Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Tools of Healing

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Parshas Tazria, as Metzora which follows it, deals with the halachos of a person struck by tzoraas. Though its laws are quite complex, scaring off the less learned from studying them, we are all familiar with the basic concept. A patch of skin, or clothing, or a home becomes infected with pigment changes. A kohein is called to inspect and render a decision regarding the status of the stain. If he deems it tzoraas, the offender is secluded.

While tzoraas is usually described as leprosy or some other disease, in fact it is not a disease at all, but a signal from Hashem to repent and do teshuvah for various sins.

On Shevi’i Shel Pesach, we read Parshas Beshalach and the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim. The posuk (Shemos 15:26) states, “Kol hamachalah asher samti beMitzrayim lo asim alecha ki ani Hashem rofecha.” Hashem promises that if we follow His mitzvos, He will not bring upon us any of the diseases He brought upon the Mitzriyim.

The ailments and diseases that befell the Mitzriyim were purely Divine punishment for their treatment of the Jews. There was no cure for them.

When a person is infected by illness, it is similar to a vaccine. The vaccine works by planting a strain of the illness in the body, weak enough for the body to fight off. The process strengthens and inoculates the person from the disease. The sickness itself is what causes good health. We believe that disease and yissurim are for a higher purpose, sometimes perceived, sometimes obvious, and often times not. We trust that our Doctor has our best interests in mind. We therefore say, “Ki Ani Hashem rofecha.” If He wishes it so, then we will be healed.

The name of the new month, Chodesh Iyar, is comprised of the roshei teivos of that very posuk: Ani Hashem rofecha. Iyar is said to be a month with a heightened power of healing and refuah.

It is interesting that in this month of healing, the students of Rabi Akiva died and much tragedy was heaped upon the Jewish people. Healing is not magic. We have to earn it. When we sin, catastrophe ensues. When we repent, recovery is enabled. Talmidei Rabi Akiva were felled during Iyar, but the plague was also stopped during Iyar on Lag Ba’omer. There was much sadness during this month, but also much redemption. We don’t always merit appreciating the cause and effect. Many of the ways of the L-rd are mysterious, and it often takes years of hindsight to be able to perceive what transpired, but we must know that we are overseen by Ani Hashem rofecha, during Iyar and all year around.

Herbs, which are at the root of medicine, begin growing, along with the rest of nature, this month. It is often said that physical aspects of creation reflect spiritual realities. Thus, we can say that since Iyar is a time of personal growth and healing for us, the rest of the natural world also experiences growth and regeneration. This serves as a reminder to us of our opportunities and ability to regenerate.

The Chazon Ish would say that each generation experiences a new class of diseases for which there is no cure. In generations prior, people would die from typhus, smallpox and measles, and desperate people hoped valiantly for the day that medication would be found to cure them. Once the world was rid of those feared maladies, new diseases were diagnosed and spread, without the ability to cure them.

This is to remind us that Hashem is the Rofei cholim. Doctors are His messengers. They do not hold the key to cures unless the Creator wills it so.

In truth, this is explicit in the words of the Rambam (Hilchos Mikvaos 11:12) in his closing remarks on the topic of purification:

“Impurity is not filth that can be washed away with water, but, rather, a scriptural decree that calls for intent of focus of the heart. Chazal therefore teach that one who immersed but did not intend to purify himself is considered as not having been toiveled.

“Although it is a gezeiras hakasuv, there is an allusion inherent in the act of tevilah. One who focuses his heart on purity is indeed cleansed through immersion, even though there was no noticeable change in his body. Similarly, one who focuses his heart on removing the contamination of the soul - namely, evil thoughts and negative character traits - becomes purified when he resolves within his heart to distance himself from such counsel and immerse his soul in the waters of knowledge.”

Thus, it is the sacred role of the kohein to determine whether a person is a metzora or not. The task of the kohein is to bring people closer to Hashem through removing sin, which causes separation between man and his Maker. He helps people purify themselves. Tzora’as is not a medical condition. It arises from cheit, and thus the kohein intercedes to help the victim repent from his chatto’im, which brought about his condition. He then achieves the desired healing.

We are familiar with the posuk (Tehillim 34:13) which states, Mi ha’ish hechofeitz chaim oheiv yomim liros tov. Netzor leshoncha meira usefosecha midabeir mirma.” One who desires life should be careful not to use his mouth for bad purposes and not to speak improperly.

We know that tzora’as is a punishment for people who do not follow the admonitions of that posuk and speak ill of others. Those who do not appreciate other people, who are not concerned about the feelings of others, or who cavalierly destroy reputations of fellow Jews, are punished and banished from the camp. For seeking to create separation between the people they gossiped about and their communities, they are placed in isolation.

In the town of Radin, there was a group of progressive Jewish freethinkers called the Poalei Tzion who used mockery and cynicism as a means of undermining the traditions of the yeshiva world, utilizing their writing abilities to pen works demonizing yeshivos. They prepared a booklet filled with barbs and slurs to vilify the yerei’im ushleimim. Some Radiner bochurim learned of the plan and descended on the Poalei Tzion headquarters. They scooped up the hateful materials and carried the bundles of booklets back to their yeshiva, where they tossed them into the furnace.

