Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Pinchos Focused

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Parshas Pinchos weaves together themes and ideas that seem unconnected. The parsha opens with the enduring act of zealotry by Pinchos, born from an inability to stand by while evil was being perpetrated. The same act that caused others to become so traumatized that they didn’t know what to do caused Pinchos to be bold and courageous.
Pinchos grabbed a spear and literally eradicated evil. His act lives on for all time as one of passion and commitment, epitomizing the instincts and reactions of a servant of Hashem.
The parsha continues with a count taken of each individual Jew in Klal Yisroel. It then discusses the bnos Tzelafchad and their petition for a portion in Eretz Yisroel, and concludes with halachos of the Yomim Tovim. These topics, though seemingly unrelated, combine to teach a lesson.
Mekubolim explain that the entirety of creation is divided into three dimensions: olam, shanah, and nefesh, space, time and man. Each realm has its climax. Yom Kippur is such a time, for all three meet at the height of their abilities when the kohein gadol, the highest level of man, enters the Kodesh Hakodoshim, the holiest place on earth, on the most sacred day.
Kedushah means investing each of the three dimensions with meaning. Each person has a mission, every place has its use, and every day has its avodah.
Pinchos created a new reality, rising to new heights, transforming himself through his selfless, altruistic act. He took a stand when others did not, and in doing so, he formed a covenant with Hashem.
The parsha reinforces this message with the counting of the Bnei Yisroel. Every Jew counts. Everyone can do what Pinchos did, acting as a lone soldier, demonstrating the strength of character and devotion to bring glory to Heaven. Each individual has intrinsic value. The counting reminds every person that he has the ability to make a difference. You matter. Every person matters.
You can affect more people than you ever thought possible. You can be living at a time when people are confused and confounded, not knowing which way to move. They are frozen by fear and insecurity. Stay focused on your goal. Don’t be deterred. Don’t be distracted. It may be difficult and it might earn you temporary ridicule, but when all are lost, leaders rise from among the crowd and show the way.
That is the power of each nefesh.
Eretz Yisroel, the apex in the realm of olam, has unique spiritual properties, power and potency. The daughters of Tzelafchad, appreciating the significance of the land, pined for a share.
Yomim Tovim are the greatest days of the year. People who appreciate their abilities, seize the moment and seek a role and portion in holiness, appreciate Yomim Tovim as a time for sublime joy.
The avodah zarah of Baal Peor diminished man and caused him to believe that humankind is a small being with limited abilities that he is unable to face or overcome (see Chasam Sofer in this week’s parsha). Thus, the yeitzer hora reduces people to the level where they think they are inconsequential, their actions are inconsequential, and whatever they think or do has no meaning or importance.
The Soton couples that with his ability to create diversions and cause people to lose focus of the important matters in life. He confuses people and causes them to be stressed and defeatist, unable to contend with the vagaries of life. They become lost and dizzy, unable to remain grounded and stable enough to deal with situations, and remember that all that befalls them is ordained by Hashem. Those who have faith remain calm, composed and properly balanced. Their confidence gives them the strength to do what must be done in order to perform the actions necessary to right the situation.  
Pinchos maximized his abilities and withstood the entreaties of the yeitzer hora to stand by the side and let someone else do what had to be done. Because he perceived the value and opportunity inherent in life, he did not become flummoxed when he witnessed tragedy unfolding.
It is because of Pinchos, and people like him in every generation, that our nation has endured to this day and is able to appreciate and celebrate Yomim Tovim. Others have cowered, compromised and capitulated, diluting the abilities of olam, shanah and nefesh.
When people arrived on the shores of America, many said that it’s too hard to build Torah here. They claimed that it’s unrealistic to expect American children to be Torah Jews and they gave up. They compromised on Shabbos, kashrus and everything else. They lost their children and didn’t really have much themselves. But in communities where there was a Pinchos, who said, “We can do it. We can lead Torah lives here. We don’t have what to fear,” Torah Judaism took hold, yeshivos were built, kosher standards were adhered to, and Shabbos became a day of halachic rest and an opportunity for kedushah of olam, shanah and nefesh.
There is a common misconception that taking a stand means being negative. Kannaus is often misunderstood as pessimism. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Those who are fired up with Torah and seek to live lives of kedushah are optimistic about their abilities. They are optimistic about Am Yisroel and the future. They refuse to be reined in by the pessimists who say it can’t be done; not here, not now.
They serve as a beacon of light and strength for all to look up to and emulate.
Pinchos took a stand, which created a bris of sholom that continues and endures. Parshas Pinchos is the parsha of Yomim Tovim, because taking a stand guarantees better and happier times. People who rise up to the occasion are those who make a difference.
My uncle, Rav Berel Wein, born and raised in Chicago, sadly witnessed Orthodox Jewry in decline, as the older generation of European immigrants looked on hopelessly while their children chose a different path.
He wrote about a speech that changed his life and impacted his life’s ambitions and thoughts. It was at a banquet for Beis Medrash LeTorah in Chicago in the early 1950s. The guest speaker was Rav Pinchos Teitz of Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Rabbi Wein recounts, “Most European rabbis used speaking engagements to bemoan the state of American Jewry, especially in comparison to the glory days of Eastern European Jewish life. Not Rabbi Teitz. He spoke of a coming revolution in American Jewish life; of a growing and vital Orthodoxy; of the triumph of the day school and yeshiva movements; and he predicted that Orthodoxy would diminish the influence of Conservative and Reform movements, not vice versa. His optimism made him a heroic figure in my eyes, and he remained such over many decades.”
That, too, is a story of Pinchos, of taking a stand. Rav Pinchos Teitz spoke of hope, optimism and opportunity. He cried out that Yom Tov was coming, and to merit those days the people had to remain loyal to Torah. He set up a school in Elizabeth and educated the next generation in the Torah path, and many were saved.
There were others, like Rav Shmuel Kaufman zt”l, who was niftar last week. Not seeking fame, glory or financial reward, they spread across this country, opening schools and staffing them, showing the correct way to educate fine people to live lives of Torah and Judaism. Their efforts spawned a rebirth here, and because of heroes like him, cities like Detroit, Chicago Cleveland and so many others are flourishing islands of Torah, beacons of kedushah, goodness and happiness for the rest of the country. 
Rabbi Wein once visited a philanthropist in what New Yorkers would call a mid-sized out-of-town city on behalf of the yeshiva he headed almost twenty years ago. The wealthy man complained that while he used to support his shul and the local school, now there was a new thing coming to town called a “kollel,” whose leaders also came knocking on his door for a donation. “Who needs them?” the man questioned. “We have such nice shuls here. What do we need this kollel thing for?”
Rabbi Wein answered with the wisdom of someone who had seen what happened to dozens of shuls in his native Chicago. “My dear friend,” he said as he put his arm on the man’s shoulder. “Kollel is the way of the future. It is that kollel that will maintain the neighborhood and bring young families here. It is the kollel where people will visit to study Torah. It is the kollel that will be a magnet for everything good in this town and many others. You’d do yourself well if you would support it.”
It seemed so far-fetched that he couldn’t bring himself to support it. He lacked the vision and optimism to believe that Torah would bring them back and hold them. He was pessimistic and didn’t get it. But today, that man’s children and grandchildren enter the kollel to study Torah and increase their levels of kedushah.
Pinchos didn’t talk about not tolerating injustice. He acted upon the problem. He didn’t conduct a poll or focus group before deciding. He didn’t run around asking his friends how it would look. He just did it. And because of that, the plague stopped and we are here today.
Pinchos was not a leader of his nation, but his actions obligate all of us. There are moments, places and times for us to stand up and make a difference.
Perhaps there is no time of year for this avodah like the Three Weeks. Kol hamisabel al Yerushalayim, anyone who mourns the destruction of the holy city and Bais Hamikdosh, zocheh veroeh b’simchasah, will merit seeing its joy. We have to use these days to contemplate what we are lacking and make these weeks significant and meaningful. Too often, people are content to let the season pass so that they can get back to regular life. Chazal, however, admonish us to make these days important by being misabel, so that we will enjoy Yomim Tovim to the fullest when Tisha B’Av joins the chagim.
A person who is involved in an accident, or suffers serious illness and temporarily loses mobility, must remain optimistic about his latent strength and abilities in order to endure therapy and recuperate. They cannot allow themselves to be deterred or to give up hope because of the difficulties of maintaining a tough discipline.
Life is tough and full of challenges. Those who remain optimistic and see the Hand of Hashem in all that befalls them are able to muster the courage to persevere and succeed. Those who mourn Yerushalayim and use these days to help rebuild it through the arrival of Moshiach will merit to witness and partake in that joyous day when the redemption arrives.
Let us all remain focused on the goal.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Living With Terror

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Do you remember when terror attacks only happened in Israel? Do you remember when nobody thought it was possible for Arab terror to strike in America? Do you remember when the French, British and American governments blamed every terror attack in Israel on Israeli intransigence? Do you remember when cars were ramming people to death alongside Israeli roads, while the rest of the world sat by silently?
It wasn’t that long ago.
The West refused to believe what their eyes were witnessing in Israel. They blamed it on the Jews and continued to deal with Arab states as if they were comprised of normal, peace-loving citizens, worshipping a religion of peace.
Since the administration of the current American president came to power, the ball was dropped in Iraq and Syria. Deals were made with Iran. The administration pulled troops out of Iraq and wound down efforts in Afghanistan, which gave birth to ISIS. By refusing to wipe them out, the Obama administration enabled them to grow to the point where they are able to strike anywhere they want, seemingly at will, causing mayhem, death and destruction in proud Western countries.
Western leaders were warned. Western people were warned. They saw what happened to the peace -loving, industrious, fine people of Israel who sacrificed for peace. Yet, their anti-Semitism blocked them from objectively comprehending the rationale for what was taking place in Israel and extrapolating that lesson for their own countries.
Instead of understanding the enemy and taking the fight to them, America and others created conditions in Libya, Iraq and Syria where terror groups could grow. Instead of killing them when they were small and nascent, the West permitted them to gain strength and grow.
Now, there seems to be an attack taking place almost every week. The current American administration is still in denial and in a defensive state, rather than an offensive one. There are virtually no ground troops anywhere fighting ISIS. The world is a powder keg, just waiting for a spark to set it afire in war. Europe is flooded with Muslim refugees, among them ISIS fighters and other Islamic terrorists. Civil war brews beneath the surface, as EU rules leave many countries buckling under the weight of their new citizens.
Photos of the murder truck in France pockmarked with dozens of bullet holes are symbolic of our world; big and strong and full of holes.
With maddening attacks taking place on a regular basis, there is an ever-present feeling of concern here, in Israel and around the world.
Balanced and clear vision is necessary to navigate life’s paths. However, we live in a world of fantasy, where leaders ignore facts and remain stuck to their agendas and narratives, as fallacious as they are proven to be. Terror chases terror, each attack more dreadful than the one that preceded it, striking fear in people who previously feared nothing. They look to their leaders for direction and find a vacuum.
