Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Fear of Elul

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Fear is a uniquely Jewish attribute.

The posuk praises people who constantly fear: “Ashrei odom mefacheid tomid” (Mishlei 28:24). The yorei Shomayim, the choreid ledvar Hashem, is never entirely relaxed. He is always fearful, ensuring that he lives the proper life.

The legendary Brisker gaon, Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin, was an awe-inspiring figure. It was well-known in Yerushalayim Shel Ma’alah that when he davened on leil Shabbos and reached the words “lefonov na’avod beyirah vofachad,” a vein in his forehead would begin throbbing. His face would turn the color of fire and he would tremble. The people of the Holy City would avert their eyes, unable to look at the holy countenance aflame.

Yet, this same very angelic figure would be overcome by awe when he approached the Kosel, barely able to articulate his tefillos because of his reverence for the sacred site. In fact, a window of his humble home faced the Kosel and the Har Habayis. He was so sensitive to the kedushah and churban evidenced by the view that he always kept that window covered, lest he catch a glimpse of the holy site and be overcome.

It is said that Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, author of the Ohr Somayach and Meshech Chochmah, once encountered Reb Yehoshua Leib. He was so overcome with fright that he was unable to utter the words “Shalom Aleichem.”

As fearful as the great Rav Meir Simcha was of Rav Yehoshua Leib, Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz of Kamenitz once met Rav Meir Simcha and couldn’t bring himself to greet the gaon of Dvinsk. He explained his reluctance: “My rebbi, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, referred to the Ohr Somayach as a ‘sar haTorah’ and I should greet him as a friend?”

A holy chain of fear.

The reverence was transmitted through the generations, from gadol to gadol and from talmid to talmid. In our generation, when yirah has become a forgotten word and respect is all but lost, it is hard to conceive that not many years ago there existed such a tangible fear born out of respect.

Rashi, at the beginning of this week’s parsha, offers a puzzling explanation for the juxtaposition of parshiyos (Devorim 29: 9). He quotes the Medrash which states that after Klal Yisroel heard the 98 klalos as described in Parshas Ki Savo, they were so distressed and frightened that their faces turned green. They were despondent, as they felt ill-equipped to handle all the Torah’s commandments and were mortified at the ramifications of non-observance.

Moshe reassured them, saying, “Atem nitzovim hayom. Although you’ve angered Hashem numerous times over the years - with the meraglim, the Eigel, and other sins - you are still standing here and haven’t been destroyed.”

At first glance, the answer seems self-defeating. Imagine a parent warning his children that if they misbehave, they will suffer serious consequences. When the children react with fright, the parent reassures them that the threat isn’t really that serious after all and brings a proof to that effect.

The Lucerne rosh yeshiva, Rav Yitzchok Dov Kopelman, explained that Divine punishment is not meant as a consequence or retribution for a sinful act. It is merely a tool used by a loving Father to guide His wayward children onto the correct path. What is important is that they behave properly, not the imposition of the penalty.

Once Moshe saw that “peneihem morikos,” their faces had changed colors, he understood that the klalos had achieved their desired effect and the people would behave properly.

This is Jewish fear - not a fear that leads to despair or brokenness, but a fear that leads to Vegilu biradah, rejoicing in trembling. Tzaddikim such as Rav Yehoshua Leib, Rav Meir Simcha and Rav Boruch Ber were inspired, optimistic people. Their fear did not hold them back. It motivated them.

When people talk about the mood and attitude in the great Torah centers of pre-war Lithuania during the days of Elul, what they are describing is yiras Shomayim, not depression. When we hear about the women who fainted when the chazzan recited Rosh Chodesh bentching for Elul or the imagery of fish in the sea trembling, we should understand that it was not due to panic or dread, but rather reverence and awe generated by being in the Presence of Hashem.

The holy fusion of fear and joy found amongst tzaddikim is an expression of their deep vision, their ability to perceive that the fear itself, the peneihem morikos, is the reaction hoped for by Heaven. Shomayim doesn’t punish. It reminds. Ehrliche Yidden are attuned to these reminders.

Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer and his wife, Rebbetzin Baila Hinda, were joyous people, yet they lived with this awareness, an ever-present sense that the Creator was with them. One day, as the rebbetzin prepared a glass of tea for her husband, the cup suddenly shattered in her hand. Within moments, she sat down with her husband to consider why it had happened and what the message was.

“Did you perhaps display a ‘closed hand,’ not giving tzedakah when requested?” the rosh yeshiva wondered.

