Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Be Happy-Never Forget

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This week’s parsha of Ki Savo begins with the mitzvah of bikkurim, bringing the first fruits to the Bais Hamikdosh and reciting pesukim expressing appreciation for the gifts with which Hashem has blessed us. As the parsha continues, Moshe Rabbeinu tells the Jewish people that their first obligation upon entering the Promised Land is to inscribe the words of the Torah on giant stones and offer korbanos of tribute to Hashem.

They were then to gather at Har Grizim and Har Eivol to hear the brachos and klalos from the Kohanim and Leviim. With six shevotim on one mountain and six on the other, the members of shevet Levi stood in the middle. They turned their faces towards Har Grizim and proclaimed that those who follow the mitzvos are blessed, mentioning one commandment after the next. They then turned their faces to Har Eivol and repeated the same commandments, stating that one who fails to observe them will be cursed. 

They then gave a general brochah, delineating the blessings that accrue to those who follow the word of Hashem and behave properly. This was followed by what is known as the “Tochachah,” foretelling the awful tragedies that would befall our people if we wouldn’t follow the Torah.

The brachos and the klalos, the blessings and the curses, were virtually the same words, spoken by the same people. The words of Hashem sustain the world and bring blessings to those who follow it. But those very same words also have the power to bring about destruction and churban.

This concept is discussed by Rava in Maseches Shabbos (88b): “Amar Rava: lemaiminim ba sama dechayei, lemasmailim ba sama demosa - For those who expend all their energy to study and understand the Torah, it is a drug that sustains life, but for those who fail to do so, it becomes a drug of death.”

The same idea is discussed in Maseches Yoma (72b), where the Gemara quotes Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi as deriving from the posuk of “Vezos haTorah asher som Moshe” that for those who merit, the Torah is a life-giving potion, but for those who disobey its commandments and do not merit its life-giving qualities, the Torah is like poison.

The Gemara supports this message by quoting Rava’s statement, albeit with a slight change. The Gemara says, “Amar Rava, de’uman la sama dechayei, delo uman la sama demosa - for the one who uses the Torah skillfully, it is a drug of life, and for the one who uses it unskillfully, it is a drug of death.”

I saw a vivid demonstration of this last week in Los Angeles, where I joined many others at the Goldstein-Rechnitz wedding. The kallah’s father, Shlomo Yehudah Rechnitz, has been blessed with wealth and has achieved international renown for his amazing, seemingly countless and boundless acts of chesed. His contributions to Torah are legendary. In addition to his many famous acts, there are hundreds of benevolent deeds he has done in private that most people are not aware of. Few know about the many yesomim he helps in myriad ways. Only the recipients are aware of his magnanimous acts of thoughtful caring in a fashion reminiscent of hidden tzaddikim of old.

The wedding was a testament to his munificence, with so many Torah giants, leaders, askonim and regular gutteh Yidden in attendance. . Many exerted themselves to be there that night, to show their heartfelt hakoras hatov, matching the way Shlomo Yehudah exerts himself for Klal Yisroel on a regular basis.

Money is a gift. Lemaiminim ba sama dechayei. To those who use it properly, it is a life-giving blessing, for themselves and for those who merit to benefit from them.

I stayed with friends in Los Angeles for Shabbos. I had made up to meet someone at a prominent local hotel prior to leaving to the airport on Motzoei Shabbos. As I stood at the hotel entrance, I saw a procession of Rolls Royces and exotic cars pulling up. I had never seen so many exotic cars gathered in one place and found it hard to believe that so many people driving such cars should all be heading to the same place.

The man I met there explained that those people were arriving to attend the bas mitzvah of his cousin’s daughter. The festivities began on Shabbos and the food wasn’t kosher. This man was too pained to go inside the ballroom, but made up to meet his mother there as she arrived. He stood next to his van, wishing a gut voch to his mother and bemoaning the fate of his relatives.

The people who were hosting the party and those attending have obviously been blessed with tremendous amounts of wealth, but it is doubtful how many mitzvos that girl will observe. Those people immigrated to this country to escape persecution and were blessed by Hashem with enormous financial success. Yet what is their future? And what will be of their children? Does the community at large benefit at all from all the money they have made? Or is it squandered on mansions, fleeting glamour; cars and other items manufactured for the mega-wealthy? We have no ill-wishes for anyone and eagerly await their return to the blessed path, but the contradiction could not have been more extreme.

The year following the passing of the Baal Hatanya, as the baal kriah was reading the pesukim of the Tochachah, the rebbe’s son and successor, Rav Dov Ber, wept as each of the terrible curses was recited.

Chassidim wondered why the rebbe appeared to be hearing the awful klalos for the first time. He had never cried like that when the curses were read in previous years.

He explained that his father had served as the baal kriah. “Bei di Tatte, hub ich gehert nohr brachos.” he told them. “When my father lained, I heard only brachos.”

Certainly, Rav Dov Ber understood the meaning of the pesukim when his father read them, but his father had added the dimension of blessing to the klalos, and he was mourning the loss of that now-missing element.

Success is a tool for blessing if used accordingly and properly. When a person is given the means to succeed and he abuses what he has been given, he creates the opposite of blessing. Delo uman la sama demosa.

We look around and see talented, capable, gifted people who use their skills and blessings to do damage, rather than to accomplish. They take the brachos and turn them into klalos.

Rav Avigdor Miller zt”l was known to be very scrupulous about time management. He was exceedingly careful not to waste time. At a grandchild’s wedding, the person seated next to him noticed that Rav Miller appeared anxious. Rav Miller explained that he was bothered by the fact that he was missing a scheduled shiur due to the simchah.

