Useshuvah, usefillah utzedakah maavirin es ro’a hagezeirah.” Teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah have the power to overcome even an awful gezeirah.

In these days, leading up to the Yomim Noraim, as we all seek sources of merit for ourselves, helping others as the son of the Alter did is one sure way to go. Thankfully, in our day, people are not as poor as they were back in Kelm, but there are many who could use some help. It may even be that our friend can’t afford the nice ties that we wear. It wouldn’t hurt us to part with one and let the other fellow feel as good about how he looks as everyone else does. The examples and opportunities are many if we would care enough to notice and do something about what we see is lacking by other people.

Reb Nochum Velvel did more than his obligation of tzedakah. He had special zechuyos because he had mercy on another person, and as Chazal (Shabbos 151b) say, “Kol hameracheim al habriyos, merachamin olov min hashomayim. Hashem has rachmanus on a person who has rachmanus on others.”

The Ramchal in Mesillas Yeshorim (Chapter 19) takes it a step further and writes that a person who is compassionate with others merits that Hakadosh Boruch Hu is compassionate with him when judging him on Rosh Hashanah.

As Elul begins, it appears that we have a daunting task ahead of us to right everything we did wrong and straighten ourselves for the Yom Hadin. Being a meracheim on other people, including helping them financially with tzedakah or some other form of charity, gives us a head start, bringing us into Hashem’s good graces and helping set us on the path for a healthy, happy, successful, peaceful and good year.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Truth

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

It is one of the strangest things in politics; Jews overwhelmingly vote Democrat. This habit is said to go back to the days of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a hero of liberal Jews. And the dichotomy was evident there. Though FDR provided jobs for many unemployed citizens, led the United States into World War II, and guided the country to subsequent victory in the war that saw 6 million of our brethren murdered, he refused entry to refugees from the Nazis and rebuffed pleas to bomb the tracks to the concentration camps and shut them down. Many have faulted him for millions of deaths, which they say could have been prevented had he acted properly.

Nevertheless, he brought Jews into the party and they stayed there. His successor, Harry S. Truman, earned the Jewish vote, supporting the founding of Israel in 1948. Then it was Adlai Stevenson and his fascinating oratory against the dour – and some say anti-Semitic – Dwight D. Eisenhower, and you couldn’t blame the Jews for voting for Stevenson.

Eisenhower’s vice-president, Richard Nixon, was seen as an anti-Semite, and Jews couldn’t bring themselves to vote for him against the youthful, telegenic John F. Kennedy. Though Kennedy’s father was a well-known Jew-hater, so bad that he and his future generations were cursed by a leading rabbi, his son was seen as prince charming and Jews fell in line, voting for him. And so it was.

Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer from Georgia, was no friend of the Jews or of Israel. You would think the Jews withheld their votes from him, but you’d be wrong.

Things changed a bit with Ronald Reagan, a great friend of Israel who ran against him. Reagan got a few more Jewish votes than a typical Republican. The Jews solidly backed the loser, because he was a Democrat. As Reagan was swept to victory in a landslide the second time around, the Jews once again put on their blinders and voted for the Democrat. No other group did that besides the blacks.

And so it was. They decided that George H.W. Bush was an anti-Semite and gave him a huge thumbs down in both of his elections. Bill Clinton, who beat him the second time around, was a huge favorite of the Jews. Though the affection wasn’t rewarded, they voted for him the second time around and then for his wife, despite her being part of the Barack Obama anti-Israel brigade and treating the Jewish country harshly during her term as secretary of state.

George W. Bush was a decent person and displayed great friendship to Israel, but it didn’t matter. He was a Republican, so the Jews voted against him. Obama was no friend of the Jewish people or Israel, and nor were many of the people in his administration. But shhh… Don’t say anything. The anti-Semites may get upset if the Jews say a word.

It’s ridiculous. I omitted some others here and simplified the races, but the fact is that Jews ignored their own best interests and foolishly voted for Democrats at every chance they had. Not only in presidential races, but also in local races, anyone with a “D” next to their name could be guaranteed the Jewish vote. It didn’t make a difference what their position was on moral and social issues, nor if they continuously voted to increase taxes on our hard-earned income and homes. Democrats got the Jewish vote.

It makes no sense at all. There is no rational, intelligent way to explain why a Jew who cares about Judaism, about Jews, about Israel, about his wallet, or about the cultural climate of this country would vote for a Democrat. It is nonsensical.

But it’s one of those things you aren’t allowed to discuss. Not if you want to be considered intelligent, learned, and savvy. If you want to be with the “in” crowd, get invited to political functions, and have your picture taken with important people, you aren’t allowed to discuss the ugly secret. If you want to be viewed as important and connected, and perceptive and shrewd about the political world, you hobnob with liberals and Democrats. The media likes you, the machers like you, and people who don’t know better see your picture with Chucky Schumer or Jerry Nadler or some other phony and think, “Oh wow. This guy really gets around. He’s important.”

