Thursday, July 02, 2015

Oases of Holiness

Throughout the long golus, our people have had homes in many countries. Regardless of the backdrop and climate, we’ve always stood out. Our nation has always been marked by tznius and purity, testimony to the fact that the Creator whose name is interwoven with our own is “sonei zima,” loathing of immorality.

In this week’s parsha, we are confronted with a daunting challenge to the standards we always maintained. After seeing his efforts at cursing the Bnei Yisroel stymied, Bilam developed a plan to entice them. “Vayachel ha’am liznos” (Bamidbar 25:1). Rashi quotes the Gemara (Sanhedrin 106) which delineates his scheme.

Our nation had previously been confronted with depravity and spiritual contamination. However, this was the first time that we faced a strategy specifically designed to change the moral climate and pull us into sin. It worked.

Bilam was crafty, cunning and successful. And he has progeny following his ways. His diabolical ruse has endured, inspiring various other organized crusades of debauchery throughout the years.

We don’t have to look past the news headlines to find  examples of what thorough and clever campaigning can achieve.

In the United States, the president’s signature legislation, written with great craftiness, specifies that only those states that set up health exchanges would receive the subsidies that are a cornerstone of the savings promised under Obamacare. It is clear and obvious that Congress set it up this way so that governors would be forced to establish the exchanges or risk losing millions of dollars for their citizens. This was repeatedly confirmed publically by Jonathan Gruber, the primary architect of the law.

The chief justice said that if that were the case, the entire program would be in chaos, because you can’t have some people getting subsidies and some not. So he ignored the intent of Congress, and the wording of the law, and he saved the sloppily written and conceived Obamacare law from itself.

And just like that, victory was declared. The Left won, again demonstrating an uncanny knack for pulling victories out of a hat and moving society over to their point of view. The same chief justice who previously ruled that a penalty isn’t a penalty, because if it would be a penalty it can’t be imposed, and Obamacare would not be able to be foisted on the people if they aren’t penalized for not buying in to it. Thus he found that the penalty is really a tax, which the commerce clause permits.

Despite everything stacked against them, the Left manages to outsmart and outfox their opposition. Just look at the societal changes they have brought about in this country over the past decade. They have effectively broadened the classification of the rights inherent in what used to be a sacred union. They redefined marriage from the way it has been understood and practiced since the beginning of time. They have also foisted upon an unwilling majority entitlements and differing social norms, amending America’s relationship with historical allies and weakening the country’s courage and confidence to lead on the world stage. They marginalize all opponents, paint them as radicals, and then move the goal posts once again as they set up to battle for the next cause on their agenda.

Just two weeks ago, the confederate flag was flying proudly - as it has been since the Civil War - across the southern part of this country. A white lunatic went on a rampage in a black church and, within a matter of days, the flag was blamed for the crime and all across the south people began pulling it down. Though nothing about the flag had changed, the die was cast and the plan was put in motion. The media did their job and politicians of all stripes responded, running to microphones to declare that the flag had fluttered for the last time. Stores pulled anything with a confederate symbol from their shelves. Manufacturers stopped their productions mid-run. And before anyone realized what was happening, the flag was gone and the liberals had won yet another round. This column is not about defending that flag, but it is no more offensive today that it was yesterday, when Democrats, including the Clintons, supported it. What changed was that it became a target of the Left. When that happened, everyone climbed on board and it was gone.

Things reached a head last Friday, a day referred to by Kadmonim as ominous (Magein Avrohom, Orach Chaim 580). Many people have the minhag of fasting on this day, Erev Shabbos of the week when we read Zos Chukas HaTorah, which the Targum Onkoles interprets as Dah Gezeira D’Oraysa. It’s a day when twenty-five wagonloads of Gemaros were burnt in France and it’s a day when the modest values of our holy Torah were burnt by the United States Supreme Court.

The men and women of the highest court in the US forced a way of life upon citizens who have voted against it, reminding us, once again, that traditional values and religion in general are under attack. Words, laws and precedents no longer have meaning. Things taken for granted for millennia are shoved away by powerful groups and interests. People depended upon to maintain justice and equilibrium are shown to be tools of the progressive agenda. There is no place for refuge, no escape from the cultural changes that are overtaking this country and the world.

The kochos of tumah are on the ascent. In order to fight back, we must increase kedushah in the world. We must invest more into proper chinuch and we must be intelligent about it. We will not be able to shield ourselves and our world from it, by simply closing our eyes to what is taking place. Ignoring the revolutionary changes that are taking place around us is wrong. Thinking that by blocking ourselves from the impact of new realities mean they will not affect us is  a grave mistake.

We are seriously impacted by what takes place around us. The increase of tumah affects the air we breathe and the underpinnings of the country in which we live in many spiritual ways, and it also trickles down to us in our cloistered world. We are not immune to anything, unless we immunize ourselves.

Hundreds of years ago, the Kotzker Rebbe closeted himself in his room. He famously commented to a chossid who opened the window to the room, “Der velt shtinked. Farmach dem fenster. Close the window and don’t allow the stench of the world into this room.”

How can we effectively close the windows to our homes, rooms and offices?

How are we to respond?

Before the 1992 presidential election that pitted Governor Bill Clinton against incumbent George Bush, a talmid went to visit Rav Shimon Schwab zt”l. The mainstream Orthodox position seemed to be to support the Democrat, since the Bush administration was seen as particularly harsh to Israel. Rav Schwab felt otherwise and he explained his thinking to his visitor.

“What will be with Eretz Yisroel is Hashem’s business. The posuk says, ‘Lev melochim vesorim beyad Hashem. He guides and directs leaders the way He sees fit. We are mandated to be a mamleches kohanim vegoy kadosh, to bring about and spread holiness in the world.”

Rav Schwab added, “I believe that a Yid has to vote for the candidate who will keep the atmosphere as refined as possible.”

We, charged with ensuring that the moral climate remain clean and holy, have our work cut out for us.

The Rambam at the end of Hilchos Me’ilah (perek 7) tells us how to respond: “How much did Dovid Hamelech suffer from the scoffers and heretics who would challenge him regarding the meaning and purpose of the chukim? And the more they antagonized him...the more he would increase his devotion to the Torah.”

