Wednesday, June 29, 2016

It’s About Us

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
What do people care about? What are people interested in? This question intrigues newspaper publishers, as well as rabbis, teachers and anyone who wants to reach out effectively to the public.
Oftentimes, communicators, teachers, rabbeim, rabbonim and fundraisers wonder if people still care about anything.
We’ve all read about the passion and determination of generations past, how people lived for their communities and gave freely of themselves for others. We read how teenagers spent every waking moment under Mike Tress’ direction at 616 Bedford Avenue, assembling packages for survivors in Displaced Persons camps after World war II, and how he dispatched armies of children with pushkas in their hands to go forth and collect pennies for Vaad Hatzalah.
The older generation rose up to the daunting challenge of rebuilding a nation that had nearly been decimated. Intrepid souls rallied to rejuvenate survivors, helping them acclimate, finding them jobs, getting their children enrolled in schools, and building a communal infrastructure. Fueled by necessity, they banded together, pooled resources and rebuilt everything from scratch.
We tell the tales of the heroes of that time and we wonder about our time. Do we see people banding together for causes with all their energy, ability and passion? Passion is the key word; it seems as if today it is sorely lacking. We do what we have to, but we do it without passion.
We don’t get excited about anything anymore.
We are blessed with schools boasting beautiful buildings and excellent rabbeim and teachers. Do we get involved with the schools and appreciate what they have been doing for us?
Effective communal organizations have arisen in cities across the country, but there seems to be a lack of passion. Do people truly appreciate the changes these endeavors have brought?
We seem to be afflicted by a bout of apathy.
It wouldn’t be cynical to say that there was a time when people cared about each other, about their communities, and about communal organizations, bikur cholims, schools and the like. People cared about the news. They sat glued to their radios to hear the latest news on the hour. They read newspapers for the news and cared about what was going on around the world.
They cared about people who had stepped out of line. They got worked up about issues. They cared about kiruv and followed the latest news about Soviet Jewry. They were consumed by the goings-on in Eretz Yisroel.
Those who study generations and psychology say that our generation is plagued by self-importance, narcissism, and getting quick and instants highs. Apparently, not enough people in our generation get excited from a gorgeous esrog, a 50-year-old putting on tefillin for the first time, or a five-year-old kid rescued from public school saying Shema day after day.
In the wider world, meaningful dialogue has been replaced by short, soulless tweets or one-liners. Everything is so superficial and farcical.
We try so hard to get people interested in each other, in good causes, in Torah, in the world, in things that should concern them. And too often, we fail and say that the generation is doomed. They don’t care about anything but their toys, phones, cars and wines.
That was until the Cleveland team won the basketball championship last week. People were jumping up and down with glee and happiness. They really cared. They were really happy. The joy was palpable, as people across the country sent each other clips and quotes and updates.
Apparently, there are still things people care about.
Our generation is not totally unabsorbed. There are things that really grab them.
Different things.
Suddenly, with that basketball victory, we saw it all on display - raw emotion, passion, heart, exuberance and zeal. People of all ages - especially those with connections to C-Town - threw their heads back and shouted, cried and hugged. They came alive like inflatable dolls suddenly filled with air.
What happened?
More relevantly, what does it mean for us?
There is a pulse after all, so why aren’t we seeing it more often?
What does that team and its star player have that we don’t?
We have battles in our world as well. We have heroes, leaders and champions, yet people remain apathetic about them. Look around. Scores of Jews are leaving France, traveling to Israel to escape raging anti-Semitism, and no one seems to care. A generation ago, the plight of Russian Jewry consumed our community, as people wondered who would teach them, who would support them, and whom they would marry. People worried that they would leave Russia only to become lost here, and they rallied to be there for them.
Yet, here we are, a quarter century later, and very few are wondering about what will happen to the French children arriving in Eretz Yisroel. How many people know what is going on in Europe? And how many truly care? When was the last time you heard anyone talk excitedly about Be’er Hagolah or Sinai Academy, the two foremost schools in the United States catering to children of Soviet immigrants?
How many people care about Lev L’Achim, Shuvu and other Israeli kiruv groups? And how many care about Oorah, other than to laugh along with Fiveish?
Do our children know the names of people like Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Grossman and where he lives? Do we tell them about heroes like Rabbi Tzvi Schwartz of Rechovot and what he does every day?
Do they know about the revolutionaries in our midst changing stale mindsets about all sorts of topics and turning people on to Torah? Do they know of the heroes who run Tomchei Shabbos programs to feed hardworking people with honor? Do they appreciate the people who support so many of the community mainstays with little or no fanfare?
How about those who provide a warm shoulder to cry on when there is none, or friendship in a lonely world? Why all the negativity all the time? Why do so many people never look around to see the good in our world?
They know how many points a 6′8″ once-in-a-generation athlete scored in a game. Do they know which cities have communal kollelim or day schools? How many Jewish kids are in Catholic schools and how many are in Jewish religious schools? How many kids are waiting for someone to come along and reach out to them?
What happened to the passion for kiruv?
Do we even care anymore about the millions of Jews being lost to our people forever? Or do we just say, “Oh, look, there used to be a Reform temple here and now it’s gone,” as if that’s good news? It’s not. The temple is gone, replaced by a school, shul, nursing home or yeshiva because its members are gone, not because they changed for the better. They have departed from Yiddishkeit altogether and are even more lost and unreachable.
We wring our hands helplessly and say, “What do you want from us? It’s not our fault. There is so much going on and we can’t possibly keep up with everything. We are bombarded by news and causes and updates on a minute-by-minute basis. It’s hard to get too involved with anything before the next email, text message or WhatsApp rolls in. What can we do? We have to pay tuitions and mortgages, and keep up with the rat race. Life isn’t as simple as it used to be in the pre-iPhone days.”
That is certainly true. But when something that we care about, something that touches our soul, happens, we get all into it. Sports may be a bad example, but it shows that it is possible to get people to care, focus and remain engaged. It shows that passion is not dead. People do care about something; they can still get excited about things outside of themselves.
Would it be sacrilegious to say that following a great ball player in action can provide a rush that a magnificent esrog does not? That a sports team’s victory is more meaningful than a 50-year-old putting on tefillin for the first time and a greater thrill than rescuing a five-year-old child from public school?
If so, why? And what can we do about it?
In this week’s parsha of Shelach, we read how the meraglim returned from scouting out the Promised Land and turned the people against Moshe, Hashem and the Land of Israel. Knowing the people’s weaknesses, they played down the bounty and blessings of the land.
During their mission, as in life, they saw things transpiring that could be viewed as positive and negative. Invariably, they chose the negative interpretation each time. The fruit is too big. The people are too strong. Nothing is good. Hashem promised this place to us and our forefathers. Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov lived there and saw the eternal blessings of the place, but that was of no consequence to the meraglim.
“Efes, ki az ha’am. Eretz ocheles yoshveha hee,” they said. We’ll never make it; forget about it. Let’s find some better place to move to. Let’s dump Moshe and start over.
What caused them to be so mistaken? How could they veer so far from the pasture of goodness?
