Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Rav Yisroel Belsky zt”l

By Rabbi Pinchus Lipschutz

The most joyous occurrence in our world is a wedding. People whose children have gotten married know that following the emotional highs and joy experienced at the wedding, there is an entirely different delight as they watch the new couple go about life together when sheva brachos is over.

After the music, noise and laughter have faded, the supreme nachas takes over as they watch the couple adopt the blessings, happiness, hope and optimism that have been expressed over the prior week and transform them into their new lives together. The excitement of potential is replaced by the exhilaration of realization. They descend from flying in the clouds to living in the real world. 

In last week’s parsha, Yisro, we experienced the drama, thunder and roar of Kabbolas HaTorah, as Hashem’s nation was presented with a gift that would change them and their identities for all time. Hashem and Klal Yisroel entered into an eternal bond.

This week, in Parshas Mishpotim, the glory and splendor of Har Sinai is distilled into concepts as perfect and precise as creation.

The magnitude, scope and depth of Torah are filtered down to reflect the realities of this world.

How can it be? How can a celestial Torah be constricted to human limitations?

Had you ever spoken to or just observed Rav Yisroel Belsky zt”l, you would have the answer.

In an age when talmidei chachomim and gedolei Torah are regularly vilified, Rav Belsky was an example of a person with expansive understanding of the entire Torah, with no personal agenda or bias, who could not be bought or cowed into a position. Blessed with a brilliant mind and sterling character, he ignored other opportunities and chose to spend his life in the beis medrash, where his brilliant mind and hasmodah gained him comprehensive yedios and havonah.

Though he was smarter than most others, his greatness wasn’t arrived at through superficial study. Rather, he immersed himself in Torah and spent every free minute horeving in learning. Hashem blessed him with a superior mind, but that is not enough. There are many smart people whose intelligence is squandered on trivialities and never develops, eventually withering due to passivity. He worked hard to utilize his gift to grow and advance in Torah study and dissemination.

He accomplished much and was involved in many different organizations and causes, but Torah was his calling.

From his youth, he was seen as a prodigy destined for greatness. Despite that, he always remained a simple, humble person, with time for everyone who sought him out. The same giant who could rule on the most intricate issues would spend much time explaining sugyos to talmidim, elucidating complicated concepts for young people seeking to grow and excel in Torah.  

He was so kind and sweet, and nothing was beneath him. No person or situation was irrelevant. No matter what it was, he was prepared to discuss it and explain it to anyone. The man who knew all of Torah and could point out every star, figure out complicated mathematical calculations, play every musical instrument, write and appreciate piyutim, would also daven for the amud and lain.

It was said that the only things he didn’t know was how to braid challah and repair cars. Everything else was revealed to him and understood by him to the degree that he could patiently explain anything to anyone. His mind was always engaged. He never stopped thinking until his final sickness.

He didn’t just learn halachah. He didn’t only pasken shailos. He knew and understood the issues better than most. He understood the practical implications of every halachah. When he would learn something, he would immediately figure out how to adapt and apply what he had learned, along with the limitless flow of information in his mind.

Once, although he was ill, he arrived at a scheduled halachah shiur. Apologizing, he explained that his illness left him too drained to prepare a shiur for that day. He told the talmidim that he regretted that he could not say the shiur, but he didn’t want to leave them without imparting Torah knowledge. Instead of saying shiur, he asked if they minded asking him questions on sugyos that troubled them.

What could they ask? Anything. Any shaylah or halachah or p’shat in Shas or the daled chelkei Shulchan Aruch. In his weakened state, he sat there, answering questions from across the landscape of Jewish law. He addressed so many issues that day. Though his body was weakened, nobody could detect any weakness in his knowledge and ability to incisively analyze all types of situations through the prism of Torah.

It wasn’t the shiur they were expecting. It was a lesson in gadlus ha’odam. They got to see how high a man can reach if he lives a Torah life.

My son once attended a shiur delivered by a leading contemporary posek, who discussed whether turning on a fluorescent light on Shabbos is a melochah d’Oraysah or derabbonon. The posek concluded that it was a sofeik.

My son told Rav Belsky about the shiur and the conclusion. The rosh yeshiva smiled and shrugged. “You should know that there are things that are sefeikos, situations where you cannot achieve clarity, but this isn’t one of them.

“When there is a machlokes haposkim and there is no accepted way to rule, that constitutes a sofeik, because the matter is really in doubt. But if one can take apart the light bulb and study it and see how it works, then the halachah is not in doubt and it is not a sofeik.”

With total humility, Rav Belsky nonchalantly said that he had done that, and proceeded to explain to the young man how a bulb works and at what conclusion he arrived after studying fluorescent electricity.

When he looked at a chicken, he saw Hashem’s creature. He saw dapim of Gemara, Rambam and Shulchan Aruch. He saw halachah and Shas in full display. And when he would teach Shulchan Aruch, it was with the fascination of a genius who had thoroughly examined every aspect of the chicken. His knowledge was overwhelming. He seemingly knew everything there was to know and so easily conveyed it.

When he looked at a potato chip, he didn’t see a snack. He saw hilchos brachos, and bishul Yisroel, and everything else involved in producing the crunchy delight.

There is Elokus everywhere, and everything can be understood from the Torah.

Rav Belsky knew that every component of the briah is an expression of Hashem’s will and that there are halachos that govern every particle of the world. Thus, halachah tells us which brochah to recite on thunder, which to say when blossoms sprout, how to be mekadeish the levonah and the chamah, and how to approach so many aspects of the world, because everything in creation is, in reality, a sugya cloaked with holiness by the ratzon Hashem. The Torah we received on Har Sinai is the oxygen of the universe. To understand Torah is to understand the world as well.

Someone who studies all of Torah comprehends that stars, flowers, apples, fields and oceans are all part of a bais medrash.

Rav Belsky studied the stars and heard them sing about Hashem’s magnificence. He couldn’t help but share his knowledge with all who fell under his wing. During the summers, he would sit across the grassy expanse of lawn at Camp Agudah surrounded by wide-eyed campers, teaching all types of lessons about the constellations. It was an eye-opening experience for the campers. Here was a man they knew as a rov, the camp’s posek and spiritual guide, yet he was also the source of so much knowledge and wisdom about Hashem’s creation. Early on, they learned that it was all one.

Mah eilu miSinai, af eilu miSinai.

One night, during a star-gazing walk, Rav Belsky noticed a cluster of stars forming a pattern in the sky that he had never previously witnessed. The next morning, he called NASA to report what he had seen and ask them if they could explain it. Scientists there told him that they had also noticed the formation and were as perplexed as he.

The Camp Agudah administration noticed - how could they not? - that he rarely got to eat his meals without numerous interruptions. They arranged for him to take his meals in a private dining room. He rejected the offer, explaining that he wanted to eat together with the campers. He understood that his presence in the dining room would encourage young people to approach and ask their questions. They asked the usual “What brochah do you make on corn flakes?” questions, as well as, “How many pretzels do I have to eat for a shiur?” and, “Should I wash on pizza?” By seeing him sitting there in such an approachable fashion, they were empowered to ask questions that had been lying dormant and find answers for things that bothered them.

Rav Belsky, like the most accomplished rabbeim, understood that the avodah Moshe Rabbeinu faced following Ma’amad Har Sinai was “Vayeired Moshe el ha’am - Moshe descended to the people.” The master of halachah sat among the people hungry for counsel in all matters of Torah, allaying their concerns and providing guidance and direction.