Like Dovid Hamelech in his time, we are constantly being attacked. Secular permissiveness is licking at our shores, as we are mocked by those who insist on appending the appellation “Orthodox” to their name. They vilify many of our traditions and teachings, move the bar on many topics and customs, and act contrary to halachah, yet continue to make inroads, taking over shuls and schools across the country and being welcomed into an increasing number of Orthodox botei knesses.

Nobody wants to be perceived as negative, old-fashioned or anti-progress, so what started out as something far-out has become increasingly accepted and mainstream right under our noses. Once it’s in vogue, it’s harder to resist. Weak leaders capitulate to the demands of congregants and organization members. More shuls and Orthodox people fall under their spell.

As we see in our personal lives, most people are fickle. They don’t have the stamina to fight for the truth, stand up to bullies, or defend their beliefs. Most allow their innate desire to be loved to dictate their conduct. Similar to the chief justice, who ruled with an eye on the editorial pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post, people act in the manner they consider most prudent, neither making waves nor fighting them. 

With this latest Supreme Court ruling, it will become easier for those with contempt for our values to marginalize us and label us as racist, bigoted, and irrational extremists if we do not respond cleverly and act responsibly.

Strong leadership, strong principles, courage and conviction are the only answers in times like these, as redefinitions will be taking place, affecting religious freedom and things we have become accustomed to taking for granted.

We can succeed.

People used to view the US Supreme Court as the fount of justice. If ever a jurisdiction, or court, or prosecutor, or politician were out of control, they felt that there was a group of people to whom they could turn for final redress. There was a place that cared about the truth, the law, and what was right. Well, those thoughts have now been dashed with a trio of rulings that left many scratching their heads, others in mourning, and leftists and liberals dancing in the streets.

Our grandparents persevered when liberties were limited. The nisayon at the present time is to persevere when the liberties are - if we may say so - too great. The storm that threatens us is no less intimidating than those that our forefathers faced in the ghettos and pogroms, though today’s flood may be less physically painful. Against all odds they won, and so can we.

Simply closing our eyes to what is taking place isn’t enough to shield ourselves and our world from it. Ignoring the revolutionary changes taking place around us and reasoning that this way they will not affect us is a mistake.

We can and should invest more in proper chinuch, using intelligence and proper planning to achieve and accomplish. Our rallying cry must be the words of the Rambam, who says, “Kamah hayah Dovid Hamelech mitzta’er,” Dovid Hamelech persevered by attaching himself to Torah and growing more elevated and exalted. The Rambam closes by quoting the posuk in Tehillim (119:69) which states, “Toflu alay sheker zeidim, ani bechol lev etzor pikudecha.” The more falsehood he was attacked with, the deeper Dovid Hamelech connected himself to the Torah. The more we cleave to Torah, the stronger we are.

Shlomo Hamelech writes in Mishlei, “Bechol eis yihyu begodecha levanim,” we must always endeavor to keep ourselves clean. Should we find a spot, we must immediately cleanse it before it sets in. In times such as these, we should Scotchguard ourselves against stains through the study of Torah and mussar and seforim which lead to increased kedusha and tahara, emunah and bitachon.

In this week’s parsha, we read how the Midyanite king feared the ascent of the Bnei Yisroel and sought out the services of the spiritual leader of the gentile nations to curse the Jews before they would swallow him. Bilam attempted to fulfill the king’s wishes, especially after he was plied with fame and fortune in return for his work. Things didn’t go as planned and Bilam ended up blessing the Jews.

The brachos, placed in his mouth by Hashem, bear eternal messages. “Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov,” he proclaimed. The greatness, beauty, nobility and modesty of the Jewish home are hallmarks that have defined Torah Jews throughout the millennia. “Hein am levodod yishkon.” No matter what was going on around us, irrespective of the outside cultures, we always attempted to maintain our homes as oases of holiness.

Bilam was characterized by his “ayin ra’ah,” his bad eye, haughty manner and conceited demeanor, while we are defined as talmidim of Avrohom, possessing an “ayin tovah,” a good eye and humility. We are defined by our unfailing love for each other, which leads to kindness, concern, caring and a humble existence, as we walk in the shadow of Hashem, come what may.

When Bilam saw that he wasn’t able to curse the blessed, beloved nation, he led them to temptation and caused them to fall prey to immorality. He perceived that the way to cause their extermination was by lowering them to the levels of the decadent people who surrounded them. As long as they maintained their kedushah and taharah, they would not fall and could not be defeated.

The posuk states, “Kedoshim tihiyu ki kadosh ani” (Vayikra 19:2), which the Ramban explains to mean that if we are holy, we can remain connected to Hashem.

All through the ages, there have been attempts to tempt us to veer from the path of eternal truth. As long as we remained loyal to the Torah’s teachings and morals, we were successful in remaining untouched. When we succumbed to the enticements and left the path of Torah, the nations attacked us and drew blood.

We are entering a period in which we will be pressured to get with the program and accept where society has led the surrounding culture. We will be painted as an old-fashioned, bigoted, spiteful, hateful, phobic tribe. It will require spiritual, mental and intellectual strength to withstand the onslaught.

On a visit to Bnei Brak, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l walked down the central street, Rechov Chazon Ish. From every window, it seemed, came forth the sound of children learning Torah. Every second building was a kollel. The city is dominated by massive, world-famous yeshivos. Many Chassidic centers have established themselves there as well.

Rav Hutner paused and reflected. “The Gemara says, ‘Kol halomeid Torah beseiser, if one learns Torah in seclusion, machrizin alav begolui, it eventually becomes announced in public.’ Before there were all these mosdos, the Chazon Ish sat in seclusion, in a humble room, and poured his lifeblood into Torah. Now, the city of Bnei Brak and all the Torah in it is the public announcement of his toil.”

Every individual can create kedushah and chase away tumah. Although we do not have the abilities of the Chazon Ish, by maximizing our dedication to Torah in our hearts and homes, we create buffers from tumah and increase goodness and holiness in the world. Bit by bit, ehrliche Yid by ehrliche Yid, we bring light into places of darkness, until the entire world becomes aflame with kedushah and taharah, on physical and spiritual levels, seen and unseen, perceived and hidden.