The president of the United States ran for office on a promise to bring people together, cure partisan gridlock in Washington, open government to the people, be transparent and fair, and restore America’s glory. What he turned out to be is a demagogue who seeks to divide people. Race relations in this country are now in their worst state since the riots in the sixties.
The president has, in his own words, led from behind. He dithered while Syria disintegrated, he slept while the country’s Benghazi consulate was under attack, and then he lied about it and sought to cover up what transpired. He forced Mubarak out of Egypt and then handed the country to the Islamists, whom he coddled and supported as they attempted to destroy the country.
The man whose career’s trajectory was aided by his oratory skills failed to bring the people together. He continues to fail to explain the problems the country is facing from radical Islamists, while blaming American terror attacks on guns. He seems to dwell in an alternative universe.
The media was able to portray former President George W. Bush as incompetent and convince an overwhelming majority of Americans to vehemently oppose him. They destroyed the candidacy of Mitt Romney, a decent man, and are now trying to eviscerate Donald Trump, with half-truths and lies. Meanwhile the president and his former secretary of state are constantly portrayed in a good light and are actively promoted. Despite everything President Obama has done to change the culture of this country, while engaging in divisive rhetoric, empowering both domestic and foreign terrorists, saddling the country with unprecedented debt, caused a great racial divide, opened the borders and overseen a weak economy, to name a few, he is supported by a majority of people in this country. The Democrat standard-bearer to replace him, still leads in national polls despite all her missteps, trails of untruths, carelessness and corrupt baggage.
An uninformed and misinformed public can be misled. In times like these we must stay informed and be intelligent about what is transpiring around us. We cannot rely on tweets, headlines and simplistic, superficial information. Decisions must be based on real facts.
In Parshas Bolok, we read how thousands of years ago, Bolok was worried about the size of Am Yisroel, who he feared would conspire to destroy him and his nation. Having heard from his enemy, Midyon, with whom he formed a coalition in order to overcome the hated Bnei Yisroel, that the strength of the Jewish people lies in their mouths, he procured the services of Bilam to curse them (Bamidbar 22:4, Rashi ibid.). Bilam appeared to be reticent about performing the job for Bolok, acting as if he would not defy Hashem. It was a charade. When he was promised sufficient money and fame, he saddled his donkey and set out to plot the destruction of the Jewish people.
His posturing is reflective of today’s time, when leaders pronounce reassuringly that they are driven by pure intentions, motivated to serve the people. Then they simultaneously engage in behavior detrimental to the safety of the countries they lead.
Bilam was confronted by his donkey that berated him for his disloyalty to the one on whose back he rode so often. Chazal teach that the peh of the ason, the mouth of the donkey, was created on the first Erev Shabbos following creation. The Ramban and the Seforno teach that there was a message in the beast’s expressiveness, teaching Bilam that the gift of speech he was blessed with was from Hashem. The same One Who enabled him to speak enabled the donkey to do the same. He was thus warned not to attempt to deviate from the wishes of Hashem and not to curse Am Yisroel. He continued along his way, but instead of curses, his mouth uttered blessings.
People are confused and wonder how they can tell the Bilams of the world apart from those who not only preach fidelity to Hashem’s will, but actually follow it. How do we know who speaks with a glib, cynically forked tongue, and who is honest, holy and deserving of respect and support?
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (5:19) tells us how to differentiate between the talmidim of Avrohom Avinu and those of Bilam.
It is interesting that instead of the Mishnah teaching how to differentiate between Avrohom Avinu and Bilam Harosha, Chazal delineate the differences between their students.
Rav Yechezkel of Kuzmir explained that while it may have been possible to be fooled by Bilam and his demeanor, analyzing his students and followers reveals the truth about the man and his goals.
Often, purveyors of fiction cloak their lies with half-truths to fool people and gain credibility for their messages. Doing so creates difficulty differentiating between the genuine and the phony. With patience, the intentions of the leader become obvious. Avrohom became “Avinu,” spawning a nation of rachmonim, bayshonim and gomlei chassodim, paragons of decency, virtue and humility. Bilam became the role model of their antagonists, the hero of those governed by ayin ra’ah, ruach govoah, nefesh rechovah, selfishness, pettiness, greediness and arrogance.
The Mishnah is teaching us not to focus on what the leaders say and how they present themselves, but rather to look at the effects of their words and actions. They may proclaim that they are all about peace and love, but beware if their actions lead to strife and hate. They may proclaim that they seek to rid the world of evil, but their actions betray their words.
As an eternal people, we are blessed with an eternal memory. Nothing is forgotten. Nothing is overlooked. The Mogein Avrohom (Orach Chaim 580:9) cites the custom of fasting on the Friday preceding the Shabbos when Parshas Chukas is lained, because that is when twenty-four cartloads of Gemaros were burned on the streets of France in 1244.
Several leading rabbonim dreamt that the fast should be observed on that Friday and not on the date upon which the terrible chillul Hashem transpired. “Zos chukas haTorah,” the chok of Torah is that the nations of the world torment us because of the Torah. As Chazal say, the mountain upon which the Torah was delivered is named Har Sinai because it is from where sinah, hatred, of Jews came down to the world.
With emumah and bitachon, we accept that the pain we endure is caused by the Av Harachamon for reasons most of us cannot fathom. It is part of the chok of Torah. It is part of the chok that is the life of the Jew.
Since the days of Bolok and Bilam, we have been singled out for destruction, yet we have persevered. There are periods of din and periods of rachamim. At all times, we seek to engage in conduct that arouses the middah of rachamim in our Av Harachamim. We engage in acts of kindness and charity and look at each other with kindness.
The parsha ends with the plague that was unleashed by Bilam, who flooded the Jewish nation with the daughters of Midyan. Pinchos was a man of action, not words. The pesukim recount that the Jews stood around Moshe at the entrance to the Ohel Moed, and cried. Pinchos saw the same thing, but he rose from the group, took a spear and did what had to be done. Action. Not words.
Bilam feared what the people of Moav would say about him and went along with the plan to have the Jews cursed, though he knew it was wrong. Pinchos did what the Torah demanded. He did what had to be done, though people would say that he was negative and cynical. He didn’t care that people would say he was a divider, not a uniter, and that he was a murderer. “Who does he think he is?” he knew they would remark. But he didn’t care what people would say about him. He cared about following the word of Hashem.
The Torah decides which actions cause unity and what causes division. Ridding the world of evil strengthens life and ends strife. Standing by, weeping and offering platitudes causes plagues of destruction.
During these times of ikvesa diMeshicha, we need men and women of action, not fear; togetherness, not division; healing, not hurt; rejuvenation, not stagnation; and passion, not apathy.
When he was four years old, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Yosef Yitzchok Shneerson, asked his father, the Rashab, Rav Shalom Ber of Lubavitch, why a person was created with two eyes.
The Rashab asked the lad if he knew the difference between the letters shin and sin. “Sure,” he answered. “The shin has a dot on the right side. The sin has a dot on the left side.”
“My son, that is why you have two eyes,” the Rashab said. “There are some things that you have to view with your right eye and others that you must view with the left eye. You always look at a Jew with the right eye. Candies and toys you look at with your left eye.”
A Jew is important. A Jew is to be treasured. Always look at a Jew with the right eye. Always view him kindly. Candies and toys are of lesser importance; for them, the left eye suffices. Be from the talmidim of Avrohom, viewing others with an ayin tovah.
As we approach the sad period of the year we refer to as The Three Weeks, it is incumbent upon us to view things with the right eye, recognizing what is going on around us, being kind and forgiving, and seeking to foster achdus and love.
We need to mourn the destruction of Yerushalayim and really pine for the arrival of Moshiach. As Chazal say (Taanis 30b), “Kol hamisabeil al Yerushalayim zocheh veroeh besimchasah - Whoever mourns Yerushalayim will merit to see the joy of its redemption.” In order to merit being part of the redemption, we need to engage in activities that demonstrate that we feel the loss.
We can adopt the custom of reciting Tikkun Chatzos, at least during The Three Weeks, demonstrating our sense of loss and begging Hashem to bring us home. For those who find it difficult to recite the chapters of the Tikkun without comprehending the holy words, Dr. Daniel Steinberg, a dentist from Queens, took the obligation of mourning the churban seriously and prepared an English translation, which can be accessed by going to http://bit.ly/1CV1n9U.
We know what caused the destruction of the Botei Mikdosh. Part of being misabeil on Yerushalayim is to rectify those actions. We must cut out sinas chinom, baseless hatred, which afflicts our people. We need to bring people together and work to foster achdus, erasing division and the pettiness that causes it. We have to treat all people like brothers and sisters, doing what we can so that no one goes to bed sad and spends their days in gloom.
Bilam sought to curse us, but when he looked out at the masses of Jews camped in the midbar, he was overcome and said, “Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov.” How great are the tents of Yaakov, filled with Torah and chesed, maasim tovim and shalom, brotherhood and ayin tovah. As the world spins out of control, we need to reinforce those tents. We need to reach out to our brethren, befriend the lonely, and strengthen the weak. We never really know who is lonely and who is weak, so we need to be friendly and supportive to everyone. We need to feel good about ourselves. We need to get excited about Yiddishkeit and be happy. We need to have a bounce in our step and a smile on our faces. Life is fragile. Life is short. Let’s make the most of it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Get Fired Up

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
This week’s parsha opens with the high ideal we are to live with: “Zos chukas haTorah, adam ki yomus ba’ohel.” The people whose souls are fused to Torah throw off physical mantles. They concentrate their lives on Torah and seek to shun activities that do not contribute to spiritual growth.
The first Rashi of the parsha quotes the Medrash Tanchuma, which states that the Soton and nations of the world mock us and ask for the rationale of this mitzvah. Therefore, says Rashi, the Torah spells out that Parah Adumah is a chok, a gezeirah min haShomayim, and we are not permitted to question it.
The nations of the world, and those who mock us and attempt to steer us from the path of our forefathers, question us and our practices. They say that the mitzvos are backward and without reason. We don’t answer them. We don’t try to explain it to them. We reinforce to ourselves that we are following the word of Hashem, which is a chok. This way, we are able to succeed and flourish in a world of sheker.
A lion once encountered a chicken and began to choke it. “Why are you trying to kill me?” the chicken called out to the lion. “I never hurt you. You don’t know me. Why are you doing this to me?”
The lion looked at the poor little chicken it held in its grasp and responded, “Do you know why I am doing this? Because I can!”
Thankfully, today the attitudes of many of our neighbors have changed and the Jewish people are afforded freedom around the world. But for centuries on end, the nations of the world  treated us the way that lion treated the chicken. They tortured and tormented us. They doubted our loyalty and intelligence. They asked us many questions. The Torah tells us not to bother answering, and not to engage in debates. Their intent is only to mock us; we gain nothing by engaging them.
