Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Feel the Pain

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

There is a war going on. Jews are getting killed. Stabbed. Murdered. Shot. Day after day, the numbers are adding up. Sometimes, they are killed one at a time, other times in groups. Knifed, sprayed with bullets or rammed with a car. And that is very tragic. Sad. Awful. There is a growing trail of blood, leaving their families and communities devastated.

It’s heartbreaking. But do you know what is also sad? That many don’t seem to care. People were davening Minchah in Tel Aviv and an Arab waiter from a restaurant next door knifed two men to death and tried to slaughter more. V’ein ish som al leiv. Nobody knows about it. Nobody is broken up about it.

An 18-year-old boy studying in a yeshiva in Beit Shemesh went to bring meals to soldiers and was shot dead by an Arab terrorist, another young life snuffed out, a young man with so much potential cut down.

The tears should be flowing, the sadness and pain engulfing us, yet, somehow, we’ve become immune, the flow of tragedies becoming news stories rather than personal messages. They become things to pass around without seriously contemplating the deep personal tragedies.

The Torah states that when Moshe Rabbeinu, who had grown up in the palace of Paroh, left and saw the suffering of his brothers in Mitzrayim, “Vayar besivlosam – And he saw their pain.” The Chiddushei Horim adds a component to what Moshe saw. He writes that “sivlosam” hints to the idea that his brethren had begun to be “soveil” what was transpiring. They were tolerant of the sad reality and accepted it as a fact of life.

When Moshe saw that, he perceived that they were in real trouble and that it was time to begin agitating for their release. They had begun to accept the culture and atmosphere of being enslaved in Mitzrayim.

We see what’s happening today and we wonder if, perhaps, G-d forbid, we have started to be soveil this new reality. We glimpse at the articles, peek at the pictures if they are not too gory, shake our heads and move on. Instead of mourning the loss of yet another young life, we send around emails wondering why President Obama was waiting to condemn the senseless murder of an American citizen in Israel, as if we need his condemnation to validate the truth. What difference does it make if his staff writes up a pithy sentence? Will that change anything? The emails we should be sending around and the thoughts we should be thinking should be focused on what we can be doing about the slaughter of our people that is going on and how it obligates us. People felt better when the Patriots held a moment of silence in memory of Ezra Schwartz Hy”d before Monday night’s game, as if that somehow gave validation to Jewish pain and suffering and as if that’s what was needed. Jews proudly emailed clips of the moment of silence

A couple was killed on Erev Rosh Hashanah and their deaths resonated, tearing hearts across the Jewish world. People spoke about it everywhere and cared. Then the terror spread to Yerushalayim and the message began hitting home. But then the violence continued. And continued. Over time as these despicable acts continued, with every day bringing a new tragedy - more orphans, more parents sitting shivah, and more blood on the streets - we have become so overwhelmed that we no longer react.

It doesn’t help that the free world, which never cared much about Jewish blood in the first place, has now become preoccupied with the ISIS terror unleashed in Europe and ignores what is happening in Israel. Our hearts go out to the French people and victims of terror worldwide. We bemoan the leadership that allowed ISIS to be born and develop into a major threat over the past seven years. We wish that the world would recognize the threat engulfing it and declare war upon the evildoers, without politically correct reservations.

But that doesn’t absolve us from focusing on the real issue and the weighty implications for us. As bnei Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, we have to recognize that Jews in particular are being singled out for slaughter. We must feel their pain and think about what we can do to help alleviate the suffering. Each one of us is charged with doing our part to bring this tragic chapter to a close.

What, exactly, is our part?

Parshas Vayishlach represents a guidebook on relations with the world. Chazal state that chachomim who traveled to Rome would carefully study this week’s parshah before setting out on their missions. As our chachomim throughout the ages studied this parshah and Yaakov’s behavior before confronting the exile, we must do the same.

The Ramban writes that the parshah “contains a hint for future generations, for all that transpired between our forefather Yaakov and Eisov will happen to us with Eisov’s children, and it is fitting for us to follow the path of the tzaddik (Yaakov).”

Throughout the generations, the children of Eisov sometimes present themselves as achim, brothers, concerned about our welfare, and other times their evil intentions are more apparent.

No matter how they present themselves, our response to Eisov remains constant. We deal with Eisov the same way Yaakov did, so it is important for us to properly analyze Yaakov’s actions and statements.

The posuk says, “Vayishlach Yaakov malochim lefonov el Eisov ochiv” (Bereishis 31:4). Yaakov sent malochim to his brother, Eisov, to let him know that he was returning to the Land of Israel, seeking a peaceful brotherly reunion.

What was the message Yaakov sent to his wicked brother to convince him to retreat from his threats to inflict bodily harm on Yaakov? He told the malochim to tell Eisov, “Im Lavan garti, although I lived many years with the wicked Lavan, taryag mitzvos shomarti, I observed all the 613 mitzvos.”

The parshah and the dealings between the brothers have historical significance. They are written in the Torah for us to learn from as we navigate our golus experience. There are several issues that bear explanation in order to understand the message Yaakov sent Eisov. Yaakov chose to send malochim, actual angels, rather than human messengers. Why? And since when does man have the ability to send angels on missions with messages? Secondly, why would the wicked Eisov care that Yaakov was able to maintain his lofty levels while living by Lavan? Of what interest was it to him that Yaakov had observed the 613 commandments?

Chazal teach that the performance of mitzvos creates malochim. Every mitzvah creates a malach. The Vilna Gaon taught that since every word of Torah studied fulfills a mitzvah, it follows that every word of Torah we study creates a malach. Who are those malochim? What is their task? Those malochim surround us and protect us from harm.

