Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Overcoming Human Nature


Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

It was, in a sense, the first gathering of the Bnei Yisroel, the twelve pillars of our nation surrounding the bedside of their father. Yaakov Avinu looked at each of his sons in turn, focusing on their gifts and challenges, studying their destiny, before bestowing the brachos and tefillos that would accompany them and their progeny for eternity.

Looking at Levi, Yaakov foresaw a road with some bumps, but one that climbed to the loftiest of callings, the right to serve in Hashem’s earthly home, standing guard over the Bais Hamikdosh and its sacred keilim.

But he also saw something else, the dark and turbulent events of this week’s parsha, the uprising of Korach and his people against the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu.

Bekehalam al teichad kevodi. I want no part in it,” Yaakov Avinu pleaded. Therefore, Rashi tells us, Korach’s lineage is traced back to Levi, but not to Yaakov Avinu.

It’s puzzling. If Yaakov foresaw the incident, why did he not ask that there be no machlokes altogether? Why not daven that Hashem’s trusted messenger be untarnished by this rebellion? Why didn’t he daven that Klal Yisroel should not rise up against Moshe?

When his grandfather, Avrohom Avinu, sensed that Sedom was on the verge of destruction, he began to daven, as improbable as the chances were of there being many tzaddikim in Sedom in whose merit the city could be saved. Yet, his concern for all mankind led him to daven in a valiant attempt to prevent the judgment from being carried out. Why didn’t Yaakov attempt to use tefillah to try to prevent the ugly story from happening?

Perhaps the explanation is that at the root of the machlokes was jealousy. Korach was jealous of Moshe and Aharon, and he was upset that he wasn’t recognized for his greatness and given the position of leadership that he felt he deserved. Yaakov wanted it to be clear that this middah ra’ah was not traced back to him.

Jealousy is part of the teva with which Hashem created the world.

Back at the very onset of creation, the great luminaries, the sun and the moon, fell prey to jealousy. “Who will rule? Who will be bigger?” they questioned.

The upper waters and the lower waters got locked in an epic and enduring battle, each pining for Divine closeness at the expense of the other.

Jealousy is built into creation. It is part of human nature.

Kayin encountered Hevel and revealed the most basic human emotion.

Man ventured forth into the world, interacting with other humans, engaging in commerce and conversation, and there were always undertones of jealousy, competition and rivalry.

Perhaps we can say that Yaakov didn’t feel it proper to ask that Hashem change the teva ha’adam, as per the general rule that we are not mispallel to change teva (see Pachad Yitzchok, Rosh Hashanah, Ma’amarim 10 and 33). Additionally, Yaakov was the av who declared, “Katonti mikol hachassodim umikol ha’emes.” The Medrash Hagadol Toldos relates that Rabi Yanai said that a person should not stand in a dangerous place and say that a miracle will occur for him. Firstly, perhaps he won’t merit the miracle, and even if he does, it will diminish his zechuyos. Rabi Chonon adds that this is derived from Yaakov Avinu, who said, “Katonti mikol hachassodim umikol ha’emes.” w

Yaakov felt that it would be fruitless for him to daven to change the teva ha’odam. He felt that he could only daven that he shouldn’t be included in the rebellion that would ensue years later on account of jealousy, praying that the machlokes shouldn’t be traced back to him.

Human nature is not always what we want it to be. Ki yeitzer lev ha’adam ra mine’urav. It requires much work for man to break his inclinations and middos ra’os and make a mentch of himself.

It is the goal of the human experience to try to cultivate the G-dly and subjugate the animalistic tendencies that combine to make us what we are. Those whose lives follow Torah can subdue their base human inclinations, such as the trait of jealousy and the propensity for machlokes. Torah has the ability to cure man of pettiness and help him rise above societal ills.

Yaakov was an ish tom yosheiv ohalim. He was purified and cleansed by Torah and its mussar. Having devoted his energy and strength to rising above human frailties, he felt that the machlokes had no connection to him. He wanted to demonstrate that although teva dictates that human interactions lead people to be consumed by jealousy, the condition is not terminal, as one who is a yosheiv ohalim and works on himself to be subservient to the precepts of Torah until he becomes an ish tom, can win these battles and actually change his teva.

When Yaakov Avinu beheld Levi, he saw the unfortunate results of jealousy and rivalry, but he also saw something else: the lofty destiny of the shevet and the koach they possess to rise above it all. The fruition of this vision is found later in this week’s parsha.

The pesukim in perek 18 following the tragedy of Korach relate that Hakadosh Boruch Hu tells Aharon what to do to ensure that there won’t be another catastrophe such as the one that took place with Korach and his eidah. Hashem tells Aharon that he, the kohanim and shevet Levi, should be “shomer mishmeres” and then there will be no more “ketzef” on the Bnei Yisroel. The posuk explains that Hashem has separated the kohanim and Leviim from the Bnei Yisroel. They will not engage in everyday commerce with the rest of the Jews. They will perform their work in the Temple of Hashem. They will do the avodah in the Ohel Moed and will receive no nachalah, portion, in Eretz Yisroel. Hashem will be their cheilek and nachalah.

To understand the correlation, we examine the famous words of the Rambam at the end of Hilchos Shmittah V’Yovel (13:12-13). He explains that Levi did not receive any nachalah, because he was chosen to serve Hashem in the Mishkan to teach His righteous ways and laws to the rest of the people. Therefore, says the Rambam, they were separated - “huvdolu midarkei ha’olam.”

In other words, in order to ensure that there would never be another ketzef such as that which took place in the time of Korach, shevet Levi was separated and removed midarkei ha’olam, from the ways of the world. They didn’t engage in regular business and interactions, as others do, because to do so would once again cause them to become jealous and argumentative. To prevent them from reverting to the teva of man which leads to jealousy and rivalry, allowing human failings to manifest themselves and cause “ketzef,” they could no longer engage in the type of human interaction which exposes mortal weaknesses.

From that point forward, Levi would not be subject to these pressures, but would instead be dedicated fully to Hashem’s work. For the only way a person can overcome issues which lead to machlokes and bitterness is by dedicating himself to the avodah of Hashem, and rising above mundane everyday commerce. It is only by dedication to the precepts and teachings of the Torah in all we do that we are able to rise above the subliminal earthiness which seeks man’s downfall.

Thus, the Rambam states in the following halacha that this mode of life is not only reserved for kohanim and Leviim, but can be followed by anyone who sees the light and wishes to earn for himself a life of blessing and peace, walking a straight path and cleansing himself of human trivialities and foibles.

Korach was blinded and hindered by his negios. His desire for personal advancement grew out of his jealousy of Moshe and Aharon. He couldn’t rise above the teva. It seems strange to us, but he was able to convince all the great men of Klal Yisroel to join him in his rebellion. For it wasn’t only Korach who was consumed by jealousy, but others as well. They all wanted the “big job.” Their vision was hampered as well, and they were unable to perceive Moshe’s greatness. Jealousy so clouded their vision and dulled their senses that they were rendered unable to appreciate the significance of what happened to the meraglim, who had doubted Moshe. They weren’t able to rise above the teva of anoshim and thus brought ketzef upon themselves and others.

As we study the parsha, we have the benefit of hindsight, the clarity of Rashi’s lens, and the Rambam’s lucid perspective. We delve into the explanations of the tale and think about how such smart and righteous people could sin so terribly and err so badly. We learn the pesukim, the Rashis and the Rambam, and we resolve to become better bnei Torah, baalei mussar and anshei tom in order to rise above the middos ra’os that can bring down lesser men.

It is possible for a human being to rise to such heights at which he soars above agendas and pettiness, and his sole concern is for the will of the Ribbono Shel Olam and the good of His children. May we all merit to aspire to, and reach, that level.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Praiseworthy


Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Now is a difficult time for a people that strives to hold on to a value system and remain focused on what is real and true.