Additionally, Torah, as the ultimate wisdom, doesn’t operate with the conventional rules. The logic of the Torah defies explanation. We accept chukim as well as mishpotim, recognizing that we are bound to the chok, the bond of Torah living, which goes beyond reason and logic.
Torah greatness and fidelity aren’t born of brilliance, but of toil, purity and diligence. Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l would often quote from the sefer Sheim Hagedolim, which says that before Rashi set out to write his landmark peirush, he traveled extensively to ascertain whether a better peirush than he envisioned existed. It was only after he was unable to find any extant exposition explaining the Torah that he set out to write the classic peirush that has endured until this day.
As Rashi wrote his work, he fasted hundreds of taaneisim to ensure that his words would help propel people to the truth.
Rav Shach would weep as he would recount this, because to him, this anecdote represented all that is right and true about our mesorah. It underscores the fact that chochmas haTorah isn’t about reason alone, but also about humility coupled with commitment to the truth and mesorah.
Rav Aharon Kotler, in Mishnas Rav Aharon Ahl HaTorah (Parshas Korach), discusses the important role of shevet Levi in Klal Yisroel, separated for greatness from the rest of the klal, performing the avodah of the Mishkon and ruling on halachic matters, as the posuk says, “Yoru mishpotecha leYaakov veSorascha l’Yisroel” (Devorim 32:10). In order to perform their duties and maintain their lofty spiritual levels, they were not given land portions in Eretz Yisroel along with everyone else. This way, they were not encumbered with taking care of their property. For their livelihood, Hashem had the rest of the people give maaser rishon to the Leviim and 24 matnos kehunah to the Kohanim.
Rav Aharon asks that since this is the case, why were the Bnei Yisroel easily able to circumvent their terumah and maaser obligations? In effect, shevet Levi was at the constant mercy of their brethren. This could not have led to a calm situation, especially considering the fact that the reason for the terumos and maaseros - and that they didn’t own property - was so that they would not be worried about earning a livelihood.
Rav Aharon answers that since their role was to provide leadership in many areas, there was a danger that they would become haughty and view themselves as being on a different plane than everyone else. If they would be financially secure and not dependent on others, they would look down at others, which would cause them to be baalei ga’avah, detached from the people.
Since humility is a prerequisite for Torah growth, were they to become haughty they wouldn’t be able to achieve greatness. Additionally, in order to pasken properly, siyata diShmaya is required. Since Hashem detests those who are conceited, as the posuk states, “Toavas Hashem kol gevah lev,” they would lose their ability to properly understand Torah and rule on matters of halacha.
Therefore, they are provided for by the masses, but in such a way that forces them to maintain their humility. A person requires 48 levels of ethical perfection in order to succeed in Torah. Greatness in Torah is a gift from Hashem, conferred upon men of faith and humility. Torah is attained differently than any other knowledge.
Not only is greatness in Torah thought achieved differently than in other subjects, but communal leadership decisions are arrived at in a different way than they are in the outside world.
In the days of the czar, a dictate closing all chadorim and forcing all Jewish children to be educated in government schools was handed down. Many meetings were held to find solutions. At one such meeting, it was proposed for a delegation to travel to a minister who was born Jewish but had totally strayed from the path. He was involved in the passing of the edict, and it was suspected that he was actually the author of the new law.
One of the attendees at the meeting identified him as Minister Schapiro and noted that he hailed from a respected rabbinic family. “In fact,” said the man, “Rav Yaakov sitting here with us today is related to him. Perhaps he should travel to the capital and meet with the minister. He can remind the minister of his yichus and appeal to him to rescind the law.”
All eyes turned to Rav Yaakov, who wasn’t sure that it was the right course of action. “If I introduce myself to him as a relative, he might be receptive,” Rav Yaakov said, “but bringing up my grandparents might be a source of embarrassment to them, tying them with their offspring, this rasha.”
Everyone was silent until the Kuzmirer Rebbe responded, citing a posuk: “Moshe Rabbeinu sought to travel across the land of Edom on the way to the Promised Land. He reached out the Edomite king, a grandson of Eisov. He said to him, ‘Ko omar achicha Yisroel, so speaks your brother Yisroel.’ Rashi explains that Moshe told the king of Edom, ‘Achim anachnu, bnei Avrohom. We, as children of Avrohom, are your brothers.’ So we see that to prevent a crisis, it is permissible to cite a common relationship to a tzaddik.”
Rav Yaakov was convinced. He undertook the mission to his assimilated relative and succeeded.
The Ozherover Rebbe zt”l would cite this story as an example of the principle of daas Torah, always looking back and finding sources for a course of action, never relying upon one’s own logic.
A group of askonim had an idea to solve a crisis that their community was facing. They met with a communal leader, who told them that the idea sounded fine to him, but that he would consult with Rav Shach before providing a final answer.
When presented with the plan, Rav Shach immediately shot it down. He said, “I saw from the Chofetz Chaim that their solution is improper.”
The group was convinced that they had thoroughly analyzed the issue and arrived at a perfect solution. They were sure that it wasn’t explained properly to Rav Shach, so they arranged to meet with the Rosh Yeshiva and discuss their solution to the pressing communal crisis.
Rav Shach told them, “I will not debate your arguments, and for all I know, your thoughts might be correct. But Klal Yisroel is not led by conclusions and thoughts of smart people. Klal Yisroel is led by mesorah, tradition. If the mesorah from the Chofetz Chaim is that we don’t engage in something like that, then we don’t do it, no matter how smart it seems, for following our mesorah is the smartest course of action.”
Too often, we see people who think they are smarter than the Torah. We see people who are consumed by a problem and believe that they have the perfect solution. They fail to properly consider it, as they are convinced of their intelligence and leadership abilities, but they are wrong. They are conceited and therefore lack the siyata diShmaya required to arrive at proper decisions. They ignore the mesorah and how gedolim who came before them acted. They think that the times have changed and the methods of realizing goals are different. They disregard the way that the greats of the previous generations conducted themselves and how they dealt with similar situations in their respective eras. 
None of us is qualified to think that he has the solutions to problems that face us. No one, as smart as he thinks he is and as pressing as the problem he faces is, has a right to present plans that differ with our mesorah. Doing so causes mayhem and fails to solve problems. The logic may be compelling, but it is still wrong.
People in our day are led astray by those who claim to understand the reasoning for different halachos and temper them to mesh with the times. Such thinking is what gave birth to the Conservative and Reform movements, which caused many to deviate from halacha and mesorah, leading millions of Jews astray. It sounds funny to us that they maintain institutions that they refer to as “yeshivos” and have halachic decisors who write so-called teshuvos in halacha, as if they are following the Torah.
Once you begin to rationalize the commandments and inject human understanding of them and their concepts, you begin compromising them and sullying the holy with a simple thought process.
There are those who assume that they have mastered Torah, and are therefore qualified to rule as they understand, ignoring precedent, and the impact of their ruling. Such people have failed in their leadership roles.
Critical thinking and analysis lacking yiras Shomayim, a sense of mesorah and humility result in individuals who destroy instead of build, obscure instead of reveal, and cause others to repel the Torah instead of drawing closer to it.
Our fellow Jews in the Open Orthodoxy movement, who follow in the path of the founders of the Conservatives, have fallen into this trap. Insistent as they are on being termed Orthodox, we must never stop denying their claim, because, in fact, they are not Orthodox in thought, practice, attitude or approach.
They inflict damage in the shuls and schools that naively hire their members, thinking that they are loyal to Torah and mesorah. We must persist in calling them out as the impostors they are. Their teshuvos and drashos mock tradition and halacha, and are fanciful attempts to have the Torah conform with current progressive thought, bearing little relation to the reality of Torah thought and interpretation.
Rav Elchonon Wasserman explained the posuk of “Tzidkoscha tzedek le’olam” (Tehillim 119:142) to mean that man cannot fathom the depths of Hashem’s justice, for society and its concepts are ever changing. What is considered just in one generation is viewed as unjust in the next. But “veSorascha emes,” the truth of Torah is everlasting. It neither changes for the times nor conforms to them.
Zos chukas haTorah. Torah is a chok. Torah is neither about impressive dissertations nor social welfare and contracting with a good PR firm. It is about following the will of the Creator as expressed in Torah Skebiksav and Torah Shebaal Peh. That’s just the way it is.
Chazal say (Taanis 30, et al), “Kol hamisabel al Yerushalayim zocheh veroeh besimchosah.” In order to merit enjoying the rebuilding of Yerushalayim, one must mourn its destruction.
Eis tzorah hee leYaakov. It is a dangerous time for our people. We witness the repeated wanton murder of our brothers and sisters in Eretz Yisroel and watch as the world blames us. We see women’s groups ply their fiction at the Kosel, wearing tefillin and reading from Sifrei Torah. These people, who publicly defile the Shabbos, enjoy non-kosher food, and ignore all the Torah’s commandments, promote a new agenda and threaten the spiritual holiness of Israel.
Last week brought new displays of the failings of the justice system in the United States, beacon of freedom to the entire world. The heads of the FBI and the Justice Department, the highest enforcers of the rule of law in the land, contorted to exonerate a former secretary of state who is the leading contender for the presidency, from serious charges concerning her handling of the nation’s security. With twisted logic that recognized her reckless carelessness, lies and potentially criminal actions, they failed to indict her. People concluded that apparently justice is not blind and not everyone receives equal treatment in this land.
Breakdown of law-and-order reached a new low, as police killed two black men and five policemen were murdered in retaliation in Dallas, Texas. The nation searches for leadership, as the current White House occupant and the two who aspire to succeed him are not trusted and loathed by large numbers of Americans.
When justice is man-made, there is always going to be inequality, mistakes, and feelings of division, for the system is inherently only as good as the mortals who formulate the laws, and enforce and adjudicate them.
Rav Binyomin Zev Yaakovson of Copenhagen wrote that when his travels took him to Lithuania, he found himself at an asifah headed by the Chofetz Chaim and Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky. The Chofetz Chaim addressed the gathering and said the following. In this world, Jews are divided into groups. There are Litvaks and there are Chassidim, and within each group, there are sub-groups. There is this rebbe and that rebbe, this yeshiva and that yeshiva, this derech and that derech. These divisions are outgrowths of the olam hasheker, he said, but in Shomayim, they aren’t interested in these divisions.
In Shomayim, he explained, there are five types of Jews: There are kochadike Yidden, boiling hot Jews; vareme Yidden, warm Jews; lebleche Yidden, room-temperature Jews; kalte Yidden, cold Jews; and derfroirene Yidden, frozen Jews.
No community or grouping has a monopoly on anything. In each one, you can find these five types of Jews. The task of every Jew is to be a kochadike Yid, a Jew who boils with enthusiasm for Torah and mitzvos, and not one of the cold ones.
