Wednesday, December 07, 2016

On Sparks and Stones

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
We are enthralled each year anew as we learn the parsha describing Yaakov Avinu’s dream, his years in Lavan’s house, his marriages, and the birth of the shevotim. Ever since our earliest years, we’ve sat riveted by the account of many stones joining together to become the single rock upon which Yaakov rested his head. We were generally taught that Yaakov slept on Har Hamoriah, site of his father’s Akeida and the future site of the Botei Mikdosh.
The sun set early and all of Eretz Yisroel folded under him, as Hashem promised him the land and assured him that He would watch over him and would bless him with many descendants.
Yaakov awoke in the morning and was overcome by the awesomeness of the promise he had received as he slept. He awoke and said, “This is a holy place. Hashem is in this place and I didn’t even know.” He consecrated the stone upon which he had slept and promised to give Hashem ten percent of his possessions.   
Yaakov traveled on to Charan, where he came upon shepherds sitting aimlessly with their flocks around a watering hole. They explained that they had to wait until all the local shepherds would come and then all of them would together push off the huge rock that covered the underground cave filled with water. When Rochel arrived with her sheep, Yaakov summoned the strength to roll off the boulder by himself.
Yaakov was the av of golus. What transpired to him on his way from Bais Lechem to Charan was the introduction to Yaakov’s first foray into exile, as he began his journey into golus.
He walked until dark and then lay down to rest in a place seemingly devoid of holiness. Upon awakening, he realized that “ein zeh ki im bais Elokim, this is a place laden with kedusha, the house of Hashem and the gate to heaven.”
Yaakov Avinu was essentially giving us the keys to survival in golus. We chance upon places that seem desolate, barren of any good. We view them as unable to receive any holiness, much less be a home for kedusha and people who seek to live exalted lives. The places are as inert as stone.
The golus experience is tragic, a family torn apart and spread across the world. We have endured all types of oppression and pain over the course of this journey. On the surface, it seems that we’ve been removed from the realm of the Divine, pushed into a world without holiness.
But we come to realize, as Yaakov Avinu taught us, that even the darkest places in the world are potential homes for kedusha. A stone can become a mizbeiach. Ein zeh ki im bais Elokim. This is the secret of survival in golus.
We don’t give up on any place or any person. There was a time when everyone believed that nothing good could take hold in America. They believed that anyone who immigrated to this land was doomed to a dark life of emptiness, and for many years that was the case. But eventually, Hashgocha orchestrated for giants who had learned the lesson of Yaakov to come here. They planted yeshivos where people said no Torah could grow. They insisted on shmiras Shabbos where there was none. They convinced parents to send their children to receive a Torah education when doing so was mocked and vilified as old-fashioned and wrong.
And look at what we have in America now: frum communities from coast to coast, Torah blossoming on a massive scale. How? Why? Because some of Yaakov’s children didn’t go to sleep when they got here. They didn’t view the place as stone cold. They believed that any place, anywhere, can be transformed into a Bais Elokim.
Not only in America, but around the world, Torah is found in places no one ever thought possible. Wherever Jews who remember Yaakov’s lesson go, the brocha he received that night in his dream of “uforatzta yoma vokeidma vetzafona vonegba” is being realized on an unprecedented scale.
No matter where our people end up, they build, they believe, they plant and they grow. And while doing so, they uncover and reveal sparks of holiness in the largest cities, the smallest towns, and the lightest and darkest corners of the world.
We never give up on anyone. We never say that he or she is beyond repair. We never say that they are beyond hope, as inert as stone, as dark as a seemingly forsaken place, for we know that there is holiness and good everywhere. Our task is to find it and cause embers to flare up into flames.
The anthem of golus­ is “achein yeish Hashem bamakom hazeh.” Never think you are alone. Never think you are forsaken. Never think anyone is too far gone. Never think that there is a location that cannot be transformed into a place where we can live and flourish.
We are all familiar with Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s prophecy that America would be the final station of Torah in golus. When we uncover enough watering holes here, we get to finally go home.
We have been spread across the world, and wherever we’ve gone, we’ve established botei Elokim, spreading kedusha and Torah where naysayers said it couldn’t be done. The cycle repeated itself every few hundred years. Jews would grow accustomed to their host country after having brought as much kedusha to that land as possible. The country rose up against them and once again the Jews were on to the next bleak outpost. Finally, we are here, spreading Torah across the fruited plain, awaiting that great day of “vehaya Hashem lemelech al kol ha’aretz.” 
We often lose sight of those who refined and purified the American landscape enabling the Torah world to rise. The great impact of the famed post-war giants sometimes overshadows the silent, hidden avodah of those who came before them and first uncovered the “achein yeish Hashem” on these shores as well.
The going was rough in those early turn-of-the-century days, as millions of Jews escaped the poverty and pogroms of Eastern Europe and came here looking for a better tomorrow. They settled in cities and towns all across the country, initially eking out a living as peddlers and shopkeepers. The ruach was stone cold. The water pits were blocked and refused to open.
With the peddlers came rabbonim who sat and learned by themselves and with the people. They wrote seforim and corresponded with the giants of Europe. They fought for Shabbos and Jewish education. Oftentimes they failed and many were lost, but they increased the kedusha here. The zechusim created by limud haTorah accumulated, balancing out the klipos hora and allowing frum people to live and thrive here. They cleared the air of spiritual pollution to the degree that shuls and yeshivos could be built, and botei medrash and kollelim could flourish all across the country.
In Omaha, Nebraska, lived Rav Tzvi Hirsch Grodzensky, cousin of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodeznsky, who toiled in Torah. In Boston, Rav Zalman Yaakov Freiderman presided over huge kehillos and made sure that there would be kashrus and rabbonim in Massachusetts, as he learned and taught Torah. Rav Eliezer Silver of Kovno ended up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and from his pulpit there, he influenced the entire Torah world.
Travel across this country and you’ll find Jewish cemeteries in the strangest of places. You think you’re the first frum Jew to ever drive through some forsaken town off the beaten path and then you pass the bais olam and realize that neshamos were moser nefesh to find sparks of kedusha in that location and prepare the country for its spiritual rebirth and the world for Moshiach. 
Generations of such people, who came to the final golus from Europe, brought with them Torah and mitzvos, sometimes leading very lonely lives. Others were more fortunate. Whether they learned into the wee hours of the morning in the Rocky Mountains or led quiet tishen on Friday night in places very far from Mezibuzh, they were slowly but surely pushing away the rocks that blocked the water of Torah from spreading. History might not be aware, but everything that came after those pioneers is because they uncovered the holy spark of “achein yeish Hashem bamakom hazeh,” and our existence here proves that.
Rav Moshe Mordechai Shulsinger writes that during one of Israel’s wars, people went to Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach asking for areas in which they should improve to help the war effort. He offered two suggestions. The first was to recite the first brocha of Birkas Hamazon from a bentcher. The second idea was not to be “fartayned” all day. “Don’t be perpetually aggrieved,” he said. “Some people go through every day of their lives with complaints against everyone. ‘They didn’t do what I told them to do.’ Or, ‘They didn’t ask me how to do it. If they would have asked me, the whole thing would have come out so much differently - and better, of course.’ People have complaints against their spouse, parents, children, rabbonim, rabbeim, moros and chazzan. They think that other people tried hurting them, harming them, and insulting them. People become bitter, angry and upset and get into fights.”
Stop, Rav Shach advised. Stop complaining. Stop seeing the incompetence of those around you and start seeing the blessings.
“A person can spend his day in kapdanus and bitterness,” Rav Shach would say.
Don’t say that this is an empty place. Don’t say that the water is buried beneath a rock too heavy to move. Don’t say that everything is bleak and hopeless. Rather, think, “Achein yeish Hashem bamakom hazeh.” Open your eyes and see the potential. See the good. See what the good people do and want to do, and help them remove the stones and pebbles in their lives.
A person who lives with the awareness that the Master of the Universe maps each step and writes every chapter lives with emunah and simcha, for he knows that whatever happens, there is one reaction: achein, behold, yeish Hashem bamakom hazeh. Wherever it is, He is there too.
A while ago, some yungeleit went to speak to Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman. A member of their kollel was niftar, lo aleinu, and they wanted to be mekabel something in his memory. They had various ideas, but wanted the rosh yeshiva to suggest an appropriate kabbolah.
Rav Shteinman listened to their proposals. Then he spoke. “Those are all very nice ideas, but I think you should try something else. You live in a relatively new neighborhood, where people move in and new buildings are rising. I think that everyone in the kehilla should sign a letter being mekabel that no matter what, they will avoid neighborly disputes. Your upstairs neighbor might be doing construction and it will be very noisy for a few months. Your neighbor down the hall might close in his porch and obstruct your view. Instead of fighting, step back and contemplate the brocha that led to that construction. Think of a growing family that needs more room, or more space for an overworked mother, bringing menuchas hanefesh to another family. That kabbolah will be an eternal source of merit to your friend’s neshomah.”
Yaakov Avinu throughout this parsha faces all sorts of challenges. He travels, lonely and impoverished, and arrives with nothing. He faces Lavan’s trickery and deceit, and then toils under a blazing sun, and in fierce cold, for a selfish boss.
Never do we see him with ta’anos, focused on the great evil being perpetrated against him. He never assumes the role of nirdaf. He isn’t busy with Lavan’s spite.
He saw the Hand of Hashem there, too. “Achein yeish Hashem bamakom hazeh.”
Thus, he emerged from Bais Lavan with all the brachos in the world, rich in family and possessions.
During the last Sukkos of Rav Yitzchok Hutner’s life, months before his passing, he received hundreds of visitors. Talmidim and their families descended upon his Yerushalayim apartment to pay their respects.
He was weak, and the deluge of people was difficult for him to manage. He spoke with each one, and he was visibly worn out at the end of one Chol Hamoed day.