The rebbetzin recalled that when she was doing her shopping earlier that day in the Machane Yehudah shuk, a collector approached her for money. The rebbetzin, who only had a large bill with her, asked the poor man to wait a moment while she got change from one of the kiosks. She changed the bill into smaller denominations, but when she returned back to the beggar, he was gone.

“Yes,” concluded the rosh yeshiva, “that must be why you endured this accident.”

For tzaddikim, reminders suffice. Dai lechakima beremiza, say Chazal. The wise man needs only a hint.

The best way to appreciate this season is to approach it as chachomim, with our eyes open and hearts awake to the messages being sent our way. It is easy to ignore them, to be apathetic or stubbornly refusing to consider that those messages are directed at us. But then the messages become more insistent. Peneihem morikos, Rashi teaches us. The fright itself should be enough to evoke Divine rachamim.

Think about it. If used correctly, fear can be the healthiest of emotions, a tool to craft a blessed new year for us and our families.

At one of his Thursday night shiurim, when all sorts of questions were welcomed from the audience, Rav Avigdor Miller explained the nature of bitachon.

Bitachon means Hashem will take care of you if you trust in Him, but that trust requires you to do what He wants you to do, and He wants you to be ‘mefashfeish bema’asov,’ to search into your ways. Self-scrutiny is a mitzvah like tefillin is a mitzvah.

“If a man has a toothache,” continued Rav Miller, “and he goes to the dentist, and the dentist says, ‘Open wide,’ he should think, ‘Why do I have to open my mouth wide? Because I shouldn’t have opened my mouth so wide at other times. I opened my mouth against my wife; that’s why I have to open it for the dentist now. I opened my mouth against my fellow Jew, so now I have to deal with this.’”

Living with this awareness, Rav Miller was teaching, is itself an expression of faith. Seeing Hashem’s message in all occurrences is empowering, because it underscores how relevant our every action is and how important it is to Him to prod us on to the right path.

Perhaps this answers the paradox regarding the nature of Rosh Hashanah. The day contains the obligation of experiencing the joy of a yom tov, yet, at the same time, the fear of judgment is just as essential. We can understand it by comparing it to the fear experienced by someone who has sat in conversation with a gadol. Sure, you are overcome by awe, it is difficult to speak, and you choose your words carefully, but despite that, at the same time, you have never felt more alive and relevant than when you are in his presence.

I remember way back when I sat with Maran Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l for the first time after this newspaper was founded. I was very young and clean-shaven. Rav Shach overwhelmed me with Torah, love and guidance, and it was difficult for me to speak. The nicer he was to me, the more self-conscious I was about the fact that I didn’t have a beard.

I was charged and enthused about my mission, but I resolved then and there that it would be the last time I appeared before him without a beard. As I was leaving, one of the gate-keepers commented on how nice the rosh yeshiva was to me. I responded by telling him about how unworthy I felt, a young Amerikaner without a beard. He assured me that Rav Shach didn’t judge a person by his chitzoniyus and that I shouldn’t have felt insecure.

When one is in the presence of greatness, especially when the great person reacts in a kind and loving fashion, one is at the same time joyful and fearful, as the posuk states, “vegilu biradah.”

Rav Chaim Brim would recall the fear that overcame him when he was in the presence of the Brisker Rov. He retold his experience when the Rov spoke at the celebration of a sheva brachos for his son, Rav Meir Soloveitchik.

He recounted that the Rov said that the words we recite affirming our belief in the imminent arrival of Moshiach, “achakeh lo bechol yom sheyavo,” do not mean that a person waits for Moshiach each day once a day. Rather, it means “kol hayom,” throughout the entire day. We await the arrival of Moshiach all day.

“When the Rov said this vort,” testified Rav Chaim, “we all lowered our heads in shame in the face of his obvious, tangible emunah and our own low levels. It was humiliating.”

Yet Rav Chaim and his contemporaries seized every moment to spend time in the presence of the Rov, welcoming the humiliation and shame, embracing the simcha of true bushah.

During these days, it is our certainty of Hashem’s proximity and our assurance that He is listening closely that is the cause of both our simcha at the opportunity it affords and the fear of the magnitude of His power and might.

“Dirshu Hashem behimatzo - Seek out Hashem when He is accessible,” says the posuk. This is the most empowering time of the year, the exalted moments when we are being ushered into His Presence. Yes, He will scrutinize our actions and seek to help us improve, but by being vigilant and attuned to His will, we ask that He give us the opportunity to improve without being rebuked or disciplined.

