Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Holy Stones

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

It was a year and a half since I had been on an airplane or gone on a trip. I didn’t miss it. I got used to staying home and enjoyed it. The last time I took a trip anywhere was to Eretz Yisroel, and that was during January of last year. Staying home was nice, but we all need a change of scenery once in a while.

Much has happened since that January. There were good times and times when everything looked bleak. Life since the onset of corona has been like a roller coaster. There have been many ups and downs. There was much sickness and there were many tragic deaths. Hopefully, we are beginning to rebound from economic losses and many financial pressures. Government leadership has been upended here and in Eretz Yisroel, and people worry about what the next day will bring.

Like many others, I have been trying to get into Israel for the past few months. My batteries needed to be recharged, and for me, at least, that happens at Mincha in Zichron Moshe, walking through Geulah and Meah Shearim, and, of course, davening at the Kosel.

Finally, we were able to get all the paperwork, shots and tests in order. We rented an apartment a stone’s throw from Kikar Shabbos, and after finishing the newspaper last week got on board a plane and took off.

Thursday, we took a trip up north, stopping first at the village of Pekiin. There, we visited a cave where, according to local legend, Rav Shimon bar Yochai and his son hid from the Romans for thirteen years while plumbing the depths of Torah.

It is hard to know whether that cave has any historical significance. Today, the cave’s hollow is tiny, with barely enough room for one man, certainly not two. Legend has it that an earthquake several hundred years ago caused large boulders to collapse into the cave. A very large and ancient carob tree grows at the mouth of the cave, giving some support to the idea that Rav Shimon studied there, for we know that he subsisted on the fruits of a carob tree that grew outside the cave he was in.

We davened there and took some pictures before moving on. Whether it is his cave or not, there is something comforting and very special about standing in a place where it is possible that the two holy Tannoim studied the deepest secrets of the Torah and wrote them down for future generations to study in the Sefer HaZohar.

From there, we went to meet Margalit Zinati, a 96-year-old woman who tells a fascinating story. She claims that she is the heir to three families of kohanim who escaped the Roman clutches after the destruction of the second Bais Hamikdosh and settled in the mountain village known as Pekiin.

She says that she has a tradition passed down to her from her parents, who heard the story from their parents, that for two thousand years, those families remained in Pekiin. Through all the changes that took place in that land, all the different conquerors and conquests, there was a constant: the Zinati family of kohanim.

We speak to her and bid her farewell. “Remember Pekiin,” she says. “Remember the kohanim of Pekiin. Soon Moshiach will come and return the kohanim to the Bais Hamikdosh.

She is the last Jew to live in Pekiin. In the 1920s, there were still some fifty Jewish families remaining in the village, but Arab pogroms in 1938 and 1940 caused everyone to leave and the local school to close. Only the Zinati family returned, hoping to keep alive their 2,000-year legacy. With the school closed, the children were sent to study in Yerushalayim, the son married and did not return, and the daughter Margalit who stayed in Pekiin never married.

She is the end of the line of the two-thousand-year chain of Zinati family members living in Pekiin. When she goes, it’s over. There are other chains and other links, and she has a nephew who will carry on the Zinati name, but not in Pekiin. He lives elsewhere and comes to town to maintain the shul and the small museum there.

We visited the small shul, which is said to be built on the foundation stones of the original shul that was erected following the churban. Who knows how long there has been a shul at that location? It gives added meaning to the posuk, “Netzach Yisroel lo yishaker.”

We took a detour into an Arab village to say a few kappitlach of Tehillim at what is said to be the kever of Rav Yochai and his wife, Sorah, the parents of Rav Shimon bar Yochai. It is located in between two Arab houses and is actually well maintained.

From there, we continued on to Meron to daven at the kever of Rav Shimon bar Yochai.

Being there, you can’t help but think of the awful tragedy that took place there on Lag Ba’omer. The memory is so fresh, the pain so raw. You see the place where the 45 korbanos met their end and the enormity of the sorrow overwhelms.

You stand on that slippery slope, silent in your thoughts, and you can almost hear the muffled voices proclaiming “Shema Yisroel” with their final breaths.

You stand there transfixed, mourning and wondering how so much sadness emanated from the place where you stand. You think about what you can do to help improve the world so that future korbanos will not be necessary to atone for our sins.

You think about the people who lost their lives in that very spot and then you think of their grieving families. You recite some perokim of Tehillim, make silent kabbalos, and slowly move on.

So many emotions in one day, feeling the golus and being reminded that Klal Yisroel is the eternal nation. We have been through so much, yet we persevere and our mission remains the same throughout the ages.

Friday morning, I was up early. The sun hadn’t yet risen, but I looked up at the sky and it was glowing yellow. An amazing light was coming forth from the east, and as I watched, the sun began climbing up from the horizon.

The light was bright, overwhelming and gorgeous. It looked as if the sun was giving it all it had, emitting powerful rays of brightness and beauty in the hope that today would be the day that we all await and daven for, when the great light will shine upon Yerushalayim with the arrival of Moshiach. The sun returns to Yerushalayim every morning, hoping that today will be the day of “ohr chodosh al Tzion to’ir.”

Davening at the Kosel, from where the Shechinah never departed, gives a charge to every Jew. We don’t have the Bais Hamikdosh, and we have lost so much over the centuries, but when we come here, we feel connected again. When we daven here, we can feel our tefillos soaring to Shomayim.

We stand there and are reminded of what stood at the other side of the wall. We think of what we had then and what we have now, and while the void is vast, we take comfort that Hakadosh Boruch Hu left us this place where we can approach the location of the kedusha rishonah. He tells us that wherever we gather to learn and daven, He hears us.

Through limud and shemiras haTorah, we can rise above the muddle and become kedoshim and tehorim, concentrating on the important, while forgoing that which is not and avoiding the pettiness and strife that bring us down.

We are all born with much potential, which can be attained if we live every day with halacha as our guide, not succumbing to the yeitzer hora’s efforts for us to chase after fantasies that only exist in the imagination, for when you chase after the objects of your desire, then, very often, when you obtain them, you are left wanting and as empty as before.

Over Shabbos, I davened in the Meah Shearim shtieblach. Walking through Meah Shearim to get there, you are enveloped by the calm and beauty of Shabbos. A special feeling comes over you as you walk there. There are no concerns, no worries, and nothing besides Shabbos.