Yaakov was telling Eisov, “You won’t just be fighting me and my family. If you go to battle against us, you will be fighting the malochim created by the 613 mitzvos I fulfilled even in the house of Lavan. Lest you think that I fell under his influence and created malochim mashchisim (destructive angels), be forewarned that I am the same Yaakov ish tom you knew back home. Im Lavan garti, vetaryag mitzvos shomarti. There will be thousands of malochim defending me as I enter your turf. Beware.

There is a story told of a religious traveler who, during a trip, entered a convenience store, where a bare-headed clerk rang up his purchase of some chips and a soda. Thanks to his accent, the customer identified the clerk as an Israeli. He smiled and said to him, “Shalom aleichem.”

The clerk, though an Israeli, had little interest in his heritage. In fact, he had come to America to escape from Jews. He was quite upset to have been outed by a co-religionist and responded by saying, “Don’t greet me and don’t share this shalom aleichem stuff with me. It’s wrong.”

“Why is it wrong?” asked the surprised traveler.

“Because ‘aleichem’ is plural and I am only one person,” said the man.

The customer smiled and nodded. “You are right, but I am not only extending my greetings to you. The rabbis teach that every Jew is surrounded by two malochim at all times. Thus, I use the plural when I greet the three of you.”

The conversation over, the clerk frowned and turned to the next customer.

A few months later, the traveler passed through the same town again and decided to stop at the store. Maybe he’d meet that Israeli again and maybe he would be able to reach his heart. He entered and saw the clerk there, sporting a baseball cap.

The clerk’s eyes shot open when the frum man entered. “You’re back? You have no idea of the trouble you caused me and what you did to my life.”

The traveler prodded him to explain.

“I can’t get out of my head what you told me about the angels,” the clerk said. “I left work and went to eat supper at McDonald’s like I usually do, but I couldn’t eat. I sat there and thought about those angels. How could I eat a cheeseburger with angels at my side? How could I offend them that way?

“Ten times a day, I get annoyed by those angels. In short,” the clerk concluded, “you’re ruining my life with those angels. They don’t let me do anything!”

Yaakov had many more malochim at his side, and if Eisov wouldn’t respect Yaakov, his life would be upended.

There is no protection stronger than that of Torah. Those who study Daf Yomi recently learned the Gemara (Sotah 21a) which teaches, Torah and mitzvos are magna umatzla,” Torah and mitzvos protect a person. Torah study and mitzvah observance create a fortress, an impenetrable protective wall. At the yeshiva of Sheim V’Eiver, Yaakov merited learning Torah without hesech hada’as, and in the house of Lavan, he learned Torah “b’af,” through suffering and challenge. He rose above the distractions and oppression, creating malochim the entire time. Try as he may, Eisov would not be able to escape that fact.

 “Im Lavan garti vetaryag mitzvos shomarti. Know this, my brother, Eisov: I continued learning and performing mitzvos even under Lavan, so you will not be able to defeat me.”

A talmid of Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach once noticed an old yellowed notebook on a high shelf in the rosh yeshiva’s room, hidden away, out of sight. The talmid lifted it and presented it to Rav Shach. “The rosh yeshiva is probably looking for this notebook,” he said. “I found it in a strange place.”

“No, thank you,” Rav Shach told him. “Please return it there. I wrote those chiddushim many years ago, but I am no longer confident that they are completely emes.”

“Then why keep the booklet at all?” asked the talmid.

“Because I was very sick when I wrote those chiddushim and it has special chein to me. I recall the sweetness of Torah shelomadeti b’af, consisting of Torah learned through times of challenge. I want to keep it nearby.”

The Chofetz Chaim participated in the construction of a hospital in Radin. At a meeting of sponsors, wealthy philanthropists each announced how many beds they would sponsor. They turned to the Chofetz Chaim and asked how many beds he would sponsor.

“Fifty,” he said.

“Oh, wow,” the board members said, impressed.

The Chofetz Chaim explained that the Torah studied by the bochurim in his yeshiva protects the town and prevents illness and suffering. In their zechus, the town would require fifty fewer hospital beds.

Torah saves lives. Malochim created by observance of mitzvos and limud haTorah stave off punishment, creating a security fence that saves lives and prevents pain and suffering.

So what can we do? We can create malochim. We can sponsor hospital beds. We can respond to each horrific report by making a real difference, by forming a legion of malochim mamash of our own.

Every time we learn, every time we do a mitzvah, every time we daven, we have to do so with an awareness that we have the ability to impact the balance of power in this world.

We have to care. We have to feel the pain. We have to know that we are all brothers and sisters, despite differences of language, country and custom.

Last week, two men were killed as they davened Minchah. We are not prophets and cannot discern the ways of Hashem, but when things happen, we know that there are lessons there for us. Let us examine the tefillah of Minchah.

The Gemara in Maseches Brachos states, “Tefillos avos tiknum,” the avos instituted the three tefillos we pray each day. Avrohom instituted Shacharis, Yitzchok instituted Minchah, and Yaakov instituted Arvis, or Maariv.

Avrohom was the av hamon goyim. He was the first to call out in Hashem’s name. This is signified by Shacharis, the prayer said at the beginning of the day. He introduced the idea of sanctifying the day by starting the morning with tefillah.

Yaakov was the first of the avos to go into extended golus. Yaakov also had the most difficult life of the three avos. From the womb until his passing, he was beset by trouble. The tefillah he instituted is recited in the dark and signifies that even in times of darkness, a Jew never gives up. He maintains his faith and can exude holiness. It also signifies that a Jew can bring holiness into the darkness of exile.

