Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Let Us Sing

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Yetzias Mitzrayim and Krias Yam Suf are bedrocks of our faith. Locked in with no way out, the Jews were miraculously freed from slavery. Subsequently, as they stood at the Yam Suf, they were once again locked in with no way to proceed. Their tormentors were behind them and a large impassable body of water lay in front of them. In each situation, they required deep levels of faith in order to be redeemed.

Hashem sent Moshe to speak to Paroh on behalf of the Jewish people, seeking their freedom. However, instead of the meeting leading to anything fruitful, Jewish suffering worsened. There was reason to believe that by following the word of Hashem, Moshe had made things worse. It required a great degree of faith for the Jewish people to continue to believe that Hashem would free them. They maintained their faith and therefore were freed.

However, once again, it seemed that by following Hashem, they faced ruin. Hashem told Moshe to lead the people to Pi Hachiros, between Migdol and the Red Sea. Paroh chased after them and found them encamped at the sea. The people feared and cried out to Moshe and Hashem. Moshe responded that they should remain silent and Hashem would fight for them.

The water was not yet split and Hashem told Moshe to tell the people to travel on. Even though the command made no sense, with the sea in front of them they placed their faith in Hashem and proceeded to march into the water. Due to their emunah and zechus avos, the water split for them and they walked on dry land (Rashi 14:15).

Because they acted solely based on emunah and bitachon, without thinking about whether it made sense or not, they were freed. In fact, Hashem told them to act in such a manner to teach the Jewish people that, as Rav Chaim Soloveitchik taught, emunah and bitachon begin where intelligence ends. Many times, things don’t necessarily make sense, but that should not cause us to lose faith and lose hope. We believe that if we follow the word of Hashem, we will not fail.

Chazal teach that at the splitting of the sea, simple maids merited perceiving Divine splendor and glory in a way that surpassed the visions of even the greatest prophets. We wonder what it was that they saw. Were the Jews at Krias Yam Suf the only people to appreciate the magnitude of miracles? Surely not. Was the sight of a mighty sea splitting the greatest supernatural experience?

The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 23:3) sheds light on the vision apparent at the splitting of the sea. The Medrash concentrates on the word “oz,” which opens the eternal song of the shirah. Chazal say that Moshe Rabbeinu had previously sinned by uttering the word “oz” in a complaint against Hashem. “Be’oz chotoh,” with “oz” he sinned, “ube’oz tikkein,” and with “oz” it was rectified.

Moshe Rabbeinu erred by asking Hashem why it was necessary to increase the suffering of the Bnei Yisroel. Hashem appeared to Moshe and told him that He heard the cries of the enslaved Jewish people. He would free them from oppression and take them to the Promised Land. Hashem instructed the reluctant Moshe to appear before Paroh and ask him to permit the Jews a brief respite to worship Hashem in the desert. Unreceptive to the request, Paroh tightened the pressure on the poor slaves. Moshe registered his complaint to Hashem, saying, “Umei’oz bosi el Paroh ledaber biShmecha heira la’am hazeh vehatzeil lo hitzalta es amecha - Since I spoke in Your Name to Paroh, he has worsened the way he treats the people and You have not rescued them” (Shemos 5:23).

Moshe’s ode of repentance is apparent in this week’s song, “Oz yoshir Moshe uvnei Yisroel.” The opening word “oz” is the very term with which he sinned.

There is something that bears explanation. Moshe erred when he used the word oz to complain about the situation facing the Jews. He did not use that word in the actual shirah. What, then, does the Medrash mean when it says that Moshe sinned with “oz” and repented with “oz,” when that word is not part of the song?

We may be able to understand the depth of the connection by observing that when the Jewish suffering seemed too much to bear, Hashem appeared to Moshe and told him that the oppression would soon end. Yet, when Moshe followed Hashem’s instructions and spoke to Paroh, the workload was increased. It seemed to Moshe that appealing to Paroh for better treatment was a bad idea that backfired.

In time, however, it became clear that the increase in work was a means of advancing the redemption, for it allowed the Bnei Yisroel to be redeemed 190 years earlier than originally prophesized. The harshness of servitude caused their freedom to come sooner.

Even great nevi’im, who feel Hashem’s mastery over the cosmos, don’t merit seeing both parts of the story, the beginning and the end, come together the way the humble maids did as the Jewish nation was born as a free people at the yam.

It was the specific factor about which Moshe had complained that was the catalyst of the redemption. At the sea, as he witnessed his oppressors washing up dead on the shore and saw the mighty Egyptian army reduced to corpses, Moshe understood it.

On the shore of the Yam Suf, as geulim, Moshe and the Bnei Yisroel perceived the perfect symmetry of the Divine plan as they saw everything they had been promised come to fruition. It was then that they sang the shirah.

The root of the word shirah is shir. The Mishnah in Maseches Shabbos that lists the accessories that an animal may carry outside on Shabbos includes a shir, a round ring worn around the neck of the animal.

Rav Moshe Shapiro explained that shir is a circle. He said that at the moment they sang shirah, Moshe and the Bnei Yisroel perceived the perfect harmony of creation, how there is a beginning, middle and end to everything. They witnessed the realization of what was foretold to the avos, to Moshe and to them. When they saw that, they sang.

