Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Sanctify the Moment

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
The parsha this week begins with the words, “Vayakhel Moshe es kol adas bnei Yisroel.” Moshe descended the mountain the day after Yom Kippur and all of Klal Yisroel flocked to him to hear his message.
There is an immediate lesson here for us, which is relevant throughout the year. The Jewish year, just like Jewish life, is composed of peaks and valleys, moments of joy and times of pain. Every moment has its specific avodah, whether it is a day that is spent entirely in shul or one that is spent eating and drinking. Even on a more routine day, each moment in a Jew’s life is laden with opportunity and meaning. Unfortunately, certain times, such as those that call for more intense avodah may be perceived as more significant than less intense periods.
The reality is, that time that passes will never return, and every moment that arrives is unique.
Mimochoras Yom Kippur is the day following the most exalted twenty-four hours of the year. How can you top that? Any day that follows must be a downer, maybe even a day off, without its own specific recipe for growth.
Our parsha opens on that day, Mimochoras Yom Kippur, when Moshe Rabbeinu gathered the nation. As they stood listening to him, they were once again together, b’achdus, and they merited the Mishkon.
The people flocked to listen to Moshe. They had learned the lesson of the day and understood. Following his return from Har Sinai after the chet ha’Eigel, Moshe called out, “Mi laHashem eilay. Everyone who remains with Hashem come to me.” Only the bnei Levi answered the call. But following their repentance, all the people recognized that just as every moment has its obligation, so does every individual have a mission and they came to hear what it was.
After falling and failing in the mindlessness of the chet ha’Eigel, after having done teshuvah, the enthused, newly-cleansed nation gathered around Moshe, the fountain of direction.
We can now appreciate the power of Moshe Rabbeinu’s message to them.
The parshiyos of Vayakhel and Pekudei conclude the five parshiyos that discuss the construction of the Mishkon and its design. The building of the Mishkon began after Yom Kippur and continued until Rosh Chodesh Nissan.
The work required hundreds of workers and large amounts of material. To facilitate its construction, there was a fundraising campaign, in which everyone participated. When the Mishkon was completed, the festivity lasted twelve days.
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky points out the incongruity between the effort exerted into building the Mishkon and the original intended duration of its existence. The Bnei Yisroel left Mitzrayim on Pesach and were to travel in the desert until reaching the Promised Land. Had the sin of the meraglim not taken place, they would have entered Eretz Yisroel in a matter of months and would not have wandered in the desert for thirty-nine extra years. Why, then, was so much effort and expense invested in constructing a temporary edifice? Why all the specifics, precise merasurements and exhaustive work?
In fact, they teach us a vital lesson.
Rav Moshe Mordechai Shulsinger of Bnei Brak maintained a written correspondence with many great men. He once commented that when gedolei Torah would respond to his letters during the bein hazemanim period, they would indicate in their letters that it was bein hazemanim. He noted that Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach, however, had a term all his own. He referred to the intercession as “zeman habeinayim,” or “the in-between zeman.” This, said Rav Moshe Mordechai, was part of the secret of Rav Shach’s growth and leadership. Each moment, each day, had a role and mission. Nothing was temporary or without meaning. The days of relaxation from the frantic yeshiva pace were a zeman of their own.
The Mishkon, epicenter of holiness, repository of Hashem’s presence on this world, defied time. Although the Mishkon would be temporary, its effect would be eternal. While it was only meant to last for several months, it represented the ideal that every day could be spent in the presence of Hashem. No day, or even part of it, should be taken for granted or wasted. Every minute is precious and can generate greatness. We know nothing about which day or which moment in it is most important.
We value rest and relaxation. We know the value of bein hazemanim and a change of pace. Everyone needs to relax in their own way, but there is never off-time.
Rav Boruch Sorotzkin’s wife once shared what she felt was key to her husband’s greatness. Before she and her husband departed Europe on the long escape route that would eventually lead them to Cleveland, Ohio, her father, the Telzer Rov, gave her some advice.
He told her to ensure that even though they would be on the run, moving from place to place, she should do what she could to give each day a sense of permanence and create a feeling of home. The rebbetzin would recount how, during the long journey across Europe to what felt like the end of the earth, she made sure to serve the future rosh yeshiva “breakfast” - whatever meager food there was - on a plate. She understood that by investing the day with a feeling of stability, her husband would follow by learning as if he was back in yeshiva in Telshe.
The rebbetzin said that she felt that her husband shteiged during the multi-year journey in a way that others had not because of her father’s wise directive.
Klal Yisroel, newly-cleansed from the chet ha’Eigel, desirous of a proper relationship with Hashem, appreciated the opportunity to construct a dirah batachtonim. And they knew that in a relationship, there are no off moments. For however long it would stand, they would ensure that the Mishkon would be a place where Hashem would, kevayachol, be comfortable.
They understood that building the Mishkon was an act of teshuvah for their sin and they immediately responded to the appeal. They engaged in a labor of love, determined to begin again with a cleansed slate. It did not matter that the Mishkon was to stand for only a short period of time, for they would take advantage of the opportunity to become closer to Hashem, and in that zechus they would enter Eretz Yisroel and build the permanent Bais Hamikdosh.
They toiled and labored in joy. They understood that even one moment of hashro’as haShechinah was worth everything.
As the Mishkon was completed, Moshe Rabbeinu blessed the Jewish people, stating, “Viyhi noam Hashem Elokeinu aleinu.” Rav Simcha Scheps explained that they were blessed upon the completion of the work and not when they began it, because Moshe knew that there would be an initial burst of enthusiasm for the project. He didn’t have to bless them at the outset. He feared that the initial euphoria would wear off and they wouldn’t be able to maintain the proper spiritual levels to merit the Shechinah remaining among them. It was at the end, with the task completed and the Mishkon erected, that he was able to look on with pride at the lesson his people had learned.
In the great mussar yeshivos, every talmid was infused with an awareness of the greatness inherent in man, referred to as gadlus ha’adam.
Rav Shlomo Freifeld would tell of the time he stayed at a Tel Aviv hotel and was eating breakfast. He noticed a distinguished looking woman enter the hotel dining room and begin looking around, as if for something in particular. After a while, she found it: a vase, holding a single flower. She proudly carried the flower to her table, where she sat down to wait for her husband, who came a few minutes later.
Her husband was the Ponovezher Rov.
Rav Freifeld would say, “When I saw that flower on the table, I understood how the Ponovezher Rov was able to accomplish so much every day of his life and just how much of a partner the rebbetzin was.”
Every day is a gift from Hashem and worthy of expending the effort to construct a Mishkon - a place for Hashem - in our hearts. Every day presents new opportunities to grow, learn and achieve greatness. Every day deserves cleanliness and preparation for Godliness.
The posuk states, “Vayavo’u kol ish asher nesa’o libo” (35:21). Every man “whose heart lifted him” came to work on the construction of the Mishkon.
The Ramban states that none of the people who were engaged in building the Mishkon had learned that trade, nor did they have any previous experience. They were the people who responded to the call of Hashem. Niso’om libom, their hearts lifted them. They were consumed with the desire to fulfill the wish of Hashem. They didn’t say that they weren’t trained for anything that the Mishkon required. They didn’t say that the work was too difficult. They didn’t say, “Leave it for someone else to do.” The Mishkon was built by men of greatness who ignored their shortcomings and pushed themselves to do what they didn’t know they could, to serve Hashem.
Perhaps, in light of our understanding, we can appreciate the lesson. Nothing is random. Our year doesn’t consist of “on-days” and “off-days,” and our nation doesn’t boast capable people and those who are absolved of work. Every day has its special light, shone into it by the Master of us all. Look for something positive in each day and you will find motivation.
They achieved greatness. They brought the Shechinah to this world. They received the brochah of Viyihi Noam and the Mishkon lasted much longer than anyone thought it would. In fact, the Mishkon was never destroyed. It lies in hiding, waiting for the day when we can appreciate our blessings, the potential that lies in each moment, and all join together and summon the inner strength we all possess to put aside differences and work together to reestablish a dirah laHashem batachtonim.
B’Nissan nigalu ubeNissan asidim lehigoel. Nissan is a month of redemption. Redemption of time, of people, and of our nation. If we would all appreciate the gift of time, our personal gifts and the gift of our nation, singular in the world, we would be redeemed.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Bridge the Divide

