Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Givers of Lakewood- Welcome to Giverville!

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Across the country and around the world, Lakewood, NJ, is referred to as the “Ihr HaTorah” out of respect for the many thousands who reside here, learning, breathing and living Torah every day. We not only learn Torah on a grand scale, we scrupulously follow its precepts.

There are always exceptions, and we have become used to the scorn and ridicule heaped upon us when someone who happens to live here is exposed as a fraud. Then there is what the media refers to as our “insular lifestyle,” which draws contempt. Others view us as interlopers, whose patriotism they wrongfully question. The many burgeoning private educational institutions are also often pointed to by haters, who fear that we will take over their towns and force them into exile. There seems to be no bar beneath which they will not climb in order to push us into the gutter, and writers and bloggers never run out of topics worthy of analysis - and of course criticism.

One topic that the negative nabobs always avoided was the charitable nature of the community and the many selfless acts of chesed regularly conducted for neighbors and strangers alike.

A new vista has been opened.

Mark Oppenheimer, Beliefs columnist for the New York Times, who also holds the Corcoran Visiting Chair in Christian-Jewish relations at Boston College, visited Lakewood recently. A report on his visit was published in Sunday’s Times Magazine under the title, “Beggarville,” which ought to give a hint as to the type of article it is. Another hint is its popularity. It was the 11th most emailed Times article of the day on Sunday. Another is the front page reference to the article: “Bruder, Can You Spare a Dime? P. 40.”

For some reason, the article has a funny feel to it. It seemingly highlights the openhandedness and munificence of the Lakewood Orthodox community, but the writer seems to have trouble letting more than a few paragraphs pass without some sort of jab or judgment about the community. To us, it is condescending, to say the least.

Some people are happy with the article. “Wow, the New York Times wrote about Lakewood.” It’s a big simcha to be noticed. In truth, whether the writer intended it or not, between the lines of the adjective- and euphemism-filled report lies the altruism of the Lakewood community, whose members open their pockets to dozens from across the world, who descend upon the town, counting on the generosity of their fellow Jews, many of whom are themselves struggling financially.

It’s interesting that we never look at these people as beggars. We call them “collectors” or “meshulochim.” Begging has such an awful connotation. When a person knocks on our door, he is not a beggar. He is a fellow Yid in trouble. We care about him and his matzav, even if there is little we can do about it. We sympathize, we give him a few dollars, and we offer a drink. Not only in Lakewood, but wherever Torah Jews live around the world, that’s just how we act. That’s how we were brought up. It’s how we feel. It is a mark of pride.

Is it this person’s fault that he was born a Sephardi, barely tolerated by the Ashkenazi elites since the founding of the State, and left penniless, reduced to asking for a handout? How about the rosh kollel who knocks on doors to be able to pay yungeleit? Is he doing something wrong that he should be ashamed of? What about the nice poor people who have lost their safety nets thanks to our loving friends currently running the government of Israel? What should they do, starve to death?

Having gone around with some of these people, I know what it’s like to knock on a door. I know the feeling of degradation. I know the hesitation at each house. I know the embarrassment.

I wonder if the Belief writer ever had that experience. I know what it means when someone tells you that they care, and then they smile and treat the “beggar” like the human being he is. I resent and am personally affronted by the snide remarks of a professional religion expert describing the changeover of a “WASPy summer village” to something out of the Yiddish Theater. 

The author describes how one collector, R’ Elimelech Ehrlich of Yerushalayim, typically spends three weeks collecting in Lakewood.

“The yeshiva students may not give much,” Oppenheimer reports, “but nearly all of them give - and there are so many of them. Between 1990 and 2010, Lakewood’s population doubled to about 92,000 residents, largely because of the growth of its ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.”

Some of Oppenheimer’s observations in his report seem to betray a bias. Listen to this one: “[Lakewood is] now at least half Jewish, and the newcomers here have created an economy centered on the things they need that almost no one else does.”

Painting us as simpletons, he describes how locals work in “kosher restaurants and markets, religious elementary and secondary schools and haberdashery and dressmaking shops.”

To be fair, he makes mention of the “Orthodox bankers, mortgage brokers and insurance salesmen [who] serve a community that knows nothing of the real estate bust.” I still can’t figure out if that is a good thing or a bad thing. If it is true that the town is “in many ways [ ] a pre-World War II European village, right down to the Yiddish and, to an extent, the clothes… full of broke students…,” how can it be that they know nothing of a real estate bust? And if there are enough “bankers, mortgage brokers and insurance salesmen” to maintain the rising real estate values, then apparently the Potemkin village is not as bad off as it would seem and there is more than the one rich man the article describes.

One wonders how this economy is “centered on the things they need that almost no one else does.” Perhaps this is the obligatory depiction of Orthodox Jews as different, blinkered and inward-looking. Who knows?

Oppenheimer says, “They work in kosher restaurants and markets, religious elementary and secondary schools and haberdashery and dressmaking shops.” What is different about that? Where do people in Boston work? Do they not have restaurants and schools? Where do people who live in a town buy their clothing if not in a haberdashery shop?

Perhaps the good writer wants to come with us on a walk down Clifton Avenue to meet the nice, good, charming people at R&S Restaurant, at Gelbstein’s Bakery, and at Feldman’s Grocery. He can then savor their wares and see if there is anything different about the proprietors and employees, who are the salt of the earth, just like the good people at The Suite Shop, Bagel Nosh, Schreiber’s Shoes, Torah Treasures and Town Appliance down the street. I think he would actually be genuinely surprised if we took him around town to see what it’s really like in Lakewood at cutting edge places such as Astor Chocolate, Oorah, Card Cash, and so many dozens of others that it is silly for us to even mention these. The Visiting Chair would probably be genuinely surprised and enlightened.