The Bais Halevi explains: “There is another level: he who perceives the kindness shown to him through the suffering as well, as it says, ‘I thank You, Hashem, for You have answered me and become my salvation’ (Tehillim 118:21), an expression of gratitude on the ‘inui,’ the affliction, as well as the salvation - I thank You for both, for both are beneficial and good for me. This was the attitude of Moshe Rabbeinu and the Bnei Yisroel when they sang at the Yam Suf.

At that instant, they perceived the benefit of their long bondage.

There is another time that the word “oz appears in Tanach that can contribute to our understanding of this equation.

The posuk in Tehillim states, “Nachon kisacha meioz,” meaning that Hashem’s throne has been fixed in place since creation. The Sefas Emes explains that meioz refers to the “oz” of Oz Yoshir. There is a certain depth of comprehension of Hashem’s Hashgocha and clarity in the revelation of His dominion that was not revealed to the world until Krias Yam Suf.

The Torah recounts that when Moshe originally told the Jewish people that Hashem had spoken to him, foretelling their release, they were unable to hear his message “mikotzer ruach umei’avodah kasha” (Shemos 6:9). The Ohr Hachaim explains that their inability to accept words of consolation was due to the fact that they had not yet received the Torah. Without Torah, their spirit was compromised. Torah expands the hearts of those who study and observe it. The Jews in Mitzrayim were not yet blessed with that ability.

Perhaps the Sefas Emes can help us explain why in Mitzrayim the Jews were unable to have faith in Moshe’s announcement that he had come to free them. The light of emunah that shined in the world at the beginning of creation had been dimmed until Krias Yam Suf. Thus, the abused slaves in Mitzrayim didn’t have the benefit of the emunah sheleimah that resides within every Jewish heart since that moment.

At Krias Yam Suf, there was a new revelation. Everything in the world that had previously been thought to be disparate and imperceptible came together clearly. They were no longer slaves. They were a new nation of geulim, having been crafted goy mikerev goy, one nation plucked from among another. The Maharal says that as they formed into a nation, they developed as people. Their minds became clearer and their hearts purer. They became capable of accepting the words of Hashem and His servant, Moshe.

It was at Krias Yam Suf that they understood that the bitterness, suffering and oppressive toil were means of hastening their freedom. Thus, the Torah records their song as “Oz yoshir.” They sang a song of oz, appreciating the profound mistake in the original complaining “oz.” They rectified their error by singing “oz,” comprehending the way of Hashem.

The Medrash (Shemos Rabbah 23:2) states, “Oz yoshir is compared to the posuk (Tehillim 106), ‘Vayaaminu bidvorov yoshiru tehilaso.’” The Shela explains that this means that in merit of their faith, the Bnei Yisroel received ruach hakodesh and were able to sing shirah. In other words, oz is interchangeable with amanah, faith. Oz, because they were infused with emunah in Hashem, yoshir, they sang shirah.

When the Jews were taken from Mitzrayim, they were physically freed and were no longer slaves, but it was at Krias Yam Suf that their neshamos were freed (Sefas Emes 645). Thus, it was after they went through the Yam Suf that they were able to soar, reaching higher levels of emunah and kedusha. It was then that they merited ruach hakodesh and the ability to sing shirah.

Shirah is written in the Sefer Torah as “oriach al gabei leveinah, as bricks are assembled to form a wall.” The amount of white space on the scroll equals to that of the written words. There are as many spaces as there are words, because in shirah, everything comes together. The words and the silence, the black and the white, the darkness and the light, all combine to form shirah.

We all have challenges, aspects of our lives that we don’t understand. There are happenings that impact Am Yisroel and Eretz Yisroel that we can’t comprehend. We experience times that we think are good and others that seem to be not so good. We wonder why we suffer and why others suffer. We wonder why there are so many tragedies in the world, including senseless murder, disease, abuse, and sadness. But we have to remember never to lose our faith and that one day it will all become clear to us. There will be a day, soon, when we will understand all that has transpired. On that day, everyone will sing shirah, but we, men and women of faith, can sing shirah every day.

Just as the Torah records the Jews at Krias Yam Suf as, “Vayaaminu baHashem,” we, bnei uvenos Torah, possess the harchovas hadaas granted to us with Yetzias Mitzrayim and Matan Torah to realize that we should maintain our faith and hold on tight through the cycles that lead to one goal.

The sefer Orchos Chasidecha recounts a story of emunah and bitachon. On May 7, 1945, Nazi Germany signed its unconditional surrender to the Allies. Following fierce American bombing, Japan surrendered at the end of the summer. Thousands of Jews had found refuge in the Japanese-controlled Chinese city of Shanghai. However, as American bombers shelled Shanghai in a final effort to defeat Japan, the refugees feared for their lives.

As the bombing campaign intensified, some students of the Mir Yeshiva, who fled Poland and Lithuania to the safety of Shanghai, suggested moving further inland to the city of Nanjing. The mashgiach of the yeshiva, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein, wouldn’t hear of it. He argued that they should remain in Shanghai, saying that moving would disrupt the sidrei hayeshiva. When pressed, he explained that all the journeys of the Jews as they traversed the desert, going from Mitzrayim to Eretz Yisroel, were “al pi Hashem.” They followed the Anan Hashem wherever it took them. They stayed there as long as the Anan did and moved only when it dictated they should.

“Hashem helped us until now,” said Rav Levenstein, “and we must have bitachon that He will guide us at this stage of the war as well. Until He sends a sign that we must move, we are staying here.”