“Why does the rosh yeshiva allow people to come? Why not just close the door tomorrow and post a sign that the rosh yeshiva isn’t taking visitors?” asked a concerned talmid.
“Veil ah mentch, because a person, iz ah sheineh zach, is a beautiful thing,” Rav Hutner answered.
A person is crafted by Hashem, a wondrous, spectacular creation, and each person has value. To close a door on a person is to lose out on beholding the glory. It wasn’t about the inconvenience or difficulty, for achein yeish Hashem bamakom hazeh. Every person carries some of that kedusha.
In that spot, the very place where Yaakov revealed Hashem’s Presence, the Bais Hamikdosh will stand, the ultimate testimony to the fact that along the entire journey, the long path through golus, He accompanied us: He was there, leading us home.
All along, dark and confusing as it may be, we have it within us to stop and say, “Achein yeish Hashem bamakom hazeh.” What a great way to live, always being positive, looking for the good everywhere, and planting the seeds of Moshiach.
We all possess the strength to roll away the stones that block our paths and the paths of others. Let’s do it.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

That Is Who We Are

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
The sagas and encounters of Sefer Bereishis, the ma’asei avos that serve as perpetual guideposts to us, continue in this parsha as we are introduced to two new figures, Yaakov and Eisov, whose struggle endures and will continue until the End of Days.
Their differences were apparent even prior to their birth. One sought to escape to a life of the bais medrash and the other wanted to busy himself with avodah zora. Yaakov was a tzaddik tomim, while his twin brother, Eisov, was quite obviously wicked, yet able to couch his behavior and at times present himself as an upright person.
Yaakov was distinguished most of all by his form of speech. He spoke with respect, humility and empathy, as had his father, Yitzchok, and grandfather, Avrohom. Eisov had no use for anything holy, and glibly sold his bechorah to Yaakov for the symbolic price of some lentil soup. He lived a purely heathen life, though he conducted himself virtuously around his father.
After selling the precious bechorah, the posuk tells us that Eisov did not regret what he had done. Erasing any thought that he sold his inheritance under duress, as an act of desperation, the Torah informs us, “Vayivez Eisov es habechorah.” He mocked what had been bequeathed to him. He laughed off what he had done and said, “Who needs it? The whole thing is worthless.”
Baalei mussar say that this is the standard reaction of people whose silly actions cause them to lose. When a child loses a game, he invariably says, “I don’t care that I lost. It was a dumb game and I never even tried.” A sophisticated, mature person can mourn a loss, appreciating what could have been, and is able to admit to himself that he missed an opportunity. Eisov lacked the capacity for serious introspection. As soon as he began pondering what he had done, he mocked the whole thing, quieting the soft voice of sincerity before it could rise to the level of seriousness to be able to convince him that he was off kilter.
The parsha tells us that while it appears that Yitzchok appreciated Eisov, the difference in speech and manner between his two sons was obvious to him. When Yaakov came forth to receive the brachos of “Veyiten lecha,” Yitzchok was confused, for although Yaakov was wearing the coat of Eisov, he sounded like Yaakov. “Hakol kol Yaakov.”
Eisov later cried to his father, begging for a brocha, as he plotted his brother’s murder. The words meant nothing. Yitzchok discerned something in Yaakov’s voice, a sincerity and heart that marked him as different.
Words are everything to a Jew. Our manner of speech defines us. How we speak, the words we choose, and our tone of voice all matter. We are to be refined, disciplined and respectful. We respect people whose words are soft and thoughtful, not brash and irreverent. We respect and promote men and women of truth, whose fidelity to honesty and tradition grounds them. We mock the loud bullies, those with the quick put-down and glib tongues. Negativity and cynicism may sound cute and bring popularity to the one who uses his intelligence to laugh at people, but the one worthy of our respect is he who labors, speaks from the heart, and seeks to find and do good. His life is one of accomplishment. It is him and people like him who embody the ideals of Am Yisroel.
Listen to the voice of Eisov. The number-two official in the US Justice Department, who has blocked any remedy to the situation of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, spoke last week to the New York Times about the changes that the Trump administration will supposedly bring to the Justice Department under the stewardship of Jeff Sessions.
“You don’t just try to hammer everybody for as long as you can because you can,” the deputy attorney general said. “Your obligation as a prosecutor is to look at the individual’s conduct.
“We want sentences that are just and proportional. That means we should sentence people in ways that will be fair, that will punish people for their crimes and that will serve as a deterrent. But we shouldn’t keep people in prison longer than is necessary.”
This, from a person who has no problem keeping Sholom Mordechai in jail for 27 years. Yes, it is time to drain the swamp and bring change, honesty and fairness to government and to justice.
Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky advised voting for a certain candidate in the recent presidential election. He explained that his opponent is a person who typifies dishonesty. She speaks words of compassion, justice and law, but she uses their power to further her own agendas and lull the populace into accepting the abrogation of trust.
We are in the exile of Eisov and must make sure that we do not adopt his perfidious and disrespectful nature.
In this week’s haftorah, the novi Malachi repeats to the Jewish people Hashem’s words, “I love Yaakov and Eisov I hate…” As for the kohanim, “Amar Hashem Tzevakos lochem hakohanim bozei shemi,” they failed to demonstrate proper respect to Hashem and the Mikdosh (Malachi 1:2-6).
Underpinning the reprimand, and perhaps the connection to this week’s parsha, is the fact that the kohanim earned their role and mission as a result of Yaakov’s purchase of the bechorah. The bechorim did not act properly, and the kohanim were chosen to replace them as attendants to Hashem.
The original sale of the bechorah was rooted in the fundamental difference between the brothers. Yaakov was a man of respect, while Eisov epitomized ridicule and scorn. As the posuk says of Eisov, “Vayivez Eisov.” His personality was one of derision. Thus, if the kohanim had digressed to the level that they became “bozei Hashem,” embodying Eisov’s characteristic of the middah of bizayon, they were demonstrating that they were no longer worthy of inheriting the gift bequeathed by Yaakov to serve Hashem in the Bais Hamikdosh.
I was at a wedding in Brooklyn last week. After enjoying the simcha, I returned to my car, put the key in the ignition, and tried to pull out of my parking spot into the street so that I could begin my journey home, but the street was jammed with cars and the traffic wasn’t moving.
After wondering how Brooklyn residents deal with this all the time, I patiently waited for a space to open, allowing me to enter the road. There was no way. Then I saw an opening and attempted to direct my car into it. At the same time, an oncoming car moved forward and blocked me from getting into the road. I was upset at the lack of consideration and did something I had never previously done. I got out of my car, walked over to the gentleman, and motioned for him to open his car window. He looked at me curiously. “What?”
“My friend,” I said, “surely you’ve been learning the parshiyos. You know that we’re ainiklach of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov. You know that their lives were one uninterrupted chapter of chesed, kindness and giving. When you were maavir sedra these past few weeks and read of the chesed of Avrohom, did that message impact you in any way?
“We are Avrohom’s ainiklach. We look to help each other. We think about each other. We treat other people the way we want to be treated. Even when we drive.”
The features of the driver softened. He shrugged and said, “You know something? I never thought of it that way.”
With a smile on his face, he pulled back a few inches and let me get in the line to get off that block.
Now, this is not a story about me and that driver. It is a tale about us and what we are made of. Moments earlier, he had been aggressive and combative, and for no real reason. It was just habit. He didn’t even think about it. That was just the way he drove, or maybe he was stressed or thinking about something else.
Like a tiny spark can ignite a flame, the smallest reminder is enough to bring back the glory within us. We are identified by three traits. We are rachmonim, bayshonim and gomlei chassodim, people of mercy, bashfulness and kindness. We are invested with sensitivity and compassion, and the words we use, our tone of voice, and our approach have the ability to awaken those traits.
Good parents, friends, mechanchim and communicators appreciate words and the difference between a soft, gentle tone and an angry one.
The secret of using words well is believing in the intrinsic holiness of the people you are speaking to. As the wisest of men wrote, ma’aneh rach, soft words, have the potential to be meishiv cheima, turn away anger, because they open the heart of the antagonist and allow the message to enter.
People of sensitivity see this. Eisov doesn’t see past the surface. He sees a red soup and refers to it by its color, saying to Yaakov, “Haliteini na min ha’adom ha’adom hazeh... Al kein kara es shemo Edom” (Bereishis 25:30). Eisov and his offspring are referred to as “Edom,” because he referred to the lentil soup as “edom.” By calling the soup by its color, he exposed his own superficiality. He was attracted by the color, not the taste or nourishing properties of the food. Edom, as a nation, also fails to perceive beyond what it can touch and feel. Hence the fascination in our world with looks, color and presentation. There is no depth that’s meaningful to them beyond the surface image.
Decades ago, some Sephardic families wanted to open a minyan in Deal, New Jersey. They had a problem. Many of the people they would include in their weekly minyan were not Shabbos observers. With them, there was a minyan. Without them, there wasn’t a minyan. Should they proceed or should they delay their plans?
Rav Shlomo Diamond turned to his brother-in-law, Rav Yosef Rosenblum, for guidance. Rav Rosenblum asked him what would happen if any of those people happened to be smoking on Shabbos and they would see Chacham Ovadia Yosef approaching. Would they conceal the cigarette?
When Rav Diamond told him that they would, he said that this demonstrated that the people possessed basic yiras Shomayim and reverence for Torah. They were simply lacking in knowledge, but the potential was there. “Start the minyan and they will learn!” he said.
Those very people became the cornerstone of a glorious community, fathers and grandfathers of serious bnei Torah and shomer Shabbos families.
The Jew is alive in their hearts. Their soul is dormant, but not gone. With soft words, patience, love and belief in each person, they roar to life. The kol Yaakov is our most powerful force.