One hint is the posuk that says, “Vanehi be’eineinu kachagavim vechein hayinu be’eineihem.” They viewed us as small grasshoppers (Bamidbar 13:33).
They were concerned about how others looked at them. Insecure in their beliefs, they sought to find favor in the eyes of the Canaanites. They imagined that they were viewed as pygmy interlopers.
This is the age-old Jewish mistake of looking to those outside of our community, seeking their praise and adulation. Instead of recognizing our position in this world and seeking to find favor in the eyes of our fellow Jews, helping them, supporting them, and doing what is proper in the eyes of Hashem, we invariably seek to blend in and earn accolades. If a frum paper writes about us, we aren’t impressed, but a mention in a goyishe paper and the whole family and neighborhood breaks out in a burst of ethnic pride.
The insecurity of the meraglim caused them to be unhappy, resulting in their negativity about something as blessed as Eretz Yisroel, the mekor of our belief and the place so integral to Torah, our way of life and our history. And they were able to convince the people that Eretz Yisroel is just a farce.
Their insecurity was brought on by a lack of enthusiasm for the word of Hashem. It caused them to view themselves through the prism of the locals, and brought on a fear that if the nation would enter the land, they would be supplanted and lose their leadership positions. Their own selfish, petty, subconscious thoughts set in motion contrived conspirational thinking, setting back our people, keeping us in the desert for forty years, sending us into golus and evoking the anger of Hashem.
The people were easily convinced by the meraglim because they also shared apathy toward the words of Hashem and Moshe. Their careers weren’t in jeopardy; they didn’t see the Canaanites to fear them. All their physical and spiritual needs were provided by Hashem as they traveled in the midbar. There was no excuse for them to fall for the lies propagated by the meraglim. They should have recognized the truth in the arguments of Kalev and Yehoshua.
Their apathy and lack of excitement caused them to be led astray by what they should have known was fiction.
At a gathering of rabbonim from across the pale of Jewish settlement, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik became upset with something one of the rabbis said. The person who was sitting next to Rav Chaim remarked, “What do you want from him? He’s nebach not smart.” Rav Chaim answered, “When it comes to zeiner zachen, his things, he’s smart. Apparently, Torah iz nit zeiner ah zach, Torah is not one of his things. That is why I am upset at him. Torah darf zein unzere zach. Torah must be our thing.”
If the Jews were able to be swayed by the meraglim, it was because Eretz Yisroel iz nit geven zei’ir ah zach. They weren’t sufficiently tied to the land and excited about it. The thought of walking in the footsteps of Avrohom Avinu didn’t excite them, so they lost it.
We need to be excited about mitzvos. We need to feel connected to Torah. We need to appreciate the many blessings we have and not take them for granted. Torah must be our thing, as must mitzvos and maasim tovim. We have it so much better than previous generations that we lose appreciation for the freedoms we are granted and the ease with which we can practice our religion.
But that shouldn’t lead to apathy. We must be alert for opportunities to do good and be thankful for everything we have. We should get excited when we learn a Mishnah, a halacha or a Gemara. We should appreciate the value of learning even one posuk and performing even one mitzvah, strengthening us and the world.
Mitzvos are about us. Torah is about us. Simcha is about us. They expand and elevate our lives, giving us reasons to live and be productive. They aren’t simply restricting rules, but methods to make us bigger and better people. And who doesn’t want that?
Lebron, a star basketball player returned home to Cleveland, promising that he would win the big prize for them. He said that they know what it means to work hard and that he would sweat for them. His toil for victory would reflect what they were doing in factories. It would reflect the worker standing in the hot kitchen of a diner and the mechanic sliding under a car to make repairs. He was them and they were him.
His battle was their battle and his triumph was theirs.
So they cared deeply. It was about them.
The allure of sports is that it allows people to attach themselves to something bigger than themselves and dream of heroics and victories. They feel one with their team and heroes, and when the team wins, they win. Everyone wins. When there is not much going on in your life, that appeal is overwhelming. No one is apathetic about their team. No one is unexcited when their hero brings home the medal.
Torah is our team. Torah is our goal. Torah is what we are all about.
A young bochur in one of the great yeshivos received a dreaded draft notice. He was called away from his Gemara for life on the Polish front. Someone suggested that he ask Rav Chaim Soloveitchik for help, so the young man traveled to Warsaw, where Rav Chaim was staying at the time.
He arrived and made his way to Rav Chaim’s lodgings, only to hear that Rav Chaim was in the middle of meeting a large group of rabbonim, roshei yeshiva and askonim, discussing issues of importance to Klal Yisroel. The anteroom was filled with attendants and gabboim of the illustrious personages, but the bochur pushed head.
The prospect of spending years in the army, eating vegetables for sustenance in the company of coarse soldiers, was a lot more unpleasant than having to fight for a moment of Rav Chaim’s time.
An attendant informed him that there was no way he would be allowed entry to the room, but the bochur insisted that this was pikuach nefesh. The attendant was adamant; no one was to disturb the meeting. The argument grew louder. The noise reached the great men in the room and, finally, Rav Chaim appeared in the doorway. With a glance, he took in the situation. He excused himself from his distinguished colleagues and sat down with the bochur in a corner of the room, listening closely and promising to help.
When the conversation concluded, Rav Chaim returned to the distinguished group he had kept waiting and apologized, offering a succinct explanation. “Everything that we discuss, deliberate and decide here is for Klal Yisroel. Rabbosai, that yeshiva bochur, who wants an exemption from the army so that he can return to his Gemara…he is Klal Yisroel!”
Are we always cognizant of the fact that every one of our children is Klal Yisroel - that we are Klal Yisroel? Do we treat every Jew as if he is a member of our team? Do we understand that we belong to each other, that we are here to help each other and bring the championship to our team?
When a fan goes to a game, he dresses up in the team uniform and projects himself on the field. After all, it’s his team. When the team wins, he celebrates and lingers in the stadium. But when the game gets off to a bad start, with the pitcher giving up home runs to the other team, the fan can simply leave his seat, return to his car and go home. For sports fans, as wrapped up as they can be in the game, they are spectators, not players. They come and go as they please; they are not forced to sweat out the game on the field.
In life, and especially in leading a Torah life, we are not merely spectators. We are all players. We are in the action and able to make a difference. If we try hard, we can help our team win. But if we are apathetic and unexcited, we cannot contribute to the team. We are then losers.
Summer is here. School is out. Country, here we come. Camps are filled with smiling children.
Now is a perfect opportunity to get children excited about our club. We do that by speaking with them on their level, talking to them in a way they can understand and relate to, connecting with them and letting them know who they are and what we are all about. Speak to them in a language they comprehend. Relate to them. Explain things to them in a way that excites them. Don’t force-feed them and scare them into following. Make it come alive with joy and optimism.
And it’s not just children. It’s adults too.
A generation of parents was forced to part from beloved children in concentration camps or under a hail of bullets. Always, their parting message was the same. “Gedenkt. Remember that you are a Jew.”
Nothing else was important at that moment. You’re on a team; make sure you connect and belong.
We’re fortunate to raise our children in safety, boruch Hashem. Is that a reason for them to lose out? We can do it. It starts with speaking to ourselves. When we feel it, they will too.
Let them know that it’s about them.
Spread the word. It’s about us. It’s our thing. It’s our team.
Let’s get excited.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Let’s Be Great