Rabbi Menachem Genack of the OU described at the levayah how Rav Belsky would calculate shiurim for bittul without use of pen, paper or calculator. He would figure out the area and circumference of a large barrel in a moment and issue his ruling.

He would also just as quickly size up the nuances of a person.

Rabbi Duvie Frischman recalled entering Rav Belsky’s office in Camp Agudah. As he approached the room, he noticed a young bochur running out and Rav Belsky was sitting at his desk with tears in his eyes. He asked why the rov was so pained. Rav Belsky told him that the bochur had a severe stutter. The camp’s rov had overheard him speaking and approached him, saying, “I can help you. Come to my office.”

Rav Belsky explained that if the boy would come to his office every day, he could cure him from the speech handicap. Camp being camp, as much as the boy wanted to speak properly, he couldn’t pull himself away from the activities to sit in the rov’s office. He found his way there two or three times and that was it. The boy had come to the office to say goodbye, and Rav Belsky was overcome with grief when he heard the boy speak and realized he had failed in rectifying his stutter.

The next summer, the boy returned to camp and Rabbi Frischman noticed that he had been cured of his stutter. Remembering how upset he had been at the end of the camp season, he went to Rav Belsky and shared the good news with him. “Remember that stuttering boy you were feeling so bad about? He’s back and he is cured. I thought the rov would want to know that.”

Rav Belsky smiled broadly. It later turned out that the boy had gone to Rav Belsky throughout the school year for speech therapy.

The rosh yeshiva who delivered shiurim, sat on botei din, was a rov, served as a posek for the largest international kashrus agency, and was a mohel, shochet, baal tefillah, baal kriah and father and grandfather to many talmidim and a large family, carved out time to administer speech therapy as well.

He comprehended greatness where it was, and had compassion and understanding for all of Hashem’s beings. He cared for all, loved all, and was treasured by all who knew him, despite his self-effacement.

Gadlus ha’odam.

The Satmar Rebbe once commented, “Oib nisht fahr di alte Vilhelm,” if not for Rav Binyomin Wilhelm, who established Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, “volten aleh farvisht gevoren,” Yiddishkeit in America would have been wiped out.

Rav Binyomin Wilhelm’s eldest grandson was Rav Belsky, who inherited his achrayus and strength. No challenge was too intimidating, no charge too daunting. He trained young mashgichim in the complexities of machinery and equipment, taught young shochtim and mohalim how to excel in their meleches hakodesh, answered the most complicated and thorny medical shailos, and helped doctors understand the interface between medicine and halachah.

He and his wife had the courage to travel to the Soviet Union when such a journey was fraught with danger, sharing Toras Hashem with desperate neshamos locked behind the Iron Curtain. In time, when the walls would fall and a stream of Russian Jews would arrive in New York, the connection would be revealed as Divinely ordained. Many new immigrants settled in Kensington, near the rosh yeshiva’s home, and he and his wife would emerge as their surrogate parents. For several years, the rosh yeshiva led his Pesach Seder in three languages - English, Yiddish and the Russian he’d taught himself - in order to accommodate the many guests at his table.

His rebbi, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l, the consummate ish emes, showered upon this talmid the ultimate praise, referring to him as an ish emes. His devotion to the truth empowered him to be able to withstand pressure and personal attacks. He was rooted in the words of the Shulchan Aruch, his actions defined only by what he saw there.

As strong as he was outside of the classroom, he was soft, gentle and caring when dealing with his talmidim. For despite all he did and accomplished, teaching talmidim was the crown of his many achievements and what he viewed as his main obligation in this world.

He tolerated their questions, welcomed their difficulties, and was metzamtzeim his brilliance to joyfully help a mediocre bochur understand p’shat, just as he brought his brilliance and encyclopedic knowledge to bear when he would discuss complicated rulings with distinguished colleagues.

His comprehension was so clear that he was able to transmit the knowledge precisely and clearly in a way anyone could understand. He loved people and he loved to learn, so what could be better in life than learning with people and teaching them and explaining the beauty and depth of Torah, halachah and maasei bereishis?

Following the Second World War, a Holocaust refugee arrived in Bnei Brak with the gold bars he had hidden throughout the war. He related that he was wondering what to do with the gold bars and where to keep them.

“I was walking one night down the street that would come to be named Rechov Chazon Ish, and I met an elderly man who I recognized to be the Chazon Ish. I had never met him before, but I had heard that he was a person people went to for brachos and eitzos, so I decided to ask him what to do with my gold bars.

“He picked up his cane and pointed in the direction of an empty mountain. He said to me, ‘Reb Yaakov Halpern is going to be selling lots on that mountain. Take as much gold as you have and buy property from him.’

“I had come from a different world and didn’t really know who he was. I was furious about his advice. What? Take the gold I risked my life for and invest it in an empty, dusty hill?

“I didn’t argue with him. I said, ‘Thank you,’ and walked away.

“Halpern was selling property there for next to nothing, but I didn’t buy even one acre from him. Instead, I tried all types of investments, none of which panned out. Had I listened to that old man, oh how wealthy I would be today! I’d be worth millions upon millions.”

The Torah advises us what to invest in, how to live our lives and how to spend our time. Those who follow the Torah and its gedolim lead productive lives and merit happiness and nachas. The Torah stands as a light post, as a guide in the dark. Those who excel in Torah, the Chazon Ishes of every generation, calmly convey its lessons to those fortunate enough to listen.

This Shabbos, we read about a people fresh from the inspiration of Sinai learning to incorporate the lofty ideals into the practicalities of monetary dealings, of boundaries and damages. They were given the tools to elevate themselves so that they would approach widows and orphans with halachah as their guide, the dinei haTorah teaching compassion and heart.

To encompass the fullness of Torah and the grandiosity of Ma’amad Har Sinai is to recognize that what we have is a gift from Hashem. It is our duty to use those gifts to perfect the world by studying Torah, living Torah lives, and being affected by it, treating all of humanity as we want to be treated, loving all and being loved by all. 

Rav Belsky’s ability to grasp the massive picture never precluded him from seeing the small parts of the intricate puzzle that is Torah. The greater a person is in Torah, the more humble he is. Rav Belsky was as humble and simple as can be. As great as he was in learning, as brilliant as his mind was, that is how diffident he was.

How appropriate for Rav Belsky’s soul to return to its Maker during the week of Parshas Yisro and for his kevurah to take place during the week of Parshas Mishpotim. The parshiyos that deal with the receipt of the Torah and its practical application to man so typify Rav Belsky.

He was deathly ill four years ago on exactly the same date on which he passed away. But he was spared and given exactly another four years to live, teach, guide, learn and rise. Four years later, 208 Shabbosos from when he was clinically dead, he left this earth as we learned the parsha of Kabbolas HaTorah and naaseh venishma.

Life is a matter of perspective. Ours is formed by Torah and gedolei Torah. People such as Rav Belsky, who forsook all other careers, had no use for any of life’s pleasures and dedicated themselves to farming in the vineyard of Hashem, propagating his Torah, teaching and guiding others with humility, simplicity, kindness and grandeur. It is people such as he who make our people great and ensure that we remain a mamleches kohanim vegoy kadosh.

Rav Belsky wasn’t a throwback to a past generation. He lived here with us until last week. He demonstrated that human greatness can be attained here and now. He showed that we can be humble and walk with Hashem and with all types of people. He raised a generation of children and talmidim like he, great and distinguished, dignified and noble.