The Chofetz Chaim kept pictures in his home that he would look at from time to time. One of them was a picture of a tall man in a threadbare caftan. The man was neither a talmid chochom nor a rov, but a tobacco grinder. He was known as Reb Shimon Kaftan because of the tattered cloak he wore. After losing his wife and children in a plague, he arrived in Vilna. After doing just enough work to sustain himself, he would spend most of the remaining hours of the day going around with a pushka, softly enjoining people to put in their coins, which Reb Shimon used to feed hungry families and support yeshiva bochurim and Torah scholars.
As he walked about, he hummed a little tune, which went something like this: “Someone who gives a penny here, receives Olam Haba there.” It was a simple tune, but the Chofetz Chaim, the rabbon shel Yisroel, would tell the story of Shimon and sing his song. The gaon and tzaddik of Radin perceived the latent holiness in a Yiddish ditty, because words and authentic Yiddishe emotions matter, and the little song caused Jews to open their hearts. It was the timeless kol Yaakov and the Chofetz Chaim would sing it as if it were a sacred piyut.
As we carry the traditions of Yaakov and follow his teachings, it is incumbent upon us to behave accordingly.
Rav Yaakov Edelstein is one of the leading gedolim of Eretz Yisroel. Over the age of ninety, he underwent throat surgery last year, leaving him without the ability to speak. He communicates by writing messages on a pad.
Recently, his doctor told him that there is a possibility that through undergoing strenuous exercise and therapy for several months, he might be able to say two words. After describing the difficult process, the doctor asked if he would be interested in going through with it.
“Kevod harav, which two words do you want to start working on?” the doctor asked.
Rav Edelstein responded, “Amein and todah.”
For that is the essence of a Jew. Those two words sum it up. Amein and todah. Two words that encapsulate the kol Yaakov.
The way a person speaks is reflective of his personality. A person who speaks softly is humble, just as one who speaks respectfully is refined and moral.
As children of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, we are all shluchim to continue their holy work. We are to care about each other, and speak with love and soft words people can understand and accept. We speak neither with a forked tongue nor with animosity, hate or sanctimonious judgmentalism. We are neither flippant nor glib. We are and remain positive and hopeful, treating all people the way we want to be treated, no matter the occasion of our interaction.
Hakol kol Yaakov. That’s us.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Who We Are

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
As we study the parshiyos of Sefer Bereishis, we develop proper perspectives. At the outset of the stories that are told regarding our forefathers, the Ramban (Bereishis 12:6) reminds us of Chazal’s admonition: “Ma’aseh avos simon labonim.” Seemingly regular occurrences are painted with the brush of eternity.
In Parshas Chayei Sarah, we read that Avrohom Avinu sent his trusted servant, Eliezer, to find an appropriate match for his son Yitzchok. The journey and its subsequent lessons guide us through the daunting path of shidduchim.
The posuk (24:22) relates that when Eliezer determined that Rivka was the girl who was destined to marry Yitzchok and become a mother of Klal Yisroel, he presented her with a golden nose ring, which weighed a beka, and two bracelets, which weighed ten zohov.
Rashi explains that the beka hinted to the shekolim of Klal Yisroel, regarding which the posuk says, “beka lagulgoles.” The two bracelets hinted to the two Luchos, and the “asarah zohov mishkolom” alluded to the Aseres Hadibros.
Rashi is teaching us that things are often not the way they appear to us at first glance. No observer to what was transpiring between Eliezer and Rivka could have understood the deeper meaning in what was going on. It is only years later, in hindsight, with the aid of the Torah and its meforshim, that we are able to comprehend the shlichus and the manner in which Eliezer went about finding Yitzchok’s basherte.
When Lavan saw what Eliezer gave his sister Rivka, he ran towards him, impressed by the jewelry and the possessions with which Eliezer traveled. We must not be like Lavan, understanding life in a superficial manner without grasping the depth of it. Lavanites don’t realize that since Hashem causes all that occurs in this world, there is deeper significance to our daily encounters and challenges.
Nothing happens without a reason. Although we do not always understand why we are placed in certain situations, we know that Hashem caused that experience to happen. That knowledge provides us the strength to withstand and accept faithfully what comes our way. We use the strengths with which we are blessed to fulfill Hashem’s will and encourage and assist other people to do the same.
There is always more going on than what meets the eye.
In last week’s parsha, we read that after the destruction of Sedom and Amora, Avrohom looked out at the smoldering cities, “vayashkeif al pnei Sedom” (Bereishis 19:28). It is interesting to note that the posuk uses the term “vayashkeif” to describe Avrohom Avinu’s gazing at the cities. Lehashkif denotes a deep, penetrating gaze. It implies looking and contemplating. He didn’t merely go there to glance indifferently as a tourist would. He stood there beholding the scene.
To most onlookers, the city was nothing more than a bastion of hedonism and immorality, inhabited by sadistic and selfish people. They were so vicious, they would kill a girl for the sin of offering hospitality to strangers. It was a place whose destruction most people would view as a cause for celebration.
Yet, our forefather Avrohom had a deeper perspective. He gazed into the town’s innermost soul, and what he saw there caused him to beg Hashem to have mercy upon them.
What did he see? The posuk states in Tehillim, “Motzosi Dovid avdi - I have found My servant Dovid.” Chazal (Bereishis Rabbah 41:4) ask, “Heichon motzosi? Where did I find him? B’Sedom.” The roots of Dovid Hamelech were found in Sedom.
Dovid Hamelech descended from Rus, a daughter of Moav, born to one of the lone survivors of the destruction of Sedom. Moshiach ben Dovid emerged from Moav, a fulfillment of Avrohom Avinu’s vision and conviction that there was something good and holy in Sedom.
Sometimes, a person experiences hardships and begins wondering what he did wrong to deserve such punishment. In the times of the Arizal, people who were facing adversity would approach the Arizal for assistance. Sometimes he would tell them that the torment they were living through was connected to their neshamos in a previous life and not brought on by anything they had done.
The Arizal was able to see beneath the surface and perceive the reason for people’s misfortune. He saw the blemishes on their soul that were being rectified by the suffering they were enduring.
A person in difficult straits approached Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach and shared his tale of woe. Rav Shach took out a Shabbos zemiros and turned to the zemer of Koh Ribon. He read aloud the words, “lu yichyeh gevar shenin alfin la yei’ol gevurteich bechushbenaya.”
Rav Shach explained that the words mean that even if a man were to live for one thousand years, he would be unable to comprehend the cheshbonos of Hashem and the constant chassodim being performed for him. 
To emphasize his point, Rav Shach began with a discussion about Akeidas Yitzchok. Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer states that Yitzchok Avinu’s neshomah left him at the Akeidah. The Zohar says that when Yitzchok was revived, Hashem sent him a different neshomah. He explains further that Yitzchok’s initial neshomah was one of bechinas nukvah, and had it remained, Yitzchok would not have been able to have children. The neshomah that Hashem sent him following the Akeidah was bechinas duchrah and was able to give birth.
Rav Shach told the broken man, “In other words, what the Zohar is saying is that if not for the Akeidah, Yitzchok would not have had children. It was due to the experience of the Akeidah that the bechinas nukvah was removed from Yitzchok and Klal Yisroel sprung forth from him. It is impossible for us mortal beings to understand why things are happening to us, to others and to the world, but we must know that everything that occurs is part of a clearly designed Divine plan.”
The Ramban at the end of Parshas Bo instructs us to appreciate every day and everything that happens to us in that day, realizing its significance:
“In fact, this is the purpose of creation itself, for we have no other explanation of creation. Hashem has no desire except that man should know and acknowledge the Hashem Who created him… Through recalling the great revealed signs of Yetzias Mitzrayim, a person acknowledges the concealed signs of everyday life, which are the foundation of the entire Torah. For a person has no share in the Torah of Moshe unless he believes that all our affairs and experiences are signs from Hashem, that there is no independent force of nature regarding either the community or the individual.”
We are mistaken when we misjudge our abilities and think that what we say and do don’t make a difference. When Chazal say that a person is to think, “Bishvili nivra haolam,” included in that is an admonition that a person shouldn’t view himself as insignificant, but should rather be confident in the knowledge that his words and actions have unseen and untold effects on the world. A person should know that he possesses the ability to bring about change. We have seen how one person, running against all odds, can overcome obstacles and naysayers and make a big difference to many people.
Take, for example, an organization like Shuvu, founded by one person and basically led by one person since its inception. Because of those two people, thousands of children have received a Torah education.
Think of Adopt-A-Kollel and the revolution spawned by a couple of individuals who saw a problem and stepped in to fill a vacuum.
Think of Hatzolah, Bikur Cholim, Chaveirim, and all the other organizations that save lives and are the products of the thoughts of one man. Think of Zvi Gluck and Avi Fishoff and the work they do, one-man shows putting lives back together again, changing minds, focusing attention on problems formerly swept under the rug. And think of the people who support them.
People who care enough become resourceful and energetic as they work towards their goal to help others. But there are other ways to help improve the world. When we study Torah, we affect change in the world. We introduce more holiness to a suffering world, and the merit of our Torah and mitzvos are a source of zechuyos to our entire nation and make the world a better place. The more time and effort we devote to Torah, the better people we become. We are happier, healthier and more fulfilled, because that is who we are and what being a Jew is all about.
Learning and internalizing these parshiyos should invest us with a heightened sense of self-value.
To be successful on a mission, the shliach must appreciate his own significance and worth. He has to announce himself appropriately, as did Eliezer. “Eved Avrohom anochi.”
Rav Shach’s messages after he assumed the role of leader, captain and steward of the olam haTorah indicated that he was imbued with a shlichus. As we discussed in the paper last week, he understood his role as the transmitter of the path of the Chofetz Chaim and Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky. He understood that he was an heir to his rebbi, the Brisker Rov, and his uncle, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer. All his drashos, shmuessen and directives were delivered against a backdrop of “Eved Avrohom anochi.” Like Eliezer, Rav Leizer Shach was charged with a mission and he recognized it.