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The weekly news cycle, which includes the events and stories that recently transpired, captivates the country and molds people’s opinions. It informs and educates, and saddens and gladdens those who follow the fast-moving train. But for those who are sensitive enough to perceive that the rapid flow of news contains relevant messages with lessons for personal growth, the daily flow can also inspire.
The country is in the grips of an election season. In an era of flawed politicians and imperfect public servants, the candidates for president leave much to be desired. One is steps away from a criminal indictment, were it not for her deep connections and importance to her party. The truth is not the motivator; it is the campaign’s agenda that sets the narrative. Arrogance and blind ambition are the prime motivators. A lust for power radiates from the faces of politicians. They lie and navigate around the news seeking an advantage.
Last week, we saw such an example. Donald Trump, who has made protection from terrorism a mainstay of his platform and rode that to victory, faltered when it counted. The man who bases his campaign on the premise of a safer country and stronger law enforcement was not able to properly react to a homegrown Islamic terror attack. A radical Islamist who repeatedly pledged his loyalty to ISIS shot up a club, killing 49 people, and yet his crime is blamed on guns and used to promote liberal agendas, rather than to confront the evil that seeks to do to the West what it has done to Arab countries.
The opportunity to push the Right’s agenda was presented to Trump on a silver platter, yet he failed to deliver the right message. More Republicans separated from him. He got caught up with trivialities and his ego.
By doing so, he allowed his opponent, Hillary Clinton, to steal the moment. The woman who is flailing along with a lackluster campaign was able to use the attack to her advantage, as strange as that would seem. Running with the benefit of a mammoth fundraising operation; influential political aides; her husband, the former president; connections with power-brokers; and all the media in the country on her side, she was able to grab the opportunity handed to her by a Republican candidate who is spectacularly unprepared. She struggled mightily against her Democrat opponent, an old Jewish socialist from Vermont, yet when an event transpired that could have proven catastrophic to her candidacy, she triumphed.
The same thing happened the week before, when the State Department’s own internal investigator found that Mrs. Clinton has broken the rules. Instead of jumping on the opportunity to portray his opponent as unworthy of the office she seeks, Trump tied himself in knots of silliness, creating a storm of opposition to himself and allowing the media and political class to avert the glare from Mrs. Clinton’s malfeasance. Again, his ego got in the way.
For with the contemporary means of communicating, politicians have to master only one medium to triumph: the art of rhetoric. Everything is at most, only skin deep. There is no attempt to really understand an issue and analyze solutions. The only thing that seems to matter in this election cycle is a great sound bite, a tweet that can go viral, or a great line for use in a debate.
It’s all about talk. It’s not about explanations or answers, firm positions or the truth. Accomplishment, decency, experience and reliability matter little. It’s about style and spin. The people are as superficial as their leaders and don’t seem to care about much. The economy, terrorism, jobs, a world in crisis - they are all simply talking points not to be taken seriously.
We must ensure that the state of the world at large is not reflected in our camp as well. We need to banish those who rise to positions of influence through rhetoric and sound bites alone, and strengthen those with real ideas and genuine accomplishments.
Style is important, but leadership must be about substance. We have to be intelligent enough to judge people by what they do, not by what they say they will do. 
Those committed to a life of Torah, who probe the depth of pesukim and dissect the words of the Talmud, Rishonim, Acharonim and baalei machshovah, become better people, with depth and greatness. Talmidei chachomim are not about empty words and cute soundbites, they are real.
One Friday evening, the Brisker Rov sat on his porch before Maariv, watching a child of one of the mispalelim at his minyan playing nearby. Suddenly, the rov saw that the boy was holding a button. He rushed to him and said, “Shabbos!” instructing the boy to drop the muktzeh button.
Then the rov went into the room where the minyan was held and apologized to the boy’s father. He explained, “Aveidas kotton le’aviv, an object found by a child belongs to his father. Your son found a button and was playing with it. I told him to drop it because of Shabbos, but I have to ask you mechilah, because the button I caused him to drop was yours.”
The greatness of the Brisker Rov was that he not only admonished the child, as most others would have done, but he also appreciated the entirety of the episode and therefore immediately apologized to the father for causing him a loss. Halacha drove him. One minute he could admonish a child, while the next he could apologize to an adult for doing what he had to do.
Many people know how to scream, “Shabbos!” but fail to perceive the entire situation, which might indicate that they owe someone an apology. It’s easy to judge others, but the Torah demands that it be accompanied by the ability to understand all angles.
In Parshas Beha’aloscha, which is read this week in the golah, the posuk (11:1) describes the sin of the misonenim: “Vayehi ha’am kemisonenim ra be’einei Hashem - The people were misonenim and Hashem was angered and caused a fire to burn that devoured the edges of the camp.”
Rashi explains that the word misonenim means excuse. The people were looking for an excuse to depart from the way of Hashem. They complained that they were traveling for three days straight and it was too difficult for them. “Vayichar apo,” Hashem became angry, because the trek was for their ultimate good, so that they would enter Eretz Yisroel quicker.
The people cried out to Moshe, who davened on their behalf to Hashem, and the fire sank into the ground.
Immediately thereafter, the posuk relates that asafsuf (eirev rav-Rashi), followed by the Bnei Yisroel, began bemoaning the lack of meat for them to eat. Rashi points out that they had left Mitzrayim with plenty of sheep and cattle, but they were once again searching for something to complain about, so the facts didn’t matter. They complained about the monn that fell every day to sustain them in the desert and spoke about the free fish the Mitzriyim fed them when they were slaves. Instead of being thankful for their bounty, they once again grumbled.
Shortly thereafter, the Torah tells of Eldod and Meidod, who prophesized in their tent regarding Moshe. A young man heard them and became upset with what they were saying. He ran to Moshe to inform on them. Upon hearing the report, Yehoshua advised Moshe to lock them up and force them to desist from prophesying. Moshe refused, admonishing his assistant not to be zealous on his behalf. He declared, “If only the whole nation could be prophets!” 
Moshe learned the lesson of the misonenim and the asafsuf, and although he couldn’t have been happy with the subject of their prophecy, he wouldn’t lock up Eldod and Meidod. He only wished that more of the Jewish people would be worthy of prophecy. He saw the entirety of the situation and prayed for more holiness in his camp, ignoring any personal, selfish desires.
The parsha concludes with the story of Miriam and Aharon speaking disparagingly of Moshe Rabbeinu. Hashem admonished them, “Lomah lo yireisem ledaber b’avdi b’Moshe? Why did you seek to find fault in My eved, Moshe? You know that he is the leader of the people. You know that Hashem speaks to him regularly. You know of his greatness. Yet, instead of praising him, you mock him.”
They were punished for concentrating on a perceived fault instead of examining the totality of the person.
The parsha opens with the commandment to Aharon Hakohein to light the neiros of the menorah in the Mishkon. The lights were not for Hashem’s benefit, but rather for ours. The ability to achieve perfection in middos and to be people of substance, who examine an entire issue and seek to separate the bad from the good and support the good, is caused by the light of the neiros of the menorah. Those who are worthy see with that light, ki ner mitzvah veTorah ohr, living lives of greatness.
That is the depth of the promise made to Aharon when he was upset that he had no role in the chanukas hanesi’im. Hashem told him that his act, that of lighting the menorah, will live on for eternity, while that of the nesi’im would not. The light that Aharon kindled in the Mishkon is prevalent in our day as well. Those who see the light and benefit from it can follow in the path of Aharon, who was an “oheiv shalom verodeif shalom,” loving people and bringing about peace amongst them and between them and Hashem.
We must emulate his example.
We have to work hard in our communities to ensure that the battles we fight and the causes we champion aren’t just noise brought on by catchy words and superficialities. We have to be honest and ensure that our motivator is neither jealousy and pettiness nor a selfish desire to win or see our team come out on top.
Too often, hate and anger, fueled by rhetoric, pollute the air. Everything becomes a cause worth fighting over and people feel compelled to take sides, even when the particular stances they champion don’t reflect their true convictions. Rancor draws them in and doesn’t soften its grip.
They scream about muktzeh buttons without apologizing to the father, or the Father in heaven who seeks the best for His children.
Before we squabble, we should look beyond the surface to see what the words thrown around really express and the truth they conceal. We have to be honest and self-aware. Before we take a position, we have to look inward and make sure that our motives are proper, justified and responsible.
We have to look to see the perfection in Hashem’s world, perceiving the bigger picture that exists beyond our kehillos.
Before engaging in battle, we must see if there is a limud zechus, something that we failed to grasp the first time. We have to first see if there is a good side to the story before we declare war and condemn. We need to remove any personal considerations and selfish desires from the equation.
After the Second World War, several orphanages were opened in Eretz Yisroel to accommodate the many children who tragically arrived to the new country without parents.
In Bnei Brak, there was a large  orphanage that housed hundreds of young women. One of the neighbors had an issue with the institution and complained to the Chazon Ish.
“On Shabbos,” he said indignantly, “the girls sing zemiros and you can hear their voices outside the building. It’s an outrage.”
The Chazon Ish’s face lit up. “You’ve made me so happy. Maidelach cut away from their murdered parents, with bare memories of what the Shabbos tables looked like back in Europe, feel so at home and so happy that they are once again able to sing on Shabbos? Thank you for the good news.”
He saw beyond the words. He grasped the truth beneath the surface and perceived the world in all its dimensions.
When we observe the current political climate, with hatred, speechifying and mud-slinging, we must do the opposite. Less talk and more action. Less hate and more depth. Less speechifying and more caring.
At the end of the Second World War, Rav Eliezer Silver arrived in Europe with the liberating American troops and sought to breathe life into the survivors. As he worked to gather a minyan for Kabbolas Shabbos in a liberated camp, there was one man who stubbornly refused to participate.
“Why won’t you join us?” he asked the poor, broken soul.
“After what I saw, I can never pray again,” the bundle of skin and bones answered the man trying so hard to infuse some life into him. “Let me explain. In the lager, there was one sefer Tehillim. You can imagine how desperate people were for a Tehillim, to open its tear-stained pages and pour out their hearts in prayer for salvation.
“The owner would lend it to people in exchange for three pieces of bread. After repeatedly witnessing the scene of people ravaged by hunger being forced to part with their meager rations in order to say a few kappitlach of Tehillim, I can no longer pray.
“I can’t be part of a group in which a person can take advantage of others in such an awful manner.”
A crowd had gathered and stood agape as the man told the rabbi his story. They wondered how he would respond to the complaint of the broken man against his co-religionists.
Rav Silver looked at the crowd with a loving, knowing smile. He reached out to the man who said he could pray no longer and, with a sweet tongue, said to him, “It’s a shame that you are reaching conclusions based on the sorry actions of one person.
“You see, I would reach the exact opposite conclusion. Look how great the Jewish people are that so many starving people parted with their bread for a chance to reach out to Hashem.”
With that, the poor man regained some facial color. A small smile formed on his sad face, as he grasped the hand of the rov and, together, they strode to be mekabel Shabbos, the entire crowd following behind, armed with a new perspective on religion and life.
Lechu neranenah laShem. Let us sing to Hashem. Let us thank Him for keeping us alive. Let us thank Him for bringing this rabbi to us to remind us how to live and how to think.
“Mi yitein ess kol am Hashem nevi’im” was Moshe’s response to Yehoshua’s claims. Would that the whole Klal Yisroel develop the ability to say nevuah. The ultimate tov ayin wasn’t threatened by others. He understood that each person has his or her mission and role to play in Hashem’s world.
There is so much good that we each can do. The lessons are plainly evident in the Torah, but lest we need reminders, we can learn from the election campaigns which paths to avoid.
Let’s seek to build, to be great for real, not just as a talking point and an election slogan. Our people never stopped being great. The greatness is there for all who seriously seek it.
Find the light of the menorah, of Torah and mitzvos. Let it light your path.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Modeh Ani – Thank You