The story of our nation, the story of our greatness, is the story epitomized by the rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaas, Rav Chaim Yisroel Belsky. May his memory be a source of brochah.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Rope of Hope

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This week’s parsha of Yisro recounts the deliverance of the Torah to our forefathers. Since receiving the Torah, it has been our guide through the centuries, providing life and light for those who follow its laws and precepts. The Torah is what makes us a nation and sets us apart from all other people in the world.

We studied the parshiyos leading up to this defining moment. We studied the Jews’ servitude in Mitzrayim, Divine makkos, deliverance from slavery, traversing the Yam Suf, war with Amaleik, and, finally, arriving at Sinai.

The experience of the makkos, the hasty escape, the panic at the Yam Suf and the intense prayer were all meant to force the Bnei Yisroel into a situation of awareness. They needed to believe the reality of Hashem’s Presence in order to receive the Torah and become the Am Hashem.

The second to last makkah was that of choshech, darkness. All of Mitzrayim was frozen in a thick, blinding darkness. The Jews were unaffected by the makkah, and wherever they went, they had light.

Chazal taught that only one-fifth of the Jewish people merited leaving Mitzrayim. The others were not deemed worthy of redemption and died while the shroud of black engulfed Mitzrayim. Those who lacked the strength of faith to maintain their belief in Hashem and remain loyal to their customs and traditions perished and never made it out.

Rishonim and Acharonim remind us that what transpired to our forefathers is a precursor of what will happen to us. “Maaseh avos siman labonim.” The trajectory of the Jews in Mitzrayim foretells what will happen to us as we approach our redemption. The Jewish people will be faced with all types of nisyonos and will be exiled to foreign countries, dispersed far and wide. We will suffer greatly until the appointed time arrives. When it does, the nations who persecuted us will be dealt with. They will be punished with various makkos and then we will be set free and redeemed.

Today, we live in the period of ikvisa deMeshicha, leading up to Moshiach’s arrival. Just as during the period leading up to the redemption from Mitzrayim, today there is also darkness all around us. One doesn’t have to be too bright or perceptive to look around at the nations of the world and see to what levels of darkness they have sunk. It is like during the time of makkas choshech. They are locked into darkness and cannot see their way around.

The problem is that during this period, we are losing a tremendous number of Jews. Those who don’t have proper faith seek to blend in with the others and have forsaken the mitzvos and customs that keep us connected to the light-emitting Torah. Sadly, they are leaving our nation, rapidly blending into the surrounding darkness, and if we don’t reach out and bring them light and life, they will be lost forever to the Jewish people.

The Ruzhiner Rebbe would say that before Moshiach comes, the Jews will be holding on tightly to a large rope. The rope will shake several times back and forth. With each swing, more people will lose their grip and fall off.

Only those who have maintained their strength, tenaciousness and steadfastness will be able to clench the rope with enough strength to hold on. It is they who will be there at the time of the redemption.

Here we are, the rope is shaking, and we are holding on for dear life.

The challenges are tough. The tests to our emunah and bitachon are great. Tzaros abound. The good suffer, the weak squabble, and that rope swings like a pendulum.

Our European brothers debate wearing yarmulkas in public, just as they did in the early 1930s. Worldwide anti-Semitism spikes to pre-World War II levels and the Jewish situation around the world is precarious. Iran is enabled to threaten the world, Europe is overrun, and Israel is surrounded by vicious enemies dedicated to its destruction. But that’s not it.

Alongside the physical threats, there are many of a spiritual nature, and not all of our brethren are up to the test.

Last week, I received a press release joyfully announcing a merger in the world of Jewish day school education. I care deeply about the cause, so I read the release with great interest. By the time I was done, I was heartbroken.

This is how it began: “We are delighted to announce that Day Schools of Reform Judaism (PARDES), The Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), RAVSAK (The Jewish Community Day School Network), the Schechter Day School Network (Schechter), and the Yeshiva University School Partnership (YUSP) have all agreed to move forward towards the formation of a new, integrated North American Jewish day school organization.”

All the usual buzzwords appear: “The decision by our respective leadership to move in this direction is an affirmation of the centrality of day schools in Jewish life and reflects our dedication to seeing Jewish learning, literacy, culture and commitment flourish in a rapidly changing world. At the same time, it reflects the conviction of many in the day school community that we can all benefit from the knowledge, expertise and ideas of others, even if we express our Jewishness differently. As one organization, we can unify to strengthen day schools, the core of the Jewish educational enterprise.

And they continue: “This new organization, which we are calling NewOrg until we finalize its name, is committed to supporting and enabling financial vitality and educational excellence in Jewish day schools, and to building and strengthening a vibrant, visible and connected Jewish day school field. By pooling the talent, expertise and resources that have been dispersed among our organizations, NewOrg will be able to offer an expanded set of programs, services and networking opportunities to benefit the more than 375 schools and close to 100,000 students one or more of us already serve, and any other schools interested in participating. In short, we are confident that NewOrg will be greater than the sum of its parts. We hope you share our enthusiasm.”

Let us review what is happening. Everyone agrees that a Jewish day school education is vital to Jewish continuity. So what is Yeshiva University, the bastion of Modern Orthodoxy, doing about strengthening Jewish continuity and day school education? Is it teaming up with Torah Umesorah, the organization that literally invented day schools, founded them, staffed them and serviced them all across this country as it committed generations to Torah? Or is it teaming up with groups who have been proven a terrible failure, leading Jews away from Judaism, causing millions to disappear from our people?

The makkas choshech surrounds and engulfs us. Torah provides life and light for those who study it and cleave to it. They are Orthodox. Don’t they know that? Do they not believe it? Does anyone who cares a whit about Jews remaining Jews think that by teaming up with Reform and Conservative schools they will accomplish anything?

What has this world come to? Is there no shame anymore?

Study any poll that measures Jewish continuity and you will see how miserably the non-Orthodox are failing at keeping their children Jewish and preventing them from marrying outside the faith.

Speaking of polls, the Conservative movement itself is conducting polls. The movement’s leaders decided that they need a makeover. After all, they admit to losing a third of their members over the past twenty-five years and have doubtlessly lost many more. So as their members continue to drop out and marry out of the faith, they are looking to “rebrand.” It is the same emptiness, but with a new veneer and cuter slogans.

Take a look at what is happening to Conservative and Reform schools. They are losing kids, their schools are withering. Team up with them? Why? For what purpose?

And who is going to pay for this? The ones who will pay the ultimate price will be the children and families who are enticed into this farce, thinking that they will be getting a Jewish education that will enable them to have some light amidst the darkness and hold on to the swinging rope. They plead for a chance to bulk up and are thwarted. They ask for light and are given darkness. They seek a chance at eternity and are condemned to weakness and timidity.

The release says, “We are grateful for Avi Chai’s pledge of support to our new organization and look forward to partnering with other generous philanthropists – institutions and individuals – who are dedicated to building strength, excellence and vitality in Jewish day schools.” 

Avi Chai is a private foundation financed by the late frum billionaire Zalman Chaim Bernstein, dedicated “to the perpetuation of the Jewish people and Judaism.” I wonder how much this organization has contributed to Torah Umesorah, the real day school umbrella organization, and how much it contributes to schools under the Torah Umesorah umbrella, which work towards perpetuating the Jewish people and Judaism. If this organization were loyal to its goals, why wouldn’t it study its own survey of day schools to determine who is succeeding in perpetuating Jewry and Torah and who is failing miserably? Why are they supporting this new bureaucratic group, which will likely fail to commit generations to Torah?

Why are they pouring their money into those institutions instead of the schools bursting at the seams with thousands of children, forced to study in inadequate facilities and without being able to afford the educational tools available to others?