The next day, Poalei Tzion activists came to work and saw what had happened. They quickly found clues revealing the identity of the perpetrators and headed to the yeshiva. There, in the furnace, they found burnt remnants of their hard work.

They announced a war on the bochurim, threatening physical attacks and more. They began their retaliation campaign at the home of the Chofetz Chaim zt”l, where they stormed in to announce their plans.

The leader spoke with particular chutzpah, and almost as soon as the brazen words left his mouth, he fell to the ground. His eyes bulged and a random stream of words came out of his mouth. He had lost his mind.

His frightened friends led him away and the news soon spread. The young man had gone insane.

The story, in today’s parlance, went viral.

A few days later, the story reached the preeminent Haskalah newspaper, Heint, based in Warsaw. In a fiery editorial, they took issue with the rabbon shel Yisroel. “Is this the Chofetz Chaim, known for the work he authored on the laws of lashon hora?” they asked. “How can someone who preaches love of Jews curse another Jew?”

Rav Shalom Schwadron would often retell this story and point out the hypocrisy and duplicity of agenda-driven people. While acknowledging the spiritual greatness and powers of the Chofetz Chaim, they refused to admit that the way of life they so disdained invested him with his abilities.

The Chofetz Chaim took the unusual step of responding to the newspaper.

“In response to your report that I cursed the young man, chas veshalom, I have never cursed another Jew. In response to your report that he has been stricken with madness, that is indeed true, and that is because mit yeshiva bochurim fangt men nisht uhn, one doesn’t start up with yeshiva bochurim.”

The mistake made by the editors of Heint is an error we all risk making. Man creates his own tzora’as. It is not curses or bad luck that cause tzora’as.

We no longer merit this precise Divine message. We speak lashon hora at will and think that we won’t suffer any consequence, but a discerning eye sees a different truth.

The loving Rofei sends us hints of disapproval. We are beset by aches and pains, and at times ailments. We go to the doctor, fill prescriptions, and seek to be healed. We are lulled into thinking that the sickness or pain is caused and cured by something physical.

How wrong we are.

Sometimes, we tackle life’s serious issues like children, who try to copy what they have seen others do. They grab their tools and attempt to repair their broken toys. As well-intentioned as they are, and as many tools as there are in their box, they cannot fix what is broken.

Since they haven’t been through the vicissitudes of life, there is no way they can succeed on their own.

Life is a long learning process. As we grow and learn, we are enabled to overcome the many challenges we face. If we act maturely and intelligently, we are better able to remain healthy, strong and vivacious. If we seek complete recovery and a pain-free existence, we have to know that every limb and part of the body receives its sustenance from a specific mitzvah. Every ailment is caused by a specific aveirah.

Children see everything in a superficial way. They lack the experience, the trial and error that give older people the tools to properly analyze situations.

Maturity dictates that we face up to our challenges and concede that they are messages. The Gemara in Maseches Avoda Zara (55a) quotes the words of a posuk that we recite in the tefillah of Nishmas each Shabbos: chola’im ra’im vene’emonim - harsh and faithful diseases.” How can illness be referred to as faithful?

The Gemara explains that they are faithful to keep the promise they make. They have a mission, dispatched from Heaven for a reason, for a specific amount of time. Once that time elapses, they are directed to leave a person’s body. They are faithful to that oath.

The truest path to complete recovery and pain-free existence isn’t calling a toll-free number for a free sample of some questionable product with enthusiastic endorsements from people claiming to have been healed. It is from the awareness that every limb and part of the body receives its sustenance from a specific mitzvah and every ailment is caused by a specific aveirah.

In our days, we don’t suffer from tzora’as. That is not a blessing. It is a curse. Were tzora’as still prevalent, we would no doubt minimize our speaking of lashon hora. It would disappear from our midst. The cause and effect would be plainly evident.

And it’s not only tzora’as. It’s all diseases. It’s not only lashon hora. It’s all the aveiros. The Medrash teaches that there are ten parshiyos of negoim, just as there are ten cardinal mitzvos. If Am Yisroel observes the Aseres Hadibros, then Hashem protects them from negoim. However, if they disobey the Aseres Hadibros, they are plagued.

We have to recognize that our tumah, taharah and welfare depend on our actions. The Gemara in Maseches Sotah (20a) teaches, “Torah magna umatzla,” Torah fortifies and protects. We know that “tzedakah tatzil mimovess,” charity saves one from death (Mishlei 10:2).

Just as tzedakah has the power to save us from death, tefillah has the power to bring about salvation. Torah surrounds us with armor in the face of punishment. Every act we perform, including the way we think and speak, has the ability to determine the quality of our lives.