Of course, it’s all meaningless.

But when the president of the United States, who is a greater supporter of Israel than anyone who preceded him in that position, points out the obvious and says that a Jew who doesn’t vote Republican is either an idiot or disloyal to the party that supports Israel and fights anti-Semitism, the Jews and the media go crazy and say that Trump is out of his mind. How dare he point out that the Democrats can no longer be counted on to support Israel? Who is he to remind everyone that the Democrat Party tolerates anti-Semitism and has within its ranks some of the most prominent enemies of the Jewish state? Not only does the party support and condone them, but it places them on vital congressional committees, where they certainly don’t belong.

Trump, the media warns, is an anti-Semite. “Jews,” they say, “be careful. Stay away from him. He doesn’t like you.”

It is helpless to remind them that his son-in-law is Jewish, that he permitted his daughter to undergo an Orthodox conversion to marry a Jew, that his grandchildren are Jewish, that his closest people in the administration are Jews, that he stuck his neck out for Israel several times, and that he freed Rubashkin because he is a compassionate person who cares about justice.

The New York Times and the media echo chamber that follows it accused Trump of bringing up the old canard that Jews are not patriotic citizens of the lands in which they reside, because he used that dirty word “loyal” when he said that Jews who vote for Democrats “are being very disloyal to the Jewish people and very disloyal to Israel.”

Says the Times in an editorial, “In the bloody history of modern anti-Semitism, one of the most common justifications for violence is the inflammatory canard that the loyalty of Jewish citizens is suspect.” So, by using the word “disloyalty,” Trump has reawakened an old lie and “Mr. Trump toys with fanning [the] flames” of anti-Semitism, as seen in Pittsburgh and Poway. Liberal Jewish mouthpieces got into the act and jumped all over Trump, as if he were the worst enemy of the Jews and Israel, comparing him to Hitler, Stalin, and such wicked murderers.

The same Democrats who Jews have been supporting and helping put into office term after term now control the strings of New York State government. And how are they repaying us for our support? For one, they are going after yeshivos as never before. With a venomous hatred, yeshivos are being treated as enemies of mankind and hotbeds of bolshevism. Who is doing this? The Democrats. Yup, those same people every macher was friendly with and took pictures with. As soon as they were free of the Republican shackles, their true progressive colors came out and the battle began. The governor so many Jews contributed to and felt friendly with couldn’t care less. Oh, but he’s our friend. All the state assemblymen and state senators who are described as friends of our community, well, some friends they are. With friends like these, who needs enemies? Yet, G-d forbid for us to call them out or to mention the obvious.

How long will we permit the farce to continue? For how long will we and those who claim to represent us play the game in which we end up at the losing end of the stick? When will we face up to the truth that these people don’t like us and act accordingly?

Four women new to the game of politics have shaken it up, striking the fear of progressiveness in the hearts of all. Four hateful women have taken a party hostage. The entire Democrat roster of presidential candidates is dancing to the tune of those women. Local politicians veer further and further left because they are afraid of those women.

There is only one person in this country in a leadership position who stands up to those women. He deserves our support. He is neither an anti-Semite nor a nut, as the left claims. Rather, he expresses the truth. Our existence here in this country is becoming more and more precarious by the day. We need to support the president because he is the only one who will suppress the anti-Semites and battle the progressives.

It’s all about loyalty and intelligence.

Michelle Goldberg explains the thinking of the leftist Jews. Writing in the New York Times, she says, “The Jewish left rejects the idea that anti-Zionism is equivalent to anti-Semitism, but even more than that, it rejects the idea that Israel is the guarantor of Jewish safety or the lodestar of Jewish identity. And that is not for religious reasons. It is because they don’t care about Israel. ‘Where we are is our home. This is what we fight for. This is where we seek kinship,’ said one spokesman to the Times, in a quote eerily reminiscent to the ‘Berlin is our Jerusalem’ slogan of the enlightened ones in Germany a century ago.”

And that is why they hate Trump so much. Writes Ms. Goldberg, “For those primarily concerned about Jewish life in the Diaspora, Israel…isn’t really an ally, much less an ideal. And Trump, who always speaks of American Jews as if they belong there, is a grotesque enemy. He tells Jews committed to life in America that they owe loyalty to Israel, which he sometimes calls, when speaking to American Jews, ‘your country.’ He says this and expects Jews to react with gratitude.”

So, the non-Jew fights for Israel and reminds Jews that it is the land that Hakadosh Boruch Hu gave them and blessed them with, and for doing so, he is deplored, because the Jews of the left don’t really care about Israel.