If they care about Jewish continuity and education, why do they not support the Orthodox Day Schools across the country so they can engage in broader recruitment and kiruv?

The Forward recently wrote of an Open Orthodox rabbi who went to serve as a principal in a Conservative school. Aron Frank is referred to as a “charismatic, yet down-to-earth rabbi,” who says, “I love yiddishkeyt to death,” and is “tremendously excited about this opportunity” to be the new principal of a school that “combines academic excellence with a warm, nurturing Jewish environment.”

He spoke of his experience as a principal in a similar school in Baltimore, saying, “I enjoy this engagement because it allows me to see Judaism through different lenses.”

“Honestly,” he adds, “I don’t believe in this concept of ‘Oh no, he stopped observing shabbos, what a failure! He stopped wearing a kippah, what a failure! Married a non-Jew, what a failure!’ Of course, we’re all naturally wired to feel validation when other people do what we do, but part of our challenge is to get over that inclination.”

This is the face of Open Orthodox chinuch and Conservative chinuch imparted to Jewish children and families across the country. It is a chinuch of darkness.

There are so many proud, committed, faithful, excellent schools around the country to invest in. Why pour money into this entity, which uses the popular banner of day school education to promote a losing agenda?

The rope is shaking. Hold on tight. Don’t be impressed by claims of pluralism and open-mindedness. Know who you are and be proud of your identity. Don’t do things just because they will look good in a press release and will be funded by a do-gooder foundation.

The rope shakes. Darkness continues to fall and claims more and more of our brethren. What are we doing about it?

We can only imagine what transpired during the awful period of slavery, as tens of thousands of grandchildren of Yaakov Avinu gave up hope. They simply could not hold on to the rope any longer. Mitzrayim, with its dark and corrupt values and attitudes, had become attractive to them. They viewed Judaism as backward and constricting. And then the plague of darkness descended on the country and those poor souls slipped away into oblivion.

They died during the makkah because Hashem wanted to spare them the additional ignominy of humiliation should their tormentors witness their deaths, funerals and burials. Perhaps there was some symbolism at work here as well. During makkas choshech, those who were unable to see the light and perceive a brilliant tomorrow because they were taken in - and fooled by - the darkness were punished as well.

How tragic.

Reb Peretz Chein was hosting an illegal gathering of chassidim in a dark basement somewhere in Russia. They needed to be invisible to the ever-present KGB and a dark cellar was their best bet. A new member of the group arrived late. He gingerly opened the door and began climbing the long dark staircase to the basement. There was absolutely no light and the new arrival stumbled on the steps.

He called down to the others, “I’m sorry. I can’t continue. It’s too dark.” He was going to turn around and climb back to safety, when one of the chassidim called up to him softly, “Don’t worry. In a moment, you’ll get used to the darkness and you’ll be fine.”

Reb Peretz sighed. “Oy,” he said. “That is the problem of golus. Our eyes get used to the darkness and we feel as if we can see.”

That’s the makkas choshech we are living through.

The challenge isn’t just to hold on, but to realize that what appears to be light, what seems to be an illuminated approach or idea, might well be exposed as darkness when Moshiach comes and the world is flooded with true light.

We - the few, the faithful - have another task. We cannot stand idly by while our brothers stumble in the darkness. We have to somehow find a way to maintain our grasp while still pulling others close. With condemnations, we won’t win them over. We need to keep every door open, loving each and every Jew like family.

Like most other Israelis, a young secular Israeli woman had been raised to be wary and distrustful of chareidim, but to respect rabbis. Somewhat confused, the girl was unsure what to think. She decided that she had to go see the chareidim for herself. She would go to Bnei Brak and pray with the largest congregation of chareidim she could find. She traveled from Tel Aviv and the towering building of the Ponevezher Yeshiva throwing off light in the darkness, beckoned.

She was quite impressed and decided she would return. She asked the women in the ezras noshim when it would be an appropriate time to come back. They told her about the upcoming Simchas Bais Hashoeivah on Chol Hamoed Sukkos. They said that she would love it, and they were right. She made her way through the jubilant crowds and found a spot in the ezras noshim, from where she could watch the singing and dancing below in the bais medrash. She was exultantly soaking in the scene when a woman approached and spoke a single sentence.

“Here, we don’t come without socks,” the woman said before stomping off.

The girl was devastated. She felt like something precious had been torn away from her and concluded that her place was not in the chareidi world. She sadly left the building, with the singing growing quieter in the distance.

When she returned home, she decided that before she completely turned her back on the chareidim forever, she would speak to the “rabbi” of Ponevezh. After all, she had been raised to respect rabbonim. Following Yom Tov, she made inquiries and soon found herself at the apartment of Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach.

She entered to find a long line of people waiting. The attendant looked at her and, somehow, understood, admitting her ahead of the others.

She entered the room and blurted out the story before the aged gadol, telling him what had transpired in his yeshiva.

He listened to her account of the humiliation she encountered and said very little.

Finally, he spoke. “You can’t take to heart what people say. You should push that woman’s words out of your mind, forgive her, and move on. But,” the rosh yeshiva continued, “let’s talk about you. That’s what is important.”

The young secular Israeli girl and the gadol hador spoke for a while and then she left.

Today, she is a mother and wife of a strong Torah family, holding that rope so proudly.

Rav Shach, the same person who once referred to himself as a “scarecrow,” a remnant from previous generations meant to frighten off those vultures who would tamper with the authenticity of Torah, was the very same person who could successfully welcome a distant sister.

He understood the dual responsibilities imposed by darkness: With one hand, we must hold tightly. With the other, we must save those who might fall away.

We must learn from him. Those who care about Torah and the way Torah is taught and transmitted must also care about those whose grip is loosening. We must throw them a lifeline, strengthen them, and show them a path of light to follow, so that they may live.

In Eretz Yisroel, thousands of volunteers working for Lev L’Achim reach out to our brethren and seek to bring them the light of Torah in makkas choshech so that they may survive and thrive amidst the darkness and live to await the arrival of Moshiach.What about in our country? Why don’t we have that feeling of responsibility here? Why is it only yechidim who reach out to bring Jews tachas kanfei haShechinah? Where is our achrayus? What are we doing to help even strengthen frum fellow Yidden who are struggling to cling to the rope of hope and life?

At the moment of Mattan Torah, the world was still. Birds didn’t chirp and sheep didn’t bleat. It was completely silent. The Chiddushei Horim explains that this is to teach us that to absorb Torah, we must listen to its message with full attention. There are many distractions vying for our attention. We have to concentrate on hearing the sound of the bas kol that comes forth each day.

We have to ignore the chatter, the nice-sounding sound-bites and the cute sayings, and hew to the truth.

As mentioned, the period in which we live is referred to as ikvisa deMeshicha, the time preceding Moshiach’s arrival. Rav Moshe Shapiro explains the term, quoting the Gemara (Shabbos 31a) which states that the word emunah, faith, is a reference to Seder Zeraim, which includes the halachos pertaining to planting, the proper conduct vis-à-vis terumos, ma’aseros and other obligations. The farmer is “ma’amin b’chayei olam v’zoreia,” he has faith in the One who sustains creation and he plants. Why does a farmer need more faith than any other worker? Doesn’t the tailor need faith to mend clothing? Doesn’t a doctor need faith to heal people?

The seed is unique in that it decomposes in order to cause growth. Parenthetically, this sheds light on the Yom Tov of Tu B’Shevat, the day when that rebirth begins, deep beneath the earth. We see nothing, but there are stirrings of new life, the perfect example of true faith.

