Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Path of Growth

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Too often, we don’t appreciate what we have. This happens either because we are too close to it, or because since we are involved in it, we don’t value the experience. For a proper perspective to appreciate our blessings it is sometimes necessary to step back and look at what we have from a distance.

In most of our lives, there is more happiness than sadness, more gain than pain, and more to be thankful for than to be upset about.

The Yom Tov of Pesach presented us with an opportunity to appreciate our blessings. On Yom Tov, we spent eight days subsisting on matzoh, surrounded and affected by kedusha. We refrained from unnecessary work and pressure. We were happy, spending our days davening, eating delicious Yom Tov meals and learning Torah, and engaging in simple conversation with family and friends.

The euphoria lasted eight days and then it was over. After so much work getting everything together and efforts devoted toward fashioning those days into yemei cheirus, we suddenly found ourselves returned to the world of avdus and back to the regular grind.

But perhaps, while we were engrossed in the yemei kedusha, we failed to fully appreciate their beauty. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we look back at those days and their restorative qualities. Remembering them and their experiences will help inspire and strengthen us to be able to surmount the challenges we face.

On Pesach, we had ample opportunity to appreciate the glory and splendor of what it means to be part of the am hanivchar, a nation taken from the depths of impurity by Hashem’s love.

That message should inspire us to new heights in ahavas Yisroel, the perfect introduction to the weeks of Sefiras Ha’omer, a time when we work to cleanse and purify our middos as we count the days from Pesach to Shavuos.

Sometimes, we hear words and we cry from emotion or we laugh from joy. Words can uplift and inform us, expanding our horizons. And sometimes, words can even be false, painting an inaccurate picture and leading to mistaken conclusions. We must always endeavor to be careful about what we say, for our words have ramifications and influence others.

The Chofetz Chaim was the master of pure speech, teaching generations to remain silent even when the urge to speak is powerful. Yet, the same Chofetz Chaim was the quintessential ish devorim, speaking and writing prolifically, meeting with individuals and groups, and being involved in so many communal issues.

His aversion to lashon hora wasn’t because he didn’t appreciate the role of dibbur, but davka because he did appreciate it, perceiving the power and potency of every word and phrase. Speech is a tool that must be cherished, a force that should be unleashed only in a positive fashion.

Anovah, humility, encompasses all the positive traits of a baal middos. It is the epitome of what a Torah observer and a person undergoing teshuvah aspire to. A ben Torah recognizes that all he has is from Hashem and that on his own he is nothing. One who is consumed with ga’avah, by definition negates Hashem’s role in his life.

The Chazon Ish would take a daily walk down his sparsely populated street in the nascent town of Bnei Brak. As more people moved to the small dusty town, the township erected a streetlight to provide illumination. As he walked on the newly brightened route, the Chazon Ish commented that the greater the distance he was from the light, the larger the size of his shadow. So it is with Torah and Hashem, he said. The further a man is from his source, the greater he thinks he is.

All middos of appropriate ethical behavior, not just anovah, are prerequisites for proper Torah observance and study. In fact, Rav Chaim Vital says that the Torah never explicitly instructs us regarding proper middos, because they are prerequisites for connecting with Torah and their observance is obvious, as all of Torah is predicated upon them. Before we can accept the yoke of Torah observance, we are expected to develop good middos. During the weeks of Sefirah that lead from Pesach to Shavuos, we endeavor to develop and cultivate good middos.

As we proceed towards Kabbolas HaTorah, ready to accept our mantle as a mamleches kohanim vegoy kadosh, we contemplate our mandate. With pure hearts and careful mouths; empowered by the mesorah; reinforced with emunah, bitachon and the koach haTorah; and infused with the middos that make us worthy links in the golden chain, we progress on our daily advance towards the Yom Tov of Shavuos.

Humility, anovah and vatronus are keys to long happy lives. People who study Torah and mussar should not need shalom bayis lessons, as the same middos that help them grow in Torah help them live with their spouses.

We are all quite familiar with the reason the students of Rabi Akiva passed away during the Sefirah period. Lo nohagu kavod zeh bozeh. They didn’t treat each other with proper respect. The talmidim of the great Rabi Akiva were the conduits through whom the transmission of Torah to the next generation would take place. These were people who were to have excelled not only in the study of Torah, but also in the 48 behavioral levels apparent in a Torah scholar.

By failing to treat their colleagues respectfully, they showed that they had not attained the proper level of behavior and middos. In addition, they demonstrated that they didn’t view the other talmidim as people who had perfected their character traits and excelled in Torah, as required for those who are trusted transmitters of Torah, and therefore weren’t deserving of their respect.

Our ambition and drive must be to excel in Torah and avodah. We have to value excellence and appreciate it in others. We should demand the best for ourselves when it comes to spiritual matters and not easily compromise when it comes to what is really important in life. We must become ameilim baTorah in a literal sense.

We are familiar with the first Rashi in this week’s parsha, as he wonders what the connection is between the mitzvah of Shmittah and Har Sinai that leads the Torah to combine the two (Vayikra 25:1).

Perhaps we can explain that just as in order for a person to undergo the observance of Shmittah, he must be strong in his faith that Hashem authored the Torah and will indeed provide for those who leave their fields fallow during the seventh year, so too, the study of Torah, which was delivered on Har Sinai, is reserved for those of perfect faith who have emunah and bitachon that Hashem reveals Himself to us to through the Torah and that there is no higher calling.

Last week, we highlighted in our front-page story the statement from Rav Don Segal that every Jewish child can develop to be a gadol. To me, it was a simple truth, one that we have encountered many times in the works of Rishonim and Acharonim. The Torah was given to all, and every person who applies himself in the study of Torah and its 48 kinyonim can attain greatness. I was astounded to receive letters from people complaining that children are under enough pressure as is. Why, they asked, are we adding to their crushing burden?

Our chinuch system must teach our children to appreciate the gift of Torah they have been given. Our children need to realize that they are the Chosen People, selected to live a life of kedusha and tahara, of simcha and sasson, and that they are not mutually exclusive. Torah breathes life into those who follow its ways. A Torah life is a blessing. Hashem created the world through Torah, and through Torah He speaks to us. The more we learn Torah, the more we grow in the purpose for which we were created and the closer we become to Hashem. People who understand that, happily engage in ameilus baTorah.

Children who appreciate the full picture of Yiddishkeit and know that ehrlichkeit and middos tovos are an integral part of their being, understand that fidelity to a value system is their birthright.

No, we cannot expect people to be interested in delving into Torah if they never gained an appreciation for it. We can’t expect people to enjoy learning if they have a problem with reading or comprehension. We can’t expect people who weren’t taught properly to be able to learn and study on their own. That is definitely not their fault.