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
We just completed the observance of Purim. We are still in the exalted state that defines chodesh Adar and we are confronted by the tragedy of Parshas Ki Sisa.
The parsha contains apexes of glory and splendor, depths of catastrophe, and a cataclysmic blow, followed by the greatest message of forgiveness in the Torah. The tragic error and the climb back to teshuvah resound through the ages.
The Jews had reached the height of their experience when Moshe Rabbeinu ascended Har Sinai and received the Luchos and the Torah. When he failed to return at the time the people had calculated, the nation that had reached exalted levels descended to worshiping a calf that they had formed from their jewelry. 
By doing so, they changed the trajectory of history which continues until our day. Moshe descended from his greatness, returned to the people, and shattered the Luchos as he witnessed the depravity to which they had sunk. The Leviim rallied to his side and waged war against the scoffers.
Hashem wanted to destroy the Jewish nation, but He relented after Moshe’s pleas. Moshe was allowed to re-ascend the mountain and re-transcribe Luchos. Hashem revealed the 13 Middos to Moshe and promised to allow the nation to enter The Promised Land.
It is apparent that those who gave birth to the Eigel weakened Moshe. The Eirev Rav, who had joined the Jewish people as they exited Mitzrayim, succeeded in persuading Aharon to tentatively sign on to their plan. Moshe was told, “Lech reid.” He was instructed to go down and return to his people.
Chazal say (Brachos 32a) that in commanding, “Lech reid,” Hashem was saying, “Go down from your greatness, for I have only made you great because of Yisroel, and now that Yisroel has sinned, you must return to a lower level.”
The Peirush HaGra on Chumash (Shemos 32:7), quoting the Tikkunei Zohar, says, “Ispashuta d’Moshe bechol dor vador. In every generation, there is a nitzutz, a part of the neshomah, of Moshe Rabbeinu present in one great man.” Through him, the light of Torah is transmitted to all the talmidei chachomim of the generation. All the chiddushei Torah that is nischadeish in the world is through the “hashpo’as ohr,” or influence, of Moshe Rabbeinu.
Several times a week, we say, “Vezos haTorah asher som Moshe lifnei bnei Yisroel… beyad Moshe.” We point our finger and try to see the holy letters on the parchment, proclaiming that the Torah was given through Moshe.
“Tov ayin hu yevorach - One who has a bountiful eye will be blessed” (Mishlei 22:9). Chazal teach that this refers to Moshe, who was the ultimate ayin tovah: He gave us the Torah and the ability to plumb its depths.
When the pagan Eigel was crafted, the gift of Torah was jeopardized. Moshe became weakened to such a degree that the Luchos were broken, causing a diminution of Torah knowledge and leading to the exiles we have endured since.
The Vilna Gaon writes (Even Sheleimah 13:8) that in our time, the Eirev Rav is composed of five groups of people: baalei machlokes and lashon hora, baalei ta’avah, hypocrites, people who seek honor to make a name for themselves, and people who crave money. He continues: “The worst are those who cause machlokes, and they are Amaleikim. Moshiach will not arrive until the world is rid of them.”
In other words, our eternal enemy lives on not only through the wicked gentiles of the world who seek our demise, but through those among us who foment division. Sadly, we are plagued by endless machlokes. Maybe if we would begin to view those who cause and feed off of machlokes as the Amaleikim the Vilna Gaon says they are, we would really despise them and not permit their influence to divide brother from brother.
Purim is a day when we all get along and all divisions disappear. The joy of the day enables us to look aside from that which divides us and concentrate on the positive. On Purim, there is no negativity or cynicism. There is so much love and brotherhood in the air. Why can’t that Purim spirit linger and last? Who doesn’t wish for Purim to be more than a one-day holiday? We can keep the Purim spirit alive in our hearts and remain joyful, forgiving and positive. How much better off we would all be.
We each need to do what we can to spread love, peace and harmony in our community. We need to put aside petty differences. We need to work together, support good people and do good things instead of enabling hypocrites and greedy people. There are many good people in our world. Let’s get behind them and enable them to drain the swamp.
The Eirev Rav weakened Moshe’s abilities by sowing dissent and confusion, leading to the diminution of his abilities.
We wonder how the people who stood at Har Sinai and proclaimed, “Na’aseh venishma,” fell so ingloriously. How was it possible for this noble people to fall so far, so fast? What caused them to be led astray? How could they think that they can elevate an inanimate object to the lofty position of G-d’s emissary?
Rashi (32:1) explains that Moshe told the people that he would return in forty days and they erred in their calculation. Rashi quotes the Gemara in Maseches Shabbos (89a) which explains that the Soton “confused the natural order,” creating a mirage of Moshe’s body being carried in heaven as if in a casket.
If so, can we really blame the people for believing that Moshe would not be returning? How were they to know that what their eyes were seeing wasn’t real? 
Their mistake was that they should have trusted Moshe’s promise and sought to figure out how it could remain viable and consistent with what they saw. They should have probed for the truth behind the mirage. They should have contemplated the possibility that their calculations were erroneous instead of being misled to conclude that Moshe would never return. They should have restrained the impulse to invent an immediate substitute.
Had they sought an ayin tovah and looked to find the good in everyone and justify the words of Torah and its students, they could have come to the realization that they were being lied to. People who are optimistic and believers are not led astray by sweet words and fake news.
When Shlomo Hamelech was given the ability to choose any gift, he did not seek power, might or influence. He asked to be granted a lev shomeia, a heart that would perceive and discern the needs of others. He wanted the ability to really hear.
In order to battle the Eirev Rav of our day and curb machlokes, which weakens the Moshe Rabbeinus of our time, and to enable the coming of Moshiach, we have to be more intelligent about the way we address people. It is way too easy to preach and lecture others, admonishing them for what we think they are doing wrong.
To be an effective leader and communicator, you have to listen to people and understand how they think and why they act the way they do. We have to perceive the current mindset in order to bring about change. If we want to reach people in 2017, we can’t speak in a vocabulary of the 1950s and seek to address issues that were important in the 1960s.
If you don’t know what is going on, and you don’t know the news, and you don’t know what people are thinking, how do you think you can be relevant?
We must have a lev shomeia if we want to influence people to lead better lives and to give up their petty battles and other behaviors that are in line with the conduct of the Eirev Rav and Amaleik.
In our day, the way to reach individual lost, confused and erring people is not by bashing them, but by empowering them to tap into their latent abilities. Let people know that you have faith in them to be better and they will become better. Speak positively.
Of course, when dealing with reshoim who lead others astray, the form of rebuke differs.
The Torah is eternal, but the language in which we communicate with people changes. People are not interested in hearing the same old speeches they have been hearing for years. They want the messages relayed to them in a way that relates to them. They want images they can relate to, delivered by people who can show that they relate to them and their situations. We can demonstrate the beauty of Torah and inspire people to study and support Torah, with positivity. If you want people to follow your message, don’t talk down to them.
Let’s be plugged in to the hearts and minds of the masses and work intelligently to help them to improve and to grow.
A story is told about a fellow who comes to shul and sits in his seat until Shemonah Esrei. After davening, the rov bangs on his shtender and points out that it is improper to sit while reciting Vayevorech Dovid.
The man rises to complain out loud, “For the past six months, zitz ich un parnossah, I ‘sit’ with no source of income, and no one says a word. One day, zitz ich beim davenen, I sit during davening, and I hear all about it.”
The way to create change is by building people through warmth, concern and a lev shomeia. Let them know you care about them.
This week, Rabbi Yisroel Besser’s fascinating new book on Rav Yeshayele of Kerestir sees publication. He was one of the most beloved and revered tzaddikim in prewar Hungary. Jews from all across the country were drawn to his tiny town, eager to receive the rebbe’s brocha and advice.
In the book it is told that one year before tekias shofar on Rosh Hashanah, Rav Yeshayele closeted himself in his room to prepare for the exalted moments. A chossid peered in, certain that he would see the rebbe engaged in Kabbalistic ritual, saying Tehillim or toiling in Torah.
The chossid watched as the rebbe patiently sliced pieces of cake and prepared platters. The rebbe noticed the curious chossid and explained that since the minhag of chassidim is not to eat before tekios, the rebbe understood that the mispallelim would be famished by the end of davening. He wanted to make sure that none of them would have to wait for a bite following davening.
The rebbe used the moments before tekios as Shlomo Hamelech taught. Rav Yeshayele connected with the hearts of his people and prepared food for them. Only after doing that was he ready to go to tekias shofar and plead on their behalf, for he was loving and caring of fellow Jews.
A yeshiva bochur was found being mechallel Shabbos a few times in his yeshiva dormitory. The heads of the yeshiva went to Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l for pro-forma permission to expel the boy.
Rav Shach was in his twilight years, extremely weak and feeble, and rarely saw people. Because of the severity of this situation, however, the roshei yeshiva were permitted to visit Rav Shach to discuss the matter. He listened as they spoke and then was engrossed in thought for several minutes. Finally, with a weak voice, he said to them, “What is the financial situation in the boy’s home? Do his parents have shalom bayis?”
The roshei yeshiva were bewildered by the questions. “How should we know what goes on in his home?” they asked.
Rav Shach strengthened himself, grasped the table, and pulled himself up in his chair. Tears were flowing down his cheeks and his voice was stronger than it was before. He turned to the people who had come to his home convinced that he would rubberstamp their decision.
“Rodfim, leave my home!” he said. “I don’t want to talk to you. You don’t know whawt is going on with the boy. You don’t know what is going on in his home. The only thing you know is that you want to put him out in the street. Leave.”
We have to look at people with kindness. We can’t jump to conclusions based upon what we see. We need to care about people. We need to love them. We need to try to understand them and their actions.
Amaleik is hateful, spiteful and quick to judge. People like us have to recognize our responsibilities to each other and look to help those who can be helped, rectifying that which can be rectified, and interpreting things we see with emunah and bitachon. We must ensure that we don’t fall for the enticements of the Soton, but rather remain loyal to Torah and the truth.
We can erase the vestiges of the Eirev Rav from our midst and benefit from the unblocked light of Moshe.
The Torah was given with an ayin tovah. With an ayin tovah, we can spread the ways, lessons and messages of the Torah and create the greatest change of all, allowing the arrival of Moshiach.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

The Face of Purim

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Purim is different.

When all the Yomim Tovim will cease to be celebrated and only be remembered as part of golus, Purim will live on; a day of joy in a time of ultimate joy.

Estranged Jews appreciate the awe of Rosh Hashanah and listen to the cry of the shofar, but they have a hard time with Purim. They wonder how this can be a holiday. And what is the deal with the alcohol, the clowning around, and the lack of decorum?

The closer we are to the source of joy, the more joyous we are. If we go to a wedding and don’t know the celebrating families, we aren’t too happy there. The better we know the baalei simcha, the more joyous we are and the more we participate. When someone dances with abandon and obvious joy at a wedding, you can safely assume that he has a close connection to the celebrating families.

The more we are able to appreciate the source of the happiness of Purim, the happier we are, and the longer we are able experience that joy. People privileged to live Torah lives, connected with the meaning and flavor of life, experience Purim joy with the onset of Adar.

What is it about Purim that generates so much joy and elation? Even today, when so many hearts are numb and emotion comes hard, we can still sense the simcha. There is a mitzvah to be happy on Yomim Tovim. On Purim, it is so much easier for all to feel it.

Because Purim is personal.