Yitzchok instituted the tefillah of Minchah, which is recited in the middle of the workday. Minchah signifies that a Jew can make the mundane holy. By breaking off in the middle of work to daven, a Jew demonstrates that his priorities are in order. He knows that success in business comes not from his own skill, but from Above. He also demonstrates that he can raise his level of kedushah even while engaging in regular workday activities.

The Gemara (Brachos 24) derives that Yitzchok instituted the tefillah of Minchah from the posuk in last week’s parshah which states, “Vayeitzei Yitzchok losuach basodeh lifnos orev.” The Gemara translates this to mean that Yitzchok went out to daven in the field towards evening.

Tosafos asks how Yitzchok was permitted to daven in the field, since the halachah is that one should not daven in an open field, where it is difficult to concentrate. Tosafos answers that the place where Yitzchok was davening was not really a field. It was Har Hamoriah. The Gemara in Maseches Pesachim (84) states that Avrohom referred to that hallowed place as a “har,” a mountain. Yitzchok referred to it as a “sodeh,” a field, and Yaakov called it a “bayis,” a home.

Apparently, in keeping with the avodah of Yitzchok Avinu, the posuk purposely referred to the place where he initiated the avodah of tefillas Minchah as a sodeh. Yitzchok Avinu’s chiddush was that tefillah is indeed possible even as a Jew is deeply immersed in trying to earn parnassah. He can - and must - take a break from his consuming business affairs and turn to Hashem. To hint this to us, the posuk from which we derive the obligation of davening Minchah refers to Har Hamoriah as a sodeh.

Despite what we are doing throughout the day, we pause in the middle of it and daven. We show that we understand our purpose in life and that we can raise ourselves to the level of tefillah even in a sodeh, not only when we are wrapped in tallis and tefillin, but also when we are in our work clothes. We have a higher purpose than Eisov and live on a higher plane.

If Jews are killed during Minchah, perhaps it signifies that we must work harder to maintain our levels of kedushah in a tumultuous world full of temptation and licentiousness.

Let us work on ourselves to raise our levels of mitzvah observance, Torah study and arvus. Doing so will help us elevate ourselves from the sodeh to Har Hamoriah and wipe away the pain from all who are suffering.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

A Nation of Builders

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The world is at war. Even if this war has no formal name, it is pulling us in, spreading like an infectious disease across the globe. Radical Islam is at war with Western civilization and Israel, determined to upend and destroy the world as we know it. With barbarism the modern world had thought was relegated to a bygone era, savages have spread a trail of blood from Yerushalayim to Chevron, the World Trade Center, the Hypercacher Jewish Market, the Bataclan concert hall, the Russian Metrojet, Beirut, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and parts in between, mercilessly slaughtering innocent people in cold blood. 

Government leaders find it hard to confront the awful truth and continue to hew to liberal policies, denying the evil in which man is capable of engaging. The attacks on 9/11 changed the world for all time, yet the West has struggled to defeat the growing terror threats and has failed over the past few years to destroy the ISIS threat. The American president only seeks to contain the threat, and has largely failed at that. Millions of refugees are flooding Europe. The countries in the region had the false idea that they are ending wars through their inaction, instead they caused wars by creating vacuums of leadership in a changing world. 

Israelis are blamed for being victims. Palestinians are viewed sympathetically. Just last week, the European Union put in place another law against Israeli imports. There was a time when the world blamed all terror on Israeli settlements and a refusal to return to indefensible 1967 borders. That fiction should be clear to all by now. Yet, radical Islamic terrorism is not even acknowledged by the American administration and the Democrat party, despite their presence among us wherever we are, armed with tens of thousands of soldiers ready to die to destroy modern civilization. To defeat the enemy, there must be an accurate awareness of the threat, along with a proper strategy and a readiness to lead.

Leadership is a rare commodity these days. The American people have made it obvious that they have no confidence in the current leadership class and are prepared to elect political outsiders to lead the country. Europeans are rising up and demanding that their governmental leaders honestly and forthrightly confront the threat. They have had enough of political correctness and realize that as nations at war, they must close their borders to infiltrators and rally around their national traditions and sovereignty.

Our world is no different. Fissures abound, there are cracks in the walls we erect to protect us. Alien philosophies are chipping away at our traditions. Internecine battles threaten us. Irresponsible actions and actors fail to perceive the results of their actions and declarations.

We are a good people. Most of us want to live in peace, dwelling bevais Hashem, properly observing the mitzvos, studying Torah, providing for our family, raising fine children, and preserving our health. We are confounded by those who seek to divide us. We wish everyone would focus on the important and eternal aspects of life, ignoring the trivial and temporal. 

Playing defense instead of offense, without a comprehensive strategy designed to actually wipe out the threat, we seem to be using antiquated methods that may have been helpful in previous battles, but don’t work in the fight of today’s wars. We are not being intelligent or forthright in acknowledging our problems and are thus not able to successfully deal with our challenges.

In serious times such as these, we cannot afford to act as amateurs. We are losing too many, ceding too much ground, and allowing breaches to fester. We have to be proactive, not reactive, as we examine the problems of our generation. We have to be honest and practical, practiced and on target. 

In times of crisis, we seek safety and safe havens. When threats of all types abound, we seek sensible solutions and positive reinforcement. All of humanity fears when evil organizes. We must band together, offering strength and succor to each other. In desperate times, we must offer coordinated resolutions to common problems and consistent efforts to bolster our people, young and old, single and married, students and teachers, schools, yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs.

As so often happens, the parshas hashovua offers illumination.

