Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Chanukah Mission

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

As we observe the Yom Tov of Chanukah, it is interesting to note that there is a mitzvah of zeh Keili ve’anveihu to perform a mitzvah in its most perfect form.

We find in hilchos Chanukah that the hiddurim in the mitzvah of lighting involve the type of oil and wicks used to light the menorah and providing a menorah for every member of the family. After the fire burns for a half hour, it may be extinguished. The Mishnah Berurah [672, 6] writes that there is no hiddur mitzvah in having it burn longer. I have long wondered why. We would think that the longer the candles remain lit, the more of a hiddur mitzvah it would be.

Perhaps we can explain as follows. We light the menorah to commemorate the heroic act of the Chashmonaim. The greatness of what they did and what we celebrate is the fact that they had the courage to stand apart with faith in Hashem as they battled the Yevonim and those who fell under their influence.

What came after was a result of siyata diShmaya, Divine intervention. Although by laws of nature there was no way they could have succeeded in their mission, their dedication was rewarded by Hashem and they overcame the overwhelming odds stacked against them.

With siyata diShmaya, after the war, they found a small container of holy oil, which miraculously proved to be enough to light for eight days, until they were able to procure more. Their heroic act was the initial kindling of the menorah. The fact that it remained lit until more oil was obtained was a miracle independent of them. Because they performed their mission without weighing their chances of success, Hashem caused them to succeed.

Thus, the mitzvah is to light the menorah - kovsah ein zokuk lah - and there is no hiddur in the lights burning longer, because we are saluting the action of the Chashmonaim, which was their devotion to their mission of kehunah and kedushah, and destroying the tumah, even though victory was not apparent. They kindled the menorah even though they didn’t know how long it would remain lit. The mitzvah, therefore, is to acknowledge their heroism by lighting the menorah. For the menorah to remain lit longer than the initial thirty minutes does not add to the performance of the mitzvah.

Klal Yisroel didn’t feel itself strong enough to throw off the yoke of Greek tyranny until Matisyahu showed that it could be done. Forces of evil are permitted to remain in power, because the people they dominate do not appreciate their own power and do not join together to bring down the wickedness. Evil is toppled when one good man decides that he can bear it no longer and begins to rally people around him.

The miraculous military victory over Yovon is a dramatic example of how the laws of nature are suspended when dedicated people join together to increase Torah and kedushah in the world. That reversal of the natural order in their day was made possible by the great acts of courage and heroism carried out by one courageous individual, Matisyahu, and his small group.

Though according its natural makeup, the flask contained enough oil to burn for one day, it fueled the flame for as long as was necessary until more oil could be made. So too, although in physical terms those who were virtuous were outmatched by those who were evil, they won anyway.

Very often, we hear tales of wonder about how people succeeded in building Torah where no one thought it was possible. How many times have we heard of the rov who came to a town and was told that hair would grow on hand-palms before a yeshiva would take root? The naysayers are long forgotten as Torah takes root and blossoms.

People move to far-flung cities and towns and everyone thinks they are crazy, yet they succeed. People are moser nefesh to do a mitzvah and, in the long run, they gain from it. People who work lesheim Shomayim, with selfless dedication, are not limited by logic or the laws of nature. They go where everyone says you can’t and they succeed because they know that our task is to light the fire; the rest is up to Hashem.

On Chanukah, we pay tribute to the ideals of mesirus nefesh of the Chashmonaim. They took a brave, determined stand against the evil tyranny that brutalized them and sought their destruction as a people. The Chashmonaim were unpopular, as much of Klal Yisorel succumbed to the temptations presented by the Yevonim.

In fact, the Bach (Orach Chaim 670) writes that the Yevonim were able to enact gezeiros, because there was a hisrashlus b’avodah, a general weakening in the commitment to religious obligations.

The Chofetz Chaim foretold of a similar atmosphere towards hachzokas haTorah in ikvesa deMeshicha, the period leading up to the arrival of Moshiach.

The avodah of Chanukah and of these dark times is the same: to support and enable courageous stars to emerge from within our people and free us of our shackles, enabling us to rise.

The Chofetz Chaim regularly delivered a shmuess to his talmidim in his Radiner yeshiva. The shmuessen were actually more of a rumination. He would contemplate, think and reflect. The shmuess was a conversation more than a lecture.

In discussing the battle between Yaakov Avinu and the sar of Eisov, the Chofetz Chaim wondered why the force of evil worked with such energy and drive to block the path of Yaakov. He asked why the paths to kedushah of the first two avos were not impeded in this manner.

The Chofetz Chaim seemed to look into the future as he spoke. “Each of the avos represented a distinct path in avodah. Avrohom’s was chesed, Yitzchok’s was gevurah and Yaakov’s was Torah. The Zohar reveals that a time will come, just prior to the alos hashachar of Moshiach, when people will ignore talmidei chachomim and forgo traditional support for Torah,” he said. “The lack of encouragement will cause talmidei chachomim to weaken in their resolve. This is hinted to by the injury the malach caused Yaakov in his kaf yerech. The thigh supports the body, and the angel thought that by injuring that limb, Yaakov would be unable to battle him.

“The malach struck Yaakov Avinu, but he fought on. Although he was hurt, he summoned the strength to overcome his heavenly opponent.”

The Chofetz Chaim said that before Moshiach’s arrival, chizuk and encouragement for Torah would decline. However, he said, the fight would go on, and there would be a few resolute individuals who would fight lonely battles.

He foretold that while they might be few, they would be proud and effective.

Every individual has the ability to grasp an ideal and stand tall in its defense. We all have a singular mission in life, and if we are true to our core, we can summon the strength to realize it. We must never lose sight of what our ultimate goal is, despite all the noise and static seeking to steal our attention. Challenges confront us, but we possess the ability to surmount them.