However, children who have been shown the sweetness of Torah and painstakingly and lovingly taught by talmidei chachomim, appreciating Torah and its essence, continue along a growth path and are able to do what it takes to achieve greatness.

Despite all the temptations thrown at them by society, and no matter what pressures and inducements they face, they will remain steadfast, focused, honest and upstanding. They will bring us all much nachas.

The Torah promises that if we are ameilim baTorah, if we work according to the Torah and concentrate our main efforts on Torah study and observance, we will be blessed and successful in all we do.

The Torah is what gives us our identity and what defines us. As we stand in the Sefirah period, we commemorate that we were freed from Mitzrayim so that we could accept the Torah on Har Sinai.

We count towards Shavuos, the day that marks our receiving of the Torah, to demonstrate that we are striving and reaching upward. Each day of the count we seek to improve ourselves so that we better appreciate the gift that is the Torah.

We don’t count the way one would normally count down to an anticipated date. We count upward. We are each saying, “I am not the same person I was yesterday. I am better. I have progressed yet another day and have taken another step towards my goal. I am on the way to realizing that the most important thing I can do is accept the Torah, study it, and follow it with devotion.”

If we want to excel in our lives as Torah Jews, we have to understand what successful people realize. The key to success, both spiritual and material, is to devote ourselves to the task with all our strength and talent. We have to study Torah as if we wish to become gedolim, doing our best to comprehend as much as we can and establishing a connection with the Borei Olam.

We have to be noheig kavod zeh bozeh, view others and ourselves with respect, and take ourselves and our responsibilities seriously. We have to take pride in what we do, so that we can succeed in being good Jews and good people. It won’t happen with a haphazard, lackadaisical approach, or by going through the motions perfunctorily. It demands a lifetime of ameilus coupled with discipline and determination.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019


By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Torah Jews pledge allegiance to our mission statement and national raison d’être. Three times a day, we proclaim our intention “lesakein olam b’malchus Shakai,” to rectify and purify the world with Hashem’s dominion. We endeavor to bring Hashem’s light and presence into this olam, a place of “hei’aleim,” concealment and darkness.

The words of an anonymous wise man are often repeated: “When I was young, I was determined to change the world. As I grew older and more realistic, I thought that I could change my town. Now, as an old man with a white beard, I am desperately attempting to change myself.”

That is our approach to tikkun olam.

Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach would say that he had never met a genuine talmid chochom who wasn’t in control of his middos. In fact, Rav Shach said, the greater a talmid chochom a person is, the more he has worked on his middos.

Now, during the days of Sefirah, as we stake out a path to kabbolas haTorah, we must work to refine our character. Rav Chaim Vital teaches in Shaarei Kedusha that the reason the mandate to work on middos doesn’t appear in the Torah is because the Torah was given to a nation of refined character. Hence the assumption that one who is embarking on Torah study is already a baal middos. Middos tovos are the foundation of the Jew, upon which we can add Torah and good deeds. However, without middos, we have no foundation and everything crumbles.

Rav Chaim Volozhiner, in Ruach Chaim, his peirush on Pirkei Avos, explains the Mishnah (2:15) that quotes Rabi Eliezer, who said, “Yehi chevod chavercha choviv alecha kesheloch.” Simply translated, this means that your friend’s honor should be as precious to you as your own.

Rav Chaim explains the Mishnah with a twist: When you honor someone else by offering him even the smallest amount of respect, to you it feels as if you heaped upon him much more honor than he deserves, but when someone else honors you, no matter how respectful he is towards you, it never seems that he did enough.

Rabi Eliezer thus speaks to us and teaches us that the honorific fashion in which we treat others should be as important to us as the way we want to be treated.

Chazal admonish us not only to focus inward, but also to study the attributes of others and respect them. The talmidim of Rabi Akiva were punished al shelo nohagu kavod zeh bozeh. We rectify this by showing respect for our friends, neighbors and acquaintances.

Keep your eyes open and look around you. Sometimes, witnessing a simple act of mentchlichkeit can restore your faith in humanity. An unexpected kindness, a genuine mazel tov wish or a heartfelt apology has the potential to move us, perhaps because such offerings are too rare.

All too often, we are disappointed. We don’t see the nobility, integrity and strength of character we long to behold in others, as well as in ourselves. Sometimes, we look on in shock as people engage in self-destructive behavior or commit actions that are hurtful to others. We wish we could stop them but are unable to. They refuse to listen to us and remain ensconced in their own cocoon.

When people foment machlokes over pettiness, when people fight publicly, we stand on the sidelines and wish there was something we could do to break it up and end it. All too often, we end up frustrated, as egos and intransigence combine to cause people to be myopic and trivial.

People speak irresponsibly, hurting others and bringing harm and shame to their community. The more responsible and intelligent are powerless to get them to focus rationally; to act properly and in a way that will bring benefit and blessing to all.

There is much imperfection inside of us and all around. Where, then, is the path to tikkun? Where do we start? If Chazal want us to arrive at Shavuos ready, why don’t they map out the way?

The answer is that they do.

They gave us a potent tool, a small book comprised of but six chapters that illuminates the path, exposes the pitfalls, and offers the path to self-perfection.

It is filled with good, old-fashioned advice on serving Hashem, confronting ourselves and dealing with other people. If you read this book, you learn how to value yourself, how to respect others and how to interact with them.

It defines honor, wisdom, wealth, and much more. In addition, it teaches how to acquire these gifts that people spend a lifetime chasing after.

No, it’s not one of those little self-help books written by a wannabe celebrity with a good press agent. It’s not written by a self-anointed paragon of virtue who tomorrow will be splashed all over the paper for living a life that is antithetical to the advice he made a living dispensing.

When a person isn’t sure how to conduct himself in a given situation, he turns to his parents. A child looks to his father for direction and wisdom to steer him around stumbling blocks and through dangerous minefields. But it’s more than that.

A father knows his child from day one, so he understands him. He knows what motivates each child, what to say and how to say it to each child.

This book contains fatherly wisdom, perception and insight. Hence its name, Pirkei Avos.

Written by the spiritual fathers of our people, it contains the most vital lessons a father could pass on to his children. Its ideas jump off the page right into your heart. You know you are reading the quintessential truth. You know that if you would just take a few extra minutes to digest the astute insights in this book, you’d be so much better off.

Pirkei Avos is not some foreign book that is off limits to our understanding until it is translated. For generations, Jews studied it all through the spring and summer months. They knew that it contains the answers to the most frequently asked questions, as well as the keys to personal happiness.

Unfortunately, for some reason, we, as a community, have relegated the learning of Pirkei Avos to children. In some shuls, it has become something to be davened-up after Mincha on Shabbos afternoon. Others don’t even bother doing that.