Like a beacon of light on a dark, stormy night, Purim shines into our world. Everyone struggles. We have days when events threaten to engulf us. We encounter people and situations that we find intolerable. We can feel lost and abandoned. We wonder why there is so much hate in our world and why people seem intent on destroying others. It bothers us and brings on a certain sense of despondency. We pine for proper leadership to fill vacuums and right wrongs. We need so much money to survive; there are so many struggles to make ends meet. Every penny we earn is swallowed up. So many are sick or suffering in other ways, and eagerly awaiting a yeshuah.

How is it that when Purim comes, our worries are set aside and we celebrate as if we are mechutonim?

The Baal Shem Tov once traveled through a tiny, forlorn town consisting of a few farmhouses and fields. The locals were suffering from a severe drought. The lack of rainwater threatened the crops and their livelihoods were in jeopardy. If the drought would continue, they would all starve.

When the Baal Shem Tov went into the shul, he saw the entire town - men, women and children – gathered there, listening respectfully to the words of a visiting maggid. The preacher was castigating the people for their misdeeds, telling them that their offensive behavior was causing Heaven to withhold the blessing of rain.

When the maggid finished, the Baal Shem Tov rose to speak. “What do you want from these people?” he asked the maggid. “They work long, hard hours, toiling under the blazing sun all day. When they have a few minutes of peace, they hurry to the shul to daven and learn a bit. What do you want from them? What type of message are you giving them?”

Turning to the crowd of farmers and their families, the Baal Shem Tov said, “Tayere Yidden, this is what you must know. We have a Creator with unlimited abilities, and He can do whatever He wants. He loves us and wants to shower us with blessings. So come, Yidden. Let us dance.”

The Baal Shem Tov led the simple townspeople in joyous dance. The circle of Jews began singing their thanks and praise to the Master of the Universe.

When they were done and left the shul to return home, they were greeted by a driving rain that turned the roads and fields into mud.

It rained and rained, drenching the happy townspeople as they danced their way home.

The Baal Shem Tov gave them reason to dance. The Creator loves us and wants the best for us. He can do anything.

This knowledge is like a bolt of lightning that lights up the night.

Throughout the year, we are confronted by various types of people and the vast spectrum of human behavior, from righteous and noble to incorrigibly evil and the many shades in between.

We live in a world where up is down and down is up. We have to resist being bowled over and led astray. No matter what comes over us and the world, we must maintain our equilibrium and faith.

Rav Yitzchok Hutner told of two men who were lost overnight in a forest. To survive in the thick blanket of darkness and terror, one man figured out how to see in the darkness, while the other sharpened his hearing to be able to discern when danger was approaching.

Which of the two, asked Rav Hutner, learned a more valuable skill?

He said that it is the second man, the one who developed the ability to perceive sounds and identify them, who possessed the more crucial expertise, because in the morning, when the sun comes up and the world is bathed in light, that skill will still be helpful to them in their lost state.

When Moshiach comes, the ability to see in darkness will no longer be necessary, as the world will be filled with light. But the ability to hear the knock of Hashgocha and understand that every sound is an announcement of Hashem’s Presence will always be useful. Purim won’t ever go away, as it is the Yom Tov that teaches us to listen and hear the deeper message.

When good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people, the Megillah reminds us that appearances are deceptive. The Megillah reminds us all that everything that happens is part of a Divine plan, which we can’t expect to understand until the entire story has unfolded.

That message resonates wherever Jews find themselves. As we masquerade about exchanging mishloach manos with friends and distributing Purim gelt, we tap into the holiness and message of the holy day.

It is a message that never loses its timeliness.

Every year, we gain a new appreciation of what took place during those critical times and its relevance to us today. We also gain a new perspective.

We have been so close to the brink, but have always been allowed to climb back up. How can we not rejoice?

One year on Purim, surrounded by multitudes of chassidim hanging on to his every word, the Chiddushei Horim began speaking. This is what he said: “When we start reading the Megillah, we might wonder why we are being told stories about some Persian king. Why do we care that he feasted for three years after being crowned? We continue reading and are told stories about a queen who refused to attend a feast and her punishment. Then we read about the procedure of finding a new queen. And we wonder: Why do we need to know this?”

The rebbe was quiet, deep in thought. He sat up and answered his questions. “In the time of Moshiach,” he said, “many strange things will happen. Nobody will understand what is happening. And then, suddenly, they will realize that it was all tied to the geulah.”

To say that strange occurrences are taking place in our day is an understatement. We are confounded by the daily happenings, so many of which seem to make no sense. Soon the day will arrive when everything will become clear. For now, we have Purim.

Our friend whom we all pray for, Reb Sholom Mordechai Halevi ben Rivka, is always happy. He is really happy. Although he is locked into a depressing place, without any outside stimulants to lift his spirits, he doesn’t see darkness and despair. The message of Purim animates him and causes him to smile all year. He is one with Hashem, and he knows that his freedom is dependent upon the Merciful One. He spends his time learning Torah and being mechazeik people. He is a Purim Yid.

Sholom Mordechai calls me regularly, and if there are people around when he calls, I put the phone on speaker and tell them to listen. We carry on our conversation as if he’s living next door. He laughs at a good joke harder than you ever heard anyone laugh. Then he asks for a vort on the parsha and we discuss it.

People who hear his vibrant voice, guttural laugh, and longing for a word of Torah are overcome with emotion. How can it be? How can that be him? Is it really him? Amazing. Unbelievable.

In that place of sadness and forced depression, he laughs as if he is the freest man alive. And the truth is that he is. He is freer than people enslaved to their habits, urges, appetites and things they think are life’s necessities. Torah, emunah and tefillah empower him. They energize him. Nobody has it as bad as him, locked up as he is with the worst of society. Yet he smiles. He laughs. He wants to hear a vort on the parsha.

He is a Purim Yid. He knows that it was divinely ordained for him to be there, so he is happy to be following Hashem’s plan. And when Hashem decides that it is time to come out, he will be “on the outside,” as they say in prison vernacular.

We all have stuff going on in our lives that we wish wasn’t there. There are many problems awaiting solutions. Life isn’t always perfect. We can get down. We can find it impossible to laugh and hard to learn Torah. There is an urge to withdraw from other people. Whatever it is that’s bothering us, chances are that he is worse off.

There are other Purim Yidden, great people tested time and again, who are “freilach ah gantz yohr.” With indomitable strength, they maintain their belief and live wholesome lives. We need to learn from them.

Esther is repeatedly tested throughout the period in which the story takes place. Each time, it appears that there is no way she can outmaneuver the evil facing her. She is galvanized by her hopes rather than her fears. She relies upon the sage counsel of her uncle, the Rosh Sanhedrin. With Mordechai’s support, fear can’t paralyze her.

Faced with situations from which we think there is no way we can extricate ourselves without getting hurt, we should remember Queen Esther and gain strength from the knowledge that by doing the right thing, she saved her people from certain destruction. By following Mordechai’s instructions, she became immortalized in the consciousness of the Jewish people as a righteous and strong woman who put the fate of her people ahead of her personal safety and happiness.

The Jews of Shushan taught a message that is passed down through the ages. They felt doomed. The lot was drawn and their fate was sealed. They rose to the challenge. Thanks to the leadership of Mordechai and Esther, Hashem heard their tefillos and accepted their teshuvah. A day marked for sadness and death was transformed into a day of celebration and deliverance for all time.

The Rosh Hashanah l’shonim, the first day of Tishrei, is preceded by a month of teshuvah. The first day of Nissan is Rosh Hashanah l’regolim, marking the beginning of the annual cycle of Yomim Tovim. The Sefas Emes suggests that just like the teshuvah in Elul prepares us for Rosh Hashanah, the month prior to the Rosh Hashanah l’regolim, Adar, is a teshuvah period.

But there is a marked difference between the two periods of repentance. During Elul, the teshuvah is brought on by fear of the impending judgment. During Adar, it begins as teshuvah m’ahavah, repentance brought on by love, joy and anticipation.

On Purim, we are reminded not to be sad or downcast. We all have our problems. Everyone has a pekel. On Purim, we are reminded that just as our ancestors were delivered from despair, so can we be spared of our burdens.

The sun will shine again. Good will triumph over evil.

It’s Purim. Dance, smile and be happy. Look at the positive. Be optimistic.

Purim is not an escape from reality. Purim is reality. Purim is a reminder of the reality that empowers the Jewish people with the clarity and awareness to continue on.

If we allow Purim into our daily avodah, we can become changed people.

Permit the spirit of Purim to overtake you.

We remember Amaleik and their sin, and with that, we remember how great we are. Rav Chaim Brim repeated what he heard from Reb Shea Bergman, an elderly Yerushalmi baal korei who had lained for Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld. The baal korei recalled that every year, Rav Yosef Chaim was called to the Torah for the maftir of Parshas Zachor, and each year he drenched the bimah with tears.

Rav Yosef Chaim thought about what was - the many rounds between Amaleik and Klal Yisroel - and also saw the final battle, after which we alone will remain standing. The tears of Purim are special. There are rivers of teshuvah merging with rivers of ahava, simcha and kirvas Hashem all together.

Before tekias shofar, the Jews of Salant would marvel at the change in the features of their rov, Reb Zundel. As he grasped the shofar, his face would radiate such holiness that it became difficult to look at him.

They asked him about it and he sighed. “My rebbi, Rav Chaim Volozhiner, looked this way every morning as he lifted his tefillin from their bag. I only experience it once a year,” he lamented.