The posuk (Vayikra 18:5) states, “Ushemartem es chukosai v’es mishpotai asher yaaseh osam ha’adam vochai bohem.” If you will observe My mitzvos, they will give you life. From this posuk we derive that pikuach nefesh is docheh Shabbos. That means that the posuk is not speaking only in an allegorical sense - that mitzvah observance enhances life - but in a very literal sense as well. Observance of the Torah’s chukim and mishpotim is life-inducing.

Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt”l went to visit a very sick person, Mr. Hutzin. The patient’s life was one of sickness and suffering, with nary a ray of anything good. Rav Isser Zalman sat at the man’s bedside silently, wondering what words of consolation he could offer him. He was thinking that if he couldn’t relieve the man of any of his many illnesses, the least he could do was offer words of encouragement.

He began speaking words of chizuk and telling Mr. Hutzin to never give up on receiving Hashem’s salvation.

The man responded to the rosh yeshiva, “Are you attempting to give me strength? Are you explaining to me why I shouldn’t give up and just sink into a depression because of my many ailments?

“If that is your intention, you are wasting your time. I don’t need that type of chizuk. Do you want to hear something? Despite all that I have been through, I have never stopped being happy with my yissurim,” Mr. Hutzin said.

“How can that be?” asked Rav Meltzer. “How can you tell me that you are besimchah despite all your yissurim? You have had no break from pain and suffering.”

“Let me explain,” said the man as he lay on his sickbed in agony. “Recently, a man was sentenced to jail for two years. You would expect that man to be sad; you’d think he’d have tears pouring down his cheeks after hearing the judge read the sentence. Yet, he was full of joy. Instead of crying, he was smiling. Instead of sadness, there was joy. He even thanked the judge!

“As they left the courtroom, a crowd surged to follow the condemned man. ‘Why are you so happy?’ they called out to him as he was led away. ‘Why the smiles?’

“‘Let me explain it to you,’ he said. ‘The crime I was convicted of carries a 25-year sentence. I could have been put away for up to 25 years of hard time. Instead, I got two years in minimum security. Of course I’m happy. In two years, I’ll be back home with my family and friends.’

“So too with me,” Mr. Hutzin finished. “The Gemara (Shabbos 55a) says, ‘Ein yissurim belo avon, there is no suffering without sin.’ I have sinned and Hashem is punishing me for what I have done. He could have treated me much worse. He could have saved the punishments for Olam Haba. Instead, He is cleaning me now of my sins, and in Olam Haba I will be free to enjoy. Should I not be happy? I am getting off easy. I don’t need you to console me. I don’t need to hear words of chizuk. I am quite happy, for I know that I deserve a lot worse and am getting off easy.”

This story resonates with us intellectually and emotionally. We all recognize the truth and wisdom in the man’s words. And though it may be difficult to live that way, we aim to reach that level.

Dovid Hamelech sang, “Shivtecha umishantecha heima yenachamuni - Your rod and staff comfort me.” Baalei mussar teach that the comfort Dovid Hamelech derived from Hashem’s “rod and staff” was similar to the comfort a stray sheep receives from the prodding tap of its master. The wayward sheep had veered from the path and group. It was lost, alone and afraid. Finally, it was found by the shepherd, who hit it with his staff. Along with the blow came a sense of belonging, of being watched over once again, and of being cared for. The stick striking its back stung, but it was comforting nonetheless.

At the shivah for Rav Shmuel Halevi Wosner zt”l, his children recounted that their father never raised his voice to rebuke them and never slapped them. One of the children asked him how he understood a posuk that seems to indicate that smacking children is a sign of love: “Choseich shivto sonei beno - One who withholds the stick hates his son (Mishlei 13:24).

Rav Wosner told his son, “The posuk does not mean that a father should hit his son. Rather, the explanation is that a wise father learns to keep a stick nearby to remind his son of its existence. The stick is a tool, but the loving father finds a way not to have to use it.”

He uses it by not using it. The threat is ever-present and the child toes the line because of it.

We have seen and experienced the Divine staff all too often. Like frightened sheep, we have been prodded back to the flock, influenced to stay on the correct path. We see through the darkness and appreciate the message that after making many mistakes, Hashem still hopes for our return. He hasn’t forgotten us, even for a moment.

Ki anu tzonecha, ve’Atah Roeinu.

May we all experience true refuah in this new month of Ani Hashem Rofecha. May all individuals suffering from disease be cured, and may all that plagues our community be rectified so that we can speedily merit the ultimate healing.

Dovid Hamelech says in the 15th chapter of Tehillim, “Hashem, who merits to inhabit your tent, to live on Your holy mountain? He who walks purely, does justice and speaks truth from his heart. Slander doesn’t appear on his tongue; he doesn’t wrong his friend and doesn’t slur those close to him. He despises contemptible people and honors those who fear Hashem. He keeps his word and oath even when it hurts him. He doesn’t take interest for lending people money and never accepts bribes. Whoever possesses these characteristics will never falter.”  

In these days of Iyar and Sefirah, as we study the parshiyos of tzora’as, let us begin our march back to good health by reforming how we deal with each other, giving attention to our middos and observance of the mitzvos, chukim and mishpotim.