Decency is under constant assault. Refinement and humility are seen as signs of weakness.

We live in an era when hubris is praised and cherished. People seek to cultivate tough-guy images to earn respect. The one who can best embarrass weaker people gains in popularity.

Character assassination and defamation have become an industry. Cynicism and negativity are in vogue, forcing good people to cower and refrain from involving themselves in public life. 

In an election campaign, candidates invariably endeavor to churn out stories that arouse viewer emotions and distract them from real issues of substance. Candidates and their handlers attempt to push the real issues to the back of the public psyche, as anger, scorn and pessimism run amok. Accomplishments don’t always count. Nor does character. All is fair in political war. People engage in actions that are beneath them in order to usurp power. That’s just how it is.

Observers are sullied, making them smaller people.

Witness the current circus in Washington, as one party seeks to overcome its loss by targeting the president for destruction with baseless allegations combined with hearings and investigations into a contrived scandal that never happened. The media drills the narratives day after day, seeking to convince the populace of sarcastic lies and conspiracies to accomplish through deceit and propaganda what couldn’t be achieved at the ballot box.

The Torah remains the island of eternal and everlasting wisdom and truth. In its refreshing waters, we find life, a new connection with who we are and what we are meant to be doing. The parshas hashovua provides us with the perspective of what makes a leader.

The Chazon Ish would say that Klal Yisroel has a “chush harei’ach” for gedolim, an ability to sense who is a gadol baTorah and then to follow him. Our nation gravitates to quiet, righteous talmidei chachomim who seek anonymity and want nothing more than to be able to study and teach Torah, yet they welcome people who seek them out for answers to their questions as well as advice and brachos.

In this week’s parsha, we are introduced to the meraglim, the sad tale of great men who went astray, taking many of the Jewish people with them, causing an extended stay in the desert as well as our golus. Anoshim, the Torah calls them, and Rashi says that this means that they were great people. Leaders, visionaries, people of stature and respect. How did they all fall so rapidly? What caused them to go wrong in their mission?

The answer is found in the words of Chazal: “Lomo nismecha parshas meraglim leparshas Miriam?” The answer is that although Miriam had sinned and been reprimanded, these wicked people witnessed the incident and took no lesson from it.

Let us examine the sin of Miriam. At the end of last week’s parsha, we learn that Miriam spoke against her brother, Moshe Rabbeinu, and impugned his motives for something he had done that she didn’t agree with.

The Torah testifies in his defense, “Veha’ish Moshe onov me’od mikol ho’odom asher al p’nei ho’adamah - Moshe was exceedingly humble, more than any other person on the face of the earth” (Bamidbar 12:3).

To respond to the aspersions on Moshe’s character, the Torah doesn’t say that Moshe Rabbeinu was the greatest leader who ever lived. It doesn’t say that he was the teacher of all of Klal Yisroel for eternity. It doesn’t discuss the dinei Torah he ruled on and the halachos he taught. It doesn’t say that he was an Ish Elokim, who was chosen to deliver Hashem’s Torah. It doesn’t say that he performed open miracles and that he was a baal mofeis.

Hakadosh Boruch Hu didn’t recount Moshe’s extraordinary birth and history. In order to refute what Miriam said about him, the Torah simply states that Moshe was the ultimate onov.

Apparently, the middah of anovah encompasses all else. The attribute of humility includes all others. Thus, the statement that Moshe was the consummate onov was the most effective answer to her lashon hora.

An onov recognizes his place in the world and his responsibility in life. An onov knows mah chovaso ba’olamo. He knows and recognizes what is incumbent upon him in every situation. He seeks not his own glory.

His decisions and actions are pure. It is never about him, but about what he can do for others.

Thus, the answer to Miriam was: “How can you doubt his motivations? He is an onov.”

When Hillel was asked to encapsulate the entire Torah in a single sentence, he chose the following answer. “De’alach senei, lechavroch lo sa’avid - What you would not want done to you, don’t do to others” (Shabbos 31).

Although that mandate, lofty as it may be, addresses the many laws that have no connection with interpersonal relationships, a person who lives according to the Shulchan Aruch knows that life is about giving, not about taking, pleasure and relaxation. A person who isn’t addicted to self-satisfaction is able to notice others and their needs.

Ehrliche Yidden have space in their heart and mind for other people, to listen and care and feel, because they don’t ask what man wants. They know what Hashem wants from them and they know that He desires that they act kindly with His children. Their hearts are large enough to encompass others. It’s not all about them.

The onov doesn’t see himself as being above other people. The greater the person is, the smarter he is and the more he knows and accomplishes, the more reason for him to be humble. The more he learns, the more he sees there is to know. The smarter he is, the more he realizes that there is so much he doesn’t understand. The closer he is to Hashem, the more he comprehends that all that he has - his life, his money, his wife, his children, his intelligence and everything else - is a gift from Hashem.

Hashem detests haughty people (Mishlei 16:5). The humble person doesn’t permit personal interests to interfere in his actions. He pursues the truth. Hubris is antithetical to growth in Torah. One who is consumed with himself will encounter difficulties during his studying. His attempts to resolve his questions will be tainted by his need to justify his original interpretation.

People hamstrung by ga’avah are unable to properly fulfill their obligations as good Jews and realize their missions in life.

Torah leaders don’t demand honor and respect. They are focused on Torah and mitzvos. We recognize their greatness and force honor upon them.

The greater the person, the humbler he is. The more gadlus he has, the bigger an onov he is.

Hashem’s answer to Miriam was meant to impart this message. An onov has a cheshbon and it’s never about him. He doesn’t live for himself. He lives for others, to accomplish for the greater good and to serve Hashem. Don’t doubt the purity of his motives, for he is humble.

The meraglim may have been great men, but they were consumed by gaavah. They were blinded in their judgment, because instead of considering the greater good, their decisions were based upon personal considerations. Fearing that they would be replaced when the people would enter the Promised Land, they looked at everything differently.

Therefore, wherever they went in Eretz Yisroel, Yehoshua and Kaleiv, true anovim, saw opportunity, while the others saw danger. Where the anovim saw blessing, the meraglim saw curses. Where the anovim saw the Yad Hashem, the meraglim couldn’t see past perceived impenetrable walls and invincible giants.

Had they learned the lesson of Miriam, they would have developed humility and seen things clearly, appreciating the value of the gift they were being given.

The meraglim suffered from the same deficiency as Korach, about whom we read in next week’s parsha. He complained that Moshe took the top jobs for himself and his family and passed on him. Korach was seemingly qualified. He was a known tzaddik and baal ruach hakodesh. It wasn’t without reason that many leaders of the Bnei Yisroel in the desert joined his cause.

But Korach suffered from a fatal flaw. He wanted a leadership position and fought for it. Someone who seeks the position does so because of conceit, as he is handicapped by his negiah, or interest, in kavod. He doesn’t seek to benefit the community, but rather to satisfy his own urges. Such a person is not worthy of leadership (see Mesillas Yeshorim, chapter 11, and the Steipler in Kraina D’igarta).

The meraglim were led astray because they didn’t learn the need to be humble from Miriam’s incident. Every one of us in our daily lives needs to remember that lesson. We have to inculcate humility and adopt its middah as our calling card. When confronted by others, when presented with a challenge, we have to remove our own self-interest from the equation and determine how to proceed based on the lessons of this week’s parsha and the previous one.

The greatest teachers of Torah are the most cognizant of the needs of those around them, because living in concert with Torah means being disciplined, above self-satisfaction, and thus more capable and attuned to others.

During my recent visit to Eretz Yisroel, I met Rabbi and Mrs. Yehoshua Tzivyon at the home of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, Mrs. Tzivyon’s father. They presented me with a fascinating book she wrote about her mother, Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky, at her father’s urging.

Mrs. Tzivyon writes that on Friday nights in Yerushalayim, her grandfather, Rav Aryeh Levine, would visit Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, who was his rebbi when he learned in Slutzk. They would speak in learning and reminisce about life back in Lita.