Zos chukas haTorah. Get fired up for Hashem. Be excited about Torah and filled with joy when you perform a mitzvah. Live life happily, seeking perfection and acting properly. Be warm towards others and towards yourself. Be warm with appreciation for the gifts Hashem has blessed you with. Accept the Torah and its laws with enthusiasm and joy. Don’t look to compromise on anything. Don’t seek explanations and understandings for those things that defy comprehension. Know that they are products of the infinite wisdom and kindness of the Creator. It is up to us to implement them and make the world a better, warmer and more hospitable place for ourselves, our brethren, and humanity at large, enabling us to welcome Moshiach, may he come in our day.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Staying Grounded

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Parshas Korach presents us with one of the most examined and talked about parshiyos in the Torah. Jews over the centuries have tried to come to grips with the motivations of this once-great man born into one of the princely families of Klal Yisroel who seemed to have everything going for him, until he went up against Moshe Rabbeinu.
Rashi notes (16:1), “Parsha zu yafeh nidreshes,” this parsha lends itself to fine homiletic interpretations. It is also relevant to each subsequent generation, for its lessons impact us and our lives.
What possessed Korach? “Korach shepikeiach hayah, mah ra’ah leshtus zu?” This question still troubles us; why did he do it? What was he thinking?
Oftentimes, we look at decisions made by others and wonder what they were thinking and how they could have chosen a particular course of action. How could they have failed to see what was plainly obvious to any objective observer?
Life is complicated. People are complicated. Situations change and people change along with them. People who succeed start believing that they are responsible for their own success and as a result, their self-image changes.
Anyone who seeks self-improvement and studies mussar, knows that the first rule of ethics is not to become haughty. The Rosh, in his sefer Orchos Chaim, composed of 155 rules of proper conduct, lists the following as number one: “Lehisracheik min hagaavah betachlis harichuk. Stay as far away as you can from haughtiness.”
The opening chapters of mussar sefer Orchos Tzadikim pertain to the pitfalls of haughtiness and importance of humility.
We have often seen it happen. Someone we know receives a new position, achieves success and becomes influential. As he grows in the job and gets more comfortable, he becoms consumed with self-importance. He begins taking himself seriously. And with that, comes a certain sense of him being holier than thou, better than everyone else. He begins looking down at people and looking at himself with exaggerated self-importance.
His arrogance leads him to lose touch with everyone around him, whom he views as small people. He becomes aloof and absorbed with his image, feeding his own sense of superiority. As time goes on, he distances himself from people he knew in his previous life, for they don’t appreciate his greatness.
That man is Korach. And that was his downfall. 
He was a child of a princely family. He had his work as an eved Hashem cut out for him, he achieved success and became consumed with self-importance. As he saw his cousins rising higher, he began to lose sight of his goal. He held public rallies, addressing his relatives and saying to them, “I also want to serve Hashem the way you do. I am just as qualified as you are.”
He insisted that his campaign wasn’t about him, although of course it was. He wasn’t content to be a “normal guy” anymore. Once he sniffed out nesius, kehunah, and positions of influence and prestige, he felt that they should be his.
He drifted further from reality, and as time passed, he grew increasingly distant from the people around him, becoming consumed by his aspirations.
Oh, we know this phenomenon so well. We see it so often. Thus, parsha zu is yafeh nidreshes. It can be repeatedly explored and examined for its lessons of enduring significance.
Korach carried the aron and possessed ruach hakodesh. He was a holy person, highly qualified for many positions, but he began to believe in himself and failed to take heed of Hillel’s teaching in Pirkei Avos (2:4). The humble Hillel taught, “Al ta’amin b’atzmecha ad yom moscha - Don’t believe in yourself until your last day on this world.” Don’t think that you have conquered all. Don’t think that you are better than everyone. Remember that the yeitzer hora is ever-present, seeking to take advantage of your weaknesses to cause you to stumble, fail and sin.
The appetite for leadership positions is an outgrowth of insufficient humility coupled with a lack of belief in Hashem. One who is immersed in Torah and maasim tovim, and reinforces himself with mussar study, doesn’t crave attention and praise from the masses, for at the end of the day, he knows that mortal praise and adulation are fleeting and usually self-serving. The eternal accolades are those that he aims for. Hashem has the ability to reward him for his actions and to properly respect him and his actions.
He is happy learning in his corner until Hashgochah declares that it is time for him to venture out of his daled amos and into communal leadership and responsibility. So many of our recent rabbinic leaders were people who shunned recognition and publicity.
The Chazon Ish studied alone in the Vilna shul, his greatness known only to few individuals and people who had to know, such as Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky. When he moved to Eretz Yisroel, where there was a dearth of talmidei chachomim and manhigim at the time, Rav Chaim Ozer declared that it was time to reveal the secret, and the Chazon Ish took a leading role in establishing the Israeli Torah community as we now know it.
Rav Elozor Menachem Man Shach was known as a batlan whose life revolved around Torah, his shiurim and his talmidim. When the passing of numerous Torah leaders left a tremendous void, the man who knew only Torah stepped out of his zone of comfort and, in his older years, led the generation to unprecedented heights.
When Rav Shach felt his strength ebbing after he passed the century mark, he turned to Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, another batlan whose life revolved strictly around his learning and literally forced upon him the mantle of leadership.
Torah leaders belong to the people. They don’t look over their shoulders to ensure that they have the crowds. They love Hashem, His Torah, and His children. They are approachable and sensitive, because they really do care. They operate on a higher plane and answer to a higher authority.
In 1973, there were contentious elections for the positions of Israeli chief rabbi. After Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren made it clear that political calculations would take precedence over halacha, the Torah leadership decided to act. Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Rav Betzalel Zolty and others tapped Rav Ovadia Yosef to run for the position of Sephardic chief rabbi and thus save the rabbanut from a hostile takeover. At an emergency meeting in Rav Elyashiv’s sukkah, the relatively young Chacham Ovadiah was informed that he had been selected as a candidate. He was hesitant. With the government and authorities lined up behind the other candidate, there was virtually no chance that he could win. Only two weeks remained before the election, yet, in deference to Rav Elyashiv, Chacham Ovadiah agreed and announced his candidacy.
Chacham Ovadiah continued his schedule of shiurim and writing teshuvos, refusing to hit the campaign trail. When askonim informed him that he didn’t seem to have many votes from the members of the voting committee, he replied, “I only need one vote, that of Hakadosh Boruch Hu.”
Our leaders are not people who seek the top positions and feel comfortable there. Rather, they are giants who shun the limelight and closet themselves with Hashem and the Gemara for decades of almost reclusive growth.
For all outward appearances, our past leaders, like our present ones, were like everyone else. They didn’t carry themselves differently. They stood among the people in the bais medrash without airs, never demanding any special recognition.
Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest prophet we ever had, the greatest leader our people has known, was “onov mikol adam, the most humble of men” (Bamidbor 12:3). He knew of his greatness and connection with the Creator, but he never lost sight of the fact that he was a yelud adam, a mortal person.
We all have to learn to remain grounded, connected to our family and friends, never losing sight of our common frailty. We are all just people. We should be careful not to get carried away with ourselves.
A prominent gaon, one of the most brilliant Litvishe mechabrei seforim, suffered a life of hardship and oppression. In his later years, he revealed the reason for his troubles. He said that he was cursed by Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor.
He related that as a young man, he found himself in Vilna at a large rabbinic levayah and was asked to speak. During his hesped, he involved himself in a local dispute. Later, he traveled to Kovno and went to see the gadol hador, Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor. The senior rov of Lita told him that a young person such as himself should not have gotten involved in a local dispute.
Being young and somewhat brash, the brilliant talmid chochom answered the Kovno Rov, “I know Bavli as well as you do. I know Yerushalmi better than you. I am entitled to express my opinion.”
Rav Yitzchok Elchonon looked at him and said, “If that is the case, going on this path will mean that you will have no peace your entire life.”
Although the rov interpreted it as a curse, it may be that Rav Yitzchok Elchonon was simply giving him advice for life. If you want peace in life, if you want to be happy, then you must be able to grow without becoming haughty. Peace of mind comes about from being cognizant of your proper place and role in this world. Proficiency in Shas is not a license to act rashly and brashly. The risks presented by haughtiness are as dangerous for you as for a person not as blessed as you.
To ignore that, is to risk losing touch with what makes life rich: friends, family and the peace of mind that comes to a person who isn’t occupied with self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. Haughty people run the risk of missing out on the contentment of those who act properly, rise in their spheres, and, when successful, remain aware of where they came from and where they are headed.
Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel was speaking to his talmidim and wanted to teach them a lesson in humility. He said that he was planning to stop accepting kibbudim at weddings. The rosh yeshiva smilingly described what went through his mind at wedding celebrations. “First, I spend a whole evening nervous about which brochah they’ll give me. Then, when they finally call my name, I am nervous about them getting my name and title correctly. Then, when all that is done and I am under the chupah about to recite the brochah, I notice two people outside schmoozing. They don’t even see that I’m getting a brochah, so the whole thing isn’t worth it.”
Tongue-in-cheek as it was, it was a powerful lesson from a rebbi to his talmidim, teaching them to maintain perspective.
You can’t live your life for fleeting honor or you will always be let down in the end. You can’t live your life based on how other people will react. You have to act properly and responsibly, bringing contentment to yourself and those around you.
Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky was seated at an elegant wedding. The waiter circulated, asking the assembled honored guests whether they preferred a fish or meat main course. Some chose fish to demonstrate a higher fidelity to the laws of kashrus, but when the waiter came to Rav Yaakov, he smiled and asked for the meat plate. He joked that the choice was between ta’ava and kavod. Ta’ava won.
Greatness isn’t the absence of normalcy, but the ability to admit to being human.
Rav Yaakov’s son, Rav Shmuel, embodies this ability. The rosh yeshiva exudes a sense of being able to relate to everyone, understanding all sorts of problems and situations, and using humor and gentle self-awareness to lead.
Our ultimate leader, Moshe Rabbeinu, was also the greatest onov, because there is no better way to understand and direct people than through true humility.
Recently, Rav Shmuel arrived early at an office for a meeting. The rosh yeshiva noticed that a Daf Yomi shiur was being given by Professor R’ Michel Schiffenbauer, who was his talmid years ago in the Yeshiva of Philadelphia. He pulled up a chair and joined the staffers, along with various professionals who work in the neighborhood. In doing so, he gave a shiur of his own about what it means to stay normal, relatable and humble.
Korach utilized propaganda and demagoguery to further a personal vendetta. He threw the entire nation into turmoil merely to realize a personal ambition. A great and blessed man, he wasn’t satisfied with his position in life. He was consumed by visions of his own self-importance. He was blinded by his jealousy of the two brothers who redeemed the people from Mitzrayim and led them through the midbar on their way to Eretz Yisroel.
This week’s parsha is as relevant today as ever before. Each generation has those who lead, as did Moshe Rabbeinu, with Torah leadership.
There have always been those who saw it as their mission to rise up against gedolei Torah, seeking to minimize their greatness in the eyes of the masses in order to promote a personal agenda. Leadership is a tenuous position, requiring the leader to be respected and revered by the community he leads so that they may follow him.