May all those who suffer find relief; may all the ill be healed; all the lonely comforted, and may we all merit the geulah sheleimah bemeheirah.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Wisdom of When

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Pesach is over, but it shouldn’t be a distant memory. Our lives are formed by the actions we perform on a daily basis and the experiences they offer us. The mitzvos we performed over a week of Yom Tov changed and elevated us.

Pesach is an intrinsic part of our fiber. Its mitzvos, rituals, liturgy and special foods enrich and enhance our souls year after year.

While the Yom Tov has a special effect on children, as we grow older we perceive new depths; chag hacheirus becomes more meaningful as we appreciate its valuable messages in a different, richer way. We increasingly realize how Pesach is meant to equip us with new resolve to rid ourselves of chometz and cheit, villains and tormentors. It drives us to pine ever more for the geulah, so that we might merit visiting the home of Hashem, offering korbanos to Him.

We recognize that we can only arrive there by doing what is incumbent upon us and fulfilling our missions as best as we can. We reach our potential by studying the Torah and seeking messages from the weekly parsha and from the other portions of the Torah we study.

Rather than feeling dejection as a Yom Tov draws to a close, we should be tempered by the new attitudes we developed over the duration of the holy days. Rishonim point to an optimistic lesson gleaned from the recital of the Haggadah Shel Pesach. We note that Hashem redeemed the Jews, even though they were submerged in the impurity of Mitzrayim. Although they may have been unworthy, He lifted them, raising their levels and cleansing them, so that they would be worthy of redemption. He did it for them, and we know He will do it for us.

Now, newly invigorated and charged, we return to the hard work of daily life. We may not always appreciate what we must experience on a regular basis and wish, as we should, that every day could be a Yom Tov, when we divide our time between physical and spiritual enjoyment.

A follower of the Baal Shem Tov worked very hard to earn enough money to be able to purchase and prepare Shabbos foods. The strain of finding money with which to honor Shabbos took a toll on the man and he traveled to the rebbe for help.

“Please bless me to be able to celebrate Shabbos without agmas nefesh,” he asked.

The rebbe turned to the man and what he said changed his life. “How do you know the rewards for your actions?” he asked. “It may very well be that in Heaven they desire the efforts you expend for Shabbos as much as the results. If you forsake the agmas nefesh, you may be giving up more than you think you are.”

As we patiently await that great day of which Shabbos is but a hint, we must bear in mind that the agmas nefesh we experience is part of our task. Hard work, while uncomfortable and unnerving, is often an essential component of our mission. How we react to aggravation and tribulation is a testament to our belief and integral to any success we may have.

We do not have nevi’im to provide us with personal direction, but we can turn to the Torah and the weekly parsha, knowing that its relevance is eternal.

This week’s parsha of Shemini is particularly emblematic of the type of uplifting lessons with which we are gifted, the lights therein illuminating our path.

At the time of Krias Yam Suf, a fearful nation was told, “Hashem yilocheim lochem ve’atem tacharishun - Your duty at this time is to remain silent, as Hashem defeats the Mitzriyim.”

Chazal state that this advice is eternal; it is as pertinent today as it was then. There are times when we must speak up and times when we must remain silent, times to do battle and times to be passive.

How we are to act is dictated by the Torah, as so beautifully expressed by Shlomo Hamelech in Koheles: Eis livkos, ve’eis lischok... Eis le’ehov, ve’eis lisno, eis milchomah, ve’eis sholom.” How we are to act in each “eis,” or time, is determined by Torah.

Many times, you hear people describe a person as a good man. For example, they say, “He does a lot of chesed, he is a good husband, and he is kovei’a ittim.” Homiletically, the phrase may have come about as a depiction of people who determine what type of eis it is and how to react to various ittim through the prism of Koheles and Torah. When we say that a person is “kovei’a ittim,” we are saying that the Torah is his foundation and solidifies his responses to the vagaries of life.

In this week’s parsha, we learn that when Aharon Hakohein was selected to perform the avodah in the Mishkon, he demurred, feeling unworthy of the position. The posuk states that he was commanded to approach the mizbei’ach: “Krav el hamizbei’ach.” Rashi quotes Chazal, who explain the strange language as teaching that Aharon was told, “Set aside your humility, because you were Divinely chosen for this task.”

Although Aharon preferred to remain in the background, when told that it was an eis for him to step into a leadership position, he was spurred to action.

His sons, Nodov and Avihu, however, sought to go where they didn’t belong. They reasoned that they were worthy of making decisions regarding the Mishkon of Hashem. They made a cardinal error, offering up a fire “asher lo tzivah,” and were smitten on the day that the consecration of the Mishkon was celebrated.

They missed their chance at the opportunity to patiently and humbly learn from their elders.