On Purim, look at the faces around you. At least on this day of the year, we see the truth. Look at the faces and you’ll see inner joy. You will see the happiness of belief. The joy of clarity. All year round, people have various looks on their faces, but the look you see on Purim is the truest face of all.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Celebrate Together

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Rav Yaakov Edelstein, who passed away last week was a leading rov, founding talmid of Ponovezh Yeshiva, and close disciple of the Chazon Ish. When meeting him it seemed as if his high Litvishe yarmulka was a resplendent crown, a remnant of the bygone royalty of Lita.
A great tzaddik and gaon, he cherished all Jews, the simple and downtrodden as much as the successful and content. Multitudes beat a path to his door, some to speak in learning, others to immerse themselves in the concealed parts of Torah he mastered. Many came seeking words of blessing and encouragement.
Listen to a story of responsibility, sensitivity and achdus.
Rav Yaakov Edelstein once recounted: “While I was learning in Ponovezh, a group of bochurim who were not really up to par came to the yeshiva. When I went to visit the Chazon Ish along with my friend, Rav Jacobowitz, the Chazon Ish asked us to speak to the older bochurim in the yeshiva and convince them to learn with the weaker bochurim. I said to the Chazon Ish, ‘What should I say if a bochur tells me that he wants to use his time to learn iyun and he does not want to waste it learning with such a bochur?’
“The Chazon Ish answered me, ‘Ask him if he puts on tefillin. When he says yes, ask him why he doesn’t feel that it’s a waste of time and that he could be learning iyun during that time.’ The Chazon Ish equated putting on tefillin, which is a Biblical mitzvah, to learning with a weaker bochur.”
Imagine what our world would look like if we all felt and acted like that. Think about the revolution we could bring about, how many young people wouldn’t feel lost, and how pleasant everything would be.
Rosh Chodesh Adar ushers in the special season of simcha. Chazal say, “Mishenichnas Adar marbin b’simcha, when Adar comes, we increase our joy.” A Jew must always be joyous, yet there is something about Adar that prompts us to be happier than usual.
During Adar, we clear our minds of mundane thoughts that usually impact our moods and focus on the coming days of redemption, Purim in Adar and Pesach in Nissan.
On Purim, we celebrate the geulah that came about when the Jews became united. On Purim, in merit of the diverse nation coming together in prayer and fasting, they were able to negate the decree that had been enacted to annihilate them.
Every year, during the month of Adar and on Purim, we engage in actions that recreate the bond of salvation. We send each other gifts, mishloach manos, we drink with good friends, and we help those who are unable to make ends meet. Such actions echo the mutual love extant back then, bringing us together and enabling us to merit redemption.
There is no greater joy.
During the month of Adar, we learn the parshiyos that detail the particulars of the construction of the Mishkon.
When we join together as one in the month of Adar, it is reminiscent of the avodah of the Mishkon, where Jews came together in unity and love.
The Vilna Gaon (Shir Hashirim 1:17) describes the power and potency of the Mishkon. Every Jew had a flame in his heart, but their passions were dormant until there was a collective place where the Jews and their little fires could gather and unite. As they connected with each other, their collective fires fueled a brilliant flame that would light up the world.
The Shechinah resides inside the heart of every good Jew who has purified himself and raised himself to the proper level of holiness. The Mishkon is the gathering place for the people who have brought themselves to that level.
When Hashem commanded Moshe to solicit donations from the Jewish people for the Mishkon, He told him to take a “terumah” from every person who will contribute from his heart, “asher yidvenu libo.” This hints that the people were not only contributing gold and silver, but also giving some of their spirit that lies in the heart towards the construction of the Mishkon, to enable all the hearts to join together in the special place.
In a very different way, this is what happens on Purim as Jews sit around the table at the seudah, each one with their little secrets, unspoken dreams, hopes, ambitions, and ideas that live only inside them. And then, as happened in the Mishkon, they all burst forward and come alive.
Life happens on Purim, the Torah was received again by the Jewish people because of the great ahavah that existed between them.
This past Shabbos, we read the parsha of shekolim, because their collection is another indication that the Mishkon was meant to achieve a sense of shared purpose that defines the Jew.
Achdus is a current buzzword, often misused as a catchphrase to paint those of us who have standards and traditions, as haters. People who call out the falsifiers of the Torah are condemned for lacking achdus.
Achdus doesn’t mean an absence of rules. It doesn’t mean that anything goes. It means that everyone who beholds holiness has a unique role to play in the mosaic of Yiddishkeit. Achdus doesn’t mean that we let everyone get away with everything because to go after them would cause pirud. Essentially, the opposite is true. If someone engages in actions that cause others to mock us or that cause people to deviate from halacha, we are obligated to speak up. Doing so removes pirud caused by sin and chillul Hashem, and brings about real achdus.
Achdus means that we set aside our differences with other good Jews and we daven together, speak to each other, bury the hatchets, and celebrate together. It is then that our little sparks come together and create giant flames of kedusha. It can’t happen any other way.
The Mishkon, which was the epicenter of unity in the universe, came with severe restrictions. While everyone could contribute to its construction, there were many halachos regulating who could approach the Mishkon and who couldn’t, who could perform the avodah there and who couldn’t. Achdus comes with rules. It is not a free-for-all.
The pesukim at the beginning of Sefer Bamidbor (1:50) charge shevet Levi with assembling and dismantling the Mishkon and its keilim when the Bnei Yisroel traveled. Any outsider who attempted to do the coveted work specified for shevet Levi would be killed. There were also precise rules for each one of the keilim.
While detailing the laws of the Mishkon, the posuk says, “Vehayah haMishkon echad – And the Mishkon will be one.” The Ibn Ezra explains that the oneness of the structure reflects the oneness of Hashem’s creation. It reflects harmony and unity.
The Bnei Yisroel became one, coming together at Har Sinai and then at the Mishkon. The Shechinah in each person joined together at this special place, bringing back the Sinai experience, forming a home for the Shechinah in this world and a place where the voice of the Shechinah could converse with Moshe.
With the words of the Vilna Gaon as our guide, we can understand the oft-repeated lesson that achdus will lead to geulah. It’s not merely in the merit of unity. It is the synergistic effect of unity, when we camp around a place and allow the song within each of us to emerge, fusing with the melodies of others, that will lay the opening for the geulah.
Haman was well aware of the power Jews possess when they are together. As an Amalekite, he knew their secret. Seeing them divided, he thought that he would be able to overcome them, as he referred to them as a people who are “mefuzar umeforad.”
He didn’t succeed, because Esther advised Mordechai, “Leich kenos es kol haYehudim. Go and gather all the Jews. If they will be unified, we will be able to overcome this.” And we did.
We live in an era in which words are cheap. Hurling irresponsible accusations has become quite simple. The new president is closer to the Jewish people and Israel than any president ever was, yet his enemies have targeted him as an anti-Semite and the media has adopted that wild accusation as fact, as ridiculous as it is. Leftists who hate Israel, along with media stalwarts who never met a Jewish cause they like, promote this fiction, as they sell fear over rising anti-Semitism, they claim is caused by the president.
Over the ages, we have experienced real anti-Semitism. We have been tortured and killed by every method available to man. We have been kept out of cities, states and countries. We have been locked out of universities, trades and professions. We have been locked into ghettos. We should be smart enough not to fall prey to the fake stuff. We should be thankful to the president for his friendship to our people and to Israel. We should find ways to let him know that we appreciate the new relationship, a most welcome change from the previous administration and the indignities suffered at the hand of the Democrat Party. We should definitely not use him as an attention magnet and punching bag.
Megillas Esther is a guide in dealing with anti-Semitism and anti-Semites. “Leich kenos.” Seriously, why can’t we all just get along? Why do we act foolishly in public? Why do we squabble over nonsense? Why are we divided by trivial matters, for example it is no longer sufficient to wear a black yarmulke, now questions are asked whether it is made of velvet or terylene?
Why can’t we put the pettiness aside and become the great people we can be?
Imagine if we could gather together, in achdus, and harness the force of “leich kenos,” “terumah,” and “asher yidvenu libo.”
We could turn over the world.
After undergoing throat surgery one year ago, Rav Yaakov Edelstein could only communicate by writing. A few months ago, a speech therapist suggested that the rov could relearn how to speak, and he asked Rav Edelstein to write down two words with which they should begin.
The rov thought for a long moment. He was rebuilding his vocabulary. Which two words would be most useful?
Then he wrote down his decision.
Todah and amein.
Two words. One to acknowledge his family and talmidim, as well as the doctors, nurses and visitors who were so kind to him. The other word would connect him with Heaven and bind him to the Master of the World.
Essentially, those were the tools of the Mishkon and the tools that saved the Jewish people in Shushan.
The Machnovka Rebbe of Bnei Brak maintained the customs of his Chernobyler forbearers, except one. He sat in the front of his bais medrash facing the people, in contrast to Chassidic tradition, where the rebbe faces mizrach.
He explained that he had spent decades in virtual seclusion in Siberia. He said that while there, “There was nothing I craved as much as a connection with another Yid. I was literally starving for that. Now that Hakadosh Boruch Hu, in His great kindness, has allowed me to sit here, in Eretz Yisroel, in a chassidishe shtiebel, surrounded by Yidden, I cannot turn my face away from them.”
We learn in the parsha (26:20) that atop the Aron, which sat in the Mishkon, there were two small keruvim, cherubs, which faced each other, “peneihem ish el ochiv.” They faced each other, because although they were in the holiest place on earth, they signified that no matter how important we are, we should never lose sight of others.
The posuk says in Iyov (23:13), “Vehu b’echod umi yeshivenu.” The Vilna Gaon explains the cryptic words to mean that when Klal Yisroel is together b’achdus, the Shechinah rests among us.
The beauty of Adar is that we get to see each other in a good light. We unite to celebrate our great deliverance on Purim. We read Parshas Terumah as Adar arrives to remind us that to merit the return of the Mishkon and the Shechinah, we have to face each other with happiness, love and heart.
Let’s do it.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Respect & Self- Respect

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This week, in Parshas Mishpotim, we see the grandeur and glory of Matan Torah from Parshas Yisro segue into the practical details of the actual laws of the Torah. The two parshiyos are dependent upon each other. The incredible revelation at the mountain lives on through the Torah and these halachos, which are comprised of the rules and boundaries that govern everyday life.

There is an additional layer to the connection. It lies in the precise and perfect way these parshiyos discuss Matan Torah by informing us not only of the deliverance of the Ten Commandments, but also what preceded that world-changing occurrence.

