Thursday, October 28, 2004

Why Did He Come?

Why Did He Come?
by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Wherever you go in the Torah community everyone is asking the same question. So many people are scratching their heads, trying to come up with a smart answer. The question of the day is “Why did he come?” People are trying to figure it out, but are unsatisfied with the explanations.

Since we are a newspaper people think that we must be privy to inside information which we won’t share with just anyone, but if they’d call and ask nicely maybe we would tell them. “Come on; tell me the truth, why did he come…”

There must be an agenda; there must be some reason for his trip other than the reason given. What is it? They are busily trying to figure it out, but can’t.

Some wonder if he came to raise money. If so, who is the money for? There must be a good reason for his coming, they just can’t figure out precisely what it is.

Well, here it is. Here is the inside story: Rav Aron Leib Shteinman, 91 year-old senior Rosh Yeshiva arrived last week on these shores for a two week visit, in order to give chizuk to the Torah community.

A man who has lived his entire life engrossed in Torah, far from the headlines, was propelled after the passing of Rav Elazar Shach into a leadership position.

A man who seeks no earthly pleasures for himself, eats the most meager amounts of food and sits on chairs without backs. A man who literally spends all his time learning Torah and providing guidance for his followers.

A man, who rarely ventured out of Bnei Brak until a couple of years ago, undertakes such a strenuous trip and people are trying to figure out his agenda.

His agenda is to strengthen Torah; his agenda is to support people who are learning Torah; his agenda is to support people who lead a Torah lifestyle.

But we have become so cynical and jaded; we have become so negative that we are sure there must be a hidden agenda. Someone must be making money; there has to be an ulterior motive.

Our vision has become so skewed that anyone who is given siayta d’shamya to accomplish things with his life; anyone who uses his G-d-given talents for the greater good is immediately suspect. It can’t be that he, or she, is doing it because they want to help people; it can’t be they are doing it because they care; it must be that they are looking for kavod, or power, or money.

It’s one thing when we harbor such suspicions about our colleagues and average rank- and-file people. But it is a totally different story when we think that way about a person who can be compared to a Malach.

If you just look at him, you get chizuk. If you just hear him speak, you get chizuk. If you just speak to him for a couple of minutes, you get even more chizuk.

Is there anything more inspiring than to look at him and realize that here is a man who at the age of 91, picked himself up and left his home for a two-week trip to strange cities, in order to inspire fellow Jews? Is there anything more inspiring than to realize that there really are people who do things without an agenda? Is it not inspiring to recognize that here in front of me is a man who is an Eved Hashem, who came all the way here to inspire me?

When you look at him and consider the fact that he is oblivious to the hubbub surrounding him; when you realize that despite the headlines announcing his visit, he himself will never come across his picture in the newspaper, you start thinking that it really is possible to be a good and modest person. It really is possible to be a good and ehrliche Jew. It really is possible to sit in your corner and learn Torah all day. It really is possible to live a life without luxuries and be content. It really is possible to never fight with anyone, it really is possible to never trample on anyone’s feelings and still get ahead in this world.

When you look at him, talk to him and hear him speak, you realize that he has no ulterior motive; you see that he has no agenda other than to be Mekadeish Sheim Hashem and to spur people on to do good.

It may well be that this is reason enough for him to spend time in our midst, so that we are reminded that it is possible to attain such maalos. By his very being, by his every action we can learn so many lessons.

My grandfather, Rav Leizer Levin zt”l was a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim. There is some dispute over what the Chofetz Chaim looked like and if he indeed bore any resemblance to the popular, widely distributed picture of him. I once asked my grandfather what his Rebbe looked like, meaning, did he look like the picture? It was many years ago, I was very young, my language skills were poor and he didn’t understand that I was asking about that picture. It is fine because his answer was a great lesson.

I still remember his grandfatherly words as he gently held my hand, patted my cheek and said, “Az men hut nit gevoost hut ehr oisgenzen vi ah pashuter yid oohn men hut gurnit gekent zehn; Uber ahz men hut gevoost, hut men gekent zehn alles. “If you didn’t know who he was, he looked to you like a simple Jew, but if you knew who he was, then you were able to see that every action he did was special.”