Humility doesn’t mean that it is not important to be confident in our abilities. Rav Yeruchom Levovitz zt”l would say that a person who doesn’t recognize his weaknesses can study mussar and thus repair those middos in which he is lacking. However, one who doesn’t appreciate his positive attributes will never get far enough to even open the door of the study hall, much less study the seforim that can help him realize his potential. Humility means that while we appreciate our attributes, we accept upon ourselves the “kevias ittim” of Torah. Those who don’t, jeopardize their ability to perform in the house of Hashem and lead active, successful lives.

After his arrival in Eretz Yisroel, Rav Elozor Menachem Man Shach zt”l lived in a small apartment in the Kerem Avrohom neighborhood of Yerushalayim. The diminutive, humble man kept to himself, engaging in Torah learning all the time and rarely opening his mouth to express an opinion on issues of the day. His acquaintances in the Kerem shul saw him as a talmid chochom, but few foresaw a position of leadership for the scholar.

Eventually, the poverty-stricken Rav Shach accepted a position as a maggid shiur in Tel Aviv, grateful for the chance to teach Torah and earn an income. Within weeks of starting the new job, however, he detected that the leader of the mosad possessed an outlook that was contrary to that of gedolei Yisroel.

Rav Shach didn’t hesitate. Without stopping to consider his own financial situation, he immediately resigned his position and returned home, settling back into his corner of the small shul where he learned.

He had thought that his time to speak had arrived, but, as it turned out, it was still time for him to remain silent.

His rebbi, the Brisker Rov, encouraged him. “Someone who forfeits parnossah because of principle will only see brachos,” he told him.

In time, the Ponovezher Rov discovered Rav Shach, and after living in virtual anonymity for so long, the rosh yeshiva’s rise to leadership began, ushering in the glory era for the olam haTorah.

He retreated from offering a fire when he felt it wasn’t the ratzon Hashem.

Many years later, a group of kanno’im went to Bnei Brak, wishing to take issue with a position of Rav Shach. They attacked his viewpoint, making it abundantly clear that they thought he was misguided.

The rosh yeshiva rose and removed his sefer Avi Ezri on the Rambam’s Hilchos Nezikin. He showed them the haskomah of the Brisker Rov.

Doh shteit as ich darf eich nisht freggen. Here it says that I don’t need to ask your opinion,” Rav Shach told his visitors.

He was an exceedingly humble man, but when he felt that the Torah demanded strength from him, he stood up to the world based on the precepts of the Torah.

The Netziv, in his introduction to his peirush on Shir Hashirim, writes that the seventh day of Pesach was intended for us to ponder the lesson of the flat, unleavened matzah. He says that on the first day of Pesach, we eat matzah because we left Mitzrayim in haste, before the bread had a chance to rise.

On the other days of Pesach, we eat matzah for the same reason the shiyorei menachos the kohanim ate did not contain chometz. He says that is to teach those who seek holiness and closeness to Hashem to endeavor to limit their involvement in the ways of the world. Those who want to be closer to Hashem should pursue an unleavened lifestyle.

Similarly, says the Netziv, on Pesach we work to bring ourselves closer to Hashem and therefore do not partake of leavened products. With respect to the final day of the chag, the posuk says, “Uvayom hashvi’i atzeres laHashem Elokecha.” It is a day of atzeres, of halting, stopping and desisting.

On the final day of Yom Tov, we are commanded to internalize its messages. This includes not only the messages of the holiness and closeness to Hashem that we have merited, but also the matzah’s lesson of humility.

Aharon Hakohein merited a life of closeness to Hashem, working in His shadow in the Mishkon because of his deep humility. He sought to distance himself from leadership, for he felt himself unworthy, but once he was commanded to rise, he embraced his position fully. As he served Hashem on the holiest levels, mentoring his people wasn’t beneath him. The oheiv es habrios umekarvan laTorah lived on the golden path, traveling the road of harmony. He loved people and sought to bring them to Torah, but to accomplish that, he never compromised on halachah. Aharon did not act on his own. He always followed the direction of Hashem delivered by his brother, Moshe.

Nodov and Avihu were well-intentioned, but their hubris misled them and caused them to be lost to the Jewish people.

Upon their demise, the Torah tells us, “Vayidom Aharon,” their great father, the kohein gadol, who had just initiated his role of officiating in the Heichal Hashem, was silent. Aharon was undoubtedly able to express himself very well; he was surely a competent and experienced communicator. After all, he was Moshe Rabbeinu’s spokesman. He was a man who pursued peace, settled disputes, and drew people closer to Torah. Why is it that when his two great sons were taken from him, he remained silent?

Because this is what was demanded by the Torah during this “eis.”

He had no mesorah of how to respond. Nobody had ever experienced a tragedy like this. He had no tradition of how a father reacts when losing children who were moreh halacha lifnei rabbon, being makriv an eish zora at the chanukas haMikdosh. They were great men, with righteous intentions, but Aharon remembered the lesson of “Ve’atem tacharishun.” Silence is also a response, and sometimes the only correct one.

In our world, in our time, and in our lives, there are many trials and tribulations. Life throws curveballs. Sometimes, the best reaction is silence.