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
An elderly man diagnosed with a serious disease was sitting in a waiting room at Sloan Kettering Hospital, waiting for his turn to begin the chemotherapy process that he hoped would save his life. Stunned by his diagnosis and worried about what would come next, the man sat with his Tehillim, tears flowing, memories racing, fears abounding.
Suddenly, the sound of his name being called punctured his cloud and he rose to approach the treatment room. A young man stepped in his path, put his arm around him, and whispered into his ear, “Mir hubben vos keiner hut nit. We have what no one else has. Gedeinkt. Remember that.”
Over the next few months, every time his strength waned and his thoughts wandered to negative places, those words rang in his ears, the sweet whisper energizing him and keeping him going. “Gedeinkt,” he would say to himself, “mir hubben vos keiner hut nisht,” and push himself to go on.
Those words relate to the Yom Tov of Shavuos we now celebrate. “Mir hubben vos keiner hut nisht.” We have something unique that no other nation has. We have the Torah, and it empowers us with the ability to soar above all, to transcend everything and touch eternity.
On this day, the Creator shared with us His essence, the Torah. He began proclaiming the Aseres Hadibros and called out, “Anochi. I am your G-d.” In that word lay a hidden meaning that Chazal revealed for us. As Hashem began reciting those eternal truths and commandments, He was declaring in that very first word, through its roshei teivos, “Ana Nafshi Kasovis Yehovis. I am transmitting My Soul to you through Torah.”
Through those divine words at Sinai, we were given the means to connect to the eternal Source of life. Torah is a unique gift. It is our national and personal identity and credo, as well as our birthright.
The angels wanted to keep the Torah in Shomayim, but Hakadosh Boruch Hu declared that Torah would descend to the lower realms and find a home amongst his mortal creations of flesh and blood who are challenged with shallow desires.
And until this very day, it’s the light of our lives, the length of our days, the only meaning in a hollow world. We have the means to reach the heavens if we tap into the power of Torah.
Look around and note how desperate we are for clarity. We live in an upside down world, where truth is lies and lies are truth, where fantasy dominates and the facts are minor impediments. It’s always been that way, you may say, and that may be true, but we seek light in the darkness and truth for our paths, and too often we find lights wanting and trustworthy guides vanishing.
We see failed people battling each other for the spotlight and the right to lead the nation that was once a beacon of light to the world. Lies are lofted as bombs, with half-truths offering air support as the future of the country hangs in the balance.
Social mores hallowed since the destruction of Sedom are rapidly being thrust aside in the name of progressive human advancement. Chivalry is not in fashion, nor is modesty, knowledge, literacy or responsibility.
Close to home, fabricators seek to undo customs, practices and liturgy, while discrediting towering figures. Posing as protectors of the religion, they seek to destroy time-honored tradition in the name of progressive thought. Inane theories posted by pedestrian minds seek to edit words written in stone, handed down to man and passed down from generation to generation through the centuries in every climate: cultural, spiritual and financial.
As the sands shifted under the waves of the times, one thing remained steadfast, yet the scoffers think they can temper with that which is inviolate.
Maybe this is not a great sound bite, and it isn’t a cute slogan that can go viral, but it is fact that Torah is the truth, our mesorah authentic, and our practices luminous, and there is nothing anyone can do to change that.
The progressive new voices would do well to study history and observe how those who posed as “saviors” throughout the ages fell to the wayside. Let them see that the ones who tampered with Torah died in obscurity and insignificance. Their audaciousness led to irrelevance.
Through it all, we remain lonely at times, but always proud and confident in our millennia-old legacy and the Divine mission statement by which we live.
Torah is neither a theology, philosophy nor a law book. It is an action book, a guide for life. Anyone can open the book and read it, but Hashem wants us to live by it, and when we preceded na’aseh to nishma, we showed that we understood our mission.
When the Torah was presented to us, we proclaimed na’aseh venishma, eliciting the Divine statement of “Mi gilah lohem ruz zeh,” with Heaven eminently impressed by their statement of commitment.
The Aseres Hadibros are not simply ten commandments to be chiseled on monuments at courthouses and sewn with silver and gold thread on rich velvet. They are the essence of life and the oxygen of the universe.
Once, while delivering a shiur at the Stamford Yeshiva on a complicated calculation in Maseches Yevamos, Rav Moshe Schapiro suddenly stopped speaking. The silence hung in the room as the talmidim waited for their rebbi to continue, yet Rav Moshe appeared lost in thought, concentrating on the cheshbon he was in the middle of working out.
Suddenly, he spoke. “Rabbosai!” he exclaimed. “You should know that un Torah, without Torah, iz gornit, there is nothing!”
For his talmidim, that sentence served to instill in them an appreciation for the power and meaning of their learning.
For some reason, hedonistic people who seek to enjoy the pleasures of life and live a self-indulgent existence often seek to minimize the power of Torah in their lives. They see it as a restricting covenant and not as the path to freedom and tranquility. Perhaps that is the fault of the generation and maybe it comes from a lack of knowledge.
However, we know that the statement of Chazal, “Ein lecha ben chorin ela mi she’oseik baTorah,” is certainly the truth. Freedom is the province of those who delve into Torah. Torah Jews are also happier and have the elixir of life beating in their hearts.
Last week, at the Ohr Vodaas dinner in Monsey, I met Rav Michoel Bender, mashgiach of the Stamford Yeshiva and one of the tzaddikei hador. As I was speaking to him, I was, as usual, overwhelmed by his simplicity and piety and warm smile, I thought to myself that there was no one more free or happy in that room.
Last week I was on the phone with Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin, who lives by the words of the Torah he spends his days studying. He told me quite happily he came across something in Chovos Halevavos that day, which gave him tremendous strength. “It says there that a ma’amin wakes up every day and says Boruch Hashem I am in this place and situation.’”
“And that is for everyone, including me in jail,” he said. “Imagine that! I wake up in a jail cell separated from everyone and everything I care about and thank Hashem for being here.”
“But you know what? I wake up and thank Hashem for being here, because this is where He wants me to be. And if this is where He wants me to be then I am happy to be here. I do what I can and make the best of my situation. I laugh and smile.”
Thank you Hashem. Thank you.
In fact, every day when we awake in the morning and say “Modeh Ani,” that is what we are doing. The obligation to recite the short prayer for thanking Hashem for returning our neshomah to us is independent of where we find ourselves. No matter where we happen to be when we wake up, we thank Hashem for the kindness of keeping us alive.
If we not only say it, but also live it, we will live much happier and fulfilled lives. Instead of being despondent about any given situation, we will be hopeful and positive, realizing that our potential depends upon our belief in Hashem and ourselves. 
The one who studies Torah, those who are of faith, can laugh and smile and be productive even when in awful and challenging situations, because there is the truth the people on the level of the meraglim see, and then there is the real truth. And they see the truth and know that the purveyor of truth and kindness has a higher purpose in what happens to each person to help them reach their goals in this world.