In Parshas Vayeitzei (28:11), the Torah describes Yaakov Avinu’s vision as he set out on his long and arduous journey from the home of his parents. As he passed Har Hamoriah (Rashi, ibid.), the sun set early and he went to sleep. As he slept, he saw a ladder, whose feet were planted on the ground - “sulam mutzov artzah,” and whose head reached the heavens - “rosho magia hashomaymah.”

Hashem stood above the ladder and promised Yaakov that He would be with him during his travails and grant him Eretz Yisroel.

Yaakov Avinu left his parents’ home all alone. His parting gift was a threat on his life by his murderous brother. Stripped of everything but the clothes on his back and a walking stick, his response was to grow bolder, more optimistic and positive, turning to Heaven and promising to give maaser from the bounty he would eventually receive.

Yaakov Avinu was a builder. He took twelve stones, which Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer teaches were the stones that Yitzchok had rested upon at the Akeidah, and those stones became one. The stones, a symbol of endurance and permanence, represented the nation he would spawn, a people resolute, firm and courageous.

Eisov was a destroyer, a murderer of men. His philosophy was: “Hinei anochi holeich lomus. What’s the point if we’re all going to die anyway?” His mindset was in diametric contradiction to the outlook of a brother who saw eternity. “Yaakov Avinu lo meis.” Yaakov, his brother, was eternal. As darkness descended, as his world closed in on him, Yaakov Avinu instituted the nightly Maariv prayer.

The many stones that fill this parshah are obstacles strewn in the path of Yaakov, as he walked alone. Yaakov’s secret was embodied by the ladder in his dream, for, essentially, it was an instrument of earth that reached heaven. Yaakov had a heightened view, a vision that transcended that which was before him. When obstacles were placed in his path, he looked beyond them, focused on his goal. He viewed hardships as opportunities for growth.

Perceiving that ladder and remaining true to Yaakov’s vision provide us with the courage and strength to persevere in the face of challenges.

We live in really frightening times. If we think about it too much, we can become depressed, so we continue to go about our daily lives, worrying about inconsequential matters. We don’t read the news; we don’t want to know what is really going on. We rely on snippets of information. Anecdotes and sound-bites replace intelligent knowledge.

Hashem sends us reminders to prod us to repent. Tragedy shakes us up and reminds us how fragile life is. The purpose of tragedy anywhere is to inspire us to do teshuvah.

We have been in several goluyos since sinas chinom destroyed the Bais Hamikdosh, but the golus of Yishmoel is totally different. The Maharal writes in his sefer Ner Mitzvah that Yishmoel is the only one of the subjugating nations whose malchus and strength are his own. Yishmoel derives his koach from Avrohom Avinu and from his bris milah; he doesn’t depend on Am Yisroel to falter in order for him to rise. [Also see the Ramban in Parshas Bolok, 24:21, and the Maharal in Netzach Yisroel, perek 21.]

In last week’s parshah, we read that Yitzchok told Eisov, “Ve’al charbecha tichyeh ve’es achicha taavod vehoyoh kaasher torid uforakta ulo mei’al tzavorecha” (27:40). Eisov is only strong when we are weak.

This idea also appears in Rashi at the beginning of the parshah on the posuk of “ule’om mile’om ye’emutz verav ya’avod tzo’ir (25:23). When one falls, the other rises.

Thus, when we are oppressed by Eisov’s offspring, we know that the way to overcome them is by engaging in teshuvah and maasim tovim. However, in addition to teshuvah and Torah, which is “magana umatzila,” to overcome Yishmoel we need bitachon and tefillah.

Rav Chaim Vital, the prime talmid of the Ari Hakadosh, writes in his Sefer Eitz Hadaas Tov (Tehillim 124), “There are four exiles, Bovel, Modai, Yovon and Edom, but at the End of Days, Yisroel will be in golus Yishmoel, as stated in Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer (32) and in Medroshim and in the Sefer HaZohar at the end of Parshas Lech Lecha… This exile will be more difficult than the others. This is why his name is Yishmoel, because ‘yishma Keil veya’aneim,’ Yisroel will cry out during that golus and Hashem will listen and respond to them.

“Yishmoel will rule over the world and over Yisroel…and attempt to wipe out the name of Yisroel from under the sky as if it never existed… They will cause Yisroel great tzaros, the likes of which have never before been seen.”

B’Acharis Hayomim, during the period of the End of Days leading up to the arrival of Moshiach, the Jews will realize that they have no way to save themselves and have no choice other than to cry out to Hashem. And He will answer them. Rav Chaim Vital writes, “We will have no hope or recourse other than our trust in Hakadosh Boruch Hu that He will save us from their evil hands.”

His words resonate with the immediacy of today’s news. We have nowhere and no one to turn to other than Avinu Shebashomayim. Yishma Keil.

What is happening now with the offspring of Yishmoel is preordained. In order for us to prevail over Yishmoel, we must raise our voices in tefillah. His name does not hint that if we are strong and battle him with chivalry, we will defeat him. His name does not hint that if we engage him in diplomacy, we will outwit him. His name proclaims that the only way to defeat him is through tefillah.

I spent this past Shabbos at the national convention of Agudas Yisroel of America, sitting with people who are seeking ways to heal and build. They wish to unify and close circles. With heartfelt tefillos, as well niggunim and drashos, good Jews of many backgrounds came together to gather stones of all sizes to renovate and to build, offering comfort and support in a world gone mad, seemingly breaking apart at the seams.