The farmer needs extra conviction, because there will be no yield for him without the necessary breakdown of the seed. Darkness leads to light. As Chazal say, “Leka nehora delo nofik migoy chashucha - There is no light that doesn’t first come through darkness.”

The emunah of the farmer is the emunah of our nation as we wait for the final salvation to sprout like a seed.

Like a seed that appears to have withered and died, the heel is far from the center of the body, callous and insensitive to feeling. This period, is called “ikvisa,” the heel of time. We will have to exist on faith alone, seeing and feeling nothing.

It’s the moment of utter darkness, the blackest part of night before dawn breaks. The seed appears completely destroyed, because it’s on the verge of taking root and creating new life.

Along with the hope this brings, comes great challenge.

They are much more daunting. They are ideological, threatening not just our bodies, but the very faith we need to get out of golus. Our bond to the Torah is in jeopardy.

One of the 13 ikkarim, the bedrocks of our faith, is that zos haTorah lo sehei muchlefes, our Torah is unchanging and each word is eternally relevant.

Grab hold of it and don’t let go.

A new light will soon shine forth over the world. Those who are holding onto the rope of Torah will see it. Those who didn’t fall for false promises are still clinging to it. Those who weren’t fazed by clever catchwords of the times and remained loyal and committed to the truth will be redeemed. They will survive the makkas choshech.

Let us endeavor to be among that group.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Remaining Faithful

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Parshas Beshalach is an ode to a nation being formed through trial and tribulation. The Jews faithfully followed Hashem’s direction out of Mitzrayim and into the desert, “lechteich acharai bamidbar,” marching from the depths of slavery to the heights of Kabbolas HaTorah.  

Yet, there are some issues that require explanation. Following the makkos and the exit of the Jews from Mitzrayim, Paroh and his nation chased after their former slaves, catching up with them on the banks of the Red Sea.

Had Paroh and his people not learned their lesson? Had they not experienced enough bitterness and pain at the hands of the G-d of the Jewish people? Had they not recognized that they are no match for the G-d of the Jews, having lost every showdown with His nation? Why did they chase after them? What made them think that they would be able to subjugate them once again?

As for Paroh, Hashem had told Moshe (Shemos 14:4) that he would harden his heart and cause him to chase after the Jews in order to bring about a kiddush Hashem. But what about the people? Why were they engaging in yet another doomed attempt to vanquish the Jews? Anyone with minimal intelligence could have concluded that the Jews would triumph once again, as they had repeatedly in the past. Why engage in a suicidal mission?

While perhaps we can understand that the Mitzriyim were somehow charmed by Paroh and under his influence, what about the Jews? As Paroh approached them, they let out a hue and a cry. They assaulted Moshe (Shemos 14:11-12), saying, “Are there not enough graves in Mitzrayim that you brought us here to die in the desert? We already told you in Mitzrayim that we would prefer working for Mitzrayim rather than dying in the desert.”

Is it not mind boggling? These were the very same people who just a few days prior had been delivered from the clutches of Mitzrayim. They shechted and partook in the Korban Pesach, they heard Hashem’s promises about their future in the Promised Land, and they answered their children’s questions, as prescribed by the posuk. These were the same people being led by the protective Anan Hashem during the day and the Amud Aish at night. Why were they fearful? How could they have sunk so quickly to express no confidence in Hashem’s ability to save them from Paroh?

We commonly understand avodah zorah as the inane worship of an inanimate statue or human being. Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l (Ikvisa D’Meshicha) explains that avodah zorah is actually embracing any concept or attitude that causes one to believe in a power or force other than Hashem. Any belief that distracts a person from Hashem’s mastery over creation is avodah zorah.

The Mitzriyim who followed Paroh to encircle the Jews and capture them and the Jews who complained that they were about to die in the desert had something in common, as Chazal teach us. “Hallalu ovdei avodah zorah, vehallalu ovdei avodah zorah.” Both were worshippers of avodah zorah.  

While it seems silly to fashion a god out of marble and worship it as if it has any powers, worshiping a false deity has many advantages, for it frees people from obligations. To have recognized the power of Hashem would have obligated the Mitzriyim to follow His principles. Acknowledging that Hashem is indeed the Creator of the world and Omnipresent means that His Torah is the blueprint for the world and for man. 

The Egyptian legends and myths were much easier to accept than a truth that came with a code of proper conduct.

The Jews were at the 49th level of tumah and under the influences of the Mitzriyim. As obvious as it may be to us in hindsight, as objective observers, it was very difficult for the Jews to shake loose the preposterous suppositions that they had become accustomed to. Prior to Krias Yam Suf, they still found it difficult to accept upon themselves the Divine code of conduct and fashioned imprudent postulations to explain their predicaments.

At the splitting of the sea, the Jewish people rose to a very high level, recognizing Hashem’s strength and singing shirah. Chazal say at that time, a “maidservant witnessed greater visions at the sea than the prophet Yechezkel ben Buzi ever saw.” It would appear that when they attained those heights, they overcame their weaknesses and would remain in awe of Hashem’s mastery of the world.

Yet, the same people lifted from the depths of impurity, who witnessed the open revelation of Hashem’s Presence and cried out, “Zeh Keili ve’anveihu,” seemed to fall ever so quickly.

Their plunge was as dramatic as their rise. Three days after the climax, they were again complaining (Shemos 15:22), crying out, “Mah nishteh? What will we drink?” as if Hashem had brought them there for them to die of thirst (Shemos 15:24).

Hashem’s answer is revealing. The posuk (ibid. 26) states that they were told, “If you listen to Hashem and do what is proper in His eyes, and follow His mitzvos and chukim, I will not place upon you the illnesses I placed upon Mitzrayim, for I am Hashem, your healer.”

Their complaint about the lack of water emanated from a lack of belief. Hashem’s response was to remind them of their obligations as people of belief. If they would totally forsake their mythical beliefs, Hashem would be their protector. Although they knew the truth of Hashem, they had begun to slip back into the clutches of avodah zorah because of its convenience.

Avodah zorah is akin to drug addiction. Although it is obvious that the drugs do not help the person’s situation and merely create fictitious realities that cause the addict to be drawn into a downward spiral, the freedom from obligation and reality is too enticing a panacea to overcome.

With that incident behind them, they began moving, only to once again fall from their lofty plateau and complain that Moshe and Aharon were leading them to a painful death of starvation. They claimed that their life in Mitzrayim was idyllic, with prime beef and luscious bread.

What happened? Where had the tangible emunah disappeared to?

Once again, they were experiencing the ebb and flow of addicts. It was proving difficult for them to accept upon themselves the discipline that comes from recognizing Hashem. Their emunah and bitachon suffered, because they lacked the courage and fortitude to completely accept the restraint and regulation that accompany the acceptance of the fact that Hashem is the Creator.

The story is often retold of the time a former student of Rav Chaim Soloveitchik in Yeshivas Volozhin who had veered from the path of Torah visited his rebbi. The maskil told Rav Chaim that he left the path of Torah because of certain questions he had. He said that if Rav Chaim could provide satisfactory answers to his questions, he would resume living the way he did while in Volozhin.

Rav Chaim told him that he would answer his questions, with a caveat. He would engage him in conversation regarding the questions he had before he became unobservant. As for the questions that began bothering him after he had left Volozhin, Rav Chaim said, those aren’t questions. “They are answers,” he said. “Those questions are rationalizations to validate the choices you made. They are excuses and a convenient defense for you as you submit to your urges and ta’avos.”