It is as true today as it was thousands of years ago, when the Chashmonaim confronted the masses to fight with dignity and pride in defense of our mesorah.

On Chanukah, we celebrate the Chashmonaim and their mesirus nefesh for kedushah. They rose to throw off the forces of darkness from the nation that was having its light source blocked. They were the me’atim, the tzaddikim, the tehorim, the people who performed Hashem’s service in the Bais Hamikdosh and in the bais medrash.

Rather than turning to the strong people and others who were trained in physical labor and accomplishment, they themselves led the battle against the forces of darkness.

Too often, we look for others to do our work. We look in the wrong places for saviors and salvation, not knowing that the solution is within us. If we improve ourselves and make ourselves worthy, we can overcome whatever stands in our way. And if it isn’t us who can accomplish the goal, we can assist those who can. It is very difficult to work in a vacuum. Those intrepid souls who do so need all the help and support they can get.

While the first part of the Chofetz Chaim’s prophecy has been realized, it is comforting to know that the second part is coming to fruition as well. Yes, we are bombarded by many who seek to undermine us. We are beset by various problems that beg for solutions. There is an air of negativity and begrudging acceptance of the situation, as many are apathetic.

This past Shabbos, I attended the Torah Umesorah convention which catered to askonim, executives, lay leaders and yeshiva administrators. They are people who enable roshei yeshiva, rabbonim, mechanchim and mechanchos to inspire and lead. They represent the kaf yerech support system for those to whom we entrust our children.

After spending a Shabbos with those people, I see that there really is room for optimism and hope. There are people all across the country who fight on and refuse to be dissuaded from bringing Torah and kedushah to all corners. They, and those like them, are heroes in our time. They are the ones the Chofetz Chaim referred to as he spoke to the bochurim in Radin in a different time and a different world.

Such people are referred to as “tamchin d’Oraysa.” A tomeich Torah differs from a nadvan, who donates to Torah and good causes. The tomeich doesn’t just donate. He stands behind the talmid chochom and supports him, motivating him and enabling him to continue; comfortable and strong.

The quintessential tamchin d’Oraysa shows humility and veneration for Torah scholars. As wealthy, influential and powerful as they may be, they acknowledge the leadership of genuine Torah greats.

Reb Moshe Reichmann zt”l generously supported a local kollel. Once, a close friend asked the Canadian philanthropist to prevail upon the rosh kollel to accept a certain yungerman. Mr. Reichmann looked at him in shock. “Me? What do I know about running a kollel? I am a developer. He makes talmidei chachomim. I have no right to offer an opinion.”

He exemplified the tamchin d’Oraysa who are the yerech, holding up the guf of a nation with distinction.

Being a tomeich Torah doesn’t necessarily involve donating money. A very wealthy European Jew, who was a generous philanthropist, experienced a bad turn in business and lost his fortune. He shared his frustration and pain with the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum zt”l. The Rebbe comforted him. “It’s a difficult nisayon,” he said, “but now you have been given a new role, a new shlichus. Now you will show people how you can assist mosdos without money. You will help raise money, you will come up with good ideas, and you will utilize your connections and business experience. By doing so, you will demonstrate that anyone can be a tomeich Torah.”

A heartbroken almanah once shared her tale of woe with Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt”l. Her husband had been a wealthy industrialist and a patron of yeshivos. His business went into a downward spiral and, before he knew what had happened, he was left with an empty bank account. He died shortly thereafter from a broken heart.

The woman told the rov that she went to visit her son, who was learning in a prominent yeshiva, and was appalled by the squalor in which the bochurim were living. After listening to her problems, Rav Chaim Ozer said to her, “It’s your fault.”

The woman reacted with astonishment to the charge. Rav Chaim Ozer explained: “You and your husband were generous and caring friends of yeshivos, and then, unfortunately, you were no longer able to give money. You thought that you were absolved of your obligation to support Torah, but that isn’t true.”

He continued: “You can still do so much. Here,” he said, handing her a sum of money, “take this and buy straw. I’m sure that with your determination, you will be able to get sacks donated. We can fill them with the straw and the bochurim will have new beds to sleep on. Go with hatzlachah. You can still do so much.”

The almanah left, not just with money, but with a new mission in life.

There are many missions for the taking. There are causes waiting for champions.

The miracle of Chanukah that we celebrate is primarily that of the tiny flask that burned longer than was thought to be realistically possible. The menorah’s lights signify that the power of light overcame the power of darkness. The oil lasting longer than one day signifies that if you expend the effort and work bemesirus nefesh, physical rules will not apply.

We see wrongs in our world and are told that there is nothing we can do about it. We try to right the wrongs and are mocked. Yet, in fact, if you look around, there are so many people who overcame the odds, building Torah where no one thought it was possible, restoring lives others had given up on, and fighting abuse that people thought was part of life. We see teachers touching souls and impacting them forever. We see righteous men and women not taking no for an answer, standing up to an apathetic society, and awakening people’s consciences. We see people rallying to fight for those who have been wronged.

We see people working with selfless dedication and are amazed that it seems as if logic and the laws of nature don’t apply to them. They tread where no one has dared step before, and they succeed where lesser people vowed success was absolutely impossible. Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz zt”l, who founded Torah Umesorah, stood up to the passive negativity that was pervasive in his time and dedicated himself to doing what he could so that tens of thousands of children would say, “Shema Yisroel.” He sent his talmidim across the country, infusing them and others with the passion to change people’s mindsets. The spark they created grew into a fire that spread from New York to California and every major city in between, fueled by intrepid souls who forsook fame and fortune to save a nation in a death spiral.