Every one of us is charged with a shlichus. There are so few of us and so much darkness to dispel. We all have our jobs and missions. No matter what they are, we should perform them with great pride.
The parshiyos we study these weeks inspire us to recognize who we are, bnei Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov. They remind us of the implicit obligations in our lofty status.
The Gemara teaches that Shlomo Hamelech experienced suffering at the hands of Ashmedai, king of the demons, and for a short time was alone and anonymous. The Gemara recounts that Shlomo went from being ruler of the universe, to ruling over people, to ultimately only ruling over his staff and cloak. He was reduced to knocking on doors, insisting that he was a king.
The baalei mussar point out that throughout all his travails, despite all that he had lost, Shlomo remained a king. Molach al maklo. He never lost the self-perception of his own royalty.
We sometimes forget who we are, our innate value, and the inherent holiness we possess. We are good people. We are kind. Honest. Generous. Thoughtful. Caring and giving. Because that is who we are. Because we are the children of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov.
Everyone has the ability to improve the world. Each one of us can reach out and help people who need a handout of time, money or sympathy. We can help others get through the day. We can bring meaning and warmth to the lives of others. We can learn with them. We can befriend them. We can be problem-solvers.
We can rise above pettiness and be great.
May these parshiyos educate us and enable us to become more introspective; motivated and capable of recognizing who we really are.
Eved Avrohom anochi.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Bursting the Bubble

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Decades before the Yated began publishing, the great mechaneich, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, is said to have commented to a talmid reading the daily newspaper, “Not a word that you read there is true, besides the date.” He then added, “Actually, even the date is false, because the paper was printed the night before, so that it would be available on newsstands and in groceries by daybreak.”
Apocryphal or not, the lesson is just as relevant today.
At some point, the media became an echo chamber telling people what to think, what to feel, and what it means if we don’t go along with their narrative. They stopped reporting news and started to create news, attempting to shape elections and public opinion.
In 1990, there was a small news item about a building that collapsed in Moscow. The Kremlin issued an official statement that the collapse was caused by an engineering error and reassured Muscovites that the government would get the building up and that it would stay up. A wise rosh yeshiva noticed the story and commented that the end of Communism was certainly imminent.
A keen student of human psychology, Rav Shlomo Freifeld explained that for decades, the only position the Kremlin took when anything went wrong was to blame. They unfailingly said that whatever happened wasn’t their fault, but someone else’s. For the Russian government to concede a construction error, even if it was a relatively small mistake, meant that they had lost their arrogant smugness and their end was near.
Chochom odif minovi. Six months later, he was proven right.
I thought about this story when I saw a letter that the New York Times publisher sent to subscribers of the newspaper. Under the flowery talk, it was as close to a mea culpa as can be, a concession that the paper of record had failed in its mandate to report the stories of the day without partiality or agenda.
The arrogance has been punctured, even if only a bit and for a short time.
Last week, the wall protecting and surrounding the mainstream media and the lie it sold as reality came crashing down. The self-contained, self-congratulatory, condescending liberal media was brought to its knees.
For eight years, Americans were fed a steady diet of liberal rhetoric, starting with the president himself. It was a perpetual lecture aimed at painting conservatives as narrow-minded, myopic, xenophobic, and racist. Together with the media, elected officials presented a new America, quite different from the country we had known in the prior decades. If you didn’t agree with them, you were written off as “irredeemable,” “deplorable,” “un-American,” and out of touch with reality.
Obama had presented a Democrat coalition that followers believed would last a generation. Even people registered with other parties, who rely on the mainstream media, believed it and feared that their candidates would never win another election.
Many pundits smugly wondered, live, on air, if the Republican Party would ever again have a majority, or even a close minority, in the Senate or House. The presidency? Ha! Not a chance, they assured us.
Last week, it was revealed that the Democratic Party is like a little poodle on a leash, led by a cadre of supporters in New York, California and other major cities, far removed from the concerns and thoughts of Americans across the length and breadth of the country.
In fact, the numbers show that Barack Obama himself would have lost to Donald Trump if they had run against each other. Obama’s presidency and agenda were roundly rejected by the American people. He campaigned very hard for Hillary Clinton and reminded people that she would continue his agenda. He and his family and those close to him all campaigned vigorously for Clinton, yet Trump won every state they battled in. Obama pleaded with the electorate to see the choice as a referendum of his legacy. They listened, letting him know exactly what they thought of his legacy.
From the day Trump entered the race, he was mocked and vilified. The mainstream powerbrokers and media portrayed him as a buffoon who could never last. As he won the primaries in state after state, leading Republicans went to great lengths to have him disqualified. They didn’t understand his power; they didn’t get his strength. The more money they spent against him, and the more they undercut him, the stronger a force he became. There are Republicans who still don’t understand how he did it, though now they are forced to play along.
Hillary Clinton was presented as the inevitable winner, and nearly everyone was convinced that she would win. Though she had difficulty beating an old socialist and required much help - underhanded and otherwise - to put him away, from the day she was handed the nomination, every poll, pundit and expert, and anyone who knows anything, agreed that she would win. Trump had no chance, we were told daily by well-heeled, articulate, well-paid talking heads.
The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC, and every other media outlet hammered home the message that Trump was unsuitable for the presidency and could never win. And it wasn’t only the liberals. Conservatives such as Charles Krauthammer and Karl Rove are just as guilty for failing to perceive what was happening. Perhaps they were influenced by the general media as well, believing the polls, which were obviously skewed in Clinton’s favor along with all the other coverage.
The polls were used to obfuscate what was going on around the country. The media painted a picture and it was proven wrong. All through the campaign, everyone thought that Clinton would win and Trump would lose. Though people like to believe that they are not influenced by the secular media, the narrative of the press effectively convinced the nation.
Even those who don’t subscribe to the media and the cultural icons, are influenced by what they say and do. The national conversation and information flow is dictated by people with agendas, and unless you receive your information from an objective source, you are likely being lied to by spin experts, as proven by the trove of internal documents publicized by the whistle-blowing WikiLeaks group.
The Democrats had no message. They had nothing to say to working class voters other than admonitions of what they should believe and how they should speak. Their campaign boiled down to warning people that Trump was an evil dope and anyone who voted for him is equally worthy of derision.
The American people were told that Trump wasn’t deserving of their support, but they didn’t care. They had enough of being told how to think and what to do. Citizens saw the corruption of justice and voted to do something about it. They had enough of paying high taxes, watching a ruling class dominate and rule their lives. And they did something about it.
The big lie has been exposed. We have to be intelligent enough to recognize it and follow up on it. The illusion of the left sweeping across the country, people hating Trump, and the inevitability of a Clinton victory was blown to smithereens. In fact, the Democratic Party is leaderless, without a message, and beholden to the extreme left wing.
The American people are worried. They’re anxious about rising health care costs, about their pensions, and about making it through each day.
Obama, when he ran for president, campaigned as the candidate of hope and change, but once elected, he dished out little hope and a lot of the wrong type of change. Trump was not only the law-and-order candidate, but also the hope-and-change candidate. Essentially, he offered hope for a better future and of the country being great again.
Trump did not have formulated policies or serious ideas about governing, but he gives voice to the attitude that empowers the people. He talked about the real fear in American homes, the desire to triumph, the hope of being winners again. He filled large arenas, peddling that message, and by doing so, he made the professional politicians look silly. The experts chose to ignore the phenomenon that was sweeping the country. They were tone-deaf to the message sent by thousands of people who chose to wait for hours to get into a rally, where they would wait some more for the candidate to arrive. Instead of reporting on Trump’s large crowds, the media never showed pictures of anything other than Trump at the podium, unless there was a protester or angry poster in the crowd. They ignored the truth. In other words, they lied. They sold an alternate story and convinced themselves and many others that the fictitious story was necessary.
The old ways of the so-called experts and poll-driven candidates, with staff-written position papers and rote responses to straight questions, didn’t work this time. People want action. They want someone who understands and respects them. They want their candidate to speak off the cuff and be truthful and straightforward. They don’t care for long political records and pedigree.
Trump’s bluster and banter reflected conversations that took place in coffee shops and gas stations across the country. Tens of millions of frustrated Americans saw him as someone who would address what was troubling them. His promises, such as vowing to change the way government runs, were expressed and channeled by crystallizing his positions in a three-word-chant, such as “drain the swamp.” The people loved it and connected to it, seeing Trump as the leader they had been waiting for. He didn’t speak intelligently, and he is not well-read or well-versed, with no experience in doing anything he promised, but they didn’t care.
When given the choice of just such a person, they chose him every time they were given the opportunity, as he racked up primary wins and then, last week, electoral votes, one after the other.
Hillary Clinton had a mammoth fundraising operation, with influential political aides, her husband, power-brokers, and all of the media in the country on her side. The Clinton Machine was unstoppable, it seemed.
People bought into the idea that everything is rigged against them. They saw Trump as real, not phony. He was one of them. He spoke like them, using simple, down-to-earth language that they understood, without using multi-syllable words. He didn’t try to make himself sound smart and knowledgeable, while trying to make the people feel dumb and less educated on the matters they care about. He was blunt and forthright, and people appreciated that. Yes, they realized that he has a lot of money, but they got over that. When he was attacked, they didn’t focus on his deficiencies. In fact, the more he was attacked, the more they were convinced that the rigged system was trying to destroy him. He won despite everything that was unleashed against him, because the people rebelled against the establishment and wanted to get America back to what it is supposed to be.
People are worried about the economy and healthcare. They are scared of terrorism and illegal aliens taking over their country. They care about the Supreme Court, and the sanctity of life and marriage, and were fed up with being told that they are standing in the way of progress.