Hashem ori,” we say twice each day between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Shemini Atzeres. He illuminates the path before us, helping us identify mistakes we have made and a path to repair them. This way, we can experience teshuvah without the reprimand and closeness without the push, and thus “veyishi, Hashem is my salvation, so “mimi ira, from who shall I fear?

If we truly fear Him, then we need not fear others. If we fear Him, then we perceive that, indeed, there is nothing to fear at all.

The Gemara in Maseches Chagigah (5b) relates that Rav Papa said, “Ein atzivus lifnei Hakadosh Boruch Hu - There is no grief in Hakadosh Boruch Hu’s presence.” Now that we are in the period when we are closest to Hashem, there should be no grief, even as we approach the Day of Judgment, when all of mankind will undergo Heavenly scrutiny.

There is a new Israeli song that has gone viral. The words, which are from Likkutei Maharan, provide succor for us during these days of Elul, the Yomim Noraim, and throughout the year:

Hashem says, “Anochi hastir astir Ponai bayom hahu,” but the rebbe says, “V’afilu behastorah shebesoch hastorah bevadai gam shom nimtza Hashem Yisborach. Gam mei’achorei hadevorim hakoshim ha’omdim alecha ani omeid.

Hashem says, “If you disobey My commandments, I will hide Myself from the Jewish people,” but the rebbe says that even when Hashem is hiding, know that He is there and ever-present, and He stands behind the difficult things that happen to you.

We are all faced by so many difficult tribulations and wonder how we can withstand them. Know that you are not alone. Hashem is there right alongside you, guiding and assisting you as you seek to find your way in the darkness. He is there all year, yet He is even closer during these days of Elul and the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah.

Don’t grow despondent. Don’t think the job is too difficult for you. Don’t think that you can’t overcome the nisyonos that you are faced with. Don’t worry that you won’t succeed in doing a proper teshuvah for your aveiros. Don’t think that you won’t be able to bring yourself to the level that will ensure that you emerge zakai in din.

Those who fear Hashem feel Him. Those who fear Hashem merit His closeness. Those who fear Hashem know that He is there with them, helping them approach Him.

May we all merit to be anoshim chareidim, people who fear Hashem, and thus emerge meritorious on the Yom Hadin.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Elul Vacation

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The great Chassidic master, the Mezeritcher Maggid, taught that three principles in avodas Hashem can be learned from a child. Children are happy without any special reason, they are never idle, and they cry out when they want something.

Last week, I learned a fourth.

My children recently moved back to America after living in Eretz Yisroel for several years. I was taking a walk with my sweet little Yerushalayim-born-and-bred granddaughter. Her small hand was clasped tightly in my own as we walked, when the sound of sirens was heard in the distance, a call alerting volunteer firemen to a blaze. Perhaps because the sound is not infrequent, and since I am not a fireman it is irrelevant to me, the siren’s cry barely registered in my mind. My granddaughter, however, panicked. I felt her tense up, squeezing my hand very tight.

“Zaidy, we have to run,” she said.

“Why do we have to run?” I wondered.

Tears filled her eyes and her voice quivered. “Otherwise, Zaidy, rockets are going to fall on us!”

From my granddaughter, I learned what it means to hear - to really hear.

When I heard her comment, said with such simplicity and self-assurance, I understood the answer to a question posed by the Chevroner rosh yeshiva.

The Tur (Hilchos Rosh Hashanah 581) states that Chazal instituted the custom of blowing the shofar during the month of Elul so that people will be alerted to perform teshuvah, as the posuk (Amos 3:6) states, “Im yitoka shofar be’ir ve’am lo yecherodu? Can a shofar sound in a city and the nation will not tremble?” This question demonstrates that the sound of the shofar causes people to be fearful.

Rav Dovid Cohen, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Chevron, points out that the posuk, which is widely repeated and mentioned as the source of the custom to blow shofar, does not refer at all to teshuvah or Rosh Hashanah. The posuk mentions the shofar and its ability to evoke fear as a tool of war. When the shofar sounds, people panic, because they know that war is imminent.

How, then, is this a source for the shofar we sound during these days of Elul and Rosh Hashanah?

Rav Eliyohu Meir Bloch, the Telzer rosh yeshiva, would begin each Elul by announcing to his talmidim that “mir zennen yetzt in ah tzeit fun milchamah, we are now in a time of war.”

Just as in a time of war leisurely pursuits are scuttled, so too during Elul that same mindset and attitude must pervade. Things that are acceptable throughout the year have no place now. The sense of urgency and desperation spawned by war is the rule of this month. There are no atheists in foxholes and there shouldn’t be any apathetic people during Elul.