We can do it. We have to do it. We must use the gifts of the am chochom venavon and the heritage of ohalim tovim and middos tovos transmitted to us since our founding. Hashem doesn’t give us trials we cannot overcome. With Torah wisdom, accompanied by strength, humility and ayin tovah, we will be zocheh to continue our growth besiyata diShmaya.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Savvy Investing

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
The Gemara in Maseches Shabbos (118b) quotes several statements made by Rav Yosi. He said, for example, that although he was not a kohein, if his friends would have ever asked him to duchen, he would have. He wanted to demonstrate his appreciation to his friends and the lengths to which he would go, including standing next to kohanim as they duchen.
Why did he use the idea of duchening to express love and respect for his friends? It would seem that he could have found a simpler way to express his gratefulness.
Rav Yosi proclaimed another declaration about himself: “Le’olam lo amarti dovor vechozarti le’achorai. I never made a statement and then turned around to see who was listening.” He wasn’t worried about who was listening, because he didn’t speak evil about other people. There was nothing said “off the record.” He never said anything that he feared would leak out and embarrass him or others.
The Tiferes Shlomo explains the connection between the two statements. Rav Yosi’s ahavas Yisroel was so great that he never had to worry about what emanated from his mouth, for he could never speak ill of another Yid. Therefore, his mouth was holy enough to bless other Yidden. Rav Yosi understood that while he was not a kohein, he possessed the middah of ahavah through which kohanim bestow brachos. Therefore, he had the ability to bless other Jews.
Rav Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky achieved world-renown for his piety and brilliance. His seforim, Kehillos Yaakov, were instant classics and are staples in libraries of bnei Torah. People flocked to him for halachic decisions, Talmudic discussion, personal guidance and blessings.
Somebody once asked him what power he possesses that makes his brachos so effective. The aged gaon opened a Chumash to the Rashi on the opening posuk of Parshas Vezos Habrachah. The Torah recounts Moshe Rabbeinu’s parting blessing to his beloved flock. Rashi explains the timing: “She’im lo achshav, eimosai? For if not now, before Moshe’s death, then when?”
The Steipler explained that Rashi is teaching us that in the final chapters of a person’s life, when he has few needs or desires and no longer craves physical enjoyment, his heart is full. Since in order to effectively give a brachah one must have a heart free of personal want or ambition, it follows that “im lo achshov eimosai.” Moshe Rabbeinu’s final days on this earth were especially auspicious for giving brachos.
Continued the Steipler, “I am an elderly man. I can’t hear well. I don’t have many desires. I sit here with my seforim. I have everything I need. If my brachos have any impact, it is because I truly want nothing for myself, only to give to others.”
Sunday night, I merited to see and sit with selfless people, who are consumed with ahavas Yisroel. They are so noble that their very presence itself is a brachah.
Tzaddikim see the good in every Jew, the nekudah tovah, the spark that defines a Yid.
I spoke at the dinner for Ohr V’Daas, the famed school in Monsey, NY, for special children. I was surrounded by tzaddikim; the leadership, staff and supporters of an institution created to reveal the good, the strength and the ability in others. Being in their midst prompted me to share a personal memory.
I recalled how many years back, when one of my sons was a young boy, I noticed him standing in the back of the shul after davening conversing with an older Yid. The man was clearly very emotional and my son was looking at him very intently. I wondered what he could have done to make the old man cry. I was worried, so I made my way over. By the time I got there, the man had left.
I asked my son what it was all about.
“I asked him for a brochah,” he told me. “I don’t know what happened, but the man started crying and then he bentched me.”
“Why did you ask him, of all people, for a brochah?” I queried.
My son responded, “You once told me that the Satmar Rebbe said that if you see a person with numbers tattooed on his arm wearing tefillin, you should ask him for a brochah. While that old man was taking off his tefillin, I saw that he had those numbers, so I waited until he finished and then asked him for a brochah. He asked me why I was asking him, of all people. I told him what you told me from the Satmar Rebbe. He began to cry and finally bentched me.”
So many of us have heard that saying of the Satmar Rebbe, yet few of us have taken it literally enough to act upon it. My son saw the penetrating truth in the story, noticing those hallowed numbers and taking advantage of the situation. With his innocence and lack of cynicism, he merited that blessing.
Today, that man is no longer alive and survivors such as he are few and far between.
So who do we ask for a brochah?
We follow the Steipler’s insight and seek out Torah giants and tzaddikim. We look for people whose hearts brim with ahavas Yisroel. We look for those whose mouths are filled with praise for other Jews, whose actions show just how dedicated they are to others, and we take our place on line and hope.
The staff at Ohr V’Daas and the staff at whatever similar facility or institution is located in your neighborhood are engaged in such gallant work. They have more patience than you thought possible. They work so hard to help the children feel fulfilled. They put their neshamos into breathing life and spirit into these youngsters whom Hashem placed on this earth. If you see someone who works with special children, ask him for a brochah.
If you see a person who dedicates his life to teaching Torah to others, selflessly putting himself out day after day, seek his brochah.
In this week’s parsha, Chukas, the purpose of man is revealed to us.
The Torah relates that Sichon built the city of Cheshbon on land he conquered from Moav. The posuk (Bamidbar 21:27) states, “Al kein yomru hamoshlim bo’u Cheshbon - The poets would say, ‘Come to the city of Cheshbon.’”