In the weeks leading up to the election, Obama said repeatedly, “All the progress we’ve made over these last eight years goes out the window if we don’t win this election.” The people believed him and voted against him and his agenda for exactly that reason. The legacy he was so concerned about was repudiated by the masses, as his party’s candidates went down to defeat up and down the ballot across the country. One-third of Democrats in Congress will now represent three states, California, Massachusetts and New York. The Democrats lost the Senate and the House. Republican governors will now control 33 states.
President Obama, touted by the media and Democrats as a post-racial bridge-builder, was actually a gift to Trump. People don’t like him or his policies. They are upset with his lies, his presidential proclamations making an end-run against their elected representatives, taking the country left, quashing American pride, apologizing for America’s gains, and coddling with enemies while ignoring friends.
Trump had desired to run for many years, but he presented himself as a political outsider and novice, which he certainly was, leading a movement. The pundits laughed at his unorthodox campaign. He didn’t have front men, fancy surrogates, fundraisers, marketing people, pollsters, message tweakers, and everything else that Hillary, Jeb and all the other political pros had. He had himself. He had his brain and his connection to the voters, who saw him as a regular guy like them, just with more money.
And so he won.
And the lessons for us are endless.
We must develop eyes that see the truth, a discernment and judgment to be able to see through lies, recognizing the emes and sticking to it.
Lehavdil, this week’s parsha opens with an account of Avrohom Avinu’s chesed and extraordinary hachnosas orchim. The Ribono Shel Olam himself was visiting, but there were hungry guests waiting. Avrohom was weak, recovering from his bris milah, but there were human beings who needed his help.
Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky would point out that the greatness of Avrohom does not become evident until we study the second perek of the parsha and the juxtaposition of Avrohom’s concern and kindness with his pleas on behalf of the people of Sedom.
Avrohom’s special mitzvah was hachnosas orchim. It would stand to reason that he would despise Sedom, the epitome of an anti-chesed city. Since the essence of Sedom was counter to his “agenda,” he could be forgiven for perceiving them as an enemy.
But Avrohom was able to view things clearly. He rejected the actions of the Sodomites and was saddened by the way they treated guests, but he didn’t let that cloud his vision. In modern-day parlance, the noise didn’t distract him from his mission.
When Hashem shared with Avrohom His intention to destroy the city and its inhabitants, he davened for them and bargained for them to be saved. Hakadosh Boruch Hu rejected his entreaties and Sedom was wiped off the face of the earth.
The posuk (Bereishis 19:27) tells us that after the evil city was destroyed, Avrohom arose early and headed to the place where he had stood pleading before Hashem and took a look at the destroyed cities of Sedom and Amorah.
The Gemara in Maseches Brachos (6b) cites this posuk and comments that someone who is koveia makom l’tefillaso, establishes a fixed place for his prayers, is a chossid, an anav, and a talmid of Avrohom Avinu.
Because of his humility, Avrohom Avinu was able to return to the same place where he had been rejected and kept on davening because it wasn’t about him. He was a humble soldier of the Creator, focused on carrying out His will, being kind and generous and helping as many people as possible. Avrohom had no agenda of his own that he was seeking to affect.
The Creator can carry out his own agenda with us or without us. If we are fortunate, we can follow his word and get to be on His team.
Sure, it is a struggle not to get swept up with the cause of goodness. We can easily imagine good people being carried away by anti-Sedom rhetoric and hoping for quick destruction of the evil-doers. Rav Aharon Kotler would tell his talmidim that they could learn “da’as Torah” by studying ma’asei avos, the reactions and choices made by the avos hakdoshim in these parshiyos of Bereishis.
The Tchebiner Rov was a successful lumber merchant. When he lost his fortune and was left with no source of income, he acquiesced to the request of gedolim that he accept a rabbinical position.
On Purim of his first year in Tchebin, mishloach manos and financial gifts piled up on the table. The rov noticed tears in the eyes of his rebbetzin, who wasn’t accustomed to taking money from anyone.
The rov said to her, “I know how you feel. It is difficult to be a taker. But I ask you one thing. In a few years, don’t become upset with those who do not give as much as you would have expected.”
The wise rov was aware of the human tendency to initially see a practice as incorrect, but then get used to it, viewing the practice as correct and those who think otherwise as being wrong.
He pleaded with his wife not to let that happen to them.
And it shouldn’t happen to us either.
We can plumb these parshiyos, developing Torah attitudes and ideals, and refining our sense of integrity.
We can approach life with clear eyes, seeing past the lies and hearing beyond the din.
This week, hundreds of good Jews gather at a convention specifically for the purpose of learning how to listen, to hear gedolim and rabbonim analyze contemporary issues and address them with Torah lenses. Being together with ehrliche Yidden is itself a means of absorbing the emes and living above the commotion and noise. The courage, conviction and chizuk offered by gedolei Yisroel and our rabbeim are our agenda and our party.
My rebbi, Rav Mendel Kaplan, a vestige of the Lithuanian world that is no more, would relate to us that his rebbi taught him something that he had, in turn, learned from his rebbi: “The first rule in our Shulchan Aruch is zei nisht kein na’ar, don’t be a fool.”
We have the greatest tool in the world, the Torah, to provide us with wisdom and truth. If we begin to see things clearly, half of the battle is already won.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Let’s Be Great Again

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
In this week’s parsha, the world gains much light.
The Medrash relates that the experience of our forefather, Avrohom Avinu, is akin to a traveler who came upon a birah dolekes, a palace aflame. Rather than continuing on his way, he stopped. He was intrigued; there was something there, a message, a call, and he heard it loud and clear.
And from that moment on, he was never the same.
Everything changed when Avrohom Avinu stopped at that birah dolekes.
He beheld a goal, a meaning to life, a point of existence.
He saw the grandeur of the palace, the work that went into it, the marvelous architecture and brilliant construction, and he knew that it could not have come into being on its own. Someone owned it, someone built it, and someone cared for it.
At a young age, he raised himself above the people around him and began living on a different plane.
Often, as people describe hearing shocking news or undergoing a life-altering experience - good or the opposite - they wonder how life continues around them, cars zipping along, people walking by speaking on their phones, and children laughing and playing. The ordinary seems so strange in the face of the extraordinary.
Such was the life of Avrohom Avinu.
Wherever he went, he spoke of a Creator, as he tried to open people’s eyes. He had seen the extraordinary truth and couldn’t understand how people went about their lives as if there were no Creator.
Shortly after Avrom’s and Sarai’s arrival, there was a hunger in The Promised Land, forcing them to travel to the land of Egypt in search of food. Rashi (Bereishis 13:3) teaches that on their return trip from Mitzrayim, Avrom and Sarai stayed at the same lodgings they had visited on their way in.
Rashi says that one of the reasons Avrom returned to the same places was “leshalem hakafosav,” to pay up his debts. The Chasam Sofer explains what his debts were. Along his route to Mitzrayim, Avrom was met with mockery and ridicule. They said to him things like, “Where is the Master of the Universe of whom you speak? You are poor and downtrodden. Why doesn’t this Merciful G-d you speak of take care of you?”
On his triumphant return trip, laden with money and flush with success, Avrom had “debts” to pay. He wished to meet with all the scoffers. He arrived at their motels and was able to show them what the Creator had provided for him. There was so much more to life than they had realized. Avrom was compelled to tell them what they were missing.
This week, a long and bitter election campaign finally came to an end. Opinions were shared and people were engaged. One side won, and everyone has emerged with bruises from an unprecedented political battle. So many people were engaged for so long in following the campaign. Donald Trump has the type of personality and style that kept people riveted to the ups and downs of the campaign. Those who loved him hung on to every word spoken at his raucous rallies and during his endless interviews. The Never-Trumpers, Republican and Democrat, were increasingly repulsed every time the candidate opened his mouth. There had never been a candidate like him, coming from nowhere, never having held office or run in any political race, taking on the mainstream powers that be. He was loved and reviled, brash and impudent, and his message resonated with many.
Hillary Clinton was not nearly as magnetic, but Democrats supported her, some more begrudgingly than others. She represented their agenda and the chance to bring it forward for another four years. Politicians of all stripes feared that the outsider would upset their power and way of doing business. They rallied around Hillary. The media led the campaign for Clinton, doing everything in their ability to destroy Trump.
The people got to speak in the voting booth. And now we move on. We have to remember that there is so much more to life. We are so much richer than that. Our world is so much more elevated. We have to get back to what it is that sets us apart and makes us great.
We must leave the smallness behind us and see big to behold the birah dolekes.
Chazal say, “Talmidei chachomim marbim shalom ba’olam - Torah scholars increase peace in the world.” Rav Yecheskel Abramsky explained this concept by noting that someone engaged in a major business deal doesn’t notice small things. A person about to close on a multi-million-dollar transaction doesn’t get annoyed if it’s raining. Someone going to the hospital for life-saving surgery doesn’t get into a fight over a parking spot. Talmidei chachomim, he said, are people who see a glorious world, a landscape filled with beauty and opportunity. They don’t fight, because they have neither time nor room for pettiness. They are bigger than that. They are focused on other things, so there is peace around them.
Rav Shimshon Pincus was once publicly attacked for a position he had taken. Though he was quite obviously pained by the public verbal assault, he didn’t respond. Later on, one of his children asked him why he didn’t defend himself; after all, he had a good answer and, besides, there were people listening who might have been influenced by what his attacker said.
He explained, “What he said bothered me for a moment, but then I remembered that we try to be big people and to work on big things, which are so much larger than that conversation and the embarrassment he caused me. Once I remembered that, his words stopped being important!”
After Avrohom followed the word of Hashem and moved to the land of Canaan, he became fabulously wealthy, as did his live-in nephew, Lot. Their shepherds quarreled, because those who worked for Lot were not scrupulously honest.
Avrohom’s reaction? “Hipared na mei’alay - Please separate from me” (Bereishis 13:9). “Sorry,” he was saying, “but we are no longer on the same page. We aren’t seeing the same thing. We are headed in different directions. If you go left, I’ll go right, and vice versa.”