Wherever Torah Umesorah reached, the community blossomed. Many tens of thousands of Jewish children were lost, robbed of a Jewish education, but the day school movement made it possible to change that narrative. Assisted by dedicated baalei batim who worked with mesirus nefesh, the mindset was transformed and a revolution ensued.

These are the heroes of our people. They have taken a desolate land and caused a desert of assimilation to bloom with Torah. It is these heroes who have heard the call of the Chashmonaim. They have been the shluchim for the rebirth of our people decades after we were nearly wiped out. They have succeeded in greater fashion than anyone thought possible, blessed with siyata diShmaya reserved for those who work bemesirus nefesh lesheim Shomayim. 

This week, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman selected my dear friend, Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin, to run on the Yahadus HaTorah list for the Knesset. Twenty-five years ago, when Lev L’Achim was founded, Rav Elozor Menachem Man Shach zt”l tapped the energetic yungerman to lead it. Since then, he has worked ceaselessly and tirelessly, crisscrossing Israel to bring the blessings of Torah to tens of thousands of thirsting people.

With the direction of the gedolim, assistance of an army of volunteers, and support of bnei Torah around the world, he demonstrated the ability of one person to affect tens of thousands.

Monday night, Rav Shteinman said, “He is what the generation needs,” proving again how much one person can accomplish and that if we would dedicate ourselves to our missions, we can transform the world.

Many others worked alone, mocked and derided as failing dreamers, yet they placed their faith in Hashem and lived to see much success. People such as the Ponovezher Rov are the stuff of legend and many stories are told about them. But even in our day, there are people who defied the odds and went on to undertake trailblazing endeavors on behalf of our people. We can all have that impact if we discover our mission and set out to right wrongs and make the world a better place. We have to light the spark lesheim Shomayim. Hashem does the rest.

A delegation once traveled to St. Petersburg to meet with the Russian minister of education in an attempt to convince him to revoke a decree that would have terribly impacted yeshivos. Upon arrival in the Russian capital city, the participants met with the local rov, Rav Yitzchok Blazer, to discuss tactics they would employ to underscore the importance of Torah to the minister. Someone suggested translating the words of the tefillah of Ahavah Rabbah for the minister to demonstrate the depth of love for Torah. Rav Blazer replied, “If we would translate those words for ourselves, we wouldn’t need to do so for them.”

We daven three times every day, but we don’t necessarily take the words to heart. We learn the story and halachos of Chanukah, but we have to recognize their relevance to us and our daily lives. The inspiration is there for those who seek it.

If each of us would internalize the lesson of the Chashmonaim, we could free ourselves from much oppression.

It is because of such people that we can reach and learn and daven. It is because of the mesirus nefesh of people who went forth into an eretz lo zorua that Torah and Yiddishkeit are stronger than ever. It is because of their dedication that we can publicly light the menorah with pride, without fear of our neighbors.

As we light the menorah, we should learn the lesson of the Chashmonaim, and of the gedolim, roshei yeshiva, admorim, rabbonim, mechanchim and mechanchos who have led us on a path of greatness, and be motivated to do what we can to complete their missions and ours.

Rav Yitzchok Blazer would relate from his rebbi, Rav Yisroel Salanter, that on Chanukah it is forbidden to be sad. If someone would tell Rav Yisroel something depressing, he would respond, “Shhh. On Chanukah it is forbidden to say hespeidim and be despondent.”

How can a person be unhappy on the Yom Tov that commemorates Hashem helping those who actively place their faith in Him? The menorah reminds us of the successes of those who refused to be depressed or suppressed throughout the ages. Let’s remember that.

Ah freilichen Chanukah

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Of course the headline grabbed my eye, a bold caption announcing the arrest of several rabbis. The article described how a group of female clergy from Manhattan’s Upper West Side had been taken into custody after causing a public disturbance.

Their crime? Blocking traffic in protest of a jury decision not to indict a police offer who had contributed to the death of a black New York City resident who was selling illegal cigarettes.

The group, known as Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, have a motto: “I Am Responsible.”

While I felt bad for those misguided souls, I was moved by their choice of motto. The Chiddushei Horim would point out that from the twelve shevotim, we are forever identified by the name of Yehudah. A nation known as Yehudim embodies the middah of the shevet that would give us malchus. Which middah?

Certainly hoda’ah, gratitude, but, as Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l famously pointed out, it’s also hoda’ah, confession. Gratitude is possible when man realizes that he needs help to succeed, in a sense confessing his own limitations.

Yehudah’s hoda’ah went a step further. Rav Chaim Shmulevitz zt”l explains that Yehudah, rather than Yissochor, was chosen by Yaakov Avinu to establish Torah in Mitzrayim because of this middah (Bereishis 46:28). “Ve’es Yehudah shalach lefonov.” Yehudah showed achrayus. When Yaakov didn’t want to send Binyomin down to Mitzrayim, Yehudah proclaimed, “Anochi a’arvenu. I am responsible.”

In this week’s parsha, Yehudah had the courage and strength to announce, “Tzadkah mimeni. I am guilty. Tamar is right. I am wrong.”

In a sense, those aforementioned clergy who were arrested for their public protest were tapping into - though misguidedly - the precious koach of Yehudah, who first coined the motto of the contemporary human rights group when he said, “I am responsible.”

Yehudah’s grace and submission under pressure, despite the consequences, serve as a lesson that endures.

It’s a rule in life that things won’t always go the way we want them to. In our families, communities, schools and businesses, we endure inconveniences and annoyances. Our destiny on a national level has always been dependent upon the whims of our host government.

How we react, however, is our choice.