“But isn’t the marriage of a grandchild a cause for rejoicing and gratitude?” the surprised gentleman asked.

Several years later, the same fellow met Rav Miller, who thanked him profusely. “I owe you so much for that comment you made a few years ago, and I have thought about it many times. You are right. A grandchild’s wedding is a reason to feel appreciative and happy - nothing else - and you helped me see it for what it is. Thank you.”

We thus understand the transposition of parshas bikkurim in this parsha of brochah. While it may seem obvious that meriting parnossah is a blessing, a negative person might say, “I work so hard and I have no time to daven or learn, no time for my family, and no time for the community. My business swallows up my energy and time.” A person who is consumed with his work complains how difficult it all is. He whines that he has no time for anything because he is too busy reaping material benefits.

He is complaining about what is, essentially, a brochah. A person like that is unappreciative of his blessing and unlikely to use his brochah to help others, to support Torah and engage in chesed.

However, a positive, G-d-fearing person says, “Boruch Hashem, I have parnossah and I am able to provide for my family. I understand that this obligates me to do more, to give back, and to share my blessings.”

The vidui recited when the first fruits are delivered to the Kohein is reflective of this attitude. The one reciting it appreciates his blessings, thanks Hashem, and recognizes that the brochah obligates him to use it for positive acts and to benefit others.

Therefore, the parsha of bikkurim is followed by those of brochah and klolah, for they can be the same. What to one person is blessing, can be for another a curse. It all depends on one’s attitude, emunah and bitachon. Hashem gives us the ability to do good things and succeed, but He leaves it up to us to determine how we use those abilities.

Rav Akiva Eiger was traveling with his son-in-law, the Chasam Sofer, and as they approached their destination, their wagon was surrounded by throngs of people dancing, expressing adulation and pride. The two giants were uncomfortable with the open display of kavod. As the Chasam Sofer looked down in distress, Rav Akiva Eiger climbed down from the wagon and joined the dancing masses.

He later explained to the Chasam Sofer, “Once I saw that kavod was present, I realized that I could ignore it and try to negate it, as you did, or I could try to elevate it and turn it into a positive force. I focused not on whom they were honoring, but on the fact that the Jews revere the Torah so much that they dance in honor of those who teach it. I became deeply moved and joined the beautiful dance in honor of the Torah.”

Instead of disregarding the unwelcome attention, Rav Akiva Eiger transformed it into an opportunity for good. No matter what confronts us in life, we should seek to use it as an occasion for benefit that can result from it.

This lesson is also relevant at the beginning of the school year, when dedicated mechanchim and mechanchos welcome fresh faces into their classrooms. Every child is a mixture of middos, of positive traits and more challenging ones, but every trait can be used as a force for growth.

As parents, mechanchim and as growing people, we need to understand that when we use the blessings we were given unwisely and twist the words of Hashem, the very things that can propel us into the stratosphere can pull us down. Habrochah asher tishmeu, if you listen, perceive the inherent goodness in your situation and use it to serve Hashem, then what you have is a brochah. Im lo sishmeu, if you misconstrue it, it will be cause for destruction. 

It can be frustrating, sometimes, when we see the gifts that abound being misused. So much money that can be used for so many lofty purposes is burnt on foolish altars. So much Yiddishe talent and drive is misdirected. As mamleches kohanim, we are endowed with the abilities and strengths to light up the world and to impact all of creation, if we would only appreciate what we have and what we can do. There is no worse klolah than being blind to one’s own capabilities and brachos.

Rav Avohom Eliyohu Kaplan, who lived over a hundred years ago, was one of Lita’s classic greats. A student of Kelm, Slabodka and Telz, he embodied the greatness of Litvishe Yidden. He led a tragic life. He was named for his father, whose death preceded his birth, and he himself passed way at the young age of 34. A rosh yeshiva and author of two seforim, his son published “Be’ikvos Hayirah,” a collection of his deep, lyrical, emotional and at times gut-wrenching poetry and prose.

He writes there of a shmuess he heard from the Alter of Slabodka about the greatness of man. The Alter based the talk on the Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 10:6-7) which states that every blade of grass has a malach milemaalah that hits it and tells it, “Gidal! Grow!”

Imagine, said the Alter, if after that, man walks on grass without a second thought, pressing down upon it without realizing that under his feet is the product of the work of a malach Hashem that only exists to grow the very blade of grass he is stepping on.

Moreover, the blade of grass was only created for the benefit of man. From this we can perceive the greatness of man. How much benefit does man have from a blade of grass? Yet, for that minute amount of pleasure, a malach is created strictly to ensure the growth of that single blade.

When we walk outside and glance at a stretch of landscaping, breathe in the beautiful air, and gaze at the azure sky above, we must appreciate our greatness and the fact that all this was created for us. How can we think silly thoughts when we perceive the glamour of the tapestry Hashem has laid out for us! How can we tread carelessly on such a beautiful setting created for our benefit! How can we not be careful about our manner of dress and the cleanliness of our clothing, bodies, minds and souls!

Our lives are so full of blessings. We have to appreciate them and use them to better ourselves and the world.

Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz is a person with a huge heart, who expresses his soul through music as well as philanthropy. At the wedding, he distributed a CD of some of his compositions. He gave me a copy and said, “They are all great, but listen especially to the last song.” 

The song is based on a poem written by Rav Avrohom Eliyohu Kaplan that appears in the sefer his son published (page 171). As Shlomo Yehuda sings it, the haunting, transformative message of the poem comes alive.