Thanks to former President Obama and our European allies, Iran gets stronger by the day. The stockpiles of missiles intended to fall in Israel, killing our brothers and sisters, grow daily. Is there anyone other than Trump who is supporting Israel and working to curtail Iran? Which other western leader stands up to Iran and seeks to remove the threat it poses to Israel and the world?

Lev melech beYad Hashem. Hakadosh Boruch Hu has chosen him, for reasons unknown to us, to lead these battles on our behalf. Hashem has emboldened and strengthened him, providing him with the fortitude to stand at our side during these fateful times.

Elul is here and we begin looking at things seriously. With Elul, we think about ourselves and where we are holding, and we also look at the world and offer tefillos that we be spared further pain, additional hatred, and more wars. Let’s be intelligent and know what we are davening for.

May we all be zoche to a meaningful Elul and the geulah kerovah b’meheirah.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Humility

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This week is one of the Shivah D’nechemta, the weeks of consolation following the annual period of mourning and Tisha B’Av. Where do we find consolation in Moshe’s admonitions that fill this week’s parsha?

As we continue our study of Seder Devorim, we find this week in Parshas Eikev that Moshe Rabbeinu continues his rebuking of the Jewish people for their waywardness. He warns them not to delude themselves as to why Hashem has been kind to them and why they have experienced success. He reminds them that all Hashem asks for in return is that they have yiras Shomayim.

It’s seemingly not really much to ask for, especially when you consider the miraculous survival of the Jewish people through centuries of persecution. Without obvious Divine intervention, we would have been wiped off the map many times over. Yet, more often than not, we fail to heed the message of this week’s parsha. We discover that honoring Hashem’s request for yiras Shomayim is far from a simple task.

What is it that makes it so difficult? We grow comfortable, strong and haughty, and convince ourselves that it is our superior intelligence and mighty muscles that enabled us to reach the pinnacle of success.

By acting in that fashion, and thinking that everything we have attained is due to our own expertise, we absolve ourselves of the need to appreciate Hashem and follow His dictates. We feel no gratitude to Hashem or anyone else, and that way we don’t owe anyone anything.

As long as the going is good, we fail to appreciate our severe limitations. Despite blatant evidence of our human frailties, we cling to a naïve belief in ourselves and our abilities.

Take, for example, someone who decided two years ago that he will earn his living by investing in the stock market. Ever since Donald Trump came into office, the market has been steadily rising and that person has been doing very well. He can make the mistake of thinking that the wealth he has earned since entering the field is because of his stock-picking brilliance. But then, ill winds blow one week, and the market goes crazy and drops 800 points in one day. He is stuck and needs to be bailed out. No longer is he the big genius he told everyone he is. He needs someone to help him, but everyone he knows has been turned off by his bragging.

It takes a downturn for us to be forced to admit our human fallibilities. By then, it is usually too late, for we have turned off too many people with our arrogance and disloyalty. We can no longer count on their friendship and mercy. We played hard to get much longer than we should have. We were deaf to our friends’ entreaties and good advice. We didn’t listen to anyone. Rules were made for other people, not for us. Then, one day, it all comes crashing down on us and there is no one around to help us pick up the pieces.

Take a look at presidential candidate Joe Biden. About as accomplished as a politician can be, the former vice president decided that he also wants to be president. There is a slight problem, though, as he seems to be sleepy and is not sharp. Whenever he speaks, he makes embarrassing mistakes that his aides, and Democrats in general, quickly have to cover up.

Biden mixes up names, dates and places, but it’s all fine, because he’s a Democrat. Instead of riding off into the sunset as a hero, his ego drives him to seek the presidency. He doesn’t have the stamina to campaign every day. He doesn’t have the ability to face reporters. He’s generally roped off from them when he does show up for a public event, but you don’t see any mainstream media outlets exposing him as unfit for office. They portray him as the strongest contender for the toughest job in the country, if not the world. They did the same for Mrs. Hillary Clinton, another candidate clearly unfit for office, who was propped up by the party and its media allies, only to fail miserably when the election came. There is no way he will come out of this looking good.

They are two examples of people whose ga’ava leads them to fail.

It is not only individuals who are doomed to failure because of their ego-driven vanity, it is also prevalent in too many organizations and institutions. There are serious problems in our community which need to be dealt with. Many issues are swept under the rug and ignored as if they don’t exist. Problems that are recognized, are handled in silly, irresponsible ways. And we wonder why.