Modern politics is all about portraying an image of being relevant. Remaining in power means being able to reach the people and maintain their confidence. People are fed up with the status quo, having those in power dictating their futures and ruling without care of repercussions on the lives of their constituents.
People want leaders who will help them, listen to them, and really care about them. They want a positive, bright future for themselves and their children. They want opportunity, jobs, good schools, fairness and justice. They want bullies punished, molesters put away, victims healed, and every child, smart or not, given a chance to make something of themselves.
Korach may have been a pikeach, but he didn’t have the temperament or inclination to heed those who said, “You’re acting like a fool.”
Perhaps this is why the parsha contrasts the fate of Korach with that of On ben Peles, whose wife saved him. By correctly diagnosing Korach’s motivation, she told her husband that he would be a back-bencher even were Korach to beat Moshe and Aharon. The wise woman told her husband, “You’re going to remain a nothing regardless, so why get involved?”
It probably hurt him to hear what she said, but he knew that she was the classic good wife. In fact, Chazal were referring to her when they taught, “Chochmas noshim bonsah beisah.” That chochmah is predicated upon being honest and straightforward.
If you have a spouse, sibling or good friend who tells it to you the way it is, cherish him or her. Listen, because they will keep you sane.
Reb Meir Simcha Chein, a wealthy chossid, built a nice house. At its center sat a massive, ornate dining room table, suitable for royalty.
Shortly after he moved in, fellow chassidim and friends went to the house for a fabrengen. One chossid took a knife and made a scratch on the new table.
“Why did you do that?” Reb Meir Simcha inquired.
“Because, this way,” the chossid said, “the chassidim won’t be afraid to celebrate around it.”
Reb Meir Simcha, appreciating the depth of the answer, and the loyalty and friendship beneath the words, embraced his dear friend.
Let’s never forget who we are or where we come from. Never become distant and aloof.
Being “one of the boys” takes work, and no one is so important to be better than anyone else. Make sure your friends aren’t afraid to dance on your table.
Parsha zu yafeh nidreshes. Let’s probe it repeatedly, keeping ourselves far away from haughtiness and conceit.
Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman was asked to give a mussar talk to a gathering of moros, Bais Yaakov teachers.
“Me?” he reacted with surprise, “I should speak to them? I should give them mussar? These are women who are up late at night preparing their classes, then tending to their children early in the morning. When they finally dress and give their children breakfast and get them off to school, they hurry off to teach. Six hours later, after a long morning of teaching, answering, speaking and inspiring Yiddishe techter to Torah and yiras Shomayim, they rush home, where ‘di pitzkalech varten,’ the children wait for them eagerly. If they want to rest, the children don’t let. Yes, they deserve chizuk, but I certainly can’t give them mussar.”
Parsha zu yafeh nidreshes. Know your place and remain humble.
Every person has his own unique contribution to make. As Korach rightly said, “Kol ha’eidah kulam kedoshim.” Every individual is holy. Yet, he attempted to go where he didn’t belong.
Each plant requires a certain amount of sunlight and water. Similarly, every Jew has an area in which he can flower, prosper and contribute to the betterment of mankind.
Klal Yisroel is like a luscious landscape, loaded with various plants and flowers. There are tall and mighty trees alongside willowy shrubbery. There are tall grasses and short ones, flowering bushes and evergreens, side by side. Each one is different, but together they form a remarkable garden.
Today, as we mourn the murder of a precious little girl who was sleeping in her bed in Kiryat Arba and the menahel of the yeshiva in Otniel, a father of ten gunned down by bloodthirsty butchers, we ponder our precarious state. There is nothing more humbling than recognizing the fleeting nature of life and our lack of control of the future.
As we begin the sorrow-filled month of Tammuz, let us all remember our places and tasks to do what we can so that next year, Tammuz will be a month of joy.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

It’s About Us

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
What do people care about? What are people interested in? This question intrigues newspaper publishers, as well as rabbis, teachers and anyone who wants to reach out effectively to the public.
Oftentimes, communicators, teachers, rabbeim, rabbonim and fundraisers wonder if people still care about anything.
We’ve all read about the passion and determination of generations past, how people lived for their communities and gave freely of themselves for others. We read how teenagers spent every waking moment under Mike Tress’ direction at 616 Bedford Avenue, assembling packages for survivors in Displaced Persons camps after World war II, and how he dispatched armies of children with pushkas in their hands to go forth and collect pennies for Vaad Hatzalah.
The older generation rose up to the daunting challenge of rebuilding a nation that had nearly been decimated. Intrepid souls rallied to rejuvenate survivors, helping them acclimate, finding them jobs, getting their children enrolled in schools, and building a communal infrastructure. Fueled by necessity, they banded together, pooled resources and rebuilt everything from scratch.
We tell the tales of the heroes of that time and we wonder about our time. Do we see people banding together for causes with all their energy, ability and passion? Passion is the key word; it seems as if today it is sorely lacking. We do what we have to, but we do it without passion.
We don’t get excited about anything anymore.
We are blessed with schools boasting beautiful buildings and excellent rabbeim and teachers. Do we get involved with the schools and appreciate what they have been doing for us?
Effective communal organizations have arisen in cities across the country, but there seems to be a lack of passion. Do people truly appreciate the changes these endeavors have brought?
We seem to be afflicted by a bout of apathy.
It wouldn’t be cynical to say that there was a time when people cared about each other, about their communities, and about communal organizations, bikur cholims, schools and the like. People cared about the news. They sat glued to their radios to hear the latest news on the hour. They read newspapers for the news and cared about what was going on around the world.
They cared about people who had stepped out of line. They got worked up about issues. They cared about kiruv and followed the latest news about Soviet Jewry. They were consumed by the goings-on in Eretz Yisroel.
Those who study generations and psychology say that our generation is plagued by self-importance, narcissism, and getting quick and instants highs. Apparently, not enough people in our generation get excited from a gorgeous esrog, a 50-year-old putting on tefillin for the first time, or a five-year-old kid rescued from public school saying Shema day after day.
In the wider world, meaningful dialogue has been replaced by short, soulless tweets or one-liners. Everything is so superficial and farcical.
We try so hard to get people interested in each other, in good causes, in Torah, in the world, in things that should concern them. And too often, we fail and say that the generation is doomed. They don’t care about anything but their toys, phones, cars and wines.
That was until the Cleveland team won the basketball championship last week. People were jumping up and down with glee and happiness. They really cared. They were really happy. The joy was palpable, as people across the country sent each other clips and quotes and updates.
Apparently, there are still things people care about.
Our generation is not totally unabsorbed. There are things that really grab them.
Different things.
Suddenly, with that basketball victory, we saw it all on display - raw emotion, passion, heart, exuberance and zeal. People of all ages - especially those with connections to C-Town - threw their heads back and shouted, cried and hugged. They came alive like inflatable dolls suddenly filled with air.
What happened?
More relevantly, what does it mean for us?
There is a pulse after all, so why aren’t we seeing it more often?
What does that team and its star player have that we don’t?
We have battles in our world as well. We have heroes, leaders and champions, yet people remain apathetic about them. Look around. Scores of Jews are leaving France, traveling to Israel to escape raging anti-Semitism, and no one seems to care. A generation ago, the plight of Russian Jewry consumed our community, as people wondered who would teach them, who would support them, and whom they would marry. People worried that they would leave Russia only to become lost here, and they rallied to be there for them.
Yet, here we are, a quarter century later, and very few are wondering about what will happen to the French children arriving in Eretz Yisroel. How many people know what is going on in Europe? And how many truly care? When was the last time you heard anyone talk excitedly about Be’er Hagolah or Sinai Academy, the two foremost schools in the United States catering to children of Soviet immigrants?
How many people care about Lev L’Achim, Shuvu and other Israeli kiruv groups? And how many care about Oorah, other than to laugh along with Fiveish?
Do our children know the names of people like Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Grossman and where he lives? Do we tell them about heroes like Rabbi Tzvi Schwartz of Rechovot and what he does every day?
Do they know about the revolutionaries in our midst changing stale mindsets about all sorts of topics and turning people on to Torah? Do they know of the heroes who run Tomchei Shabbos programs to feed hardworking people with honor? Do they appreciate the people who support so many of the community mainstays with little or no fanfare?
How about those who provide a warm shoulder to cry on when there is none, or friendship in a lonely world? Why all the negativity all the time? Why do so many people never look around to see the good in our world?
They know how many points a 6′8″ once-in-a-generation athlete scored in a game. Do they know which cities have communal kollelim or day schools? How many Jewish kids are in Catholic schools and how many are in Jewish religious schools? How many kids are waiting for someone to come along and reach out to them?
What happened to the passion for kiruv?
Do we even care anymore about the millions of Jews being lost to our people forever? Or do we just say, “Oh, look, there used to be a Reform temple here and now it’s gone,” as if that’s good news? It’s not. The temple is gone, replaced by a school, shul, nursing home or yeshiva because its members are gone, not because they changed for the better. They have departed from Yiddishkeit altogether and are even more lost and unreachable.
We wring our hands helplessly and say, “What do you want from us? It’s not our fault. There is so much going on and we can’t possibly keep up with everything. We are bombarded by news and causes and updates on a minute-by-minute basis. It’s hard to get too involved with anything before the next email, text message or WhatsApp rolls in. What can we do? We have to pay tuitions and mortgages, and keep up with the rat race. Life isn’t as simple as it used to be in the pre-iPhone days.”
That is certainly true. But when something that we care about, something that touches our soul, happens, we get all into it. Sports may be a bad example, but it shows that it is possible to get people to care, focus and remain engaged. It shows that passion is not dead. People do care about something; they can still get excited about things outside of themselves.
Would it be sacrilegious to say that following a great ball player in action can provide a rush that a magnificent esrog does not? That a sports team’s victory is more meaningful than a 50-year-old putting on tefillin for the first time and a greater thrill than rescuing a five-year-old child from public school?
If so, why? And what can we do about it?
In this week’s parsha of Shelach, we read how the meraglim returned from scouting out the Promised Land and turned the people against Moshe, Hashem and the Land of Israel. Knowing the people’s weaknesses, they played down the bounty and blessings of the land.
During their mission, as in life, they saw things transpiring that could be viewed as positive and negative. Invariably, they chose the negative interpretation each time. The fruit is too big. The people are too strong. Nothing is good. Hashem promised this place to us and our forefathers. Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov lived there and saw the eternal blessings of the place, but that was of no consequence to the meraglim.
“Efes, ki az ha’am. Eretz ocheles yoshveha hee,” they said. We’ll never make it; forget about it. Let’s find some better place to move to. Let’s dump Moshe and start over.
What caused them to be so mistaken? How could they veer so far from the pasture of goodness?
One hint is the posuk that says, “Vanehi be’eineinu kachagavim vechein hayinu be’eineihem.” They viewed us as small grasshoppers (Bamidbar 13:33).