Entering the shtieblach, there is an aura of serenity and holiness. Walk into a shtiebel and notice how the rooms are appropriately painted in a variety of colors and with designs that add to the feeling that people care about and respect these rooms of tefillah.

There are no signs hanging there admonishing people not to talk during davening; that would be superfluous. Nobody talks. In fact, in the shtiebel, nobody does anything but daven. Davening is a serious undertaking. There is no grandstanding. Every person is in a world by himself, alone with Hashem.

People barely even look at each other, and nobody greets anyone or acknowledges their presence until davening has ended. Then it is but a brief gut Shabbos. The shul is not a place for socializing. It is as if everything has stopped and parked at the entrance to the building.

It sounds strange, but after davening there four times over Shabbos, I felt that this was one of the closest places to Kelm that I had ever seen.

No place is perfect, and I am sure that they have their issues, but I came looking to get recharged and reconnected, and that place certainly accomplished that.

There were visits to my rabbeim and other gutteh Yidden, as well as the opportunity to spend time with family members in Yerushalayim.

There is something I noticed while in Eretz Yisroel. I didn’t hear anybody anywhere talking about the new government and what it means for Yahadus Hachareidis. Now, that doesn’t mean that people weren’t discussing it, and you can’t base the opinions of the entire community on the anecdotal evidence of what I heard or didn’t hear, but emunah and bitachon are part of the way of life in a country where survival depends on miracles.

Too often, we try to make sense of everything, analyzing and seeking explanations for things that happen. In the land where “Einei Hashem Elokecha bah meireishis hashanah v’ad acharis shanah” (Devorim 11:12), people appreciate that everything that happens is because Hashem willed it so, quite often for reasons that are beyond immediate human comprehension.

When things happen that send lesser people into a tizzy, maaminim realize that the Yad Hashem is directing everything. They don’t fret and worry about what will be, because they have faith that Hashem will care for them and what He desires is what will happen.

By razor-thin margins, successful leaders were toppled and replaced with men who are radically different, effecting changes nobody could have predicted. Politicians deliberately lie, distort, plot, scheme and engage in demagoguery, but when we sit around discussing why this one lost, how that one won, how long he can stay in power, what he can accomplish, and whether the one who lost can have a comeback, we are simply wasting our time.

We learn in this week’s parsha (21:5-9) of the mageifah that plagued Am Yisroel in the midbar. The Bnei Yisroel were regularly complaining against Hashem and Moshe. They found fault with their food, the heavenly monn that fell daily. They complained that they didn’t have bread or water. They complained to Hashem and Moshe that they were taken out of Mitzrayim to die in the desert.

Hashem sent poisonous snakes to bite them. Whoever got bitten by a snake died. After many died, the people went crying to Moshe, saying that they realized that they had sinned for speaking against Hashem and Moshe and asked for forgiveness. They begged Moshe to daven to Hashem to remove the poisonous snakes. In response to Moshe’s tefillos, Hashem told him to fashion a snake and place it on a pole. Whoever was bitten by one of the poisonous snakes and had done teshuvah looked up at Moshe Rabbeinu’s copper snake and lived.

Chazal explain the curative power of the copper snake that Moshe made. The Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 29a) states that it was not the snake image that healed those who had been bitten. “Vechi nochosh meimis oh nochosh mechayeh? Elah b’zeman sheYisroel mistaklim klapei maalah umeshabdim es libom l’Avihem shebashomayim hayu misrapim.”

The simple explanation of the Mishnah is that when the Jews looked towards heaven and placed themselves in the care of Hashem, they were healed. Rav Chaim Volozhiner (Nefesh Hachaim 3:12, hagah) expounds further that when the people recognized that Hashem is the healer and had complete faith in His ability to heal them, they became well.

If we want to be protected and healed and cared for, for a positive outcome in all matters, political, communal and personal, it is incumbent upon us to strengthen our emunah and bitachon and ascertain that our priorities are in line with the will of Hashem.

It wouldn’t hurt any of us to make a cheshbon hanefesh every once in a while, discarding anything that could cause machlokes or chillul Hashem. We should seek to do things that make us better people and the world a better place, ignoring all the rest.

We don’t have to understand everything that happens. We don’t have to analyze everything in the now. Our task is to do things to bring us closer to Hashem and find favor in his eyes. What we should concentrate on is doing things that will help bring about the geulah.

May we all merit the trip al kanfei neshorim very speedily and may Tisha B’Av this year be a day of great celebration.

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

A World of Lies

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The Chovos Halevavos, in discussing the ongoing battle with the yeitzer hora, writes that his objective is “le’ameis hasheker,” to make what is false appear to be the truth. In pursuit of that goal, he uses everything we encounter to convince us that what is untrue is fact. Once we buy in to what is not real as reality, it is smooth sailing for him and he can easily convince us to sin and go down the wrong path.

The novi Yeshayahu (59:15) foretold that in the period leading up to the revelation of Moshiach, “vatehi ha’emes ne’ederes,” the truth will be missing.

We are living in that time. The yeitzer hora seems to have perfected his game. We are living at a time when the fiction is so pervasive that it is very difficult to discern truth from lies. Wherever you look, whether in our communities, in this country, or in Eretz Yisroel, many disagreements and machlokes are brought about by people who simply lie to advance their agenda and career.

Look at this country and all the lies that were implemented in an effort to bring down Donald Trump. He coined a name for the fiction that was peddled as fact by the mainstream media. He termed it “Fake News,” and because the name had much truth to it, it stuck and defined the era. This article is not about Trump. It’s about the phenomenon.

For years, Trump was accused of all types of things, from colluding with Russia to get elected to falsely blaming China for the virus which upended the world, disrespecting the arch-expert Dr. Fauci, and a host of other sins. By now, they have all been proven to be lies, untruths concocted by his political enemies to rid themselves of the greatest threat they had ever faced.

When the Russian communists began publishing a newspaper and wanted the people to believe what it said, they called the publication Pravda, which is Russian for truth. Of course, there was no truth there. It was all lies. They were ahead of the times, as today much of what appears in the mainstream media is false.