He is happier than those who fly to a distant destination in pursuit of abundant merriment; their enjoyment is fleeting while his is eternal.
They pursue the good life, he lives it. He can be in Stamford, or Otisville, or Lakewood or Los Angeles, but if he remembers the mission of the special day of Shavuos when the truth was revealed and given to man, then he can live life the way it was meant to be lived.
What differentiates us from gorillas? It is the Torah. We have a neshomah and they don’t. They are chayos and we are adam. We have infinite potential and their capacity is severely limited. They may be cute and strong and photogenic, but man and monkey are unrelated and live on different levels.
That is simple to anyone who studies Torah and been touched by chochmaso Yisborach and the seichel elyon that affects us as we learn. Others aren’t as blessed. They remain blissfully ignorant and we pity them.
Last week, America mourned a gorilla. Everyone had an opinion and weighed in about the poor animal which was shot to death because of the negligence of a four-year-old. People were especially upset when pictures showed that the gorilla seemed to be protecting the child who had fallen into his zoo compound.
A chorus of voices across the country rang out decrying the killing.
We have a Torah, they don’t! How are those who cannot possibly appreciate what life is, be expected to feel the splendor and glory of man. How can they see the dimensions of humans if their eyes have never been opened.
Hashem offered the Torah to the world. It was rejected by all before it was presented to Am Yisroel. When the Jewish people were asked if they wished to subject themselves to the strictures and blessings of Hashem’s written word, they responded as one, “Na’aseh venishma.” With those two immortal words, they rose beyond the level of angels and became Hashem’s eternal people.
The Torah proclaims, “Vayichan shom Yisroel neged hahar.” Chazal emphasize that the Torah uses the singular verb vayichan, because the people stood as one at Har Sinai, ke’ish echod beleiv echod. They gathered not as hundreds of thousands of individuals, but as one mass of people, unified in their acceptance of the Torah. Each person accepted upon themselves responsibility for others. Every Jew was saying that he would do what he could to ensure that the others would keep the faith.
The Ramchal in Daas Tevunos (155:2) writes that at Har Sinai, the Bnei Yisroel received two gifts along with the Torah. They were given the strength that is required to properly observe all the Torah’s mitzvos and they were also granted the ability to bring about change through their actions.
Our actions don’t just affect us. They impact the world.
Rav Chaim Volozhiner, in the beginning chapters of Nefesh Hachaim, discusses in detail that all of us have that ability. No Jew should minimize his ability and think that his actions have no meaning or influence.
The yeitzer hora seeks to demoralize man into thinking that his actions have no consequence. Our task is to ignore that negativity and cynicism and instead focus on our potential to impact the world in a positive manner.
On Shavuos, we celebrate these gifts and abilities. We remain awake through the night studying Torah to demonstrate the awareness of our task. Shavuos serves not only as a celebration of receiving the Torah and its powers and abilities, but as a reminder that it is incumbent upon us to live life on a daily basis cognizant of our responsibilities.
The greatness of our proclamation at Har Sinai was the inherent acknowledgment of the primacy of the na’aseh. We affirmed that we would study the Torah - nishma - in order to be osim, a nation of people whose actions would have a serious impact on all of creation. We would learn “lilmod ulelameid, lishmor velaasos ulekayeim.”
We would recognize our unique roles granted to us at Sinai. Na’aseh venishma. We promised that we would remain cognizant of our abilities and not become dejected, viewing ourselves and our actions as inconsequential.
Chazal thus refer to the yom tov of Shavuos as Atzeres, which, in its literal translation, means break. We take a break from our daily activities to remind ourselves what we are about, and to revive the affirmation of our adherence to our commitment. Half of the Atzeres day, we are occupied with the realm of nishma, studying the Torah. The other half is devoted to the realm of na’aseh, the act of living as a Torah Jew.
We must not permit the yeitzer hara to entice us into believing that we are small and powerless. We are not simply gorillas with less hair and the ability to speak. We must not let the Soton fool us into thinking that our actions don’t count. Every word of Torah we study, and every mitzvah we perform alters the cosmos. Every person we inspire to prevail when they think they are unable to, becomes another positive force who can have great influence, transforming evil into good and tragedy into accomplishment.
Take a break from the negativity and cynicism of the yeitzer hara and recognize that with the proper positive attitude, we can overcome all that stands in our way and build the world of goodness that we committed ourselves to 3,328 years ago, when we joined together and proclaimed, “Na’aseh venishma.” We can make ourselves better people by recognizing our mandate and power, knowing that we can never sink too low and never be in too bad a place to reach for the apex of human ability.
There are two brachos recited when being called up to the Torah. When we first arrive at the bimah, we recite the brochah of “Asher bochar bonu mikol ha’amim venosan lonu es Toraso,” thanking Hashem for choosing us over all the other nations and giving us his Torah. As the portion is completed, we recite the brochah of “Asher nosan lonu Toras emes vechayei olam nota besochenu,” thanking Hashem for giving us the Torah of truth and providing us with eternal life.
Rav Simcha Wasserman explains the duality of the two blessings by comparing them to a child being selected from amongst his classmates to receive a gift-wrapped present. Even before opening the gift, the child is quite happy. The joy is magnified when the recipient removes the wrapping and finds an exciting game or enjoyable book. He thanks the person who gave him the gift two times, once upon its receipt in the beautiful wrapping and a second time when the wrapping comes off. 
On Shavuos, it all comes together.
We love who we are, what we’re a part of, the joy of being a Jew - a reason to live with thanks.
I wake up and say, “Modeh ani lifonecha.” I thank You, Hashem, for making me the way You did. I thank You for placing me where You did. I thank You for what I have and for what I will yet achieve. Thank You.
And then I say, “Boruch Atah Hashem asher bochar bonu mikol ha’amim venosan lonu es Toraso.” Thank You for setting me apart, for elevating my soul through Torah, for allowing me to share in the seichel elyon, for having the ability to live a supreme and blessed life.
On the first night of Shavuos, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim, stood in the great bais medrash of his yeshiva to deliver a shmuess. The yungeleit and bochurim were eager to hear the rosh yeshiva’s words of chizuk, his encouragement to learn and receive the Torah b’simcha.
However, instead of launching into a traditional mussar discourse, the rosh yeshiva smiled broadly and reached for the Gemara on his shtender. That zeman, the yeshiva was learning Kiddushin.
He raised the Gemara and said, in a voice laced with love and reverence, “Kiddushin... Kesef kinyan, kicha, nosan hu, hispashtus...” He continued to list various sugyos, his ode to the beauty of the masechta. He added nothing, just the names of the sugyos.
His powerful shmuess done, as the message sunk in, he said softly, in a voice everyone could hear and feel, “We are so lucky... Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu...”
Indeed, we are.
Modeh ani. Thank You.
Thank You for this day of Sivan when the Torah was given. Let us all celebrate.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Let The Neshomah Take Over