When there is no mesorah on how to respond, we remain silent and wait for those more qualified than us to speak up and provide direction. We don’t rush headstrong into new storms. We don’t view ourselves in grandiose terms. We remember the lessons of the matzah and of the kohanim who are mekadeish themselves and seek to become closer to Hashem.

Through perfecting the art of silence, we merit the gift of speech. Chazal tell us that the reward for Aharon’s silence was that in the following parsha, the rule that kohanim may not become intoxicated at the time of avodah was told by Hashem to Aharon alone. Because he remained silent, Aharon was given a special mitzvah to transmit. He was called upon to speak.

There is no mandate to be quiet, nor one to speak. The only mandate is to follow the ratzon Hashem. Our only task is to be a “kovei’a ittim.”

One who is humble enough to submit is humble enough to lead.

The message of this week’s parsha and the lessons of our gedolei Yisroel - who, as different as they may have been in outlook or temperament, shared the dual characteristics of humility to follow and the courage to lead - usher in the period of Sefirah. During these days, we work to perfect our character traits. It doesn’t come easy, but it is the type of work that allows us to keep growing and merit other opportunities to serve Hashem.

Through our study of Pirkei Avos during these months following Pesach and our fidelity to Torah and its mesorah, we can attempt to be “kovei’a ittim,” knowing when to speak and when to remain silent, when to do battle and when to seek peace. We can be certain that as we endeavor to rise and improve ourselves through this Sefirah period, our hard work is cherished in Heaven.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Chosen, Blessed and Free

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

As we approach one of the many peaks of the Seder, we raise the matzah and recite Ha Lachma Anya, opening the Maggid section. Speaking in unfamiliar Aramaic, we begin by stating that the matzah that we are about to eat at the Seder is the very same matzah that our forefathers ate in Mitzrayim.

We continue with a seemingly unconnected invitation to any and all poor people to come join our meal. Anyone who needs a place to eat should come and share the Korban Pesach with us.

We conclude with the declaration that this year we are here, in golus, but next year we will be in Eretz Yisroel. Now we are enslaved, but in the coming year we will be free.

Why does this series of statements open the discussion about Yetzias Mitzrayim? What is the connection between the different sentences of the paragraph? Why do we hold up the matzah?

Repeatedly, the Torah refers to the Yom Tov of Pesach as Chag Hamatzos. In davening and Kiddush, we refer to the Yom Tov as Yom Chag Hamatzos.

Matzah is the symbol of Pesach. It encompasses all the messages of the Seder. As we consider and contemplate the exalted moment when our forefathers left Mitzrayim, we eat the very same matzah, unchanged in formula and taste, at the very moment they did, on the same night, year after year, century after century, going back all the way to the day our nation was founded. With this bread, we became a nation. We left the shibud Mitzrayim and emerged as bnei chorin.

The Gemara in Maseches Brachos (17a) relates that Klal Yisroel tells Hashem, “Galui veyodua lefonecha sheretzoneinu laasos es retzonecha, umi m’akeiv, se’or shebe’isa. We wish to fulfill Your will, but the se’or shebe’isa prevents us.” Rashi explains that se’or shebe’isa is the yeitzer hara, which is machmitz us as yeast does to dough.

We can suggest that matzah is referred to as lechem geulim not only because we ate it as we were leaving Mitzrayim, but because man wants to be good, but the se’or shebe’isa causes him to sin and veer off course. Matzah is lechem geulim because it is baked without chimutz, without se’or. One who subjugates his yeitzer hara is a ga’ul; he is redeemed and free. Thus, Chazal state, “Ein lecha ben chorin ela mi she’oseik baTorah.” The free man is one who is occupied with Torah.

The original matzah didn’t rise because, as we say in the Haggadah, “Lo hispik lehachmitz ad sheniglah aleihem Melech Malchei Hamelochim uge’olom.” Hashem redeemed the Jewish people from Mitzrayim suddenly, before the dough they were in the middle of baking for their trip was able to rise, and thus they were left with matzah.

Matzah symbolizes freedom, because it came into existence amidst the great urgency with which Hashem hurried His people out of Mitzrayim. The cause - Jewish nationhood - didn’t allow for the bread to reach completion; it didn’t allow for se’or and chimutz. Bread of freedom and a life of freedom are both brought about by the same process, removal of se’or and chimutz. A person cleanses his soul of sin by being preoccupied with serving Hashem and studying Torah, and he thus earns his freedom from the shackles life places upon him.

We open our Seder with the statement that the whole night - the entire Yom Tov, in fact - is about the matzah, the food of freedom. The first phrase tells us that it was “eaten when we left Mitzrayim,” in reference to our being rushed out. It was baked without the se’or shebe’isah.

We then address the poor, turning to those who are lacking in life and service to Hashem. We proclaim to such people that they should join us in eating the matzah and deriving the lessons it contains.

“Join us!” we say. “Eat and learn from the matzah, and you will also be blessed and free along with us and all those who enjoy the blessings of Pesach. You will be impoverished no more.”