Those words rang in my ears this past Friday. I was allowed into the small guest house where Rav Aron Leib was staying, to ask him some sheilos. I walked in behind him and as he passed by the small kitchen, I noticed that he stopped to look at the six small Israeli lachmaniot bread rolls on the kitchen table. He turned to his attendant and asked what they were for and the answer came back that they were for “Lechem Mishna heint by nacht.”

The aged Rosh yeshiva who has thousands buzzing about him wherever he turns in this country, turned to the attendant and asked, “Uber vos darft men azoi fil?” The attendant answered that they were in case others would join them for the meal.

They moved on into the next room, where another man approached the Rosh Yeshiva to ask about something that baffled him. When the Rosh Yeshiva was visiting the Skverer Rebbe, a bowl of fruit was set before him on the Rebbe’s table, and as is customary, the Rosh Yeshiva was asked to make a brocha. He made a Ha’eitz and, to the surprise of those observing him, ate only half of a grape. What was the reason for this, the man wanted to know.

The Rosh Yeshiva answered that a grape is a beriah, and eating a whole grape creates a problem with a brocha achrona. So he only ate half of the grape.

The conversations were simple and straightforward, not meant to impress anyone. They were beautiful in their simplicity. He really was wondering why they need so many lachmaniot. He had a bowl full of mouth-watering fruit set in front of him and all he ate was half a grape.

“Az men hut nit gevoost hut ehr oisgenzen vi ah pashuter yid oohn men hut gurnit gekent zehn; Uber ahz men hut gevoost, hut men gekent zehn alles.”

And I thought to myself, why did the Rosh Yeshiva come? He came to show us that it is possible to lead a life a pashtus, of prishus, of Kedusha, and of Shalom. To demonstrate the power of these values to command the respect and allegiance of tens of thousands of Jews.

The person who had thousands line the streets to welcome him here is wondering why he needs 6 lachmaniot. A person who has no desire to eat more than half a grape, has so much to teach us without even saying a word.

So why, really, did he come? He really came for the same reason the Chofetz Chaim wrote that were he able to do so, he would fly to save Jewish children. He really came because people visit him in his humble apartment in a nondescript building in Bnei Brak where they see him seated on a stool at his old table, poring over piles of Seforim in a room that has not been painted since he moved there decades ago. These people tell him that he can be mechazeik the Jews of America.

He really came because he takes the words of the Chofetz Chaim literally. He really came because he believes the petitioners who think that we can all benefit from being in the Daled Amos of a person who has as little benefit from this world as is humanly possible.

He really came because he cares about us. He really came because he says that if the Ribono Shel Olam kept him alive for 91 years and gave him the required strength, he has an obligation to reach out and strengthen the Ribono Shel Olam’s children. He really came because just as he constantly prods Lev L’Achim to accomplish more, he pushes himself to do more.

And then we sit around in our cushioned chairs, eating steak and freedom fries, wondering about his hidden agenda. We try to figure out what’s in it for him.

In this week’s parsha we read of the Malachim who came to visit Avrohom and to destroy Sedom. Upon visiting Lot and leading him and his family to safety, they warned them “Ahl Tabit Acharecha,” commonly translated as a command to Lot’s family not to look back at Sedom. The Posuk recounts that Lot’s wife didn’t obey them, “Vatabeit Ishto M’Acharav Vatehi Netziv Melach,” commonly translated to mean that Lot’s wife looked behind and became a pillar of salt.

Perhaps we can understand these events a little more deeply. The word “Habeit” doesn’t just mean to look, “Liros” means to see, Habeit means to look deeper and to perceive and understand. We say to Hakadosh Boruch Hu “Habeit Mishamayim Ur’eih.”

The Malachim were telling Lot and his family that they were unworthy of understanding what the Malachim were doing and why they were doing it. It’s not something you can understand, it’s not something people on your level have any business trying to grasp, for you never will be able to. That was the message to Lot and his family.