These are the words of his classic “Shakah Chamah, Shakah Nafshi” translated into English along with the lines added by Shlomo Yehuda. The emotion and beauty of the Hebrew original is lost in translation, but the message is extant. May we all merit utilizing the gifts Hashem has bestowed upon us and seeing our prayers fulfilled.

The sun has set, my soul has sunk,
With sorrow as deep as the sea,
Because my soul is poised,
To fail and fall,
With my flesh and blood

Lo, the sun rises again and shines,
My soul as well rises and shines,
Roaring, thanking my great Maker,
As an awakening lion,
For my soul to me He has mercifully returned.

My days pass, my days do end,
Neither taking nor giving.
If this is called life,
Tell me, Hashem, what is death.

Days do come, days do go,
I fear not evil because You are here,
Those who find You, life they have,
You are the Master who gifts me all.

Pity me, Hashem, because I don’t know,
How I can continue like this.
Is it better to forget everything and to be happy,
Or should I remember all and cry?

This is how I seek to live,
Taking shelter in your shade,
To never forget, yet to always be joyful,
As I remember all the gifts you have given me.

Hashem, please keep me alive until tomorrow,
So that I may interpret the dream.
The sun is setting, the clouds are coming,
Night is rising from the depths.

Your Blessings please, I beg, bestow,
For in Torah I toil.
The sun rises, with it my soul,
Until Moshiach comes, let me live and fulfill my role.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Living with Introspection

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The theme of war is everywhere at this time of year.

Twice each day, we recite the chapter of Tehillim referred to as “L’Dovid,” in which we proclaim that we feel no fear from enemies and traps that abound. Im tokum olay milchomah, even if there is a war threatening to engulf me, bezos ani votei’ach, our faith in Hashem remains rock solid.

This week’s parshah, Ki Seitzei, describes going to war against our enemies. Battle has been part and parcel of life since the days of Kayin and Hevel, and it will remain that way until we arrive at the tikkun hasholeim with Moshiach’s redemption. However, when it comes to actually fighting, we are squeamish. Nobody wants to raise hackles being the one to confront evil.

It is uncomfortable to face the concept of war, to see ourselves as warriors. Everyone wants to be able to get along, even if that means not being honest with themselves and playing along with social convention. Under the guise of peace, lies are permitted to fester and gain credibility, abusers aren’t confronted, ruptures aren’t repaired, and huge vacuums are created and filled by unworthy people.

A few months ago, I had the privilege of visiting Rav Chaim Kanievsky. Among other things, I asked for a brochah for shalom. I was feeling overwhelmed after a campaign waged by this newspaper, which had been a lone voice for truth, and the prospect of harmony seemed attractive.

Rav Chaim raised his eyes and looked at me. “Who says that’s a brochah? Ah mohl, sometimes, one has to wage wars. Milchomah lesheim Shomayim is a mitzvah.”

The Sar HaTorah perceives and appreciates that every tool a Jew has in his arsenal has a use and a function. Eis milchomah ve’eis shalom.

The theme of milchomah in this week’s parshah continues from the end of last week’s parshah. After the pesukim detailing Klal Yisroel’s foray into battle, there is a brief interlude to discuss the halachos of eglah arufah, when a body is found outside a town and the assailant is unknown. The last posuk of Parshas Shoftim (21:9) states, “Ve’atoh teva’eir dom noki mikirbecha ki saaseh hayoshor be’einei Hashem - And you shall remove innocent blood from your midst, for you shall do what is upright in Hashem’s eyes.”

Rashi quotes the Gemara in Maseches Kesubos (37b) which states that the posuk teaches us that if the murderer is found following the eglah arufah ceremony, he is put to death.

This, explains the Baal Haturim, is essentially an introduction to Parshas Ki Seitzei, because before we go to war to make the world a better and safer place, we have to ensure that the murderers in our midst are removed. If our own evil-doers are dealt with, our nation will emerge victorious in battle.

In order to win battles, we must be firm, honest and righteous. If there is a murderer among us, we do not cover for him and we don’t say that we have mercy on his family. We don’t claim that since the eglah arufah was already offered, the statute of limitations has run out.

We are charged with eradicating evil. It is a mission, and we turn inward before setting our sights outward.

Sometimes, waging war is the greatest sign of love. The posuk says, “Ohavei Hashem sinu ra - One who loves Hashem abhors evil” (Tehillim 97).

Rav Binyomin Mendelsohn was the rov of the Israeli city of Kfar Ata before assuming the rabbonus of Komemius, where he became the father of modern-day Shmittah observance. Kfar Ata was populated by a mixed group of bnei yeshiva, Chassidim, Mizrachi Jews and irreligious residents. All of them respected the rov, who was blessed with the ability to effectively relate to all types.

A leading political activist once visited the town for Shabbos and asked to address the kehillah from the shul pulpit. Rav Binyomin noticed that the man had shaved and taken a haircut lekavod Shabbos despite the fact that it was during the period of Sefiras Ha’omer. The rov explained to his visitor that he could not allow someone who transgressed an explicit halachah in Shulchan Aruch to speak in his shul.

The community erupted. Many members were upset that the rov embarrassed a respected figure. They said that what he did was much worse than shaving during Sefirah. Rav Binyomin held firm and refused to back down.

At the next opportunity, the rov shared this incident with his mentor, the Chazon Ish, who assured him that by standing up for principle even in the face of pressure, he had acted properly.