Those who are aware and cognizant of the season are shaken to do teshuvah when they hear the sound of the shofar, because they recognize it as a call to battle and are reminded that they have to defeat the yeitzer hora. Since they are spiritually sensitive and attuned to the realities of the season, they jump to attention when they hear the sound, because they know it is relevant to them.

While the distant ring of the fire-bell in Monsey didn’t call me, since I can’t put out fires and I am not conditioned to respond to it, my granddaughter heard the siren - which she had sadly come to know and take seriously - and she felt the urgency. She recognized what it means, its implications, and its relevance, and she reacted.

Those in sync with the ratzon Hashem are alert to the kol shofar. They are constantly engaged in the milchemes hayeitzer that defines life for a human being. Thus, when they hear the sound of the shofar, they tremble with the knowledge of “hinei yom hadin.”

They recognize that sound from the last war, from the last time they had to battle the yeitzer hora, from last year’s yemei hadin.

The Sefer Akeidah (Shaar 97) compares this month to the four seasons of the year. He says that the body declines over the winter and comes back to life along with the rest of nature during the spring and summer. When it is cold and snowy, the hibernation factor kicks in and man is driven indoors, unwilling and unable to navigate the roads of life amidst the cold and ice.

When spring and summer arrive, people awaken. Their moods improve and they spend more time outdoors, exercising and engaging in activities that increase physical pleasure. As the flowers and trees bloom again and the weather warms, man’s physical strength and temptations increase.

Lehavdil, the Yomim Noraim are for the neshomah what summer is for the guf, says the Akeidah. It’s the time when our souls come alive. Elul is spring, the month in which the neshomah begins preparing for the growth of Tishrei. A sense of anticipation, optimism and hope pervade the air. Much like a family will spend happy hours in the spring planning their summer vacation, Jews map out their spiritual course during Elul for the coming season of din.

The Alter of Slabodka once returned to his yeshiva during Elul after having spent the previous weeks in a resort town recouping his strength. The talmidim of the yeshiva, the repository of future gedolim, ventured forth to greet their mentor. Upon receiving them, the Alter delivered a short shmuess.

“We arrive from the physical vacation to a spiritual vacation. We come from the summer months spent in forests and fields and begin the months of the yemei haratzon, which we spend in the yeshiva. What distinguishes this vacation from that one?” he asked. “Just as vacation is necessary to fortify the body, so is vacation necessary to fortify the soul - even more so, in fact, for everyone is considered sick and in need of a vacation in regard to the neshomah. There is none so hale and hearty that he doesn’t require this treatment…”

Apparently, the mussar giant was echoing the teaching of the Sefer Akeidah. A person’s body requires downtime, a time when it doesn’t feel pulled in every direction, thrust onto a merry-go-round of pressure. The soul does as well. Elul is the time when we disconnect from everything else to focus on pleasing the soul.

Elul is the time when we can escape the year-round commotion and meet our spiritual needs. Elul is, in essence, a resort of healing and therapy for the soul. This is why we proclaim twice a day during this period, “Shivti beveis Hashem,” expressing the hope that we will be strong enough to provide ourselves with this essential break from year-round apathy.

Those who take their vacations seriously are constantly on the lookout for exotic destinations, scenic locales and peaceful venues. Spiritual seekers are no different. When the Chofetz Chaim passed away, his talmid, Rav Elchonon Wasserman, who was accustomed to spending Elul in Radin with his rebbi, set out to find a new milieu for Elul. He settled on Kelm and its mussar master, Rav Doniel Movoshovitz. When he returned home after spending a month there, he said that he had discovered “ah vinkele fun erentzkeit, a small corner of sincerity.”

Sophisticated people invest effort and resources to find the proper place for these all-important Elul days, realizing that the success of the entire next year depends upon them.

Elul isn’t merely a chance to catch our breath before the intense days of Tishrei. The Me’iri (Chibur Hateshuvah 2) compares Elul to the idea of “Dorshin hilchos haPesach kodem hachag shloshim yom,” the requirement to study the laws of yom tov during the thirty days prior to its arrival. So too, prior to the Yemei Hadin, we prepare ourselves during the month-long period of Elul.

Rabbeinu Yonah, at the end of his Sefer Hayirah, explains it a little differently. He quotes the posuk in Koheles (3:1) which states, “Lakol zemon ve’eis lechol cheifetz tachas hashomoyim - Everything has its appointed season, a time for every matter under the heavens.”

The Jew lives with ittim, the times of the year. Just as during the joyful period of Purim we increase simcha and mishteh, and during the sad period of Av we are mournful, from the beginning of Elul until the end of Yom Kippur a person should be chareid, fearful, of the awesome judgment he faces. That is the call of the season.