Chazal (Bava Basra 78b) explain that the posuk has a deeper meaning with a lesson for us. The word moshlim refers not to poets, but to rulers. “Al kein yomru hamoshlim” refers to people who rule over their yeitzer hora. The Torah is teaching us to make a cheshbon, a calculation, regarding our deeds. Before undertaking an action, a person should contemplate the repercussions of what he is about to do. Will he ultimately gain or lose? When doing an aveirah, he may have some immediate gain, but in the big picture he will be a loser. Sometimes it appears that there is a loss, monetary or otherwise, from performing a mitzvah or following the guidelines of halachah or daas Torah. In fact, the opposite is true.
The Vilna Gaon explains that mussar breaks and mends the heart so that a person can perfect his actions in the future and distance himself from bad habits he has become accustomed to. People who study mussar are moshlim, for as they perceive the significance of their actions and make the cheshbon, they can break their yeitzer hora and live an elevated life.
The Chofetz Chaim explained with a parable the cheshbon implemented by baalei mussar to prevent them from sinning.
An investor perceives that the value of his investment is not arrived at with the immediate gain. In fact, it’s usually the opposite. The savvy investor is in it for the long haul, seeing the bigger picture. What sets the successful investor apart from an unsuccessful one is his prudent vision. When a savvy investor is presented with a deal of quick and easy profits, a red flag goes up. He knows to resist the impulse to buy in and make a quick buck. He waits for an opportunity where he percieves that the value will increase and he will succeed. Foolish neophytes invest in get-rich-quick schemes.
Our generation has been blessed with people who forfeit comfort and ease for a life of toil and labor. They see the bigger picture, working with single-minded dedication to make the world better, and to help individuals and their families. They make the cheshbon and are able to fulfill the second half of the posuk (ibid.), “tiboneh vesikonein,” to build and establish.
The people who work at and for places like Ohr V’Daas, and your local yeshivos and mosdos, are the savviest investors of all.
Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein tells a story: One morning, the children lining up in front of Yerushalayim’s legendary Etz Chaim cheder were privileged to a rare sight. Back in the days when there were few cars in the Holy City, a taxi, or a “special,” as they called it in those days, rolled up to the front of the building.
The wide-eyed youngsters looked on as the door swung open, certain that they would see a wealthy tourist or high-ranking official emerge. Instead, a melamed walked out. A melamed! A distinguished Yerushalmi Yid to be sure, but one as impoverished as the children in the cheder. The children were amazed. “Wow! Rebbi came in a ‘special’! Maybe he won the lottery! Only rich people travel in ‘specials.’ How did he come to be driven to school in a ‘special’ today?”
The mystery was solved when the children were all seated in class. The melamed told his talmidim that he had been running late because of a situation at home, and as he hurried through the streets to come to teach them, he was struck by the thought that his beloved talmidim would be deprived of a moment of learning. “So I took a ‘special,’ because what is money compared to your learning? It was obvious that this was a good deal.”
The rebbi’s unpretentious words, offered as simple fact, made a powerful impression upon the children. After that, the talmidim had a new appreciation for each moment.
It took sacrifice and privation for the melamed to pay for the luxurious ride, but those talmidim - and generations of talmidim who followed and heard the story - gained a tremendous respect for that rebbi and the ideals he espoused.
That is what it means to make cheshbono shel olam.
Sometimes, we go to dinners or fundraising events out of a sense of duty or respect for the askonim involved. We feel forced. We wish we didn’t have to go. We seek excuses to get out of the obligation. But what a wasted opportunity that is. Such gatherings are actually opportunities to remind ourselves of eternal truths. These events present opportunities to contemplate what drives the selfless men and women who work tirelessly for the cause, be it Torah, chinuch, chessed or tzedakah.
This week, I was privileged to sit with the tzaddikim associated with one such place, but they are all around us. Go to the dinners, auctions, tea parties and events in your city or neighborhood and lend a hand. Make the cheshbon. Do your share to connect with those involved in lighting up the world. This way, you, too, will be blessed.
My dear friend, Reb Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz, a friend of every Yid and every mosad in Klal Yisroel, spoke at the same dinner. He quoted the opinion of Rav Yosef in Maseches Bava Kamma that a shomer aveidah, one who finds a lost object, is considered a shomer sochor, a paid watchman. His reasoning is that since the mitzvah of safe-guarding an aveidah frees the person from providing bread to a poor man, it is considered as if he is being paid for watching the object.
How, asked Reb Shlomo Yehuda, can one understand the idea that being absolved of the mitzvah of tzedakah is a gain?
He suggested an answer so appropriate for him: It must be that the benefit isn’t from not having to give. The benefit is that you don’t have to see the pain and distress on the face of the hungry, poor man. Everyone wants to help, but sometimes we can’t make the person’s problems go away and we’re left with the pain of witnessing the poor, suffering individual. One who is watching an aveidah is absolved of that pain. That is the “s’char” referred to by Rav Yosef.
While the thought is great and indicative of Reb Shlomo Yehuda’s huge heart, it also provides a window into the mindset of wise, philanthropic baalei tzedakah. We are blessed in our generation with generous, hartzige Yidden, who feel the pain of others. They see problems besetting the community as personal, and they view our challenges as their own. They are people who invest wisely, making cheshbonos that keep our world going.
As we appreciate all the good people who dedicate their lives to Torah, chinuch and chessed, we should be mechazeik and appreciate the contributions of those who make it possible as well. 
As the school year ends it is a most opportune time to also show our appreciation for the rabbeim and teachers who extend themselves to make our children great.
May we always be inspired to be good investors, calculating properly, and finding and appreciating the good in everyone - including ourselves.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Blessed with All