The discussion of Matan Torah is preceded by the story of Yisro, father-in-law of Moshe. He came to join the Jewish people, and while he was with them, he dispensed advice to Moshe. The leader of the Jewish people treated Moshe’s heathen relative as a prince, imparting the lesson to all that “derech eretz kodmah laTorah.”

Prior to ascending to heaven to accept the Luchos, Moshe Rabbeinu served as a waiter at a meal that was held to honor his father-in-law. Part of his preparation for speaking to Hashem and delivering the Torah was to engage in acts portraying humility and respect for others to impart to Klal Yisroel that without them, we are not worthy of Torah.

Common decency and proper manners are prerequisites to Torah. A person who is not a mentch cannot be a student of Torah and lacks in his observance of the Torah’s teachings.

It’s interesting that in Lashon Kodesh, the language of reality, the trait of courteousness, or dignity, is referred to as derech eretz.

What does derech eretz really mean and why is it used in this context?

The Alter of Kelm states that it refers to the need for people to conform to what is socially acceptable and forego their wants for the benefit of the communal good of the land. This is the intention of Chazal who say (Kiddushin 40b), “Kol she’ein bo derech eretz eino min hayishuv - Whoever is lacking in the attribute of derech eretz is not a proper citizen.” The world is bigger and broader than any one of us. We have to adapt and develop ourselves to live in harmony with its demands.

Before we can receive the Torah as a nation and individually, we have to perfect our middos and conform with decency, respect and proper regard for the feelings of others. In our superficial world where people crave attention, feelings of others are sacrificed on the altar of instant gratification. We put people down with arrogance and spite, and give little thought to the effect of our spoken words, as long as they elicit laughs and provide a momentary jolt.

The Torah is replete with lessons of derech eretz, from early in Bereishis until the end of Devorim. We are all familiar, as well, with Pirkei Avos and Maseches Derech Eretz. And following the period of Chazal, all through the ages of the Gaonim, Rishonim and Acharonim, down to our day, the great people of Am Yisroel have always excelled in middos tovos, and written and spoken extensively about the way we should behave with each other and with members of the other nations of the world.

The Igeres HaRamban is a letter for the ages, in which the famed teacher of our nation writes to always speak gently and to be humble. He says to treat every person as if they are better than you and always conduct yourself as if you are before Hashem.

This is the way of a Torah Jew, in our day as well. Every time we address a person, it should be as if we care about that person and are mindful of their needs and feelings. Every casual comment reflects on us and our people. Someone who doesn’t treat people properly is engaging in chillul Hashem, the worst sin of all.

The Mesillas Yeshorim states that a person should always speak respectfully and not in an embarrassing fashion. He quotes the Gemara (Yoma 86a) which says that people should always address others in a calm tone.

Being a good Jew means not talking to people in a tactless, offensive manner.

It begins by training children at a young age to behave nicely, not to scream in the presence of older people, and to address others softly and with respect. If not properly educated, cute children grow to be overly aggressive loudmouths. It is only through care, devotion and love that children can be successfully guided not to be egocentric.

A parent who slackens in the responsibility to be mechaneich his children properly is guilty when the child misbehaves. Though we view the child as the one with aberrant behavior, we cannot expect any better from a young person who was never taught how to walk, talk and conduct himself in public.

Parshas Yisro introduces the receiving of the Aseres Hadibros with the account of Yisro’s arrival to teach us to treat people respectfully.

In Parshas Mishpotim, we learn that when asked by Moshe if they would accept the Torah, the Jewish people answered unanimously, “Na’aseh venishma. We will do and we will hear.”

There is extensive discussion regarding the enormity of the response, as the Jews agreed to observe the mitzvos before knowing what they were, stating first, “Na’aseh, we will do the will of Hashem,” and then, “Nishma, we will hear the laws.”

Perhaps we can explain the statement a little differently than it is commonly understood.

Maybe we can understand that what the Jews were really saying back then was “na’aseh,” we will do what it takes to prove ourselves worthy of the Torah, and na’aseh, we will become those people and prepare properly. Not only will we purify our bodies and our souls so that we can become higher, holier people, but we will improve our middos. We know that without proper derech eretz, we cannot merit the Torah.

Perhaps we can explain that the word “na’aseh hints to the first time that the word is used in the Torah. When He created man, Hashem said, “Na’aseh odom - Let us make man.” Although expressing Himself that way could hint to scoffers that Hashem required the help of others, it is written that way in the Torah as a lesson in derech eretz and how to speak to people. Be inclusive and kind. Make them feel part of what is happening without talking down to them.

Prior to accepting the Torah at Har Sinai, the people joined together with humility and proclaimed, “Na’aseh.” We will hearken back to the lesson learned from the first biblical use of the word. “Na’aseh.” We will be humble, kind and thoughtful. We will be a people of derech eretz. “Na’aseh.” We are committed to be the fine and holy “odom” Hashem intended for us to be when He proclaimed, “Na’aseh odom.” We will be human beings ready to be receptacles for the Torah’s light.

Masters of halacha and great talmidei chachomim embody that derech eretz, the innate respect needed to be a vessel for Torah. And we all can, as well.

Rav Chaim Vital famously asks why the Torah does not make any mention of the obligation to possess proper middos, fundamental as they are to serving Hashem. In his Sefer Sha’arei Kedusha, Rav Chaim explains that the Torah is only given to people with refined character. It is kodmah laTorah, a precondition to the Torah being received.

After Rav Reuven Grozovsky suffered a debilitating stroke, his talmidim took turns assisting him throughout the day. The bochurim would help him wash negel vasser, wrap tefillin on his arm and head, and hold his siddur.

The rosh yeshiva’s hands would occasionally shake, making the task difficult. One day, a bochur who had not previously been in the rotation had the zechus of being meshamesh the rosh yeshiva. The boy was quite nervous, and as Rav Reuven’s hand shook, the anxious boy poured out the contents of the negel vasser cup, completely missing the hands of the rosh yeshiva. Humiliated, the boy tried again. He was already so frantic that the water ended up on Rav Reuven’s bed and clothing.

The boy stopped and calmed himself before trying a third time, and he successfully washed Rav Reuven’s hands. He helped put the rosh yeshiva’s tefillin on for him and assisted him in saying the brachos. He was ready to leave when Rav Reuven called him over and thanked him, chatting with him for several moments.

Calmed and relieved, the bochur left. 

Later, he learned that the rosh yeshiva had never before spoken of mundane matters while wearing tefillin. Rav Reuven saw the bochur’s embarrassment and forfeited his own kabbolah to put the young man at ease.

Kavod for a talmid.

His meticulously observed custom was put aside in favor of derech eretz, which precedes Torah and is the backdrop for all of the Torah.

Not just gedolei Torah, but Torah personalities - machzikei Torah, lomdei Torah, those who revere the Torah - have always conducted themselves with the utmost derech eretz.

Reb Moshe Reichmann was a master of dignity and respect. When he entered a boardroom, associates would instinctively rise in deference and, as a construction worker commented after Reb Moshe’s passing, no one would use inappropriate language in his presence. It was unthinkable.

His role as a mechubad came because he was a mechabeid. He respected everyone and therefore everyone respected him.

A close friend and chavrusah remembered how one Shabbos afternoon, after completing their learning seder, they walked to shul for Mincha. As they entered the large bais medrash, they realized that the rov was in the middle of speaking and the regular Mincha minyan was taking place in a side room. The chavrusah slipped out. He soon noticed that Reb Moshe didn’t follow him to daven Mincha in the other room.

Later, Reb Moshe explained his reasoning. “I figured that I would be able to find a later minyan, and if not, I could daven by myself, because once my entrance was noticed, if I were to turn around and step out, that would have been disrespectful to the rov. So I stayed until he finished.”

Those who give respect get respect in return.

The Beirach Moshe of Satmar recounted that when he was a young man in Sighet, there was a fabulously wealthy shoemaker in town. A fine though simple person, no one in his family had any wealth. He didn’t inherit the money, and as a practicing shoemaker, there was no way that he was earning it from making and repairing shoes.

The future Satmar Rebbe waited for the appropriate time to ask the man his secret. It was a festive occasion when he asked him about the source of his wealth.

The shoemaker began his tale: “It was your grandfather, the Atzei Chaim, the rov of this city, who blessed me. I’ll tell you the story.

“The rebbe needed a pair of shoes and his gabbai came to my shop, providing me with the measurements of the rebbe’s feet and ordering a pair of shoes. A few days later, the gabbai returned and demanded the shoes. I told him that I was working on them, but they were not yet finished. I asked him to return in a few days.

“For some reason, he was very insistent. He said that he needs the shoes right then and that I must give them to him. I did as he asked and gave him the shoes. He paid me and left.

“The gabbai ran to the rebbe and presented them to him. The footwear looked complete, so neither the rebbe nor the gabbai examined them carefully enough to note that a nail had not yet been removed from one of the shoes.

“When the rebbe put on the shoe, that nail cut into his foot. He began to experience pain and bled profusely.

“When I came to shul, the rebbe called me over to a private corner and rebuked me for not finishing the job and for giving him a shoe with a nail in it. He asked me to be more careful in the future because poor workmanship can cause pain and wounds.

“He was the rov and I was a simple shoemaker, so I knew my place and would never argue with him. I held my head low and accepted his words in silence.

“When the rebbe left to return home, the gabbai came clean and told the rebbe what really happened. He accepted the blame upon himself. The rebbe was crestfallen.

“I was sitting in my humble shop in my work clothes fixing a shoe. I looked up, and there, in front of me, was the rebbe. The holy rebbe was at my table. He was weeping. He couldn’t stop crying. He begged me for forgiveness. I also began crying.

“I didn’t answer him when he spoke me that morning in shul, but believe me, I was hurt. I was so hurt. I began to cry uncontrollably when reminded of what happened.

“So there was the rebbe, begging me to forgive him, saying, ‘Zeitz moichel,’ again and again, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bring myself to get over the thought that I had been careless.