Until a little while ago, opining that Covid originated in a Wuhan lab was enough to get you cancelled and derided as a conspiracy freak. No more. Evidence is mounting that the virus escaped from a Chinese lab, and even Dr. Fauci does not discount it anymore. The personification of trust himself is no longer perceived by people of truth as the paragon of virtue, he has been felled by the facts and his personal emails. He and his ilk claimed it was all about science and now we are finding out that very little of it was.

Trump’s term in office was cut short by a man very few people gave a chance of winning the election. He rarely left his home to campaign, did few interviews, and hardly ever addressed serious issues publicly. The campaign sold him as the moderate versus Bernie Sanders, the socialist. People voted for him, thinking that by doing so they were staving off the Democrat socialists. But it was a ruse. Once he got into the White House, there was little difference between him and the Left.

In Israel, a man who fashioned himself as the savior of the Right, the settlements, and the Religious-Zionist community swore prior to the recent election that he would never join a coalition with the anti-religious Leftist Yair Lapid and Islamist Mansour Abbas. That man, Naftoli Bennett, went on national television the day before the election and pledged that he would never join with them. He also signed a document affirming the pledge. And then, the election came. On election night, as the numbers were coming in, he said again that his heart was with the Right.

When Netanyahu encountered difficulty in forming a right-wing coalition, Bennett promised that he would not and was not negotiating with Lapid. He would and he was. He lied. His lieutenants lied. His voters were deceived. They had empowered him because they believed he was on their side. Then he clinched the deal with a group of left-wing parties, and for the first time, an Arab party would be part of the coalition. And he is slated to become prime minister.

The coalition came about through lies and is built on lies. And there is nothing anyone can do about it.

Because we live in a world of lies.

There ought to be a law against lying to people throughout a campaign in order to con them into voting for you, but there isn’t, because lying is part of the system. Everyone lies, they say, so when one politician lies a little more and a little better than others, it is not that big an aveirah.

Korach acted as a politician, using cunning to spin the people against Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon Hakohein. Using demagoguery, he portrayed Moshe as heartless and cruel to the poor, forcing people to do silly things, such as putting tzitzis and techeiles on a tallis shekulo techeiles. With deceit and sleight of mouth, he was able to gather around him serious leaders of the Jewish people and present a serious challenge to Moshe’s leadership.

The power of the lie is so potent that not only the known troublemakers Doson and Avirom rallied to Korach’s side and joined his attempt to supplant Moshe and Aharon, but also people who should have known better, the 250 nesi’ei ha’eidah, were convinced to go against everything they had stood for until then and join the revolution to topple Moshe.

How can people be so foolish? How can people who saw how Hakadosh Boruch Hu redeemed the Jewish people from Mitzrayim through Moshe forget what they had seen and experienced? How could people who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai as Moshe alighted to Heaven and returned with the Luchos then go and turn their back on him?

That is the power of a lie.

That is why the yeitzer hora works “le’ameis hasheker,” because when that is accomplished, people lose themselves and fall for anything.

This is why Korach and his clan were heard shouting from their group burial site in the desert, “Moshe emes veSoraso emes. Our insurrection was based on lies. Moshe pursued and is all about the truth. We were all about lies.”

There is room for legitimate debate and discussion, but that is when the dispute is, as Chazal refer to it, a machlokes Hillel v’Shamai, when each side arrived at its point lesheim Shomayim. Both sides arrived at their position via an honest search for the truth and the quarrel centers on arriving at the truth.

Chazal say that sometimes, talmidei chachomim become so engaged in Talmudic discussion that, as they debate, they appear to be enemies, but when the conversation ends and they exit the bais medrash, it becomes obvious that, in fact, they love each other.

This is because they were never enemies. They were arguing with each other because they wanted to gain a true understanding of a sugya. Each one cares so deeply about the truth that they are unable to tolerate the other’s misconception and misunderstanding of the issue.

Each one throws his energy into his attempt to convince the other of the way to understand the Gemara. Both combatants are united in their love of Torah. They continue going back and forth until they are satisfied that they have arrived at the proper conclusion and interpretation of the Gemara. They embrace and a smile breaks out across their faces. “Boruch Hashem, yogata umotzasa,” that smile exclaims. “We now understand the p’shat.”

The new insight that each one has given the other in understanding Torah is what engenders love between them.

If truth is our goal and we remain loyal to it, even when that means swimming upstream and against the tide, we will reach safe, calm waters. The storm will blow over, and the sun of victory and righteousness will shine upon those who remain loyal to the causes of truth and Torah.

If the truth is what inspires us to act, we will never meet the fate of Korach and his followers. If ever we have the need to enter into a machlokes lesheim Shomayim, we will be seeking to advance the cause of truth and not be consumed with bitterness and dissension.

People who get involved in petty fights and are quick to judge others without giving the matter much depth of thought become enmeshed in battles with no positive objective. What is plainly obvious to everyone else escapes them. They become entwined in their pursuit of victory and fail to appreciate the virtue of their opponent, losing their objectivity. They stumble, they fall, and they go down to bitter defeat.

In a world of falsehood, in the almah d’shikrah, we must endeavor to always find the truth and not be taken in by sweet talk, convincing arguments, appealing demagoguery, and clever marketing. The truth is not always comfortable or popular, but we must always pursue it if we wish to feel fulfilled and successful. Quick gains and phantom popularity are fleeting and have no staying power. Ultimately the truth wins out and sustains those who cling to it.

Before going after someone, before jumping to conclusions, before thinking that you understand everything, hear out the other side, and because there are always two sides to a story, the one you heard first is not necessarily the correct one. Everything has to make sense. If it doesn’t, despite how many proponents it has and in how high a position they may be, don’t give up until you understand it. Before taking a course of action or getting into an argument with somebody, think it through to the end and make sure that you are right and your understanding is correct.

We have to make friends with the truth. We have to side with the truth and always champion those in its camp. If we are able to ignore the barbs of people blinded by hate, conceit, corruption and falsehood, we will prevail and eventually our cause will triumph.

Korach had great yichus and a fine reputation, but his judgment was clouded. He was overcome by jealousy and used his intelligence to swing others to his side. They went down with him and earned eternal shame and a tragic death.

Torah represents the ultimate truth, so if you find fault with it, you are lacking understanding.