That certainly wasn’t the attitude of Rav Yehuda Hanosi, the mesader of the Mishnah. It is a far cry from the perspective he offers in the chain of mesorah that he cites from Moshe Rabbeinu to Yehoshua, then to the Zekeinim, the Nevi’im, and the Anshei Knesses Hagedolah, right down to the giants of his own era.

Rabi Yehuda, Rabi Yosi, Rabi Meir, Rabi Shimon - all our sages from Bava Metzia, Kiddushin and Arachin - are here. The greatest fathers and teachers of the generations are guiding us on how to be productive and content, how to live life with a smile on our faces and a sense of serenity in our hearts.

And, printed right alongside those Mishnayos is the Rambam, bringing the words of the Mishnah home in a way that is so real and immediate, you’d think his explanations were written today. Rabbeinu Yonah is here, too, with insights that are remarkably contemporary, joined of course by Rashi and many others, as well.

There are hundreds of other commentaries, and each one has a new angle, adding flavor and subtlety to the endless stream of wisdom of how to live life to its fullest.

They tell us so much, if we would only listen.

They teach us how to respond when a fellow Jew falls on hard times, why communities suffer, why sword comes to the land, why there is exile, and why there is economic depression. These issues are as relevant and pressing today as they were 2,000 years ago. Look for the answers here and they will send a shiver up your spine.

The Avos speak directly to their children. Take their answers to heart.

We must learn to translate their message in the context of our own reality. Our instinct must always be to turn to this masechta, for it is the legacy of our Avos.

Some make the mistake of relating to Pirkei Avos as light and easy material. It isn’t. It is as profound as the human psyche. But despite our depth and complexity, we, too, often get tripped up in the most shallow and simple areas. Without being aware of it, we become upset about trivialities, trample on others’ sensitivities, and are heedless of their vulnerabilities.

My rebbi, Rav Mendel Kaplan zt”l, would say that he knew a lot of children “with long white beards.” These were people who went through life never shedding their immaturities. People who remained children all their lives, never developing seichel, insight or a sense of responsibility.

The effort we must invest in learning these Mishnayos is to go farther than studying their practical meaning. Our task is to inculcate the middos to the point where they become second nature.

When we are no longer afraid to admit a mistake, when we learn how to see into a fellow Jew’s heart, when our own hearts have stretched in size so that they can accommodate more than our own egos, we will know that Pirkei Avos is doing its job on us.

When we begin to rid ourselves of our anger and jealousy, when we have developed a proper relationship with Hashem, when we are no longer bothered by nonsense, by havlei havalim, we will know that the lessons of our fathers are penetrating the hearts of the sons.

When we see the refinement and spiritual nobility of talmidei chachomim, we realize from where those middos come. Pirkei Avos and other such works can raise people like us to such lofty plateaus.

Rav Reuven Grozovsky suffered a debilitating stroke and his talmidim set up a rotation to assist him throughout the day. The bochur charged with attending to the rosh yeshiva each morning would help him wash negel vasser, then wrap tefillin on his arm and head and hold the siddur.

The rosh yeshiva’s hands would occasionally shake, making the task difficult.

One day, a nervous bochur had the zechus of being meshameish the rosh yeshiva. As Rav Reuven’s hand shook, the anxious boy nervously poured out the contents of the negel vasser cup, missing the rosh yeshiva’s hand completely. Humiliated, the boy tried again. He was already so frantic, and this time the water ended up on Rav Reuven’s bed and clothing.

He stopped and calmed himself before trying a third time. This time, he properly washed Rav Reuven’s hands. He helped Rav Reuven say brachos and then put the rosh yeshiva’s tefillin on for him. He was ready to leave, when Rav Reuven called him over and thanked him, chatting with him for several moments.

Feeling calm and happy, the bochur left.

He later learned that the rosh yeshiva was known to never speak, even one word, while wearing tefillin. It was obvious that Rav Reuven had noticed the bochur’s embarrassment and instinctively forfeited his own kabbolah to put the young man at ease.

Rav Reuven was sick. He couldn’t say shiur like he once had, he couldn’t write the penetrating chiddushim of his younger years, but the middos tovos were baked into his essence. They were part of who he was.

A talmid once went to learn with Rav Avrohom Genechovsky, the Tchebiner rosh yeshiva, on a Shabbos afternoon. Engrossed in his thoughts, the young man absentmindedly rang the doorbell. Horrified, he stood there for a long while, wishing he could disappear, before he was able to knock again. Rav Avrohom didn’t answer, which was surprising, since he didn’t sleep on Shabbos afternoon and was usually waiting for his chavrusah.

Eventually, a sleepy-looking Rav Avrohom came to the door - in his pajamas. He apologized for the delay and explained that he had been unusually tired, so he took a rest and did not hear the knocking.

When the young man figured out what really happened, he was overwhelmed. Of course, his rosh yeshiva had heard the ringing doorbell, but rather than open the door and humiliate the talmid, he quickly put on his pajamas and waited several minutes, pretending that he had not heard the bell ring.

To a talmid chochom, it is instinctive to act in a way that preserves another person’s dignity.

The personality molded by Torah is soft, flexible and kind. He is also strong and unbending. And it is not a stirah.

In another example that nothing is arbitrary, the parsha that we study during the days of Sefirah, Kedoshim, teaches us how to attain holiness. It’s a parsha laden with mitzvos bein odom lachaveiro. We are taught how to treat workers and borrowers, the blind, the deaf and the poor.

Through absorbing these mitzvos and their lessons, we become worthy of the Torah itself. The maxims that fill Maseches Avos become truisms. They are the only way to live. The baal middos sees the middos in those around him as well, changing the atmosphere.

We have been given the tools, and now is the time to put them to use lesakein olam.

The Sefas Emes was once given a large sum of money for safekeeping by a visiting chossid. The rebbe placed the money in a secure place, but the next morning, it was gone. The rebbe entered the bais medrash and announced that davening would not begin until the money was returned to its rightful owner.

No one came forward. Time passed, but the mystery wasn’t solved. Finally, the rebbe went into his house, called over one of the attendants, and said, “Give back the money you took.”

The attendant broke down and admitted his misdeed.

“If the rebbe knew who had taken the money,” the gabbai asked, “why did we have to wait so long to confront him?”

One of the chassidim explained that the rebbe knew who the culprit was. The challenge for the rebbe was being able to look another Jew in the face and accuse him of being a thief. It took the rebbe hours to get to that point, after he had exhausted all opportunities for the man to save face.

Hurting another person should be very difficult for us, while being thoughtful, kind and generous should be intuitive.

There are six perokim in Pirkei Avos, one for each week of Sefirah. As we study them and become better rachmonim, bayshonim and gomlei chassodim, we will be prepared to receive His Torah.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Becoming Better People

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

With Pesach behind us and Shavuos in the future, we are presently in the Sefirah period. Every evening we count how many days have passed since Pesach, and by way of inference how many days remain until Shavuos.