Lot’s wife refused to obey; she turned around to examine and figure it all out—and was duly punished. Lot and his daughters followed the admonition of the angels, and as soon as it was over, they went right back to their evil ways. They proved the Malachim’s point, that they were unworthy of comprehending the actions of those sent on a Divine mission. Even after witnessing the fate which befell their landsleit, they reverted to their old ways at the first opportunity.

So too, when we are privileged to have a Malach in our midst, we have no business sitting around trying to figure out his actions as if he were a simple Basar Vadom. We are admonished “Ahl Tabit,” stand back, look at him, learn from him, but don’t try to apply your cynical thought process to analyze his moves. If you follow the admonition you will be saved. You will be given a fresh opportunity for a new beginning and hopefully fare better than that refugee family from Sedom.

And one more thing: When the Malachim arrived in Sedom they were greeted with protest by blinded Baalei Ta’avoh. Even Lot with his warped sense of justice understood that was improper.

And yes, it does bear saying, and yes, we do have an obligation to spit such miscreants and their supporters out of our midst: there were some who protested at least one of the Rosh Yeshiva’s public gatherings. Their antics diminish him not one whit. Rather, it diminishes and disgraces us that we have such base people in our midst and we tolerate them.

May we be Zoche to go in his ways; to try to emulate him, to abhor evil and machlokes; and to avoid kavod and ta’avos olam hazeh; to sit and learn and learn; to be marbeh k’vod shomayim; to do good without ulterior motives.

May all who stood and waited patiently to greet and see Rav Shteinman be zocheh to be makabeil pnei Eliyahu Hanavi Mevaser Tov bimheirah biyomeinu, along with all of Klal Yisroel. Amen.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Answering The Call

Answering The Call
By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Parshas Lech Lecha opens with a message to Avrohom Avinu which reverberates until this very day.

“Lech Lecha M’Artzecha U’Mimoladetecha U’mibeis Avichu El Ha’aretz Asher Arekhu.” Hashem tells Avrohom to leave his father’s home and his native country for a trek to the Promised Land.

Anyone who was in the El Al terminals last week can testify that the call still rings loudly in our day.

We live in a generation when any yeshiva bochur or Bais Yaakov girl who wants to, can walk onto an airplane and travel to Eretz Yisroel to study Torah.

What a drastically different world we live in from the world inhabited by previous generations. All through the ages, throughout the Diaspora, Jews wanted to return to Eretz Yisroel. Ever since the Romans evicted us from the land, Jews have been pining to go back. Until contemporary times, most people who wanted to travel there were unsuccessful. The hardships of the journey were daunting; the many obstacles virtually insurmountable.

The Ramban made it to Eretz Yisroel 750 years ago and wrote of the deplorable state of Yerushalayim where incredibly, there wasn’t even one functioning shul. There was only a minyan on Shabbos in someone’s home.

The Vilna Gaon sought twice to move to Eretz Yisroel but his efforts were unsuccessful. The Chofetz Chaim longed to live in Eretz Yisroel but did not merit to see his dream fulfilled. So many other Jews throughout the generations—both rich and poor, young and old, learned and simple—harbored the same dream, but were unable to achieve their desire.

How thankful we have to be that in our day the situation has completely reversed.

Today, anyone who wants to can go to Eretz Yisroel with relatively minimal effort and expenditure.

The yeshivos of Brisk and Mir are overflowing with American Talmidim. Do we appreciate this wondrous gift? There is no time more appropriate than now to express our thanks and appreciation.

We look around us and see all the problems enveloping the world. Wherever we look we see secular society decaying at a rapid pace. How thankful we ought to be when we look at our own young people.

While not every parent is zocheh to have children soaking up Toras Eretz Yisroel, or any Torah, for that matter, we must permit ourselves at times a moment of pride and happiness in viewing the positive side of the overall picture today.

At the same time, our hearts must go out to those whose children are still groping to find their way. We must use our resources to help these young people at risk, and not be content with merely reading the ubiquitous articles on the subject and shaking our heads sympathetically.