They were concerned about how others looked at them. Insecure in their beliefs, they sought to find favor in the eyes of the Canaanites. They imagined that they were viewed as pygmy interlopers.
This is the age-old Jewish mistake of looking to those outside of our community, seeking their praise and adulation. Instead of recognizing our position in this world and seeking to find favor in the eyes of our fellow Jews, helping them, supporting them, and doing what is proper in the eyes of Hashem, we invariably seek to blend in and earn accolades. If a frum paper writes about us, we aren’t impressed, but a mention in a goyishe paper and the whole family and neighborhood breaks out in a burst of ethnic pride.
The insecurity of the meraglim caused them to be unhappy, resulting in their negativity about something as blessed as Eretz Yisroel, the mekor of our belief and the place so integral to Torah, our way of life and our history. And they were able to convince the people that Eretz Yisroel is just a farce.
Their insecurity was brought on by a lack of enthusiasm for the word of Hashem. It caused them to view themselves through the prism of the locals, and brought on a fear that if the nation would enter the land, they would be supplanted and lose their leadership positions. Their own selfish, petty, subconscious thoughts set in motion contrived conspirational thinking, setting back our people, keeping us in the desert for forty years, sending us into golus and evoking the anger of Hashem.
The people were easily convinced by the meraglim because they also shared apathy toward the words of Hashem and Moshe. Their careers weren’t in jeopardy; they didn’t see the Canaanites to fear them. All their physical and spiritual needs were provided by Hashem as they traveled in the midbar. There was no excuse for them to fall for the lies propagated by the meraglim. They should have recognized the truth in the arguments of Kalev and Yehoshua.
Their apathy and lack of excitement caused them to be led astray by what they should have known was fiction.
At a gathering of rabbonim from across the pale of Jewish settlement, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik became upset with something one of the rabbis said. The person who was sitting next to Rav Chaim remarked, “What do you want from him? He’s nebach not smart.” Rav Chaim answered, “When it comes to zeiner zachen, his things, he’s smart. Apparently, Torah iz nit zeiner ah zach, Torah is not one of his things. That is why I am upset at him. Torah darf zein unzere zach. Torah must be our thing.”
If the Jews were able to be swayed by the meraglim, it was because Eretz Yisroel iz nit geven zei’ir ah zach. They weren’t sufficiently tied to the land and excited about it. The thought of walking in the footsteps of Avrohom Avinu didn’t excite them, so they lost it.
We need to be excited about mitzvos. We need to feel connected to Torah. We need to appreciate the many blessings we have and not take them for granted. Torah must be our thing, as must mitzvos and maasim tovim. We have it so much better than previous generations that we lose appreciation for the freedoms we are granted and the ease with which we can practice our religion.
But that shouldn’t lead to apathy. We must be alert for opportunities to do good and be thankful for everything we have. We should get excited when we learn a Mishnah, a halacha or a Gemara. We should appreciate the value of learning even one posuk and performing even one mitzvah, strengthening us and the world.
Mitzvos are about us. Torah is about us. Simcha is about us. They expand and elevate our lives, giving us reasons to live and be productive. They aren’t simply restricting rules, but methods to make us bigger and better people. And who doesn’t want that?
Lebron, a star basketball player returned home to Cleveland, promising that he would win the big prize for them. He said that they know what it means to work hard and that he would sweat for them. His toil for victory would reflect what they were doing in factories. It would reflect the worker standing in the hot kitchen of a diner and the mechanic sliding under a car to make repairs. He was them and they were him.
His battle was their battle and his triumph was theirs.
So they cared deeply. It was about them.
The allure of sports is that it allows people to attach themselves to something bigger than themselves and dream of heroics and victories. They feel one with their team and heroes, and when the team wins, they win. Everyone wins. When there is not much going on in your life, that appeal is overwhelming. No one is apathetic about their team. No one is unexcited when their hero brings home the medal.
Torah is our team. Torah is our goal. Torah is what we are all about.
A young bochur in one of the great yeshivos received a dreaded draft notice. He was called away from his Gemara for life on the Polish front. Someone suggested that he ask Rav Chaim Soloveitchik for help, so the young man traveled to Warsaw, where Rav Chaim was staying at the time.
He arrived and made his way to Rav Chaim’s lodgings, only to hear that Rav Chaim was in the middle of meeting a large group of rabbonim, roshei yeshiva and askonim, discussing issues of importance to Klal Yisroel. The anteroom was filled with attendants and gabboim of the illustrious personages, but the bochur pushed head.
The prospect of spending years in the army, eating vegetables for sustenance in the company of coarse soldiers, was a lot more unpleasant than having to fight for a moment of Rav Chaim’s time.
An attendant informed him that there was no way he would be allowed entry to the room, but the bochur insisted that this was pikuach nefesh. The attendant was adamant; no one was to disturb the meeting. The argument grew louder. The noise reached the great men in the room and, finally, Rav Chaim appeared in the doorway. With a glance, he took in the situation. He excused himself from his distinguished colleagues and sat down with the bochur in a corner of the room, listening closely and promising to help.
When the conversation concluded, Rav Chaim returned to the distinguished group he had kept waiting and apologized, offering a succinct explanation. “Everything that we discuss, deliberate and decide here is for Klal Yisroel. Rabbosai, that yeshiva bochur, who wants an exemption from the army so that he can return to his Gemara…he is Klal Yisroel!”
Are we always cognizant of the fact that every one of our children is Klal Yisroel - that we are Klal Yisroel? Do we treat every Jew as if he is a member of our team? Do we understand that we belong to each other, that we are here to help each other and bring the championship to our team?
When a fan goes to a game, he dresses up in the team uniform and projects himself on the field. After all, it’s his team. When the team wins, he celebrates and lingers in the stadium. But when the game gets off to a bad start, with the pitcher giving up home runs to the other team, the fan can simply leave his seat, return to his car and go home. For sports fans, as wrapped up as they can be in the game, they are spectators, not players. They come and go as they please; they are not forced to sweat out the game on the field.
In life, and especially in leading a Torah life, we are not merely spectators. We are all players. We are in the action and able to make a difference. If we try hard, we can help our team win. But if we are apathetic and unexcited, we cannot contribute to the team. We are then losers.
Summer is here. School is out. Country, here we come. Camps are filled with smiling children.
Now is a perfect opportunity to get children excited about our club. We do that by speaking with them on their level, talking to them in a way they can understand and relate to, connecting with them and letting them know who they are and what we are all about. Speak to them in a language they comprehend. Relate to them. Explain things to them in a way that excites them. Don’t force-feed them and scare them into following. Make it come alive with joy and optimism.
And it’s not just children. It’s adults too.
A generation of parents was forced to part from beloved children in concentration camps or under a hail of bullets. Always, their parting message was the same. “Gedenkt. Remember that you are a Jew.”
Nothing else was important at that moment. You’re on a team; make sure you connect and belong.
We’re fortunate to raise our children in safety, boruch Hashem. Is that a reason for them to lose out? We can do it. It starts with speaking to ourselves. When we feel it, they will too.
Let them know that it’s about them.
Spread the word. It’s about us. It’s our thing. It’s our team.
Let’s get excited.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Let’s Be Great

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The weekly news cycle, which includes the events and stories that recently transpired, captivates the country and molds people’s opinions. It informs and educates, and saddens and gladdens those who follow the fast-moving train. But for those who are sensitive enough to perceive that the rapid flow of news contains relevant messages with lessons for personal growth, the daily flow can also inspire.
The country is in the grips of an election season. In an era of flawed politicians and imperfect public servants, the candidates for president leave much to be desired. One is steps away from a criminal indictment, were it not for her deep connections and importance to her party. The truth is not the motivator; it is the campaign’s agenda that sets the narrative. Arrogance and blind ambition are the prime motivators. A lust for power radiates from the faces of politicians. They lie and navigate around the news seeking an advantage.
Last week, we saw such an example. Donald Trump, who has made protection from terrorism a mainstay of his platform and rode that to victory, faltered when it counted. The man who bases his campaign on the premise of a safer country and stronger law enforcement was not able to properly react to a homegrown Islamic terror attack. A radical Islamist who repeatedly pledged his loyalty to ISIS shot up a club, killing 49 people, and yet his crime is blamed on guns and used to promote liberal agendas, rather than to confront the evil that seeks to do to the West what it has done to Arab countries.
The opportunity to push the Right’s agenda was presented to Trump on a silver platter, yet he failed to deliver the right message. More Republicans separated from him. He got caught up with trivialities and his ego.
By doing so, he allowed his opponent, Hillary Clinton, to steal the moment. The woman who is flailing along with a lackluster campaign was able to use the attack to her advantage, as strange as that would seem. Running with the benefit of a mammoth fundraising operation; influential political aides; her husband, the former president; connections with power-brokers; and all the media in the country on her side, she was able to grab the opportunity handed to her by a Republican candidate who is spectacularly unprepared. She struggled mightily against her Democrat opponent, an old Jewish socialist from Vermont, yet when an event transpired that could have proven catastrophic to her candidacy, she triumphed.
The same thing happened the week before, when the State Department’s own internal investigator found that Mrs. Clinton has broken the rules. Instead of jumping on the opportunity to portray his opponent as unworthy of the office she seeks, Trump tied himself in knots of silliness, creating a storm of opposition to himself and allowing the media and political class to avert the glare from Mrs. Clinton’s malfeasance. Again, his ego got in the way.
For with the contemporary means of communicating, politicians have to master only one medium to triumph: the art of rhetoric. Everything is at most, only skin deep. There is no attempt to really understand an issue and analyze solutions. The only thing that seems to matter in this election cycle is a great sound bite, a tweet that can go viral, or a great line for use in a debate.
It’s all about talk. It’s not about explanations or answers, firm positions or the truth. Accomplishment, decency, experience and reliability matter little. It’s about style and spin. The people are as superficial as their leaders and don’t seem to care about much. The economy, terrorism, jobs, a world in crisis - they are all simply talking points not to be taken seriously.
We must ensure that the state of the world at large is not reflected in our camp as well. We need to banish those who rise to positions of influence through rhetoric and sound bites alone, and strengthen those with real ideas and genuine accomplishments.
Style is important, but leadership must be about substance. We have to be intelligent enough to judge people by what they do, not by what they say they will do. 
Those committed to a life of Torah, who probe the depth of pesukim and dissect the words of the Talmud, Rishonim, Acharonim and baalei machshovah, become better people, with depth and greatness. Talmidei chachomim are not about empty words and cute soundbites, they are real.
One Friday evening, the Brisker Rov sat on his porch before Maariv, watching a child of one of the mispalelim at his minyan playing nearby. Suddenly, the rov saw that the boy was holding a button. He rushed to him and said, “Shabbos!” instructing the boy to drop the muktzeh button.