One week, there was a frantic knock at the door of Rav Aryeh’s home very late at night. It was Rebbetzin Meltzer. “Please,” she implored Rav Aryeh, “you must come back and reassure my husband. He’s inconsolable. He is so upset. From the conversation tonight, he deduced that you suffered from hunger when you were in yeshiva. He is distressed that he taught you Torah yet didn’t see your hunger. I beg you, Rav Aryeh, to join me and calm him down.”

Rav Aryeh returned to his rebbi to assure him that all was well. Only then was Rav Isser Zalman able to go to sleep.

Our great leaders minimize their own needs while maximizing those of other people. Humility creates the ability to see clearly. The great gaon and rosh yeshiva was inconsolable about something that may have happened decades prior to a young man under his watch.

There was a talented young person who worked for a short while for an organization under the direction of Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach. Although he was not fired, the person sensed correctly that his work wasn’t appreciated and he quit. A few weeks later, he was summoned to a meeting with the rosh yeshiva. He arrived at the appointed time with much trepidation. He expected a strong shmuess from the leader of the yeshiva world, a lecture about where he had gone wrong.

He walked into the room and Rav Shach beamed at him and asked him to sit. Rav Shach immediately put him at ease. “Yungerman, I asked you to come because I wanted to know what kind of work you’re doing now.”

The young man told Rav Shach about his new job.

“How much do you get paid? How many children do you have? How much do you need to make ends meet each month?”

Rav Shach fired questions at his guest until he was satisfied. He then smiled broadly. “Good. I wanted to make sure that you have a proper parnossah.”

We are enjoined to remember the story of Miriam. When we analyze it, we note a side lesson as well, not just how to speak properly, but also how valuable and cherished every person is.

Miriam was punished for speaking lashon hora. She was afflicted with tzora’as and forced into seclusion. Yet, the Torah reports that the nation didn’t continue on their sojourn through the desert until Miriam was healed. Why the need to keep everyone waiting and why the need to record it for all time? It was to show that even though Miriam sinned, Hashem still loved her.

Often, people who err and slip lose their self-worth, feeling as though their indiscretion will somehow doom them. They become broken, sure that Hashem will turn on them because they did an aveirah. Sometimes, one small aveirah sets a person on a downward spiral, ending with a painful crash at the bottom of a deep pit.

The Torah reports that Am Yisroel waited in the desert for Miriam for several days in order to dispel that notion. We love the person who has fallen, and we stand by, ready to pick them up. The Torah is admonishing us not to give up on ourselves and not to give up on others, even though they have sinned. Miriam Haneviah spoke ill of her brother, transgressing the laws of lashon hora, and was punished for doing so, but she didn’t lose favor in the eyes of Hashem. She was welcomed back into Hashem’s embrace and into the embrace of Am Yisroel.

Perhaps when we fulfill the“zechirah” of ma’aseh Miriam, we focus on this as well: Every Yid is worth waiting for. Every yochid is valuable to the klal.

We all make mistakes and we all sin, but let no one permit that fact to interfere with their obligations in avodas Hashem. An onov does not look down at another person, for he sees himself as no better than the one who sinned. We must react with anovah to what we perceive as transgressions of others. We must look to find the good in others. We must work on our middos so that we adopt the middah of anovah.

When dealing with and judging others, we should embody the teachings of Moshe as the onov mikol odom. Epitomizing anovah will also fulfill the dictum of the novi Michah (6:8): “He has said to you, what is Hashem’s definition of good, and what does Hashem demand from you, but only to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk with humility with your G-d.”

In a world conflated with fake news, even stories grounded in fact are fake, because truth isn’t found in an atmosphere of falsehood. We seek the truth, and along with it comes growth in Torah, kindness, humility, and every good middah.

Humility and acting justly, with honesty and loving-kindness, are outgrowths of walking with Hashem, as should be the desire and ambition of every frum person. If we would tread this path, there would be so much love, achdus and shalom in the world. There would be an abundance of kindness, justice and goodness, and Moshiach will be sent to end the golus.

May it come to pass speedily in our time. Amen.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Inspired