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Every Yom Tov has its sights, sounds and smells. Sukkos has the pleasing aroma of the Dalet Minim and the warmth and contentment of the sukkah. Pesach has the taste of wine and crisp matzos, the scent of chrein being chopped, and the fumes of chometz being burnt. Shavuos carries strains of Akdamus’ moving tones, milchigs, flowers and the poignant pesukim of Megillas Rus. The kriah has us pause to reflect on Rus and her journey from the heights of royalty to the depths of despair, back to the pinnacle as the mother of malchus.

In the diaspora, Shavuos is a two-day Yom Tov and Rus is read on the second day, when most are well-rested. In Eretz Yisroel, however, Shavuos is only one day, and the reading of Megillas Rus takes place during the traditional vosikin minyan at the end of a long night of learning Torah. Most people are exhausted by then. At Yeshivas Mir, the legendary Yerushalayimer baal kriah, Reb Yechiel, reads Megillas Rus slowly and carefully. At times, his voice is choked with tears, as the pesukim speak of the lows. There is anticipation in his voice as Rus manages to maintain her dignity and refinement even amidst her misery. In his voice, you hear the joy at her ultimate triumph.

Some people at the Mir used to complain about the length of the kriah. At the end of such a long, wearying night, they were eager for some rest. The rosh yeshiva, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, cherished the baal kriah and, in particular, his reading of Rus. The rosh yeshiva felt that this tale is a most fitting close to the avodah of Shavuos night. Therefore, the extra few minutes it took to lain Megillas Rus with heart were not to be perceived as an inconvenience, for they enhanced the tale central to the theme of Shavuos.

Perhaps we might add an insight to the many reasons offered for why we lain this story on Shavuos.

We contemplate the situation of Elimelech, Na’ami and their children. They were wealthy and prestigious, leaders of their people. When economic circumstances in Eretz Yisroel worsened and they were faced with many requests for help, they opted to leave.

They had it all, but they were lacking one thing: rachmonus.

Because they didn’t emulate their Creator - mah Hu rachum, af atoh rachum - and their hearts and fists were shut tight, they lost everything. They closed their ears to the Torah’s mandate of vehechezakta bo. They thus turned their backs on the flow of blessing and became destitute.

Theirs was a tale of riches to rags, prominence to anonymity and anguish.

Contrast that with the account of Rus. A giyores, driven by her pure heart to join Klal Yisroel, she was widowed and poor. She was forced to beg for food.

She lost it all, but she retained her middos, refinement and modesty.

And she ended up with everything.

The grains that she gathered in the fields of Boaz were the seeds of her own success, as she ultimately married him and gave birth to the lineage of Dovid Hamelech and Moshiach.

A nation of slaves was rushed out of Mitzrayim, yet they were blessed b’rechush gadol. They stood at Har Sinai much like Rus stood before Boaz, dedicated and committed to live with Hashem and His Torah. Like her, they had it all.

They, too, in the depths of their affliction, when it appeared that they had nothing, had everything. They held fast to their middos, as Chazal say, “Lo shinu es shemom, lo shinu es leshonam, lo shinu es malbushom,.” They adapted to a life of servitude and endured, because they put much effort into maintaining their identifying characteristics. This is reinforced by the Haggadah Shel Pesach, which states, “Vayehi shom legoy - melameid shehoyu metzuyonim shom.” Their middos sustained them.

During the hot summer of 1959, a woman crossing a street in Bnei Brak was struck by a car and killed. A large crowd immediately gathered. On her Teudat Zahut, the identifying papers that every Israeli carries at all times, were her name and address in the city of Cholon. Someone was dispatched to notify the woman’s family of her tragic fate.

In the meantime, activists moved the body to a cool room to maintain and protect kavod hameis. The police arrived as well, eager to take the body for an autopsy.

It was a time of great friction between the Torah camp and the chilonim in Eretz Yisroel. It seemed like every hospital had a pathology department anxious to study the bodies of the deceased. One of the most prominent physicians in the country had made headlines by announcing, “To bury a complete body is a waste: cheating medical science.”

When the messengers returned from Cholon with the news that the woman had lived alone, a poor immigrant with neither family nor friends, rabbonim ruled that she was a meis mitzvah. A huge crowd of talmidei chachomim formed, reciting Tehillim around the body.

The police called for reinforcements, making clear their intention to seize the body. The locals responded in kind, drawing a huge crowd of bochurim, who encircled the meis and said Tehillim. Once the woman had a status of meis mitzvah, they insisted, she belonged to all of them. They were the next of kin and they would not let her go.

For a few hours, it seemed like a war was imminent, but, eventually, the policemen realized that it was a losing battle and they left. The unknown woman was prepared for burial and thousands of mourners accompanied her through Bnei Brak, stopping near each shul to recite Kaddish.

A resourceful young man decided to follow up on the story and find out the woman’s background. There had to be something in the history of this anonymous individual that could explain why she had merited such an impressive kavod acharon. The man discovered that she came from the town of Kossova, birthplace of the Chazon Ish, and his sister, who married Rav Yisroel Yaakov Kanievsky – the Steipler Gaon. Rav Chaim Kanievsky asked his mother if she remembered the woman. Rebbetzin Kanievsky recalled that she came from a family that had no connection with Yiddishkeit and didn’t even fast on Yom Kippur. They had been completely irreligious.

The curious talmid chochom continued his investigation and found an old woman who had arrived in Israel from Poland following the Holocaust. She told him that she remembered the woman from the war-time ghetto, where they had lived together in a tiny apartment. She recalled that the woman spent the dark days searching out bodies of Yidden who had died, either of starvation or by the Nazi bullet, and brought them to kever Yisroel.

The meis mitzvah who merited the levayah and kevurah of a tzadeikes earned it through her acts of greatness.

Imagine a Polish war survivor living in poverty in Cholon with no acquaintances or friends. She has nothing. She is struck down by a car and killed. What a tragedy!

And then, thousands come out and say Tehillim, recite Kaddish, and accompany her body. She has everything.

She performed chessed shel emes, kindness that endures, and it endured for her.

She lived with nothing, yet died with everything.

In our times, along with the assault on decency and values; middos, refinement, tznius, modesty and gentleness are seen as archaic. The media and the surrounding culture condition people to respect those who are “hip” and “out there.” Arrogance and intemperance are hailed as virtues.

We have to remember why we were created and what our mission is. We are on the brink of welcoming Moshiach, but the only way we can merit his arrival is if we conduct ourselves as our forefathers in Mitzrayim did, holding steadfast to our core values and character traits that make us great.

We must not fall prey to the vagaries of the moment. Even as we build and improve our yeshivos, mosdos and organizations, we must remain cognizant of our goals. With caring and love, we must ensure that we do not dilute that which makes us great or take refuge in the land of easy excuses for inaction. We must treat each child as if he were our own and treat our own as we wish to be treated ourselves. In good times and in those of difficulty, we should never give up hope and never turn to hatred and rancor.

Human excellence should be our goal and motivator in all we do. The way we conduct ourselves, with middos tovos, is the prerequisite for the Torah. Those values ought to govern the language we speak and the way we act, as well as what lies unspoken but is felt in our hearts and minds.

Rav Chaim Vital famously asks why, if good middos are so important, there is no specific commandant in the Torah to behave properly. He answers that the Torah was only given to baalei middos, those who display a tzelem Elokim. Middos are the hakdamah, the prerequisite, making one worthy of the Torah.