“Finally, the rebbe said, ‘The Hungarian state lottery is taking place this week. Go buy a ticket. That will be payment for my having thought ill of you.’

“With that, I was able to forgive him. I told him that I was moichel him b’lev sholeim and he left. I ran across the street and bought a ticket. Now you know how I became wealthy.”

The derech eretz of a poor, simple shoemaker earned him riches he could never dream of. His manners, his decency and his humility made him worthy of blessing.

We don’t behave the way we do in order to earn the respect of others or to win lotteries. We act that way because we are bnei and bnos Torah. We don’t just look at the here and now. We don’t put ourselves in positions we don’t belong. And we don’t speak rashly or impetuously for fleeting enjoyment or attention.

We recognize our place. We are humble, refined, honest and generous. We endeavor to act in a way that brings honor to us and our people. We seek to always be mekadshei Hashem and to never cause a chillul Hashem.

The Jewish people recognizable by their mercy, self-effacement and the help they render to others, as Chazal (Yevamos 79a – see also Bamidbor Rabba 8) state, “Shlosha simonim yesh b’umah zu, harachmanim, v’habaishonin vgomlei chasodim.”

Reb Yossi Cohen, a talmid of Bais Medrash Elyon, became a successful businessman. He and his wife were once leaving a wedding when they noticed Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky getting his coat. They offered him a ride.

The rosh yeshiva considered it and then asked to see their car. It was a large, luxurious vehicle, and Rav Yaakov peered inside, as if inspecting it, before accepting the offer.

It seemed strange.

Reb Yossi, a talmid chochom and yorei Shomayim, asked the rosh yeshiva for an explanation.

“I realized,” Rav Yaakov said, “that your wife would be sitting in the back if I came along. I wanted to make sure that it is spacious back there and that she won’t be uncomfortable or cramped because of me.”

Respect for a talmid chochom, who returned that very respect.

Proper respect - kavod - is the underpinning of the nation of the Torah. The central theme of the world is “kulo omer kavod,” to reflect the dignity and majesty of the creation. By emulating the middos of Hashem, giving kavod, living with self-respect, and speaking with respect, we raise all of creation.

The smallest Jewish child, regardless of how little he has learned, instinctively feels discomfort when a sefer falls and hurries to give it a kiss. A Torah Jew notices shaimos on the floor and feels a stab of pain.

It is the innate respect that precedes the Torah, the knowledge that more than information, these letters are the means of bringing honor and goodness to ourselves and the world, so we cherish and honor those tiny slips of paper from precious seforim.

We all know the story of the man who told Hillel that he wanted to convert but wishes to hear all of Torah while standing on one leg (Shabbos 31a). Hillel responded with a few, precise words. He said, “D’alach sani lechavroch lo sa’avidve’idach peirusha. Zil gemor. Don’t do to your friend that which is despised by you. The rest is commentary. Go and learn.”

Can it be that Hillel summed up the entirety of Torah in a few pithy words? Perhaps what he was telling the man was that if he was seriously interested in studying and observing Torah, he needed to act as the Jews at Har Sinai did and prepare himself to be ready for the Torah. Na’aseh. He should accept upon himself the obligations of derech eretz. When you have done that, the Torah becomes relevant to you, nishma.

Rid yourself of hate and acrimony. Speak nicely and softly, and put down the stick. Feel for others. Think about the consequences of your words and actions. “V’idach peirusha,” the rest is commentary. Internalize becoming a mentch, a person worthy of Torah, so that we can study its holy words.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Remembering My Grandfather, Rav Eliezer Levin zt”l

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The Imrei Emes of Ger and the Chofetz Chaim were traveling on the same train. At one of the stops, a resourceful Gerrer chossid found his way on to the train and pushed his young son towards the rebbe, hoping he would give the child a brocha.

The rebbe told the chossid that the Chofetz Chaim was on the same train and it would be advisable to seek his brocha. The chossid followed the advice of his rebbe and approached the Chofetz Chaim for a brocha. He, in turn, suggested that they try to get a brocha from the Gerrer Rebbe.

“The rebbe told us to come here,” the chossid said, so the Choftez Chaim agreed.

“Tell me yingele, what are you learning?” the Chofetz Chaim asked the child.

“We are learning the Gemara in Bava Basra 31a, which discusses the topic of ‘zeh omer shel avoisai v’zeh omer shel avoisai,’” the boy replied. The Gemara discusses how to adjudicate a case where each litigant claims that he inherited a particular field from his father.

The Chofetz Chaim smiled and said, “Young man, if you will stick with that sugya (topic) your whole life, you will be blessed.

In fact, that is the sugya of every Jew at all times. “Zeh omer shel avoisai.” We seek to follow the ways of our forefathers. Last week, we chanted the words found in Oz Yoshir, “We declare our loyalty to Hashem, the G-d of our fathers, Elokei ovi va’aromemenhu.” Rashi explains, “Lo ani techilas hakedusha - This belief didn’t begin with us.” We are links in a chain; holding on to what was transferred to us and endeavoring to transmit it to those who follow us.

A person is blessed and fortunate when a father or grandfather shapes him and connects him to the golden chain that stretches back through the ages.

Last Friday was the 25th yahrtzeit of my zaide, Rav Eliezer Levin. A quarter century has passed since I spoke with that great man.

He was known as the beloved rov of Detroit, an elder statesman of the rabbinic world and a revered talmid chochom. He was appreciated for his dignity and perfect conduct, as a mechunach of the great Talmud Torah of Kelm and a ben bayis in the home of the Chofetz Chaim.

But to me, he was zaidy. My warm, loving, gentle, wise grandfather. Our encounters, going back to when I was a small child, shaped me. All the moments and conversations throughout the many blessed years reverberate in my head and are on constant replay in my heart.

By watching him, I could see the paragon of the many lessons we were taught, such as those concerning emunah, tefillah, simcha, dikduk b’halacha and princely middos. I had many great rabbeim over the years, and for me he seemed to be the role model for every message they preached.

Truth endures.

Twenty-five years later, the exactness and precision of his actions and words live on because they were perfect and true.

Rav Elchonon Wasserman would leave his yeshiva and talmidim in Baranovitch each year for the duration of the month of Elul to spend that time with his own rebbi, the Chofetz Chaim, in Radin.

After the Chofetz Chaim’s passing, Rav Elchonon began to travel to the yeshiva in Kelm for the Yomim Noraim. The Sefer Zikaron Bais Kelm recounts that when asked why he left the yeshiva and headed to Kelm, he would respond that he had a kabbolah from the Chofetz Chaim that the gates of tefillah were in Kelm.

Why was that?

One year in Kelm on Rosh Hashanah, the baal tefilla was chanting the words of “Vetaheir libeinu l’ovdecha be’emes - Purify our hearts to serve you with truth.” The chazzan began to cry as he said “lovdecha be’emes,” unable to complete the word “l’ovdecha.” There was great emotion as the chazzan sobbed, hoping that the kehillah might merit serving Hashem.

After davening, the Alter, in a succinct reminder about the value system in Kelm, told the chazzan, “You would do better to cry by ‘b’emes.’”

Kelm lived on in my zaide. He lived b’emes. His Torah, avodah, bitachon and middos were all layered with, and guided by truth.

When the great baal mussar Rav Leib Chasman was a still bochur in Kelm, the local esrog merchant showed him a magnificent esrog. The next day, the seller tracked him down to tell him that he had found a nicer esrog than the one he showed him the day before.

The merchant was shocked when the bochur said that he would buy the one he had seen first.

He explained that the day before, he had decided to purchase the first esrog, “so while there is a hiddur mitzvah to buy the nicer esrog, I decided to fulfill the hiddur mitzvah of ‘vedover emes bilvavo.’”

He treasured not only spoken words, but those unspoken as well.

My grandfather’s history is unique. There were those who came to America and embodied the glory of what was. Others had never seen the authenticity of the European yeshiva world, but were effective as American rabbonim. Not too many could do both, serving as relics of one world and then managing to become relevant and impactful rabbonim in a new one.

That was my zaide. He saw the world he knew b’churbano and then presided over the binyan in a new world.

He faced personal tragedy and loss, yet found strength to persevere. He lost so many people, yet found new ones, connecting to all sorts of Jews, influencing those who came from backgrounds so different than his own.

How did he do it?

The answer can be summed up in a single word.


The Alter of Kelm taught his talmidim that for a person to succeed in life without getting hurt, it is necessary to possess the attributes of menuchas hanefesh, a sense of serenity and calm, as well as gevurah, inner strength and fortitude.

Rav Levin embodied that lesson. He possessed incredible calm and incredible might.

Born in a tiny shtetel named Hanisheeshuk, in Lita, where his father served as rov, as a young boy he left home to learn in yeshiva. He learned for seven years in the Chofetz Chaim’s yeshiva in Radin and for seven years in the yeshiva of Kelm. He received semicha from the heads of the Kelmer Talmud Torah, Rav Doniel Movoshovitz and Rav Gershon Miadnik, as well as from the rov of Kelm, Rav Kalman Beinishevitz. He was a rebbi in the high-school-level yeshiva that Rav Elya Lopian founded in Kelm, and upon the passing of his father-in-law, Rav Avrohom Hoffenberg, he left to assume a rabbinic position as rov of Vashki.

Rav Levin very rarely spoke about himself. He would never discuss the “alter heim,” like many other people did. Either it was in keeping with the posuk in Koheles that it is not wise to say that the days that passed were better ones or because remembering the past was simply too painful.

I once asked him why he never spoke about Lita. At the time, I thought that perhaps it was too painful to recall all his friends and family members who perished, or that perhaps he found it difficult to think of the life that might have been. He simply explained that he didn’t think it was wise to speak about it, since I would never be able to relate to what he had to say.

That was strange. He never put people down. I never heard him speak ill of anyone. I realized that he didn’t mean it as an insult, but a statement. One who exists on a diet of chips and soda cannot appreciate a fine cut of meat, and one who is color-blind won’t be moved by sophisticated art. “You, an American young man,” he was telling me, “can never really understand, so what is the point of speaking?” Speech, to him, was serious. It was a tool used to make an impact, not merely to pass time or get attention. He didn’t see the point.