There are those who immediately begin to shout and scream as soon as things don’t go their way. It rarely helps. In fact, it usually has the opposite effect. The Torah way is to react with discipline and to remain calm in the face of frustration. A person of dignity knows how to control his frustration and maintain respect even in a difficult situation.

As a people, we’ve been maligned, mistreated, stabbed, murdered and libeled again and again. But we don’t riot. We don’t protest. We don’t march in the streets.

It’s an interesting time in America. There is rumbling in the streets, across the United States. There is dissatisfaction with and distrust in the government and the justice system. Here, in the Land of the Free, there is a growl of discontent that grows increasingly louder. 

In our community, for example, we are upset about the way people such as Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin are treated by the justice system. He has already sat in jail for over five years after being sentenced to 27. A first-time offender, he is a victim of prosecutorial misconduct, a vindictive judge, and jaundiced stereotypes that impacted media reports and public opinion in the state in which he lived and was judged.

He was charged and sentenced for ten years for violating a law written in 1921 that has never been used since then. The loss amount upon which his sentence was based was arrived at by the judge accepting fictitious testimony of a witness who, it can be proved, lied on the stand. Mr. Rubashkin did not enrich himself through fraud. He was a generous father of ten. His punishment is harsher than sentences meted out to people who robbed others of dozens of millions of dollars. It is more severe than sentences given to all types of criminals, including murderers, kidnappers and bank robbers.

People who have studied the case - and I don’t refer only to those in the Jewish community - have decried what happened in this case. These include prosecutors, judges, lawyers, ethicists, senators, congressman, and lovers of truth and justice across the fruited plain.

Thousands of Jews pray for Sholom Mordechai ben Rivkah every day. Thousands have contributed to help offset his legal expenses. People have worked pro-bono to achieve justice. The best legal minds in the country have worked on the case, yet the injustice persists.

But we work with dignity and focus, within the system. We don’t block traffic or burn stores. That’s not our way. We forge on, confident in the truth of the cause and hopeful that justice will prevail. We are aware, at all times, that there is only One True Judge, and the fate of our friend rests in His Hands.

The fate of unarmed black victims falling at the hands of the police has become a cause célèbre across the nation. The media and our elected officials have been saying that there is a fundamental problem when people don’t feel that they are fairly represented by a justice system created to provide liberty and justice for all. The president paid homage to the ideal of “making sure that people have confidence that police and law enforcement and prosecutors are serving everybody equally,” commenting on a common sentiment amongst people that there is inequality in the way laws are enforced in this country.

So people march in cities and towns across the country, highways are closed, bridges are blocked, tunnels are inaccessible, and stores and cars go up in flames. The president invites police officers, civil rights activists and politicians for a day of meetings at the White House to examine the flawed nature of the justice system.

Hearing the president’s words and seeing an opportunity to present our case, I took the initiative and wrote him a letter. I reasoned that if the spotlight is shining on judicial abuse, perhaps our voice would finally be heard.

Like Basya, who extended a hand that was lengthened by Heaven for her to realize her goal, I tried to do my bit of hishtadlus.

“Along with millions of Americans,” I wrote, “I was very touched by your words in Chicago as you spoke of the necessity ‘to make sure that law enforcement is fair and is being applied equally to every person in this country.’

“You spoke of ‘the frustrations people have generally,’ stating that ‘those are rooted in some hard truths that have to be addressed.’ And you promised that ‘those who are prepared to work constructively, your president will work with you.’

“You said, ‘I believe in law enforcement and a lot of folks in city halls, and governor’s offices across the country, want to work with you as well.’

“Mr. President, I applaud you for having the courage to address the suppressed concerns people have felt for many decades, indicating that you are prepared to rectify the wrongs.

“You said that ‘being American doesn’t mean you have to look a certain way or have a certain last name or come from a certain place. It has to do,’ you averred, ‘with a commitment to ideals, a belief in certain values, and if any part of the American community doesn’t feel welcomed or treated fairly, that’s something that puts all of us at risk.’

“Mr. President, I write to you because many in my community feel that Mr. Sholom Rubashkin was singled out and treated unfairly in the state of Iowa. A successful businessman, he and his family worked hard to realize the American dream. They worked hard to establish a kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, and succeeded in enhancing the local economy and revitalizing a corner of the state.

“He was indicted on thousands of immigration-related charges. Those charges led to subsequent bank fraud allegations, for which he was found guilty and sentenced to 27 years in prison.

“Dozens of Congressmen, 6 former Attorneys General, 86 former federal judges and senior justice department officials and 27 former circuit and district judges, as well as the country’s most prominent legal scholars, have written letters and columns highlighting the injustice, yet Mr. Rubashkin remains incarcerated in a medium security prison.

“Mr. President, we have worked through the system to expose the injustice of the Rubashkin case. Tens of thousands of people across the country and around the world donated money to pay for expert legal counsel to pursue avenues that would lead to an examination of what went wrong, why this man was judged unfairly, and why he received an overly-harsh, unprecedented sentence.

“Advocates of justice are frustrated by their inability to realize any results through peaceful methods and legal avenues. Mr. President, you have so eloquently expressed how we feel. We turn to you and ask if you would take an interest in this case and direct the Justice Department to meet with former officials of that department who have taken on this case and explore what can be done to rectify this wrong.

“Many have staked their reputations on this case and labored hard to achieve a fair and just sentence. Thus far, they have been unsuccessful.

“Mr. President, I appeal to you to give them a hearing and demonstrate that the American dream is still alive. Show one and all that justice can prevail and that there can be equal liberty and justice for all.”

Thus far, my letter hasn’t been acknowledged or responded to. I hope and pray that it has an affect.