The Chazon Ish related that the Kovna Rov, Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector, was asked to serve as the mesader kiddushin at a local wedding. The rov agreed, but when he arrived at the wedding, he saw that the chupah was being held indoors, rather than outside, which is the view of the Rama and was the prevalent custom.

The rov informed the young couple that he would be unable to officiate. A furor ensued, with many people feeling that the rov was being too rigid. The people claimed that the rov’s action embarrassed the chosson and kallah publicly and ruined their big day.

A spokesman for the aggrieved approached the rov and asked how he was permitted to cause the baalei simchah shame and aggravation,

“The Krukeh Rov (the rov of Krakow, the Rama) is a good friend of mine,” said Rav Yitzchok Elchonon, “and I think it’s wrong to get into a fight with him.”

The Chazon Ish indicated that the proper approach is not to submit to public pressure under the guise of peace. Rather, peace means existing in harmony with the ratzon haTorah.

Now that we are in the month of Elul, the call of these days is to be honest with ourselves, looking inward, seeing our imperfections, and addressing them on communal and individual levels.

Following the Second World War, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein made his way to Yerushalayim. He did not occupy a position, and although his reputation preceded him, he was basically unknown to the local Yerushalmis.

One Friday, Avrohom Ravitz, a talmid in Yeshivas Chevron, was walking down a street when he came upon a strange sight. On one side of the street, a man was standing next to his car, which had broken down. He was checking under the hood, pulling and prodding in different directions. When that didn’t help, he got under the car and tried tinkering from there.

A group of children gathered to watch the man pull and test every plug, connection and wire in an attempt to get his car going. Avrohom saw that across the street, a very dignified man stood watching, engrossed in the scene. As he got closer, he recognized the man as the newly-arrived Rav Yechezkel Levenstein.

The yeshiva bochur was surprised to see the man he had heard described as a great tzaddik standing and watching the person trying to fix his stalled car. It seemed like such a childish thing to do and a waste of time. Could it be that this man was indeed so great? He asked around and found out the Rav Levenstein delivered a mussar shmuess every Friday night. He decided to attend that week’s shmuess and see for himself what the man was all about.

That evening, Rav Levenstein spoke about tikkun hamiddos. To demonstrate his point, he compared a person to a car. When a vehicle stalls, its owner expends much effort to locate the problem and fix it. So too, he said, when man “breaks down,” he needs to be repaired. Just as repairing a car requires close scrutiny of every part that makes the car work, when a person’s neshomah is ailing, we must dig inside it to find what is broken and repair it.

Avrohom then understood that while the others were looking on with childish curiosity, the mashgiach was learning lessons to apply to matters of cardinal importance.

Elul is a time when we should examine what’s going on inside our neshamos, inspecting and taking inventory of our actions throughout the year.

The Vilna Gaon, at the beginning of his sefer Even Sheleimah, states, “All avodas Hashem depends on tikkun hamiddos… Bad middos are at the root of all sin… The main task of man is to always strengthen himself to break his bad middos, and if he doesn’t, for what purpose does he live?”

The Gaon continues by stating that a person who wishes to do teshuvah must begin by pondering his negative middos and recognizing his situation. Then he must begin the process of rectifying himself, slowly, step by step, until he trains himself to act properly.

It is a difficult, time-consuming task that requires honest, painful probing, but it is the first step in improving our lives. If we cannot be honest about our failings, then we cannot correct them. If we remain mired in our gaavah and selfishness, there is no way we can rise to do teshuvah and act the way we are expected to. If our middos are faulty, then our mitzvos are as well.

Living with introspection and honesty means living with harmony - not war, not peace; just the Torah’s will.

One can be humble, yet firm and unyielding, self-aware enough to laugh, yet responsible enough to speak up.

Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld once arrived to officiate at a wedding and noticed that another rov had been honored with siddur kiddushin. Many of the wedding guests were upset at the slight to the senior rov of Yerushalayim, but Rav Yosef Chaim waved away their concerns with a wink.

He sensed that people were becoming agitated about the perceived lack of respect, saying that the baalei simchah should reconsider their decision about who should serve as the mesader kiddushin. The wise old Yerushalayimer rov removed a paper from his pocket, wrote a few words on it, and then presented it to one of the young agitators.

Rav Yosef Chaim had written a letter of resignation. “This should end the problem,” he told the young man. “You can no longer stir up trouble, saying that you are doing so because of the respect of my position.”

Another story is told regarding Rav Yosef Chaim and his rabbinic position.

A speaker was holding forth in a secular kibbutz, delivering a familiar speech targeting the religious community. As he railed on, he began referring to his antagonists, mocking them by calling them “Sonnenfeldim.” A man stood up and protested. “Listen,” he said, “I have no more love for those religious people than anyone else in this room, but I nevertheless resent the term you just coined.”

He told the group why he was opposed to the term.

“Let me tell you about my relative, a well-known, prominent Zionist leader, who became sick,” the man said. “Believing that the religious Dr. Wallach at Shaarei Tzedek Hospital would refuse to treat him, he sought treatment at the Missionary Hospital. The doctors there were not able to help him and his condition rapidly deteriorated, until, in desperation, his family brought him to Dr. Wallach.

“They knocked on the door. The doctor looked at them suspiciously. They explained the nature of his illness. ‘Where was he until now?’ he asked.

“‘In the mission hospital,’ the said.

“Dr. Wallach slammed the door in their faces.

“The family had only one option left. It was definitely a last resort. They hurried to the home of Rav Sonnenfeld and pleaded that he write a letter to the doctor. They said that in a situation of pikuach nefesh, differences should be set aside.