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
 One year on Motzoei Shavuos, two young talmidei chachomim asked the Satmar Rov, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum, for a brocha. He blessed them that the hashpa’os of Shavuos, and birkas mo’adecha, should remain with them and add meaning and light to the upcoming months.
“You have a special task,” the rebbe said. “You have to work hard in Torah, you have to hureveh, and you must develop new insights, being mechadeish chiddushim. While a wedding is a joyous affair, filled with excitement and anticipation, the focus is really on the future generations that will emerge from the new couple. Shavuos was essentially the wedding, but now is the time to focus on what the union of Yisroel, Hakadosh Boruch Hu and the Torah is able to produce. Your task now is to write chiddushim.
The message is valid for each of us in our own way. We have each just celebrated and reaffirmed our connection and commitment to the Torah.
Through our celebration, we proclaimed that after 3,329 years, we are holding on. Moshe tells us (Devorim 4:10) not to forget the great events at Har Sinai, the wonders our eyes beheld. He says that every father should transmit to his children the awesomeness of the experience.
We remember the wonders at Har Sinai. We remember that Hashem gave us the Luchos and the Torah. As we recall the awesomeness of the wonders that transpired, we marvel that thousands of years later, we remain as committed, loyal and faithful as ever.
Our children study the same halachos discussed over the millennia. Every day we wear the very same tefillin worn by all Jews, according to the instructions passed down by Moshe Rabbeinu at Har Sinai.
There is no other commitment ever made by flesh and blood that has endured that way.
On Shavuos, we commemorated and renewed the bond. Now, we struggle to assimilate our emotions - the spiritual high we experienced on Shavuos as the first vague brushstrokes of a new day painted the dark sky, the majesty of a daf of Gemara, the intensity of Akdamus, and the meaning of certain lines we are able to grasp as they fly by in the traditional tune - into ordinary life.
But now, the wedding is over. The guests and the band have gone home. Now it’s time to go home together and create a viable and fruitful relationship. We davened, learned, sang and danced, but now it’s back to real life. We have to build and live according to the Torah. Now is the time.
In this week’s parsha (Bamidbar 10:31), Moshe asks Yisro not to leave the Jewish people behind and return home. He says to him, “Al ta’azov osanu.” The Seforno explains that Moshe told him that if he were to leave, the nations of the world would assume that he didn’t agree with a Torah life. They would surmise that Yisro, who was famed for seeking the truth, was back on the hunt, unsatisfied with what he had found.
There is an inherent chillul Hashem in seeing the glory and then turning your back on it.
That call rings out to us as well in these days following Shavuos. After having reconnected with the light of Har Sinai, there is a call to each one of us: “Al na ta’azov.” The Torah calls out to us, “Don’t leave me. You’ve been with me. We celebrated together. You studied my words and became familiar with me. Don’t go back to the way you were before Shavuos. Show that it affected you. Show that you appreciate the Torah and its way of life. Stay with me.”
There are those who hear that call every day.
After a family simcha, as relatives stood around chatting, Chacham Ovadia Yosef urged his wife that it was time to return home. “Please. They’re waiting for me,” he said. “I can’t stay here any longer.”
One of his sons asked who was coming to speak with the rav at that late hour. Who was waiting for him at his home?
“The Rambam is on my desk,” he explained. “The Rashba is right next to it. I’ve been away for too long already. They are waiting for me.”
Rav Elazar Menachem Mann Shach had a piece of paper on his desk for months. Periodically, he would look at it and shake his head. One of his attendants finally asked what the precious paper was. The rosh yeshiva explained: “A bochur came over to me after shiur one day with a question pertaining to Maseches Bava Kamma. He posed a good question and it deserves a good answer, but I haven’t yet had the opportunity to delve into it and find a solution. I keep the paper with me to remind me that I am a ba’al chov. Ich bin em shuldik ah terutz. I owe that boy something. I owe him an explanation. This is more important than anything.”
With all that occupied his day, explaining a sugya to a talmid was his primary occupation, for the transmission of Torah is supreme. Uppermost in his mind was finding a teretz for a bochur’s question.
Rebbetzin Esther Finkel, wife of Rav Beinish Finkel, was a niece of the Chazon Ish. She would often retell something that she heard from the Chazon Ish’s mother.
At the age of eight years old, young Avrohom Yeshaya remarked to his mother, “Mammeh, do you know why I learn? I learn because I know how good it is.”
That perception of “ein tov ela Torah drove him to continue learning and leading a life of Torah lishmah, mastering it all. For the remainder of his life, his joy and cheishek came from ameilus baTorah.
An encounter comes with obligations.
Reb Moshe Reichmann once had a small dispute with another respected ba’al tzedakah that was resolved at a din Torah. Someone badmouthed the other person to Mr. Reichmann, who waved away the claim. “Don’t say that,” he responded. “He is a good person who means well. The only reason he acts this way and I don’t is because I was zoche to learn in yeshivos and know the Chazon Ish and he never did.”
Becoming acquainted with holiness affects us, changes us, and makes us into better people.
Torah is not merely theoretical. It is not enough to study it, sing about it, and talk about it. Torah has to touch our souls and affect the way we act, talk, conduct ourselves, and deal with other people.
Torah Jews don’t get personal when they have disagreements. They seek to resolve differences according to the ways of the Torah. They speak kindly and act with kindness. They help each other, assisting even people they don’t know. They are respectful and dignified. They cause kiddush Hashem, not chillul Hashem.
Moshe Reichmann was recognized throughout the Jewish world and the world of finance as an impeccably honest gentleman. He derived his standing and the way he comported himself from viewing himself as a yeshiva bochur, as a student of great men, influenced from basking in the glow of the Chazon Ish.