In a drashah at the convention, the Vyelipoler Rebbe, Rav Yosef Frankel, cited a thought from the Alshich. He quoted the question posed by the ship captain to Yonah Hanovi as the storm threatening their ship grew fiercer. “Mah lecha nirdom? Kum kera el Elokecha. Why do you sleep, Yonah? Call out to your Creator.”

The Alshich explains that there are two reactions to trouble. Weaker people feel themselves incapable of facing the challenge and surrender. Unable to fight, they go to sleep and hope that the threat will pass somehow by the time they awaken. Others find the resolve within and confront the danger, confident in their ability to make a difference.

The ship captain admonished Yonah, “Why do you sleep? You do have the power to help right the ship. You can help us ride out the storm. How? With prayer. You can daven! Kum kera el Elokecha!”

Now, more than ever, we can wage war by believing in the power and potency of our own tefillos. Yishma Keil.

During the height of the Second World War, the Nazis set their sights on Yerushalayim. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and his dreaded Afrika Corps marched across the desert, almost reaching the Holy Land. There was panic in Eretz Yisroel, as new immigrants who had barely escaped the Nazi inferno warned the residents of the Holy Land of the fate that awaited them should the Nazis make it there.

Rav Eizek Sher, the Slabodka rosh yeshiva, delivered a shmuess at the Chevron Yeshiva, addressing talmidim and local residents. He told of two yeshiva bochurim in a field during a time of war. As they walked, they were accosted by a swarm of tiny mosquitoes.

One of the bochurim waved his hand and the insects dispersed. “Our enemies,” the bochur said, “are even less significant in the eyes of the Borei Olam than those mosquitoes.”

Reb Eizek repeated the message, waving his hand to indicate just how powerless humans are before the Creator’s will. A current of faith ran through the room, giving the listeners new life and new hope. Ein od milvado. Our enemies are nothing before Him.

And so it was. Although it appeared that Rommel and his murderous army were at the doorstep of the Holy Land, they froze and didn’t make it. The Jews of Eretz Yisroel were spared.

As we learn these parshiyos of Sefer Bereishis, we find that the world’s antipathy toward us began back when Avrohom Avinu determined that the world has a Creator. The loathing of Jews has continued throughout the generations ever since.

In this week’s parshah, we learn how Yaakov Avinu was repeatedly lied to and tricked out of what was deservedly his. After working for Lavan for two decades, Yaakov was finally instructed by Hashem to return home. He gathered his wives, his children and his flocks and departed for home.

Lavan caught up to him. He accused Yaakov of stealing his property and running off like a thief. Yaakov responded by confronting Lavan, the paradigm con-artist, with the history of his subterfuge and dishonest dealings. Yaakov listed everything he had done for Lavan during his years of servitude to him. He enumerated all the ways that Lavan had robbed him, reminding him of how he altered the terms of Yaakov’s employment one hundred times in order to shortchange him.

Instead of discussing his claims, Lavan said to him, (31, 43) “The girls are my daughters, the boys are my sons, the sheep are mine, and everything you see here is mine...”

The posuk doesn’t record that Yaakov responded any more to Lavan. When Lavan finished his tirade, the posuk (Ibid 45) recounts, Yaakov responded by taking a stone, “Vayikach Yaakov even vayerimehu matzaeivah,” and standing it up. He then (Ibid, 46) told his sons to gather stones and form a pile, “Vayomer Yaakov... liktu avonim, vayikchu avonim vayasu gal...” they then had a meal there.

Yaakov set out to build. When Lavan chased Yaakov and refused his entreaties, Yaakov told his children to gather stones and construct a gal. He was demonstrating for us that had Avrohom allowed himself to be cowed by the people of his day, he would have relinquished the role of progenitor of Am Yisroel. Had Yitzchok permitted the Pelishtim to deter him by blocking his water supply, he would not have merited being part of the glorious chain begun by his father. Had Yaakov succumbed to Lavan’s abuse, he never would have left his father-in-law’s home and would never have raised the twelve sons who formed the nucleus of our people.

Like an immovable stone, our avos stood firm. Like a foundation of a building, they created a basis for all of us to stand strong.

Our strength is Torah. Our goal is Torah. Our life is Torah. No one can take that from us, as hard as they try. As long as we remember that lesson, we will be strong, safe and victorious, and the path we have forged will lead to the ultimate redemption, may it be soon, in our days.

As Rav Uren Reich said in his convention message, “We have lost so much, things are so dark, but there is one place where the light of Shechinah still shines brightly: in the blatt Gemara.”

Ve’onsa hashirah hazos le’eid. The fact that the song of Torah is still sung attests to our eternity.

Now, more than ever, we must arm ourselves with the weapons of the spirit bequeathed to us by Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov of tefillah, emunah and bitachon.

As the waiters were serving the main course at the convention melava malka, the fire alarms began ringing. It quickly became evident that it was a false alarm, but the alarm wailed incessantly until the fire department arrived and went through their checklists before quieting the nuisance.

There had to be a message there for us. I wondered what it was, until I remembered a story that took place many years ago with Maran Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach. Then I understood.

At the onset of the Gulf War, Rav Nochum Kook was discussing something with his rebbi, Rav Shach. As they spoke, the first air raid sirens went off, their piercing wails slicing through the silence across the country and spreading fear of incoming Iraqi chemical warheads.

Reb Nochum interrupted the conversation. “Rosh yeshiva, voss tut men yetzt? What do we do now?” he asked, wondering if the rosh yeshiva had a prepared sealed room in the apartment for them to seek refuge in or if they were to hurry to the basement miklat.

As the siren’s wail filled the room, Rav Shach pondered. Finally, he looked up and responded, “Reb Nochum, everyone knows himself what he needs to be mesakein! Lomir machen ah cheshbon.”