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
The weeks of Sefirah, during which we count days and weeks and monitor our progression through the seven sefiros of middos, are meant to bring us to a place of harmony. The seven sefiros we mention each day following the counting of the numbers of the omer represent the attributes required for growth during the period leading up to Kabbolas HaTorah. To properly receive the Torah on Shavuos, man must be perfected in each facet of his avodah.
In Parshas Emor, we read about the various blemishes that render a kohein unfit, one being “saruah” (Vayikra 21:18). Rashi explains that one with this blemish suffers from “one eye being larger than the other, or one limb longer than the other.” He fails to explain why these conditions are considered blemishes that render a kohein unfit to perform the avodah, for apparently his ability to perform his tasks in the Mikdosh is not impeded.
The Chofetz Chaim posed this question and offered an explanation during his hesped on the beloved rosh yeshiva of Radin, Rav Naftoli Trop. He said, “Sheleimus, perfection, means that everything fits and the middos of a person are compatible with each other. Someone who davens a long Shemoneh Esrei but has horrible middos is out of sync. A talmid chochom with no yiras Shomayim is unbalanced. A measure of Rav Naftoli’s greatness was that his avodah was proportionate to his Torah. His middos fit with his yiras Shomayim. They all came together in equal measure. No limb was bigger than any other.”
Now is generally a time of year when we seek to become a little more whole, not just internally, but externally as well, doing our part to bring the body of Klal Yisroel together.
We just celebrated Lag Ba’omer, when Jews of all types held hands in circles the world over, singing, “Ashreichem Yisroel.” We are marking the climb from Pesach, when four sons sat at the communal table, when we learned that even those on the 49th level of impurity are worthy of geulah, towards Shavuos, the day that saw us proclaim, ke’ish echod beleiv echod, all of the Bnei Yisroel together, “Na’aseh venishma.”
We often wonder: Why can’t we all get along for longer than one dance? What happened to that achdus? Where has it gone? Why can’t we recreate it on a daily basis, everywhere, all the time?
We need peace in the Holy Land. We need peace in our community. We need peace in our world. “Why can’t we all get along?” sounds like a simple question, but the answer eludes us. Seriously. Why the infighting? Why the backbiting? Why one against the other? And more importantly, what can we do to bring some harmony to our people? Why so much hate? Where is the love?
The way to start is by creating peace in ourselves. If we would be fulfilled and satisfied, secure with ourselves and happy, we wouldn’t have to engage in battles to create feelings of accomplishment.
The pesukim at the beginning of Parshas Bechukosai provide insight into how we go about doing that.
The posuk (26:3) promises, “Im bechukosai teileichu… If you will walk in the path of My laws and observe the mitzvos of Hashem, then the rains will fall on time, the earth will produce its proper harvest, vishavtem lovetach be’artzechem. Venosati shalom ba’aretz, ushechavtem ve’ein machrid…and you will live confidently and in peace.”
The absence of external enemies can lead to internal friction. If the nation is not engaged in a battle for its survival against outside enemies, there is a danger that the people will then fight with each other.
The Ramban (ibid.) writes that this is why, after promising vishavtem lovetach, the posuk promises shalom, peace. Hashem is promising the Jewish people that if they behave properly, they will not only be safe from attacks from across their borders, but they will also not have to worry about internecine battles. There will be peace, complete and total. Those who follow the chukim of Hashem will be fulfilled spiritually and physically, and they will earn peace and harmony. They won’t have to resort to outside negative activities to satisfy themselves.
Through being amal baTorah, diligently following Hashem’s commands, we become elevated people, tranquil and calm within. When we maintain peace in our land, we earn the Divine promise of freedom from our enemies.
In the midst of the brachos contained in the parsha, the posuk says (26:11), “Venosati Mishkoni besochechem velo sigal nafshi es’chem - I will place my Mishkon amongst you and My Soul will not purge itself of you.” The Alter of Novardok wondered about the nature of this brocha and the implications of Hashem’s guarantee.
He answered that according to the natural order of things, the spiritual soul of man, known as nefesh, should despise being in a physical body known as guf. The reason the nefesh is not offended by being placed in the guf is because of the special brocha depicted in this posuk. The soul of a Jew can acquiesce to its placement in the physical body, because when the guf fulfills the wishes of Hashem, it becomes elevated and can equal holiness of the neshomah.
Man has the ability to raise his physical being into a spiritual being. It is this synthesis that allows man to function, experiencing the desires of his guf and the longing of his neshomah and learning to work with this duality.
It’s how peace is made in the olam koton, the small world that is man.
The Ponovezher rosh yeshiva, Rav Dovid Povarsky, in Yishmiru Daas, amplifies this concept. He explains that the relationship between people who fulfill the ratzon Hashem and those who ignore it parallels this association between guf and neshomah.
This, the rosh yeshiva says, is the reason for the intense dislike displayed by Jews who scorn the Torah toward those who cherish it. According to teva, there is a dichotomy between the guf and the neshomah, but Hashem created man with the ability to turn his guf into neshomah. Thus, the neshomah doesn’t dislike the guf, because it knows that the guf can raise itself to its level.
However, those who are totally physical despise the spiritual, for the neshomah can never lower itself to the inferior level of the guf. Therefore, those who insist on keeping their guf on a low level, naturally despise the neshomah and anything that resembles it.
People who choose to focus their lives and choices on the world of neshomah are despised by those who choose guf; which is only natural. But the people who have chosen a life of guf aren’t disliked by those who live a life of neshomah, for the world of neshomah remains optimistic that, one day, those who choose guf will also adopt the lifestyle of the neshomah.
Even a person who is controlled by his bodily urges can overcome them and raise himself to the level where his nefesh controls his guf.
I met just such a person this past Shabbos. He was observing Shabbos for the second time in his life and is not yet ready to commit to more. His cherished daughter became a baalas teshuvah a few years ago and lives in a frum area with her husband, who also gave his nefesh control of his guf. This man’s grandchildren attend a fine yeshiva and he derives much joy when he visits them.
He and his wife were ardent leftists and were devastated when their daughter adopted a life of “Im bechukosai teileichu.” But as we sat and talked, he told me that he knows that his days of living strictly a life of guf are numbered. He said that his father had attended cheder, but there was no religion in their home. “When my father died, one sister got his siddur and the other a Chumash. For me, though, there was nothing,” he said. He let that hang for a while as he related with eyes and heart that he didn’t want to leave his children with nothing and was giving serious consideration to allowing his neshomah to slowly take over.
Thankfully, there are more people like him out there waiting for people like us to embrace them. Tragically, there are too many people going the other way, giving their neshamos over to their guf. They also need to be embraced.
When we merit to visit Yerushalayim and walk through neighborhoods such as Zichron Moshe, we don’t even realize that this neighborhood was once home to the country’s leading Maskilim. It was on one of its pastoral gesselach that Ben Yehuda lived and wrote his dictionary. Rechov Press, now home to the famed Brisker Yeshiva, was home to a leading progressive named Yeshayahu Press. The Lemel School, now home to a cheder, was the first modern educational institution in Yerushalayim. Zev Jabotinsky would rally his supporters on the ground that later occupied the Edison Theater and is now home to a Satmar housing complex.
As the religious people approached the neighborhood, those early Zionists and others like them moved out, seeking greener pastures for their poetry, novels and works of philosophy. Their children are lost, but not beyond repair. There is always hope for everyone. Every guf has a neshomah that can be tapped.
Thankfully, the battles those people fought a century ago are largely settled, and as you walk into neighborhood shuls, you have no idea that they were once staging grounds for internal battles. Today, Torah seems to be the ruling authority in those very places.
There is still much to be done and a long path to be hoed. There are people who are lost and bewildered, disenchanted by abuse, or poverty, or strict conformity or hate. They need a loving heart and soul to reach them.
People who despise the mishpotim of the Torah remain obsessed with their desire to carve out a secular state unencumbered by age-old laws, but passionate Jews don’t rest from trying to bring wayward souls back to Torah and achieving harmony between the neshomah and the guf of the nation.
The sefer Lulei Sorascha tells of a well-regarded askan who was welcomed to Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach, who bared his soul. “Listen,” he said, “I am pained by the financial situation of Chinuch Atzmai to the point that I would do anything to help. I would give the shirt off my back to anyone who could do something.”
The askan responded that he had two influential government contacts who could help if the rosh yeshiva would invite them to his home and receive them warmly. Rav Shach was hesitant, explaining that every time he spoke with public officials about money, he worried about chillul Hashem. “I don’t want them to think that all the rabbis want from them is money and that we only reach out at times like that,” he said.
The askan assured Rav Shach that they would be happy to help and the rosh yeshiva agreed. The two politicians arrived at the humble apartment and Rav Shach welcomed them with love and respect. Then he articulated his request. “You represent the government. You are charged with building up this country and helping the nation flourish. Now, a successful country needs industry to thrive. I turn to you with advice: Help this industry of authentic Jewish education, because it will make your country succeed. You’re younger than I am, and you may not understand what I’m saying now, but trust me. If you help these children learn the Torah of the Jews, then the country will benefit and you will have done your jobs.”
The askan reported that the government officials responded to Rav Shach’s plea with generosity and heart.
The great rejoicing and dancing on Lag Ba’omer in Meron and all around the world were expressions of the neshomah’s yearning, an appreciation of our great rebbi, Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, and the heights he reached. He revealed the depth and potential of each Jew, assuring us that wherever we are, we can always raise ourselves ever higher.
The words selected as Rabi Shimon’s enduring legacy, emblazoned on the famous entranceway in Meron, quote his teaching, “Ki lo sishochach mipi zaro,” representing his assurance that Hashem’s children will never forget the Torah, despite all that will befall them. The final letters of the words spell Yochai, a hint at how they are bound up with the essence of the one who said them: yud, alef, ches, yud, vuv.
Rav Shach succeeded in expressing the timelessness of Torah, the enduring birthright of our children, and the Divine assurance that each succeeding generation has a right to its light.
We have to connect the neshomah to the guf, inside ourselves and outside ourselves.
As the fame of the Chofetz Chaim grew, people flocked to him, asking for brachos. Many times, he would respond with a question. “Why did you come to me for brachos?” he would ask. “I am just a simple human being. Brachos can be obtained by following the pesukim in Parshas Bechukosai, which proclaim that all the blessings of the world will flow to those who observe Hashem’s path - ‘Im bechukosai teileichu.’ The Torah, whose every word is true, guarantees brachos for shemiras hamitzvos. If it is blessings you seek, you would be well advised to spend your time advancing your shemiras hamitzvos and forgetting about me.”
May the words of this parsha, with its promises of brachos and yeshuos, fill Jews everywhere with light, blessings, peace and the ultimate brocha.
The period of Sefirah is a time of harmony, of working on our bein odom lachaveiro, in the season of yomim tovim defined by achdus. We prepare for Kabbolas HaTorah by empowering our personal neshomah, as well as the neshamos of all of our people, so that they appreciate their importance and obligation in this world, through peace, harmony and greatness.
Rav Yisroel Eliyohu Weintraub writes in his sefer Raza D’Shabbos that when we say that a person is a tzelem Elokim, it means that man has the ability to resemble Hashem through his actions. He explains that the neshomah hears the bas kol reminding it how to conduct itself. When the neshomah manages the guf, man can rise to the highest levels of conduct and spirituality, but when the neshomah doesn’t dominate, man can’t advance and cannot be rachum vechanun like Hashem.
As we count the final days of Sefirah and recite the middos of gevurah, tiferes, netzach, hod, yesod and malchus, and as we learn this week’s parsha of brachos and shalom, let us allow the neshomah to take over and influence our behavior so that we may be blessed with shalom and sheleimus.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