A few pesukim later (13:14), Hashem informs Avrohom about the flow of blessings that will come his way, taking care to remind us that Hashem spoke to Avrohom “acharei hipared Lot mei’imo, after Lot had parted from him.” Every word in the Torah is laden with significance. When the posuk informs us that the Divine assurance was given after uncle and nephew split up, there is a message there. The brocha begins when Avrohom is divested of pettiness and separated from people with petty attitudes.
This Shabbos marks the fifth yahrtzeit of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel. His lesson resonates, just as his gentle voice echoes, because he was a gadol from our world. We identified with him and were drawn to him because he was one of us.
He grew up as we did. Then he saw a birah dolekes.
A young teenager, he awoke one morning across the planet from his native Chicago. Sleeping in the Meah Shearim study of his host and great-uncle, Rav Leizer Yudel Finkel, when he opened his eyes to face the new day, the American boy saw a magnificent sight.
Thinking that his guest was asleep, the Mirrer rosh yeshiva approached his seforim shelf and spread his arms wide. He embraced tens of seforim at once, and began to run his hand up their spines, lovingly greeting each one, as if saying, “Good morning.”
“Afikei Yam, Noda B’Yehuda, Pnei Yehoshua, Minchas Chinuch...”
The teenager looked on, wide-eyed, as a talmid chochom reunited with his seforim after a few hours of sleep.
It was a birah dolekes. He saw the light.
Many years later, Rav Nosson Tzvi retold the story during a shmuess at his home. As he spoke, he couldn’t resist turning towards his seforim shelf and singing the names of seforim, his own tangible ahavas Torah conveyed in every word.
When a person sees a new reality, he can never look back.
A wealthy American donor was solicited for the Mir by Rav Nosson Tzvi. The rosh yeshiva explained that the yeshiva had more talmidim and programs than ever before, and he needed more funding.
“Why don’t you just say, ‘Enough’? There are thousands of talmidim, tens of shiurim, and so many different chaburos,” the philanthropist wondered. “Enough is enough. There is a limit to how much one man can do.”
With his loving, soft voice, Rav Nosson Tzvi replied, “I would never ask you why five or six or seven million dollars isn’t enough for you, or why you don’t just stop working, as you have enough to live on for the rest of your life. I understand what drives you. You’re a businessman. You see the next opportunity and challenge and jump to take it on. I’m the same way, just with Torah. Why would I stop?”
Beyond the humility and respect in the answer, the rosh yeshiva was conveying what he had seen that long-ago morning: When someone sees the truth, smaller things stop being important.
The Divrei Chaim of Sanz arose in the morning and started to recite Modeh Ani. He said the words, but he couldn’t seem the muster the usual enthusiasm, so he stopped and instead said Birchas HaTorah. Then he opened a Gemara and learned intensely for a while, and then, after being immersed in learning, his face glowing, he started again.
“Modeh ani lefonecha Melech chai vekayom, thank You for this new day.” This time, however, he was on fire. The day had meaning, a purpose, a goal. It was dolekes, alight!
We approach these parshiyos hashovua still suffering from withdrawal from the most illuminated days of the year. Their memory has faded and they are almost forgotten, so we seize this life raft, the pesukim, Medrashim and meforshim telling us who we are and where we come from.
They are our birah dolekes, beckoning us to enter and soak in the light.
Let’s be great again. Let us put the pettiness aside and concentrate on what is important. Let’s live lives of greatness and meaning.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Refugees Alone Together

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
It might just be a discarded candy wrapper on the floor of the shul, or trapped on a seforim shelf. Maybe it’s a piece of a festively-colored flag still sitting in the corner or a stray arava leaf floating down from atop the aron kodesh.
The reminders of the recent Yom Tov are everywhere, as we struggle to hold on to the glorious days that have come and gone.
The period following Sukkos is one of the loneliest times of the year. As the decorations are peeled off and the sukkah is taken apart and put away, we feel exposed and removed from the comforting shelter in which we were enveloped for more than a month.
This year, that feeling is compounded when we note how we are accosted daily with news that would cause people from a different generation to blush. There seems to be no place to hide from the constant onslaught. Wherever you go, that is what people are discussing. Next week, hopefully, that will end, as the citizenry elects an administration dedicated to law, order, morals, and making America great again.
From when we began reciting “LeDovid Hashem ori” at the beginning of Elul, we were drawn into a transcendent world. The shofar was blown every morning, calling upon us to shape up. Bemotzoei Menuchah, we felt the tremors increasing, as we ushered in the days of Selichos. The week reached a crescendo as we stood in awe upon hearing the 100 piercing cries of the shofar.
During the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, we inched closer. Finally, we stood like angels dressed in white on Yom Kippur, emerging from Ne’ilah feeling reborn and reenergized. We were clean and fresh and ready to soar.
Then we climbed the next rung, going from teshuvah to simcha, entering the sacred abode of the sukkah, betzilah dimehemnusah. We sang and ate, drank and celebrated, rejoicing with Hashem.
By the time Sukkos began, we felt that the barriers between us and Hashem had come down. We fell in love with our daled minim and Yom Tov limudim. Then Simchas Torah arrived and we felt one with the Torah and other Jews. We sang, grasping the hands and shoulders of fellow Yidden, dancing joyously and feeling fulfilled.
And then, suddenly, it all came to an end. We were thrust out of that cloud of sanctity and into the mundane world once again, with only echoes and happy memories to accompany us.
However, as Rav Yitzchok Hutner taught his talmidim, “We don’t say that a Yom Tov has passed us by, but rather that we have experienced a Yom Tov.” The sublime moments, heartfelt tefillos, earnest kabbalos, exultant songs and intense simcha are now part of us. Our neshamos have been expanded.
We enter this new period with enthusiasm and desire to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Torah whose completion we just celebrated. We seek ways to hold on to the message of the sukkah and what it represents.
We have been buffeted about through centuries of exile, moving from place to place, rarely feeling welcome or at home. The small wooden hut of Sukkos represents a place of refuge in the environs of golus.
In this week’s parsha, we learn from Noach how it can be done.
The posuk states, “Es haElokim hishalech Noach - Noach walked with Hashem.” Perhaps we can understand this posuk to mean that Noach walked with Hashem because he had no one else to walk with. Noach was essentially all alone. He had no one. No one other than Hashem. He had no one to converse with, so he spoke to Hashem.
For 120 years, Noach attempted to convince the people of his generation to right their ways, to no avail. He was unable to sway anyone to live a life of dignity, honor and respect.
We don’t know how great Noach would have been had he lived during a different period. All we know is what the Torah tells us about him. He was a tzaddik and a tomim, a righteous, upstanding person in a generation in which there were no others.
We study the parsha named for Noach and discern that it is possible to stand out. The world may be living deceitful, dishonest, immoral lives, but that doesn’t have to stop us from following Hashem’s creed of kindness and goodness.
We learn this week’s parsha and observe that we can rise above the influence of those around us. We can be strong, honest and moral in a time of depravity. And if we are, we will find favor in the eyes of Hashem.
It is hard to stand alone, but that is our mandate and the call of the hour.
When the Brisker Rov and his family were on the run, trying to escape Europe, they spent a night in a neighborhood inhabited by anti-religious people. Late that night, before they went to sleep, the rov’s children saw him pulling a table towards the front door of the apartment. It seemed strange, and they inquired what his intention was.
The rov explained that he wasn’t blocking the door because he was worried about security. He told the family that the Rambam (Hilchos Deios 6:2) writes that if a person finds himself in a country which has bad customs and corrupt, sinful people he should separate himself from them and move to an area populated by righteous people… if necessary he should go to a place where there are no people, such as a desert or a cave. “While we are forced to be here to save our lives,” the rov said, “I wanted to remind myself that we should remain apart.”
The significance of the teivah that Noach built is that he found a way, in a generation of hedonism, immorality and wickedness, to create an island for himself. This is a lesson that is still relevant to us in today’s world.
While our physical situation at the present time is better than it was anytime over the past 500 years, and Torah is being studied around the world in greater numbers than anyone can remember, there are many dark clouds on the horizon and awful winds are blowing.
Leadership wanes, crises loom, solutions are lacking, fiction replaces truth, glossy veneers substitute for depth, and ignorance is more popular than brilliance.
Spiritual threats abound. The air seems to have been poisoned, and no one is able to find the proper antibodies. The culture of this country, which was founded on - and led by - religious values, has sunk to unprecedented lows. The assault on traditional family life is tangible. The deviation from the script of a decade ago is very strong and has swept across the country the past few years.
People pine for leaders who speak truth to power and actually care about them and their interests. Citizens have a hard time making ends meet and look at the entrenched powerful people, their lifestyle and the laws they champion, and wonder what’s going on. They wonder why taxes take such a bite out of their paycheck and why the government is everywhere they look. They want to know why the health insurance plan that was supposed to cut their expenses did just the opposite and how they are supposed to afford it. The middle class feels strangled. People don’t know where they will get the money to pay their mortgage, insurance, taxes and tuition.
Religious people and those raised on bedrock moral values find no place to hide from the onslaught of decadence. They wonder where their country’s values have gone. They shudder when they see the changes wrought on the moral character of the US and fear that the election may return to power individuals with deviant agendas. They resolve to vote and take a stand for moral values in the country. They head to the voting booth with an eye on the Supreme Court and the weight it carries.
Chazal say that had the people of Noach’s time followed his example and heeded his admonitions, the Torah could have been given in their day (see sefer Pri Tzaddik on this week’s parsha). Instead of floodwaters, they could have had the Torah, which is referred to as mayim. Instead of destruction, they could have experienced rebirth. Instead of desolation, they could have merited prosperity. Instead of klolah, being cursed, they could have had brocha and been eternally blessed. Because they preferred to follow the path of their desires, they earned for themselves infamy, shame and violent death.