But back to the article and its examination of “this separate and booming religious economy.” The problem, writes Oppenheimer, is that it “comes with a rider: itinerant beggars like Ehrlich. Hundreds every year.”

He says: “It’s not that Lakewood residents enjoy having their doorbells rung two, three or four times a day to hear a hard-luck story. But while other towns may criminalize beggars or tell them to move along, Lakewood has an obligation to fulfill - Jews are literally family, according to the Torah. So the town came up with a modern solution to an ancient problem: paperwork. Beggars are registered and licensed in Lakewood, as a means of preserving trust in this community that aspires to be a village but is outgrowing that label.”

The report explains that there is an organization called Tomchei Tzedakah from which collectors may receive an ishur, a permit, describing their charity needs. The organization issues between 950 and 1,100 ishurs a year.

The majority of collectors “are from Israel, but they are from all over,” a Tomchei Tzedakah volunteer told Oppenheimer. “Russian immigrants living in New York City, people with health problems from upstate New York. There’s a guy who came to me recently from Wisconsin. I think he lost his job, and he couldn’t afford basic necessities. We’ve seen people from the West Coast, from Chicago, Baltimore.”

Despite its tone, the article reveals the beauty of the community, describing how  Aryeh Leib Greenspan, a 30-year-old yungerman, recently hosted an Israeli sofer whose career had been ruined by a hand injury. On his latest trip, he stayed for two weeks, and every night a different Lakewood resident escorted him to knock on doors. These men, R’ Aryeh Leib told Oppenheimer, “give up their supper, their family time,” to help the sofer raise money.

Aryeh Leib said that when he lived near the yeshiva, before he moved, the knocks were constant. “Four or five times a day,” he said. Oppenheimer asked how much he gave. “One dollar, two dollars. People who I can’t give to, I offer them a cup of water or juice. If it’s a Friday afternoon, I give them a piece of kugel.”

Oppenheimer’s report goes on to state that “door-to-door begging is generally for out-of-towners,” while “the local poor are supported by local charities, dozens of them. Many are gemachs: a Hebrew acronym for acts of loving kindness, but colloquially a place for free stuff.”

He shares that there “are separate gemachs for coffee urns, for dehumidifiers, for dinette sets, for boys’ clothes, for bridal gowns - anything you could want. Then there are the more traditional social-service agencies: One helps people with medical-insurance premiums, another puts up families visiting a hospitalized relative, etc. The specialization of the gemachs and other services is so thorough that no one ever feels as if he’s begging.”

In truth, it’s not only about gemachs and dehumidifiers. It’s about a full-fledged community, of rich and poor and everyone in between, working hard at what they do and sharing what they have with others. It’s the parlor meetings and the dinners, the carnivals and Lose-4-Autism type events, and the millions of dollars raised for every conceivable good cause.

It is a town blessed with many successful people, who take great pride in what they do, and do not necessarily all speak with “a trace of Yiddish singsong,” though you can be forgiven for thinking so after reading the Times article.

It’s about a town with world-class experts in virtually every segment of Torah, from Tanach to Gemara and halachah, and every nuance of the rich Jewish religious literature, customs and history, as well as medicine, investing, real estate, nursing homes, insurance, construction, catering, and, yes, haberdashery.

Lakewood is many things to many people, but, sorry, it is not a Hollywood set for Fiddler on the Roof.

Overall, the article falls short because, essentially, the collecting phenomenon is not about begging. It is about giving. It’s not about the takers, but about the bond that connects co-religionists.

It’s not about nomadic souls wandering darkened streets, going from house to house like vagabonds, but about caring families opening their doors and hearts to people they don’t know and may never see again. It is about people who work late and rise early, yet take the time to be kind to strangers, practicing the Torah’s precepts. It is unconditional chesed, with no ulterior motive, agenda or accolades.

It is a beautiful kiddush Hashem that, for some reason, outsiders cannot fathom or articulate.

Mr. Oppenheimer, we invite you back to Lakewood so that we can show you what really goes on here. You can then write a new piece, not titled “Beggarville” or “The Beggars of Lakewood,” but, more appropriately, “Giverville, The Givers of Lakewood.”

Dinner in Estreia on River Avenue in Lakewood?

Who would turn that down?

My dime!

Rabbi Avi Weiss to Step Down

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Rabbi Avi Weiss, founder of Open Orthodoxy’s flagship institutions, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat, and a vocal proponent of granting semichah to women, announced on Shemini Atzeres that he is stepping down from the pulpit of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR). He had previously given up the presidency of Chovevei Torah.

In a speech to his congregation, Weiss announced his plans to end his tenure as rabbi, a position he has held for over four decades.

“There is natural sadness that I feel as I step back, but it is overwhelmed by feelings of hoda’ah laKel, of gratitude to G-d, and of simchah, joy,” Weiss said. “As we embark on this necessary and critical transition phase, let’s do so with joy that as wonderful as it has been, the best is yet to come.”

The 70-year-old Weiss - who called his wife Toby up to the bimah after his speech - said he would step down in July 2015.

Weiss said he is not retiring, stating that he will still serve as rabbi-in-residence at HIR, adding that he would continue speaking and mentoring rabbinic students.