This, explains the Maharal, is what is meant by “Atem kruyin adam.” Adam Harishon embodied the properties of tzelem Elokim, as the Mishnah says, “Choviv adam shenivra betzelem.” However, when he sinned, Adam fell from the lofty plateau. Tzuras ha’adam had been defiled.

Then, at Mattan Torah, man returned to those original heights of tzelem Elokim. Thus, Chazal state that only you, Yisroel, are referred to as adam, because only you, Yisroel, protect and project the tzelem Elokim, once you have received the Torah.

The refinement of Rus led her to return to the peak. Thus, we read her story on the day we commemorate the reintroduction of Heavenly dimensions to human beings. On this day, as a people, we rose to our original heights. On this day, every individual has the potential to raise themselves in Hashem’s image.

Perhaps, with this understanding, we can glean insight into another of the mitzvos hayom. Shavuos is the day upon which Jews would bring the korban of Bikkurim. After months of toiling in his orchard, a Jew reaps the first fruits of his harvest and sets off for Yerushalayim. When he arrives there, he meets up with a kohein and approaches the mizbei’ach in the Bais Hamikdosh to liturgically recall the trials Yaakov Avinu endured, followed by the account of our forefathers’ suffering in Mitzrayim.

He then relates how Hashem rescued us with scores of miracles and led us to the Promised Land, which flows with milk and honey.

Following that climactic event, the Jew presents the first fruits of his labors and returns home. He is then ready for the next part of the mitzvah, “Vesomachta bechol hatov,” the obligation to rejoice “with all the goodness Hashem, your G-d, has given you and your household.”

The obligation to be thankful for the blessings Hashem has bestowed upon us - and to contrast that goodness with the difficult time that preceded it - appears to be the key to true happiness.

Once again, we see this interface: The Jew brings a single fruit, seemingly nothing, yet it’s symbolic of Hashem’s goodness, which is everything. Bechol hatov.

We have to constantly scrutinize our actions, always aiming to improve. We begin by stating, “Arami oveid avi,” and recalling the slavery in Mitzrayim and times when it appeared that we had nothing. Then we recall Hakadosh Boruch Hu’s mercy and kindness in accepting our prayers and rescuing us from those awful situations.

A man looks out at his orchard through the Winter, viewing his barren trees with trepidation. He doesn’t know if they will ever bear fruit again. And then Spring arrives and his fears turn to joy as he views the blossoms emerging. He sees Hashem’s blessing on the way as his tree fills with blooms.

This is the message of Shavuos, the day when the people who a few months ago had nothing, now have everything.

Shavuos is referred to as Atzeres. One of the reasons given is that Torah provides a person with the ability to desist, to withstand temptations, to rise above negative middos and stop - la’atzor - his natural inclination. Torah is the tool we use to remain sublime, elevated and refined. Humility is our calling card. Ostentation and the pursuit of honor and glory are anathema to our goals. If we view ourselves as lacking, we can grow and have it all, but if we become conceited and view ourselves as accomplished, we risk squandering everything.

Remaining connected to Har Sinai also means remembering why that mountain was chosen as the location to deliver the Torah to the Jewish people. Hakadosh Boruch Hu overlooked towering peaks and soaring crests, instead selecting a humble mountain on which to transmit his treasure to the Chosen People. He chose as his messenger Moshe Rabbeinu, the humblest of men.

The late rosh yeshiva of Tchebin, Rav Avrohom Genechovsky, once reflected on the famed success of Rav Shmuel Rozovsky as Ponovezher rosh yeshiva.

“Do you know why Rav Shmuel has become the maggid shiur to a generation of maggidei shiur? Do you know why he is zocheh to be quoted by them and their talmidim, and why his Torah is blessed with such chein?”

Rav Avrohom shared a memory. He’d been a bochur in Ponovezh just after its founding. Alongside the yeshiva, the Ponovezher Rov had established a bais yesomim, a home for the many war orphans.

The children had classes and activities during the day, designed to educate them and rehabilitate them emotionally.

“What they were missing was a tatte, a father to review with them at night what they had learned that day,” recalled Rav Avrohom.

He recounted that every evening, Rav Shmuel Rozovsky would arrive at the orphanage and sit with the children, reviewing in a sing-song voice, ‘Kometz alef, oh. Kometz bais, boh.”

This would continue until the Ponovezher Rov would arrive to bid the children good night, telling Rav Shmuel, “Ihr kent tzurik gein in bais medrash. I’ll take over.”

“Can you imagine how pleasing Rav Shmuel’s Torah was when he went back to the bais medrash?” exclaimed Rav Genechovsky. “The special chein of his learning with the Aibishter’s kinderlach stamped his learning through the night and made it so beloved to his own eventual talmidim.”

With humility, kindness and love, Rav Shmuel ended up with everything.

Not only was he blessed, but those poor children who arrived in Eretz Yisroel with nothing - no possessions, no family, and, it seemed, no future - were blessed with everything thanks to the Torah giant who took them under his wing.

That has always been the mark of Torah.

On Shavuos, we reaffirm our commitment to Torah and its ways, accepting it with gratitude and joy and reminding ourselves of what Torah living really entails.

During the period in which Rav Yisroel Salanter lived in Paris to spread Torah there, he once fell down a long flight of stairs, lost consciousness, and suffered serious wounds. He miraculously recovered after a few days. He later related that even as he was falling, he was not scared. “I was living in Paris only to do Hashem’s work, with no ulterior motives or benefits. I knew that I wouldn’t be harmed.”

All of us, in our lives, wherever we are and whatever we do, can be shluchei mitzvah like Rav Yisroel. We can act altruistically, not looking at what’s in it for us, but for what we can do to help others. We can act with the Torah as our guide, and not our egos or wallets. We can remember our roots, our destiny, and why we are here, and ensure that every action we take causes a kiddush Hashem.

If we are as fortunate to live as Rus did, as good Jews have lived throughout the years, and as the humble farmer riding his donkey to Yerushalayim with his basket of fruits did, cleaving to the Torah and its lessons, we will be blessed as well.