We wonder what we can do to stay afloat in a sinking world. We look to Noach as someone who can provide us with inspiration and serve as a guide, reminding us not to feel lonely and not to give up, despite the odds against us.
Noach knew the secret of the sukkah. Noach knew the secret of the teivah.
We follow Torah and not cultural icons so that we remain honest, moral and refined. We don’t get sucked in by societal fads which seem to provide a quick hit, but end up corrupting us and leaving us feeling empty.
We need to have our own personal teivah, for it is be folly to seek inspiration and guidance from the big world that surrounds us. We are blessed with an ancient code of conduct, and when we abide by it, we hold our heads above water.
This is the lesson we received from the sukkah and this is the lesson we are reminded of this week. We aren’t here to win friends or popularity contests. We are told that Noach, one of the less popular figures in his time, found chein in the eyes of Hashem. That’s the only chein that matters.
The Sukkos weather was the best of the year, but we know that winter is fast approaching. We must prepare ourselves for the cold and the snow. Though we have left the comforting walls of the sukkah, we can still maintain its protection if we preserve the levels we reached over the past months of Elul and Tishrei. If we stand tall, we will be blessed with the fortitude to weather the impending storms and not be swept away by the mabul of a world devoid of character, conscience and integrity.
In our personal teivos, constructed and reinforced with Torah, we can breathe purified, rarified air and contribute to the spiritual warming of the global community.
Rav Shlomo Freifeld maintained a tolerant atmosphere in his yeshiva, Sh’or Yoshuv, which was home to many fresh ba’alei teshuva and other struggling souls. The yeshiva had no formal dress code, and bochurim were free to wear tee-shirts. One morning, a talmid entered the bais medrash wearing a shirt emblazoned with the name of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle company.
The rosh yeshiva asked the boy to change his shirt. “You want to know why?” Rav Shlomo asked. “Is the company paying you to wear that shirt? Of course not. You’re wearing that shirt because Madison Avenue suckered you in, but that’s not the approach of a ben Torah. A ben Torah thinks for himself. He has his own mind and opinion. You don’t have to sell another company on your shirt. Your mind and your opinions should belong to you.”
Someone who constructs for himself a teivah of Torah and dedicates his life to its study and observance becomes blessed not only with unforgettable knowledge, but also with the dynamism, excellence, exuberance and leadership that the Torah infuses into man. It protects us and our families from the dangerous storm waters swirling about.
Those who construct their personal teivah bravely walk with Hashem, ignoring the calls of the masses who have lost their way in the fog of life. They remain faithful despite being unpopular, for they know that their dream will never die. Their hope springs eternal. Their chein finds favor b’einei Hashem.
The Lakewood mashgiach, Rav Nosson Wachtfogel, shared that he had a kabbolah going back to Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin that “during the final war before Moshiach, the ehrliche Yidden will be spared. And who is ehrlich? One who is muvdal from the amim (separated from the nations).”
The world is on fire. The Middle East is at war. Russia is on the rise, rapidly assuming its old powerful position, as threats of a new cold war are strengthened. Iran, the largest state supporter of terror, gains ground and power. Under the weight of a refugee crisis, Europe is breaking apart. The world’s superpower, the United States of America, is facing an unprecedented crisis in leadership. The Divine fingerprints are apparent all over.
Now is the time to seize those lofty moments, the heights we scaled over the Yomim Noraim, the joy of our little huts over Sukkos, and the ecstasy of being part of the circle of Hakafos; and grasp them tightly. We can be ehrliche Yidden. We can rise above the commotion and noise. We can keep holding on to our flags. We can be alone together.
We are all refugees escaping that which threatens us and seeking to establish healthy, safe Torah lives for ourselves and our families.
We emerge from the holiest days of the year with the security of the knowledge that those who seek Hashem’s approval are the real winners. So, let’s go ahead and build that wall to separate us from the awful mess that surrounds us. Let us make our homes islands of kedusha and construct teivos to remain apart from the many threats to our hallowed Torah way of life.
If we do so, we will find chein in the eyes of Hashem and man.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Marvelous Creation

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Sukkos is a special Yom Tov. While there is an obligation to be joyous on every chag, Sukkos achieves distinction and is singled out as Zeman Simchoseinu. What is it about Sukkos that gives it this added title?
We are always supposed to be happy. Every mitzvah should be performed with joy. What is special about Sukkos that creates such simcha amongst the Jewish people?
One of the most famous teachings of the Vilna Gaon is a lesson he imparted shortly before his passing on Sukkos. As he lay on his deathbed, he looked at those gathered around him, held his tzitzis, and tearfully said, “I am leaving a world where these are available for next to nothing and I am going to a world where mitzvos are no longer accessible.”
This famous story answers the question. We live in a world bursting with opportunities to acquire eternity. With small amounts of money or effort, we can gain for ourselves priceless eternity. How can we not be happy when we ponder the thought that for a few dollars, we can buy threads and fashion them into tzitzis on our begodim?
What a happy world this is! What a joyous place it is to be. We are surrounded by opportunities to transform the mundane into nitzchiyus. Sukkos is Zeman Simchoseinu because of the many examples it bears, reminding us of this truth and enabling us to benefit from it.
Sukkos follows the Yomim Noraim because our forefathers sinned with the Eigel in the midbar and lost the protection of the Shechinah. They were forgiven on Yom Kippur, and on Sukkos the Ananei Hakavod returned and surrounded them, sheltering them from their enemies and the elements.
On Yom Kippur, the hashpa’ah of the selichah of the original day of forgiveness in the desert is renewed, and following our teshuvah, we are forgiven for our sins just as our forefathers were. On Sukkos, we once again merit the protection of the Ananei Hakavod in the form of the tzeila demehemnusah that hovers over our sukkos.
This is the meaning of the Zohar (3:103) which states, “Ta chazi, beshaata da tzila demehemnusah shechintah parsa gadfa alei mele’aila - When a person enters the sukkah, the Shechinah spreads its wings over him.” The Vilna Gaon expresses the concept a bit differently, saying that the posuk in Shir Hashirim (1:4) of “Heviani haMelech chadorov – The King [Hashem] brought me into his room” refers to the sukkah.
The Gemara in Maseches Sukkah (9a) derives from the korban chagigah that just as a korban becomes sanctified when the makriv says, “Korban laShem,” so too, the walls and covering of the sukkah are holy and sanctified for the duration of Sukkos.
Sukkos is the Yom Tov of simcha because it demonstrates that we have the ability to transform the mundane into the spiritual. Our lives have meaning because our actions can bring about holiness. The Vilna Gaon regretted leaving behind the simcha of life when we can so easily accrue not only meaning, but also value to ourselves and to the world.
We invest but a few dollars and the returns on our investment are a thousand-fold. We enable people to study Torah, we enable a poor family to have food and new clothing for Yom Tov, with a mere smile we cheer up others, and our accounts become flush.
We are not animalistic creatures, who spend their time foraging for food and a comfortable place to sleep, for we are granted intelligence and the ability to speak. When we do a mitzvah, we strengthen the world. We raise ourselves and the level of the keili we are using to perform the act of the mitzvah.
We take simple wooden boards and place bamboo atop them, fashioning a house for Hashem, where He covers and protects us with His shadow. We can assume that just as we are able to create a house for Hashem on our porch, infusing kedusha into simple building materials, we can certainly raise our bodies - which are blessed with a neshomah, nefesh and ruach - to that lofty level. This is the depth of the words that the paytan Rav Elazar Azkiri wrote hundreds of years ago in the holy city of Tzefas: “Besoch libi mishkan evneh - I will build a mishkon in my heart.” If boards can be elevated and planks transformed, then man can surely become a pillar of holy fire.
A Jew is overcome with joy when he enters the sukkah and realizes that it is suffused with holiness, as was the mishkon. He comprehends that he has the ability to construct a place of holiness within himself. He is overcome with joy as he realizes his potential. We may become dejected when we think we are stuck at a low level. A person becomes sad when he believes that he can’t excel and rise. When we enter the sukkah and are enveloped in kedusha in a simple room we constructed, we become energized as we appreciate our potential. Nobody has to stay down forever. Everyone, including us, can improve and achieve great heights.
It’s interesting that the s’chach, the covering that gives the sukkah its name and its status, is created out of p’soles goren veyekev, the castoffs and rejects of the threshing floor and wine pit (Rashi, Devorim 16:13). The husks lifted from the ground grace the sukkah, forming its crown, to symbolize that following Yom Kippur, we have also risen anew and have the capacity to again be the prince among the nations.
What is the enduring symbol of the Jewish people in golus? Is it the shtender upon which Jews have proclaimed their fidelity to Hashem and his Torah? Is it the menorah that we kindle, keeping alive the promise to Aharon Hakohein at the chanukas haMishkon? Is it the picture of cherubic children, demonstrating that after all we have been through, we are optimistic about the future as expressed by the devotion of our beloved progeny?
The sukkah is a strong contestant. The haunting, a-little-bit-sad, a-little-bit-happy tune of Ah Sukkale Ah Kleine would be its anthem. The beautiful, classic Yiddish tune tells the tale of a man who made a sukkah out of a few wooden boards and covered it with some green s’chach branches. As he sits there the first night making Kiddush, a bitter wind blows, threatening the flickering candles. To his amazement, as he makes Kiddush, the lights continue to burn and give forth their light.
His daughter comes running, shrieking that the wind will topple the sukkah. “Have no fear,” he tells her. “The sukkah is already standing for 2,000 years. The winds that are blowing, which you are so afraid of, will calm and dissipate, but our sukkale will remain strong.”
Some of us fear for our future. Others think it’s all over. The goyim hack at us from all sides. Enemies from within eat away at our traditions. We have repeatedly been written off. Have no fear, the sukkah says, as it shines upon the golus with the eternal light.