A Bobover chossid explained to his grandchildren how he survived Auschwitz. He told them that as a child, he had been at seudah shlishis tishen of the Kedushas Tzion many times. “I understood that an experience like that was a zechus, and it was up to me to use it to the fullest. I bottled up the energy of the tish, memorizing the Torah, the niggunim, and the look on the rebbe’s face. Years later, when I was surrounded by death and despair, I would close my eyes and draw on that reservoir of purity and joy. That was how I survived.”
We have all seen greatness in our lives. There have been experiences that have greatly impressed us. Torah lessons that have impacted us. Rabbeim who made a mark on our souls. They should not be fading memories of fleeting moments. They should be etched into our consciences and influence us every day of our lives.
I, for one, merited receiving guidance and instruction in years past from such giants as Rav Elazar Menachem Mann Shach and Rav Elya Svei zichronam livrocha. I constantly consult with my memories of our conversations to help me proceed. Of course, it is not sufficient to be guided by memories of those no longer with us, but it is upon the foundation they established within me and so many others that we build, and the reminiscences of the discussions with them that provide us with the strength and conviction to carry on.
I spent the past week in Yerushalayim and had the special zechus to daven with and speak to residents of Yerushalayim Shel Maalah. So many scenes impacted me, so many people whose faces are etched with the lines of emunah and bitachon. Poor and destitute people who know the truth about life, smiling as they perform mitzvos. Giants sitting among common folk, each concentrating on impressing the One who counts and not looking over their shoulders or considering where they sit and who they daven with. All Jews are special and they know it. There is holiness in every soul. Everyone has a spark of ruach hakodesh, some more than others (see Gr”a, Mishlei 16:4).
I hope that lesson stays with me.
To be in the presence of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, revered by all the world over for his incredible hasmodah and yediah of kol haTorah kulah, combined with tzidkus, is very hard to describe. We ask and we follow, for we know that the Torah flows through him.
I traveled to Naharia to receive the blessing of Rav Dovid Abuchatzeira. Just to hear the words he speaks and his tone provides chizuk.
Rav Dovid Cohen, rosh yeshiva of Chevron Yeshiva, is a personal guide, mentor and rebbi. A gaon in Torah and mussar, to sit with him nourishes the soul.
As we spend time with our rabbeim and manhigim, we are reminded of greatness and the heights man can reach. Their dedication to Torah, basking in it and dedicating their lives to it raises them and imbues them with the ability to provide light, guidance and leadership. 
The cycle of the Jewish year is a series of peaks and valleys. Shavuos allows us to reach the mountain of old, to hear the kol gadol, the voice that has never stopped calling, to feel the thunder in our souls.
We live in scary times. It often appears as if madness has taken over the Western world. Terror grips foreign capitals, fake news is treated as gospel, and the media is consumed with fostering a Russian connection with the president, who hasn’t been able to gain traction and pass the bills necessary to push his agenda forward and get the economy back on course. There is misdirection everywhere as critical thought has gone AWOL.
The Torah provides us with light and understanding. By devoting ourselves to learning Torah, we are able to find a path through the darkness, an oasis of sanity and truth. Learning Torah lishmah spares us from falling prey to ever-present temptations. It makes us into better people and allows us to lead a fruitful, satisfying life, enhancing those around us and the world.
Shavuos has passed us by. Let its memory not fade. The inspiration should stimulate us as we go about our daily activities and allow us to live lives unscathed by the depravity and futility of so much that surrounds us.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

It Is Who We Are and What We Are About


Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Back when the sun first rose and creation was unsullied by man and his struggles, the world was waiting. Even after man settled in the garden, le’ovdah uleshomrah, the world was in a state of anticipation.
Throughout the generations that followed, despite Noach’s lone piety in a world of darkness, Avrohom Avinu’s perception of a Creator, and Yitzchok’s readiness to be offered as the ultimate sacrifice, something was missing.

Even as Yaakov studied through the long nights and his sons marched forth- an army of soldiers of the Ribbono Shel Olam- the world was not yet perfect.
It was a journey, a process leading to the Yom Hashishi, the glorious sixth day of Sivan when the world received its heart and soul. Bishvil haTorah shenikreis reishis.

“Ve’am nivra yehalel Kah” (Tehillim 102:19). A nation, newly identified, newly charged with a mission, called out two words that echo through the ages, that have come to define us: “Naaseh venishma.”
It was the moment when Klal Yisroel announced for the entire world to hear that although they were mortals fashioned of flesh and blood, they would live on a higher and loftier plane, using the greatest of all gifts, the holy Torah, to guide them.

And now, once again, we are at the time of year when the power and potency of that day reigns supreme, and we are able to tap into its energy.
Yom Tov comes and Yom Tov goes, and we search for the appropriate mindset and idea to help us connect, so that, as Rav Yitzchok Hutner would say, “the Yom Tov doesn’t pass us by, but, rather, we pass through it, experiencing its blessing.”

As we celebrate Zeman Mattan Toraseinu, the best and most appropriate preparation is to focus on how blessed we are, with the gift we received, and what those moments at Sinai and their reverberations mean to us.

We all know it’s true. It’s 2017 and neshamos are dimmer than ever. It’s hard to feel ruchniyus, to acutely sense kedushah in a crass, immoral world, but it is there.
If we take a moment and contemplate, and conduct an honest self-assessment, we will realize that whatever might give us a degree of happiness - a new car or home, a delicious meal or a great vacation - isn’t the real deal. The feeling it gives us does not compare to the elation we feel when we gently stand up after a good shiur or seder, having learned with a child or chavrusa.

Those fortunate enough to walk into a shul and see their son or grandson hunched over a Gemara have experienced a joy unlike any other.
No amount is too small. A good vort, a kushya shared on the way out of shul, or a short shiur has the ability to thrill unlike anything this world has to offer.