Chazal teach that every soul will face questions on the Day of Judgment, after 120 years. One of them is, “Kavata ittim laTorah?” Literally, the question is whether the person set aside special times for learning Torah during his life.

The Sefas Emes understood the question differently. He says that the Heavenly tribunal will ask us: Kavata ittim? Did you establish the ittim, the various time-periods listed in the posuk in Koheles – a time to be glad and a time to be sad, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to do battle and a time to make peace, a time to love and a time to hate?

Each emotion and action is preceded by the word “eis”: Eis le’ehov ve’eis lisno, eis milchamah ve’eis shalom… The Sefas Emes explains that the word eis teaches that our behavior in each situation must be dictated by the Torah. A person will be asked if he danced when the Torah said to dance and if he cried when the Torah said to cry. “Kavata ittim laTorah” refers to the way you conducted yourself in every eis described by the posuk and whether it was in accordance with the precepts of the Torah.

As the Ohr Hachaim and others teach about last week’s parsha of Ki Seitzei lamilchamah al oyvecha, while the Torah refers to the Jewish people going to battle against their enemies, it also serves as a lesson and guide to us how to battle our eternal enemy, the yeitzer hora.

It is a serious battle, the most serious of all battles we face. Life is too short and too serious to ignore the opportunities we have for change and growth. Teshuvah is too precious a gift to be ignored as we struggle to make a living, run carpools, meet deadlines, go to simchos, travel for business or pleasure, and run to shiurim or events. We must all take a break to think.

Even in our day, when the attention span of people has shrunk to an infinitesimal fraction of a second and superficiality is the mode of thought and conduct, we must preserve the ability to rise above the shallowness and engage in serious thought and introspection.

Rabbeinu Yonah begins his classic sefer, Shaarei Teshuvah, by referring to teshuvah as “min hatovos,” a supreme gift from Hashem. Just as we thank Hashem for the many favors He bestows upon us, such as good health, happiness, nachas and sustenance, so must we gratefully thank Him for providing us with the curing gift of teshuvah.

Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz was vigilant in the mitzvah of kibbud av vo’eim, going to extremes to care for his parents. During the First World War, his father joined him as they were exiled. The refugee experience took its toll, and upon their return, his father took ill. Rav Boruch Ber sat at his father’s bedside day and night, engaging him in conversation and encouraging him to carry on.

Rav Boruch Ber’s talmidim noticed that this was taking a toll on their rebbi and they began to worry about his own health. They managed to convince their rebbi that it would not impact his father’s health if he would leave for a couple of hours at night and get some bed rest. They would take turns spending the night there and ensuring that all Rav Leibowitz’s needs were taken care of.

In time, the rosh yeshiva’s father was niftar. Rav Boruch Ber was consumed by guilt that he didn’t constantly remain at his father’s side. He felt that allowing talmidim to replace him at the bedside for a few hours at night was a mistake and that he had failed in his mitzvah of kibbud av. He became distraught and met the Chofetz Chaim to discuss with him what he should do.

The Chofetz Chaim did not attempt to assuage his feelings of guilt and tell him that he did as much as was physically possible and was not deficient in his obligation to his father. Instead, he discussed with him the topic of teshuvah. He said, “There is a marvelous creation called teshuvah. Even if a person sins, the path of teshuvah is always available to him. When a person engages in this process, not only does it cleanse him of his sin, but once a person has done teshuvah, he becomes a new man.

“You have done teshuvah for not being there. You are not the same person now as you were when you left him. You are a new person, with a new metzius. The person who did that aveirah is not you. There is no reason to be distraught.”

Rav Boruch Ber left the room with the heavy load clearly lifted from his shoulders. He said, “I am a new person. The past is gone. The Chofetz Chaim brought me back to life.”

Teshuvah grants us rebirth and a new life. The old mistakes cease to hold us back.

In line with the explanation of the Akeidah, we can appreciate this idea. People return from vacation revitalized and restored, glowing with good health. They feel like new people.

Elul is a like a vacation. It restores our life and vitality. When we emerge from Elul and Tishrei, we can exude spiritual health and vigor and actually be entirely new people in every sense of the word.

Just because we did something wrong yesterday does not mean that we are doomed for life. An ehrliche Yid should never feel that he is in a rut. Aveiros get you down, but teshuvah lifts you up and reJewvenates you.