Don’t fight the truth. Embrace it. Pursue it, fight to understand it, and fight to be part of it.

The yeitzer hora is quite clever. He’s older than you and me and has been at this for a very long time. Don’t fall for his tricks. Don’t let him paint for you false impressions. Don’t let him present you with false narratives. Don’t let him lead you to take part in a machlokes shelo lesheim Shomayim. Don’t let him lead you to impugn the character of fine people. Don’t let him convince you to accept false p’shat in a Gemara - or anything else.

Before making a call, undertaking an action, sending a message, or mouthing a retort, consider whether it will bring about a kiddush Hashem, and if it won’t, don’t pursue it.

Remember that we are students of Moshe and Aharon, children of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov. Go in their ways and the ways of your rabbeim and zaides and bubbes who lived through much more difficult times than we do. When in a situation, think of what they would have done. When an issue arises, think of what the proper course is for a ben and bas Torah with an individualist mission to make the world a better, holier, more loving place.

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

A Different Perception

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This week’s parsha of Shelach is one of the most perplexing and tragic parshiyos of the Torah. A group of twelve leaders were selected to check out the land Hakadosh Boruch Hu had promised the Jewish people centuries back. Now, as the Jewish nation was prepared to enter the coveted area, the people decided that they had to send a delegation on their behalf to see how difficult it would be to capture the land, what type of people lived there, and the quality of its crops.

Hashem allowed Moshe to send the group. He charged them with their mission, and after davening for his talmid, Yehoshua bin Nun, Moshe sent them to scout the land Hashem promised they would be able to enter, enjoying the benefits of the land that flows with milk and honey.

We all know what became of the twelve meraglim and we wonder what type of people they were and how it could happen. All of the twelve leaders, Rashi says (13:3), were kesheirim when they departed for their tour. Upon their return, however, Rashi (13:26) says that just as they left b’eitzah ra’ah, with bad advice, they returned with bad intents. We are left wondering whether they were good people or bad people. If they were bad people, why did Moshe send them? And if they were good people, where did they go so wrong?

The Zohar (cited in Mesilas Yeshorim, Middas Hanekius) states that at the root of the sin of the meraglim was their concern that when Klal Yisroel would settle in Eretz Yisroel, they would be replaced by others and would lose their leadership positions.

The Zohar doesn’t say whether this was a conscious fear or a subconscious fear, and it is possible that the meraglim did not realize that their inner fears were influencing their judgment of what they were seeing as they traversed the land.

Often, we see people acting in ways that damage themselves and others. They get into fights with people over silly things and ascribe to them bad motives for things they said or did. Their ego clouds their judgment and leads them to get entangled in arguments. Their underlying jealousy of certain people causes them to lash out when uncalled for, bringing misfortune onto themselves.

Subconscious fears, even of great people such as the nesi’ei Yisroel who were well respected when they set out, led them to fail. Without regular study of mussar and steady self-improvement, a person can never be sure of himself and whether he is acting properly. We must always examine our approaches and thoughts, ensuring that we are not being led astray by the yeitzer hora, which conjures up different scenarios to entrap us in behavior that damages us.

It happens all the time. A glance at the headlines portrays how politicians, such as those in Israel, promise that they will undertake a certain direction if elected, and then, when the election is over, they do exactly what they promised they would never do.

Naftoli Bennett promised that he would not join with Yair Lapid and the left. Bennett signed an agreement with his potential voters, affirming that his new party, which he named Yeminah - Right, would be loyal to the right and would never empower the left or Yair Lapid. Yeminah’s voters never would have supported the party had they known that it would empower the left. But ever since the election, Yeminah’s founder and leader has been focused strictly on negotiating a rotation agreement with that very same Yair Lapid.

Though he claims to be religious and his voters are largely religious Zionists, he agreed to the rabid anti-religious agenda his partners seek to implement. In a poll released this week, only 34% of his voters said they would vote for him again. He had no problem delivering a speech to the nation on Sunday night acknowledging that the deal was about to be signed, acting as if this is for the betterment of the country.

How can a person be so dishonest? How can he jeopardize his career by going against everything he purportedly stood for?

It is because of his overarching ego and need to be prime minister. Not that he was a big tzaddik to begin with, but after he signed an agreement that the new coalition would go to war with the religious community, he lied and said that this government will be one of unity, embracing all and not cancelling out any sector.

Joe Biden did the same thing, running in the primaries and election as the moderate candidate. Upon solidifying the election, he veered all the way over to the socialist left, empowering the ultra-leftists in every aspect of government, advancing their ridiculous agenda and guiding the country on a path towards moral and financial bankruptcy. He forsook his five decades of moderation in government to earn the accolades of the media and the leftists he ran against. 

The need of the meraglim to maintain power caused them to veer sharply from the lives they had led until that point. Anoshim chashuvim, they set out to map the land that Hashem had promised to their forefathers generations before. Twelve leading men of the Bnei Yisroel were given a mission to appraise the Promised Land. As they crossed into the land that Hashem had promised their forefathers years before, they should have approached every town with the perspective that they were finally meriting to be in the land of destiny, where Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov had lived. They had the merit of being the first members of the Bnei Yisroel to return to the eternal home of the Jewish people.

Had they done so, they would have viewed everything there in the proper perspective. Because they feared that when the Jewish people would follow them into this land, they would lose their positions, they viewed everything with a jaundiced eye.

Most things that we encounter in life can be perceived positively and negatively. We must not permit our biases to taint our vision and perception. We can have firmly held beliefs by which we lead our lives for decades, and then, because of a negiah, we let it all go to waste and sharply veer away from what we know is good and true. Hakadosh Boruch Hu promised this land to us and vouched for its quality and that we would inherit it, because it was created for us.

Had they not permitted their egos to spoil their vision, wherever they would have turned they would have seen the realization of Hashem’s promises. They would have seen a beautiful land that gave birth to strong people and luscious fruits. Instead, they saw people dying and food that was impractical to carry.

They didn’t hear Hashem’s promises reverberating as they traveled throughout the land. Instead, they found fault in everything they saw. They denied the greatness of the land and they denied the Divine promise. They were thus resho’im.

With this, we can understand how Rashi says that at the time they left, they were honorable people, and then he writes that just as they returned with evil advice, they left with that same evil advice. They were honorable people when they left, but their advice was evil because it was tainted by their yeitzer hora and their bad middos, such as gaavah, arrogance.