In his speech, Weiss called “Rabba” Sara Hurwitz - who he ordained - “my hero,” stating that “although Rabba Sara is spending more time as the dean of Yeshivat Maharat, an institution which grants semichah to women, her contribution in the Bayit (HIR) has been historic, and it continues to be indispensable. A woman’s voice in the spiritual leadership of our Bayit as a full member of our rabbinic team is crucial to our future success.”

While Weiss is stepping down from leading the congregation, the agenda he has set in motion continues to wreak havoc. His graduates occupy pulpits in congregations and schools across the country, propagating his innovations under the cloak of Orthodoxy. In fact, in his speech announcing his “transition,” he proclaimed that he would be working on “establishing an umbrella organization which will hopefully encompass the myriad of today’s Modern Orthodox and Open Orthodox voices.”

He has been the subject of many articles and columns in this publication over the past decade, decrying his faux-Orthodoxy and calling on him to ditch the label and acknowledge his changes for what they are. They are not Orthodox.

While the RCA and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate do not recognize the semichah and geirus granted by Weiss and his institution, mainstream Orthodox organizations have failed to condemn his actions. In fact, Allen Fagin, executive vice president and chief professional officer of the Orthodox Union, is scheduled to attend the installation of Open Orthodox Rabbi Gabriel Greenberg, a YCT graduate, as spiritual leader of OU member congregation Beth Israel in suburban New Orleans, LA.

In rejecting a geirus performed by Weiss, the Israeli Rabbanut explained, via its legal adviser, Harel Goldberg, “The Chief Rabbinate has been contacted by various rabbis known to the rabbinate, some of whom hold positions in the RCA [Rabbinical Council of America], who claim that Rabbi Weiss’ halakhic positions, as expressed in various incidents and under various circumstances, cast doubt on the degree of his commitment to customary and accepted Jewish halakha.”

As an example of the double-speak that organizations engage in when talking about Weiss, the RCA quickly issued a statement a day after the Rabbanut said that. The RCA stated, “Recent assertions that the Rabbinical Council of America advised the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to reject the testimony of RCA member Rabbi Avi Weiss are categorically untrue.

The statement continues: “The RCA regrets that the discussion concerning the reliability of American rabbis for technical matters under the aegis of the Chief Rabbinate has been used to promote broader issues relating to the contours of American Orthodoxy and its limits. The RCA believes that there are better places and ways to work through these issues.

“Since its inception, the RCA has cherished its relationship with the Chief Rabbinate and has been working closely with it in recent months to create a new protocol. This protocol will enable Jewish status letters to be written by its member rabbis and be endorsed in the United States, where the RCA is better informed and positioned to resolve matters in ways that will avoid the problems and embarrassments of these past weeks.”

What makes one Jewish person Orthodox, another Conservative, and a third Reform? What is it that has defined Orthodoxy ever since that term was formulated to describe our way of life?

When the Reform movement began, its proponents claimed that they were simply interested in reorganizing davening to make it more orderly and beautiful. They shortened the tefillah by removing parts that they claimed were no longer understood, relevant or necessary. There was absolutely no attempt to tamper with the fundamental underpinnings of Yiddishkeit or make any readjustment to the doctrines that are at the foundation of our religion. Nor did they amend any halachos or observances.

That all came later. It was in 1885 that the Reform rabbis, meeting in Pittsburgh, issued their proclamation to do away with all the “rituals” that they deemed to be “dispensable.” They discarded the Torah and removed it as an influence in their lives. They did away with awaiting a return to Eretz Yisroel and established, for all intents and purposes, a new secular religion.

The Conservatives also began as a seemingly harmless group devoted to maintaining halachah, but concerned with tweaking a few observances here and there so that they would conform to the times. Everything else came later. At their founding, they referred to themselves as “Historical Judaism,” as they sought to counter the radical inroads of the Reform.

Conservatives sought to implement certain minor changes and amendments, and promoted them all as being consistent with biblical and rabbinic precedent. They maintained fidelity to the traditional form and precepts of Judaism and did not deviate by changing any of the laws, not even the language of prayer.

Eventually, the Conservative movement also degenerated and became a religion without a G-d, constantly seeking to amend its observances and conforming to the prevailing notions in style at the moment. To them, the mitzvos of the Torah, which we cherish and observe as the word of Hashem as we seek to draw closer to Him, are the stuff of legend which are followed in order to feel good and part of some glorious ancient tribe with fabulous customs and recipes.

The Conservative yeshivos and rabbinic organizations became tools of the secularists. Although they may have been founded with good intentions and employed Talmudic scholars, they became pedestrian-level institutes of sophistry, doing little more than providing a cynical religious cover to a meandering, secular, assimilationist organization.

Orthodoxy was the term given by the Maskilim to those who remained loyal to the Torah, halachah and minhagim as handed down through the generations. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, “Orthodoxy looks upon attempts to adjust Judaism to the ’spirit of the time’ as utterly incompatible with the entire thrust of normative Judaism, which holds that the revealed word of G-d rather than the values of any given age are the ultimate standard.

“The Orthodox community, institutively realizing that liturgical reforms were only the beginning of a long-range process designed to change the tenets and practices of Judaism…reacted with an all-out effort to preserve the status quo.”

Orthodoxy regards with great alarm even the slightest tampering of any part of tradition. It refuses to recognize or participate in any united collective religious organization that deviates from - or reforms in any way - traditional halachic Judaism, which is based upon observance of the Shulchan Aruch.