Kol halomeid Torah lishmah zocheh l’devorim harbei.

With everything.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Relationship with the Borei

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Most are familiar with the comment of Rashi on the opening posuk of Parshas Bechukosai. His words are so oft-repeated in shmuessen and drashos that they have become a cliché, marching orders to generations of bnei Torah of all ages. Let’s review them.

The posuk states, “Im bechukosai teileichu ve’es mitzvosai tishmeru va’asisem osam - If you will follow My decrees and observe My commandment and perform them,” you will be extremely blessed.

Regarding the words “Im bechukosai teileichu,” the Toras Kohanim states, “Melameid sheHakadosh Boruch Hu misaveh sheyihiyu Yisroel ameilim baTorah - We see from here that Hashem desires for the Jewish people to be omeil in Torah.”

How does the Toras Kohanim derive this lesson from the words “Im bechukosai teileichu,” which appear to indicate that Hashem wants us to follow His chukim? The posuk says nothing about studying Torah.

Apparently, this question was troubling Rashi, and it led him to quote a different message from the Toras Kohanim. “I would think that the words ‘Im bechukosai teileichu’ refer to their literal meaning, namely observing the commandments known as chukim. But if that is the case, why does the Torah then repeat itself and state ‘ve’es mitzvosai tishmeru,’ referring once again to mitzvah observance?”

Rashi therefore writes those immortal words, explaining that “Im bechukosai teileichu” doesn’t mean that we will be blessed if we follow the chukim, but, rather, “shetihiyu ameilim baTorah,” that you shall toil in Torah. Those who toil in Torah will be blessed.

Perhaps we can understand that the meaning of “melameid sheHakadosh Boruch Hu misaveh sheyihiyu Yisroel ameilim baTorah” is that Hashem desires for us to study Torah lishmah, for its sake, purely for the sake of study and not to fulfill any mitzvos.

While there is a mitzvah to learn Torah as expressed in the posuk of “Vehogisa bo yomam volaylah,” which directs us to study Torah day and night whenever we are able to, one who learns Torah lishmah definitely fulfills a mitzvah, but he learns not because it is a mitzvah to learn and not because he is desirous of any reward. He studies Torah for the sake of studying Torah and to understand Hashem’s words and teachings, not for any other purpose. He connects with the Creator, forming an unbreakable bond with his Master. He is the reason Hashem created the world, and thus He is “misaveh,” as Hashem waits for people such as this man to engage in Torah study. They are therefore promised just rewards.

The Rambam, in his introduction to the Yad Hachazakah, writes that the mitzvos were given to Moshe Rabbeinu at Har Sinai accompanied by their laws and explanations. He derives this from the posuk (Shemos 24:12) which states, “V’etnah lochem es luchos ho’even, vehaTorah vehamitzvah - And I gave you the luchos, the Torah and the mitzvah.”

The Rambam explains that “Torah” refers to Torah Shebiksav, the Written Torah, and “mitzvah” refers to the explanations, Torah Shebaal Peh, the Oral Torah. He gave us Torah Shebiksav and commanded us to practice it according to Torah Shebaal Peh.

Thus, we see that when the Torah uses the word “mitzvah,” it can refer to the commandments, but it can also refer to Torah Shebaal Peh, which explains to us how to perform those commandments.

With this, we can understand the posuk in a new way. Im bechukosai teileichu,” if you toil in learning for the sake of limud haTorah itself, “ve’es mitzvosai tishmeru,” and you pursue the knowledge of Torah Shebaal Peh which is necessary to correctly perform the mitzvos, “va’asisem osam,” and you actually follow through and do the mitzvos, then the brachos will flow.

All who study Torah are great and all who observe Hashem’s commandments are great, as are those who support them, but the epitome of human existence is the one who sits in a corner bound with Hashem’s Torah. Nobody knows about him, nobody sees him, and nobody is aware of him. He studies G-d’s word and it touches his soul.

Those who teach and guide and are an example for others to follow make our people special and glorified. They reached that level by engaging in sublime Torah study.

Klal Yisroel has special appreciation for ameilei Torah, who have always been viewed with special reverence. They are privileged to learn Torah not only in order to perform mitzvos and to teach, but for its own sake.

Shetihiyu ameilim baTorah is the hymn of our yeshivos and kollelim, which are islands of intense limud haTorah that produce exalted people, talmidei chachomim who the Chazon Ish referred to as “malochim b’demus bosor vodom,” angels in the guise of men.

The omeil baTorah inhabits a realm more exalted than any other.

The beloved Yerushalayimer maggid, Rav Mordechai Druk, once related that his uncle, Rav Amram Blau, was vigilant in his campaign against people he thought had veered from the proper path. Rav Amram would say, “If I see a breach in the sacred chain of our rabbeim, I go to battle, regardless of who it is that I am opposing. There is only one person I don’t challenge,” Rav Amram continued.

He recounted how his neighbor, Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, had accepted an official state rabbinate position, a decision that Rav Amram felt was wrong. “I should really shout and protest, but I can’t,” he said.

Rav Amram explained that his wife and Rebbetzin Frank were friendly. Rav Tzvi Pesach’s rebbetzin shared that the financial situation in the home had gotten so bad that it affected her husband’s learning. “He suggested that I sell his bed linens, so that we could have a bit of money and he could learn,” remarked Rebbetzin Frank. “My husband won’t miss not having a bed, as he learns all night anyway.”

The Franks were so poor that it reached a point where Rav Tzvi Pesach had no money with which to purchase candles. How was he to learn at night?

“I saw him outside, with his Gemara, learning by the light of the moon throughout the night,” said Rav Amram. “Mit mentchen ken ich tcheppen. I can challenge mortals. Ubber mit malochim tcheppe ich nisht. I won’t do battle with angels.”

He was expressing that which the Chazon Ish would write about talmidei chachomim. They are malochim b’demus bosor vodom.

The Erev Shabbos shmuess at the home of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel was a special time. The Mirrer rosh yeshiva would speak in English, unlike the rest of the week, and the audience included not only Mirrer talmidim, but also American and European bochurim from other yeshivos in Yerushalayim. Rather than offer prepared remarks, the rosh yeshiva would actually “shmooze,” reflecting on his week as if in conversation, sharing his impressions and insights.