We shudder when we read of the travails encountered by the Talmidim of the Gaon and Baal Shem Tov upon their Aliyah to Eretz Yisroel. They had to contend with hunger, disease, pestilence, marauding Arabs and extreme poverty.

My great-grandfather longed to live in Eretz Yisroel but was unable to do so. Last week his great-great grandson walked into a tube with 400 other young people, flew off into the air—a scene that would have astounded his great-great grandfather and the Jews of Lita—and a day later he was in Yerushalayim.

My grandfather took leave of his parents in Hanishishuk, Lithuania to go learn in the yeshiva of the Chofetz Chaim on the other side of the Polish border in Radun. He never saw them again. As so many others who left home to go learn in yeshiva, the trip entailed true Mesiras Nefesh for the young men and their parents. They were not able to come home for Yom Tov; they had no spending money; and were not able to phone home every day.

Think about how lucky we are. Think about how blessed we are. Think about all the opportunities available to us. We can go virtually anywhere and do anything we want. The vast majority of us use these opportunities constructively.

Instead of looking for things to complain about and harping on the negative, in our personal conversations and public discourses, we should try to focus on what is good and endeavor to increase the good in our world. We should help more people avail themselves of those opportunities which bring blessing and nachas. The good will chase away the evil; the positive will overcome the negative.

Boys leave the comforts of home to fly off to study in a yeshiva which has no dining room or dormitory. They do so because they want to grow in havana of Torah.
The Mir Yeshiva grows by leaps and bounds, opening new Batei Midrashim and undertaking new projects to accommodate the exponential growth of ambitious Talmidim.
And on these shores, we witness the explosion of Torah in Lakewood, NJ; and the expansion of a Torah community built around a yeshiva, to an extent unparalleled in the long Golus.

As an aged Rosh Yeshiva travels across the world to deliver words of chizuk to an ever -growing population of Bnei Torah, we should all open our eyes, ears and hearts, to that world. How can we not gain faith and succor from the amazing growth of our yeshivos!

How long ago was it that we were written off? How long ago was it that yeshivos had to go begging for Talmidim and scrapping for paltry donations to keep the impoverished institutions open? How long ago was it that the Mir was housed in one building and Brisk in a shul? How long ago was it that people thought yeshivos would never be rebuilt on this side of the ocean altogether?

How long ago was it that people believed that the Ponovezher Rav had taken leave of his senses when he publicized his dream of a world-famous yeshiva—that today stands tall and proud in the center of Bnei Brak?

Today the call of Lech Lecha resounds ever so loudly and is heard by ever increasing numbers of young people.

Let us do what we can to help that call reverberate around our local towns, cities and across the world.

Let us all do more to help assist the growth of Torah, Bnei Torah, Gedolei Torah and Torah institutions.

Let us look at each and every milestone our children pass in yeshiva as a stepping-stone to the glorious day when they, too, will take their place in the ever-growing ranks of Bnei Torah who will one day pass the torch to the next generation.
Let us all appreciate the gifts lavished upon us by a loving Father. And let us be worthy of the brachos of “Veheyei Brachah,” promised to our forefather Avrohom Avinu, who paved the way for all of us.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Post Sukkos

Sukkos, Soldiers and the Teivah
By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Once again, a Yom Tov has come and gone.

Once again, after much preparation and hard work we merited celebrating the beautiful, joyous Yom Tov of Sukkos. Sadly, by the time we turned around it was over.

Throughout its duration—from constructing the Sukkah; decorating it; schlepping the tables and chairs and mattresses and making it inhabitable; to selecting the Lulav and Esrog; to all the buying and cooking and cleaning the Yom Tov entails—we savored the fantasy that it would last for a very long time.

We put out of our minds all the things that we had to attend to after Sukkos. We blocked out the thought of having to go back to dealing with the realities of life. After the Teshuva of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; after the tefillos of the Yomim Noraim and Yom Tov; after being mekayeim all the Mitzvos HaChag with so much Simcha and devotion; we were sure Moshiach would reveal himself sometime before the end of Shabbos Bereishis.