But I was brazen that day, so I asked him two questions about his primary rabbeim. I said, “Zaidy, tell me, what was Rav Doniel like?”

I was referring to Rav Doniel Movoshovitz, his rosh yeshiva while in Kelm.

He answered me in six words: “Reb Doniel iz geven ah malach. He didn’t relate any stories. No tales, no Torahs, no shmuessen. He didn’t look me in the eye as was generally his habit when addressing someone. We were sitting in his study. He looked down at his well-worn desk. I still remember it like today. “Ehr iz geven ah malach, he repeated.

Potent words. Perhaps he wasn’t sure I could handle them.

Years later, I understood why he looked down while divulging this, why a look of awe crossed his face.

Many years later, I read a story about Rav Doniel and understood what my grandfather meant and why he considered his rebbi a malach. The book, which recounts heroic tales of the Holocaust, described the scene when the Nazis came to Kelm and the Yidden knew their end was near. They were being rounded up and marched out to their certain deaths. Rav Doniel asked for permission to return home one last time to take care of something. Permission was granted. He went home, brushed his teeth, and then returned to the lineup.

Calmly and softly, Rav Doniel explained that the community was now going to be offered as korbanos tzibbur. A korban tzibbur is described as bearing a rei’ach nicho’ach, a pleasant smell. “I want to be sure that as a korban, I will have that rei’ach nicho’ach, so I went home to brush my teeth,” said Rav Doniel.

No tears. No extraneous emotion. Just what was required of him to be the perfect korban tzibbur. Is that man not a malach? Is there a way to explain this to an American twenty-something who never knew real deprivation? How can one even fathom the gevurah and kedushah, the perfect self-control and focus that this act required?

Rav Doniel Movoshovitz, Rav Gershon Miadnik and Rav Kalman Beinishevitz led the talmidei hayeshiva and residents of Kelm in the singing of Adon Olam and ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu as they returned their holy souls to their Maker.

That was my grandfather’s rebbi. That was the world in which he lived. He was on a different plane than the rest of us, though he made sure that wasn’t obvious.

This brings us to the second half of that conversation, which lasted about five minutes but remains seared in my memory.

I asked him what the Chofetz Chaim looked like. I meant to ask if he looked like the famous picture of him or not. Rav Levin didn’t understand what I was asking. Again, he looked down at his desk and said, in Yiddish, that the Chofetz Chaim looked like a poshuter Yid. “If you didn’t know who he was, you thought he was a simple person. Az men hut nit gevust, hut men gornit gezen. If you didn’t know, you didn’t see anything. Uber az men hut gevust, hut men altz gezen. But if you knew who he was, then you saw everything,” my zaide reflected.

If you knew you were looking at the Chofetz Chaim, and you watched him carefully, you could see in his every move that he was a very holy person.

The sacredness and splendor of perfect pashtus.

I never did get the answer to my question about the picture that day, but I got a much clearer appreciation for the Chofetz Chaim and for his talmid, my zaide. Like his rebbi, my zaide never made a big deal out of himself, but when you watched him, you saw that every move, every action and every word was calculated and al pi Shulchan Aruch and the teachings of mussar. He followed the paths paved by his rabbeim, never deviating. He lived a life of Radin and Kelm, without talking about it, without making an issue of it. When you watched him, you got a glimpse of the greatness that was.

I never saw him grow angry. I never heard him raise his voice at people who acted improperly or at us children, running around his house and study. He radiated an unnatural tranquility and calm, never flustered, never rushed, always on time, and always in perfect control of himself.

It was incredible to observe. How could a person be so in control of himself? How could a person never be nervous, never be angry, never be pressured? Things happen. People upset you. How could one possess such perfection of character?

Rav Levin didn’t drive. He depended on people to pick him up and take him to where he had to go. He never knew if people would be on time, and if they were late, he never got fidgety as he waited for them to show up. His patience and calmness were extraordinary.

So I asked him, “Zaidy, please tell me the secret of how you always stay so calm. How do you do it?”

He looked at me and smiled.

“Pinchos’l,” he said, “vos ken ich eich zogen. Every boy who came to Kelm was examined by the Alter and the people who came after him and given a middah, a trait, that he was to work on during his period in the Kelm Yeshiva. Mein middah iz geven savlonus. To me, they gave the trait of savlonus, remaining calm. Ziben yohr hob ich ge’arbet oif der middah. Du meinst ich ken dos ibergeben tzu eich azoi? I worked on this middah for seven years, during my entire time in Kelm.”

Working seven years on a middah. Imagine how improved our lives would be if we had that type of discipline.

If you looked at Rav Levin, he appeared like a sweet old man who wasn’t in a rush, but if you knew that for seven years in Kelm he worked on the middah of savlonus, then every time you watched him, every time you went somewhere with him, and every time you observed him interact with other people, you saw his greatness, as well as the greatness of Kelm and the middah of savlonus.

Breslover chassidus teaches that while the word “savlonus” means patience, Chazal also use that word when referring to gifts, such as when they discuss “sivlonos” given by a chosson to his kallah. A person who is a savlan can accept people, situations and ideas that are different from his own. He thus has the greatest gift of all and can fully enjoy life.

As a bochur in Radin, Rav Levin learned with the Chofetz Chaim’s son, Aharon. As payment, he was provided room and board in the home of the Chofetz Chaim. That must have been something. But what I find even greater is that he never spoke about it. He never said, “Do you know who I am? Do you know how great I am? Who are you to tell me anything? When I was a bochur, I stayed in the Chofetz Chaim’s house for a year and a half.”

Az men hut nit gevust, hut men gornit gezen. Uber az men hut gevust, hut men altz gezen.

That was him. That was how he lived his life. And that was why he was so successful and respected and able to accomplish so much.

It was also what saved his life. His history is the greatest testimony to the fact that savlonus, middos and calmness are gifts, the greatest segulah of all.

His American relatives literally forced him to leave Lithuania and come to America. He told them that he would come for one year on a trial basis. His kind relatives, who feared for his life and the lives of his family, arranged a rabbinic position for him in Erie, PA. Needless to say, Erie was no match for his hometown of Vashki. Despite the winds of war that were blowing, he let the relatives know that he was going back home. Erie wasn’t for him and he surely wasn’t about to bring his family there and watch them die a spiritual death.

Rav Levin allowed a colleague to hold his position in Vashki while he was away so that he could gain experience and have something to show on his résumé that would help him obtain a rabbinic position in a different town. However, when Rav Levin wrote to his friend that he was returning to Vashki and would be reassuming the position, the man was devastated. He said that he would never get another job and pleaded with Rav Levin to let him remain in the position of rov of Vashki. “You are more experienced and better qualified, and you will be able to obtain a position in a different town. I won’t. Please permit me to stay here,” the man wrote.

Although it had been his father-in-law’s position and he had occupied it for a number of years, Rav Levin didn’t have the heart to unseat the man from the job. He tried to obtain a position by writing friends and contacts, but as can be imagined, that proved unfruitful. Meanwhile, his American relatives secured for him a rabbinic position in Detroit, which was a definite step up from Erie. With his choices drying up, he moved to Detroit and sent for his family.

With their meager possessions and several of Rav Levin’s seforim along with kisvei yad of his father-in-law, the family set sail on one of the last boats leaving Europe before the war broke out. They arrived in the United States just ahead of the destruction of Lithuania. That rov and the entire Jewish population of Vashki were wiped out. No one survived. Hashem yikom domom. 

It wasn’t easy in Detroit. There were 32 rabbonim in the city at that time and they weren’t happy with Rav Levin. He was what they called “ah greener. They said, “Vos darf men huben noch a rov? Nisht nor dem, ehr iz a greener, noch tzu der tzu. They were unwelcoming of the recent immigrant.

Though he never bragged, he would say, “Fun zei alleh iz gornit gebliben. Es iz nit gebliben kein zeicher. All those rabbis who fought against me were not able to hold on to their children. I was the only one, because I sent my son away to learn in Telz.”

He lost everything and everyone he held dear in the war. He had three daughters and one son. His pride and joy. Yet, he sent his son away to learn in Cleveland. Can you imagine how much strength that required? A lot more than most people had at that time. Yet, he knew that the only way he could hold on to that son was by sending him away, seeing him just a couple of times a year.

Years later, when that one son, my uncle, Rav Avrohom Chaim Levin, was a respected rosh yeshiva, my zaide was vacationing at Camp Agudah Midwest. My uncle was asked to deliver a Daf Yomi shiur to Chicagoans who were vacationing there. Before the shiur, the camp director noticed the elderly rov approaching. “Where is the Daf Yomi shiur to take place?” Rav Leizer asked the director.

Assuming that the rov, with his refined nature and noble spirit, felt obligated to attend so as to not embarrass his co-vacationers, the director assured Rav Levin that he should not feel obligated to join and that it was a simple, basic shiur.

Rav Levin looked at him. “Do you think I would miss an opportunity to hear my son teach a blatt Gemara?” he asked in surprise.

His son was and is a prominent rosh yeshiva, mechaneich and leader, but to Rav Levin there was nothing simple, basic or taken for granted. He would not forgo the simple Jewish joy of a father hearing his son teach a blatt Gemara.

He was quiet and determined, and he possessed an iron will and super-human spiritual strength, typical of Litvaks. But he wasn’t the stereotypical Litvak, thought to be cold, unemotional and most comfortable with his own kind. Whenever someone repeats that stereotype to me, I tell them that they didn’t know my zaide. He was warm and tolerant, and he wasn’t a Litvak because he learned in a yeshiva named after a Lithuanian town. He was a real Litvak. He was born there. He was raised there. He went to yeshiva there. He was a rov there. And he embodied the greatness of Lithuanian Jewry.

He was full of love for all types of Jews. He was warm and caring.

