Wednesday, May 25, 2005


By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

During one of his trips to America on behalf of Lev L’Achim I asked Rav Uri Zohar what most impressed him about America and Americans. While he found much to admire, he said that compared to Israelis, Americans are apathetic. “Apathy,” was his response, “Adishut.”

Uri Zohar was obviously never at a Torah Umesorah convention. Had he been there he would have seen enthusiasm, selflessness and dedication to Torah. He would have seen men and women of all ages dashing off to glean yet another bit of advice on how to better teach and inspire their students.

He would have heard Rav Avrohom Schorr tell the story of a first grade rebbe who had noticed that the child was having a difficult time catching on to the aleph bais. The rebbe recited the entire Tehillim to pray for the success of his student, but the prayers went unanswered. Undaunted he recited the entire Tehillim again, but to no avail.

He recited it for a third time and, unlike his experience with many other struggling students he had taught, the prayers were still unanswered; he could only conclude that the child did not possess a yiddishe neshomo. Amazingly, further investigation revealed that the Rebbe’s intuition was correct.

This rebbe’s boundless dedication takes the very concept of mesiras nefesh for chinuch habonim to a new level.

Rabbi Zohar would have heard speaker after speaker address the participants with emotion, with fervor, with heartfelt sincerity. The speeches were not just words; they were expressions of years of accumulated commitment and perseverance to the hallowed goal of committing generations to Torah.

The words were infused with passion, jumping from the hearts of the speakers into the hearts of the assembled.

Words, they can mean so much and mean so little, it all depends on how we use them. It depends on how much thought and heart we invest in them, it depends on what we do with them and what we use them for.

Some people think that words are everything, some think they mean nothing. Some people think that with speeches they will solve all the world’s problems. Some think with words they can change minds and people.

Rabbeim and Morahs know that the words they use have lifelong impact on the lives of their charges and thus choose them wisely—and with love.

Words do have impact. They can be very effective. But most of the time words need to followed with, and preceded by, action. Words themselves are meaningless and talk is cheap.

To use a Lag B’Omer allegory, they are like arrows in the hands of the archer.

A rebbe who once took aside a student and asked him why he was not paying attention in class still remembers the boy’s response—unusual for its honesty.

“How can you sit there spacing out and daydreaming?” the rebbe demanded. “We are discussing a Shas machlokes. All the rishonim talk about this machlokes, as do many of the acharonim. It’s one of the most interesting sugyas. How can you not pay attention?”

The boy was quiet at first. What was there to say? It was probably safer to keep his thoughts to himself. But the rebbe persisted. He really wanted to know what it was in this boy’s mind that shut out the gemorah they were learning. “What are you thinking of? Why aren’t you with us?”

The boy groped for words. “Because it’s all just words. And words don’t interest me. You see, first they taught me letters and siddur words. Then they taught me chumash words. Later on as I got older they taught me mishnayos words. Then they taught me gemorah words. So now you’re teaching Rashi and Tosefos words. It’s just words. It doesn’t mean anything to me.”

Decades later, the rebbe remembers that conversation. The boy was describing an alienation from learning that was so profound that he, the rebbe, was stunned.

How does such alienation come about? Granted this student may have been an extreme case, but rebbeim and moros today encounter disinterest and boredom in regular, mainstream students who are by all accounts bright and on-the-ball.

What happens to the zest for learning these students enter school with at ages four and five? Did you ever encounter a child in pre 1A who didn’t want to learn the aleph bais? Is there any child in the primary grades who isn’t proud to bring home his or her Shabbos sheets, whether they know all the answers or not?

When my children were learning the alpeh bais, every time they opened a siddur, their excitement was contagious they would point at the letters they knew and call out with great excitement, “Look, an aleph! There’s a bais, and a little yud…”

When they are young their learning is made exciting, interesting, the teachers are vibrant, every day they look forward to learning something new. They know Morah loves them, and they love her. Every day they color something; they learn and review a new letter every week. How exciting they are to show off the letter kuf they learned this week. Friday is the most exciting day of the week; they know they will have a Shabbos party; they know they will get to bring home the little arts-and-crafts they and their morah spent a whole week coloring. They know they will bring home a parsha sheet and a letter for their mommy and totty.

The challenge for teachers is to make the subject come alive, to avoid the pitfalls of monotony that turn kids off. The challenge is give children the essential tools to help them to build and grow. Look around and see the successful rebbes, moros and teachers, those who are excited about what they are teaching are the ones who can convey excitement to their charges.

What happens to squelch that delight in mastering a new skill, in gaining knowledge, reaching a new milestone? When does the thirst for learning and accomplishment begin to dissipate in some children?