The nisyonos faced by the Dor Dei’ah are just as daunting to our generation today. We don’t worship little idols and other vacuous trivialities, but we are tempted by other avodah zorahs. People worship money and fame, power and influence. They delude themselves with fictitious beliefs so that they can engage in physical pleasures. Anything that negates the fact that Hashem controls the world is a form of idol-worship and avodah zorah. Every Jew recoils in horror from the thought of avodah zorah, yet we tread dangerously close when we attribute actions to forces other than Hashem.

Society has adopted the theory put forward by Charles Darwin that the world created itself and animals evolved from shapeless matter into living, breathing beings. Everything you see in our beautiful world, they say, arrived there by itself. The millions of atoms required to form one being somehow managed to arrange themselves in that way to become trees, flowers, birds and all of humanity. The very idea is preposterous.

To think that a human, or any part of him, could have come into existence by itself defies logic. Flowers created their multiple shapes, sizes and colors all by themselves? How can it be? Who can really believe that? The truth is that no one can, but people do anyway, for doing so frees them from being subservient to a divine code of conduct.

Dr. Henry Marsh, a British neurosurgeon, is one of the pioneers of a procedure called “awake craniotomy,” allowing the removal of certain brain tumors while a patient is awake.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, a Norwegian author, was allowed to witness one such operation. His account was translated for The New York Times.

He writes that one of the operating doctors “looked up from a microscope that was suspended over the brain and turned to me… ‘Do you want to have a look?’ he asked.

“I nodded.

“The doctor stepped aside, and I bent down over the microscope.

“Oh G-d.

“A landscape opened up before me. I felt as if I were standing on top of a mountain, gazing out over a plain covered by long, meandering rivers. On the horizon, more mountains rose up. Between them, there were valleys, and one of the valleys was covered by an enormous white glacier. Everything is gleaming and glittered. It was as if I had been transported to another world, another part of the universe. One river was purple, the others were dark red, and the landscape they coursed through was full of strange, unfamiliar colors. But it was the glacier that held my gaze the longest. It lay like a plateau above the valley, sharply white, like mountain snow on a sunny day. I had never seen anything quite as beautiful, and when I straightened up and moved aside to make room for the doctor, for a moment my eyes were glazed with tears.”

Yet, scientists, intellectuals, common people and lawmakers have the audacity to say that the brain created itself. There is nothing as beautiful as this organ, rarely seen by human eyes. The brain is merely one organ of millions and its beauty and intricacy is mind-boggling. Imagine if you factor in the awesomeness of the Grand Canyon, the beauty and grandeur of every component of the world, the intricacy of a leaf and a blade of grass and insects and the cosmos. 

How can anyone who knows anything about anything in this world mock creationists?

It is hedonistic urges that drive people to Darwinism.

The Chazon Ish taught that a necessary component of greatness is to always be objective. It might seem obvious, but to be free of negius means to be firmly committed to the ramifications of emunah. Great people are entrenched in their faith and aren’t dissuaded by temptations of money or power, since they know that everything comes from Hashem. If they are deserving of something, they do not have to obtain it through subterfuge.

When they investigate an issue, when they are consulted for advice and direction, their judgment can be relied upon.

A group of assimilated students once approached the Alter of Novardok, wishing to discuss finer points of religious ideology. He agreed to have the conversation, but said he would talk to them only after they had spent a month studying in his yeshiva.

He explained his decision with the following parable: A simple person was walking along the street on a Shabbos afternoon when he saw a golden coin. He needed the money badly and began to find ways, according to halachah, to permit moving the coin on Shabbos. His reasoning was quite creative, and he was satisfied with his conclusions and kicked the coin step by step as he walked down the street towards his home.

The town banker was taking his Shabbos afternoon stroll and noticed the gentleman kicking a coin as he walked. He bent down to examine the coin. When he straightened up, there was a frown on his face. “I hate to break it to you, mister,” he said. “That coin is copper, not gold. It’s worth pachos mishoveh pruta.”

Suddenly, all the heteirim vanished and the man sulked away, shuffling his tired feet home. His excitement upon winning the lottery was dashed and he was done with his creative halachic reasoning.

The Alter of Novardok turned to the group. “That’s the truth for everything that captures us. If it holds value, then our reasoning is impacted and we are unable to think clearly. Only when we get rid of our misconceptions can we appreciate our errors and honestly examine the issues.

“As much as I would like to help you in your thinking, it would be a waste of time for me to speak with you while you are still held captive by the allure of your culture and philosophy. After you have spent some time in yeshiva and your minds are cleared, I will be happy to talk.”

It is only at the very end of the parsha that a change seems to overcome Am Yisroel, and for many parshiyos they do not rebel against Hashem.

The pesukim relate that as Amaleik descended upon the Jewish people, something changed. Moshe, Aharon, Yehoshua and Chur led the charge against Amaleik. When Moshe raised his hands, the Jews advanced in their battle. The Mishnah teaches that when the Jews put their faith in the One Above and davened for victory, they won. That emunah and bitachon remained with them until Seder Bamidbar.

The parsha ends as Hashem instructs to write down the story of Amaleik’s attack and to know that Hashem will erase the memory of Amaleik. However, that realization will wait until Moshiach’s arrival, for until then, we will face attacks from Amaleik in every generation.

Perhaps Amaleik sensed a lack of emunah and pounced. They saw a void and sought to expose it and take advantage of it. The nation of asher korcha baderech worked assiduously to tamp down the fires of faith.

When the members of Klal Yisroel asserted themselves, they emerged stronger than ever. They believed with a new certainty and focus not just that Hashem runs the world, but also that everything else is just a distraction from that reality.

The encounter with Amaleik served to tighten their embrace with Hashem and bring them closer to Har Sinai. Similarly, in every generation, when Amaleik attacks us, he causes us to reaffirm our beliefs and turn to Hashem. This is why Hashem promises that our arch-enemy will be ever-present until the redemption. We need him in order to remain loyal to Hashem.

As we adapt to our host country in the exile, people grow comfortable with their neighbors and surroundings and begin assimilating and adopting the prevalent avodah zorahs. When that happens, the nations rise up against us, anti-Semitism rears its ugly head, and we are reminded who we are and where we come from.

Check our history and you will see that it is true. The Jews are forced from their homes to a new exile. There is much pain and anguish. Jews are mercilessly killed and robbed of their possessions. Beaten and barely holding on, they establish roots in a new country. Slowly, they spread out of their ghettos and gradually become accepted and comfortable in the new host country. Good times are had by all, but then, just as it seems as if Moshiach has come and brought us home, the cycle begins again. The goyim get fed up with us, the noose tightens, and, before we know it, Amaleik has us on the run again.

This time it is different, for we have been told that America will be the final stop in this exile. When we leave here, it will be to go to Eretz Yisroel. We must ensure that our faith remains firm, that our objectivity holds us in place, and that we don’t veer off the path.

Amaleik is ever-present, bombarding us daily with all types of challenges, moral, legal and ethical. He seeks to temp us with various avodah zorahs. In the spirit of “asher korcha,” he seeks to cool us from extreme devotion and dikduk b’mitzvos with different guises and nomenclatures. Sometimes, they sound intelligent and sophisticated, while at other times, they are directed at man’s baser temptations.

We must always keep our guard up. Whenever something comes along and causes a chillul Hashem, we should know to stay very far away. When people begin doubting rabbis, or halachah, or mesorah; when people throw up roadblocks to shemiras hamitzvos; when they mock our values and talmidei chachomim, seeking to adapt Torah to other cultures and religions; when they say that we must be more open-minded or accepting, we should recognize the voice of Amaleik.