Because of Rav Levenstein’s well-earned reputation and fierce bitachon, the yeshiva followed his direction and stayed in Shanghai, despite the apparent dangers.

Rav Levenstein later testified that the reason he didn’t move was because his rabbeim had appeared to him in a dream and told him that a move would be very dangerous. In fact, hundreds of Nanjing citizens were subsequently killed.

In his hesped on Rav Levenstein, Rav Elozor Menachem Man Shach quoted a posuk from this week’s parsha. The Torah relates that Moshe Rabbeinu’s hands remained raised in prayer as the Jewish people battled Amaleik: “Vayehi yodov emunah ad bo hashomesh. The literal translation of the verse is that Moshe’s hands had faith until the sun set.

“Many people have emunah in their hearts,” Rav Shach cried out. “Der mashgiach hut gehat emunah in zeine hent. The mashgiach had faith in his hands.

Rav Levenstein, the world-renowned tzaddik, possessed a tangible emunah and was able to feel the Divine kindness in every episode and event.

His students relate that he derived much of his emunah from his daily recitation of the shirah, the words of Oz Yoshir, which were seared into his soul and armed him with the emunah he carried in his holy hands.

In this week’s parsha, we sing the song that proclaims that we know we will continue singing until we merit to chant the song that will celebrate the revelation of reasons behind the many centuries of hardship and suffering.

Oz yoshir.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Generational Greatness

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

As we survey the world around us and the depths to which many have fallen, it becomes difficult to remember that we were created to attain great heights as a nation and as individuals. Our task is to constantly self-improve, always working on the goal of becoming better people.

Rashi (Bereishis 1:1) famously quotes his father, Rav Yitzchok, who said that the Torah should have begun with the mitzvah of hachodesh hazeh lochem. He explains that the reason it begins with Bereishis is so that if nations of the world will allege that the Jews stole Eretz Yisroel, we will be able to respond that Hashem created the world and chose to give us the Promised Land, and thus it is ours.

Others answer that the Torah doesn’t begin with Parshas Hachodesh, because the stories of Sefer Bereishis are a necessary backdrop, a hakdomah of sorts, to the mitzvos.

This week, in Parshas Bo, we arrive at the parsha of hachodesh hazeh lochem with which the Torah ostensibly should have begun. By now, we have studied and internalized the messages of our avos and grown to appreciate the connection we have, through the promises made to them, with Hashem and with Eretz Yisroel. We know that Eretz Yisroel is ours and no one can take it from us. We have learned how to conduct ourselves from the stories of our forefathers and, by now, should be ready to progress to the mitzvos of the Torah.

However, we need to understand the significance of the mitzvah of Kiddush Hachodesh and why it is that we are welcomed with this mitzvah into life as avdei Hashem. What is it about this mitzvah that through it we are introduced to all the subsequent commandments of the Torah? Of all the mitzvos of the Torah, why was this the first one given to the Jewish people as a whole and the one with which Rashi believed the Torah should have begun?

An answer, perhaps, can be offered based on the fact that Kiddush Hachodesh is a process that is entrusted to the Jewish people as a whole. The proclamation of the new moon requires a verbal statement of a bais din.

The dayonim on the bais din who certify that a new moon has been seen and proclaim, “Mekudash,” either have to be members of the Sanhedrein or “semuchin,” certified and invested with the power of p’sak, links in a chain stretching back to Har Sinai (Rambam, Hilchos Kiddush Hachodesh 5:2).

Why does the Torah require those who proclaim the new moon to be semuchin? Why is it not sufficient for them to be proficient in the shapes of the moon so that they can ascertain when to accept testimony regarding the sighting of the new moon?

The reason is because in regards to this mitzvah, it is evident that the words and actions of humans can be invested with Divine properties and the levels we can attain.

The Nefesh Hachaim and other seforim discuss our ability to affect happenings in this world and in Shomyaim through the observance - and transgression - of mitzvos. That capability is first evident in the mitzvah of Kiddush Hachodesh.

It is through having the power to proclaim Rosh Chodesh, or a leap year, that the Torah first reveals to us the capacity and potential of man to rise to the highest sphere, becoming a partner with the Creator Himself.

Rav Chaim Vital and others discuss that each Yom Tov brings special hashpa’os, an awakening of the Divine flow that occurred back when the miracle that the Yom Tov commemorates originally took place. Bais din, through its proclamation of which day will be Rosh Chodesh, and subsequently on which day Yom Tov will begin, actually determines when Hashem will cause that specific measure of Divine hashpa’ah to occur. The Ribbono Shel Olam abides by the bais din’s reasoning and determination to celebrate the Yom Tov on that day.

The many ramifications of bais din’s decision attest to its power. An example of the extent of bais din’s power is discussed in the Yerushalmi (Kesubos 1:2) regarding a physical phenomenon that can be manifest in a girl when she reaches the age of three. (See Shach, Yoreh Deah 189:13, for a further dissertation.) If she was born during the month of Nissan, for example, then, if the bais din decides to add a second month of Adar, postponing her birthday for a month, the physical realities that set in as she becomes three years of age are actually dependent on the bais din’s decision and are postponed for a month because she will not be celebrating her third birthday until Nissan.

Thus, since the mitzvah of Kiddush Hachodesh is unique in that it shows Klal Yisroel the incredible heights they can reach, it is the first mitzvah given to us as a group and serves as an introduction to all the other mitzvos. It goes to the root of the greatness of Am Yisroel and demonstrates how much we can accomplish if we devote ourselves to observing the mitzvos and living lives dedicated to Hashem and His Torah.