The Ramban in Vayikra (23:16) refers to this period as a sort of Chol Hamoed. The explanation is that this period connects the Yom Tov on which we celebrate the physical redemption of the Jews from Egyptian bondage and the day on which we received the Torah, which in essence redeemed the Jewish soul and freed it, allowing a spiritual, exalted life.

More famously, though, we regard the Sefirah period as a time of mourning and sadness. The Gemara in Yevamos (62a) tells us that, until this day, we mourn the 24,000 students of Rabi Akiva who died during this auspicious period. The Gemara explains that they died because they did not treat each other with the proper honor due to them.

Meforshim are perplexed as to why this would doom them to death. There is no mitzvah in the Torah to treat people with respect. Why would someone who is disrespectful deserve to die?

Even if you were to say that the obligation to treat your fellow respectfully is derived from the mitzvah in this week’s parsha of Kedoshim (19:18) of “ve’ohavta lerei’acha komacha,” to love other people as much as you love yourself, still, it is not a cardinal mitzvah. Nowhere does the Torah say that someone who doesn’t love his friend as much as he loves himself deserves to die for that offense.

We are all familiar with the story of the would-be convert who asked Hillel to summarize the Torah in one sentence. Hillel responded to him by stating, “Mah d’aloch soni lechavroch lo sa’avid - What you do not want done unto you, do not do unto your friend.”

Apparently, Hillel was translating the words “ve’ohavta lerei’acha kamocha and telling the man that this mitzvah is the foundation of the Torah. To treat other people the way you want to be treated is not just a nice thing to do. It is not just another mitzvah of the 613 mitzvos. Rather, it is the underpinning of the entire Torah. In fact, Rashi reminds us that it was Rabi Akiva who stated that “ve’ohavta lerei’acha kamocha is one of the major pillars of the Torah.

Thus, one who is not considerate of other people’s feelings is lacking in his knowledge of Torah. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (3:17) goes further and states, “Im ein derech eretz, ein Torah - Without proper conduct, there can be no Torah.” One who is unable to conduct himself properly cannot be a student of Torah.

Rabbeinu Yonah, in his commentary on Pirkei Avos, explains that the Torah cannot fit into a person who does not have proper middos. Rav Chaim Vital explains it further in Shaarei Kedusha (1:2), where he states that proper middos are the seat and foundation for the nefesh hasichlis, and without them, the nefesh cannot carry out its obligation to observe the mitzvos. He explains that this is the reason there is no commandment in the Torah for a person to behave properly, for the obligation to be a mentch precedes the mitzvos, and without it, we cannot observe any of the 613 mitzvos.

With this, we can understand the Mishnah in the third perek of Pirkei Avos that states, “One who finds favor in the eyes of man finds favor in the eyes of Hashem.” The Mishnah does not mean to say that we should engage in activities that win us short-term plaudits from superficial and power-hungry people who appreciate chanifah. Rather, the intention of the Mishnah is to teach us that whatever we say or do as we interact with others must be in consonance with the laws of derech eretz and middos tovos.

We must deal with everyone with respect and decency. Even when we find it necessary to admonish, it must be done in a way that does not cause people to view the Torah as anything other than a Toras Chesed.

This may be an explanation of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (3:11), which states that someone who publicly embarrasses another person has no share in the World to Come, even if he has Torah and maasim tovim to his credit. Perhaps we can understand the Mishnah allegorically to be saying that because someone who lacks the ability to treat people properly is lacking in the knowledge of Torah, a person like this will come to make mistakes in halacha and in Torah. He will thus deviate from the path of Torah and eventually end up losing his share in the World to Come.

Last week, in Parshas Acharei Mos (18:5), we read the posuk which states,Vochai bohemAnd you shall live if you will follow the precepts of the Torah.Rashi, in his commentary, explains that this refers to life in the World to Come.

If you follow the chukim and mishpotim, you will merit Olam Haba. One who doesn’t behave properly demonstrates with his actions that he is lacking in his kinyonim of Torah. Therefore, he will lose his share in Olam Haba, which is promised to those who follow the mitzvos.

The Torah is referred to as a Tree of Life. One who grasps onto it merits a full life in this world and the next. But in order to develop the ability to grab onto Torah and internalize it, we must study and inculcate the 48 methods of acquiring Torah. Most of those 48 steps of attainment relate to the way we deal with each other. In order to behave properly bein adam laMakom, we have to first succeed in the way we interact bein adam lachaveiro.

Since the talmidim of Rabi Akiva demonstrated through their personal conduct bein adam lachaveiro that they were lacking in the 48 kinyonim of Torah, they cut themselves off from the life-giving abilities of Torah and didn’t merit to fulfill their shlichus in this world as talmidim of Rabi Akiva, who taught that “ve’ohavta lerei’acha kamocha is a klal gadol baTorah.

Since the greatest obligation of our lives is to study and follow the Torah, we commemorate until this very day the tragedy that befell the holy students of Rabi Akiva, because a certain aspect of their behavior was found lacking. The obligation to be people of impeccable integrity and behavior is a lesson we must all take to heart as we pass through the yemei haSefirah and attempt to make ourselves worthy of being given the gift of Sinai.

Furthermore, seforim say that when a body part becomes diseased, it is because the portion of the nefesh that sustains it has become damaged by sin and is unable to satisfactorily maintain it. Thus, teshuvah heals, because when the person repents, he removes the p’gam caused by sin, which has damaged his nefesh, and then the nefesh and the body part it gives strength to can be revived.

Since the talmidei Rabi Akiva were lacking in the middos that Rav Chaim Vital says the nefesh depends upon as a precondition to host Torah, their nefashos were unable to sustain their bodies and they therefore passed away.

Additionally, these days of Sefirah are, in essence, a journey from the exile to complete redemption. In order to attain that freedom and to arrive at the state we all so strongly desire, we must be prepared at times to undertake heroic actions. Sometimes we may be forced to make that trip alone, fueled only by our inner core values. The 48 steps of acquiring Torah are what give our lives their meaning and guarantee that we will reach our goal successfully.

He who achieves his migration via climbing the 48 steps will be free of superficiality and the inherent insecurity that accompanies it. He will be blessed with the brachos reserved for those who uphold the Torah and will find lasting favor in the eyes of man and Hashem.

Vochai bohem. Such a person earns for himself chaim, life, in this world and the next. We live at a time when the world is undergoing the convulsions that will lead to the final redemption of the guf and nefesh, brought about by Moshiach. We know that this time is characterized by chutzpah yasgeh, the propagation of brazenness and audacity. How much more must we work to purify our middos during these days of Sefirah, so that we will be worthy of the geulah ruchnis of Shavuos and the coming of Moshiach tzidkeinu.