We have repeatedly written about Rabbi Avi Weiss and his innovations. We have written exposés about his yeshiva, Chovevei Torah, and its graduates. He is at it again and authentic halachic Orthodoxy is once again sleeping at the wheel. We feel that it is about time that he be considered outside of Orthodoxy. Once and for all, the collective bodies of Orthodoxy should declare that he has driven himself out of the camp.

Open Orthodoxy began its path by crossing socio-religious red lines, such as fostering greater cooperation with and recognition of non-Orthodox Jewish clergy, and engaging in celebratory religious interaction with Christian clergy. Then came their adopting new standards for geirus. New attitudes toward non-traditional marriage were proffered by YCT’s rabbis, radically changing accepted Orthodox norms so as to bring Open Orthodoxy in line with the times, yet not violating halachah. Soon thereafter, Open Orthodoxy introduced the ordination of women, again accompanied by teshuvos to justify this breach of tradition on technical halachic grounds. Then came changing tefillah: Tefillah could be led by women, and brachos could be cancelled and replaced. They updated davening and nusach to reflect the values of the day. Sometimes, bogus halachic loopholes were created, while at other times, no halachic justification was offered.

Open Orthodoxy’s reforms and attempted integration into Modern Orthodoxy are met with deafening silence at best and sometimes even with cooperation and support. To wit, YCT’s graduates are landing pulpit and campus rabbinical positions at synagogues and universities affiliated with mainstream Modern Orthodox synagogue organizations.

Popular Modern Orthodox lecturers and authors, affiliated with mainstream Modern Orthodox organizations, participate in YCT symposiums and contribute to YCT publications. Meanwhile, Open Orthodoxy continues its leftward trek over the edge, reforming Orthodoxy and breaking away from the chachmei hamesorah, and even censuring the ideas of Chazal when they do not fit in with the times. 

Open Orthodoxy has very ambitious plans to change Yahadus, and Modern Orthodoxy and its organs had better wake up, whether Avi Weiss is rabbi of the Bayit in Riverdale or not.

Avi Weiss has a long history. He kept on pushing the envelope as far as he could and waited to see if anyone pushed back. When there was no pushback, he took the next step, and then the next and the next. Eventually, he went so far that he clearly stepped off the cliff and descended into a different realm.

Weiss’ actions are even more brazen than those of the original reformers, yet he has succeeded in evading the eye of scrutiny and continues to be permitted to parade as an Orthodox rabbi.

Why should we care? For the same reason Jews cared for the past three hundred years when reformers of all stripes advanced their agendas. We fought back and repelled them from the normative community. There is no reason that Weiss should be permitted to speak in our name. There is no reason that students of his rabbinic institute should be allowed to label themselves as Orthodox and compete against frum candidates for open pulpits in synagogues across the country.

Having learned from the Maskilim of previous centuries, the students of that movement in this century demonstrate that they have learned from the mistakes of the former. Without seeking to entrap the masses on an individual level and convert them to their beliefs, they concentrate their efforts on a communal level, aiming to conquer pulpits in communities across the United States and Canada in their bid to corrupt Orthodoxy.

Zacharias Frankel, referred to as the Conservative movement’s intellectual ancestor, wrote, “The means [of transformation] must be grasped with such care, thought through with such discretion, created always with such awareness of the moment in time, that the goal will be reached unnoticed, that the forward progress will seem inconsequential to the average eye.”

Pretty soon, the innovations and transformations put into motion by Rabbi Weiss won’t be considered silly, and there will be more and more aberrations, if the phenomenon is permitted to fester.

Yes, it is late. We should have dealt with this earlier. But it is not too late. Even as he rides off into the sunset, his sun still shines.

Let us take this most recent step in his career as an opportunity to remove this cancer from the midst of Orthodoxy.

Choices

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

 Once again, as the hue and glow of the greatest month of the year begins to fade, we find ourselves reading the story of Noach. As we slip from the joyous days of Sukkos into the inevitable chill of winter, we find that the parshas hashovua offers warmth, compensating for the dips and turns of the calendar.

There is a lesson inherent in the parsha as we battle to adapt the inspiration and spiritual highs of the Yomim Tovim to the practicalities of everyday life. Schools are open once again. Yeshivos are beginning the longest zeman of the year and working people are back at the grind. We are all attempting to rise above the bleakness confronting us.

The Torah introduced us to Noach at the end of Parshas Bereishis. After telling us that man had veered from the path Hashem had intended for him to follow, the Torah relates that Noach found favor in Hashem’s eyes (Bereishis 5:32, 6:8).

This week’s parsha (6:9) reintroduces us to him. Rashi explains that since the Torah mentioned Noach, it found it necessary to praise him (Bereishis Rabbah 49:1). The posuk states, “Aileh toldos Noach - These are the offspring of Noach.” Again, Rashi enlightens us and teaches that the main toldos, literally offspring, of righteous people are their positive actions (Bereishis Rabbah 30:6).

Apparently intending to list his attributes, the posuk states, “Noach ish tzaddik tomim hayah bedorosov.” He was an ish, a tzaddik, and a tomim, bedorosov.

Let us study the posuk, word by word.

When the Torah says that the toldos of Noach will follow and Rashi adds that the intention is to praise the tzaddik, we understand that what follows are words of praise of a giant. Toldos is translated as offspring, but it also means biography. The Torah is stating that what follows is the short version of Noach’s biography. Rashi comments that the primary “offspring” of a tzaddik are the maasim tovim he performed. Thus, if you want to encapsulate the life of a great person in a few words, the way to do that is by recounting his good deeds. This does not mean that everything else about him and his life are not important, but rather that this defines his essence.