Friday morning, my friend called to share a vort that he had heard at a sheva brachos. It was a great thought. Exhilarating, in fact. It brought both of us more joy than any juicy piece of meat or lashon hora.
Because even today, we can still feel the joy of kabbolas haTorah. Every time we hear a good sevorah, vort, or shiur; every time we work hard to understand a Gemara, Rashi, or Tosafos, the joy that was felt at Har Sinai is felt again.

Everything else is fleeting. The world was created for Torah. The joy that was felt on that day in Sivan so many years back and all those feelings that were apparent on that day are eternal. We can feel them anytime we delve into the holy words of amar Abaye and Rebbi Yehuda omeir.
Hashem gave us the ultimate gift, and when we express our thanks, we allow ourselves to become vessels that contain it and open our hearts to its light. Hanosein matana lachaveiro tzorich lehodio. This means that when a person gives someone a gift, he must inform the recipient. But lehodio also has in it’s root the word hoda’ah, thanks, indicating that when a person gives a gift, he expects it to be acknowledged. Therefore, we say thank you every day. Asher bochar banu. You chose us. And on Shavuos, we celebrate it.

On Shavuos, when we reaffirm that we only exist for the Torah and our nation has a unifying goal, we allow the Torah to shine its light into our hearts. We remain awake at night, demonstrating our appreciation of the Torah’s role in our lives. We read through the entire Torah in Tikkun Leil Shavuos to show that we treasure every sefer of the Torah and the knowledge contained therein.

We pledge to take it all very seriously and endeavor to understand whatever we can.
Rav Archik Bakst, rov of Shavel, once met a friend, a fellow talmid of Kelm, who shared a vort from their rebbi, the Alter of Kelm. The friend said the vort with obvious excitement, explaining that he had just heard the idea that week and it had changed his life.

Rav Archik listened and said, “My dear friend, we were together at the shmuess when the Alter shared this idea. I was moved by it then, but you mached it avek. You waved the thought away. And because you made it unimportant, it became unimportant to you. It was as if you heard nothing, so this week, when you heard it again it and accepted it, it was as if you were hearing it for the first time.”
What, asks the Meshech Chochmah at the end of Parshas Yisro, did Moshe Rabbeinu personally gain from kabbolas haTorah? He had already been worthy and was able to rise Heavenward even before the giving of the Torah. This was an indication that Moshe Rabbeinu had personally achieved perfection before Sinai.

The Meshech Chochmah’s answer is instructive and relevant. Until Mattan Torah, he says, Moshe Rabbeinu and man were able to serve Hashem with ruchniyus. The novelty of kabbolas haTorah was that, suddenly, acts of pure gashmiyus were invested with kedushah. Man was directed to sanctify himself, his corporeal needs, and his animal instincts.
This, says the Meshech Chochmah, is the idea of Hashem telling Moshe Rabbeinu at the sneh, the burning bush, “Shal na’alecha mei’al raglecha - Remove your shoes from on your feet. Remove the vehicles for your gashmiyusdike living. Remove your chomer as you approach Me. Here you must be an angel.” That was before Matan Torah. Afterward, the shoes became part of the package - the package called a mentch, to whom the Torah was given.

After Matan Torah, Hashem tells Klal Yisroel, “Ve’anshei kodesh tihiyun li - And holy people  be unto me, ” (Shemos 22:30). The Kotzker Rebbe would translate this command to mean, “Be mentchlich heilig. Be holy within the context of being human.” Figure out how to exist within society, to be a father and a husband and a friend who is holy. We are meant to be people who live elevated lives, not malochim.
On Shavuos, we celebrate this concept. Hakadosh Boruch Hu desires our service. He gave us the Torah to guide us and address our physical existence. We celebrate the potential of man, who can use the Torah as the ladder to climb to ever loftier heights.

The Creator didn’t ask us to become angels, but rather, to remain mortals, to incorporate the Torah and its laws into the realities of our humble little lives.
The Gemara states that while regarding other Yomim Tovim the rabbis disagree how much of the day should be dedicated to the purely spiritual, on Shavuos, “hakol modim debe’inan nami lochem.” They all agree that we need to please the more physical side as well.
We can understand this to mean that on Shavuos, we need “lochem, to proclaim that the physical is part of the Shavuos celebration. We demonstrate through our actions that Torah has affected and touched our base desires as well.
Chazal (Pesikta Zutrasa, Va’eschanon) state, “Chayov odom liros ess atzmo ke’ilu mekabel Torah miSinai, shene’emar, ‘Hayom hazeh nihiyeisa le’am. Every day a person is obligated to conduct himself as if he accepted the Torah that day at Har Sinai.’” We are all familiar with this directive regarding Yetzias Mitzrayim. In fact, it is the central theme of the leil haSeder, but we don’t think about it on Shavuos.
Imagine if today were the day you received the Torah. Imagine standing at Har Sinai and hearing the words of the Aseres Hadibros being called out. Imagine the sounds. Imagine the site. Imagine being led out of Mitzrayim with very little knowledge or holiness, and trekking through the desert, becoming a better person every day.
Imagine how empty and meaningless your life would be without Torah. No Torah, no learning, no Shabbos, no tefillin, no Yom Tov, nothing that your life is centered around, nothing that gives your life the meaning it now has. You wouldn’t even have potato kugel or cholent, or a nice suit, hat or shaitel. You wouldn’t have a shul to go to and no reason to go to one altogether. Think of everything you do in your day, week and year. Now imagine that there was no Torah.
Imagine that today is the day you discovered the secret of the world. Imagine that today you were invited to study G-d’s word, to bask in His glow, to find meaning, satisfaction and joy in your life. How excited you would be! How grateful and how dedicated!
Today is that day. “Ke’ilu mekabel Torah miSinai.
Appreciate it. Show it. Feel it.
Hayom hazeh! Today and every day. Despite the degeneration of the world; despite the struggles we experience with every tefillah and the challenge of concentrating fully when we learn; despite the many forces competing for our attention, we have a new kabolas haTorah.
Our human shortcomings are not a hindrance; we weren’t given a Torah despite the fact that we are people, but specifically because we are mere humans.
Rav Yecheskel Abramsky lived in London on an upper story of a building that had a bank on its ground floor. During the German blitzkrieg, when the city endured crushing air attacks, residents of the building took cover in the bank’s vault.
The vault was a large, underground room, lined with safety deposit boxes. Rav Abramsky kept a small Shas in the shelter, and as sirens wailed and people shuddered in fear, he would take out a volume of Gemara and learn from it. 
Rav Abramsky’s family noticed that every time he entered the vault, his lips were moving. They thought that he was murmuring words of Tehillim, but then they realized that he was repeating the words of the posuk, “Tov li toras picha mei’alfei zahav vachesef - Your Torah is more precious to me than thousands in gold and silver.”
When asked to explain his habit, he said that he had no need for great wealth and no desire for riches. But when surrounded by boxes that contained jewels, precious antiques and large sums of cash, he felt that it had an effect of him. To calm that feeling, he would repeat the posuk, reminding him that the Torah is worth more than what was in the safety deposit boxes. The real value that we crave is in Torah, he reminded them.
In Lita of old, this concept was widely understood. There was a natural reverence for Torah and its scholars even among the unlearned. In Volozhin, local homeowners would line up at the train station before each zeman to vie for the honor of pulling the wagons carrying arriving talmidim and their luggage. The yeshiva learned through Shas, and when the yeshiva celebrated a siyum, the local people would arrive at the yeshiva and proudly serve as waiters.
Imagine that! Imagine if in your town, the bochurim and yungeleit would dine, and the fine residents, who everyone knows and respects, would go from table to table giving out the food.
Nobody forced them to come. Nobody even asked them to come. It was their special honor, because they appreciated Torah and lomdei Torah. It was an honor for them to carry the lomdei Torah and their belongings to the yeshiva, and it was their pleasure to partake in the simcha of the completion of yet another masechta.
It was special to them. It was valuable to them, as if it was given today. They treated it with respect. They treasured the Torah and the people who studied it the whole day. It was their pride and joy.
We hear these things and smile. They are charming reminders of a world that was. Of a world that we need to recreate.
Shavuos is a time to refocus on what Torah means to us, and on how blessed we are to be able to spend time by a Gemara or Chumash or Shulchan Aruch, and be surrounded by talmidei chachomim and yeshiva bochurim.
The Klausenberger Rebbe arrived in America after the Second World War having lost his wife and eleven children. He married a daughter of the Nitra Rov. Rav Leizer Silver, the legendary rov of Cincinnati and one of the most prominent rabbonim in America of those years, was a special guest at the second sheva brachos, held in Mount Kisco. As he rose to speak, he announced that he came bearing a gift for the chosson and kallah, a check for two hundred and fifty-eight dollars.
“If you wonder how come I am giving that amount, I’ll tell you,” he said. “It’s because that check represents everything I had in my bank account. Every last penny. The rebbe is a talmid chochom, and he will produce talmidei chachomim. I would give everything to be part of that. I wish I had more to give!”
The speech of the quintessential Litvishe rov resonated with the crowd. They got his message about what would yet be, and the glorious future that America might have as a makom Torah. He was telling them not to despair, not to give up, not to say, “It can’t happen here.”
Moreover, he was saying, “We are still here, holding on to Sinai, and as long as we cherish and revere and support those who learn and teach Torah, we have a future.”
The Kadmonim call the moments spent in Torah study “lev hayom, the heart of the day,” its most crucial and life-giving period.
We open our arms wide and accept the Torah, just as our fathers and their fathers have done for thousands of years. We cherish its words, raising our children and helping guide them to see the honey under each letter.
It is who we are and what we are about. Our lives revolve around it. It is Torah.
We, with our feet dragging through the dust of real life, of parnossah and health challenges, and all sorts of temptations, persist in walking with our eyes on Him and on His Torah, knowing that it is meant for us, to give us the tools to climb higher.
Modim anachnu loch shesamta chelkeinu m’yoshvei bais hamedrash. Thank You, Master of the universe, for allowing us to have a connection with Torah, to have tasted the truest joy of all.
Gut Yom Tov.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