One day, a chossid of the Chiddushei Horim is said to have come to the rebbe complaining that he was depressed. “Rebbe,” he cried, “the parshiyos the past few weeks have been too much for me to bear. One week we read about the misonenim, the complainers. Then we learn about the meraglim. Then we read about Korach and his followers. Rebbe, I can’t take it. It’s so disheartening.”

Week after week, we read of the challenges facing a new nation struggling to come to terms with the reality of its own existence. We read the stories, we study them, and we wonder how people who were so smart, so gifted and blessed, who had witnessed and experienced unprecedented miracles and salvation, had strayed so far off course.

Since there is an obvious connection between the stories, Chazal wonder about the placement of the account of the meraglim in Parshas Shelach. They ask what the tale of spies dispatched to tour and report on the most splendid country on earth has to do with the story at the end of last week’s parsha pertaining to Miriam.

Parshas Beha’aloscha ended with the story of Miriam, who was punished for speaking ill of her brother, Moshe Rabbeinu.

Chazal explain the connection: “Resho’im halalu ra’u velo lokchu mussar - The wicked ones saw what happened to Miriam but didn’t learn a lesson from it” (Rashi, Bamidbar 13:2, quoting the Tanchumah).

On a simple level, the lesson they should have learned from Miriam’s experience relates to the aveirah of lashon hora. Miriam was punished for speaking negatively about her brother. The meraglim, unaffected by her punishment, spoke lashon hora about the land.

Upon further examination of the two parshiyos, another pattern emerges, adding a deeper dimension to the connection between Miriam’s sin and that of the meraglim.

The meraglim were leaders, prominent and sincere people who apparently set out to do good. They returned with graphs, maps and demographic details that were factual and accurate. Their reports regarding the land were correct and were not disputed by Yehoshua and Koleiv.

Miriam had spoken to Aharon and questioned their brother Moshe’s decision to separate from his wife. “Al odos ha’isha hakushis asher lokach…ki isha kushis lokach.” The conversation continued and they said that Hashem had spoken to Miriam and Aharon as well and they remained married, so why did Moshe think he was different? What Miriam said was true. There were no lies in what she said and no fictitious defamation. So where did she go wrong?

The Torah comments on their conversation, stating, “Veha’ish Moshe onov me’od mikol ha’adam asher al pnei ha’adamah - And the man Moshe was extremely humble, more than any person on the face of the earth” (Bamidbar 12:3).

In the middle of the parsha of Miriam, the Torah informs us that Moshe Rabbeinu was the embodiment of humility and modesty. The mention of Moshe’s anavah seems to be unrelated to what transpired. Why is it here?

The Torah is saying that a person such as Moshe, who is most humble, cannot be accused of acting improperly. Moshe achieved the highest levels attainable by man. How could anyone think that he had acted improperly? The only way he could have done something not in keeping with Hashem’s wishes and commandments would be if his yeitzer hora utilized his unperfected middos to cloud his judgment. A person who has perfected his middos and is fully humble cannot be misled by his ego, for he has none.

Thus, the Torah is informing us that Miriam was wrong for insinuating that Moshe had acted improperly in an interpersonal situation. This is the lesson that the meraglim should have learned from the incident. They should have perceived that in defending Moshe, the Torah discusses his humility, because a person who is humble is not misled by subconscious needs for gratification and supremacy. They should have learned that lesson, but the wickedness in their heart did not allow them to discern that.

The quintessential shliach for his people was Moshe Rabbeinu, whom the Torah testifies was onov me’od, free of personal ambition and calculations. Perhaps it was this that made him the most effective shliach and leader the Jewish people have ever been blessed with.

In our lives, there are inevitably ups and downs. There are good times and times when the good is not perceptible. There are rainy days and sunny days, days when the kids are kvetchy and days when they are adorable. Problems tend to crop up. We can either deal with them or be overwhelmed. Whatever happens, we need to bear in mind that nothing happens by itself just because. It happens for a reason and was willed so by Hakadosh Boruch Hu for a higher purpose.

If we view and understand everything that happens to us as being caused by Hashem, then we can appreciate that even when something seems to be the greatest tragedy imaginable, there is blessing there, there is goodness there, and something positive will come of it. That perception would help us in so many ways in the many different scenarios we encounter in life almost on a daily basis. It will allow us to remain positive no matter what comes our way, difficult as it may appear. Nothing should be able to get us down. With emunah and bitachon, we can conquer all.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Tune Out the Static

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz 

Jewish history is an ongoing cycle of high peaks and low valleys. We arrive in a new country, get acclimated until we feel we belong, and then the eternal hatred begins to manifest itself yet again. Just when we think that this destination is different than the previous places in which we lived, we are reminded that we are not yet home and are strangers in a foreign land. And there we are again.

We have become so accustomed to the great country that is the United States that we feel as if we belong here. When things don’t go our way, when some neighbors revert to their ancient hatred and begin attacking us and marching against us, we become surprised. How can this be happening to us in modern 2021? We have rights. They can’t just attack us in broad daylight and get away with it. Where are the police? Where are the elected leaders we supported, donated to, and voted for? We get lip-service and are calmed until the next outbreak, without having learned the lesson that our home is far away.

What caused the latest round is obvious. Once again, Palestinians attacked Israel, lobbing 4,500 rockets into population centers, unleashing terror, killing and terrorizing innocent civilians. Israel retaliated, as any country would, and promised to go after the bad guys until they have been severely weakened.

Palestinians and their Jew-hating supporters around the world rally to support the attackers. World-wide demonstrations, fake news media reports filled with half-truths and lies, and feckless politicians all do their max to besmirch Israel and amp up the pressure on it to step down and allow the Palestinians another moral and propaganda victory.

The media is filled with articles and pictures depicting poor Palestinians who were attacked by Israel. The true story is never told, explaining that Israel was acting in self-defense. Israel is always the aggressor and the poor Palestinians are the innocent victims. People who don’t know better begin believing the fictitious propaganda they see wherever they turn.

As usually happens in such situations, Israel promises that this time they will take the battle to the end and erase the threat once and for all. This time, as always, world pressure mounts and the government quits the war ahead of a pronounced victory. They buy some time for themselves as the enemy regroups and rebuilds for the next showdown, to be determined at the enemy’s discretion.