“Rav Sonnenfeld responded to them, ‘I can write the letter, but Dr. Wallach won’t believe you that I actually wrote it.’ The rov put on his hat and said to them, ‘Follow me.’

“They went to Shaarei Tzedek, where Dr. Wallach welcomed the rov with respect. Rav Sonnenfeld asked him to treat the patient. ‘I cannot do that,’ said Dr. Wallach. ‘He is a rosha.’

“Rav Sonnenfeld stood up straight. ‘I command you, with my authority as the rov of this city, to admit this patient and do your best to heal him.’

“Indeed, Dr. Wallach did, and under his care my relative recuperated and his life was saved.”

A person who lives his life with responsibility and introspection is not impressed by outward challenges of war and peace, but rather seeks to live in perfect harmony with creation and the will of the Creator. Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld knew when to forfeit his title for the sake of peace and when to use it as a means of enforcing what he believed to be Hashem’s will.

He knew himself and understood what was expected of him.

These are the days when we can look inward and chart a course of action - firm enough to lead, strong enough to fight evil, and soft enough to ensure that our own honor is not what motivates us.

Then we will triumph, winning both the battle and the war.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Path to Victory

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Regardless of the popularity of a product line and the deftness of its salespeople, a business cannot succeed if its inventory control is lacking or if its accounting department is inefficient and sloppy. Proper records must be kept and analyzed so that managers can efficiently gauge and monitor progress.   

To use a timely parable, it is not enough for a political candidate to have a good platform and résumé. He must also have a good staff and ground organization. He must display good common sense, besides being familiar with the issues of the day. He must be viewed as honest and dependable, someone who can be counted on to keep his word.

During Elul, we are all candidates. We are all running for something. We are running for our lives. Elul is when we review our résumé and contemplate and reflect on the successes and failures of the past year. We seek to make the achievements permanent and rise above our challenges as we craft a plan to make the case that we are deserving of a year of life, good health, and success in all areas.

Introspection and reflection are catalysts to action. Our ability to think clearly is the first step on the path to accomplishing our goals.

A beleaguered rosh kollel once approached Rav Yitzchok Lorincz and threw his hands up in despair. “I can’t do it anymore. I simply can’t,” he said.

To bolster his claim, the rosh kollel recounted that he’d gone to a mental health professional, who’d agreed that he wasn’t suited for the responsibilities of running a kollel and also shared his opinion that the rosh kollel would ultimately collapse from the pressure.

Rav Lorincz suggested that the careworn rosh kollel join him on a visit to Rav Lorincz’s grandfather, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach.

Rav Shlomo Zalman welcomed the visitors and asked the dejected man how long he had been serving as a rosh kollel.

“25 years,” the man said.

“Did you ever have worse times than you are experiencing now?” asked Rav Shlomo Zalman.

“Yes,” the man responded.

“Did Hashem help you in your difficult times?”

“Yes,” said the rosh kollel. “Every time, in fact. But every month, the situation repeats itself, until I finally come up with the money for the kollel.”

“So,” Rav Shlomo Zalman remarked, “each month you are privileged to see anew how Hashem controls everything. Why do you worry?”

Rav Shlomo Zalman continued: “You are not the only person who experiences financial pressures. Every rosh yeshiva has these pressures, as does every business owner trying to make payroll and every parent on the verge of marrying off a child.

“Rather than worrying about what will be, you can react to the situation by developing a real and complete faith in Hashem. How do you arrive at that? Get yourself a small notebook and keep it with you. Every time you experience a yeshuah, however small it might appear, write it down in this little book. When you daven Shemonah Esrei, take out the notebook before you say Modim and glance through it.”

Rav Shlomo Zalman concluded, “I guarantee that if you follow my advice, your worries will disappear.”

Now is the time when we also must buy a notebook and pen, so that we can begin to live with the cheshbon that will inspire us as we face the holiest days of the year. If we contemplate the realities of life - both the daunting challenges and the glorious successes - we will feel how He guides us, and we will understand how beholden we are to His kindness.

Life is worrisome. There are so many things to be anxious about. There is no end to the list of matters for one who is looking to be concerned. We can drive ourselves crazy with anxiety. We can give up what we have spent our lives building. We can lose our present and our future because of excessive worrying.

Once, when the master mechanech, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz zt”l, hired a fundraiser, the fellow wanted to know how much he would be paid. Rav Shraga Feivel replied with a joke about an impoverished shtetel Yid whose wife always reminded him that he was a failure. She would wail that he was doubly cursed: Not only couldn’t he feed his family, he also didn’t seem to care about it. His happy-go-lucky attitude bothered her as much as his lack of success. “At least you can show signs of worry,” she would berate him.

One day, the poor Yid arrived home accompanied by another man. He explained to his wife that he hired the gentleman as his official worrier. “I’m paying him ten rubles a week, and he will be worrying about our finances.”

“What has come over you?” his wife cried. “We have no money and can’t afford the basics. From where will you get the money to pay him ten rubles?”

The fellow shrugged and grinned. “That’s what he’s here for - to worry. So let him worry about it. That’s his problem.”

We must not be like that simpleton. We must own up to our failings and overcome our fears. In order to have the ability to soar, we have to let go of the worries that weigh us down. We can do that by strengthening our bitachon. We must examine our situation and recognize and be thankful for everything that goes right. We must notice the chesed that is ever-present, even in times of din. We must realize that we are not alone. We have bitachon that we were placed in this world with a unique mission and that every person was given the ability to succeed in his mission. We must have bitachon that Hashem doesn’t allow us to be confronted with challenges that we cannot overcome.