Then the rov went into the room where the minyan was held and apologized to the boy’s father. He explained, “Aveidas kotton le’aviv, an object found by a child belongs to his father. Your son found a button and was playing with it. I told him to drop it because of Shabbos, but I have to ask you mechilah, because the button I caused him to drop was yours.”
The greatness of the Brisker Rov was that he not only admonished the child, as most others would have done, but he also appreciated the entirety of the episode and therefore immediately apologized to the father for causing him a loss. Halacha drove him. One minute he could admonish a child, while the next he could apologize to an adult for doing what he had to do.
Many people know how to scream, “Shabbos!” but fail to perceive the entire situation, which might indicate that they owe someone an apology. It’s easy to judge others, but the Torah demands that it be accompanied by the ability to understand all angles.
In Parshas Beha’aloscha, which is read this week in the golah, the posuk (11:1) describes the sin of the misonenim: “Vayehi ha’am kemisonenim ra be’einei Hashem - The people were misonenim and Hashem was angered and caused a fire to burn that devoured the edges of the camp.”
Rashi explains that the word misonenim means excuse. The people were looking for an excuse to depart from the way of Hashem. They complained that they were traveling for three days straight and it was too difficult for them. “Vayichar apo,” Hashem became angry, because the trek was for their ultimate good, so that they would enter Eretz Yisroel quicker.
The people cried out to Moshe, who davened on their behalf to Hashem, and the fire sank into the ground.
Immediately thereafter, the posuk relates that asafsuf (eirev rav-Rashi), followed by the Bnei Yisroel, began bemoaning the lack of meat for them to eat. Rashi points out that they had left Mitzrayim with plenty of sheep and cattle, but they were once again searching for something to complain about, so the facts didn’t matter. They complained about the monn that fell every day to sustain them in the desert and spoke about the free fish the Mitzriyim fed them when they were slaves. Instead of being thankful for their bounty, they once again grumbled.
Shortly thereafter, the Torah tells of Eldod and Meidod, who prophesized in their tent regarding Moshe. A young man heard them and became upset with what they were saying. He ran to Moshe to inform on them. Upon hearing the report, Yehoshua advised Moshe to lock them up and force them to desist from prophesying. Moshe refused, admonishing his assistant not to be zealous on his behalf. He declared, “If only the whole nation could be prophets!” 
Moshe learned the lesson of the misonenim and the asafsuf, and although he couldn’t have been happy with the subject of their prophecy, he wouldn’t lock up Eldod and Meidod. He only wished that more of the Jewish people would be worthy of prophecy. He saw the entirety of the situation and prayed for more holiness in his camp, ignoring any personal, selfish desires.
The parsha concludes with the story of Miriam and Aharon speaking disparagingly of Moshe Rabbeinu. Hashem admonished them, “Lomah lo yireisem ledaber b’avdi b’Moshe? Why did you seek to find fault in My eved, Moshe? You know that he is the leader of the people. You know that Hashem speaks to him regularly. You know of his greatness. Yet, instead of praising him, you mock him.”
They were punished for concentrating on a perceived fault instead of examining the totality of the person.
The parsha opens with the commandment to Aharon Hakohein to light the neiros of the menorah in the Mishkon. The lights were not for Hashem’s benefit, but rather for ours. The ability to achieve perfection in middos and to be people of substance, who examine an entire issue and seek to separate the bad from the good and support the good, is caused by the light of the neiros of the menorah. Those who are worthy see with that light, ki ner mitzvah veTorah ohr, living lives of greatness.
That is the depth of the promise made to Aharon when he was upset that he had no role in the chanukas hanesi’im. Hashem told him that his act, that of lighting the menorah, will live on for eternity, while that of the nesi’im would not. The light that Aharon kindled in the Mishkon is prevalent in our day as well. Those who see the light and benefit from it can follow in the path of Aharon, who was an “oheiv shalom verodeif shalom,” loving people and bringing about peace amongst them and between them and Hashem.
We must emulate his example.
We have to work hard in our communities to ensure that the battles we fight and the causes we champion aren’t just noise brought on by catchy words and superficialities. We have to be honest and ensure that our motivator is neither jealousy and pettiness nor a selfish desire to win or see our team come out on top.
Too often, hate and anger, fueled by rhetoric, pollute the air. Everything becomes a cause worth fighting over and people feel compelled to take sides, even when the particular stances they champion don’t reflect their true convictions. Rancor draws them in and doesn’t soften its grip.
They scream about muktzeh buttons without apologizing to the father, or the Father in heaven who seeks the best for His children.
Before we squabble, we should look beyond the surface to see what the words thrown around really express and the truth they conceal. We have to be honest and self-aware. Before we take a position, we have to look inward and make sure that our motives are proper, justified and responsible.
We have to look to see the perfection in Hashem’s world, perceiving the bigger picture that exists beyond our kehillos.
Before engaging in battle, we must see if there is a limud zechus, something that we failed to grasp the first time. We have to first see if there is a good side to the story before we declare war and condemn. We need to remove any personal considerations and selfish desires from the equation.
After the Second World War, several orphanages were opened in Eretz Yisroel to accommodate the many children who tragically arrived to the new country without parents.
In Bnei Brak, there was a large  orphanage that housed hundreds of young women. One of the neighbors had an issue with the institution and complained to the Chazon Ish.
“On Shabbos,” he said indignantly, “the girls sing zemiros and you can hear their voices outside the building. It’s an outrage.”
The Chazon Ish’s face lit up. “You’ve made me so happy. Maidelach cut away from their murdered parents, with bare memories of what the Shabbos tables looked like back in Europe, feel so at home and so happy that they are once again able to sing on Shabbos? Thank you for the good news.”
He saw beyond the words. He grasped the truth beneath the surface and perceived the world in all its dimensions.
When we observe the current political climate, with hatred, speechifying and mud-slinging, we must do the opposite. Less talk and more action. Less hate and more depth. Less speechifying and more caring.
At the end of the Second World War, Rav Eliezer Silver arrived in Europe with the liberating American troops and sought to breathe life into the survivors. As he worked to gather a minyan for Kabbolas Shabbos in a liberated camp, there was one man who stubbornly refused to participate.
“Why won’t you join us?” he asked the poor, broken soul.
“After what I saw, I can never pray again,” the bundle of skin and bones answered the man trying so hard to infuse some life into him. “Let me explain. In the lager, there was one sefer Tehillim. You can imagine how desperate people were for a Tehillim, to open its tear-stained pages and pour out their hearts in prayer for salvation.
“The owner would lend it to people in exchange for three pieces of bread. After repeatedly witnessing the scene of people ravaged by hunger being forced to part with their meager rations in order to say a few kappitlach of Tehillim, I can no longer pray.
“I can’t be part of a group in which a person can take advantage of others in such an awful manner.”
A crowd had gathered and stood agape as the man told the rabbi his story. They wondered how he would respond to the complaint of the broken man against his co-religionists.
Rav Silver looked at the crowd with a loving, knowing smile. He reached out to the man who said he could pray no longer and, with a sweet tongue, said to him, “It’s a shame that you are reaching conclusions based on the sorry actions of one person.
“You see, I would reach the exact opposite conclusion. Look how great the Jewish people are that so many starving people parted with their bread for a chance to reach out to Hashem.”
With that, the poor man regained some facial color. A small smile formed on his sad face, as he grasped the hand of the rov and, together, they strode to be mekabel Shabbos, the entire crowd following behind, armed with a new perspective on religion and life.
Lechu neranenah laShem. Let us sing to Hashem. Let us thank Him for keeping us alive. Let us thank Him for bringing this rabbi to us to remind us how to live and how to think.
“Mi yitein ess kol am Hashem nevi’im” was Moshe’s response to Yehoshua’s claims. Would that the whole Klal Yisroel develop the ability to say nevuah. The ultimate tov ayin wasn’t threatened by others. He understood that each person has his or her mission and role to play in Hashem’s world.
There is so much good that we each can do. The lessons are plainly evident in the Torah, but lest we need reminders, we can learn from the election campaigns which paths to avoid.
Let’s seek to build, to be great for real, not just as a talking point and an election slogan. Our people never stopped being great. The greatness is there for all who seriously seek it.
Find the light of the menorah, of Torah and mitzvos. Let it light your path.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Modeh Ani – Thank You

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
An elderly man diagnosed with a serious disease was sitting in a waiting room at Sloan Kettering Hospital, waiting for his turn to begin the chemotherapy process that he hoped would save his life. Stunned by his diagnosis and worried about what would come next, the man sat with his Tehillim, tears flowing, memories racing, fears abounding.
Suddenly, the sound of his name being called punctured his cloud and he rose to approach the treatment room. A young man stepped in his path, put his arm around him, and whispered into his ear, “Mir hubben vos keiner hut nit. We have what no one else has. Gedeinkt. Remember that.”
Over the next few months, every time his strength waned and his thoughts wandered to negative places, those words rang in his ears, the sweet whisper energizing him and keeping him going. “Gedeinkt,” he would say to himself, “mir hubben vos keiner hut nisht,” and push himself to go on.
Those words relate to the Yom Tov of Shavuos we now celebrate. “Mir hubben vos keiner hut nisht.” We have something unique that no other nation has. We have the Torah, and it empowers us with the ability to soar above all, to transcend everything and touch eternity.
On this day, the Creator shared with us His essence, the Torah. He began proclaiming the Aseres Hadibros and called out, “Anochi. I am your G-d.” In that word lay a hidden meaning that Chazal revealed for us. As Hashem began reciting those eternal truths and commandments, He was declaring in that very first word, through its roshei teivos, “Ana Nafshi Kasovis Yehovis. I am transmitting My Soul to you through Torah.”
Through those divine words at Sinai, we were given the means to connect to the eternal Source of life. Torah is a unique gift. It is our national and personal identity and credo, as well as our birthright.
The angels wanted to keep the Torah in Shomayim, but Hakadosh Boruch Hu declared that Torah would descend to the lower realms and find a home amongst his mortal creations of flesh and blood who are challenged with shallow desires.
And until this very day, it’s the light of our lives, the length of our days, the only meaning in a hollow world. We have the means to reach the heavens if we tap into the power of Torah.
Look around and note how desperate we are for clarity. We live in an upside down world, where truth is lies and lies are truth, where fantasy dominates and the facts are minor impediments. It’s always been that way, you may say, and that may be true, but we seek light in the darkness and truth for our paths, and too often we find lights wanting and trustworthy guides vanishing.
We see failed people battling each other for the spotlight and the right to lead the nation that was once a beacon of light to the world. Lies are lofted as bombs, with half-truths offering air support as the future of the country hangs in the balance.
Social mores hallowed since the destruction of Sedom are rapidly being thrust aside in the name of progressive human advancement. Chivalry is not in fashion, nor is modesty, knowledge, literacy or responsibility.
Close to home, fabricators seek to undo customs, practices and liturgy, while discrediting towering figures. Posing as protectors of the religion, they seek to destroy time-honored tradition in the name of progressive thought. Inane theories posted by pedestrian minds seek to edit words written in stone, handed down to man and passed down from generation to generation through the centuries in every climate: cultural, spiritual and financial.