It’s About Concentration

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
 In today’s fast-moving and changing world, attention spans are shrinking more rapidly than the polar cap under global warming. We are adopting the failures of society and failing to concentrate on what is important for more than a few seconds. We skim instead of read, and we surmise without bothering to educate ourselves. With little thought, we forward news, hock and jokes at supersonic speeds.
We act irresponsibly, either because we don’t realize the impact of our actions, or we think we won’t get caught. Our illiteracy and lack of knowledge lead us to desecrate our own names, as well as those of our people and, most importantly, Hashem. Everything, including our learning, our words, our honesty, our diligence and our interpersonal relationships, becomes superficial.
As we prepare for Shavuos, it would behoove us to slow down and think about what we are doing and whether it helps or hinders us. We are meant to act with determination and be disciplined in seeking and pursuing excellence.
Parshas Behar begins by stating that Hashem spoke to Moshe on Har Sinai. The parsha then immediately turns to the laws of Shmittah. Rashi asks the classic question invoked when two matters seemingly unconnected are linked together: “Mah inyan Shmittah eitzel Har Sinai? loosely translated as, “What does Shmittah have to do with Har Sinai?”
Rashi answers that the Torah juxtaposes the two pesukim to teach that just as all the minutia of the laws of Shmittah were expounded at Har Sinai, the myriad details of all the mitzvos were likewise taught at that time.
The Torah discusses the laws of Shmittah and then guarantees the blessings reserved for those who honor these laws, allowing their land to lie fallow every seventh year as a testament to their belief in Hashem.
Perhaps another reason for the linkage of Shmittah and Har Sinai might be to teach us that a person who seeks the brachos promised to shomrei Shevi’is should not delude himself into thinking that those blessings come for observing only one component of the mitzvos of Har Sinai.
“Mah inyan Shmittah eitzel Har Sinai” teaches us that in order to merit the rewards of keeping Shmittah, a Jew must do far more than observe the laws of Shmittah. He must follow all the halachos and dinim that were handed down at Sinai.
This approach might explain an inconsistency at the end of the parsha. The last posuk of Parshas Behar states, “Es shabbsosai tishmoru umikdoshi tira’u, ani Hashem.” The Baal Haturim points out that in this posuk, the word “tishmoru” comes after the word “Shabbos,” whereas in Devorim, the command of shamor precedes the word “Shabbos” in the posuk of “Shamor es yom haShabbos.”
The Baal Haturim quotes the Mechilta to explain that this is to teach that Shabbos requires shemirah both before and after the exact time of the holy day. That is, one must extend the day at the beginning and at the end, transforming chol to kodesh.
Perhaps we can explain that the posuk is implying that for one to be a shomer Torah umitzvos, it is not sufficient to only observe the 24-hour period that comprises Shabbos. One must also observe the many commandments governing life during the rest of the week. The kedusha of Shabbos demands shemirah lefonov ule’acharov.
It is common to describe a frum Jew as a shomer Shabbos. This is because in order to be considered a shomer Shabbos, you must also observe the other commandments. A shomer Shabbos Jew dresses differently, speaks differently, and eats differently, not only on Shabbos, but during the entire week. A shomer Shabbos Jew conducts himself with aidelkeit and ehrlichkeit, not only on Shabbos, but throughout the week as well. A shomer Shabbos Jew adds to the holiness of Shabbos by sanctifying the days before Shabbos and the days after it.
A shomer Shabbos Jew spreads kedushas Shabbos to everything he does from Shabbos to Shabbos. He anticipates and plans for Shabbos from Sunday onwards, as he specifies each day in relation to Shabbos, saying, “Hayom yom rishon b’Shabbos, Hayom yom sheini b’Shabbos, etc.”
And so it is with a shomer Shmittah. It is very difficult for a person who lives off of the land to wake up one day and decide that although he has been lax in his observance of the other mitzvos, he will observe Shmittah. It is only the person who, after faithfully observing all the halachos during the other six years, can meet the great test of faith and leave his ground untouched during the seventh year.
The person who is fastidious about his observance of maaser and terumah, and leket, shikchah and pe’ah, observes Shmittah with complete faith. The one who ensures that his animals do not run wild and damage other people’s property, and the one who makes sure that there are no michsholim on the paths that cut through his property, will be scrupulous with the dinim given on Har Sinai.
The person who conducts his business with emunah and bitachon and does not resort to chicanery and thievery to make his living is one who has the strength to let go when Shmittah arrives and depend upon Hakadosh Boruch Hu to sustain him.
A shomer Shabbos knows that life is not all fun and games. There are halachos and traditions to follow. He knows that his actions are viewed by others and he cannot engage in conduct that causes chillul Hashem. He knows that what the world considers cool and chic is not always all it’s cracked up to be.
A shomer Shabbos knows that he cannot act hypocritically and cannot be in places where he doesn’t belong. He comports himself with intelligence and dignity, like a gentleman.
Vetzivisi es birchasi lochem.” Hashem promises His blessings to those who observe Shmittah, because those people are the ones who observe the laws handed down on Har Sinai daily and not only on isolated occasions.
At the beginning of Parshas Bechukosai, Rashi quotes the Toras Kohanim to explain the posuk of “Im bechukosai teileichu.” Rashi says that it means “shetihiyu ameilim baTorah.” The way to achieve holiness and perfection is by expending much energy to study and understand the Torah. The way to show that we are serious about following the path of Hashem and observing His mitzvos is by delving deeply and persistently into the difficult passages of the Torah.
The Rambam in Hilchos Talmud Torah writes that the Torah does not make a permanent impact on one who takes a lackadaisical approach to its study, nor on one who learns while indulging in earthly excess, or while satiated by food and drink.
The Torah belongs to the one who knocks himself out, so to speak, working to understand it and refraining from sleep in order to learn and understand the word of Hashem.
That is why a rebbi is obligated to teach the same passage to his student several times until the student understands it. The rebbi is not permitted to become angered, but has to patiently explain it until its meaning is grasped. Torah is for all, and a lack of comprehension necessitates added effort and deeper concentration, for that is the way Torah is acquired. The task of the rebbi is to make the Gemara come alive, to convey gravitas and importance to the give and take, so the student not only repeats by rote, but becomes enraptured with understanding Torah and enveloped in its glory.
Therefore, as well, a student should not be uncomfortable when he doesn’t understand the Torah that is being taught. There is no embarrassment in asking to have it explained repeatedly until he understands it. Greatness in Torah requires total dedication and much effort. One who is consumed by ambition for spiritual greatness forgoes much to grow in Torah.
Greatness is not inbred. It doesn’t come from learning once a week. It isn’t accomplished overnight. It takes years of persistence and perseverance. Sometimes it takes a lifetime of growth to reach the pinnacle.
The world around us is in turmoil. We must do all we can to produce a new generation of leaders and giants to deal with the complex issues facing us. They must be respectful, responsible and decent. They have to engage in activities that bring achdus and love between Jews, not those that cause us to be divided. Everything they do should bring others to respect our people, as Chazal say, “sheyihei sheim Shomayim misaheiv al yodcha.”
Our ambition and drive must be to excel in Torah and avodah. We have to value excellence and appreciate it in others. We should demand the best of ourselves when it comes to spiritual matters and not easily compromise when it comes to what is really important in life. We must become ameilim baTorah in a literal sense.
Our chinuch system must teach our children to appreciate the gift of Torah they have been given. They need to realize that they are the Chosen People, selected to live a life of kedusha and tahara, of simcha and sasson, and that these are not mutually exclusive concepts. Torah breathes life into those who follow its ways. A Torah life is a blessing. One who understands that, will happily dedicate his life to ameilus baTorah.
Children who appreciate the full picture of Yiddishkeit and know that ehrlichkeit and middos tovos are an integral part of their being, understand that fidelity to a value system is their birthright.
Jews who are reminded from a young age onward that shemiras Shabbos involves more than observing the lamed tes melachos live on a higher level the whole week and recognize that by doing so they are among the luckiest people alive.
Despite all the temptations thrown at them by society, and no matter what pressures and inducements they face, they will remain steadfast, focused, honest and upstanding. They will bring us all much nachas.
The Torah promises that if we are ameilim baTorah, if we work according to the Torah and concentrate our main efforts on Torah study and observance, we will be blessed and successful in all we do.
The Torah is what gives us our identity and what defines us. As we stand in the Sefirah period, we commemorate that we were freed from Mitzrayim so that we could accept the Torah on Har Sinai.
We count towards Shavuos, the day that marks our receiving of the Torah, to demonstrate that we are striving and reaching upward. Each day of the count, we seek to improve ourselves so that we better appreciate the gift that is the Torah.
We don’t count the way one would normally count down to an anticipated date. We count upward. We are each saying, “I am not the same person I was yesterday. I am better. I have progressed yet another day and have taken another step towards my goal. I am on the way to realizing that the most important thing I can do is accept the Torah, study it, and follow it with devotion.”
If we want to excel in our lives as Torah Jews, we have to realize what those successful people described above realize. The key to success, both spiritual and material, is to be devoted to the task with all our strength and talent.
Rav Shmuel Yaakov Borenstein zt”l was just such a person. His life was Torah and his talmidim. There was nothing else. He labored in the study of Torah since his youth and emerged as a brilliant talmid chochom who was viewed as a gadol b’Yisroel and a leader of our people.
His soul departed this world this past Motzoei Shabbos, leaving a huge vacuum. Rav Shmuel Yaakov represented the purity and majesty of Torah. He personified the gentility and stateliness of one who has climbed the ladder of Torah greatness. His shiurim were enlightening and his seforim contain brilliant insights. Those who met him saw the kindliness and character fostered by spending days and nights, for decades, immersed in the Yam Hatalmud.
Rav Shmuel Yaakov was relatively young, passing away at the age of 70. The Torah world viewed Rav Shmuel Yaakov as a leading rosh yeshiva who would continue to guide bnei Torah for years to come. We are left bereft, though inspired to follow in his ways and emulate his total devotion to limud haTorah and avodas Hashem.
We have to take ourselves and our responsibilities seriously. We have to take pride in our mission, so that we can succeed in being good Jews and good people. It won’t happen with a haphazard, lackadaisical approach, or by going through the motions perfunctorily. It demands a lifetime of ameilus coupled with discipline and determination.
Let us devote ourselves to our task and merit the brachos that the parsha reserves for those who are ameil in Torah.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Royals