Noach was such a person. While there is much to say about him and his accomplishments throughout his long, productive life, a condensed description is that he was an ish, a tzaddik, and a tomim, bedorosov.

If you wish to sum up a person, it boils down to his maasim tovim, his willingness to do for others, and his concern and selflessness. Each person writes his own epitaph and decides how he will be remembered, as we see from Noach.

The first appellation the Torah uses after mentioning Noach’s name is ish. Perhaps we can understand that attribute by studying the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (2:5) which states, “Bemakom she’ein anoshim hishtadel lihiyos ish,” which literally means, “Be a man in a place where there is none.” The Rambam (ibid.) explains this lesson to mean that if you have no one to teach you Torah, you should endeavor to study it on your own. Rabbeinu Yonah (ibid.) takes it a step further, stating that if you are in a place where there is no one to help you with your mitzvah observance and set you on the right path, work on yourself to independently do what is right and proper in the eyes of Hashem.

We can understand the Torah’s description of Noach as an ish to mean that despite the fact that the entire world was lacking in moral character and justice, he brought himself, on his own, to the level of a tzaddik, which is the next adjective the Torah uses to describe him. We commonly refer to a righteous person as a tzaddik, but, as the Ramban on this posuk states, the word means that Noach was undeserving of any punishment that befell the rest of the world, because he was a zakai bedin. A tzaddik is one who emerges victorious and innocent in a judgment. A rasha is one who is found guilty. Noach was the consummate innocent person. Despite all that went on around him, he was free of sin.

The definition of the word tomim is complete. Either the Torah is defining Noach as a complete and perfect tzaddik, pure in his tzidkus (see Ramban ibid.) or it is an appellation on its own, praising Noach as also being a tomim. Perhaps we can understand it in accordance with the Vilna Gaon, who says in Even Sheleimah that a tzaddik gomur as referred to in the Gemara (Brachos 7a) is one who is not only exceptional in his actions, but also in his middos. [See also Gemara Avodah Zora 6a]. The Torah testifies that Noach wasn’t only a person who was righteous, learned and innocent of wrongdoing, but also the consummate baal middos tovos.

Bedorosov. Since the Torah is listing Noach’s positive attributes, we must assume that the word bedorosov also intones positive notions about him. He maintained his independence, doing what was right, being an ish, despite all that was going on around him. He lived in a generation of evil and wicked people, but he was not influenced by them. He stood above them and even reached out to them in an attempt to raise their level and return justice and morality to the world.

Much has changed since then, but some things remain constant. Here we are, each of us struggling, just as Noach did, to be an ish in a dor gone mad.

Yes, we are surrounded by the good fortune of being able to live as proud Jews. We are surrounded by like-minded people who endeavor to study Torah and observe the mitzvos. Our generation is light years ahead of that of our parents, who came of age when Orthodoxy wasn’t given much of a chance and a Torah way of life was not in fashion. Their social lives were crimped. Their ability to succeed was viewed as hampered, as people like them were few and far between. We have been gifted, yet we don’t always appreciate the gift. We sit in spacious, attractive sukkos, while a generation ago, many towns sufficed with kiddush in a shul sukkah and one set of Dalet Minim for the entire kehillah.

But even with our blessings, we are still in golus. All around us, the world sinks deeper into immorality. Social standards and norms accepted just a decade ago are now considered old-fashioned. Our way of life is regularly mocked. Our chastity and charity are treated by the mainstream media as puns in an old Yiddish Theater joke. Instead of praising the chesed of Lakewood, NJ, the New York Times call it “Beggarville” in a long, snide article published this week.

Metzitzah b’peh has been roundly condemned by supposed scientists. The very same people who played down Ebola are the ones who characterized us as baby killers, backward Neanderthals who care more about ancient traditions than modern science and health. Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the Center for Disease Control, who confidently assured the country that he had Ebola under control, was shown to be a liar, knave and fool, whose word is meaningless and whose knowledge of infectious diseases is sorely lacking. It’s hard not to remember his patronizing lectures when he served as New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s health commissioner, the two of them joining forces to save us from our own supposed lack of hygiene. 

Rabbeinu Yonah, on the Mishnah quoted above, advises someone living in a time and place of simple people to reach beyond, to imagine himself surrounded by learned, sophisticated people and act accordingly. He understands Chazal’s directive to be an ish in a place where there are none as a mandate not to hold yourself back from gaining wisdom even if you reach a level where there is no one in your city who is a greater chochom than you are. If you find that in the entire generation there is no one with more chochmah than you, imagine that you are studying with the chachmei haTalmud. If you feel that you have reached that level, imagine that you are with the neviim, until you reach Moshe Rabbeinu. This way, you will always endeavor to improve and grow, not being held down by the people around you.

Perhaps we can apply this insight to this week’s parsha as well. Noach was a tzaddikbedorosov, in his generation,” meaning in the generation he created for himself. It was his own. He ignored everyone around him and visualized a new generation in which he could thrive, and he made that his reality. It was dorosov - he lived in the generation he formed in his mind.

People have an ability to rise above their surroundings and live bigger. Over Yom Tov, I met a delightful Yerushalmi Jew who told me about his Hungarian grandfather, a Jew from Toshnad who met the same fate as the bulk of Hungarian Jewry. Taken to the concentration camps with his wife and children, only he survived. “Of all the awful experiences of the war,” this grandson asked him, “which was the worst?”