To survive, we must remain faithful to our mesorah, unyielding in our devotion to Torah, untempted by anything that introduces foreign beliefs, and support the hands of the Moshe Rabbeinus of our generation with emunah, bitachon, tefillah and humility. By doing so, we will merit the final geulah, bemeheirah beyomeinu. Amein.  

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Strength, Character and Resolve

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Reb Fishel, a well-known chossid who was considered an oveid Hashem, was niftar and someone who was present was quite impressed with his behavior during his final moments. He shared what transpired with their rebbe.

He told the Kotzker Rebbe that Reb Fishel was on his deathbed surrounded by talmidim, teaching and transmitting deep lessons.

“What did he teach?” asked the rebbe with interest.

The wide-eyed chossid related, “The talmidim asked him if the yeitzer hora was attempting to ensnare him as he lay dying, or perhaps he let go during man’s final moments. Reb Fishel’s answer shook us to the core. He said, ‘Yes, even now, as my soul prepares to depart, the yeitzer hora is attempting to persuade me to recite a loud, passionate Shema Yisroel so that you might all be impressed with my piety. Ubber ich veiz em a feig. I won’t accommodate him.’”

“With that, rebbe,” the chossid concluded the story, “Reb Fishel passed away.”

The rebbe thought for a moment and said, “Yotzah nishmaso befeig,” he said. The yeitzer hora had succeeded as the chossid breathed his last.

The Kotzker understood that the yeitzer hora had schemed for the pious Reb Fishel to pass on seeking approval and admiration from others. It wasn’t the fervent Shema Yisroel, but the story of his exchange with the yeitzer hora that trapped him at that final moment.

The yeitzer hora is the craftiest enemy we face. Because he understands our motivations, he is able to outsmart us time after time. For us to perceive the plainly evident truth is an epic struggle, for he shades and colors the way we understand what is transpiring around us and goads us to react in ways that harm us.

He uses words and ideas that paint negative actions as positive and convinces us that public approval is a good litmus test of truth, while it is quite often the opposite. He tells us that not all who wander are lost and endeavors to remove our focus from the goal.

The Alter of Slabodka would incorporate this message in a single phrase: “Maskilim say that one must know the world. Chassidim say that one must know one’s Creator. And we say that one must know himself.”

The skewered reality, representing the value system of the alma deshikra in which we live, is on prominent display during the election season.

The most powerful tool in the arsenal of any candidate is public opinion. To exploit this device to its fullest, politicians take polls. Pollsters taint the results in favor of the candidate they prefer or are paid to promote.

While it is common knowledge that many of the polls are slanted, people still quote them and use them to determine the direction of a political race. Based on the faux presentations of public opinion, politicians make fateful decisions that profoundly impact their country and the rest of the world.

The media drums the propaganda into people’s psyches until the public is swayed into embracing a platform it would not have supported otherwise. Everyone wants to be with the winner, so the polls suggesting that a particular candidate will triumph ends up having a demonstrative impact on public opinion.

Witness the spectacular rise of Donald Trump. The surging candidate relates to people on their level and does not play to the conventional themes or seek to endear himself to the media or political bosses. He doesn’t respond to polls. He says what he believes, going over the heads of those thought to be in charge of public opinion. He has thus upended the rules of the entrenched ruling class, as he gains adherents to his campaign to return sanity to government.

Mainstream politicians and media talking heads and foot troops continue to predict his downfall, because they don’t understand his power and cannot figure out how to beat him. They know that should he get elected, they and their operating system are doomed.

They don’t understand that a leader can win by selling his true beliefs, though those views have not been blessed with the imprimatur of the politically correct wizards.

Trump thinks on his feet, doesn’t use a teleprompter, and connects with the masses by giving voice to their thoughts. The old-style politicians memorize slogans and speeches that are found by polls to be appealing, and they repeat the same tired narratives day after day.

Mrs. Clinton is a prime example of that type of candidate. The media would have you think that she maintains an insurmountable lead and is the inevitable Democrat nominee. In fact she is neck and neck with socialist Bernie Sanders in the upcoming states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

The media would have you think that she is unbeatable, though she has never excelled at much. Everything she touched during her four years in the State Department blew up, from the reset with Russia, to the war in Libya, embassy in Benghazi, tongue lashings of Netanyahu etc. She leaves behind her a trail of lies and incompetence wherever she goes.

She is eminently beatable by Trump or anyone else who dares to take her on and peel away the fictitious veneers of brilliance. That should not come as surprise to anyone who follows her and notes her reticence to answer questions, appear in public, speak extemporaneously or connect with voters to any degree.

Mainstream politicians are so scared of saying something that one group or another will find offensive that they fear to say the truth. There is rarely any intellectual honesty displayed. Everything has to fit in to a convenient politically correct box.

Whether they present themselves as conservative or progressive, everyone knows that they don’t really mean what they are saying. Ask them a question and you get a canned, cagey response. Press them on an issue and watch them squirm their way out of answering. It’s all about spin, lobbyists and spokesmen. Even if they do have a personal opinion, they never share it with anyone, certainly not with the voters they are seeking to represent.

Last week a Philadelphia policeman was shot by a Muslim who said he was acting in the name of Islam. “He stated that he pledges his allegiance to Islamic State, he follows Allah and that is the reason he was called upon to do this,” Police Capt. James Clark said at a news conference. “He kept on echoing those sentiments and he wouldn’t give us anything more than that.” But the city’s new mayor would have none of it. He announced at a press conference that, “This… has nothing to do with being a Muslim or following the Islamic faith.”

The US is under attack, there is a war between radical Islam and the West, yet the country’s leaders refuse to recognize that simple fact. If they are blind to the facts how can they ever win? We have to deal with the world the way it is, not the way we would like it to be. As the posuk states, “Besachbulos taaseh lecha milchomah,” when doing battle, you must have a correct appraisal of your enemy and a candid and intelligent plan for victory. You will not win if you fool yourself.

We have to learn how to address our own issues using real solutions and honest ideas, not noise or sound-bites. What we need is practical direction, not grandstanding for the glory of the moment or fanciful thinking that has no application to reality. It is far easier to deliver big speeches and to propose sweeping changes than to sit far from the limelight and develop a workable solution. Clearly thought-out approaches will have a lasting salutary effect on the community long after the speech has been forgotten.

Applause is not an indicator of anything lasting.

In Parshas Bo, we are commanded to rid ourselves of all leavened products before the onset of Pesach. In Gemara Pesochim (12b), Rava discusses the reason Rabi Yehudah maintains that on Erev Pesach it is permitted to eat chometz only until the end of the fourth hour, even though the chometz must be burnt at the onset of the sixth hour. He explains that since Rabi Yehudah holds that chometz must be destroyed by burning, Chazal gave us an hour during which to gather branches to build the fire.

Why do Chazal measure the amount of time to prepare the fire with branches and not with a fast-moving accelerant? If we were to fuel the fire with oil instead of wood, the fire could be lit much quicker.

If you have ever burned your own chometz, you know that a fire fueled with gasoline burns spectacularly, but quickly fizzes out. A fire that is lit with carefully layered twigs will last far longer and will burn all the chometz as halachically required.

If you take the easy way out and pour gasoline around the chometz, the fire will dissipate before the chometz has been destroyed. Yes, the flames will erupt in a heated rush, but your mission will not be accomplished.

If you only set fire to the bread itself, the fire will not catch on. It is only if you expend the effort of setting a bed of twigs and lighting it methodically that the fire will sustain a heat level sufficient to fulfill the mitzvah of tashbisu, destroying any chometz in your possession.