But it was not to be. We have not yet merited the arrival of Moshiach who will deliver us from the Golus. We are still enmeshed in our problems and worries; we still have to contend with all those unpleasant realities we wished would go away.

Where do we go from here? How do we switch gears and slide back into the rigors of everyday life?

Back To The Mundane—On A Higher Plane

Having just experienced a most uplifting experience, we have to hold onto it and keep it fresh in our consciousness to propel us further. The Yomim Tovim are not meant to be like a typical vacation that becomes a distant memory the minute the plane lands and you are back home.

Yom Tov has to teach us and make better people of us. We don’t just kiss the Esrog and Sukkah goodbye and go back to the mundane. They leave an impression on our souls and minds. They leave us with important lessons that have the capacity to improve us and our lives—if we but attune ourselves to their message.

One day we celebrate Simchas Torah with all its spiritual highs and the next day we are expected to cheerfully return to business as usual? One day we dance away without a care in the world and the next day its back to the bleak burdens of work and school? How is it possible?

Simchas Torah is commonly viewed as a celebration of the completion of Torah, and it surely is. But on Simchas Torah, as soon as we finish V’Zos Habracha with great fanfare, with the very same level of excitement we start Bereishis. For many of us, the beginning is even a greater cause for celebration than the Siyum.

The layening of Bereishis tells us that we all get another chance. Even if we didn’t learn the Torah as well as we could have during the past year, Zos HaBracha tells us that just as there is Bracha in completing, there is also a Bracha in the beginning. It all starts again. If we didn’t understand all the Rashis last year; if we skipped through the Ramban, we now have a fresh opportunity to study the Pesukim better and more deeply.

What a cause for celebration that is! What a special Bracha granted to the Jewish people, who for that very reason are compared to the moon. We have been granted the special ability to bounce back. We are able to come back from near-failure and oblivion and achieve the full circle.

When we dance on Simchas Torah, we do so with a sense of anticipation as much as from the joy of completion and gratification.

As Jews, whenever we finish a Limud we immediately begin learning something else. No matter how hard it may have been to reach our goal; no matter how great the accomplishment—either way we go right back to the starting line. The energy which propelled us to this point will now push us on further to even greater successes.

We gain comfort and strength from knowing that we are not alone; we know that the Shomer Yisroel watches over us, holding our hand and guiding us, if we make ourselves worthy.

We study this week’s parsha of Noach and recognize that although the whole world can be mired in thievery and adultery, those who remain upright and loyal to Hashem will be protected from the evils surrounding them. It really is possible to set yourself apart and live a proper, decent and honorable life.

The Power Of An Ish Emes

For 120 years Noach tried to spread his message, never giving up, even as the waters of the flood began swirling around him. Though sheker has a tremendous drawing power and appears to triumph over the people of emes, a true ish emes does not get flustered or worried that his team is not ahead. He perseveres; he remains loyal to the truth and never waivers.

As long as he follows the word of G-d, he doesn’t look over his shoulder and count how many people he has with him. He calmly and peacefully attempts to bring the people around him towards to the truth. He shows them time after time, day after day, year after year, where and how they have erred and how to rectify mistakes.

He never considers flipping over to the other more popular side. In the end, the ish emes and others like him are the only ones who remain standing.

We all have the ability to abstain from evil; we all can merit the “Sa’ad Letomcho,” the supporting crutch, which Chazal say Noach was granted. We can all have Hakadosh Boruch Hu in our corner if we walk in Noach’s footsteps.

No, we don’t have to stand in our driveways for 100 years building a Teivah, to accomplish that. Every generation has its unique tests of faith but meeting those challenges calls for the same recipe for success: to have the courage of one’s convictions and not to be deterred in the face of opposition. There is no better time of the year to work on it than now.

We tend to go through life on automatic pilot, rarely slowing down long enough to contemplate what it is all about. But as we learn Parshas Bereishis it is eminently clear that the world must have been created for a purpose. Since the world has a Creator, there has got to be a purpose to creation. Can it be that we were just brought here to experience some physical enjoyment and sleepwalk through our sojourn in this world?