The Sefirah period has been filled throughout the ages with tragedies, and this year it has been that way again. On the last day of Pesach, Klal Yisroel suffered a tragic anti-Semitic shooting in California. This past Shabbos saw the start of an attack of a barrage of hundreds of rockets from the Gaza area upon our Israeli brethren, leading to loss of life and limb.

Meanwhile as this is going on, a Democrat Congressman introduced legislation opposing Israel’s “state-sponsored child abuse designed to intimidate and terrorize Palestinian children and their families.”

Last week, Congressman Betty McCollum introduced the Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act, H.R. 2407 — amending a provision of the Foreign Assistance Act known as the “Leahy Law” to prohibit funding for the military detention of children in any country, including Israel, according to a press release posted on her website.

“The bill establishes the “Human Rights Monitoring and Palestinian Child Victims of Israeli Military Detention Fund,” authorizing $19 million annually for non-governmental organization (NGO) monitoring of human rights abuses associated with Israel’s military detention of children.

“The Fund also authorizes qualified NGOs to provide physical, psychological, and emotional treatment and support for Palestinian child victims of Israeli military detention, abuse, and torture.”

While it is inconceivable to imagine that a rational person would attack Israel for defending itself against decades of Arab terror, the congressman says that, “Israel’s system of military juvenile detention is state-sponsored child abuse designed to intimidate and terrorize Palestinian children and their families.”

Calling for an end to American military support of the only democracy in the Middle East and grossly misstating the situation there, she said “It is outrageous that U.S. tax dollars in the form of military aid to Israel are permitted to sustain what is clearly a gross human rights violation against children.”

It is scandalous that a representative of a mainstream party twists the facts, presenting anti-Semitic lies to congress with impunity.

As Jews are increasingly targeted, in Israel, Europe and the United States, American Jews must revisit their historic support for the Democrat party, which has become a home for Jew haters, socialists and communists. The target of their ire, President Trump has proven himself to be the greatest friend the Jewish people have had in the White House, a man who continuously proves himself most deserving of our appreciation and support.

Let us all resolve to really stamp out strife, improve our conduct and do what we know we must to make the world a better place, for ourselves and for our redemption.


Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Time to Inspire

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Count yourself among the majority if you had never heard of Poway, California, before Yom Tov.

That spot of a town twenty-five miles from San Diego will be anonymous no more in the Jewish world. Everyone will remember it as the site of a senseless killing of a Jewish woman because she was a Jew.

The name of the sparkling California city in the greatest democracy the world has known joined the long infamous list of cities where anti-Semitism has led to murder. This most recent heinous act took place on a Shabbos, on Shemini Shel Pesach, the final day of the holiday of freedom and cheirus.

Wherever we have been, we haven’t been able to completely celebrate our holidays. We have always had to look over our shoulders. No day of the calendar is immune from the vestige of the irrational hatred that has accompanied our people. Our pursuers have found us during the narrow straits of the Nine Days and the wide berths of chagim and zemanim lesasson.

The monster’s family said, “Our sadness pales in comparison to the grief and anguish our son has caused for so many innocent people. He has killed and injured the faithful who were gathered in a sacred place on a sacred day. To our great shame, he is now part of the history of evil that has been perpetrated on Jewish people for centuries.”

The family said that they did not know what had motivated their son. “How our son was attracted to such darkness is a terrifying mystery to us. Like our other five children, he was raised in a family, a faith and a community that all rejected hate and taught that love must be the motive for everything we do.”

What do they want from us? What can we do about it?

We walk in the street and those eyes follow us. We fly on an airplane and those same eyes of hate are on us. We can’t get rid of them. We go to a park and those same eyes are there. Even in a place of justice, we can’t take anything for granted. If looks could kill, there wouldn’t be many places we could go freely.

We wonder why. We see the world turning against us, as it hasn’t since the Holocaust, and we wonder why. We see the Democrat Party in this country swing against the Jews. The American president is the friendliest ever towards Jews and Israel, yet it is glossed over and haters see him as a hater of all people. We see media stalwarts engage in anti-Jewish demagoguery and can’t figure out why.

Why the hatred? Why the canards? Why the lies? Why is Judaism blamed for the sorry lives of losers? How is it that the stereotypes are being strengthened and resurrected instead of going the way of archaic philosophies, capricious and implausible, in the dustbin of illiteracy and irrational absurdism?

Lives converged. Jews went to a synagogue on a holy day to celebrate life. A sick Nazi headed to the same location to celebrate and cause death. An ancient people seeking malice toward none and goodness for all is mocked, vilified, hated and hunted down thanks to the world’s stupidest and oldest conspiracies.

The murderer shot at the rabbi, and a woman jumped in between them, sparing the rabbi’s life and offering up her own in an eternal act of kiddush Hashem reminiscent of so many throughout history. Yizkor Elokim nishmasah v’es nishmoseihem.

The G-d who created heaven and earth and chose the Jews for Himself caused the murderer’s gun to jam. The children were spared. The adults were able to live. A tragedy was generously minimized.

Jewish blood sullied another Pesach, just as the pogroms of old and blood libels that spread far and wide.

Thankfully, in our day, the butcher went down and the good people were permitted another day, another Shabbos, and the ability to live on in the shadow of Hashem.

We promise to never give up and never get down. We proclaim, “Yisgadeil veyiskadeish Shemei rabbah. I have to work to make this world a better place.”

Our obligation is to be like Hashem, fine and compassionate. Never lose sight of the traditions of kindness and compassion passed down by our forefathers. Never stray too far from the path of light into the swamp of darkness. Be kind. Be good.

In this time, we mourn the loss of Rabi Akiva’s 24,000 talmidim. We emulate their accomplishments and we seek to fill the void created by their absence. Rav Elchonon Wasserman taught (Kovetz Maamarim Ve’igros) that a person who is pretentious and egotistical cannot be successful in a leadership position. An effective leader can communicate with people because he relates to them, feels their pain, and does not consider himself on a higher level than others.

If you rid your soul of sinas chinom, then you will behave with mentchlichkeit and treat people properly. If you are practiced in ahavas Yisroel, people will respect you and listen to you. You will be able to help them improve their shemiras hamitzvos, Torah learning, understanding of life, and acceptance of what Hashem gives them.

Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, as rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Eitz Chaim in Yerushalayim, would test the students in the school’s younger grades. He once asked a young boy a question pertaining to the understanding of a Gemara. The boy gave the wrong answer.

Rav Isser Zalman said to him, “I’m sure this is what you meant to say,” and provided the correct answer. He sought to prevent the boy’s embarrassment from messing up so egregiously in front of the rosh yeshiva.