This is the idea of the mitzvah of Kiddush Hachodesh, which would have been a fitting opening to the entire Torah.

Imagine the message that Klal Yisroel received when, still in the throes of servitude, they were taught the particulars of a mitzvah with capacity beyond time and space. What a resounding announcement of their own freedom from the constrictions of Mitzrayim! It is as if they were gathered together by Moshe Rabbeinu and told, “You are redeemed from slavery and ready to soar!”

That awareness, with its accompanying demand for growth, was given to Klal Yisroel on the verge of freedom, as if to say, “This is what you can reach and accomplish through these mitzvos and by learning Torah.”

We can now understand the depth of a posuk later on in the perek. After the pesukim discuss the halachos of Pesach, the posuk (12:28) states, “Vayeilchu vaya’asu Bnei Yisroel ka’asher tzivah Hashem es Moshe v’Aharon - The Bnei Yisroel did as Hashem had commanded Moshe and Aharon.”

The Mechilta, quoted by Rashi, notes that the lesson was given to the Bnei Yisroel on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, while the actual fulfillment of the laws of Korban Pesach didn’t take place until the middle of the month. Still, the posuk refers to the Jews as having done as Hashem commanded Moshe, in the past tense.

We can suggest that the posuk refers to them as having completed what was asked of them because this parsha of hachodesh hazeh lochem carries something integral to the observance of every mitzvah that would follow it, namely, an instructive lesson regarding what a mitzvah can do to man and the levels he can reach by following the Torah. “Vaya’asu” indicates that they understood the message that was being imparted to them, appreciating its relevance at every juncture of life. In this case, hearing, comprehending and internalizing the messages of hachodesh hazeh lochem and the chag hegeulah were themselves fulfillments of Hashem’s will.

The halachos of Kiddush Hachodesh and Pesach aren’t merely introductory and practical. They are a call from Heaven. “My children,” the Ribono Shel Olam is saying, “you are ge’ulim. There is no end to your freedom and to how great you can become!”

According to the Nefesh Hachaim (1:13), the word asiyah, which lies at the root of the word vaya’asu, means that what was being discussed achieved its tachlis, or purpose. Thus, when the Torah employs the verb asiyah to complete the discussion, stating, “Vaya’asu Bnei Yisroel ka’asher tzivah Hashem,” that indicates that they realized the potential inherent in Hashem’s commandment. They understood the message behind the tzivuy, and thus, even though they had not yet performed the mitzvah, they had actualized the potential of how high they could reach.

We, the she’airis Yisroel, the remainder that clings to Kiddush Hachodesh and all the mitzvos that follow, know that we have a higher calling and a path to traverse.

Each generation has its own unique challenges that make it difficult to rise. Every generation gives birth to styles, language, technology and cultural immoralities with the potential to demoralize us and disconnect us from Torah.

That is why in this week’s parsha, the Torah mentions repeatedly from the very beginning (10:2) until the end (13:14) the concept of discussing the events and mitzvos surrounding Yetzias Mitzrayim with the younger generations. This is because the Torah speaks to all generations for all times. No matter what questions are confounding a given era, the answers are in the Torah. Its Divine wisdom shines like rays of welcome light into all epochs of history and corners of the globe, its lessons a living reality for each one.

We thank Hashem that the Torah can be transmitted from one generation to the next, that its messages can reach all children, and that it is relevant and meaningful to each Jewish child. It’s a celebration of the timeless and enduring relevance of the Torah.

This represents an obligation upon every parent to work to find the point where their child can be reached. No one is ever too far gone, too disinterested or too worn out to be written off and to be separated from Torah. There is something in the Torah for everyone. The Torah speaks to every child. Although it sometimes takes superhuman effort, no parent should ever give up on connecting with any of their children, as wayward as they appear to be.

Despite the distractions, temptations and turbulence around us, we must follow the guidance of the Torah and remain focused on our missions to bring about positive change in ourselves, our families and the cosmos. Let us not allow temporary setbacks to influence our moods and the way we interact with others. It is only with the emunah and bitachon that emanate from the parshiyos of Yetzias Mitzrayim that we can maintain the simcha necessary to be good and productive.

As we study Parshas Bo, let us endeavor to realize the potential that lies within us to reach the apex, positively impacting the world and preparing it for the coming of Moshiach.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Makir Tov

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This week marks the end of my sojourn in the beautiful town of Monsey. I was born here, and besides the time I spent in yeshiva and Yerushalayim, I’ve lived here my whole life.

My father came to Monsey in 1952 to learn at Bais Medrash Elyon and its kollel; he never left this town. Bais Medrash Elyon gave birth to this great place, producing exemplary talmidim and a Torah town.

My first memories involve me as a toddler taking baby steps in the shadow of towering giants.

Now would be a most appropriate time to be makir tov for having been blessed to live in this pastoral, peaceful town. I publicly express my appreciation to all the fine people who have lived here since I came here, and who created and sustained a great place to grow with the ruach of Torah.

I also thank all the fine roshei yeshiva, rabbonim, mechanchim and moros who taught me and my children, and all the children here, marking Monsey’s young with greatness and wholesomeness, enabling them to grow and succeed.

The baalei chesed who make this place livable for so many are unsung heroes who have earned eternal reward.