The grandfather answered that for him, the worst moment came after the war had ended and he had been freed. He emerged from the concentration camp alone, barely alive. Seeking solace, he made his way back to his hometown of Toshnad, but the Jews were gone. A non-Jewish family had assumed ownership of his house. He walked up to the door, wanting to get a final look at the place where he had lived with his family. It was his home, and he had left it without saying goodbye.

The family nameplate was still firmly fastened to the door. Emboldened upon seeing that, he knocked on the door and asked permission to enter. The squatter was kind enough to let him in. The owner entered and looked around at the walls that had absorbed the laughter and song of his murdered family. Everything was just as he had remembered it. The dining room table that had been the scene of festive meals, with the Torah and zemiros of so many Shabbosos and Yomim Tovim, was still there. Even the leichter that his wife had lit candles on for many years was right where it had always been. As he stood there, lost in his memories, the poacher chased him out. “Okay, Jew,” he commanded, “your time is up. Get out.”

The fellow walked out to the street and paused. Decades later, he recounted to his grandson that he had never felt so degraded and distraught in his entire life. All the pain and heartache he had experienced came to the fore in those moments. He recounted that he stood at the gutter and thought to himself, “I have a choice. I can either let the anguish pull me down and give it all up or I can summon the strength to rise above it.”

Rise above it he did, finding his way to Yerushalayim and remarrying, giving birth to a new family of children and 150 grandchildren.

The decision he made on that awful day, the worst of his life, returned his vitality to him and enabled him to go on living the way he had before the calamitous period interfered. He triumphed.

Life is about choices. Thankfully, we are not faced by choices such as the one the lonely survivor had to cope with. But we, in our world, feel the despair and longing for the sweet days that have just passed us by. As we do, we can make the decision to use them as a springboard to live bigger, taking the elevation of the Yomim Noraim, as well as the na’anuim and hakafos and yeshivas sukkah, and the shofar and Kapparos and Ne’ilah, and using it to paint the winter days ahead with color, meaning, depth and joy.

During hakafos, you see people dance with heavy Sifrei Torah. Though clearly weighed down by the large scroll, they march on, lovingly holding their weighty packages in their right hands, close to their hearts. The knowledge that they are bearing the object that gives their lives meaning and defines their very existence energizes them, pumping the physical strength to match the spiritual. Their feet dance on, being swept along in the joy of the moment. They continue moving in the circle, men and boys, one after another, a group comprised of individuals, each of them an ish.

Learning this parsha, we should think about what others would say about us if they tried to encapsulate our lives. Which maasim tovim will be our toldos? Are we as kind to others as we should be? Are we as charitable and forgiving as we should be? Do we feel the pain of others? Do we live for ourselves or do we live for others? Do we stand as Noach did for 120 years trying to convince people to right their ways and prevent catastrophe? Are we selfless and caring and sharing, or do we always think about what is in it for us? What is our legacy?

As we leave the beautiful world of Sukkos, parting from the protective shield of the Tzila Demehemnusa, standing on the precipice of the olam hamaaseh, we would do well to utilize the beam of light we just encountered to point the way through a dark winter, lighting up each day and night for growth and aliyah, for ourselves and for others.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Season of Thanks

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The theme of the beautiful pesukim that comprise Shir Hashirim focuses on the Ribbono Shel Olam’s boundless and enduring love for His people. The lyrical account written by Shlomo Hamelech portrays the depth of the relationship between Knesses Yisroel and their Shepherd.

Shir Hashirim describes Klal Yisroel’s departure from Mitzrayim and how the newly-formed nation followed Hashem into a desert, displaying ahavas kelulosoyich, which is a zechus we still call upon as a source of merit in our day, many centuries later.

One of those gloriously poetic pesukim is “Uri tzafon uvo’ie Seiman - A call to the winds from the north (tzafon) and the south (Seiman) to blow on to my garden” (Shir Hashirim 4:16). The Rokeiach understands this posuk as a plea for the mercy and goodness of tzafon, which the Vilna Gaon teaches is a repository of good, and Seiman, where middas hachessed resides.

Essentially, the posuk represents the cry of the Jew in golus, beseeching Heaven for a bounty of goodness and chesed. The Rokeiach adds an interesting tidbit. He writes that the words uri tzafon are the acronym of eitz [referring to the lulav]. We hold the lulav and wave it in all four directions, pleading for Hashem, kevayachol, to come to us, bo’i Seiman: with middas hachessed.

Even if we understand the allusion to the garden at the end of the posuk as a hint to the species that come forth from the ground and serve as a cheftzah shel mitzvah, what connection is there between the words uri tzafon and the mitzvah of lulav? What is the connection between waving the lulav and asking Hashem to come join us?

The Torah describes the Yom Tov of Sukkos as Chag Ha’osif, the festival celebrating successful harvests. It is a season of ingathering.

The Sefer Hachinuch (324) develops this idea and writes that the mitzvah of Arba’ah Minim is also part of this theme. We take in our hands the four minim because they bring joy to those who behold them. It is a time of “yemei simcha gedolah l’Yisroel, ki eis asifas hatevuos upeiros ha’illan babayis, ve’oz yismichu bnei odom simcha rabbah, umipnei chein nikra Chag Ha’osif.” As we celebrate the bounty that Hashem has given us, we translate that joy into kedushah and mitzvos.