We Can All Use More Holiness

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Parshas Behar begins by stating that Hashem spoke to Moshe, stressing that this occurred on Har Sinai, and then immediately turns to the laws of Shmittah. Rashi asks the famous question rhetorically invoked when two matters as seemingly unconnected as Shmittah and Har Sinai are linked together as they are this week.
The question is, “Mah inyan Shmittah eitzel Har Sinai,” loosely translated as, “What does Shmittah have to do with Sinai?”
Rashi answers that the Torah juxtaposes the two topics to teach that just as the minutia of the laws of Shmittah were delivered at Sinai, the myriad details of all mitzvos were likewise taught at that time.
The Torah discusses the laws of Shmittah and then guarantees the blessings reserved for those who honor these laws, allowing their land to lie fallow every seventh year as a testament to their belief in the word of G-d.
“Mah inyan Shmittah eitzel Har Sinai” teaches us that in order to merit the rewards of keeping Shmittah, a Jew must do more than observe the laws of Shmittah. In order to properly observe Shmittah a person must follow the halachos and dinim that were handed down at Sinai throughout the seven year cycle.
This approach might explain an obvious inconsistency at the end of the parsha. The last posuk of Parshas Behar reads, “Es Shabbsosai tishmoru umikdoshi tira’u, ani Hashem.” The Baal Haturim points out that in this posuk, the word “tishmoru” comes after the word “Shabbos,” whereas in Devorim, the command of shamor precedes the word “Shabbos” in the posuk of “Shamor es yom haShabbos.”
The Baal Haturim quotes the Mechilta, which states that the reason the word shamor is before Shabbos in one instance and follows it in another is to teach that we must be shomer the Shabbos before and after its official times.
In fact, the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 9) derives from the word “shevos,” which the posuk uses in relating the issur melocha of Yom Kippur, as well as Shabbos and Yom Tov, that there is a mitzvah to add kedusha to the holy day and begin observing its halachos prior to the period of bein hashemashos and shkiah.
We extend the holy Shabbos day at its beginning and end, adding kodesh to the chol.
Perhaps we can find a deeper dimension in this explanation, using the lessons we derived from the posuk linking Shmittah to Har Sinai.
The posuk implies that for one to be a shomer Torah umitzvos, it is not sufficient to only observe the 24-hour period of Shabbos. An observant person must also adhere to the many commandments governing day-to-day life during the rest of the week. The kedusha of Shabbos demands shemirah lefonov ule’acharov.
How do we resist temptation? How do we strengthen our ability to deal with all that is out there threatening our ability to be good Jews? It is by increasing kedusha in our lives. It is by being an am kadosh seven days a week, not only on Shabbos. We empower our children by being mechaneich them with inyonei kedusha. The antidote to tumah is kedusha. We keep them holy and protected by adding kedusha to chol. If we fortify them with the beauty of Yiddishkeit, we strengthen their ability to withstand trials and temptations.
Rav Yosi (Shabbos 118b) expressed the wish to enjoy the rewards of the people of Tzipori, who would end Shabbos after the designated time. Based on that statement, the Shulchan Aruch writes (293:1) that we delay the tefillah of Maariv on Motzoei Shabbos to add holiness to the mundane. It is for this reason that there are various customs related to postponing the beginning of the tefillah (Mishnah Berurah, ibid.), even by mere seconds. We endeavor to increase holiness in the world and every little bit makes a huge difference.
Great gedolim counseled people in dire straits to accept upon themselves the kedusha of Shabbos even a few minutes earlier than mandated. Now we can understand some of the reason why.
A story is told of a couple who were blessed with a child after many barren years. Their dear son became deathly ill and, after doctors could not cure him, they traveled to the Chofetz Chaim, who told them that if they would accept Shabbos early for the rest of their lives, their son would be healed and would live. Indeed, he was miraculously cured.
A man cried to the Pnei Menachem that his son had veered from the proper path, moved away and adopted a foreign lifestyle. The rebbe related that his father, the Imrei Emes, would say that “tosefes Shabbos” is a tremendous segulah. “Therefore, I advise you and your wife to add to the time of Shabbos, and you will be helped,” said the rebbe.
I once visited a large Jewish cemetery in a town that was previously home to many thousands of Jews. The property was divided in two. The guide explained that one side is the “Shabbosdike bais olam” and the other side is the “Vochodike bais olam.”
It was explained that the Shabbosdike cemetery held Jews who were Sabbath-observant, even in the face of hardship. On the other side, the vochodike cemetery contained the remains of the city’s residents who were unable to resist the temptation to be mechallel Shabbos.
These Jews had arrived in America at the beginning of the past century penniless, and the temptation to escape poverty by working on Shabbos was too great. They would go to shul Shabbos morning and then head off to their jobs. They would daven, participate in a shiur, enjoy Kiddush, and do everything that frum Jews do in shul, but when they left the building, instead of heading for home and a Shabbos meal, they went to work.
No doubt, they were driven by a fear of the heavy price they would have to pay for keeping Shabbos. It is not for us to judge them, but those who gave up on Shabbos became vochodike Yidden. Their Yiddishkeit was vochodik, lacking in holiness, even though they did their best to keep all the other mitzvos. Ultimately, most of them and their descendants were lost to the Jewish people. When those people passed away, they were laid to rest in the vochodike bais olam.
The Jews who held on strongly to Shabbos observance were the Shabbosdike Yidden. Seven days a week, their lives were blessed and their homes were blessed. And when they were laid to rest, they were placed in the Shabbosdike bais olam. There they remain, waiting for Moshiach to arrive and bring them back to life as Shabbos Yidden.
Thankfully, our nisyonos are not as great as those faced by the people of the forsaken New England city I visited, but we can all use improvement to better qualify as Shabbosdike Yidden throughout the week. Shabbos has to affect the way we conduct ourselves the entire week, and the way we behave during the other six days influences our observance of the seventh.
A Shabbos Jew dresses differently, speaks differently and eats differently, not only on Shabbos, but also during the week. A Shabbos Jew conducts himself with aidelkeit and ehrlichkeit, not only on Shabbos but throughout the week. A Shabbos Jew adds to his holiness by sanctifying the days before Shabbos and the days after it.
A Shabbos Jew spreads the kedushas Shabbos to everything he does from Shabbos to Shabbos. He anticipates and plans for Shabbos from Sunday onwards, as he specifies each day in relation to Shabbos, saying, “Hayom yom rishon b’Shabbos. Hayom yom shaini b’Shabbos, etc.”
And so it is with the Shmittah hero the Torah speaks about in this parsha. It is difficult for a person who lives off the land, and who has been lax in mitzvah observance, to undertake Shmittah observance.
The farmer who faithfully observes the halachos hateluyos ba’aretz the other six years can meet the test of faith and leave his farm untouched during the seventh year.
The man who is fastidious about his observance of maaser, terumah, leket, shikcha and pe’ah has little difficulty with Shmittah. The one who ensures that his animals do not run wild and damage other people’s property, and who makes sure that there are no michsholim on the paths that cut through his property, will be scrupulous with the dinim as given on Har Sinai.
The person who conducts his business with emunah and bitachon and does not resort to chicanery and thievery to make his living, will have the strength to let go when Shmittah arrives and depend upon Hakadosh Boruch Hu to feed him.
“Vetzivisi es birchasi lochem.” Hashem promises His blessings to those who observe the laws of Shmittah, because those people are the ones who observe the laws of Sinai day in and day out, not only on isolated occasions.
This theme runs through the subsequent pesukim (25:17-19) in Parshas Behar: “Do not harass one another…and you shall perform My chukim and observe My mishpotim and then you shall dwell securely in Eretz Yisroel, and the land will then give its fruit and you will be satisfied when you eat, and you will live securely…”
Those who seek to live with security need look no further than Parshas Behar. Those who seek peace should learn the lesson of “Mah inyan Shmittah eitzel Har Sinai.”
Those who look for nachas from their children, for stable lives, for a healthy livelihood, should heed the lesson of the Shabbosdike Yidden and of the Shmittah Yidden throughout the ages.
Despite all the societal temptations and the pressures and inducements they faced to bend the rules a little bit here and there, they remained staunchly devoted to the laws of Sinai. They did not compromise or welt in the heat of the times. They remained steadfast, focused, honest and upstanding, seven days a week, seven years of Shmittah, and fifty years of Yovel.
Our parents and grandparents led the way for us and lit up the path. Let’s follow their example and do the same for our children and grandchildren. We will thus merit the brachos of this week’s parsha and the other parshiyos of the Torah reserved for those who follow the well-trodden path stretching back to Har Sinai.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Reaching Their Hearts