The month of Elul is a time predestined for this type of introspection. We begin the month announcing our faith, stating, “Hashem ori veyeshi,” and proclaiming that when we have proper faith in Hashem, mimi ira,” we have no reason to fear.

In this week’s parshah, the posuk tells about the rallying cry of the generals to Klal Yisroel before heading off for war: “Mi ha’ish hayarei verach haleivav - Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house” (Devorim 20:8).

The Gemara (Sotah 44) explains that the posuk refers to a person who has sinned and therefore worries that he is lacking in merit. The Gemara states that even if a person had transgressed an aveirah derabbonon, he should return home rather than fight. The example Chazal give is “afilu soch bein tefillah l’tefillah,” even if he spoke out and interrupted between putting on his tefillin shel yad and his tefillin shel rosh. That is reason enough to return home.

The Vilna Gaon explains why the Gemara uses the example of tefillin to portray a man who is unworthy of being a fighter.

Rashi in Parshas Vezos Habrochah teaches that when the shevet of Gad went to battle, their victims could be recognized. Shevet Gad had a unique way of attacking, and they were able to assail their enemies with a single motion, cutting off both the head and the arm. This is referred to in the posuk which states, “Toraf zeroa af kadkod - Tearing off arm and even head” (Devorim 33:20).

The Gaon posits that this power represents the piety of warriors who knew how to connect head and arm in kedushah, elevating their own “zeroa vekadkod.” This is because the head represents machshovah, thought, and the arm represents ma’aseh, action. The battle successes of shevet Gad represented their accomplishment in this area. Their machshovah and ma’aseh combined to complement their performance of Hashem’s will.

The mitzvah that most symbolizes this is that of
tefillin, with which we bind our mind to our arm; reflection and action.

The members of shevet Gad were the “bnei gevurah” known for their military power. However, their strength was attained through connecting mind and might.

Thus, the Gaon explains why the Gemara uses the example of the person who speaks between putting on the shel yad and the shel rosh, for doing so indicates a separation between machshovah and ma’aseh. A warrior who does not combine the two is unable to succeed in battle.

Elul is the month when we reflect with our machshovos and recommit to heightened asiyah, accomplishment. It is the most serious month on our calendar and provides us with the strength and ability to withstand the inevitable rigors of life.

After describing the proper preparations for war, the parshah concludes with the mitzvah of eglah arufah and the words “Ve’atah tevaeir hadom hanoki mikirbecha ki saaseh hayoshor be’einei Hashem - But you shall remove innocent blood from your midst when you do what is upright in the eyes of Hashem” (Devorim 21:9). The method to overcome fears is by doing what is proper in the eyes of Hashem.

If we wish to be protected, if we wish to be successful, if we wish to be calm, if we wish to be zocheh in din, then we have to properly do the avodah of Elul. We have to live with a cheshbon, but never may our teshuvah come at the expense of Jewish blood or hurting others.

An emotional chossid visited the Chiddushei Horim during Elul. He confessed that he had sinned and fallen into the abyss of impurity. The man said that he was heartbroken and that he was seeking an avenue towards repenting.

The rebbe responded that “hamo’ar sheba machzirom lemutav,” the toil of Torah learning is the surest path to repentance. The man bid the rebbe farewell and turned to leave. The rebbe stopped him.

“Go out through this door,” the rebbe said, indicating a door behind his seat, leading to the back courtyard. “Why do all the chassidim waiting outside have to see your red eyes and add to your humiliation?”

That is the fusion of machshovah and ma’aseh, the heights of aliyah, but without losing sight of the feelings of a Yid.

On the eve of the Second World War, the Klausenberger Rebbe spent Sukkos with his wife’s grandfather, Rav Shulem Leizer’l of Ratzferdt. They were speaking aloud, trying to find a limud zechus for Klal Yisroel to evoke Divine mercy.

Rav Shulem Leizer’l declared, “Every Jew is worthy of Hashem’s salvation, even if all he does is recite Shema.

The Klausenberger answered, “Yes, it is so. Rav Shimon bar Yochai agrees.”

He was referring to the Gemara in Maseches Sotah (42a) which Rashi cites in this week’s parshah. The posuk (20:3) states that prior to going to war, the kohein approached the people going out to do battle and said to them, “Shema Yisroel, atem kreivim hayom lamilchomah al oyveichem, al yeirach levavchem ve’al ta’artzu mipneihemListen, Am Yisroel, you are now about to go to war against your enemies. Let your hearts not be troubled; do not fear them, because Hashem, your G-d, will accompany you to fight your enemies with you and help you.”

From the fact that the Torah uses the words “Shema Yisroel” to convey this message of faith, Rav Shimon bar Yochai deduces that “even if your only source of merit is Krias Shema, that is sufficient for Hashem to save you.”

Each morning, as we tie tefillin to our arm and head, we commit to connect machshovah and ma’aseh, and we then recite Krias Shema.

That combination makes us unbeatable. It is often said that the parshah, while appearing to speak of battles against our nation’s physical enemies, also refers to the battles we must wage against the yeitzer hora, which seeks to overwhelm us daily. Perhaps we can say that this reference is present in this posuk as well. As you do battle against your yeitzer hora, do not fear him. Do not think that you cannot overcome him. Do not think that you have sinned and are weak and unworthy. For if you have even the merit of Krias Shema and sincere faith in Hashem, He will help you defeat your enemy and realize the mission He placed you in this world to accomplish.