For all Israel’s bravado, it is heavily dependent on material, financial and moral support from the United States. Each administration treats Israel differently. Some appreciate the history and the importance of a dependable ally in a treacherous spot on the map. Others have less use for Jews and their state. The past administration was the friendliest and most supportive of Israel in its history. The current is not.

The Democrat Party is now demonstrably in the hands of so-called progressives, socialists in deed and thought. It seems like half of the Washington politicians are hostile to Israel and the other half is afraid of them. Several leading Democrats are working to block arms sales to Israel, while the usual so-called stalwart Democrat friends cower and offer no support for the beleaguered state. Others, such as Senator Bob Menendez, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, joined the brigade.

Majority Leader Schumer, who often prides himself on his support for Israel, was nowhere to be found on this one. He quickly signed onto a call for a ceasefire, equating Israel and Hamas, as if they are equals in the war and has been quiet on the increased anti-Semitism. He fears a primary challenge from the progressive firebrand AOC and is careful not step out of line. As he seeks to conform to the leftist orthodoxy, he dares not utter support for Israel or more than tepid condemnation of anti-Semitism.

In fact, Democrats lack the courage to state the obvious that there is no moral equivalency between Israel, Hamas, Iran, and the other Iran client states and terror groups. The left doesn’t care about Israel and has adopted the cause of the Palestinians as their own. The media is there along with them, highlighting the plight of Palestinians. To quote the New York Times, “Palestinians from all walks of life routinely experience exasperating impossibilities and petty humiliations, bureaucratic controls that force agonizing choices, and the fragility and cruelty of life under military rule.”

There is no mention ever of why Palestinians are subject to repeated security checks because of their history of terror. Everyone ignores that Israel’s many attempts to arrange peace were foiled by Palestinian machinations. Gaza is under Egyptian and Israeli blockades because it is a terror state that uses whatever is allowed into the area to arm itself to do battle, as was seen during the recent skirmish. But instead of focusing on the lies concerning the formation of the Palestinian people and the reason they are in their current situation, the blame is placed squarely on Israel.

It’s all about impressions and creating sympathetic impressions, facades, and narratives. This time, the Israelis lost the propaganda battle hands down, and that has serious repercussions there and around the world. Passions have been inflamed. The lies have taken hold and supporters of the people who are portrayed as suffering victims are seeking revenge. They are marching in capitols around the world and attacking Jews in cities in which they have felt safe, until now.

BLM, which seems to be charting the new path of the Democrat party, has stripped away the history and successfully reframed the conflict as a racial issue. When the group tweeted its support for the Palestinians, the BDS group responded, “Thank you for your solidarity. From Ferguson to Palestine, our struggles against racism, white supremacy and for a just world are united.” There you have the new perspective in a nutshell.

As the U.S. negotiates a nuclear pact with Iran, the mullahs sense weakness and unleashes its proxies on Israel. Hamas is funded and armed by Iran, as is Hezbollah to the north of Israel, yet the world’s largest sponsor of terror pays no price for pursuing their war. The administration’s greater goal is achieving an arrangement with them regarding nuclear weapons and is thus prepared to let everything else slip by as if it didn’t happen.

It has been previously shown that appeasement of terror and of Iran leads to further terror, while standing up to them, freezing their income, and coalescing mainstream Arab states to ally with Israel against Iran lead to hopes for peace. The worst approach is to be sitting with Iran as its client Hamas shoots rockets at America’s longtime ally. With justification, Iran now views itself as the victor in this go-around.

When the previous administration followed through on the old promise to bring the US embassy to Israel’s capital in Yerushalayim, Palestinians barely responded, they knew there would be serious repercussions. Strength led to peace. The current administration has awakened evil by demonstrating weakness.

Meanwhile, radical leftists who worship at the church of progressive secular orthodoxy have taken hold of the country’s schools, from the kindergarten level through graduate school. America’s young are fed a diet of anti-religious, anti-white, and increasingly anti-Israel lies. In the “woke” system being fostered, there is no absolute truth and no facts. All people are entitled to their own truth, and the way they view themselves and their position in society must be accepted by everyone, irrespective of its relation to fact.

When the current tense situation is calmed and then forgotten, Biden’s policies will begin kicking in, and we will find ourselves in a situation we have not yet faced in this country. We should do all we can to work for our people’s physical safety, but we must bear in mind that the country’s leftist slide does not bode well for us in the long-term. Governmental intrusion into our way of life can only be expected to increase, while sympathy for our people, land, and moral and religious beliefs will likely weaken.

What are we to do? How are we to react?

A return to Republican control would provide a respite, but it is very difficult to bring about change without a media helping to inform the people as to what is really going on. Without being able to educate people of the truth, it is very hard to change public opinion and turn around the floundering ship. Most people are never exposed to the real story. Mainstream media and social media are overwhelmingly dominated by the leftist crowd, and they are the main influencers of people’s thoughts and opinions. They block out anything that does not conform with their ideology. It is difficult to fight something with nothing, and as long as the media is able to cancel out right-wing leaders, ideas and opinions, it is folly to expect people, on their own, to spontaneously reject what they have been fed since grade school and is constantly reinforced.

But we are the eternal people. Many have tried to rid the world of us, yet we are still here. We take the long view and recognize that we are here for a higher purpose. Just last week, we celebrated Shavuos, the days upon which we received the Torah, which gave us our mandate and set us on a higher plane. Shavuos also marks when “sinah yordah l’olam,” the intense hatred the nations bear for us was manifested. They go together. Greatness has its price, and ours is levied in the form of jealousy and deeply felt animosity.

The Torah gives us the strength of purpose to be able to withstand the whiplash we suffer at the hands of our enemies. It provides us with chochmah and daas to recognize what is important and what is trivial, enabling us to excel at what is vital.

The Torah provides us with the ability to shine light on our situation and find our way through the darkness. Fidelity to Torah builds us into great people and enables us to separate fact from fiction, and good from bad, leading lives that are fulfilling and satisfying, regardless of what is going on around us and around the world.