Each morning of Yom Tov, we happily and proudly carry the daled minim aloft to shul, demonstrating our joy that we were found virtuous during the yemei hadin and are prepared to live life on a higher plane. We take a fruit and branches and turn them into cheftzei mitzvah with many deep spiritual meanings. We take simple, inanimate objects that most of the world has no use for and transform them into the beloved Daled Minim.
With this, we can understand the simcha of the Bais Hashoeivah, which the Mishnah (Sukkah 5:2) and Gemara (Sukkah 52a) describe as the greatest joy ever witnessed by man. What happened at the Bais Hashoeivah?
Water was drawn from a spring and brought to the Bais Hamikdosh. Nothing is more available than water. Not only is water abundant, but it is also odorless, shapeless, and easily accessible.
The joy was brought on by the people realizing that Jews can take simple water and raise it to the highest level of kedusha as an offering in the Bais Hamikdosh. Recognizing that they could affect the transition of one of the lowest forms of creation to the highest, brought unparalleled happiness and joy to the Jewish people.
Sukkos provides us the perspective and attitude that allow the simcha to carry over into the long winter ahead. The winds will blow and the lights will flicker, but as long as we remain kedoshim, clinging to the mitzvos, we will persevere.
So often, we get overwhelmed by olam hazeh and the physical aspects of our lives. We ponder the purpose of all that we experience. We become frustrated as the mundane humdrum of life wears us out, for we don’t comprehend the purpose of all that we endure. We feel as if we are going in circles. And then Yom Tov arrives.
On Sukkos, we take a fruit and a stick, which become cheftzei mitzvah that are mashpia bechol ha’olamos. We combine boards and bamboo to create a home where the Shechinah rests. We see that our actions have positive effects and create heavenly places for us to live in. Our feelings of futility disappear, as our inner thirst for spirituality is fed and nourished.
Look at who we are!
There is another reason for the joy. The Sefas Emes writes (634) that the sukkah is akin to a chupah that completes the union between a bride and a groom. Just as the chosson brings his kallah under his roof, Hashem completes his renewed relationship with the Bnei Yisroel through the sukkah. While this is another explanation for the holiness of the sukkah, it also provides us with a reason for the joy of the Yom Tov.
We can add that the joy of Sukkos is akin to that which is present at a chupah, with the simcha on the individual days akin to that of the shivas yemei hamishteh, when the chosson and kallah refrain from work so that they can celebrate their marriage. Just as at every one of the sheva brachos there is a new guest, so do we welcome the Ushpizin into our sukkos. Each night, there is a ponim chadashos, relating to a different bechinah of our relationship with Hashem.
As we invite the exalted guests each night, we are reminded of our relationship with Hashem and the holiness of the sukkah, which symbolizes the chupah, and our ability to proactively raise ourselves and the level of everything around us. 
Rav Chaim Volozhiner writes in Nefesh Hachaim (1:4) that no Jew should ever say to himself that he is useless and has no power to accomplish anything with his daily activities. Every action we undertake, every word we utter, and every thought we bear can accomplish great things in the upper worldly spheres.
Rav Yisroel Elya Weintraub, in his peirush Yiras Chaim, explains this idea and says that at the root of human failing is a person’s feeling that his actions have no intrinsic value. It is such insecure thinking that leads man to forsake the proper path and engage in sin. If people would be secure in the knowledge of the impact of their actions, they would not sin.
Rav Chaim Volozhiner explains that this is the meaning of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (2:1) which states, “Da mah lemaalah mimcha - know what is above you.” Know, the Mishnah exhorts us, that what transpires in the heavenly realms is a result of your actions in this world. It’s all mimcha.
Perhaps we can apply that Mishnah to our lesson from the sukkah. Know what is above you. As you sit in the sukkah and look up, know that your actions have caused the Shechinah to hover above you. Know that what you do has significance. Know that you have the power with your actions to dwell in the shadow of Hashem. Know that you have intrinsic value. Remember that you can cause world-altering changes. Know that nothing you do is wasted. It is all for a purpose.
There is nothing that brings more joy to a person than recognizing that he has value, that his internal battles have heavenly ramifications, and that he can beat back melancholy and apathy, accomplishing plenty.
The kohein gadol uses his precious moments in the Kodesh Hakodoshim on Yom Kippur to offer a few tefillos. What does the holiest man, in the holiest place, at the holiest time, ask for? Among a few other requests, he asks that the prayers of travelers not be accepted. Klal Yisroel needs rain for the crops to grow. Travelers would likely pray for clear weather to ease their trek.
The Alter of Kelm explained that this underscores the power of the simple tefillah offered by an ordinary traveler who looks at the cloudy sky and says, “Oy, Ribbono Shel Olam, please do not let it rain.” That heartfelt request is so effective that it is able to negate the communal need for rain were the kohein gadol himself, on Yom Kippur, not to ask Hashem to ignore the request of the simple man with a sack over his shoulder.
A marvelous creation, the Jew. His every action and deed is loaded with significance and power.
The Torah tells us (Vayikra 23:42) to dwell in the sukkah on Sukkos: “Basukkos teishvu shivas yomim, you shall dwell in the sukkah for seven days, kol ha’ezrach b’Yisroel yeishvu basukkos.” The posuk then continues with the explanation as to why we are to dwell in the sukkah for seven days. It is “lemaan yeidu doroseichem ki basukkos hoshavti es Bnei Yisroel behotzie osam mei’eretz Mitzrayim, so that the generations will know that Hashem fashioned sukkos for the Bnei Yisroel when he removed them from Mitzrayim.”
Regarding Pesach, the posuk (Shemos 13:8) says, “Vehigadeta levincha bayom hahu leimor, and you shall tell your son” the tale of Yetzias Mitzrayim. On Pesach, much time is spent transmitting the message that Hashem expunged us from Mitzrayim and performed many miracles during our exile there and upon our redemption. In fact, the entire Seder is constructed around that message, and we do our best to make it come alive through interesting questions and conversation.
Why do we make such a big deal about the mitzvah of sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim to our children on Pesach and not on Sukkos? It is true that poskim discuss whether you can fulfill the obligation of mitzvas sukkah without articulating the reason for the obligation, but, by and large, the issue is barely discussed in the sukkah. Why is that?
If we examine the posuk in Shemos closely, we will note that it does not command us to discuss the reason for the sukkah with the generations. Rather, the posuk is stating a fact: Sit in the sukkah so that you will know that Hashem created sukkos for the Jews when He took them out of Mitzrayim.
When a Jew sits in the sukkah and the Shechinah hovers above him, and he is enlightened by the ohr hamakif that is present in the sukkah, he is enveloped in holiness, unlike at any other time of the year. The guf and neshomah perceive on their own the tzeila demehemnusa and know that the Shechinah and ohr hamakif that returned to the Bnei Yisroel in the midbar on Sukkos are empowered once again in our day on Sukkos in our own sukkah. We don’t need anyone to tell us about it. It is in our DNA. We feel and perceive it through our emunah and bitachon, appreciating that we are Hashem’s chosen nation. He watches over us and protects us at all times, most evidently and conspicuously on Sukkos.
One of the Slonimer rebbes met a Jewish cantonist soldier on Sukkos. The unfortunate young man was one of those children who were torn away at a young age and conscripted for so long that he had just a vague memory of what he learned in cheder. He was separated from his family for so long that he had forgotten most of which he learned and loved. He possessed faint memories of a life gone by.
The rebbe looked at the soldier and told him, “Your face has a special glow. Please tell me what zechus you have. Which mitzvah did you perform to merit this?”
The simple soldier shrugged. He said that he had done very little. His job involved standing watch for long hours at a time, and in his free time he could do little more than rest in the barracks. “I’m sorry, rebbe, but I can’t think of any special mitzvah that I did.”
When the rebbe persisted, the soldier told him that over Sukkos, he had managed to eat one small meal in a sukkah. He said that on the first night of Sukkos, he felt a pull to eat in a sukkah. He asked a fellow soldier to stand guard for him, switching rotations so he could take a break. He hurried to the Jewish section of town and found a home with a sukkah behind it. He knocked on the door and asked the family if he might join them. They were thrilled to welcome and befriend a cantonist. They helped the unlearned soldier recite Kiddush and recite the brocha of leisheiv basukkah. He ate some challah and a piece of fish, and then hurriedly bentched and returned to his post.
“That’s it, rebbe. It was nothing special,” he said.
“What did you do when you returned to the base?” asked the rebbe.
The soldier looked down and said, “The truth is that I was so excited at having eaten in a sukkah that as I stood there back at the base all alone, I broke out in a spirited dance. I danced and I danced, so happy about what I had done.”
A poor cantonist, separated from Yiddishkeit and Yidden, made his way to a sukkah and, covered by the tzeila demehemnusah, blessed by the ohr hamakif, spontaneously broke out in joy and dance.
The Vilna Gaon (Shir Hashirim 1:4) teaches that the sukkah alludes to the status of Klal Yisroel after Moshiach’s arrival, at which time we will all be betzilah demehemnusah, as when we traveled through the desert on our way to Eretz Yisroel. Just as the sukkah symbolizes the Mishkan in the midbar where the Shechinah dwelled, so does it symbolize the Shechinah’s return to the rebuilt Bais Hamikdosh.
The Maharal, in his Shabbos Hagadol drasha, states that the third Bais Hamikdosh will be built to house the Shechinah in the merit of the Yom Tov of Sukkos.
May our post-Yom Kippur conduct and joyful observance of the mitzvos of Sukkos enable us to merit the arrival of Moshiach Tzidkeinu speedily in our day.
May we feel the simcha each time we enter the sukkah, every time we grasp the Daled Minim, every time we do a mitzvah, every time we appreciate that Hashem hovers over and protects us.
Chag Someiach. Have a great Yom Tov.