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

I recently read an article that discussed which pursuit helped a person acquire longer term happiness, the purchase of something longed for or a vacation. The writer theorized that if you crave some object, then once you buy it, the longing ends and you become accustomed to it. You then cease deriving happiness when using that item.
Someone dreams of buying a BMW and saves up money for the German car. After craving for years, he finally buys the vehicle. From that day on, his urge now satisfied, he ceases to derive enjoyment from having that car and begins desiring something else. The accumulation of things doesn’t bring happiness.
A vacation, however, leaves a person with great memories. Even after returning to the daily grind, he derives pleasure from reminiscing about places visited and enjoyed.
Even months after returning from the vacation, when suffering the stresses of life, reviewing pictures of deserted beaches and beautiful sunsets transports one to those magical days when one felt relaxed and free.
The Torah provides us with a similar gift. The last of the Pesach dishes have long been put away, children are back in school, and the routine of life takes over once again. In this week’s parsha of Emor, we are given snapshots of the most glorious days of the year.
As we learn the parsha, we hear echoes of the call of the shofar, sense the awe of Yom Kippur, and smell the soft fragrance of the esrog. We are reminded of the escape Pesach provides us, the chance to rise above the ordinary, and how the process of bringing the Omer allows us to refine ourselves in preparation for kabbolas haTorah.
We experience the joys, relive the holiness with which the special days infuse us, and are reminded once again of our exalted status and potential for greatness. Yomim tovim grant us joy, infuse us with energy, and enable us to go about the mundane period until the next yom tov.
My friend, Mr. Julius Klugman z”l, would go to Eretz Yisroel every year for Sukkos. He would always bring with him a question for the gedolim of Eretz Yisroel.
One year, the American visitor wondered how the Torah can command a person to be b’simcha on Sukkos. Is there a button we can push to experience joy?
He posed the question to Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach. “I don’t understand the question,” the rosh yeshiva replied. “How can a person say the words ‘Atah vechartanu mikol ho’amim’ and not feel joyous?”
Rav Shach was expressing an essential truth. We have the best system possible - a calendar, lifestyle and value system designed to produce happy, fulfilled people. Yomim tovim are highlights of a year filled with special moments, experiences that bring out the wonder of creation and the uniqueness of our role in the world.
Examine the world. Appreciate the infinite genius in the workings of even one small organ of the human body. Look at the animal kingdom and all the different animals and how each was formed and lives. Look at the world of insects, millions of tiny species, and their distinct lives. Look at the sea and the fishes of all sizes and ponder how they got there. Examine the growth pattern of grass, trees and flowers and you will quickly conclude that there is no way that all this happened by itself.
Someone created them and placed them where they are. Someone fashioned them in a way that each living thing can complete its life span productively on its level. Above them are man and Am Yisroel. We were given a Torah by the Creator. The Torah is the guide to the best form of life, one that is fulfilling, meaningful and happy.
Why, then, do we see people in our own camp who seemingly lack that joy? Why do we see listless, lethargic people in shul and other places? Why is it that there is a phenomenon of young men and women who seem completely overwhelmed by what’s expected of them and veer off the path?
It’s a painful question that begs a communal cheshbon hanefesh.
Last week, I purchased the newly-released Shnos Dor Vador Volume Two about Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. The book quotes him relating the Medrash (Bamidbar 18:22) which tells a story about a traveler headed from Bavel to Eretz Yisroel who witnessed two birds fighting. After one bird killed the other, it headed to the woods and returned with a blade of grass, which it placed upon the beak of the dead bird. The dead bird immediately came to life. The spectator was amazed. Here, before him, was the coveted key of techias hameisim, the means to return the dead back to life.
He bent down and picked up the blade of grass that had fallen off the newly living bird and set out to resurrect the dead. On the way, he saw a dead lion at the side of the road and gleefully touched the grass to its face. The lion rose to life and then seized the blade of grass and swallowed it.
A moment earlier, the weed had potential to change the world. Now it was gone.
Rav Elyashiv suggested that the man should have hurried to the kevorim of the gedolei Yisroel, the giants who had breathed life into our people in previous generations, and returned chiyus to the world. He should have used the blade of grass to change the course of history. Instead, this fool used the most precious and potent tool to awaken a dead predator.
Rav Elyashiv would apply the lesson of this Medrash. Every one of us carries the potion of life and the ability to transcend time and space. By using each moment to create eternity, we elevate every minute. Instead, unfortunately, some people ignore the power they hold, wasting time and creating destruction rather than new life.
The lesson requires every one of us to engage in soul-searching. We have the best system in the world, a framework for living with meaning and depth, but apparently we aren’t always using it correctly.
Torah is the elixir of life, a good life, a happy life, and we should be producing happy, radiant, fulfilled generations. Of course, in most cases we are, but there seem to be too many exceptions.
The Torah calls for a specific and precise way of living, to be sure, and it’s not ours to pick and choose. Yet, should we not be doing more to transmit its message with mercy and genuine understanding of the people we’re trying to reach? The Torah is referred to by Chazal as Rachmana, The Merciful, and its agents must exude that rachmanus; that total empathy and compassion, to others.
Last week, Klal Yisroel and the world of chinuch lost a giant, Rav Moshe Rabinowitz zt”l, who served as a rov, menahel and mashgiach for many years. What was so special about him can be gleaned from something that an Oorah Kiruv Rechokim head shared with me.
He spoke of the time Rav Rabinowitz participated in a weekend for parents of Oorah’s camp, The Zone. At a panel discussion, in response to a question, Rav Rabinowitz said that only once in his decades in chinuch did he expel a student from school. As he was relating this, he began to cry softly to himself. One of the parents in the crowd whose children were enrolled in public school was greatly moved. Witnessing how remembering the expelled student overwhelmed Rav Rabinowitz, the parent went over to the Oorah head and said, “If that is the care and concern of a rabbi in a yeshiva, I’m going to enroll my kids in yeshiva.”
Rav Yisroel Belsky was the rov of Camp Agudah. Friday was an especially busy day. In addition to the shailos that followed him wherever he went, people who went up to the Catskills for Shabbos and wanted to speak to him would seek him out on Fridays for all types of personal discussions. Of course, there were the regular shiurim he delivered and everything else he did. Thus, by the time Shabbos arrived, he was exhausted. After Maariv, he would join his family for the first part of the meal. Then he would join his beloved Masmidim in the dining room, singing meaningful songs and sharing divrei Torah until late into the night.
Every week, on his way to the Masmidim in the campers’ dining room, he would make a detour and first go to the table on the side where the waiters sat. He understood that their job required them to work hard during the meal and their seudos Shabbos were often sacrificed. Without much time to eat, let alone enjoy a spirited seudah, they grabbed a few bites here and there in between serving the campers.
Rav Belsky got it. That’s why he made it a point to join them for a few minutes. Not too long, for they had jobs, but not too short, because it was Shabbos for them as well. A quick question, an interesting discussion, a lively niggun or two, and then the giant moved on.
Rav Belsky dealt with brilliant and complex shailos in hilchos Shabbos. He knew the masechta and all its commentaries. But he also felt the heart of the waiters and their Shabbos.
We want children and adults to appreciate Shabbos and view it as a state of mind and an opportunity for climbing and resting, growing and happiness, and shirah and Torah, as well as a day with many halachos that empower you to be a better and more complete person.
The BMW won’t do that for you, even if you’re wearing a cool shirt and pants when you drive it. Shabbos will. Yom Tov will. Every day lived properly will.
In Pirkei Avos, Shammai tells us, “Asei Torascha keva, emor me’at va’asei harbei, vehevei mekabel ess kol ho’odom b’seiver ponim yafos” (Avos 1:15). Rav Chaim Friedlander shared a question from his rebbi, Rav Eliyohu Eliezer Dessler. Shammai and his approach are always associated with middas hadin. The first two ideas quoted in the Mishnah - to set a fixed time for Torah learning and to speak little and do much - seem to reflect that attitude. However, the last teaching quoted seems to be out of place with the positions of Shammai. How does greeting everyone we meet fit with an outlook of middas hadin?
Rav Dessler explained that Shammai is teaching that greeting people with warmth, enthusiasm and respect is not only a matter of common courtesy. It is, in fact, a din, an obligation, because just as a suit or watch has an actual value, and paying a shopkeeper less than their value can be considered stealing, a person also has value and deserves to be greeted as someone special.
Because everyone is special and to miss that is to steal.
We cannot realistically expect our precious and significant mesorah to have an effect on our children and students if we don’t realize who they are and what their needs are. If the message isn’t penetrating, it is not necessarily the fault of the recipient, nor can it be blamed every time on ADHD, defiance, poor work ethic or focus issues. We have to face the truth that sometimes it may be a problem in approach. We have to own up to the truth and quit sweeping the problems under the rug.
Our Torah is a Toras Chaim. It is life-giving, personality-enhancing and happiness-inducing. We teach with happiness. We reach out to our youth and touch their sweet neshamos with love and joy. We teach them positively, allowing them to express themselves and helping them appreciate the brachos and kedushah that every day of yom tov, Shabbos and chol bring.
We bring the next generation under the kanfei haShechinah, reaching them on their individual level, as the posuk of “Chanoch lenaar al pi darko” (Mishlei 22:6) teaches. Children are not cut out from cookie-cutters. Each one is different and special and can best be reached by appreciating that fact. Every child wants to be loved and find favor in the eyes of others. Every child wants to fit in and gain acceptance among his peers. Every child wants his rebbi to like him and have a rebbi he can like. Every child has a way to be reached.
Shammai’s teaching is an echo of that posuk.
Rav Yitzchok Yeruchom Diskin, son of the fiery angel Rav Yehoshua Leib, assumed his father’s role as head of Yerushalayim’s orphanage.
At the time, the Holy City had its share, Rachamana litzlon, of orphans whose parents had perished in famine or war. Rav Yitzchok Yeruchom would frequently visit the facility, learning and chatting with the children.
One day, as he walked in, he suddenly started to cry. He explained that since a tailor sits among bolts of cloth, it is likely that he will step on expensive fabrics when he walks around the shop. A carpenter will casually walk over expensive wood.
A bookbinder who works painstakingly on seforim might step on holy pages if he is not careful.
“But I,” concluded the rov, “work with these kinderlach. I am surrounded by these pure yesomim. How can I be sure that I am not stepping on them as I do my work?” 
Our society is blessed with large families and burgeoning mosdos. Children are everywhere. We have to ensure that we don’t become too casual in our encounters. If you take the time to shmooze with any teen at risk, you’d be struck by the unmistakable chein and sincerity in their eyes, the desperate longing to be good, and the inner call that they are forced to silence through all sorts of horrible addictions.
They aren’t bad, that’s for sure. So what went wrong? How has the nation gifted with yomim tovim and simcha, with Torah and mitzvos, with tefillin and lulav, allowed its children to wander? How has a nation who says “Atah vechartanu” forgotten its uniqueness?
I don’t have the answers, but the way out starts with acknowledging the question. Hear the message of the parsha. Hear who we are and what we can become, and use the reminder to do our jobs better, with more heart and more compassion.
Rabbeim and moros are the heroes of our nation. We need to provide them with the tools they need to be adept enough to perform their holy tasks with maximum strength and love as they would like to. We need to support them morally and financially so that they have the stamina they need to help fix errors brought on by others and keep everyone on track.
Let us all try to be positive and upbeat and remember who we are, where we come from and where we are headed, so that we realize the posuk of “vechol bonayich limudei Hashem” with nachas and simcha.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

How to Live

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The secular Jewish world is obsessed with the notion of tikkun olam, making the world a better place. In theory, it is grandiose, glorious and part of our mission, but in their hands, it generally has little practical application.

Torah Jews pledge allegiance to our mission statement and national raison d’etre. 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 His light and presence into this olam, a place of “he’alam,” concealment and darkness.

The words of a wise man are often repeated: When I was a young man, 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’s our approach to tikkun olam.

Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach once told Reb Shlomo Lorencz that he’d never known 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 Kedushah 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 approaching the Torah is already a baal middos.

Rav Chaim Volozhiner, in Ruach Chaim, his peirush on Pirkei Avos, explains the Mishnah (2:10) that quotes Rabi Eliezer, who said, “Yehi kevod 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 respect your friend with even a drop of honor, to you it feels as if you heaped upon him much more honor than he deserves, while when your friend honors 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 they 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 in shock as people engage in self-destructive behavior and commit actions that are hurtful to others. We wish we could stop them but are unable to.

When people foment machlokes over petty imagined insults, when people fight publicly, we stand by and watch 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 force people to be myopic and trivial.

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 little book comprised of but six chapters that illuminates the path, exposes the pitfalls, and offers the path to self-perfection.

It’s 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 true 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 gambling away the fortune he made dispensing advice.

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 Minchah 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 bad 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 real 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 raise men 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 reacted and 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. This was a first. 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 heard the knocking.

When the the young man figured out what really happened he was overwhelmed. Of course his rosh yeshiva had heard the ringing doorbell and had immediately reacted. 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 anything out of the ordinary.

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 parshah that we study during the days of Sefirah, Kedoshim, teaches us how to attain holiness. It’s a parshah 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?”

An elder chossid explained that the rebbe knew who the culprit was; that wasn’t the hard part. 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.

The rebbe heard the chossid’s explanation and confirmed what he had said.

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 read them and become better rachmonim, bayshonim and gomlei chassodim, we will be prepared to receive His Torah.