The student, however, was adamant. “No, that is not what I meant,” he said. He then proceeded to repeat the mistaken answer. Patiently, the rosh yeshiva tried again, “Yes, you’re right, because this is what you wanted to say,” and he rephrased the correct answer. The boy wouldn’t hear of it. “The rosh yeshiva doesn’t understand what I am saying,” he complained. He again offered the incorrect answer.

As boys began to giggle, Rav Isser Zalman rose from his seat and excused himself. “I have to tend to something for a couple of minutes and will quickly return,” he said.

The class rebbi opened the door to peek down the hall. There was the senior gadol hador with his eyes closed, talking to himself. He was repeating, “The obligation to respect everyone includes children,” over and over again.

After a few moments, Rav Isser Zalman returned to the classroom. He sat down with a huge smile on his face and began to painstakingly explain the Gemara until even that one boy understood it perfectly and was able to provide the correct answer to the question that was posed.

The greatest teacher is not the one who knows the most, and the greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one who motivates people to accomplish the greatest things. The greatest teacher is the one who understands his students and is able to reach them. The greatest teacher is the one who loves his students.

You can convince people to perform positive acts by appealing to their hopes or by playing to their fears. The one who excels makes sure to speak to people’s confidence and not to their doubts, with facts and not with fantasy. People respond much better and are more likely to rise to the challenge when they are treated with dignity.

For leaders and teachers, as well as parents and friends, communication is a lot more than words. What matters is not necessarily what we say, but how we say it. We can inspire and motivate when we communicate with love and care. By taking seriously the commandment of “ve’ohavta lerei’acha kamocha,” our children, students, friends and acquaintances will understand that they are admired and loved by people who have confidence in their abilities.

Others might be superior to us in intelligence, experience and diplomatic skills, but if we pay attention and exercise care when speaking to people, we can accomplish so much more. We must have passion in what we do. And we have to let it show. We can all help other people and remind them of their inherent greatness. We have to be optimistic about life and about our own abilities, and we have to convey that to others.

Everyone has the ability to affect the world. If we would maximize our abilities to study Torah as well as we can; if we would utilize the strength that Hashem gave us to build instead of destroy, to be optimistic instead of pessimistic; if we would use the brachos that Hashem blessed us with to benefit others, we could change the world.

Sefirah is a time for us to dedicate ourselves to perfecting those abilities so that we can grow in the study and the teaching of Torah.

When the Tzemach Tzedek was a young married man, he was in the home of his grandfather, the Baal Hatanya, with his family. While he was learning, a baby began to cry. He was so deep in concentration that he did not hear the child, and he continued his studying, oblivious to increasingly louder screams.

The Alter Rebbe was upstairs in his study when he heard the baby’s cries. He went downstairs, lifted the baby from his carriage, and handed the child to his grandson. The Tzemach Tzedek apologized for not hearing the baby. “I am sorry,” he said. “I was concentrating so deeply that I didn’t hear anything.”

“Yes, my dear grandson,” the rebbe responded. “I was also studying and was just as areingeton as you were, but I heard. Remember what I am about to tell you: Any Jew, no matter his level, must hear the cries of another Jew, regardless of how small he might be, and he must interrupt what he is doing to help the one who is crying.”

Let us be attuned to the sounds around us. Let us hear the cries and seek to help, comfort and soothe others. Let us see their smiles and join in celebrating with them.

Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein of Poway cannot point now, but he can pray and sing, inspire and lead, and so can we.

After the attack the rabbi wrote, “I remember shouting the words ‘Am Yisroel Chai! The people of Israel live!’ I have said that line hundreds of times in my life. But I have never felt the truth of it more than I did then.”

He said, “I believe everything happens for a reason. I do not know why G-d spared my life. I do not know why I had to witness scenes of a pogrom in San Diego County like the ones my grandparents experienced in Poland. I don’t know why a part of my body was taken away from me. I don’t know why I had to see my good friend, a woman who embodied the Jewish value of chesed, hunted in her house of worship… I do not know G-d’s plan. All I can do is try to… use this borrowed time to make my life matter more.”

And that is what we must do as well.

We must use every day like it is our last.

And we must make the most of every moment, treating it like the treasure it is.

“I pray that my missing finger serves as a constant reminder to me…  that I am part of a people that has survived the worst destruction and will always endure; a reminder that my ancestors gave their lives so that I can live…  and a reminder, to not ever be afraid to be Jewish.”

We must never be afraid, because the greatest Protector of all is our Guardian, today and for all time.

May we merit the geulah sheleimah, quickly and soon in our day.

Thursday, April 18, 2019


By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The essence of the Haggadah and the entirety of Pesach is the relationship between father and son and the obligation for a father to transmit to his son the story of the geulah from Mitzrayim. The Torah and Chazal prescribe different ways to speak to different children and lay out the format for the Seder evening conversation.

The people of Adopt-a-Kollel were kind enough to gift me Haggadah Nifle’osecha Asicha from Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein. I opened it up to the page on which he tells the following story.

One Shabbos morning a few years ago, an old man and his son entered a shul in Petach Tikvah. They stood frozen at the door, gazing at the people davening Pesukei Dezimra. Finally, they felt comfortable enough to find themselves seats and sit down. There was no need for a siddur, because they both couldn’t daven, as they had been locked behind the Iron Curtain for seventy years.

The older man paid attention to the chazzan and seemed to enjoy his tunes and chanting, while the younger one waited for his father to lose interest so they could go back home. He’d have to wait.

As the laining progressed, the old man started paying particular attention. All of a sudden, he started screaming towards the gabbai in a beautiful Litvishe Yiddish, “I must have an aliyah. Please, I must have an aliyah.” The kind gabbai acquiesced and called the senior guest to the Torah at the next opportunity.

The old man borrowed a tallis and a yarmulka and made his way to the bimah. He pushed away the siddur that was given to him to read the brachos and, with a deep and emotional voice, he began to slowly recite the brocha, saying each word with meaning.

When the baal korei finished his portion, the scene repeated itself, as the man cried his way through the words of the second brocha. There was utter silence in the shul, as everyone fixed their eyes on the old man standing at the bimah crying.

After davening, people approached the guest. They asked him questions, intending to elicit his story.

“I was born and bred in Vilna,” he began. “When I was 12-1/2, my parents started fighting about where I should go to school. My mother wanted me to continue in yeshiva, but my father wanted me to go to the gymnasia school of the maskilim. He said that this way, I would learn a trade and how to maintain my Yiddishkeit while living among goyim.

“My father won and I was sent to that school. I began focusing on the studies, which brought my father much satisfaction.

“My bar mitzvah celebration was held in the large Vilna shul. I was given the aliyah for maftir, made the birchos haTorah and lained the haftorah. My father was beaming, while my mother was upstairs in the ezras noshim weeping.