The Chiddushei Harim shares a similar thought to explain why Yaakov Avinu recited Krias Shema when he was reunited with his beloved son, Yosef, in Mitzrayim (Rashi, Vayigash, 46:29). Yaakov had waited many long years for this moment to arrive. When it finally did, he channeled his happiness of the moment into service of Hashem and recited Shema Yisroel.

We merit Hashem’s kindness when we appreciate the goodness He has blessed us with and use it for kedushah. We turn to Hashem and say, “Thank you for all you have done for me in the past year. Please bless me in the coming year.”

Sukkos is when we gather in the harvest. We grasp the Arba’ah Minim close to our hearts. We focus on the blessings, pulling together the various streams of good in our lives in a single ode of thanks.

Sukkos is the most joyful time of year. We gather our hard-earned bounty, place it over our heads as s’chach, and recognize that everything we have is thanks to Hashem’s chessed. We grab hold of what He has given us and turn it in all directions, spreading kedushah wherever and however we can. As we do so, we whisper a tefillah: Uvena’anui osam tashpia shefa brachos. Hashem, we appreciate what You have done for us. We pledge to do more for You and ask that, in return, You continue to bless us. Mimcha hakol.

Yet, there is another element to this wonderful Yom Tov as well. While the Torah in Parshas Mishpotim (23:15) and Parshas Ki Sisa (34:22) describes Sukkos as a Chag Ha’osif, a festival celebrating the annual harvest, the Torah later refers to the Yom Tov by the name with which we refer to it, Sukkos. The Torah states in Parshas Emor (23:42) that the reason for the mitzvah is so that the future generations will know that Hakadosh Boruch Hu fashioned sukkos for the Bnei Yisroel to live in when He redeemed them from Mitzrayim. (This is a kavonah that the Bach says is me’akeiv, necessary, for the fulfillment of the mitzvah.)

How are we to understand the dual message? Is Sukkos a celebration of a good harvest or is it a memorial commemorating the sukkos in which we took refuge in the desert?

The Meshech Chochmah (Parshas Mishpotim 23:15) explains based on the Vilna Gaon that until the time the Luchos Shniyos were given, Sukkos was a Chag Ha’osif, a celebration marking the end of the harvest season. After Hashem forgave Am Yisroel for the chet ha’eigel, and after Moshe returned with the second Luchos and the Ananei Hakavod returned on the 15th day of Tishrei, Sukkos became a Yom Tov commemorating the sukkos in the midbor, namely, the Ananei Hakavod which covered and protected us wherever we went. We celebrate the great joy of teshuvah.

The two concepts - the joy of accomplishment and the joy of proximity to His Presence - are interwoven. Chag Ha’osif celebrates man’s efforts invested in planting, cultivating and eventually harvesting his produce, yet still recognizing that the fruits those labors produce are essentially a gift from Hashem. Man knows that it wasn’t his toil or expertise that brought forth the fruits. It was not kocho ve’otzem yado, but a gift from Shomayim. Chazal refer to Seder Zeraim as “emunos” because of the inherent faith of the farmer as he plants yet another season of crops.

With this in mind, we can appreciate the unique joy of that first Sukkos. A people redeemed through bitachon and who followed Hashem blindly into the midbor fell into the abyss of sin and were misled into fashioning the Eigel. After they were admonished, they lifted themselves and repented. And their teshuvah was accepted. Their emunah and bitachon were once again intact, and the Anonim returned, remaining with them throughout their sojourn in the midbor.

Additionally, according to the Vilna Gaon, the 15th of Tishrei was not only the day on which the Ananei Hakavod returned to Am Yisroel. It was also the day on which the Mishkon was first erected and the Bais Hamikdosh was completed. It is a day that marks what we can reach with proper emunah and bitachon, and the heights we can attain.

It is because they appreciated the fact that everything they have is from Hashem, and because they celebrated the Chag Ha’osif by thanking Hashem for His goodness and kindness, that they merited the Divine protection of the Anonim. “Lemaan yeidu doroseichem ki basukkos hoshavti” is a lesson that those who maintain their belief in Hashem and appreciate what He does for them merit His protection.

The joy of Chag Ha’osif - and the mandate to use that euphoria as a springboard for gratitude - is just as relevant today in our society. Too often, we work very hard. We look at other people and it seems to us as if they have easy lives. They seem richer, better and happier, and we become jealous of them and of what we view as their accomplishments. They have more, so we imagine that they are better off and we become angry at them for succeeding more than we have.

It appears that for some, earning a livelihood comes easier than others and therefore their lives are blissful, unlike ours. We become blinded by the bling and apparent success, and either we don’t see or aren’t cognizant of the struggles and failures even such people endure.

The one whose belief in Hashem is not complete wonders why he can’t be like the other guy and why he can’t be as blessed. What he fails to realize is that he really is. Hashem cares for every one of His subjects. Sometimes the blessings are evident and sometimes they are concealed. But we must know that they are there.

Most writers and historians play up the image of the Jew in the ghettos and concentration camps as feeble and pathetic, submitting to their Nazi oppressors with nary a whimper. Yet, reading the accounts of Moshe Prager or the halachic shailos posed to Rav Ephraim Oshry, the Veitzener Rov and others during the war years causes one to be awed by the heroism of these individuals. Books by religious writers depicting the Holocaust era leave the reader astonished by the indomitable spirit of those Yidden. You are amazed, knowing that the Jews were stronger than any Nazi beast. Part of that strength was an acceptance of Hashem’s will, plan and design.