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
 Today, it is very much in vogue to blame others for failure. Those who don’t make it blame the system, the school, the teacher, the government, the president, or some other convenient scapegoat. People don’t assume personal responsibly for their failures. In the “blame culture,” nothing is ever the fault of the poor victim. It’s always someone else who messed up and caused them to fail.
People don’t realize that everyone is endowed with the capacity to achieve greatness. Nobody is doomed from birth to a life of mediocrity and disappointment. Wake up early and go to bed late, study hard, and use your time constructively, and the sky is the limit. Sleep late, party, goof off, and blame your rebbi, morah, chavrusah, shadchan or parents for your lack of drive and motivation to succeed and you are guaranteed to fail.
The blamer has no accountability. He sees the consequences of his actions as no fault of his own. Because he has no accountability and feels no responsibility, he invests little effort into what he does.
Last week, failed and flawed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton emerged from her post-election reflective time to gratuitously accept responsibility for the electoral loss. With that squared away, she quickly launched into a rant, blaming the loss on FBI head James Comey and on the Russians, who publicized her campaign secrets and information about her illegal server.
Many laughed at her and her obvious arrogance and silliness, but, on some level, many of us do exactly what she did. When things don’t go our way, we comfort ourselves and reassure others that we did no wrong. We create straw men and blame them, as preposterous as it may sound. Anything is easier than accepting responsibility for our mistakes.
We are charged to rise above that and to be honest with ourselves and others. To excel in life and Yiddishkeit, we must act properly, concentrate on our learning and davening, be diligent about kiyum hamitzvos, and be careful about how we treat each other. When we err, we admit our error and agonize over repenting.
A Kelmer talmid is said to have commented, “In yeshivos, they say, ‘Men darf kennen Torah,’ it is important to study and know Torah. Chassidim say, ‘Men darf kennen dem Borei,’ it is important to know the Creator. But among us in Kelm, we say, ‘Men darf kennen zich,’ the path to growth starts with being able to know yourself.”
If you look at others, it is easy to find their faults, but you accomplish nothing by doing that, for it doesn’t help you find and repair your own faults. If you look around you, you might find convenient scapegoats. Find the strength to look inward and you will find the truth.
The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 17) discusses the story of Elazar ben Durdaya the sinner. He was shamed by a fellow sinner and apprised of his situation, with little chance for teshuvah.
Overcome with shame, he fled, finding a quiet place to engage in some desperate self-examination. He beseeched the mountains and hills to plead his case with Hashem, but they refused, for they needed to plead on their own behalf. He asked heaven and earth to intercede, but they also turned him down. He looked to the sun and moon for help, but was similarly rejected. The stars were not much help either.
Finally, he collapsed, his head in his hands, crying from the depths of his being. He stood up and proclaimed, “Ein hadovor talui ela bi. It all depends on me. It’s all my responsibility.” At that moment, he died, and a bas kol announced that Rav Elazar ben Durdaya’s teshuvah was accepted and he was destined for Olam Haba.
Meforshim explain his unsuccessful attempts to find messengers to plead for him. He reached out to the horim to make his case. While the definition of horim is mountains, it can also mean parents. He was trying to blame his parents. Perhaps they had spoiled him or deprived him or hadn’t given him enough love, in contemporary parlance. He tried that, but was turned down.
Heaven and earth represent the environment, the schools, teachers and friends who may have influenced him. Everyone else was also doing it. They picked on me. The teachers were lousy. It’s their fault. Don’t punish me. That also didn’t work.
The sun and the moon represent one’s financial situation. He was blaming his indiscretions on being too rich or too poor; there were too many challenges. He was rebuffed.
Finally, he blamed his guilt on the mazalos, alleging that since stars influence man’s behavior, it wasn’t his fault, but the fault of the star he was born under. This defense was rejected.
He got it. The realization that there were no more options other than “ela bi” overwhelmed, weakened and took the life out of him. He accepted the blame and did teshuvah as he lay dying.
The Nesivos Sholom of Slonim says that Elazar was a sinner, not a rabbi, yet Chazal referred to him as rebbi, because he taught the world the secret of teshuvah, which is to stop blaming others.
In truth, every person has the capacity to achieve tremendous greatness. Every person also has the ability to waste his potential and sink to the lowest levels.
The Shela Hakadosh says that this is the reason the Torah uses the word “odom” when referring to man. The appellation “odom” is intertwined with the word “adameh,” which means, “I shall emulate,” a reference to man’s mandate of adameh le’Elyon, emulating the Divine. Odom is also related to the word “adomoh,” the dirt of the ground, the lowliest substance.
In that one word and name, Hashem invested us with our mission. Every day presents opportunities to soar to lofty heights and tumble to extreme lows. By ascribing blame, a person essentially denies his own power, his own reach. He’s hiding behind other factors, essentially claiming that he isn’t strong enough to rise above injustices visited upon him. Check out the biography of great people and you will inevitably find that they had setbacks - just like you, if not worse - and they overcame them.
Being an “odom” means that we can rise above anything. We must use the awareness of what one person can do to fuel our growth.
The Yalkut Shimoni (Shmuel I, 1:78) relates that prior to the birth of Shmuel Hanovi, a bas kol rang out, proclaiming that a tzaddik named Shmuel would soon be born. Every Jewish mother who gave birth to a boy immediately following the bas kol named her son Shmuel in the hope that he would be the tzaddik foretold by the Heavenly voice. Parents raised their Shmuel to be the Shmuel the bas kol spoke of, because each boy had the ability to achieve that level of greatness. 
When people witnessed the acts and conduct of the Shmuel who would go on to become the novi, they knew that he was the tzaddik referred to by the bas kol.
Every person possesses greatness. Every child has the potential to be a savior like Moshe Rabbeinu and Shmuel Hanovi.
We never give up on another Jew. No one is insignificant, for we are all blessed with a neshomah and the ability to rise above all. If we don’t achieve our potential, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
This understanding gives meaning to the celebration of the yahrtzeit of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai on Lag Ba’omer.
Rabi Shimon bar Yochai revealed that every Jew is royalty, with the potential and capacity for greatness. It is not for us to judge other shomrei Torah umitzvos and disrespect them.
Treat others with love and respect and help them realize their potential. Everyone has a spark of greatness within their soul. Help people light their spark and give it the ruach it needs to flare into a great flame. Care about other people and reach to them with friendship, even if they appear to be on a lower level than you. 
Rabi Shimon (Shabbos 67, et al) said, “Kol Yisroel bnei melochim heim, and ruled as halacha lemaaseh that every Jewish person can wear royal clothing on Shabbos without transgressing the prohibition of hotza’ah, because every Jew is a ben melech.
Beholding the glory and splendor of every neshomah, he appreciated limitless potential of odom, every human being. He learned this from his rebbi, Rabi Akiva, who, for the first four decades of his life, was a simple shepherd who no one thought would ever amount to much. But he, too, was a ben melech, and through him the Jewish people were blessed to be bequeathed the entire Torah Shebaal Peh.
On Lag Ba’omer, Jews light bonfires and sing songs praising Rabi Shimon and his rebbi, Rabi Akiva. They dance, chanting the words of Rabi Shimon’s rebbi, “Omar Rabi Akiva ashreichem Yisroel. Praised be the Bnei Yisroel.”
Thousands stream to the kever of Rabi Shimon in Meron, where the words of the posuk he famously quoted are painted atop the entrance - “Ki lo sishochach mipi zaro” - reflecting the greatness of Hashem, His Torah and His people.
We are familiar with the Gemara that states that Rabi Akiva merited teaching 24,000 disciples. But, because they didn’t display proper respect towards each other, they died during the period of Sefirah.
Describing the episode that transpired after the brothers sold Yosef Hatzaddik into slavery, the posuk (Bereishis 38:1) says, “Vayeired Yehudah. And Yehudah departed.” Rashi quotes Chazal, who say that the brothers removed him from his high ranking. Meforshim explain that they no longer treated him as a king.
My rebbi, Rav Elya Svei explained that the brothers saw in Yehuda the leadership traits and potential for royalty. They therefore accorded him the respect of a king. When the shevotim saw the pain that their act caused Yaakov, they no longer viewed Yehuda as worthy of being a melech.
The talmidim of Rabi Akiva perished for the sin of not treating each other appropriately. It is hard to imagine that the students of Rabi Akiva wouldn’t treat each other well. Perhaps, said Rav Elya, they treated each other with the respect that they deserved according to their status at that time, but they didn’t treat them with the respect they were worthy of, considering their potential for greatness.
The failure to respect them for what they could be in the future was considered sinful and caused the plague that killed them.
This Shabbos, we will read Parshas Emor and hear the song of the mo’adim, the various Yomim Tovim. For a moment, we will feel the freedom of Pesach, the glory of Shavuos, the awe of Rosh Hashanah, and the purity of Yom Kippur, followed by the joy of Sukkos. It’s a reminder of how each of us can lift ourselves above the mundane and enter the realm of melochim once again. The Jewish year is framed by such opportunities - the moadim, the meeting places between man and his Creator - which catapult us into a different dimension.
And since we all have the potential to enter the realm of melochim, we have to treat each other as royalty, as bnei melochim.
Perhaps the reason that the talmidim of Rabi Akiva passed away during the period following Pesach is because on Pesach we celebrate the day that the glory of the Jew was revealed. On Pesach, we saw that Hashem loved us even though we did not have or observe the mitzvos of the Torah. Even before we possessed the refinement that the Torah engenders in us, He lifted us. He saw our potential, He knew whereof we are made and He treated us as such even though at that time we were ovdei avodah zara.
Talmidei Rabi Akiva didn’t learn the lesson of Pesach of how to respect each individual Jew despite their level at the moment. They didn’t appreciate that every one of them was a ben Melech, selected and marked for greatness.
At this time of the year, we walk along the shore between two lighthouses, two towering reminders of the greatness of Klal Yisroel, Pesach and Shavuos, marking the period when we became a nation and when we received the ultimate gift. During this period, as we count Sefirah and engage in our personal climb to perfection and greatness, how can we not view every Jew admiringly, each individual a chosen one by the Creator and granted the abilities to rise to soaring heights?
On Lag Ba’omer, as we dance with the flickering orange of the fire reflected in joyous eyes and strains of Meron’s clarinets crossing oceans to enliven us as well, we can appreciate the words of the piyut in which we pay tribute to Rabi Shimon bar Yochai: “Na’aseh odom ne’emar baavurecha.”
Hashem’s decision of “Naaseh odom - Let us make man” was realized in Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, the absolute example of the tzuras ha’odom, of an odom hashaleim, the complete man. But maybe the words have another meaning as well. Na’aseh odom could mean that each of us can become a man, realize our greatness, view ourselves the right way, and perceive those around us the right way, because of the lesson of Rabi Shimon.
He taught us that we are all bnei melochim. Baavurecha, because of you, Rabi Shimon, we know the truth of how high we can go.
Ashreichem Yisroel.