He wasn’t thinking about the cheder atum, or the miklat. He was thinking about Hashem.

Once again, the world is on fire. The siren’s wail fills our world in a way that it never has. But before we run helter-skelter, we need to make a cheshbon.

Let us look to build, not destroy. Let us gather stones and add one to the next until we have constructed homes of Torah study, places where children and young adults lovingly receive a proper education and chinuch, homes of tefillah, places where chesed is performed, homes where abused people are comforted, homes where our young people receive guidance, comfort and companionship.

Now is a time for us to take the stones strewn throughout this parshah, put on construction caps, and prepare for a building boom. Let us build our spouses, our families, ourselves and our world.

As Bnei Yaakov, let us always seek to build, unify with the good, rid the evil, comfort the mourning, strengthen the weak, fortify the defensive walls, develop and seek out leaders, and rally behind them so that we may live lives of peace and shalom and help prepare the world for the coming of Moshiach, speedily in our day.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Mother’s Wisdom

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Each one of the parshiyos in Sefer Bereishis, an uninterrupted chronicle of ma’asei avos meant to instruct and guide us, is filled with hints. There are questions begging to be asked and answers ready to be revealed, if only we probe beneath the surface.

This week’s parshah, Toldos, is no different. We wonder how it can be that Yitzchok was fooled by Eisov and wanted to transmit the brachos to him. We wonder why Rivkah was able to perceive the truth about Eisov and Yaakov while Yitzchok apparently was not.

Perhaps we can examine the pesukim and arrive at a satisfactory explanation.

The parshah begins with the marriage of Yitzchok and Rivkah. The posuk tells us that the couple davened that they be blessed with children. When Rivkah became pregnant, she was troubled that the child seemed to be distressed, seemingly pulled in two directions at once, towards holiness and towards avodah zarah. Rivkah became upset and felt that if her fate was to have a confused child, she might have been mistaken in her desire to have a child. She wondered why she had davened for this, as Rashi (25:22) explains. She sought out Hashem at the bais medrash of Sheim and Eiver. Through ruach hakodesh, Hashem informed her that she was carrying two distinct nations within her, one that would be wicked and the other that would be righteous.

Rivkah was comforted. She had feared that her child would be confused between good and bad, but having heard that she was carrying twins and that one would be totally holy, she accepted that the other would be evil. She couldn’t deal with the idea of one person who can easily be pulled to both extremes, symptomatic of a lack of tzuras ha’adam, more reminiscent of an animal, which sees only what is in front of it. When she heard that one son would carry on the traditions of Avrohom and Yitzchok, she was consoled.

The posuk never states that she told Yitzchok what she had heard in the bais medrash of Sheim and Eiver. It is strange that Rivkah didn’t ask Yitzchok about the problems she was having. Perhaps, she didn’t want to trouble him and cause him to be upset and worried about the offspring they had both been waiting for so long. Or, perhaps, she didn’t want to appear as a kofui tovah, unappreciative of the gift that came about through Yitzchok’s tefillos (25:21, Rashi, Vayei’oseir Lo). When she received the response that she was carrying twins, who would have distinct personalities and leave opposite legacies, she did not relate that to Yitzchok (see Ramban 27:1).

Rivkah knew that one child would be good and one would be evil, so she carefully watched them as they grew. She was able to discern which was the holy one and which was the bad one. Yitzchok was not aware of the prophecy concerning his children and thus did not suspect that Eisov was anything other than what he presented himself to be. On the surface, Eisov made an impression of being a big tzaddik. While Yitzchok may have been aware of his other tendencies, he was able to overlook them, “ki tzayid befiv,” because Eisov put on such a good act. Rivkah, however, couldn’t be fooled. She also knew that “keshezeh kom zeh nofeil.” They would not both be able to achieve greatness at the same time, so she was careful to encourage Yaakov and helped him on his path to greatness.

When Yitzchok aged and felt his strength declining, he naturally called to his oldest son to transmit the blessings. Rivkah overheard Yitzchok telling Eisov to bring him matamim so that he could bless him. She called Yaakov and commanded him to preempt his brother and bring matamim to Yitzchok first. Yaakov resisted, but Rivkah persisted, and thus Yaakov brought to his father his favorites as prepared by Rivkah.

It is interesting to note that the posuk (27:8) recounts that Rivkah said to Yaakov, “Ve’atah beni shema bekoli lasher ani metzaveh osach,” using language very similar to the verbiage of the posuk (21:12) which describes that Hashem told Avrohom to do as Sarah tells him, “shema bekolah.” Referring to which son would inherit him, Hashem told Avrohom to follow what Sarah told him, since Yitzchok would be the one who would carry on his traditions and teachings. Perhaps this is to indicate that just as Sarah the prophetess was correct in favoring Yitzchok, thereby ensuring that there be a proper hemshech, so was Rivkah the prophetess correct in preferring Yaakov.

Rivkah prevailed and Yaakov brought the matamim to Yitzchok. When he entered his father’s chamber, Yitzchok felt the spirit of Gan Eden (Rashi 27:27) and blessed Yaakov Avinu with the eternal blessings.

The Ohr Hachaim, in his peirush (27:1), writes that Yitzchok wanted to give the brachos to Eisov, because he thought that if he would bless him, he would improve his ways.

We can understand that Rivkah, who’d received the prophecy about her children, knew that it wouldn’t help. She knew that one son was essentially evil and the other was totally good, and if one would ascend, the other would descend. Now we can understand why Yitzchok had wanted to confer the brachos upon Eisov. Yitzchok wasn’t aware of the nevuah and saw in Eisov good and bad, “ki tzayid befiv.” He believed that he could be “mekarev” him, to use today’s parlance. Rivkah knew that it was a lost cause and that Eisov would only be a hindrance to Yaakov.