In the story retold in this week’s parsha, pertaining to Yehudah and Tamar there is a lesson for us in the way Tamar dealt with the situation as well. She would have rather been burnt alive than embarrass Yehudah. In her eyes, sparing Yehudah from humiliation took priority over preserving her own life. This is essentially the way we are to conduct ourselves, especially in golus.

Rashi points out that Tamar’s behavior is the source for the Gemara in Maseches Sotah (10b) and Bava Metziah (59a) which teaches that it is better for one to throw himself into a fire than cause public embarrassment to another person.

Tosafos in Maseches Sotah asks that if one is required to jump into fire rather than humiliate another person, then it follows that publicly humiliating another person is equal to the three aveiros a Jew must avoid even at the cost of his life. It is yeihoreig ve’al yaavor. Why, then, is the sin of humiliating a fellow Jew publicly not listed with the three most severe aveiros?

Tosafos answers that halbonas ponim, shaming someone publicly, is not included in the cardinal sins of avodah zarah, gilui arayos and shefichas domim, because those three are commandments that are explicitly stated in the Torah and halbonas ponim is not. Tosafos takes the Gemara very literally and rules that publicly humiliating a person is as severe as killing him.

Rabbeinu Yonah holds like Tosafos, while other Rishonim, such as the Me’iri in Masechtos Brachos (43a), Sotah (10a) and Kesubos (77b), argue. Their position is that the Gemara’s intention is to underscore the seriousness of halbonas ponim, while not attaching the same severity to it as the three cardinal sins.

Whichever view we follow, it’s clear that publicly disgracing a person is described by Chazal in the most grave and severe terms. What is the lesson for us as it relates to the current debate in the country and what does it have to do with the way we advocate for causes that are dear to us?

What we learn from this is that sensitivity isn’t merely good manners or proper conduct. It’s the core of our personality as Yehudim. It’s the definition of who we are. Someone who loses himself and insults others publicly reveals his neshomah’s lack of refinement. This is far more serious than a temporary lapse of mentchlichkeit. Without intending it, one may be guilty of committing an act that is equivalent to one of the cardinal sins.

Sensitivity is the essence of a Yid. It is the defining middah of a talmid chochom.

A Jew once stopped Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt”l on the streets of Vilna and asked him for directions. Rather than  just telling him how to go, the gadol invited the Jew to join him on a long walk to the other end of the city until they reached this fellow’s destination. “Here it is,” said Rav Chaim Ozer, parting from the unfamiliar Jew.

One of Rav Chaim Ozer’s talmidim wondered what his cheshbon was. “The rebbi is so busy with learning, chessed and askanus. Why couldn’t he merely give the directions and go on his way?”

Rav Chaim Ozer explained: “When the person asked for directions, I detected a hint of a stammer, a speech impediment that made it difficult for him to speak. I reasoned that if I would give him directions, there would be a good chance that along the way he’d have to ask directions from someone else, as often happens. Since it is humiliating for him to speak, I would be causing him pain and embarrassment that could be avoided by walking him myself, sparing him the need to speak more than necessary. Of course it is docheh whatever other activities I would be engaged in.”

Chazal say, “Kol hako’eis ke’ilu oveid avodah zarah - One who becomes angry is like one engaged in avodah zarah,” for he has shown that the Torah does not control his actions and behavior. A ben Torah always acts in a way that preserves his pride and the respect of the Torah. He doesn’t just speak and scream. His words are measured and clearly considered before leaving his mouth.

The Chashmonaim stood for dignity. They fought with pride and courage for their right to serve Hashem. We honor their lesson and legacy as we light the Chanukah menorah, ushering in eight days of simcha. When we stand before the menorah and perform the same act Jews have been performing for two thousand years, it does something to our soul and profoundly touches us.

The mitzvah is supposed to be performed in the doorway, facing the street, yet in times of danger, we forgo that display and place the menorah in a place that it is only visible to us and our families. As a people in golus, we take pride in our ideal and principles, yet do so in a manner that does not contribute to engendering hatred towards us. Neither should we be making statements that are unwise and imprudent.

We behave differently. We are conscious of the effects of our actions. We are to always be in control of our actions and words. We don’t riot, we don’t demonstrate, and we don’t ever give up. We perform our hishtadlus, as the Maccabi kohanim did. They were unqualified to do battle and were outnumbered, yet they remained kohanecha hakedoshim, even in battle, even when they were maligned, mistreated and singled out for punishment. That is why in the tefillah of Al Hanissim, we make a point of mentioning that the victory was brought about “al yedei kohanecha hakedoshim.” Yes, they fought when there was no other choice, but they maintained and protected their essential core, that of kohanim, progeny of the oheiv sholom verodeif sholom.

A talmid was once driving Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l home from yeshiva when they encountered a large demonstration by young Jews. The protesters held a placard that read, “Never Again.” Rav Moshe was visibly upset by the brash slogan. “We don’t know or decide what will happen, Hashem does. He decides and we respond.”

We are a different sort of person. There are those who wish to portray the Chashmonaim as muscular warriors, recreating them to suit an agenda. In truth, they were kohanecha hakedoshim, holy tzaddikim who utilized whatever kochos were needed.

Rav Shmuel Dovid Warshavchik zt”l would often talk to his talmidim at Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yaakov Yosef (RJJ) about his own rebbi, Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l. He would tell them how his rebbi had been in America in 1938 when the fate of European Jewry was all but sealed. It was widely assumed that Rav Elchonon would remain on the safe shores, but the rosh yeshiva insisted on returning to his talmidim.