We continue by acknowledging that while we are now unable to bring the Korban Pesach, if we have indeed internalized the message of the matzah, we will be able to offer Pesochim and Zevochim next year in Eretz Yisroel.

Finally, we acknowledge that now we are still enslaved. The se’or shebe’isah still interferes with our lives. We have been unable to expel it from our souls. We affirm our commitment to examining the message, studying the lessons of “Ha Lachma Anya.” Even though we are now captive to the yeitzer hara, we resolve that by next year we will be free of his domination over us.

Simple, unconstrained, and as free as the matzah.

The Klausenberger Rebbe shared an experience from the concentration camps. He was placed in a barracks with forty-two other inmates. Within a day of his arrival, forty of the men had died of illness, famine or despair. There were two survivors, the rebbe and a Budapest banker. They got to talking through the long, cold, lonely night. Who could sleep in the valley of death?

The rebbe asked the Hungarian if he was Jewish.

“Of course I am. How else would have I ended up here?”

The rebbe inquired what he did for a living.

The banker spoke about his exceptional accomplishments, describing how he started as a clerk and rose to the post of bank president. He was then appointed chairman of all the banks in Hungary. “Have you not heard about how I stabilized the pengo? I was featured in every newspaper, hailed as a savior.”

The rebbe admitted that he had not.

“Are you sure you are Jewish?” the rebbe asked again.

“No, I’m not Jewish,” the banker answered.

He explained that he had been born Jewish, but he made the decision to convert in order to further his career. He told the rebbe that he didn’t regret the decision for a moment.

“Besides achieving great things in my work, saving the economy of my country, I married a wonderful woman from a noble family.”

“Were you happily married?” asked the rebbe.

“What a question! We were blissfully married for thirty years. We had a beautiful home and went on grand vacations. I bought her jewelry and gifts every few weeks.”

“So where is she?” the rebbe wondered.

“She isn’t Jewish. Why should she have to endure this nightmare too?”

“Wouldn’t you agree that a good wife always accompanies her husband and doesn’t leave him alone to face problems?” the rebbe probed.

The man turned the conversation to his accomplished and wealthy children. One was a lawyer, one a general, and the third a professor.

“Are they here with you?” the rebbe continued to ask.

“No, of course not. They are busy with their careers.”

“How can they abandon their father at such a time?” asked the rebbe.

The conversation continued in this vein throughout the bitter night.

The following night, it was just the two men again, and the conversation resumed, the rebbe pointing out that the man’s career and family weren’t enough to help him.

Finally, the financier cried out, “What are you trying to do to me? Don’t you see how shattered I am? Why do you persist in crushing my spirit even more?”

The rebbe appeared unmoved, reiterating his points. “Your family, prestige, high-rolling colleagues and accomplishments can’t do anything for you here, as you lay hungry and cold.”

Late that night, the banker broke. He wept and wept, barely able to speak. Finally, he said, “It was all a mistake. I wanted to succeed and I turned my back on the way of my fathers and grandfathers. I have nothing, absolutely nothing, to show for it...”

He sobbed and sobbed. With dawn’s first light, the banker from Budapest breathed his last, his soul joining the procession of souls that rose heavenward from that dreadful place.

The rebbe would retell the painful story. “I felt such satisfaction, difficult as it was to hurt him that way. His soul was slowly being cleansed, purified in a fire of truth, layers being stripped off his neshamah as the spark came alive. That man died having experienced genuine teshuvah and returned his soul to his Maker the way it had come down, a neshamah tehorah.”

The rebbe understood the secret of matzah. It was all just se’or shebe’isah. The rebbe took off the crust, the airy mounds of dough, and revealed the simple matzah, a Jew’s essence, when all the distractions and diversions are peeled away.

Fortunate is he who doesn’t require suffering or challenges to be reminded of his essence, but is able to see it clearly in good times as well.

Back to the Seder. With this deeper insight into matzah and its message, we can begin to celebrate, beginning with genus and marching our way on to geulah, a journey from Ha Lachma Anya through Afikoman.

After partaking of the Afikoman matzah, we are forbidden to eat anything, for we must keep that message fresh on our palates. We must not forget what we have learned and experienced on this night.

The Ritva posits that if a person ate matzah before chatzos, as is the obligation, as long as the taste of matzah remains in his mouth, it is as if matzah umaror munachim lefonov and he fulfills the mitzvah of Maggid as he discusses Yetzias Mitzrayim.

The Ritva opens our eyes to what the taste of matzah really means. It is not only a gastronomic phenomenon, but a spiritual one. Ta’am matzah is the experience of being connected to what matzah represents. And how delicious that taste is!

On Erev Pesach, when you grate the horseradish and tears flow down your cheeks, think of your grandparents performing the same task, the same way, in some little town in Eretz Yisroel, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary or Syria. When you go from room to room with the candle in your hand, think of the strength of the Jewish chain and remember that it is you who makes it strong. It is the faith-imbued traditions that you pass on to your children that will guarantee you the merit to welcome Eliyohu Hanovi when he arrives with his joyous, long-awaited message.