“As I came down from the bimah, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky came over and shook my father’s hand, wishing mazel tov. And then he said to my father, ‘For your benefit, let me warn you that if you do not remove your son from the gymnasia school, generations will pass before your son will be called to the Torah a second time!’

“My father did not obey the rov.

“Today, for some reason, I felt a pull to the shul,” the man said as he began to weep once again. “When the baal korei began to read the parsha, I remembered that this is my bar mitzvah parsha.”

He raised his voice and said, “Yidden, her vos ich zog eich. From that Shabbos of my bar mitzvah, when I had an aliyah to the Torah, until today is exactly seventy years [two generations]. Today is the first time since my bar mitzvah that I received an aliyah!

Ay, iz der gaon geven gerecht. Oh, what the great rov said was so true.”

His father, back in Vilna, might have meant well. He wanted the best for his son and thought that the Haskalah school would provide for him the best of both worlds. But he should have listened to the rov, because if you want nachas from your children, the way to achieve that goal is by following the Torah, as interpreted by the gedolei olam, our leaders, the people such as Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky with whom Hashem blesses us in every generation. Those who think they understand better and ignore the warnings of the rabbonim gedolim jeopardize their ability to succeed in this world, and the next.

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

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

We recognize that we can only arrive at cheirus and geulah by doing what is incumbent upon us and fulfilling our missions as best as we can. We reach our potential by delving into the study of Torah and seeking messages from great men whose lives are totally devoted to Torah and nothing else. Sometimes, they tell us to act, and other times, they say to desist. Those who seek the brachos of the Torah follow it, and don’t follow the path of greater personal benefit or enjoyment, whether they understand or not.

At the time of Krias Yam Suf, the Jews were afraid that the Mitzriyim would catch up to them and destroy them. They cried out to Moshe for a game plan. Instead, they were told, “Hashem yilocheim lochem ve’atem tacharishun. Your job at this time is to remain silent and do nothing. Hashem will fight for you.”

Chazal state that this advice is eternal. There are times when we must speak up and times when we must remain silent, times to do battle and times to be passive. Our limited human intelligence is not always able to figure out the proper course of action. How we are to act in all times is prescribed by the Torah, as is so beautifully expressed by Shlomo Hamelech in Koheles: Eis livkos, ve’eis lischok... Eis le’ehov, ve’eis lisno, eis milchomah, ve’eis shalom.” How we are to act in each “eis,” or time, is determined by the Torah.

The Torah is a constant, but people change, every generation is different. We have a generational obligation to speak to our children in a language and voice they will understand, respect and follow. What worked in the past does not necessarily work now and to assume it does risks losing touch with those whom we love and wish to follow in our ways.

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

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

When he came upon that realization, Rav Shach immediately resigned his position and returned home, settling back into his corner of the small neighborhood shul where he again spent his days and nights learning.

His rebbi, the Brisker Rov, encouraged him that he acted properly by leaving his job and told him that a better position would come along. “Someone who forfeits parnossah because of principle will see brachos,” he told him.

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

He was an exceedingly humble man, but when the Torah demanded strength from him, he was strong as a lion.

Some years ago, I wrote of a dream I had before Pesach that year. In the dream, I gained a new understanding of the posuk, “V’acharei chein yeitzu b’rechush gadol,” in which Hashem foretold to our forefather Avrohom the future course of Jewish history. Hashem told Avrohom that after being enslaved for many years, the Jewish people would be freed and would depart their host country with a great treasure.

The common understanding is that the promise of “a great treasure” was fulfilled with the vast quantity of belongings the Jews received from the Mitzriyim prior to being sent out.

In the dream, I thought that the rechush gadol the Jews received was the matzoh that baked on their backs as they left b’chipazon. Matzoh is not simply a physical food. It possesses spiritual qualities and is a gift to the Bnei Yisroel. Only we have the ability to take flour and water and transform them into a cheftzah shel mitzvah.

The Netziv of Volozhin, in his peirush on Shir Hashirim titled “Rinah Shel Torah,” writes in the introduction concerning the posuk which states, “Sheishes yomim tochal matzos uvayom hashevi’i atzeres l’Hashem Elokecha lo sa’aseh melacha - You shall eat matzos for six days and on the seventh you shall rest for Hashem and you shall not do any work” (Devorim 16:8).

He explains that on the first day of Pesach, the obligation to eat matzoh is to remember that we left Mitzrayim in such haste that the bread the fleeing Jews took along for the journey had no time to rise. He says that the obligation related to the consumption of matzoh the first six days of Pesach recalls the eating of the korban mincha by the kohanim. The korbanos mincha were brought of matzoh breads and were never made of chometz. That was to teach the Jewish people that in order to draw closer to Hashem and achieve a higher level of holiness, they must reduce their involvement in the pursuits of Olam Hazeh.

On Pesach, we sustain ourselves with matzoh for six days for that same higher purpose. On Pesach, a Jew attempts to rise spiritually and become closer to Hashem.

Therefore, on the seventh and final day of the holiday, Jews are commanded to refrain from work and to internalize the message of the six days of eating matzoh.

Not partaking of chometz is supposed to affect us in a fundamental way. It is supposed to change our outlook on life and remind us of our purpose here. Eating matzoh for seven days is not something we do to fill ourselves physically. The change in diet is meant to bring about a spiritual change in our souls.

This message supports the idea that the matzoh is a rechush gadol. Matzoh is a gift from Hashem that enables us to elevate our rote observance of mitzvos to a higher dimension of avodas Hashem. Partaking of matzoh for a week is meant to reduce our drive for physical gratification. If we heed its message, it is truly a gift, a rechush gadol, which has the power to uplift and purify us and draw us closer to our Creator.

I found a similar idea in the words of the Ramchal in Derech Hashem (4:8). He says that as long as the Jews were enslaved in Mitzrayim and living amongst the pagan population, their bodies were darkened by the poison of impurity that overwhelmed them. When they were finally delivered from that society - goy mikerev goy - their bodies underwent a purification process so that they would be able to accept the Torah and mitzvos.

This is the reason they were commanded to refrain from consuming chometz and to eat matzoh. The bread that we eat all year is prepared with yeast and rises. Easier to digest and tastier, it is the natural food of man. It feeds man’s yeitzer hora and more base inclinations.

Klal Yisroel was commanded to refrain from eating chometz for a week in order to minimize the power of the yeitzer hora and their inclination towards the physical, and to strengthen their attachment to the spiritual.

It is impossible for people to live on this diet all year round, and it is not Hashem’s intent. But if we maintain this diet for the duration of Pesach while incorporating the lessons of matzoh, it will energize us spiritually for the remainder of the year.