Truthfully, it takes only minimal intelligence to conclude that the world was not created by itself. The “big bang” theory is such a preposterous and scientifically unsound analysis of life that it would be universally scorned and discarded if not for its one overwhelming attraction: it frees man from having to be accountable to a Creator.

Examine any creature in this world and try to imagine how it could have created itself. Could a caterpillar decide that it has had enough of crawling around on a dozen little legs eating leaves and would rather morph itself into a colorful creature that flies around sucking nectar out of flowers? Is it possible in a million years for that to happen?

If everything that we use and come in contact with daily—from a simple pen to a state-of-the-art computer—has to be manufactured or at least processed with human hands, how can it be that the most fabulously complex living creatures just happened by themselves?

So we learn Bereishis and we understand that Hashem created it all and we realize that it is for a greater purpose. We realize that there is a reason for our being here. We learn the Rashi which teaches that Be Reishis can be taken to mean beshivil yisorel shenikru’oo reishis, the world was created for the Jews who are referred to as Reishis. Beshvil Torah shenikri’uh reishis, the world was created for the Torah which is also referred to as Reishis.

We glance at the Rashi and move on to the next Posuk. We don’t pause long enough to give it any thought. We ought to stop and say to ourselves, “Since the world was created for Yisroel, if the world was created for Torah, that means I should be a better Yisroel. Since the world was created for Torah, shouldn’t I be spending more time with Torah? What am I doing wasting my life on nonsense, spending my days spinning my wheels?”

When people say “nature endowed the zebra with stripes, and penguins with black uppers and white lowers so they can evade their enemies,” we smile at their naiveté, because we know it wasn’t “Mother Nature” who dreamed it up. But we just skip over those Rashis without internalizing their message.

We live in a time when everyone is working so hard to chase their tails and make ends meet that we have little time to give anything much thought. We are so trapped in the pursuit of our livelihoods that we allow ourselves barely a moment to wonder what it’s all about. And those of us who are a little better off than others utilize our free time in spending our extra few dollars trying to cure the pains accumulated by the race to achieve the American dream.

But we have to slow down, we have to give life more thought; we can’t be too preoccupied to be purposeful in life. We have to realize our obligations.

The True Implements Of War

The wire services provided newspapers with dozens of pictures of Israeli soldiers in Gaza standing aside their tanks with lulav and esrog. It must have been a strange sight to photographers to see battle-weary men stand beside the most modern fighting machines while holding aloft such primitive objects.

Yet these very pictures, so bizarre-looking to outsiders, give us a surge of spiritual strength. For the soldiers holding the delicate lulav and esrog know a secret: these delicate objects are the true implements of war.

The soldiers return from battle and stand there alone in Gaza, wondering why they were kept alive. They realize that it wasn't by mere chance; they know that there is a God above who watches over them. The daily fighting drives home the message again and again that they are not alone; the rigors and tests of battle convince them that they need more than tanks to win.

A soldier with his life on the line realizes the truth of “Eileh barechev, va’eilah basusim, va’anachnu besheim Hashem Elokienu nazkir. Heimah koru vanafalu va’anachnu kamnu vanisodod.”

We are all little soldiers and little Noachs battling a rising tide and fighting to keep our little Teivos afloat in the storms that engulf us.

The truth is that we are all soldiers, engaged in daily battles. The truth is that if we want to persevere like our forefather Noach we have to strengthen ourselves and rise above the vicissitudes of life; we have to hold our lulavim aloft and proclaim our faith. We have to fortify ourselves with the lessons of the Yomim Noraim, Yomim Tovim and Parshiyos Bereishis and Noach, and translate them into daily use.

That way we will emerge victorious in our daily battles; when tossed about by the storms of life we will be able to hold our course and come through it all unscathed. We will attain the happiness and successes we so desperately crave. Every day will contain some of the blessings, contentment and gratification of Yom Tov as we make our productive march through a purposeful life.