When you sit surrounded by family at the Seder, know that Jews have been doing this exact same thing for thousands of years. You are a link in a golden chain, giving voice to our faith and traditions as so many others before us have done. The same tastes, smells, sounds and incantations have been filling the world ever since our people left Mitzrayim. When we sing Vehi She’omdah, we hear our parents, grandparents and forefathers all the way back to the Yam Suf. Is there anything more comforting? Is there any sound stronger than that?

I recently held in my hands a classic Haggadah printed in the year 1629. While for collectors it represents a fascinating prize, for it is one of the earliest Haggados printed with pictures, I was fascinated by it for another reason. I was thinking of the astounding trip this wine-stained Haggadah must have taken over the past 400 years. Printed in the ghetto of Venice, it could have seen Jews in their most prosperous times and during pogroms. It was around in times of a comfortable golus and in times of bitter fright.

The Haggadah includes the most beautiful sight of children reciting the Mah Nishtanah the same way, century after century, always with shyness mixed with pride and cherubic beauty on display for admiring parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters. Is there anything more breathtaking? It is the future sitting alongside the present, delving into the past.

The Haggadah has seen us in times of strength and apparent weakness, but always with faith in Hashem and our future. Always with the knowledge that come what may, we are the am hanivchor, chosen, blessed and free.

A friend told me about his colleague who assumed a rabbonus in a small shul in a New York suburb. He arrived shortly before Yom Tov and noticed that as the kohanim would ascend the steps in front of the aron kodesh for Birkas Kohanim, a particular mispallel would leave his seat and step outside. He saw the scene repeat itself each day of Yom Tov. On the last day, he asked the man why he left shul for duchening.

Listen to the man’s answer.

Like so many others, he had been torn away from his home and family by the Nazis and thrown into a cattle car. He arrived at the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp and was exposed to a new reality. The smell of death was everywhere.

As Pesach approached, he heard whispered conversations. He observed gaunt faces flush with excitement at the idea of having a Seder right there in the barracks. He recounted to the rabbi that although they realized the dangers, they couldn’t bear the thought of not at least having a semblance of a Seder, as desperate as their situation was. They had neither matzah nor wine or a Haggadah. Maror was in plentiful supply.

They sat in their barracks, late at night, and recited what they could from memory. They then began singing some of the familiar Seder songs. Their spirits defied their dark surroundings, the mitzvah of sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim lifting them above the reality of danger and fear, taking them to a place of faith and joy. Their raised voices were overheard by a chasidishe rebbe who was in the camp. He had been heading to his own barracks when he heard the muffled sounds of a Seder. He entered and sat down with the other walking skeletons and joined the chorus.

Shortly thereafter, their celebration was interrupted by stomping boots, barking dogs, and shouted curses. The feared sadistic monster, S.S. Commander Amon Goeth, stormed in. He was aghast that such a scene was taking place in his barracks. “Who put this together?” he barked.

Fearing for their lives, each man looked at the others. Nobody responded. They knew that the culprit would be killed.

“I will kill all of you if the ringleader doesn’t accept responsibility for his crime. I will not stand for this disobedience,” Goeth shouted.

“The rebbe stood up,” the man recounted. “He said that he had hatched the idea and put it together.”

“Sleep well tonight,” the Nazi said, “for tomorrow I will show you Jews what happens to those who disobey me.”

“On the first day of Yom Tov,” the man tearfully recounted, “the rebbe was led to the gallows, which were visible to the entire camp. We were all forced to line up and watch the awful spectacle.

“They stood the rebbe on a chair and fastened a noose around his neck. The rebbe then addressed his Nazi captor. ‘Every human being knows that a man condemned to death is given his last wish. I want a moment to address the people. I am a kohein. I bless my flock on the holidays. Today is a holiday. Please let me bless them one last time.”

His wish was granted.

The kohein started to recite the timeless brachos.


“Ignoring the noose around his neck and the place he was in, the rebbe sang out the first word.

“The incensed Nazi shot him. The chair was pulled out from under him. The rebbe had duchened for the last time.”

The man finished his tale.

“Decades have passed since then, but every year, on the first day of Pesach, I remember the rebbe and his Birkas Kohanim. I go out because I don’t ever want to forget that ‘Yevorechecha.’

“When I look in the siddur and see the word ‘Yevorechecha,’ I want to hear the rebbe’s voice. In my head, I still hear his voice, and in my heart, I’m still getting those brachos.”

Just as that man clinged to the fragment of memory of the Rebbe’s duchening, so must we cherish the taste of matzah. If we manage to hold on, keeping it safe and treasured, living with its message that we are geulim at heart, capable of transcending limitations imposed by the se’or shebe’isah and the challenges of golus, then we will remain bnei chorin.

Leshanah haba’ah bnei chorin be’ara d’Yisroel. Wishing you a kosheren and freilichen Yom Tov.