We all echo the request of Dovid Hamelech in his ode to teshuvah: Lev tahor bera li Elokim, grant me a pure heart, veruach nachon chadeish bekirbi, and grant me a new spirit.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Choose Life

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

If you would have to sum up all that the Torah encompasses in one commandment, what would you choose? Would it be kashrus? Would it be limud haTorah? Maybe you would pick the obligation to remember that Hashem redeemed us from Mitzrayim. Some would say the mitzvah of Krias Shema or the 39 melachos of Shabbos. Others would point to the three cardinal sins of avodah zorah, shefichas domim and giluy arayos.

Many years ago, this question was answered for us by Hillel Hazokein, who said that the entire Torah is based upon the mitzvah of “Ve’ohavta lereiacha kamocha,” loving other people like you love yourself. All the rest is commentary.

In this week’s parsha of Ki Seitzei, we come across yet another example of the Torah’s concern about protecting the dignity of every human. A person sinned so egregiously that he was put to death. The Torah commands that when a condemned man is hanged, “Lo solin nivlaso al ha’eitz…ki kilelas Elokim talui,” his body must be removed from the gallows and buried by nightfall (Devorim 21:23).

The Ohr Hachaim explains the posuk in an interesting fashion. Quoting an injunction of Chazal that one who witnesses a talmid chochom sin should not agonize about it the next day, for certainly the scholar has by then already repented, he explains the posuk to mean, “Lo solin, do not sleep, nivlaso, on the sin, al ha’eitz, you saw the talmid chochom commit, ki kavor sikbirenu, you should bury thinking about that cheit.”

He says that the posuk is commanding the hamon am not to spend time contemplating and analyzing mistakes of a talmid chochom, for by daybreak, his sin is certain to have been erased by virtue of his teshuvah.

Should a person not heed this admonition and instead harp on the sin he witnessed, kilelas Elokim talui, he will cause the curse of Hashem to be hung upon him, because he was meharher achar talmid chochom.

The Ohr Hachaim completes his understanding of the posuk, Velo sitamei es admos’cha, explaining that this is referring to the lesson of Chazal (Shabbos 119b) that the destruction of Yerushalayim was caused by the people who embarrassed talmidei chachomim. If you will behave disrespectfully towards talmidei chachomim you will cause destruction and defilement of your land.

A person who slanders a talmid chochom, is not only inviting personal disaster on himself, but on the entire nation. We must protest those who engage in missions to vilify holy and good people, lest we be complicit in their crimes.

The chachomim in Maseches Avos, which is designed to guide, advise and empower Jews to live wise, healthy and productive lives, warn that one who treats gedolei Torah in a cavalier or irreverent manner is literally playing with fire. The Mishnah in Avos (2, 10) admonishes such people to tread cautiously: “Vehevei zohir begachalton shelo sikoveh - Be wary of their coals lest you get burnt.”

The rabbis, doctors, professors and general do-gooders who eagerly warn our community of the dangers inherent in metzizah b’peh in a bid to save us from our own primitive selves, and readily mock and disparage rabbonim and gedolim to score their points, would do well to study Avos. Its chochmah is the source of the knowledge that has sustained our people throughout the millennia.

They would do themselves well to be selective in their choice of words and methods. At minimum, they should be at least as concerned about the kavod of rabbonim and other Jews as they profess to be about infectious diseases and illness.

They should also study the topic they claim to be so concerned about to ensure that they are not engaging in pseudo-science and faux medicine.

There is no scientific and medical connection between any of the children who took ill and metzizah, but that doesn’t stop them from seeking to “protect” us from our customs.

Professor Marci A. Hamilton, of Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, wrote on Justia.com, “This is all a distraction from what truly matters: the protection of children… A line must be drawn to prevent adults, even religious believers, from causing a child’s death and/or permanent disability. This practice easily crosses that line. There does not even need to be a regulation specific to the practice. The neglect laws are neutral, generally applicable laws that apply to all parents who medically neglect their children.”

What she is saying is that our community is unconcerned about our children’s health and safety. We care more about engaging in some ridiculous, dangerous practice than we do about protecting the lives of our children.

Really now, professor? The people who practice this custom are the very same ones who spawned and created many advanced and efficient medical referral organizations, screening programs, and health networks. They have given the world Hatzolah, RCCS, Bikur Cholim groups of all types, Ezer Mizion, Echo, Dor Yeshorim and so many other life-saving organizations. Professor, do you really think that we need to be lectured about protecting our children? Do you think that the community whose prime motivation is caring for the next generation and assisting the elderly engages in suicidal conduct to satisfy some old rabbinic requirement?

Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the RCA, told the Jewish Link of Bergen County (JLBC) that most of the members of the RCA insist on using a pipette when performing bris milah and not having direct oral contact with the wound. “This is something that has been practiced for generations and supported by Halachic authorities. Where we’re concerned about the tradition, we’re concerned about the health and welfare of our children.”

The blood libel against Orthodox Jews is repeated as JLBC reports that Rabbi Dratch said there have been more efforts at fighting the New York City Health Department than fighting the potential threat to children.

In other worlds, we don’t care about children and threats to their lives. What we want to do is fight City Hall.

JLBC says that they asked the good rabbi whether, in the interests of “pikuach nefesh,” efforts should be led “to get legislation passed preventing this practice, as it can endanger the life of the child.”

Rabbi Dratch said, “I think if there’s even a small chance of this happening, then it’s not necessary, because there are other ways to satisfy the ritual requirements. We continue to urge them that if they don’t want government regulation on this, then they have to find ways to ensure that the children are safe.”

He cares about children safety. We don’t. That’s the message.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah also weighed in on the matter. He, too, is very upset with our community, the defenders of metzitzah b’peh. He, too, understands what’s really at play here: disregard for halacha. According to JLBC, he said that “in America, where there is empowerment, ‘we get away with all this stuff, not following the proper halacha wherever there is a risk of life, that takes priority. It’s American that we ignore halacha and just flex our political muscles and our political muscles are we want to do it our way.”

Poor Rabbi Lopatin. The zealous, loyal defender of halacha looks on in anguish as a community tramples on the sacred poskim of the Shulchan Aruch. It must hurt. All the nasty Chareidim care about is flexing political power. They ignore halacha and the needs of their children in order to feel empowered.

That’s how Rabbi Lopatin views us.

There is an expression in Hebrew, “hakozak hanigzal,” used to evoke sarcastic pity for a Cossack who complains that he was robbed. The imagery is ironic. Cossacks were brutal ruffians who plundered and rampaged through Europe, taking whatever they wished from whomever they wanted. A simple villager swiped the scarf of one of these hooligans and the poor Cossack went around whining about the injustice done to him.

Rabbi Lopatin crying that we ignore halacha is as funny as the original tale.

But it’s worse than that. In our day, bizayon talmidei chachomim is easier to commit than ever before. Whereas in the past it required some element of courage to publicly take issue with rabbinic leadership, now that is no longer necessary. These days, if you have a beef with the establishment, there is an army of bloggers ready to do your dirty work.

To go after rabbonim, or anyone else for that matter, all you have to do is tip off a lonely blogger, share a story, allegation, rumor or innuendo, and your bitterness goes viral.

Referring to such activity, the posuk says, “Lo seileich rochil be’amecha. Do not behave as a mean-spirited peddler circulating from town to town and spreading hateful tales.”

Today, to condemn, disparage and demean, you no longer have to leave the comforts of your home. The internet does it all for you. A person’s reputation can be destroyed instantaneously by a noxious peddler.

There are disenchanted people everywhere eagerly waiting to scoop up the latest gossip and treat it as absolute truth. Those who dignify blogs by taking them seriously and paying attention to their half-stories and lies are as guilty as the purveyors.

At a recent gathering, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman discussed the threat of technology. He quoted Rabbeinu Yonah, who wondered why one who embarrasses another person loses his portion in Olam Haba. Even actual murder does not have such a frightening consequence.

Rabbeinu Yonah explains that one who actually sheds blood is well aware of the harshness of his crime and might eventually repent. He who shames someone is not aware of the seriousness of what he has done. He will rationalize his behavior and reason that he didn’t really do anything wrong. He says, “What did I do already? It’s just words. Words don’t kill.” Therefore, he will neglect to repent for his actions. As such, he remains with his aveirah and the heinous deed never receives the tikkun of teshuvah.

Rav Shteinman compared this to the nisayon of the internet. He said that well-meaning, sincere individuals waste hours online, but they may never do teshuvah because they don’t realize that they erred.

So too, we may say that people who utilize the internet to slam others may not fully comprehend the severity of their actions and will fail to seek to repent for their cheit.

The Medrash in Parshas Metzorah tells of a certain peddler who traveled around announcing that he was selling a potion guaranteeing a long life. Wherever he went, crowds quickly formed to hear about the amazing product. One time, it happened that the Tanna, Rav Yannai, was in the marketplace when the peddler made his bold announcement. He gathered around the man along with a large crowd.