As the sands shifted under the waves of the times, one thing remained steadfast, yet the scoffers think they can temper with that which is inviolate.
Maybe this is not a great sound bite, and it isn’t a cute slogan that can go viral, but it is fact that Torah is the truth, our mesorah authentic, and our practices luminous, and there is nothing anyone can do to change that.
The progressive new voices would do well to study history and observe how those who posed as “saviors” throughout the ages fell to the wayside. Let them see that the ones who tampered with Torah died in obscurity and insignificance. Their audaciousness led to irrelevance.
Through it all, we remain lonely at times, but always proud and confident in our millennia-old legacy and the Divine mission statement by which we live.
Torah is neither a theology, philosophy nor a law book. It is an action book, a guide for life. Anyone can open the book and read it, but Hashem wants us to live by it, and when we preceded na’aseh to nishma, we showed that we understood our mission.
When the Torah was presented to us, we proclaimed na’aseh venishma, eliciting the Divine statement of “Mi gilah lohem ruz zeh,” with Heaven eminently impressed by their statement of commitment.
The Aseres Hadibros are not simply ten commandments to be chiseled on monuments at courthouses and sewn with silver and gold thread on rich velvet. They are the essence of life and the oxygen of the universe.
Once, while delivering a shiur at the Stamford Yeshiva on a complicated calculation in Maseches Yevamos, Rav Moshe Schapiro suddenly stopped speaking. The silence hung in the room as the talmidim waited for their rebbi to continue, yet Rav Moshe appeared lost in thought, concentrating on the cheshbon he was in the middle of working out.
Suddenly, he spoke. “Rabbosai!” he exclaimed. “You should know that un Torah, without Torah, iz gornit, there is nothing!”
For his talmidim, that sentence served to instill in them an appreciation for the power and meaning of their learning.
For some reason, hedonistic people who seek to enjoy the pleasures of life and live a self-indulgent existence often seek to minimize the power of Torah in their lives. They see it as a restricting covenant and not as the path to freedom and tranquility. Perhaps that is the fault of the generation and maybe it comes from a lack of knowledge.
However, we know that the statement of Chazal, “Ein lecha ben chorin ela mi she’oseik baTorah,” is certainly the truth. Freedom is the province of those who delve into Torah. Torah Jews are also happier and have the elixir of life beating in their hearts.
Last week, at the Ohr Vodaas dinner in Monsey, I met Rav Michoel Bender, mashgiach of the Stamford Yeshiva and one of the tzaddikei hador. As I was speaking to him, I was, as usual, overwhelmed by his simplicity and piety and warm smile, I thought to myself that there was no one more free or happy in that room.
Last week I was on the phone with Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin, who lives by the words of the Torah he spends his days studying. He told me quite happily he came across something in Chovos Halevavos that day, which gave him tremendous strength. “It says there that a ma’amin wakes up every day and says Boruch Hashem I am in this place and situation.’”
“And that is for everyone, including me in jail,” he said. “Imagine that! I wake up in a jail cell separated from everyone and everything I care about and thank Hashem for being here.”
“But you know what? I wake up and thank Hashem for being here, because this is where He wants me to be. And if this is where He wants me to be then I am happy to be here. I do what I can and make the best of my situation. I laugh and smile.”
Thank you Hashem. Thank you.
In fact, every day when we awake in the morning and say “Modeh Ani,” that is what we are doing. The obligation to recite the short prayer for thanking Hashem for returning our neshomah to us is independent of where we find ourselves. No matter where we happen to be when we wake up, we thank Hashem for the kindness of keeping us alive.
If we not only say it, but also live it, we will live much happier and fulfilled lives. Instead of being despondent about any given situation, we will be hopeful and positive, realizing that our potential depends upon our belief in Hashem and ourselves. 
The one who studies Torah, those who are of faith, can laugh and smile and be productive even when in awful and challenging situations, because there is the truth the people on the level of the meraglim see, and then there is the real truth. And they see the truth and know that the purveyor of truth and kindness has a higher purpose in what happens to each person to help them reach their goals in this world.
He is happier than those who fly to a distant destination in pursuit of abundant merriment; their enjoyment is fleeting while his is eternal.
They pursue the good life, he lives it. He can be in Stamford, or Otisville, or Lakewood or Los Angeles, but if he remembers the mission of the special day of Shavuos when the truth was revealed and given to man, then he can live life the way it was meant to be lived.
What differentiates us from gorillas? It is the Torah. We have a neshomah and they don’t. They are chayos and we are adam. We have infinite potential and their capacity is severely limited. They may be cute and strong and photogenic, but man and monkey are unrelated and live on different levels.
That is simple to anyone who studies Torah and been touched by chochmaso Yisborach and the seichel elyon that affects us as we learn. Others aren’t as blessed. They remain blissfully ignorant and we pity them.
Last week, America mourned a gorilla. Everyone had an opinion and weighed in about the poor animal which was shot to death because of the negligence of a four-year-old. People were especially upset when pictures showed that the gorilla seemed to be protecting the child who had fallen into his zoo compound.
A chorus of voices across the country rang out decrying the killing.
We have a Torah, they don’t! How are those who cannot possibly appreciate what life is, be expected to feel the splendor and glory of man. How can they see the dimensions of humans if their eyes have never been opened.
Hashem offered the Torah to the world. It was rejected by all before it was presented to Am Yisroel. When the Jewish people were asked if they wished to subject themselves to the strictures and blessings of Hashem’s written word, they responded as one, “Na’aseh venishma.” With those two immortal words, they rose beyond the level of angels and became Hashem’s eternal people.
The Torah proclaims, “Vayichan shom Yisroel neged hahar.” Chazal emphasize that the Torah uses the singular verb vayichan, because the people stood as one at Har Sinai, ke’ish echod beleiv echod. They gathered not as hundreds of thousands of individuals, but as one mass of people, unified in their acceptance of the Torah. Each person accepted upon themselves responsibility for others. Every Jew was saying that he would do what he could to ensure that the others would keep the faith.
The Ramchal in Daas Tevunos (155:2) writes that at Har Sinai, the Bnei Yisroel received two gifts along with the Torah. They were given the strength that is required to properly observe all the Torah’s mitzvos and they were also granted the ability to bring about change through their actions.
Our actions don’t just affect us. They impact the world.
Rav Chaim Volozhiner, in the beginning chapters of Nefesh Hachaim, discusses in detail that all of us have that ability. No Jew should minimize his ability and think that his actions have no meaning or influence.
The yeitzer hora seeks to demoralize man into thinking that his actions have no consequence. Our task is to ignore that negativity and cynicism and instead focus on our potential to impact the world in a positive manner.
On Shavuos, we celebrate these gifts and abilities. We remain awake through the night studying Torah to demonstrate the awareness of our task. Shavuos serves not only as a celebration of receiving the Torah and its powers and abilities, but as a reminder that it is incumbent upon us to live life on a daily basis cognizant of our responsibilities.
The greatness of our proclamation at Har Sinai was the inherent acknowledgment of the primacy of the na’aseh. We affirmed that we would study the Torah - nishma - in order to be osim, a nation of people whose actions would have a serious impact on all of creation. We would learn “lilmod ulelameid, lishmor velaasos ulekayeim.”
We would recognize our unique roles granted to us at Sinai. Na’aseh venishma. We promised that we would remain cognizant of our abilities and not become dejected, viewing ourselves and our actions as inconsequential.
Chazal thus refer to the yom tov of Shavuos as Atzeres, which, in its literal translation, means break. We take a break from our daily activities to remind ourselves what we are about, and to revive the affirmation of our adherence to our commitment. Half of the Atzeres day, we are occupied with the realm of nishma, studying the Torah. The other half is devoted to the realm of na’aseh, the act of living as a Torah Jew.
We must not permit the yeitzer hara to entice us into believing that we are small and powerless. We are not simply gorillas with less hair and the ability to speak. We must not let the Soton fool us into thinking that our actions don’t count. Every word of Torah we study, and every mitzvah we perform alters the cosmos. Every person we inspire to prevail when they think they are unable to, becomes another positive force who can have great influence, transforming evil into good and tragedy into accomplishment.
Take a break from the negativity and cynicism of the yeitzer hara and recognize that with the proper positive attitude, we can overcome all that stands in our way and build the world of goodness that we committed ourselves to 3,328 years ago, when we joined together and proclaimed, “Na’aseh venishma.” We can make ourselves better people by recognizing our mandate and power, knowing that we can never sink too low and never be in too bad a place to reach for the apex of human ability.
There are two brachos recited when being called up to the Torah. When we first arrive at the bimah, we recite the brochah of “Asher bochar bonu mikol ha’amim venosan lonu es Toraso,” thanking Hashem for choosing us over all the other nations and giving us his Torah. As the portion is completed, we recite the brochah of “Asher nosan lonu Toras emes vechayei olam nota besochenu,” thanking Hashem for giving us the Torah of truth and providing us with eternal life.
Rav Simcha Wasserman explains the duality of the two blessings by comparing them to a child being selected from amongst his classmates to receive a gift-wrapped present. Even before opening the gift, the child is quite happy. The joy is magnified when the recipient removes the wrapping and finds an exciting game or enjoyable book. He thanks the person who gave him the gift two times, once upon its receipt in the beautiful wrapping and a second time when the wrapping comes off. 
On Shavuos, it all comes together.
We love who we are, what we’re a part of, the joy of being a Jew - a reason to live with thanks.
I wake up and say, “Modeh ani lifonecha.” I thank You, Hashem, for making me the way You did. I thank You for placing me where You did. I thank You for what I have and for what I will yet achieve. Thank You.
And then I say, “Boruch Atah Hashem asher bochar bonu mikol ha’amim venosan lonu es Toraso.” Thank You for setting me apart, for elevating my soul through Torah, for allowing me to share in the seichel elyon, for having the ability to live a supreme and blessed life.
On the first night of Shavuos, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim, stood in the great bais medrash of his yeshiva to deliver a shmuess. The yungeleit and bochurim were eager to hear the rosh yeshiva’s words of chizuk, his encouragement to learn and receive the Torah b’simcha.
However, instead of launching into a traditional mussar discourse, the rosh yeshiva smiled broadly and reached for the Gemara on his shtender. That zeman, the yeshiva was learning Kiddushin.
He raised the Gemara and said, in a voice laced with love and reverence, “Kiddushin... Kesef kinyan, kicha, nosan hu, hispashtus...” He continued to list various sugyos, his ode to the beauty of the masechta. He added nothing, just the names of the sugyos.
His powerful shmuess done, as the message sunk in, he said softly, in a voice everyone could hear and feel, “We are so lucky... Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu...”
Indeed, we are.
Modeh ani. Thank You.
Thank You for this day of Sivan when the Torah was given. Let us all celebrate.