I wear an atorah on my tallis. It was inherited from my grandfather. His second wife was the daughter of a chassidishe rebbe, and when they married, she gave him a tallis with an atorah as a gift. She probably didn’t know that Litvkas don’t wear a silver atorah. So as to not hurt her feelings, for the rest of his life he wore the atorah.

Every Shabbos, when I put on my tallis, I am reminded of that lesson.

Peace. Generosity. Refinement. Savlonus.

Savlonus not just for ideas and situations, but the hardest type of all: he was able to be sovel other people. He wasn’t negative. He wasn’t cynical. He didn’t ostracize people who had different beliefs than he did. He didn’t look down with disdain upon people who weren’t brought up the way he was. He could sit with simple Jews and talk to them and make them feel that he had all the time in the world and the only thing he wanted to do was sit and farbreng with them. He could maintain friendly relations with people who had entirely different theologies than he did. He treated everyone with respect.

A local kosher butcher was found to be engaging in actions that required the Vaad Harabbonim to remove their hechsher from his establishment. The butcher was summoned to a meeting of the rabbonim. While there, he began to scream at the rabbis, cursing and threatening them. The rabbis looked to the yoshev rosh, Rav Levin, waiting for him to respond. Yet, he just sat there, quietly absorbing the man’s abuse.

He turned to Rav Shmuel Irons, rosh kollel of the Detroit Kollel, who was sitting next to him, and said very softly in Yiddish, “Ich hub a klal. I have a rule: The vulture should be satiated, uber der shepsel zol leben, but the sheep should live.”

Der vultur iz gevorin zat. The vulture was finally satiated and ended his tirade. The Vaad Harabbonim removed their hechsher. A few weeks later, the store closed down. Der shepsel hut gelebt.

It’s not that he didn’t know how to be tough when necessary. It was that his eyes always remained focused on the goal, without the involvement of personal ego and other considerations.  A different time, a butcher was caught lying to his mashgiach and Rav Levin felt that this was egregious enough for the rabbinic group to remove their hechsher from his shop.

A meeting was called at the Vaad Harabbonim of Detroit to discuss the misbehavior. Some of the attendees expressed pity for the butcher and wondered how he would support his family if the hechsher were removed.

Rav Levin banged on the table and said, “We are here to discuss his transgression. Someone who did what he did cannot have a hechsher. Today, we are here to talk about kashrus. If he needs help with parnossah, we can discuss that tomorrow. But first we must ensure that people will not eat non-kosher meat because of him.”

That same strength of purpose found him facing a gun one day. While administering a get, the husband jumped up and pulled out a gun, aiming to shoot his wife. Everyone froze, except for Rav Levin, who stood up and got between husband and wife. “The bullet will have to go through me,” he said to the husband. Calmly, he talked the man out of it and took the gun and buried it in his backyard.

He had such a love for mitzvos. Shabbos was so special to him. He was never late for Shabbos. He would sit in his study, all ready, hunched over a sefer, ready to welcome Shabbos. He would spend Friday afternoon preparing for the “groiseh gast” who was about to arrive. He would grate the liver, slice the meat, and make sure everything was just so. Lekavod Shabbos, he would water the plants. Several times, I saw him pouring tea into the planters. I asked him, “Zaidy, what are doing?” He looked at me, with all seriousness - with a look on his face like, “What don’t you understand? - and he said, “Ich geb zei tei lekavod Shabbos.”

The poetry! A Litvishe Yid welcoming Shabbos, bringing all of creation along with him to face the great day.

And Yom Tov was even more special. He would love to decorate the sukkah. He would pick out the decorations to hang. As he handed them to the grandchild who was there that year, he would say, “Lesheim mitzvas sukkah. And when Sukkos arrived, there was nothing that could stop him from running into the sukkah to make Kiddush and eat the meal lekavod Yom Tov.

After the meal, he would sing songs about the Ushpizin and dance. There was so much kedushah in his little blue and gold canvas sukkah. In fact, one of the grandchildren who spent Sukkos with him one year told me that he thought he sensed the Ushpizin in the sukkah. The ainikel said that there was so much kedushah, he couldn’t handle it and he ran out of the sukkah.

As much as he loved being in his sukkah, the next morning, after davening, at a Kiddush in the shul sukkah, he would sit and talk with the Yiddelach who didn’t have their own sukkah. He lingered with them to try to give them a geshmak in the mitzvah, so that they could be mekayeim mitzvas sukkah.

To be a leader, you have to be loved and respected. He was. You have to love and respect people. He did. You have to care about people. He did. They have to care about you. They did. You have to be able to not only speak to people, but to connect with them. He did. At age 85, as he aged, the shul’s membership was changing. The older people were moving on and younger people were moving in, so he stopped speaking in Yiddish and spoke in English. He wanted to impact people. He wanted to uplift them. He wanted to improve them. He wanted to be sure that they could follow him. And they did.

The Chofetz Chaim gave my grandfather a four-word mandate: gei redd mit Yidden. Go speak to Jews.

It was a mission statement that would encompass his avodah, using his learning, warmth and aristocratic personality to influence, uplift and inspire others.

I don’t remember what prompted him to repeat the story, but one evening, Rabbi Shea Fishman and I sat in his Detroit kitchen and he shared the Chofetz Chaim’s directive to him: “Gei redd mit Yidden.” It was the first time I’d ever heard it. It was clearly something that he’d kept private. The moment he shared it, Rabbi Fishman and I looked at each other and said, “It was worth coming to Detroit just to hear that.” Rabbi Fishman repeated the story in one of his speeches at a Torah Umesorah convention. The story was written up and it became a classic. It so defined Rav Levin and his mission in life.

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Yisro, the posuk states, “Vayikach Yisro…es Tziporah…ve’eis shnei voneha, asher sheim ho’echod Gershom, ki omar ger hayisi b’eretz nochriyah. Vesheim ho’echod Eliezer, ki Elokei ovi be’ezri vayatzileini meicherev Paroh.” 

The Torah tells us that Yisro took his daughter, Moshe Rabbeinu’s wife Tziporah, and their two children, Gershom and Eliezer, and left Midyan for Mitzrayim. Why does the Torah repeat the reasons that they were given their names? When the Torah tells us of their birth, it relates to us why Moshe gave them those names. What is the significance of repeating that now?

Perhaps we can answer as follows. We are all familiar with the Medrash in Parshas Emor (32:5) that states that one of the reasons the Jews were redeemed from Mitzrayim is because lo shinu es shemom.” One of the primary merits in which the Jews were redeemed from Mitzrayim was the fact that they didn’t change their names.

The idea that not changing their names was such a meritorious practice that it merited their redemption bears explanation. My understanding is that a person’s name hints to their abilities and shlichus in this world. When the Medrash teaches that the Jews in Mitzrayim didn’t change their names, it means that they didn’t betray their shlichus and missions.

They could have said that being enslaved in a foreign land precluded them from being expected to realize their potential. They could have blamed their situation for failing to accomplish much. We are so different, we don’t speak the language, we stand out, and we are mocked and vilified by many. Who can expect anything from us? Thus, the Medrash teaches that they kept to their missions and did what was expected of them despite the many challenges they had to overcome.

When the Torah states that Yisro and Tziporah were going from Midyan to Mitzrayim, it relates that Moshe Rabbeinu’s sons were also not negligent in their shlichus. Although they were brought up in Midyan, without the presence of their father, they remained loyal to the missions he charged them with when he named them. There the Torah repeats not only their names, but also the reasoning for those names.

Vesheim ho’echod Eliezer, ki Elokei ovi be’ezri vayatzileini meicherev Paroh. We can say the same of Rav Eliezer Levin. He never forgot where he came from. He never forgot his mission in life and never betrayed it. He always carried within his soul the message of “ki Elokei ovi be’ezri vayatzileini meicherev Paroh.”

Hashem helped him and saved him from the sword that devastated everyone and everything he had known. And although he arrived in a strange country with a different language and different customs, he stayed the same “Eliezer” in Hanisheeshuk, in Radin, in Kelm, in Vashki and in Detroit until his last day on this earth.

Rav Levin’s rebbi, Rav Doniel, once asked, “Is man jealous of the wings of an eagle?” As the question sunk in, he responded, “No. Man is not jealous of wings. In fact, if a person would grow wings, he would be a baal mum; there would be something aberrant about him.” Wings belong on birds, not on people. “The same,” Reb Doniel explained, “would be the case if a person receives anything that which he is jealous of. He would also become a baal mum. If he really needed that which he covets, Hashem would provide it for him. Since he doesn’t have it, that is a sign that he doesn’t need it. Everything extra is a mum.”

Imagine if we lived like that. Imagine if we had the strength and belief to live that way. We would be so much happier and calmer. That is the life of a Kelmer, of a baal mussar, of a ben Torah. We learn Torah. We devote our lives to Torah. We have to work to see that it makes a stronger impression on us.

Rav Yecheskel Levenstein would say that the Alter of Kelm was very critical of people who were stubborn and he would seek to cause talmidim who possessed that attribute to leave the yeshiva, even if they excelled in learning. He would say that in order for a person to be helped and guided to achieve greatness, he must be able to accept what others tell him.

Let us seek to be accepting and acquire the ability to learn from other people so that we may grow and excel, in Torah, in mentchlichkeit and in all that we do.

My uncle, Rabbi Berel Wein, often reflects on the fact that when my grandfather, his father-in-law, was niftar, along with the hespeidim in yeshivos and shuls, there was an obituary in the Detroit Free Press. There, they mourned the leading light of the rabbinate. Somehow, this product of Kelm and Radin had come to an inhospitable climate, unwanted by local rabbonim, and emerged as their leader.

Because he listened to his rebbi and spent his life speaking to Yidden.

Talking to Yidden requires you to be someone they want to hear from. It means that you have to live in a way that reflects your message. It means loving Yidden. It means taking the time to know the language of each heart.

It was the wisest advice of all and my zaide fulfilled it until his last day. I miss him.