Rav Elchonon explained that a rebbi and talmidim belong together, and leaving his talmidim alone in dangerous times would be compromising his essence as their rebbi. Rav Elchonon knew there was a good chance that he wouldn’t survive, and he was certainly aware of the halachos regarding shemiras hanefesh. However, he understood that it is not up to man to make calculations. Man is to follow the Torah. Once he concluded that his own achrayus was to return to his talmidim, he traveled with menuchas hanefesh and tranquility, ultimately giving up his life with incredible dignity.

As we read of Tamar and think of the Maccabim, we must remember that we heed an ancient creed. We are not shortsighted or short-fused. In the face of indignation, we maintain our dignity. In the face of injustice, we work with justice to achieve fairness. We don’t obliterate the truth in the pursuit of our aims. Tamar was prepared to die rather than cause Yehudah public embarrassment. That is a very high level of dignity, which the Torah demands of us.

The sensitivity and respect inherent to our make-up means that not only do we conduct ourselves with dignity, but we also appreciate the dignity of another.

Rav Moshe Mordechai Shulsinger zt”l related that when his uncle, Rav Velvel Chechik zt”l, was hospitalized, Rav Moshe Mordechai went to visit him. Rav Velvel, a talmid of the Brisker Rov, asked him to wait a moment as he toiled to find the energy to rise. He eventually donned his robe and mustered the strength to leave his sickbed and receive his visitor out in the hallway. Every time another visitor came, Rav Velvel did the same thing, leaving his room to speak with his guest.

His nephew finally understood. Rav Velvel’s hospital roommate was an irreligious Israeli, who, for whatever reason, had no visitors. Rav Velvel realized that every guest he received caused pain to his roommate. He had too much respect for his fellow man to sit surrounded by caring friends, while the fellow two feet away seemed to have none.

In pain and suffering, and away from home, this talmid chochom still exuded compassion and sensitivity, the core maalos of a Yid. 

This past Sunday, I attended the annual dinner of the Telshe Yeshiva in Chicago. The dinner marked the fiftieth yahrtzeit of Rav Chaim Mordechai Katz zt”l, who providentially found himself in this country together with his brother-in-law when the gates to their native Lithuania were closed. Their families, their talmidim and the entire town of Telshe perished at the hands of the accursed Nazis.

Rather than bemoan their fate and give up, they resolved to rebuild in Cleveland what was destroyed back home.

Through dogged determination, strong will, chochmah, binah vehaskeil, and with much siyata diShmaya, they succeeded in creating an oasis of Torah in the Midwest.

They didn’t become embittered. They never lost hope and resolve. They maintained their dignity and spirit. And thanks to them, many thousands have benefitted by leading Torah lives.

They, and those like them, paved the way for us in this land, as they followed the lessons taught by the avos, the shevotim, and good Jews throughout the ages.

What we have is a testament to that type of dignified strength, which endures in all times, good and bad, dark and lonely, sad and glad.

We have it within us. If we take a moment to analyze the situations of those around us - the neighbor who needs help with parnossah, the cousin who needs a shidduch, the friend who can’t get his child into school, the person who can benefit from us writing a letter for them - our natural sensitivity and achrayus will direct us to do the right thing.

When we live with achrayus, caring for and pleading on behalf of other Jews, we enjoy a special chein in Shomayim. When we daven for others, our tefillos become more welcome in Heaven. A parent rejoices when one child defends another.

The Tiferes Shlomo says that Hashem desires and appreciates the voices of those who defend other Jews. “Hashmi’ini ess kolech. Hashem invites us to make our voices heard. Why? The Tiferes Shlomo offers a beautiful explanation on the next words: ki koleich areiv. Areiv literally means sweet, but it can also means a guarantor. When our voices call out for arvus, responsibility and dedication to others, they are especially sweet in Heaven.

Because what Yehuda said so many thousands of years ago rings true today.

We are responsible.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Eternal Battle

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz


Every year, on Rosh Hashanah, just before the shofar is sounded, the Jewish heart pounds with anticipation and awe. During one of the most exalted moments of the year, as we are about to hear the shofar blown, we recite kappitel 47 of Tehillim seven times in succession. The perek is replete with references, hidden and revealed, to the avodas hayom.

Among other hints to our destiny, in those pesukim we praise “gaon Yaakov asher oheiv selah, the pride of Yaakov, which Hashem loves forever.” Referring to the Jewish pride which is ingrained in us, we point to Yaakov as the paragon of the middah of gaavah dekedushah.

Why is this trait most associated with Yaakov Avinu? Didn’t Avrohom, with his wealth and influence, and Yitzchok, who stood dignified and noble, imbue us with this middah as well? Why is Yaakov, the ish tom yosheiv ohalim, who studied Torah in the seclusion of his tent, linked with this attribute?

Yaakov was unique in his role. He led his children into golus, instilling in them the qualities that they would need to persevere and thrive through a long exile. He dealt with Eisov and his malach. Although Yitzchok married the daughter of a rasha, he never lived with him or had any dealings with him. Yaakov, however, lived with, worked for, and negotiated with his infamous father-in-law, Lovon. 

Yaakov fled from one wicked person, his brother Eisov, into the clutches of another, Lovon. And when he finally left Lovon, he was confronted once again by his brother and his intentions to kill him and his family.

Yaakov is the av who epitomized Jewish pride, the gaon Yaakov, because his entire life - from the time he was in his mother’s womb - was spent wrestling with evil schemers. He was able to proclaim, “Im Lovon garti vetaryag mitzvos shomarti.” He was unaffected by them, “velo lomadeti mimaasov haro’im.” Not only did his adherence to the mitzvos remain firm, but he was not influenced by Lovon. He remained as holy and pure as he was in the home of his parents, or when he studied in the yeshiva of Sheim and Eiver.