That being said, as we prepare our Elul campaigns, we bear in mind that people today are fed up with prepared, canned, clichéd answers. They want the truth. They want to feel that the person they are voting for is interested in them and respects them enough to be truthful. They want a person with a plan, but they want that person to be authentic in how he presents it. They want him to be moral, truthful, and committed to the people. They want him to know enough about himself and his inner feelings to be able to communicate and present himself by himself, without the need of a teleprompter and multiple aides who tell him what to say and the proper tone in which to express himself.

Lehavdil, Hashem wants no less from us. We have to work on our machshavos and maasim, with humility and authenticity, so that we recognize our core and are faithful to it.

We all know the path to victory. Let’s follow it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Seeing Eyes

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

One day, Rav Shlomo Kluger zt”l was looking out the window and noticed an unfamiliar person passing by. The rov went outside and invited the stranger into his house. He welcomed him in and asked him where he lived. The man told him that he lived in the town of Podheitz.

“That is perfect,” the rov exclaimed. “I have a letter that must go to the rov of Podheitz. Can I ask you to bring it home with you and deliver it to him?”

The visitor agreed. Rav Shlomo went to the next room and returned with a sealed envelope containing a letter.

A few months later, the Podheitzer merchant returned to Brod on business and met one of the talmidim of Rav Shlomo Kluger. The merchant told the talmid of his introduction to his rebbi. The talmid expressed amazement at the moifes.” Just when his rebbi needed a messenger to deliver a letter to Podheitz, he looked out the window, saw a stranger, invited him inside, and, miraculously, he was from that very town.

“Well, not exactly,” the Podheitzer said. “Let me tell you the whole story, even though it’s quite embarrassing. What happened was that when your rov looked out the window, he saw me eating in the street. He quickly called me in and found out where I was from. He dashed into his study and wrote a letter to the rov of my town to warn him that I should not be relied upon as a witness, since one who is ochel beshuk is posul l’eidus, disqualified from serving as a witness (Kiddushin 40b; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 31:18).

“Your rebbi wasn’t looking for the rov of Podheitz. He was looking for the rov of the city where I lived, so that he could make him aware of my failing and prevent a michshol.”

This story highlights Rav Shlomo Kluger’s astuteness and halachic responsibility. But the anecdote also draws attention to the seriousness with which Chazal view a lack of refinement. Eating is a significant act and one deserving of respect. Someone who eats in public is considered crude and lacking the depth to attentively witness what is transpiring around him. His vision is one-dimensional and thus his testimony is lacking.

He can’t really see, so he is disqualified from serving as a witness for halachic matters.

In Rav Shlomo Kluger’s time, eating in the street was apparently rare. Today, we live in an era when no one thinks twice about it. Vendors and trucks sell all types of foodstuffs on the street. Prestigious businessmen walk through Manhattan carrying coffee-cups as if they are some sort of standard accessory.

Were someone to focus on the greatest failing of our culture, superficiality would be high on the list, along with a general apathy about weighty matters and a fixation on matters of little importance.

The shofar’s blast ushers in Elul, prodding us each day to wake up, focus, and see things deeper.

Elul is a call for awareness, jolting us back to reality.

The Kotzker Rebbe once asked what is meant by the obligation to be “mispallel with koved rosh, deep concentration.”

His chassidim looked at each other, not understanding the point of the question.

The rebbe responded, elucidating his question: “Is there anything that should not be done with koved rosh?”

That is really the message of Elul. Koved rosh. Life is serious business. It is meant to be taken seriously and not wasted with banalities.

Last week, the first Republican presidential debate was held. The country is veering to the left under the current administration, causing angst to Republicans. The country is sinking in insurmountable debt, with taxes consuming a greater percentage of income. Social Security and Medicare are not sustainable. More Americans are jobless than ever before and illegal immigrants are sucking jobs and money out of the system.

The country has gone down a dangerous path in its foreign policy. The Arab world is in shambles, Iraq is a disaster, Syria is wracked by civil war, Afghanistan is descending into chaos, and Iran has been given the path to a nuclear weapon. ISIS is gobbling up more territory with each passing day, and al-Qaeda is more feared than ever. The West is sending billions of dollars into the pockets of the largest supporter of terror, and Hamas, Hezbollah and all the other bad actors out there will thus be redoubling their efforts.   

The Iran deal got scant coverage in the Republican debate. Neither did the Russian hacking of the State Department or the “coincidence” that the Iranian terror head, who is under international sanctions not to leave his country, was in Russia the day of the hacking.

President Obama delivered a major speech castigating Israel and its prime minister, portraying them as rejectionist war-mongers. With a mixture of half-truths and bluster, he castigated in ugly terms anyone who opposes his flawed deal. The Jewish senator in line to become Democrat Senate leader was warned by the administration that he will not realize his ambition because he came out against the deal.

With the vindictive administration as a backdrop, 17 accomplished people are vying for the Republican nomination to run for president. You would think that the debate would be a serious moment. You would think that the candidates would be given a chance to clearly explain their positions and offer solutions for the problems the country faces. 

Millions of people tuned in to hear the candidates discuss serious issues. Instead, the debate began with silliness, and coverage of it was basically limited to game show aspects. The “gotcha” moments were carefully analyzed along with other trivialities. Media consumers searched in vain to find solutions to real problems.

With so much at stake, America focused on superficiality. We run the danger of the surrounding culture affecting us and causing us to become shallow individuals - irresponsible, uncaring and unthinking.