We learn in this week’s parsha (8:11) how Aharon Hakohein lifted the levi’im and inducted them to perform their avodah in the Mishkon. He raised them literally and figuratively, placing them on a more exalted level, where their lives revolved around holiness and they weren’t encumbered by the worries, concerns and pressures that confound other people. They were enveloped by Hashem in His cocoon, studying and observing the Torah, and performing their obligations in the Bais Hamikdosh.

They led blissful lives and we can all do the same. I turn your attention to the famous statement of the Rambam (at the end of Hilchos Shmittah) that every person who separates himself and dedicates his life to serving Hashem, learning Torah, walking upright the way he was created to, and freeing himself from the many calculations people make is raised to be kodesh kodoshim. He will be rewarded in this world and the next, and will receive everything he needs to live on, just as kohanim and levi’im do.

We can achieve holiness in the here and now, regardless of the world’s situation and the rise of our enemies if we tune it all out and dedicate ourselves to properly observing the Torah and fulfilling our obligations we celebrated receiving on Shavuos and thank Hashem for daily.

May we all realize our abilities and achieve our destinies for which we were brought to this world. It starts with tuning out the static.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Good and Holy

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Shavuos is the shortest of the three major Yomim Tovim when the Jewish people would make their way to the Bais Hamikdosh. Although the chag has only one day (and two in chutz la’aretz), the world was created for this day, which defines us.

Kofah aleihem har kegigis.” Chazel tell us that Hakadosh Boruch Hu, so to speak, held Har Sinai over the Jewish people and told them that either they accept upon themselves to study and observe the Torah or He would drop the mountain upon them and they would be buried alive.

Many ask why Hashem forced them to accept the Torah under the penalty of death. Many answers are given. Among them is that the world was created for Torah and for the Bnei Yisroel to be mekabel it. If they would not agree to study and be governed by the laws of the Torah, the world would cease to have a purpose and would be returned to its original inert state.

The path was laid by the avos, Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, and passed on to the shevotim and to their children. In Mitzrayim, the offspring grew exponentially, but sank to levels of depravity that endangered their ability to continue their glorious heritage.

Before they reached the point of no return, Hashem redeemed them, miraculously removing them from Mitzrayim. They traversed the Yam Suf to escape the clutches of decadence and immorality and began the trek back to the hallowed path of their forefathers.

After 49 days of preparation, they were ready to fulfill their destiny and be delivered the Torah. They recited the immortal words, “Naaseh venishma,” accepting upon themselves the Torah’s obligations and set the world on its proper trajectory.

At that moment, Klal Yisroel proclaimed that although they were mortals fashioned of flesh and blood, they were willing to live on a higher and loftier plane, with the Torah as their guide.

Malochim had objected to the notion of giving the Torah to humans, but after the Bnei Yisroel demonstrated their worthiness, the angels affixed crowns to their heads (Shabbos 88a). There are different interpretations as to what the crowns consisted of, what their significance was, and what they accomplished. Most likely, they did not resemble the adorable golden paper crowns that children wear to celebrate Shavuos and the receipt of their siddurim and Chumoshim, but those crowns keep the message alive and remind us of the heights we reached and can attain even in our day.

Shavous contains the power and potency evident on the day 3,333 years ago, when the Torah was first given to us. Every year, on chag Mattan Toraseinu, the gift that was first given at Sinai is regifted to those who have undertaken the proper preparations and made themselves worthy. Even in our day, when tumah is all around, there is kedusha among those who are able to keep themselves immune to prevalent depravity and armed against the constant threats to our fundamental inbred decency.

The further a person is removed from Torah pursuits, the more he is assaulted by tumah, stupidity and ideas that weaken his inherent goodness. These are not necessarily solely relegated to foreign and secular platforms. The yeitzer hora has succeeded in tainting our souls while hiding in plain view and using familiar words and concepts in places people feel safe. 

On Shavuos, we remain awake studying Torah to demonstrate that Torah rules over everything physical. There is no sleep and no fatigue on the eve of Kabbolas HaTorah, for the Torah is what energizes us and gives our lives meaning.

The Meshech Chochmah at the end of Parshas Yisro writes that until Mattan Torah, people were only able to serve Hashem through ruchniyus. When the Torah was given, acts that were previously purely gashmiyus and physical were invested with kedusha. Upon the acceptance of the Torah, people were empowered to sanctify themselves and all human needs and instincts.

That is why Hashem told Moshe Rabbeinu at the s’neh, the burning bush, “She’al na’alecha mei’al raglecha - Remove your shoes from your feet.” He was saying, “Remove the vehicles for your gashmiyusdike physical lives as you approach Me.”

Prior to Matan Torah, only angels could approach Hashem. After Matan Torah, Hashem told the Jewish people, “V’anshei kodesh tihiyun li – And you shall be holy people” (Shemos 22:30). This means exactly what it says: to be people and to be holy while living as people.

The Torah doesn’t ask, or demand, of us to be malochim. It wants us to function as people, doing what people do, but being on an elevated Torah level. We need to be good people, functional parents, siblings, spouses and friends, who are holy as we follow the Torah and continuously grow and excel.

On Shavuos, we celebrate this concept. Hashem gave us the Torah to guide us humans as we exist and thrive in this world. We appreciate the potential of what we can achieve and of the heights we can reach by delving into Torah and dedicating ourselves to all it commands us to do. But through it all, we remain human, anshei kodesh - human, but holy. The two are not mutually exclusive.

The Gemara states that while regarding other Yomim Tovim the rabbis disagree how much of the day should be dedicated to the purely spiritual, on Shavuos “hakol modim deba’inon nami lochem.” They all agree that we need to please the more physical side, as well.

We can understand this to mean that on Shavuos, we need “lochem, to proclaim that the physical is part of the Shavuos celebration. We demonstrate through our actions that Torah has affected and touched our base desires as well.

Chazal (Pesikta Zutrasa, Va’eschanon) state, “Chayov odom liros ess atzmo ke’ilu mekabel Torah miSinai, shene’emar, ‘Hayom hazeh nihiyeisa le’am. Every day a person is obligated to conduct himself as if he accepted the Torah that day at Har Sinai.’” We are all familiar with this directive regarding Yetzias Mitzrayim. In fact, it is the central theme of the leil haSeder. We don’t think about it on Shavuos, however, and it may be news to some of us.