In our day, as well, there are people who are good and people who are evil. There are also people who contain good and bad, and engage in a lifetime battle to maintain the good and banish the bad.

How are we to know who is good and who is really evil but is able to fool us? Only by acting like Rivkah and seeking out the opinion of Hashem as expressed in the bais medrash. On our own, we can be fooled and misled. People who are bad can present themselves as our brothers in act and deed, fooling us. They can set traps for us and we can fall for them. It is only if we follow the word of Hashem and those He designates in the bais medrash that we are guaranteed to be protected and be led on the correct path.

At times, we have concerns about our children and don’t know how to address them. The Torah provides us with a solution. “Veteilech lidrosh ess Hashem.” The seforim reveal a marvelous layer of depth to these words. “Lidrosh ess Hashem calls to mind a drashah of Chazal.

Shimon Ha’amsuni - some say it was Nechemiah Ha’amsuni - would expound on the word “ess” wherever it appears in the Torah. When he reached the posuk of “Ess Hashem Elokecha tira,” which refers to fearing Hashem, he desisted, because he was unable to derive any lesson from the word. The Gemara (Pesochim 22b) relates that he wondered what else a person could be commanded regarding fearing Hashem. What can ess come to include?

Confounded by that question, he concluded that just as “ess” in this posuk could not possibly include anything else, so too, the other instances in the Torah where the word “ess” appears is not meant to include additional obligations.

Rabi Akiva disagreed and said that the extra word “ess” in this posuk was written to include talmidei chachomim, teaching us that just as we fear Hashem, we must fear them.

We can now read the posuk as follows: Vateilech, Rivkah went, lidrosh ess Hashem, to be sho’el eitzah from Sheim and Eiver. She was carrying out what Rabi Akiva would eventually derive from ess Hashem Elokecha tira by going lidrosh ess Hashem.

This is a siman labonim that endures throughout the ages as a most effective way to clarify issues.. In a world of confusion and darkness, how can we know whom to follow and whom to avoid? How can we discern the true intentions of those with sweet tongues? It is only by being doreish ess Hashem, by turning to the bais medrash for guidance and direction, that we will merit the proper direction.

How do we know who presents a danger to the future of our people, deserving of being written off, and who we should be mekarev? How do we know what is positive and what is negative? How do we know when a person who seems to be a tzaddik is really an Eisov? How do we know when to compromise and when to hold firm? It is only by being doreish ess Hashem that we can be sure of the correct course of action.

A secular journalist once asked Degel Hatorah Knesset member Avraham Ravitz how the nascent party was run. He replied that the party was led by Rav Elazar Menachen Man Shach.

“Are you really comfortable taking direction from one elderly man?” the journalist asked.

“Listen,” Ravitz responded, “when there are questions in the Likud party, what do they do? They bring it for a vote to the merkaz, the central body of the party. There are three thousand members in the merkaz, and they all weigh in and hope for the consensus. Now,” said Ravitz, “I do the same thing. I bring it to the merkaz of our party. Our merkaz has just one member, Rav Shach, but he is truly the center of it all, because the only knowledge guiding our decision is the Torah he embodies.”

Daas Torah, the Steipler Gaon taught, doesn’t operate as a scientific process. It’s not as if a scientist conducted a chemical experiment to reach a conclusion or researched an issue in an encyclopedia. Daas Torah means that when a person is constantly engaged in Torah, and he has no negios, his muskal rishon, his reaction, is itself Torah. The Steipler told his son, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, that Rav Shach was such a person. He was so engaged in Torah that the words that came out of mouth could be seen as the Torah’s will, as if the Torah itself was speaking.

In our generation, when we suffer from mockery, cynicism and negativity, and where there are so many platforms promoting opinions and positions that are not in keeping with daas Torah, there is a real danger of people digesting the wrong ideas. Rashi tells us that Avrohom and Yitzchok had to contend with leitzonei hador, the scoffers of the generation. Today, our generation belongs to the leitzonim. The few exceptions huddle together for warmth, remembering what once was and what should be.

Rav Shach once discussed the fact that the leader of Torah Jewry, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, did not  attend the funeral of the Chofetz Chaim. “It was shocking, since the two men had led Klal Yisroel hand in hand and revered each other, but Rav Chaim Ozer was not feeling well and was not able to go.”

Rav Shach said that more shocking than Rav Chaim Ozer’s absence was the fact that everyone accepted that Rav Chaim Ozer clearly had a good reason for not being there. “No one wondered, or speculated, or offered analysis of why he stayed home. Certainly, no one dared criticize the decision. A generation ago, one didn’t question Torah scholars. Today,” Rav Shach mused, “everyone would have a dei’ah.”

Were such a thing to happen today, everyone would postulate a different theory about why Rav Chaim Ozer wasn’t there. People would be mocking one of the great giants, convinced that they have a right to arrive at their wrong conclusion and publicize it in any way possible, be it via the media, chat groups, blogs or word of mouth.

Today, everyone is mocked and vilified. No one is given a fair chance. There is no dan lechaf zechus. There is no hearing both sides of a story. Immediately, everyone jumps to a conclusion, and another holy person, or deed, or custom, or organization is thrown under the bus.

Rav Yechezkel Abramsky once told his talmidim that he received a visit from a new immigrant to Eretz Yisroel who had formerly lived in Slutsk. The gentleman, dressed in his Shabbos finery, came to visit his former rov.