The ma’asei avos, each account of the avos and their travels recounted in Sefer Bereishis, is replete with life-lessons and directives. Yaakov’s experiences guide us, his children, of a long and bitter journey through many nations, and remain as true today as they were in previous periods of our history. We have to remain focused not only on shemiras taryag mitzvos but on the ability to remain untouched by the pervasive dishonesty and depravity. 

Parshas Vayishlach is in particular a guidebook on relations with the umos ha’olam. Chazal recount that chachomim who traveled to Rome to meet with their overlords would carefully study the parsha prior to setting out on their precarious journeys.

The Ramban writes that this week’s parsha “contains a hint for future generations, for all that transpired between our forefather Yaakov and Eisov will happen to us with Eisov’s children, and it is fitting for us to follow the path of the tzaddik (Yaakov).”

As our chachomim throughout the ages studied this parsha and Yaakov’s behavior before traveling to the seat of power, they internalized that nothing has changed. The rulers of our exiles have changed in deportment and title, from dictators and despots to well-dressed diplomats with wide smiles, but Eisov remains Eisov and Yaakov remains Yaakov. The modus operandi is the same.

Beneath all the veneers, the children of Eisov are the same Eisov. Sometimes they present themselves as achim, brothers, concerned about our welfare, and other times their evil intentions are apparent.

Our response to Eisov also remains the same throughout the ages. We deal with Eisov the same way Yaakov did.

The parsha opens with the account of the malochim Yaakov sent to approach his advancing brother to seek his favor. Rashi teaches that the messengers were malochim mamesh, actual angels. What was it about this mission that it could not be carried out by humans and required angels to fulfill the task?

Why did Yaakov immediately assume that there was malice in the heart of his approaching brother? How did he know that Eisov intended to harm him? Perhaps upon hearing that his brother was returning home after having done well, he wanted to greet him, express his love and begin a new chapter in their relationship.

The Baal Haturim in Parshas Toldos (25:25) calculates that the numerical equivalent of Eisov is shalom, peace. Perhaps we can understand the significance of this gematria by noting that even when Eisov seeks to do battle, he presents himself as a man of peace.

He speaks in peaceful tones and his actions appear to be motivated by a desire to spread peace and brotherhood in the world. He presents himself as an intelligent, thoughtful person. Many people are impressed by his guile.

Rav Chaim Vital and the Ohr Hachaim write that Yaakov feared that if he would send a human to scout out his brother’s intentions, the messenger would be influenced by Eisov’s outward appearance and comments, and would be fooled into thinking that he really seeks a peaceful existence with Yaakov.

When he heard that Eisov was approaching, Yaakov sensed that he was in danger. The Torah doesn’t recount that the malochim warned Yaakov that Eisov was planning to do battle. It only says that he was on his way. But Yaakov understood that if Eisov was coming towards him, it could only mean trouble.

Success in any interpersonal dealing depends on clear knowledge of the person you are meeting and what they really want. Yaakov well understood Eisov’s essence, and he had the vision to see beyond the exterior and appreciate his opponent. When we deal with other people, we must possess the awareness of our grandfather Yaakov. He gifted us this ability as part of his legacy to us.

When dealing with others, whether brothers or opponents, we must be honest with ourselves and not permit outside influences and considerations to impress us. Whether it is shtadlonim representing us in the halls of power or in other confrontations, we must preserve the gaon Yaakov with doron, tefillah and then milchomah.

We have to ensure that we are not taken in by sweet talk and that we do not fall for back-slapping and empty promises. We don’t have malochim to act as envoys and discern the true intentions of modern-day Eisovs, but we do have the message of Yaakov Avinu, who taught us the halacha of Eisov sonei l’Yaakov, an ever-relevant message.

One of the futile activities that many well-meaning Jews engage in is headline-watching, looking for hints that the general media is biased against Israel. Time and again, they expose the slant and prejudice that indicate that media reporting is skewed and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. They are certainly right in their conclusions. What I don’t understand is why they are still surprised. What expectations do they have? What hopes do they harbor? If we accept that the sinah is real and enduring, then we should know better than to try to engender their sympathy to our side. Why do we work so hard to curry favor and glean compliments from them?

Learn the parsha and our role becomes clear. Encounters with Eisov mean trouble. Yaakov had no expectations of genuine love. He had low expectations. The most he hoped for was that they would be able to exist side by side without antagonism. If you examine the pesukim, you will note that although Chazal say that Yaakov prepared himself for milchomah, in essence what his preparation consisted of was a defensive posture. He divided the family into two camps. If Eisov would beat one, the other would escape and survive.

We convince ourselves that some nations of the world care about us, like us, and have our best interests at heart. We forget the admonishment of Chazal (Pirkei Avos 2:3): “Hevu zehirin barashus she’ein mikarvin lo l’adam ela letzorech atzmon.” We hobnob with politicians, deluding ourselves into thinking that they are actually interested in our issues. We forget the lessons Yaakov Avinu taught about how to deal with governments. We should lobby and seek to soften the edges, convincing good people to advocate for our causes, but we should not be surprised at the all-too-present moral equivalence and the hypocritical double-standards.

Too many of us look at Eisov with respect and high regard, as if he is concerned about us and our welfare. We are impressed when he throws some nice sound-bites our way and stunned when we read of increasing anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews around the world. We are incredulous when Eisov turns on us, as he has been doing ever since he lived with Yaakov in the home of Yitzchok and Rivka. Too many of us crave Eisov’s recognition.

A fatal error of the Zionist movement is that it believed that with the ascent of the Jewish state, the nations will accept our existence as a member of the club of nations. “When we have a state,” they said years ago, “the goyim will no longer seek our destruction. Pogroms and hatred will be things of the past.” Sadly, that theory has been disproven too many times.