One time, he told the bochurim about an opportunity he had that week. He needed direction regarding a halachic matter and went to speak to Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.

“I came to Rav Elyashiv’s home and they let me into his room. He did not notice that I had entered, so he continued learning. I listened to him, and this is what he was saying. ‘Amar Abaye… Abaye says... Amar Rava. Voss zogst du Rava? Ah, ich her. Ubber vos enfert ihr Abaye. Nu, vos zogt ihr tzurik Rava? Abaye, how would you answer Rava’s argument? Nu, Rava, what would you say back to that? Ah, I hear. Abaye?”

The rosh yeshiva continued describing what he had seen and heard. Rav Elyashiv wasn’t outside looking in. He was inside the world of Torah.

All around us, there are heroes. Maybe it’s a seventeen-year-old bochur who didn’t understand his rebbi’s shiur and chazers it one more time, even though he’s tired and wants to know if the Yankees won. Maybe it’s his father who spends his free time struggling over a Rashba. Maybe it’s the kollel yungerman in Bnei Brak who puts everything else out of his mind and immerses himself in the life-giving waters of a Ketzos.

They are the ones bringing the posuk’s promised bounty to our midst.

Rav Moshe Mordechai Shulsinger once addressed an evening of chizuk for lomdei Torah in Bnei Brak. What do you say to such people?

“I was with the Steipler Gaon when he was already eighty-two years old,” Rav Moshe Mordechai began, “and he told us, ‘Boruch Hashem, I’m learning Maseches Rosh Hashanah and I’m holding on daf chof zayin. Today is the first time I understood simple p’shat in a Gemara.”

“But the rebbi learned it so many times,” Rav Moshe Mordechai asked him.

“Yes,” the Steipler said simply, “I learned it tens of times, but I never understood it. Today, I did.”

“How,” Rav Moshe Mordechai asked his audience, “did the Steipler go on after the first time he didn’t understand it? Why did he continue?

“Because,” Rav Moshe Mordechai continued, “the Steipler knew that life is for sitting and learning. He had to learn and learn and learn. He had confidence and faith that if he would keep on learning, everything would become clear. At the age of 82, it did.”

The Steipler’s findings on that sugya live on in Kehillas Yaakov, Rosh Hashanah siman 21. And the lesson lives on in the hearts of hundreds of avreichim.

Rav Moshe Mordechai related that someone once approached the Chazon Ish and asked him how to become a lamdan. “To become a lamdan, you need two things,” the Chazon Ish replied. “You have to learn, and learn, and learn. And you need the Mamme’s Tehillim.”

The fellow persisted. “What about kishronos?”

“Men darft nisht. One doesn’t need to be particularly bright. With hard work, with toil and determination, people have become gedolim.”

A bochur once complained to the Chofetz Chaim that he worked very hard to learn, yet he didn’t feel that he would become a gadol baTorah. The Chofetz Chaim responded, “Where does it say that a person has an obligation to become a gadol baTorah? We are only obligated to learn Torah, to toil in Torah, to be ameilim in Torah.”

Of course it goes together. A person who is omeil in Torah receives the blessings of the Torah and continues to grow.

A mechanech in Bnei Brak related the story of a talmid, who faced terrible difficulty understanding learning. The bochur toiled, but was never able to reach the same levels of comprehension as his friends. Eventually, he fell into a deep depression.

The rebbi, pained by his talmid’s feelings of worthlessness and unable to convince the boy that his life had value, took the young man to speak to the Steipler Gaon. The boy shared his frustrations and grief. He described the difficulty he encountered in comprehending even the most basic ideas of the Gemara. The Steipler asked the bochur if there was any blatt Gemara that he felt he knew.

“Yes,” said the boy. “The first blatt in Nedorim.”

“I promise you,” said the aged giant, whose every word was measured and who exuded truth, “that when you learn that daf in Nedorim, it is as important to Hashem as the chiddushim of the illui in Ponovezh or the lamdan in Slabodka. He is listening to you.”

The young man was comforted as the Steipler repeated the assurance. The mechanech attested that, armed with the knowledge that his efforts had value, the bochur went back with his head held high and resumed his studies, not giving up until he succeeded in tasting the sweetness of Torah.

The Gemara in Maseches Chagigah (9) states that Bar Hei Hei asked Hillel what is meant by the posuk (Malachi 3:18) that says that le’asid lavo, the difference between the “oveid Elokim,” the one who served Hashem, and “asher lo avado,” the one who did not, will be noted. Is it not obvious to us the difference between the two? The posuk must be referring to something else.

Hillel responded that it refers to the difference between the person who reviews what he studied 100 times and the one who reviews the Torah he has learned 101 times.

“Is the fact that he didn’t review one more time a reason to call someone eino avado?” wondered Bar Hei Hei.

“Yes,” Hillel answered, bringing the example of the donkey-drivers in the market, where a journey of ten parsa’os costs one zuz, while a trip of eleven parsa’os costs two zuzim.

The Baal Hatanya explains the answer. A standard trip for a wagon driver is ten parsa’os. That is normal. Asking him to go eleven parsa’os is requesting that he go out of his comfort zone, stretching himself and extending himself beyond what he’s used to. Hence the higher price, because it isn’t just one more parsah. It is an entirely different trip.

Therein lies the secret of ameilus baTorah. The ultimate mitzvah is performed through serving Hashem that one extra time. When one pushes himself way beyond his comfort level and reaches inside and finds the strength for another blatt of Gemara, or another few minutes in the bais medrash, or one more chazarah, one enters that exalted realm.

Each and every one of us has that gift. It’s there for the taking. With a bit of spirit and determination, we can, even if only for a moment, enter that dimension the Chazon Ish describes, leaving the world of humans and touching the world of angels.

Shetihiyu ameilim baTorah. It is a way that a mortal can brush the heavens and merit the brachos found there.

Yisroel ve’Oraisa veKudsha Brich Hu chad hu. Hashem and the Torah and Am Yisroel are one. When you plug into Torah, you are plugging into Hashem. When you connect to Torah, you are connecting to Hashem and having a relationship with the Borei. What could be better?