Rav Aryeh Leib Schapiro of Yerushalayim writes in his sefer Chazon Lamoed that the Ramchal connects this to the dictum of the Rambam in Hilchos Dei’os (2:1) that a person seeking to rectify his conduct should go to the opposite extreme of his natural inclination, and he will then end up in the middle, where Hashem wants us to be.

The Rambam continues (3:1) that a person should not reason that since kinah, taavah and kavod - jealousy, evil desires and the craving for honor - lead to man’s demise from this world, he should therefore adopt the extremes of self-denial, refusing to eat meat or drink wine, marry, live in a nice house or wear nice clothes. Pagan priests lived this way. According to the Rambam, it is forbidden to follow this path; one who does is called a sinner.

The Netziv’s and the Ramchal’s understanding of Pesach is in accord with the words of the Rambam. While it is undesirable for people to live this way all year round, if one takes a temporary turn to the extreme, it will help him return to the middle, where we all belong.

The Yom Tov of Pesach provides a respite from the pressures that govern our daily lives. Pesach is one week of the year that frees us from the yeitzer hora and the pursuits that drive us throughout the year, which lead to dead ends, disappointment and depression.

Matzoh is indeed a rechush gadol, a treasure of the Jewish people. Matzoh weakens our evil inclinations and strengthens our inherent goodness. Matzoh has the ability to raise us above our preoccupation with the mundane.

Pesach is not meant to be a holiday of gorging and self-indulgence. On the contrary, Pesach is the time given to us to refrain to a certain degree from such pursuits and to absorb the lesson of the matzoh.

Following a week of such elevated behavior, we continue along that pattern as we count to Shavuos, when we mark the acceptance of the Torah as the ultimate gift from G-d to man. It is only after the week of matzoh and seven weeks of Sefirah that we can achieve the highest possible levels of spiritual accomplishment.

If we take the words of the great Netziv and Ramchal to heart and properly observe the mitzvos of Pesach, and we review the lessons the matzoh can teach us, its influence and inspiration will long remain with us, giving us the strength to rise above whatever challenges we face throughout the rest of the year.

Gedolim such as Rav Chaim Ozer, Rav Shach, the Brisker Rov, the Netziv and the Ramchal light up our way and provide direction and inspiration for us to follow if we wish to enjoy life the way Hashem intends us to and if we wish to be successful in all we do.

Despite all we have been through, a constant in Torah life is that those who seek lives of blessings follow the words of Torah giants. In our day as well, despite the prevalence of so much superficiality, cynicism, pessimism and negativity, when it comes to the bottom line, people who adhere to Torah know that wisdom is found by those who dedicate their lives to the pure pursuit of Torah and mitzvos.

May we merit to be among them and to follow them, living lives of steady aliyah.

This story took place on Erev Pesach seventy-five years ago, in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. A couple of weeks before Yom Tov, the Bluzhever Rebbe, Rav Yisroel Spira, placed his life in jeopardy and approached the murderous head of the camp, Commandant Hass. He asked permission for forty men to bake matzoh for Pesach. He asked the Nazi to supply them with wheat and in return they would forgo their daily ration of bread for eight days.

Surprisingly, the Nazi examined the request seriously, without issuing any threats of punishment. However, he said that since the German Reich was run in a very orderly fashion, he would have to get clearance from Berlin. A week later, the response came from Berlin and the request was approved.

After returning to the camp from their body-breaking labor, the rebbe and his group assembled a small oven and began grinding wheat kernels to make flour. They mixed the flour with water and quickly kneaded the mixture, rolling out matzos to bake in their tiny oven. Flames danced atop the branches fueling the oven and the holy work of baking matzos for Pesach in Bergen-Belsen was underway.

Suddenly, the commandant burst into the room, screaming at the Jews like a wild man and breaking everything and everyone he saw. His eyes fixed on those of the rebbe, and he beat him to a pulp. When he was done, the 56-year-old rebbe was barely hanging on to life.

The historic attempt ended disastrously.

The next night, the people sat down to a “Seder” in the rebbe’s barracks. They had everything – well, almost everything. The rebbe knew the Haggadah by heart, and he was going to lead the Seder. For wine, they were going to drink the slop the Nazis called coffee. There was no shortage of maror, with bitterness everywhere. The rebbe let it be known that he was able to retrieve and save a very small piece of matzoh. They were set.

When it came time at the Seder to eat matzah, everyone assumed that the rebbe would be the one to perform the mitzvah and eat the small piece he had rescued. After all, he was the oldest, it was his idea to bake matzos to being with, and he had risked his life to obtain permission for it. Not only that, but he was a tzaddik, he was leading the Seder, and he was the one who had saved the piece. But they were wrong.

After proclaiming “motzie matzah,” the rebbe looked around the room, as if he was trying to determine who is the most appropriate person to eat the matzoh. A widow, Mrs. Kotziensky, stood up and said, “Since upon this night we engage in transmitting our traditions from one generation to the next, I propose that my young son be the one to eat the matzoh.”

The rebbe agreed. “This night,” he said, “is all about teaching the future generations about Yetzias Mitzrayim. We will give the child the matzoh.”

After they were freed, the widow approached the Bluzhever Rebbe. She needed help. Someone had proposed a shidduch for her, but she had no way to find out about the man. Maybe, she said, the rebbe could help her. “Can you find out who he is? Can you see if he is appropriate for me and if I am appropriate for him?”

“What is his name?” asked the rebbe.

The woman responded, “Yisroel Spira.”

The rebbe said to her, “Yes, I know him well. It is a good idea that you should get to know him.”

She returned to the shadchan and gave her approval to set up the match. When the woman showed up at the right address, standing before her was none other than Rav Yisroel Spira, the man she knew as the Bluzhever Rebbe!

A short time later, they married, and the little boy who ate matzah in Bergen-Belsen became the rebbe’s son and eventual successor.

Which spiritual attributes did the rebbe see in that woman that led him to marry her? When asked, the rebbe answered that in the cauldron of Bergen-Belsen, where the horizon was measured in minutes and the future was a day at a time, a woman who believed in the nitzchiyus of Am Yisroel, that our people is eternal, and who worried for the future generation was someone with whom it was worthy to perpetuate the golden chain.

Thankfully, we aren’t tested the way those holy people were that night in Bergen-Belsen. Our matzos come easy. For a few dollars, we can have as many as we want. We can drink wine without fearing a pogrom. We can eat maror and not live it. We don’t have to make awful choices.

We can sit as kings and queens at the Seder, surrounded by different generations, concentrating on doing our best to transmit our glorious heritage to the future generations, ensuring that they know the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim and Avodim Hayinu.

May we merit much nachas and simcha, cheirus and freedom, kedusha and mitzvos, at the Seder and every day.