The yeitzer hora is symbolized by chometz, and this lesson applies in doing battle with him as well. Slowly, methodically, one can chip away at him. Spectacular ceremonial shows of might achieve nothing.

When we light fires, and as we seek to put them out, we need to use foresight and intelligence. If we act with clear-headed decisiveness, then we will not be led to acts of desperation when our plans fail.

We should not be swayed by what others say, by what seems popular, or by what pollsters decide is the winning track. Our actions must be grounded in Torah, our thoughts by halachah. Our conduct with others must be based on mussar. The way we deal with talmidim and children must also be grounded in halachah and mesorah.

We cannot afford to act strictly in the moment guided by what only appears to be right. A parent or educator might feel that a situation calls for harsh measures or severe discipline, but emotions should play no role. Halachah, not what our feelings are at the time of the infraction or what seems to be popular among so-called experts, should dictate how we act.

Additionally, when we want to expunge se’or from our hearts and lives, when something undesirable needs to be uprooted from our world, the temptation is to go for the fireworks. Yet, that approach often boomerangs. At the very least, the success it supposedly generates is short-lived.

Our egos prevent us from seeing things as they really are. If we don’t understand what is really happening, we err. We fail when we think we are smarter than our leaders. We fail when we think that time-hallowed customs and modes of conduct are old-fashioned. We fail when we think that we are smarter than those who have come before us.

Vayechazeik Hashem es lev Paroh” can be explained to mean that Hashem caused Paroh’s inflated opinion of himself to prevent him from acting prudently. He let his emotions blind him from acknowledging what was plainly obvious to any objective observer. “Haterem teida ki ovdah Mitzrayim?” his servants challenged him. “How can you not see that Mitzrayim is on a collision course with disaster?”

Paroh was robbed of understanding his own abilities, strengths and weaknesses because he was unaware of himself and therefore crippled by petty calculations and rotten middos. Deluded of clear vision and lacking humility and clear perception, Paroh led his people to the brink of disaster. Then, when he could have saved them, he led them over the brink to drown in the Yam Suf.

Great leaders see past themselves. They are able to see several steps ahead and provide counsel that will benefit the listener in the long run. Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l once said, “Before I make a suggestion to someone and provide guidance in a trying time, I imagine meeting this neshomah in the Olam Ha’emes. As I visualize that, I consider whether I would be satisfied with what I told him. If I am, I proceed with my guidance. If I think that I will be embarrassed in the World of Truth by what I advised him, I resist sharing my thoughts.”

To succeed, we have to be honest with ourselves and conduct a frank cheshbon hanefesh about where we are, where we ought to be, and how to get there. We have to set priorities, seriously examining what is real and what is fiction, what needs to be addressed and what is trivial.

We have to ensure that we are acting responsibly, with foresight, and resist the urge to grandstand or act compulsively in a manner that will momentarily warm us, but which will prove futile in the long run.

We cannot be guided by polls or short-term solutions. We cannot permit our egos to derail us as we face epic challenges. The temptation is to walk on the popular path towards the spotlight, but all too often, that path ends in a dead end and the spotlights burn out before we can reach our goal.

The Torah, in speaking of makkas bechoros, commands us (Shemos 12:24-25) to observe this as a chok for us and our children and to bring the Korban Pesach when we merit entering Eretz Yisroel. The posuk continues (ibid., 26-27) that when your children ask you to explain the avodah, tell them that the Korban Pesach commemorates the miracles Hashem performed for us when we left Mitzrayim.

When our children want to understand our way of life, we explain to them that we come from a long chain of bnei Avrohom Yitzchok v’Yaakov. We are proud of our heritage and commemorate what Hashem did for us in years past until this very day. We don’t fudge issues. We don’t provide contemporary responses because we think they are better than stating the truth as it has been related for thousands of years. We don’t seek to blend our religion with others or paper over differences.

With pride and love, we give the same answers to our children that our parents gave to us and their parents gave to them. That ensures a “leil… shimurim lechol Bnei Yisroel ledorosam.” If you follow the precepts, laws and explanations of the Torah, you will be protected throughout all your generations. As long as the eternal truths guide us, we are safe. When we act contrary to our mesorah, we are at our own mercy and incapable of enduring.  

The Korban Pesach must be eaten slowly, symbolic of the deeper avodah.

On Sukkos, we recite the prayer of “Hoshana nefesh mibehalah - Save the soul from turbulence.” Rav Shmuel Halevi Wosner zt”l would recite this tefillah on Purim as well. He would recite the words repeatedly, asking Hashem to spare us from the unrest, behalah, and allow us to consider our actions slowly and carefully, focused on a bigger picture.

Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l once recounted that there were many things about Rav Wosner that impressed him, such as his learning, his yiras Shomayim and his precision in halachah, but most prominent was his menuchas hanefesh and the way he carefully considered every word and gesture. This was the manifestation of his tefillah of “Hoshana nefesh mibehalah.”

As the yahrtzeit of my grandfather, Rav Eliezer Levin zt”l, approaches, I recall that what was most impressive of his many admirable attributes was his ability to always be calm, no matter the situation. When I asked him his secret, he reminded me that for the seven years he spent in the Kelmer yeshiva, he worked on the middah of savlanus. A savlan cannot be buffeted about. He remains calm and serene, while being strong and determined, despite the tests of life.

Rav Levin was blessed with a long life and much success and aliyah, but he knew tragedy as well. In all situations, he remained steadfast and calm, buttressed by emunah and bitachon. He was a paragon of gadlus, epitomizing the grandeur of Torah.

We operate with a long-term plan. Our decisions are also about tomorrow, not just today.

This awareness resides within the neshomah of every Jew, explaining the deepest mysteries of life and representing the strength of emunah. Many questions arise because people look only at temporary results instead of past them.

In this alma deshikra, we can’t always see the emes. We can’t see tomorrow, but we believe it will arrive.

Ba’alei bitachon, bnei Torah, baalei mussar, chassidim and gutteh Yidden of all stripes believe in tomorrow.

We fail to be impressed by who appears to be rising and who “the olam” says is falling, because we see past the moment. We ignore what my zaide would refer to as the “hoo-haa” of this world. We remain focused on what we know to be the truth and believe that “sof ha’emes lenatzeiach,” in the end, the truth will be victorious. Everything else is temporal and meaningless.

Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt”l would often relate that he was present when the Chofetz Chaim zt”l said, “I see black clouds over the skies of Europe. There is grave danger facing Am Yisroel.” He would state that upon hearing those words, Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l began to tremble. Rav Elchonon asked his rebbi what the end would be. The Chofetz Chaim replied by quoting a posuk: “Uvehar Tzion tihiyeh pleitah vehayah kodesh (Ovadiah 1:17). In Eretz Yisroel, a remnant of Jewry would survive.

“But rebbe,” Rav Elchonon asked, “in Eretz Yisroel the leaders are secular. Is that the destiny of Klal Yisroel? To join forces with those who work against the Torah?”

The Chofetz Chaim answered, “It says vehayah kodesh. The novi chooses to add a vov hahipuch, denoting that he speaks of the future. It will be holy. He is teaching us that in Eretz Yisroel, too, there will be an upheaval and, in the end, forces of kedushah will reign.”

The Chofetz Chaim was assuring salvation to us, the she’airis am echod, the last generation of golus. He foresaw the process, the clouds and the darkness, and the happy ending.

May we merit the strength of character and resilience of the eternal people to be present on the great day of which the novi foretold.