Rav Abramsky told his talmidim that he became emotional as he remembered the custom of the Slutzker Yidden. Whenever they would go to speak with a talmid chochom, even regarding mundane matters, they would put on their Shabbos clothing in honor of the Torah.

A few years ago, we published an entry from the diary of the grandfather of Binyomin Netanyahu. He wrote of his period learning as a bochur in the Volozhiner Yeshiva. In his diary, he recounted that the baalei aggalah, the wagon drivers, waited at the train station on the first day of the zeman dressed in their Shabbos clothes, eager for the honor of bringing the bochurim to the hallowed yeshiva to learn Torah.

Vateilech lidrosh ess Hashem. Our generation is blessed with yeshivos and talmidei chachomim. We need to appreciate the gift. The eternal means of discerning the ratzon Hashem is as accessible as ever, if we would only appreciate it.

A number of years ago, Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz heard that bochurim in the yeshiva where he served had begun calling him saba, meaning grandfather. He was delighted by the moniker. He told his grandson that the prime function of a rebbi is to give talmidim a sense that they can discuss their issues with him and ask their questions and unburden themselves to him. “Everyone knows that if they go to their saba to speak to him, they will receive wise, loving counsel. I’m thrilled that they see me as a saba.”

One of the biggest nisyonos of our generation seems to be acquiring the humility and good sense to be doreish ess Hashem. Dovid Hamelech writes (Tehillim 92:15), “Od yenuvun beseivah desheinim veraananim yihiyu - They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be full of sap and richness.” The body grows older, but the nefesh - the chiyus and emotional energy - is as strong as ever.

Someone shared with me an incident that underscores this. A few weeks ago, the head of a busy gemach in Yerushalayim traveled to Bnei Brak to ask Rav Aaron Leib Shteinman some advice.

When the gemach director entered, Rav Mattisyahu Deutsch, a Yerushalmi rov, happened to be speaking with Rav Shteinman. Rav Deutsch, who knew the head of the gemach and his great work, introduced him to Rav Shteinman.

“The rosh yeshiva should know that this man is a tzaddik,” proclaimed Rav Deutsch.

Oy, I hope you don’t have a loan from him. It’s ribbis devorim,” was Rav Shteinman’s reaction, worried that the rov’s compliment would be a form of interest.

Rav Deutsch, who is also a dayan, related the story during a shiur, stating how no one - not him and not any of the other talmidei chachomim in the room - had made the lightning-quick calculation that Rav Shteinman had made. “It was clear to all of us that even though we are all younger, his mind is blessed with a clarity that we don’t possess.”

Not long ago, a young askan sat with Rav Shteinman, trying to convince him to take a certain course of action. He was sure that with his reputation and communication abilities, he would certainly be able to convince the aged rosh yeshiva of the virtuousness of his path. He was amazed that as hard as he tried, and as strong as his arguments were, Rav Shteinman repelled his contentions one by one, as fast as he could formulate the words. As weak as Rav Shteinman appeared to be in body, that’s how strong he was in spirit and intelligence.

The advice that emerges from the rooms of our gedolim is, often, unexpected. A young talmid chochom had a dilemma. His younger brother was getting married and his mother wanted all her sons to walk down to the chupah with their spouses. He thought that it was a ridiculous new custom and wasn’t about to give in to it.

As a formality, he shared his mother’s request and his reaction with his rebbi, Rav Dovid Cohen, the Chevroner rosh yeshiva. The rosh yeshiva nodded. “I agree that you shouldn’t walk down the chupah, as your mother wants,” he said. “You should run down to the chupah! It’s a mitzvah of kibbud av va’eim. You can make your parents happy. What a wonderful opportunity!”

A short while ago, someone had a question about a shidduch. It seemed like a silly shailah and the answer was so obvious. Why would anyone even be interested in pursuing the shidduch? The person asked Rav Chaim Kanievsky about it and couldn’t believe when, upon hearing the question, Rav Chaim immediately explained why it was a perfect idea and offered his blessings.

People who think they examined an issue from all sides and have come to the inevitable conclusion are often greatly surprised when someone tuned in to a different frequency sees the world on an entirely different plane.

Reb Yisroel Bloom was a Far Rockaway askan, dedicated to helping yeshivos achieve financial stability. He had a vision of creating a team of troubleshooters, working under the auspices of Agudas Yisroel, who would help financially-troubled yeshivos get back on track by rallying their local communities.

In a letter to Reb Yisroel, Rabbi Moshe Sherer lauded the proposal and discussed the idea of the project being connected with Agudas Yisroel.

There is, as you know, a price: every committee, composition and policy is controlled by boards, headed by the Moetzes Gedolei Torah and the Nesius. The process, thus, is a bit longer, but the product is that much better as a result.

In that sentence, Rabbi Sherer encapsulated what it means to be doreish ess Hashem. It is simpler to do what appeals to your intelligence, what will win you accolades, and what will play well in the media. The other way is nowhere near as convenient, will involve difficulties, and may not always be understood, but, in the end, it will endure.

Rivkah followed the advice she was given, focused on raising Yaakov Avinu to greatness, giving us a Klal Yisroel. This golus, we are taught, is kenegged Yaakov Avinu, the av who led us down into Mitzrayim. In this week’s parshah, we are given the key to survival.

It has been rough, it has been confusing, and it has certainly been dangerous. Throughout the journey, our people have known where we could find solace, hope and direction. It is a gift as old as our grandmother Rivkah, who, when things were difficult, beat a path to the bais medrash, showing us the way forevermore.

We would do well to follow her example.