Imagine if today were the day you received the Torah. Imagine standing at Har Sinai and hearing the words of the Aseres Hadibros being recited for all to hear on the loudest loudspeaker imaginable. Imagine all the other sounds. Imagine the sight of all the Yidden standing at the mountain, their neshamos - and yours - rising to unprecedented heights. Imagine leaving Mitzrayim knowing little about your heritage or holiness and becoming a better person every day as you walked through an arid desert.

Then imagine how empty and meaningless your life would be without Torah. No Torah, no learning, no davening, no Shabbos, no tefillin, no Yom Tov, nothing that your life is centered around, nothing that gives your life the value and meaning it now has. You wouldn’t have a shul to go to and would have no reason to go to one altogether. Think of everything you do in your day, week and year. Now imagine that there was no Torah. It is what gets us out of bed in the morning and makes our lives worth living.

Without it, life is an empty daily jumble of meals, posts, clips, silly chats and other banal trivialities.  And when its all over, such people are left empty, bored and without meaningful substance.

Imagine that you came from that world and today is the day you discovered the Torah. Imagine that today you were invited to study Hashem’s word, to bask in His glow, to find meaning, satisfaction and joy in your life. How excited you would be! How grateful and how dedicated!

Today is that day. “Ke’ilu mekabel Torah miSinai.

Appreciate it. Show it. Feel it.

Hayom hazeh! Today and every day. Despite the degeneration of the world, despite the struggles we experience with every tefillah and the challenge of concentrating fully when we learn, despite the many forces competing for our attention, we have a new Kabbolas HaTorah.

Human shortcomings are but a hindrance that we can overcome.

In times of old, this concept was widely understood. There was a natural reverence for Torah and its scholars even among the unlearned. In Volozhin, local homeowners would line up at the train station before each zeman to vie for the honor of pulling the wagons carrying arriving talmidim and their luggage. The yeshiva learned through Shas, and when the yeshiva celebrated a siyum, the local people would arrive at the yeshiva. They didn’t come to partake in a great feast; I doubt that there were any of the delicacies that we enjoy at a simple Kiddush these days. They came because they wanted the honor of serving those who were marking a milestone in the Torah study. They were the waiters.

Imagine that taking place nowadays. The yeshiva would hold a festive party, the bochurim and yungeleit would celebrate their great achievement with a festive meal, and the upstanding members of the community would go from table to table dispensing the food and cleaning up after.

Nobody asked them to come, they would come on their own. The townspeople of Volozhin would come to the siyum because they appreciated Torah and lomdei Torah. It was their distinct honor to carry the lomdei Torah and their belongings to the yeshiva, and it was their pleasure to partake in the simcha of the completion of yet another masechta by serving as the waiters.

It was special to them. It was valuable to them, as if it was given today. They treated it with respect. They treasured the Torah and the people who studied it. It was their pride and joy.

We hear these things and smile. They are charming reminders of a world that was. Of a world that we should be looking to recreate.

Shavuos is a time to refocus on what Torah means to us and on how blessed we are to be able to spend time by a Gemara or Chumash or Shulchan Aruch, surrounded by more talmidei chachomim and yeshiva bochurim than there have been since the days of Sura and Pumpidisa.

The Klausenberger Rebbe arrived in America after the Second World War having lost his wife and eleven children. He married a daughter of the Nitra Rov. Rav Leizer Silver, the legendary rov of Cincinnati and one of the most prominent rabbonim in America of those years, was a special guest at the second sheva brachos, which was held in Mount Kisco. As he rose to speak, he announced that he came bearing a gift for the chosson and kallah, a check for two hundred and fifty-eight dollars.

“If you wonder how come I am giving that amount, I’ll tell you,” he said. “It’s because that check represents everything I had in my bank account. Every last penny. The rebbe is a talmid chochom and he will produce talmidei chachomim. I would give everything to be part of that. I wish I had more to give!”

The speech of the quintessential Litvishe rov resonated with the crowd. They got his message about what would yet be and the glorious future that America might have as a makom Torah. He was telling them not to despair, not to give up, and not to say, “It can’t happen here.”

Moreover, he was saying, “We are still here, holding on to Sinai, and as long as we cherish and revere and support those who learn and teach Torah, we have a future.”

We open our arms wide and accept the Torah just as those who came before us have done for thousands of years. We cherish its words, raising our children and helping guide them to see the honey under each letter.

It is who we are and what we are about. Our lives revolve around it. It is Torah.

With our feet dragging through the dust of life, of temptations, of parnossah and health challenges, we persist in walking with our eyes on Him and on His Torah, knowing that it is meant for us, to give us the tools to climb higher.

Modim anachnu loch shesamta chelkeinu m’yoshvei bais hamedrash. Thank You, Master of the universe, for allowing us to have a connection with Torah, to have tasted the truest joy of all.

We are the most blessed people, living in the most blessed time. Let us show Hashem, our families and ourselves that we appreciate all that we have been given to be able to realize our purpose in this world.

Let us demonstrate that we are worthy of all that we have and use what Hashem has given us to enhance our own lives and those of our families and those around us. Let us show through our actions that we strive to become holier and better.

On Shavuos and all year round, let us get closer to Torah, learning better and on a deeper level so that it touches our souls and brings us closer to where we were at Har Sinai.

We can get there.

When the Bnei Yisroel who had gathered to receive the Torah proclaimed, “Naaseh venishma,” 600,000 malochim came down to earth and tied two crowns onto each person, one for naaseh and the other for nishma. When they sinned with the Eigel, 120,000 angels of destruction came and removed the crowns.

Rav Dovid Cohen, rosh yeshivas Chevron, in his sefer Biurei Chochmah (page 75), quotes from from the Leshem that the malochim only removed the crowns that were tied to the Jews’ “guf and chomer,” but the crowns remain in the “neshamos and penimiyos” of the Jewish people.

Without getting into the depths of what that means, what we can understand is that those crowns still adorn our souls, and “inside” we are and shall remain holy. Let’s not put ourselves down. Let us not say that we can’t reach those heights. Let’s not say that we can’t be holy and can’t be expected to be holy. We are and we can be.

We have been through a lot, especially over the past few days. Let’s show what we’re made of. Let us show that we are tough and good and holy.

Gut Yom Tov.