The salesman noted the presence of the Tanna and told him that someone such as he had no need for the merchandise he was selling. When Rav Yannai persisted, the peddler opened a Tehillim and read the pesukim of “Mi ho’ish hechofeitz chaim…” “Netzor leshoncha meira…” (Tehillim 34:13-14).

“Pure speech is a recipe for long life,” he proclaimed.

Rav Yannai praised the interpretation and thanked the peddler for enlightening him.

Since Rav Yannai was a Tanna, we can safely assume that he was familiar with the pesukim in Tehillim that the itinerant peddler read to him. What was so fascinating about the man’s lesson that Rav Yannai was so thankful and the Medrash saw fit to recount it for eternity?

Rav Shlomo Freifeld explained that when referring to the type of water from which a mikvah must be constituted, the Torah calls it “mayim chaim,” literally “living waters.” The Torah is referring to a body of forty sa’ah of water formed from its own source, as opposed to forty sa’ah of water that collected after flowing from another source.

The term mayim chaim requires explanation. Why is water from an independent source referred to by the Torah as mayim chaim? The Maharal explains that chaim, life, means not having to depend on something else for its existence. Mayim chaim refers to water that emanates and pools directly from the ground.

To understand the Medrash, Rav Freifeld explained that there are two ways a person can feel big. He can either act big and accomplish big things, or he can make those around him small and tower over them.

The difference is that the person whose positive thoughts and actions cause him to be big is independent of other people. He provides himself with the means to rise. The person who feels big by putting others down is entirely dependent on other people, for he elevates himself only by putting them down. Without them, he remains small.

This is what the peddler taught Rav Yannai. “Mi ho’ish hechofeitz chaim? Who wants to really live? Who wants to be self-sufficient? Netzor leshoncha meira, train your lips to refrain from pettiness and slander. Don’t use other people to feel big. Be independently great. If you do so, you will really be alive and one whom the Torah refers to as a chai.”

Bloggers and those who supply them with their “merchandise” depend on the talmidei chachomim they disparage for their own existence. Rather than rising by virtue of doing and accomplishing for humanity, they seek to raise their own standing by putting others down.

Is that the life we seek? When an ill-advised person sets himself up as a bar plugta with a gadol, he shrinks and his life loses value.

It is interesting to note that sophisticated and distinguished people are always careful to treat people respectfully.

The Chasam Sofer was once delivering a shiur and someone interjected with a question based on a ruling of Rav Meshulam Igra. The Chasam Sofer waved away the argument and continued the shiur.

Suddenly, the Chasam Sofer found that his mind had gone blank and he was unable to remember the shiur he had prepared. The Rabbon Shel Yisroel was abruptly deprived of his clear, pristine Torah.

Without hesitating, he ended the shiur and gathered a minyan of talmidim to accompany him to the grave of Rav Meshulam Igra. He arrived there and begged mechilah for the perception of a slight to the opinion of the gaon. As he finished his tefillah, he recalled the rest of the shiur.

The Chasam Sofer was eminently qualified to disagree, kedarkan shel talmidei chachomim, but he felt that in the heat of the moment, he had been too casual in his manner of arguing.

He understood the severity of his action, because he appreciated talmidei chochomim. He perceived the danger of even remotely expressing a lack of respect for a master of Torah. As soon as he waved off the questioner, his mind went blank out of fear of what he had done. Immediately, he ran to do teshuvah and ask mechilah so that he would not be harmed by the gacheles of a talmid chochom. 

We can understand the posuk in Mishlei (6:23) which states, “Vederech chaim tochachas mussar - The path to life is through accepting mussar admonishment.” A person who is desirous of leading a life of chaim, as described by the Maharal, attains the ability to grow through his actions and contributions by learning mussar. The study of mussar will discipline you into seeking growth through positive actions and not by undermining others.

Similarly, the posuk in Mishlei (3:18), referring to the Torah, states, “Eitz chaim hi lamachazikim boh vesomcheha meushar - The Torah is a tree of life to those who grab onto it, and those who support it are blessed.” A person who cleaves to the way of Torah will attain the proper and good life, chaim, and will grow as a tree, benefitting himself and others. Those who support the person who seeks greatness through growth will themselves also be blessed.

We are now in the season of chaim, beseeching Hashem to allow us to experience life, another year of chaim. We wish for ourselves and our families to be inscribed in the Book of Life. A most appropriate way to have that wish fulfilled is to take steps towards life, as the Maharal taught, by living lives that don’t depend on belittling others for meaning and relevance.

Let our encounters with other people be aimed only at building them up and being mechazeik, helping and supporting them. Then, not only will we be living properly, but in that zechus we will merit another year of life.