As always, we search for truth and depth in the parshah. This week’s parshah of Re’eh, like so many of the parshiyos of the Torah, demonstrates what is expected of us as Jews and as people. The pesukim detail how we are to deal with the weak among us, what our obligations are to the poor, and how we are to lead our lives on a higher, more thoughtful plane.

The Torah’s injunction to see, “Re’eh,” is actually a call for depth, just like that of the shofar. Look, observe, and contemplate, and you will see that blessing comes with learning Torah and observing its mitzvos, while those who choose the opposite, end up dejected and empty.

We are reminded that the blessed life is arrived at by following the mitzvos, not through vanity and hedonism.

Go beyond the superficial, look a bit deeper, and you will see it.

Rav Yechiel Mordechai Gordon zt”l, the Lomza rosh yeshiva, had an interesting habit. He would stop at a particular corner of the bais medrash each day and spend a few moments in silent contemplation, as if in prayer.

One day, a talmid mustered the courage to ask the rosh yeshiva about the intriguing minhag. If he was, in fact, davening, why at the rear corner, facing the wall?

Rav Yechiel Mordechai explained that in that corner, there was a small plaque marking the gift of a certain donor. “I realized that it’s all too easy to forget and overlook his contribution to our yeshiva, so I wait until seder is in full swing and, with the happy noise and commotion of lomdei Torah filling the room, I pause by the plaque and remember his kindness.”

The Lomza rosh yeshiva was teaching his talmidim that mindless observation isn’t enough. One has to look and think.

The parshah begins with a commandment to look, to see deeper, and to consider the ramifications of mitzvos and aveiros. Towards the end of the parshah, we are commanded to give tzedakah generously. The posuk provides a reason to be charitable, telling us that we should give “ki lo yechdal evyon mikerev ha’aretz - destitute people will not cease to exist within the land” (Devorim 15:11).

We need to understand why the fact that there will always be needy people is a reason to give. If there will always be poor people, why bother waging a war on poverty? We give charity because we have compassion on the less fortunate and don’t want others to go to bed hungry. We give because we don’t want people to suffer due to no fault of their own. However, there are people who are not that altruistic and actually only care about themselves.

Some Rishonim explain that the Torah is speaking to those people and offering an incentive for them to give. The Torah says to them, “Even though things are going good for you and you don’t really care about the poor, give anyway, because no one is assured that one day they won’t need to ask for tzedakah.

When Rav Pinchos Hirschprung zt”l was a member of Montreal’s vaad harabbonim prior to his ascension as rav harashi, one of the dayonim passed away. The local rabbonim and lay leaders gathered to discuss creating a pension fund for the widowed rebbetzin so that she could live in basic dignity.

One of the rabbonim resisted, arguing that the widow could go to work or find some other means of support and the campaign was unnecessary. “It is not our responsibility to worry about someone’s wife,” he callously remarked.

Rav Hirschprung was normally a mild-manned, soft-spoken individual. However, upon hearing that response, he became irate. Instead of lecturing the selfish individual, he looked at him and said, “We don’t only mean his wife. We also mean your wife!”

The message hit home.

When we analyze with depth and responsibility, and ponder the future, the correct course of action becomes obvious.

The posuk tells us to give generously, because when we see deeper, we realize that no one is assured that they won’t ever be forced to accept tzedakah. By doing our part and making the world a better and more charitable place, we ensure that there is enough tzedakah money to go around should we ever need it, G-d forbid. The Torah trains us to think responsibly and act selflessly at all times.

Elul is here and it’s time to live seriously.

One year, on the Motzoei Shabbos of the first Selichos, a simple Sephardic Jew set up a small table in Bnei Brak near the Vizhnitzer bais medrash in order to sell Selichos booklets. “Selichot. Selichot,” he called out, but no one even stopped to look. Everyone was arriving with their Selichos in hand, and the poor man stood there hearing empty echoes of his lonely calls. “Selichot. Selichot,” he continued to shout, thinking that maybe people would stop by and purchase a booklet or two. 

Finally, his faith was rewarded. The Vizhnitzer Rebbe, the Imrei Chaim zt”l, passed with his entourage. The rebbe saw the humble Jew with a pile of unsold Selichos booklets and grasped the situation.

The rebbe walked over and took his place behind the table.

“Selichos,” the rebbe called out. “Ver vil koifen? Who wants to buy?”

Immediately, a crowd formed. Which chossid would turn down an opportunity to use a Selichos received from the rebbe’s own hand? In no time, the booklets were sold out.

“Do you have more?” the rebbe asked the vendor.

“Yes, I have another case in my machsan,” he said.

“Then hurry and go get it,” the rebbe said, maintaining his post.

The rebbe sold out the second batch as well, handing the dumbfounded seller piles of money he no doubt put to good use. 

With that done, the rebbe continued to the bais medrash to recite Selichos.

The rebbe had taught his chassidim a valuable lesson. He demonstrated the glory of helping another Jew. He showed them that the opportunities are everywhere, and those blessed with good vision take advantage of them. There was no introduction more fitting to Selichos for those looking for Heavenly mercy.

Do you want “Selichot”? Do you want Hashem to forgive your sins? Help another Jew. Look beyond your comfort zone and take note of what is going on around you. “Re’eh.” Look. Really look and you will find the “Anochi nosein lifneichem hayom brochah.”

Re’eh. See opportunities. See the needs of other Jews. See your own potential.

Open your eyes to the reality of life. Open your eyes to the opportunities for greatness, growth, forgiveness and blessing.