Instead of engaging in self-pity over their situation, through their emunah and bitachon they summoned their inner strength, accepted their circumstances and resolved to make the best of what they had in order to survive the inferno and to live another day. Those with that attitude survived and thrived after liberation. Depressingly cursing their fate and wondering why other people and nations were spared of G-d’s wrath, caused those with such thoughts to give up and perish.

Similarly, books of lore depicting the modern-day settlement of Eretz Yisroel typically gloss over the First Aliyah and concentrate on the Second Aliyah. This is because those who made up the first were largely religious and did not fit the narrative that the secular Zionists sought to inculcate. The Second Aliyah immigrants were largely irreligious or worse, and their ascension to Eretz Yisroel had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with nationalism.  

What kept the early immigrants of the First Aliyah going in the face of what seemed to be insurmountable hardships? Sam Finkel, in his exceptional book, “Rebels in the Holy Land,” quotes Avrohom Yaakov Gellman, who arrived in Eretz Yisroel in 1882: “Many difficult and terrible hardships befell us. So many people died… So many men and women became blind…because the air of this locale was unhealthy [and because of disease-carrying flies]. We could barely sleep at night without evading the malarial fever that struck us. We literally put our lives at risk. Through our efforts, we have improved the air quality of the settlement, but at the cost of the lives of our dear ones and with such pain and anguish.”

So how did they do it? “They coped and managed because they believed that they were the shlichim fulfilling a holy commandment.”

That is the true strength of the Jewish people, reflected in the Yad Hachazakah of the Rambam, not in the clenched fist of kochi ve’otzem yodi.

On the Chag Ha’osif, everyone equally celebrates the fruits of their shlichus. The posuk doesn’t say that only the top one percent who can afford a private jet, a personal chef, and housekeepers should observe the Chag Ha’osif. The Yom Tov is for the farmer who plows one acre all by himself and the mega-producer whose expanse is thousands of acres. Every person appreciates his gifts and the challenges surmounted on the path to achievement, and he arrives in Yerushalayim to offer thanksgiving, to bring korbanos and to dwell in a sukkah.

The Chag Ha’osif offers everyone a moment of rest and time to catch their breath and assess their accomplishments. The nisayon of pride is daunting. The ability to raise eyes heavenward and give thanks, with the recognition that we are nothing without Hashem’s blessing, is empowering. We are thankful for this interlude to take inventory and count our blessings.

I was present when a person seeking a brochah from the Toldos Aharon Rebbe asked for a segulah he could undertake to merit salvation from his situation. The Rebbe made a suggestion. “There are so many wonderful organizations,” he said. “There are so many gemachim filling all sorts of needs, from crucial to mundane. But there are so many tzubrochene people who need support. Seek out tzubrochene Yidden and offer them chizuk.”

Everyone needs chizuk. Everyone has their own pekel of tension, challenges, and things that don’t seem to be going right. Sometimes people look happy, but if you scratch the veneer you’ll find pain looking to be assuaged, loneliness looking to be comforted and a black hole looking to be filled. A few simple, nice words can lift anyone’s spirit.

Also, by being big enough to dispense words of chizuk to others, complimenting them on their attributes and congratulating them on what they have achieved, we join them in thanking Hashem for the blessings bestowed upon them. Sometimes, all they need is a small pick-me-up to appreciate the good they have. We can be the ones to provide it, making them - and us - feel so much better.

Approaching Sukkos, in this season of thanks, I merited to taste the joy of harvest when my sefer, Peninei Chein, arrived from the printer in boxes of neatly stacked, attractive volumes. Cognizance of the labor and exertion that went into each piece made the joy of completion much greater. The divrei Torah and ideas that fill the sefer are culled from these columns, each a gift from Hashem, who has enabled me to arrive at these thoughts and attempt to express them in a way people can find uplifting.

We all have what to be thankful for and should offer thanks to Hashem, who enables us to work, providing us with strength and ability, and presents opportunities to allow us to feel a sense of achievement, when, in fact, our role in the accomplishments is quite small.

Perhaps we can derive a similar message from the minhag of Hakafos, when we circle the bimah. Every day of Sukkos, we walk around with our Dalet Minim. On Hoshanah Rabbah, we march around holding aravos. And on Simchas Torah, we again circle the bimah in spirited dance bearing Sifrei Torah.

Maybe the circuits we complete reflect the circle of osif that we celebrate on Sukkos, from when the seeds are sown until a complete fruit merges. Chag Simchoseinu reflects the joy of seeing a process culminated, dreams realized and hopes fulfilled.

The peirush Siach Yitzchok on the Siddur HaGra, on the tefillah of “vesechezenah eineinu,” states that the Bnei Yisroel will be redeemed from golus in the merit of their emunah despite all that happens to them in golus, just as our forefathers in the time of Mitzrayim were redeemed in the zechus of their emunah.

We will merit the imminent geulah by recognizing that all we have is from Hashem and by maintaining our belief in Him. This is the same belief that enabled the Chag Ha’osif to be transformed into a chag commemorating the Shechinah’s embrace through the Ananei Hakavod and later the Mishkon and the Bais Hamikdosh. Just as their emunah and bitachon were rewarded then, so will they be soon in our day.

This Sukkos, as we go into the sukkah every morning betzeilah demeheimnusah to take hold of the Dalet Minim, we will draw them close and contemplate the blessings and steady kindness that abound on the road we have traveled. We will merit being enveloped by those holy clouds once again. May this be the year when we dance not just around the bimah, but all the way back home.

Ah gut Yom Tov