The shopkeepers, professionals, doctors, lawyers and accountants here are special, as are the butchers, electricians, plumbers, bakers and fixermen. I appreciate all of you and your contributions.

I would love to write a book depicting the people I grew up knowing, people blessed with so much. Many of them have since passed away, but their memories live on in my heart and I am sure the hearts of many. The town continues to expand, attracting good people with personality and greatness. Each deserves their own book. Maybe one day I will merit to commit my memories to writing so that others can enjoy and appreciate these people and their stories.

A special person I came to know in Monsey passed away this week. He wasn’t from Monsey, he was from Tzefas. Rav Elozor Mordechai Kenig zt”l spent much time here as he waited for a lung transplant and then recovering from the intricate surgery which saved his life. He would then come for regular check-ups. He stayed in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Yankel Klein, whose extended hosting and care raised the bar in chesed.

Towards the end of his first long stay here I came to meet him and was immediately smitten by his ehrlichkeit and kedusha. He possessed an inner happiness and calm I had never seen elsewhere. We had a long discussion and continued it upon his return here. He opened my eyes to chasidus, we would spend many hours learning together and discussing matters of hashkofah.

When he was here I would daven by him. His tefillos were otherworldly, beautiful and unrushed, each word was recited with meaning and heart. He was a living example of the way Hashem meant for us to live and to conduct ourselves. With unfailing emunah, he was always at peace and content. I would always leave him happier than when I had arrived, no matter the occasion.

I spent a Shabbos with him in Tzefas together with some friends. To welcome in Shabbos in his shul set atop a mountain in that holy city was supernatural and something we will never forget. Singing Lecha Dodi to a simple lovely tune, watching the sun set over the kevorim of the holy tzadikim, the chachmei emes who populated Tzefas and taught Klal Yisroel so much of what we know and appreciate about Yidishkeit, was a moving experience.

The parshiyos of Sefer Shemos form the foundation of our belief, as they detail our life in Mitzrayim, our freedom from there, and formation into a nation at Har Sinai. Along the way, there are many lessons we glean from the parshiyos that are oft-repeated but essential to our growth and behavior.

In this week’s parsha, Vo’eira, we learn of the makkos that Hashem performed in Mitzrayim leading up to our rescue from there. Moshe was called upon to initiate seven of the punishing supernatural occurrences. Three were performed by Aharon, who struck the Yam Suf to turn it to blood and to commence the makkah of tzefardeia. He hit the dirt to bring forth kinnim.

Chazal explain that because the Yam Suf protected Moshe when he was set afloat in the river as a baby, he would not, out of gratitude to the water, hit the water to set off the plagues (Rashi, Shemos 7:19).

The Gemara (Bava Kama 92b) derives from this that a person should not cast stones into a well from which he drank. We are proscribed from bringing any harm upon anything from which we benefitted, and certainly from harming a person who benefited us.

Likewise, Moshe Rabbeinu did not strike the ground to bring forth lice during the plague of kinnim, because, as Rashi explains, the dirt “protected him when he killed the Egyptian and buried him in the sand” (Rashi, Shemos 8:12).

Although dirt and water have no feelings or bechirah, Moshe showed appreciation for the benefits he received from them, because hakoras hatov is not about the benefactor, but about the recipient.

People who are makir tov appreciate the daily goodness they experience. They appreciate everyone who has helped them get to where they are. They don’t ignore the “little” people who enhance their lives in ways big and small. If you don’t do the small things right, you won’t do the big things right either. If you don’t appreciate the small things, you won’t appreciate the big things either. Grateful people notice and appreciate all things from which they benefit.

Our world is plagued by people who don’t appreciate anything or anyone. Echoing those on top of industry, entertainment and politics, people care only about themselves. They view others as tools to serve and service them, rarely appreciating the many people necessary to sustain their luxurious lives.

We must recognize that people are not objects we take advantage of, and when we think we have gotten as much as we can from them, or don’t need them anymore, we trash them, forget about them, ignore them, and move on to the next person we can squeeze before eventually dumping him. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do. Never think you’re done with someone or don’t need them anymore. The foundation of being a mentch is to always remember what a person did for you when you needed that person. Never forget it or stop feeling your debt of gratitude.

Many years ago, I did a favor for Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, founder of ArtScroll/Mesorah. For the rest of his life, he befriended me and was exceedingly kind. Every few years, he would remind me of what I had done and remark that he would never forget it. Long after I had forgotten, he would remind me. That is a mark of greatness with roots in Torah.

If we are cognizant and notice everything that goes on around us, we are better people. Moshe Rabbeinu didn’t refrain from hitting the water and sand out of concern that he would, in some way, be hurting an innate, inanimate object, but, rather, because he would be hurting himself. Though water has no feelings, Moshe did and was thus unable to act disrespectfully to something that had helped him.

Bilam beat his loyal donkey. At the time of creation, the animal was given the gift of speech so that it could berate Bilam for smiting the beast of burden. And what did the animal say? It gave Bilam mussar: “After all I’ve done for you, how can you hit me?”

An animal is a creature created to serve man, yet it has a right to complain when a person beats it. A person who presents himself as intelligent and close to G-d must behave with kindness and compassion to others, and to do so, he must be the type of person whose refined character is fashioned through appreciation of what others do for him. Not doing so, earned Bilam the ire of his donkey and eternal derision.

Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv once said that hakoras hatov is not remuneration that you pay someone for a favor he or she did for you. Hakoras hatov is a never-ending obligation, because the Ribbono Shel Olam wants us to be people who always remember that everything is a gift. Hakoras hatov is an opportunity and a means of keeping our value system intact. It is not about him. It is about me.

Developing the middah of hakoras hatov is essential to our growth. It is so easy to take others for granted. We are placed in this world to achieve greatness. It starts with the little things. Appreciate even what simple people do for you. Always be courteous and you will grow. It is not for nothing that if you look up the word appreciate in a thesaurus, you will see that included in its synonyms are gain, grow and rise.

The posuk in Mishlei (27:21) speaks of the gauges used for precious metals. A refining pot is for silver and a furnace is for gold. And what of man? The posuk concludes, “And a man according to his praise.”

Rav Elya Lopian explained that when a silversmith appraises the value of silver, he uses a refiner to see how pure it is. The measure of a man’s purity is seen in “mehalelo,” which literally means praise. The best indicator of a refined nature is a person’s ability to give thanks and praise.

Perhaps we can understand why this lesson is taught in Parshas Vo’eira, at the formative stage in which the family of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov becomes the Am Hashem. Rav Chaim Vital in Shaarei Kedusha (perek 1) famously writes that there is no Biblical mandate to have good middos, but proper middos are a prerequisite to receiving the Torah. It’s the hakdomah to the Torah. These parshiyos at the beginning of Sefer Shemos lead up to the parshiyos of kabbolas haTorah. A nation destined to receive the gift of Torah, had to first develop proper middos.

Throughout the story of the servitude in Mitzrayim, we see chapters that indicate to the nobility of spirit of the wives who endured oppressive days, but would lift the spirits of their husbands at night. We note the selflessness and sacrifice of the shotrim, who accepted beatings on behalf of other Jews. We study the chesed performed by the mother and sister of Moshe Rabbeinu, spiting Paroh to help newborns and their mothers. And as the makkos come, Moshe teaches another lesson.

There was no one better to teach that lesson than he, the onov mikol odom, the humblest of all men, who understood that everything is a gift. It’s the baal gaavah who refuses to recognize how beholden he is to those around him, for his arrogance precludes him from seeing the truth.

A rosh yeshiva once noticed a married talmid waiting on a street-corner outside his yeshiva, clearly agitated. “Let me guess,” the rosh yeshiva said. “You’re waiting here for your wife to pick you up and she’s late.”

The fellow nodded. “Exactly.”

“You’re cold and hungry and just learned a full first seder and you don’t want to wait. You’re wondering why she can’t just be on time, right?”

The young man blushed and admitted that those were his thoughts.

“Now, here is what I want you to do,” the rosh yeshiva said. “Until your wife comes, think about how much you owe her, how much hakoras hatov she deserves, how she married you and takes care of you, and how she raises your children and encourages you and respects you. Don’t think about anything else and you’ll see that when she comes, you will feel it - and she will feel that you feel it!”

Upon returning home from davening on Friday evenings, the Alter of Kelm would enter his home and stop for a moment. Standing by the door, he would look around and reflect on the many preparations for Shabbos undertaken by his wife. He would look into the dining room at the table and see how nice it was set. He would glance into the kitchen and see the different foods she had cooked. He would take in all that the rebbetzin had done, so that he would not be a kofuy tov, but would recognize and appreciate her goodness.

This is something we can all emulate.

Rav Avigdor Miller said that along with everything else, thankfulness is a segulah for good health and long life. Life is too short to be spent angry, insulted or resentful about perceived wrongs. Training yourself to see the chassodim all around opens a person to new avenues of happiness.

Of course, the middah of hakoras hatov causes us to appreciate all that Hashem does for us. This week’s parsha supports our emunah and bitachon, as we see how Hashem orchestrates what happens in this world. This reinforces our obligation to be thankful to our Maker and Provider.

To appreciate that all is from Hashem also enables us to persevere in tough times. When we recognize that things that challenge us are brought upon us by Hashem, with firm belief we are able to maintain the strength necessary to carry on. We recognize that we are not alone, and that which happens is not by happenstance. Everything happens for a reason, and by cleaving to Hashem and His mitzvos, we are granted the ability to surmount the challenge.

Moshe Rabbeinu was engaged in a battle with Paroh, the ultimate kofui tov. The savior of Mitzrayim and its economy was Yosef, but the king claimed that he didn’t know who Yosef was, lest the memory obligate him (Shemos 1:8).

The awareness that we give ourselves through being makir tov is to enable us to learn to see, recognize and perceive the truth. It is the secret to having emunah. Paroh was a kofer and Moshe was a ma’amin.

It’s easy to fall into a rut of negativity. Life is rough. Parnossah doesn’t come easy. Chinuch is challenging. People can be mean and fail to understand what lies in our heart.

Moshe Rabbeinu teaches us how to achieve geulah and how to develop emunah.

We are here to change the world and make it better. We can only do that if we recognize the problems other people have and the pain they are enduring. We can only contribute if we care about other people and appreciate their contributions to the spirit and essence of the world. To make the world a better place, we need to have hope and be able to offer hope to others. We have to respect other people and care about them.

Moshe Rabbeinu grew up in the king’s palace with nary an apparent worry. Yet, he ventured out to check on the situation of his brothers and sisters. He felt their pain. He risked his life to help a fellow Jew who was being pummeled by a Mitzri policeman. It was from that moment that he began the ascent that led him to become the greatest man who ever lived.