Some of our brothers also adopt the posture of Eisov, portraying themselves as victims. They proclaim their desire for peace and harmony. As they campaign, promoting their agendas, they smugly claim that the heirs of Yaakov are not interested in achdus. They present themselves as calm and intellectual, forward-thinking and progressive, while we, they say, are erratic, frightful and old-fashioned. They always manage to find someone around whom to rally and present their canard as if they are following an accepted shitah, which is usually a daas yochid that the mesorah has not accepted.

Under the banner of peace, with niceties and catch-phrases, diplomats seek to destroy the lone lamb that exists amongst seventy wolves. With innocent proclamations, they betray their arrogance and anti-Semitism, disguised by a mask of respectability and concern for justice.

A prominent askan once referred to Rabbi Moshe Sherer as his rebbi. He explained: “Some rabbeim give shiur on sugyos in Shas, some in sugyos in halacha or aggada. Rabbi Sherer gave shiur every day on the sugya of ‘Yisroel Bein Ho’amim,’ our role and proper mode of conduct interacting with the nations of the world.”

The middah of Eisov is very much alive and ever-present. Eisov is begematria shalom, for that is the card he uses to gain entry into our camp and upend us. His mantra has always been, “I only want to save you from yourselves. Metzitzah b’peh is dangerous for you, so we’ll help. We want peace, you want war. Chareidim really want to work; they’re just scared of social pressures, so we’re bringing your community up to date, because you can’t help yourselves. Palestinians desire peace, but your imperialism robs them of opportunity and leaves them no choice but to savagely murder your citizens.”

Our answer has always been that while we appreciate their friendship and concern, the goal is not necessarily to earn their respect and friendship, but to reach a proper working relationship, with each of us distinct and comfortable in our differences.

This is what is meant by “gaon Yaakov.” Yaakov not only understood Eisov’s true colors, he appreciated his own. With pride, he was confident and clear about his own mission. The ability to swallow when necessary is just as important as the strength to react with courage. It takes poise and precision, and a perfect awareness of our role, to be able to prepare for battle by assuming a defensive posture and not always choosing to be confrontational. The gaon Yaakov has allowed us to flourish despite centuries of oppression. Our focus always remains the same: Not only to exist, but to exist as shomrei Torah. Thus, our desire to fight is in that context. We determine which course of action will best promote our agenda. It is not necessarily by being on the offensive. Often, it is achieved by retreating and waiting for a better opportunity.

Those who, like Yaakov, are steeped in the Torah of Sheim and Eiver are charged with determining the course of action to pursue. It is to them that the nation turns for guidance, not to the people who think superficially and operate rashly without an appreciation for the larger mission and goal.   

Yaakov Avinu also wanted to achieve shalom, but he wasn’t prepared to forfeit his goal for that ideal. The posuk (ibid. 32:8) relates, “Vayira Yaakov meod.” He feared that he would either get killed himself or he would have to kill someone. But capitulation to Eisov was not an option.

Shalom is only an attribute when it is achieved within the framework of emes. Great men, descendants of Yaakov, have always opted for the emes of Yaakov, stating the facts as they are and accepting the ramifications.

The novi Michah said (7:20), “Titein emes l’Yaakov.” Yaakov Avinu, the fountain of emes, sent malochim to Eisov to gauge his positions. Yaakov yearned for shalom, but his primary concern was that it be within the context of emes.

He sent malochim mamesh, who could discern the truth of Eisov’s intentions. Yaakov was sending a message: “If you speak of peace, but under your smile lies a dagger, I will have no choice but to kill or be killed. I will not compromise on the emes. I won’t change and will not adapt it to conform to your evil path.”

This is so relevant, because, often, especially in times when we face acts of terror and war from Eisov and Yishmoel, the first reaction is to scream and threaten revenge. Our instincts tell us that fighting is the only way. However, Yaakov Avinu prepared a three-pronged approach, perceiving that at different times, Eisov could be defeated in different ways. Sometimes it is through the force of tefillah. Other times it is through diplomacy and submission. And in some situations, there is no recourse other than combat.

The Torah guides us and instructs us. Through the Torah, we know when doron is appropriate and when it isn’t.

Rav Dovid Soloveitchik related that his grandfather, Rav Chaim, once traveled to the capital city of St. Petersburg accompanied by the Brisker dayan, Rav Simcha Zelig Rieger, to plead on behalf of their people. They had  an appointment with the minister of education, but as the time for the audience approached, the minister stepped into the waiting room and insisted that only one of them may enter.

“The more important one should come in. Alone,” he said.

Rav Chaim explained that they had come together and were of equal importance, but the minister refused to accept two petitioners. He indicated that Rav Chaim should follow him into his office.

When the door closed, Rav Chaim decided to forego the arguments and claims he had so carefully prepared. Instead, he reached into his pocket and withdrew an envelope filled with money. The minister’s eyes bulged with desire and the rov handed him the money. The minister assured him that he would repeal the decree and honor the request of the Jews.

Rav Chaim later explained why he decided to immediately offer money rather than attempt dialogue. “When he made it clear that he would only accept one visitor,” Rav Chaim said, “I understood that his wish for privacy stemmed from a sense of embarrassment about what he was about to do and a desire to keep it a secret.”

He had prepared himself well for the engagement with Eisov, and when he sized up his opponent, Rav Chaim determined that for that descendant of Eisov, at that time, doron was the preferred means of hishtadlus.

We look forward to the day the novi Ovadiah speaks about in this week’s haftorah: “Ve’olu moshi’im beHar Tzion lishpot es har Eisov.” The era will soon arrive when Am Yisroel will exact punishment on Eisov for his guile, when the gaon Yaakov will radiate as our pride fills the world. May it be soon.