All too often the people in charge of the institutions, who are charged with setting the agenda and dealing with serious issues, attained their position by means other than merit. Often, they are quite wealthy, others are arrogant, others are not intelligent. When faced with a problem they don’t consult knowledgeable people who are well-informed and conversant with the topic and its different ramifications. Conclusions are reached based on their biased agenda and the amen corner quickly raises its hand in agreement. Outsiders, plebeians with fewer connections and lower incomes are shut out and ignored.

Just as personal ga’avah ruins a person and misleads him, so too communal ga’avah does the same. It is high time that just as we hold people responsible for their actions and lack of action when necessary, so too communal organizations should be forced to be more open and accountable to facts and outcomes.

Nobody should have to be afraid to stand up for the truth. Good people should not be silenced when they objectively fight for the communal good. It was painful to read a recent article by someone who was hounded and threatened because of something he wrote in this newspaper.

Organizations that survive on communal philanthropy have an obligation to remain true to their declared mission. They should not be permitted to operate as personal fiefdoms unanswerable to anyone outside of their closed orbit. There are so many issues begging for solutions, the most they get is inane well-worn platitudes.

It’s time that the hypocrisy of the way our organizations deal with Open Orthodoxy and other groups and people who veer from the honest and true path be condemned and no longer tolerated. Perhaps its time we examine why so many children are slipping out of the system and ending up OTD. We should face up to the truth and deal with it.

In much the same way, politicians who enact and lobby for laws which destroy the moral fabric of this country should also not be welcome in our homes and communities as conquering heroes. We should have the courage of our convictions to let them know what our agenda is and why we disagree with what they are doing. We should be motivated by Torah values and the truth, not photo-ops and autographed selfies.

When we read the pesukim of Parshas Eikev, we feel as if Moshe is pleading with the Jewish people the way we would plead with someone we deeply care about and are attempting to influence to accept reality.

Moshe reminds the Jews of all they have been through, and all the miracles Hashem performed in order to bring them to where they are. He begs them to remember who fed, clothed and cared for them in the desert, even as they remained ungrateful. He reminds them how stubborn and spiteful they were and how he repeatedly interceded on their behalf. He tries to puncture their self-made bubble of grandeur, but they are deaf to his pleas.

It is like meeting someone who knew our grandparents and therefore has a warm spot for us. They reach out to us with kindness and try to help us in our pursuits. Instead of appreciating where that kindness came from, and that it was inspired by their warm memories of our grandparents, we lull ourselves into thinking that it is we ourselves who are so beloved.

Quite often, we meet people who are so chained by their egos that they are incapable of absorbing the truth. Their vanity causes them to be so blinded to facts that are plainly evident to everyone else. Their resistance to anything that challenges their prejudiced notions prevents them from recognizing uncomfortable truths.

So too is the folly of a brilliant person trapped by his desires, unwilling to grasp how his life is antithetical to the Torah’s imperatives.

Read the pesukim of this week’s parsha (8:11 and on): “Be careful lest you shall forget Hashem… Lest you eat and become full and build nice, good fancy homes and become settled… Lest you have much gold and silver and become haughty and forget Hashem, your G-d, who took you out of Mitzrayim and led you through the midbar, where He quenched your thirst and fed you. Yet you say in your heart, I did this all myself with my own strength. Remember it is Hashem who gives you strength to wage war… If you will forget Hashem and go after strange gods and you will serve them and bow to them, I warn you that you will be destroyed…”

These pesukim are not just written to the people who have obviously gone astray. They are written to us all, and should serve as a reminder to us that we should never let our gaava get the better of us and fool us into thinking that we are self-sufficient, that we are smart and strong enough to take care of ourselves. We must always remember where we come from and where we are headed. We must be constantly aware that it is Hashem who provides us with the know-how and stamina we require to earn our livings and get ahead in this world, and to survive life’s many challenges and pitfalls.

Let us not fall prey to self-aggrandizement. Let us ensure that we don’t become blinded by ego and evil inclination, and that we remain loyal to the One who sustains us.

For as the parsha ends (11:22), “If you will observe the mitzvos, love Hashem and follow in his path…then Hashem will let you inherit nations that are larger and stronger than yours… Wherever you will set your foot down will be blessed… No one will be able to stand in your way.”

The tanchumim offered in this week’s parsha emanate from Moshe’s descriptions of how Hakadosh Boruch Hu cares for Am Yisroel, providing they recognize their abilities and appreciate what Hashem does for them. If we study the parsha, we are able to see – and appreciate – the Yad Hashem everywhere. There can be no greater consolation than to be reminded that there is a loving Creator who cares for us, and although procuring much of what we need is beyond our control, He provides for us.

Nothing is ever impossible. There is never an excuse to give up. There is always hope and belief that the Merciful One will bring the success we work so hard to achieve. He knows what’s best for us, and even when we can’t understand everything, it is a consolation to know that nothing happens by itself and whatever happens is for a good reason.