Everything we have is a gift from Hashem. Never forget that and never cease being thankful. Modeh ani is how we begin each day, for gratefulness is the foundation of Jewish life.

We achieve joy in life by helping others, appreciating others and treating others the way we would like to be treated. The first step is by being a makir tov.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Have a Harp

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This week, we begin Seder Shemos, the story of redemption. But it opens with a surprising episode.

Try to imagine the scene. Moshe Rabbeinu was tending to his flock in the wilderness, when he saw a bush alight in flames. He paused to consider what was transpiring, as he wondered how it could be that although the fire continued burning, the bush was not being consumed.

Like his ancestor, Avrohom Avinu, who studied the world and concluded that it could not have come into being by itself, as the Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 39:1) relates, so too, Moshe perceived that the Creator was announcing His Presence. He recognized that this was a defining moment in his life.

While Moshe was standing at the bush, the Ribbono Shel Olam addressed him, stating that he has been selected for a lofty mission, with a mandate to save His people.

Moshe asks for assurance. “What Name shall I tell them?” he says. “Who shall I say sent me on this mission to rescue the Jewish people from decades of slavery?”

Hashem revealed Himself using the name of “Ehkeh asher Ehkeh - I will be with them through this golus and all the subsequent travails and hard times.”

Moshe had now experienced the revelation of the Creator, who had decreed that the children of the avos, Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, to whom He had previously appeared, would be enslaved in a strange land and eventually freed.

No doubt exultant after his conversation with Hashem and knowing that the painful enslavement would soon end, Moshe went to share the good news with his brethren who had been suffering for as long as anyone could remember. He appeared to them and said the words they had been waiting to hear: “Higia zeman geulaschem - The time of your redemption has arrived.”

Tragically, almost unbelievably, the enslaved heirs of the avos to whom Hashem had previously appeared did not listen.

“Velo shamu el Moshe mikotzer ruach umei’avodah kashah.”

The Jewish people didn’t listen to him. They couldn’t listen. They were incapable of hearing the words that should have transformed everything for them. They failed to digest the message promising hope for a better tomorrow. It was too much for them.

Like every posuk in the Torah, this posuk is recorded for posterity to instruct and guide us. The words and their lessons remain relevant for eternity. The tale of a people too tired to hear the words they had been awaiting for two hundred years is relevant to us in our day.

We live in a state of anticipation, constantly awaiting the great announcement. Like the Chofetz Chaim, with his special kappota ready for Moshiach’s imminent arrival, we all carry a sense of expectancy, viewing the events around us through eyes that look beyond the occurrences. Our ears listen for the footsteps of a redeemer.

We are equipped with the tools to see beyond the moment, keeping our ears open for the mevaser tov, who will come to tell us that our troubles are over.

The sun shines brightly, though at times its rays are concealed by clouds. We have to possess the ability to see beyond the clouds to the light and warmth of the sun.

Few things are more disturbing than encountering bitter people. Surrounded by opportunity and blessing, they insist on concentrating on the negatives. Such people remain locked in by the inability to see beyond the sadness that envelops them. They are unable to dream of a better day or of working to achieve lasting accomplishments. They can’t acknowledge greatness in others, nor do they possess the self-confidence to achieve anything themselves.

There is so much goodness in our world. There is much to be happy about and proud of, yet too many are consumed by the negative, concentrating on the bad news and failing to see the entire picture. We forget that we are blessed to live in a land of plenty, which provides for the poor and those unable to make ends meet.

Since the Holocaust, which almost decimated our people, we have reestablished ourselves and flourish in cities and towns across the globe. We have more than we ever had and continue to grow and flourish.

The process of learning Torah and avodas hamussar is meant to train us to see the tov. We are to acquire an ayin tovah that allows us to discern the good in what we do have and to appreciate the fortune that abounds, if only we were ready to look a little deeper. In order to be good Jews, we have to be happy with the present and positive about the future. If we aren’t, it is an indication of how much we are lacking in the study of Torah and mussar.

Torah and mussar keep a person who studies them active, optimistic, energetic and positive. It shapes an individual into a mentch, a person who respects others and is worthy of respect himself.

The Ohr Hachaim (6:9) explains that the reason the Jews in Mitzrayim were not able to listen to the words of Moshe was because they were not bnei Torah. Torah broadens a person’s heart, he says. Had they been bnei Torah, they would have been receptive to Moshe’s message. We, who have been granted the gift of Torah, have no excuse for not being open to hearing the words of the Moshe Rabbeinus of our generation and those who seek to improve our lots and help us prepare ourselves for the geulah.

The Boyaner Rebbe would make a siyum during the Nine Days on Maseches Makkos. People thought that he made the siyum on that masechta because of its relatively small size, until the Rebbe explained that there was a deeper reason for his custom.

The final Gemara in Maseches Makkos tells the story of the Tannaim walking alongside Rabi Akiva up to Yerushalayim. When they beheld the makom haMikdosh in ruins, they began to weep, but Rabi Akiva smiled. They asked him why he was smiling, while they cried at the sight of foxes walking out of the place of the Kodesh Hakodoshim. He explained, citing pesukim, that in order for the nevuos of geulah to be fulfilled, the nevuos of churban must be completed first.

Now that the destruction is so complete, he reasoned, we can anticipate the geulah.

Akiva nichamtanu. Akiva nichamtanu,” they famously replied. “Akiva, you have comforted us.”

The Boyaner Rebbe explained that during the days that commemorate the churban, he wanted to be reminded of this lesson. He wanted to remember that there is no situation that doesn’t carry hints of a better tomorrow.

We have to work, as Rabi Akiva did, to locate those markers, those lights along the side of the road promising good tidings. It would behoove us to keep our ears wide open for good news. We have to look for the sparks of goodness in the Jewish people. We should be thankful for the shuls available to daven in and the yeshivos and botei medrash spreading Torah and kedusha to a thirsting people. We should be thankful for the peace and tranquility we enjoy, and for the homes, the heat, the cars, the gasoline, the electricity, and everything else that we are blessed with in this country.

Reb Aron Pernikoff was an elderly man who spent most of his time at the Montreal Community Kollel. Though he was not blessed with an easy life, he exuded a tranquil joy, a loftiness and a chashivus.

Reb Aron would quote the posuk in Tehillim that tells of the tragic descent of the Bnei Yisroel into golus after the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh: Al naharos Bavel, shom yoshavnu gam bochinu bezochreinu es Tzion - We sat and wept by the rivers of Bavel when we recalled Yerushalayim. Al aravim besocha talinu kinoroseinu - We hung our harps on the willow trees that grew at the river.

He would ask where the exiled Jews had harps from. When people go into exile, especially when they are barely escaping with their lives, they take with them only bare necessities. Why would they have harps with them?

He would answer that a believing Jew knows that wherever he is going, no matter how bleak the future appears, there will always be reason to sing. They brought along musical instruments in anticipation of those opportunities.

Torah grows. Shabbos grows. Every week, there are dinners, parlor meetings and receptions for yeshivos, shuls and mosdos of tzedakah and chesed. People come and help each other.

That is heartening, almost therapeutic. These affairs present an opportunity to sing in the darkness of golus, to join together and say, “Look, even thousands of years removed from the days of gilui Shechinah and the fires of korbanos, we can still gather around the holy mekomos haTorah. We can still come yachad shivtei Yisroel and joyously pledge allegiance to the ideals of eitz chaim hee lamachazikim boh.”

The Nazis entered the town of Gubruvah on a Friday afternoon, rounded up all the Jews, and burned their homes and property. The Jews were forced into the shul; everyone of all ages was there. The Nazis informed the people that they were going to burn down the building, with them inside, as they had done in so many Lithuanian towns. They warned that anyone who left the building would be shot on the spot.

The babies and young children wailed loudly, while their frightened parents wept quietly. There was no food or water and very little air. Nobody was able to calm the people or offer words of consolation, much less give the children something to eat or drink to quiet them. It happened so quickly that nobody thought of bringing anything with them as they were herded into the shul to await certain death.

Yoel the baker sat in a corner, rolled up like a ball, reciting Tehillim. As night fell, he rose, bolted out of the room, and ran down the street. Certain that the prognosis had driven him mad, people pitied him, as they waited to hear the inevitable gunshots announcing his murder. Suddenly, he returned with a sack of challahs on his shoulder.

As he chanted that it was Shabbos, he offered as many people as he could to partake in a piece of challah in honor of the holy day.

Shortly after this transpired, the Nazi commander entered the shul and ordered his men to set everyone free and burn down the empty building. Everyone was convinced that their miraculous freedom was earned in the merit of the mesirus nefesh of their neighbor, Yoel, who risked his life to help his fellow Jews.

Thankfully, our travails don’t come close to the suffering our people endured not that long ago. Those who are moser nefesh for members of the community do not have to sacrifice nearly as much as the Gubruvah baker, but it is refreshing to know and see so many people who extend themselves for others. It is in their merit that we have come so far. I spent this past Shabbos in the company of a few hundred good people who dedicate their lives to helping plant and support Torah across this country. Billed the Torah Umesorah Presidents Conference, it provides an opportunity for people who care about our nation to meet, greet and rub shoulders, sharing stories and tips, supporting each other in their individual missions.

People of all types, driven by positive energy, brought along their harps to celebrate past successes and plan new ideas and directions. At a time when many are negative and apathetic, it is worth celebrating the mere fact that so many people are dedicated to achieving greatness for the Jewish people.

As Gary Torgow, who epitomizes all that is good about our people said in his memorable speech there, “You, who are influencing and inspiring the day-to-day efforts of Klal Yisroel in your communities, must visualize and recognize the far-reaching global and eternal implications of what you, your spouse and your families are doing for the nitzchiyus of the Jewish people. Although many days may seem like such a grind, pushing upstream and fighting the inevitable battles, try wherever possible to keep uppermost in your minds the long-term and cosmic ramifications of your efforts.”

Back in Mitzrayim, the people were so beaten that “velo shomu el Moshe mikotzer ruach umei’avodah kashah,” they could not accept a message of inspiration and hope.

In our day, we cannot allow messages of negativity and strobes of tumah to prevent us from keeping ourselves in shape to be on the lookout for embers of holiness and moments of hope in the morass of our golus lives. Our souls need to sing, as they set our minds to flight and allow our imaginations to breathe life into even stale moments.

Despite the negatives and problems that confound us, we keep our ears tilted to hear the sounds of imminent geulah and open to the besoros tovos that are around us.

Let us not grow despondent about our situation. Let us always see the positive and the good. Let us always be on the lookout for Eliyohu, who will soon announce that the time for national music has begun once again.