Those familiar with the complex issues of chinuch today know there are no pat answers. Yeshiva classrooms are often terribly overcrowded. Without splitting the classes or hiring remedial teachers and assistants –for which there is invariably no money—helping the weaker students while keeping the brighter ones challenged turns into an impossible mission.

Even the most seasoned and gifted rebbeim and moros feel taxed by the myriad problems encountered in many of today’s classrooms.

But having said all of that, one must also admit that even when the aforementioned problems do not apply in a particular school or classroom, the phenomenon still exists of far too many good “all-around” kids losing interest in learning and working far below their potential.

Often these children begin spacing or tuning out, clowning around and infecting other students with their lack of application.

School and learning has to be more than words. Children [as well as adults] need to constantly have their attention charged. If we want kids to learn, we have to make learning come alive and we have to keep it interesting. Projects, assignments, trips, contests, all contribute to make going to school something a child wants to do. All the pontifications and all the speeches about chinuch cannot replace that simple fact.

Take a closer look at those teachers who breathe life into their lessons, whose own love of learning is contagious, who build incentives and motivation into the fabric of their teaching. Watch how they inspire and stimulate their students by, above all, caring about them and believing in their ability to succeed. Observe how their students revere them and exert themselves to the utmost to win their praise and approval.

These outstanding mechanchim make an art out of winning minds and souls. They invest huge amounts of energy in creating special projects, assignments, trips, contests—they are masters of motivation.

We can never properly compensate them for the gifts they pass on to our children—the lifelong love and excitement of learning. All we need to do to stir up true appreciation for their efforts is to take a look at students who were not fortunate enough to be taught by people of this caliber. The difference speaks for itself.

We need to do more than feel appreciation; we need to demonstrate it, to show these special rebbes and moros that we do not take them for granted, that we realize that they are carrying out a sacred task—and in so doing, aiding us in what is essentially a parent’s foremost obligation—to be mechanech the next generation in Torah and yiras shomayim.

I was privileged to have spent last Shabbos in the presence of many hundreds of mechanchim gathered at the Torah Umesorah Convention to gain chizuk, insight and inspiration. If you think apathy describes Americans you should have been there, too. Hope, enthusiasm and positive thinking pervaded the event. The mechanchim there would have restored your belief in the goodness and dedication of the Jewish people.

It is very likely that if you would take the time to speak to your local mechanchim and hear them talk about their sense of mission and their hopes for their students, you would also be inspired. It never hurts to express gratitude to this wonderful cadre of men and women to whom we are so indebted.

Granted, apathy is a very real problem in our society. It comes from taking one’s gifts and advantages for granted. Many of us expect everything to get done by the ubiquitous “they.” They who take care of everything will take care of any problem which pops up. They who help everyone will help the latest case of someone who needs assistance. They who clean the shul and put away all the siddurim, chumashim and seforim after davening will make all the arrangements.

Very few people get really worked up enough about a problem to do anything serious about it.

Apathy is a disease which affects people who are comfortable with their lot and oblivious to what goes on around them. Apathy afflicts those who only care about themselves and what goes on around them. They have no interest in helping anyone outside their immediate circle. Apathetic people are indifferent to the suffering of others and don’t bestir themselves for anything that doesn’t promise them a big payoff. They have no time, patience or money for anything besides their own petty selfish interests.

Apathetic people are closed to any talk of involving themselves in the bigger picture. They really couldn’t care less about anyone for whom they have no use. A world populated exclusively with people who suffer from this disease would be a very cold and lonely place.

Let us learn from the passion and devotion of the rebbeim and moros who demonstrate the exact opposite; whose caring and mesiras nefesh guarantee the transfer of our precious mesorah to the next generation. As we reap the rewards from their hard work, let us absorb the lesson of giving of ourselves unstintingly for a good cause, even without a payoff.

In the end, that kind of investment will be the most rewarding of all.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005


By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Parshas Behar begins by stating that Hashem spoke to Moshe on Har Sinai and then immediately turns to the laws of shmitah. Rashi asks the famous question rhetorically invoked when two matters as seemingly unconnected as shmitah and Har Sinai are linked together:

“Mah inyan shmitah eitzel Har Sinai,” loosely translated as, “What does shmitah have to do with Sinai?”

Rashi answers that the Torah juxtaposes the two pesukim to teach that just as all the minutia of the laws of shmitah were expounded at Sinai, the myriad details of all the mitzvos were likewise taught at that time.

The Torah discusses the laws of shmitah and then guarantees the blessings reserved for those who honor these laws, allowing their land to lie fallow every seventh year as a testament to their belief in the word of G-d.

Perhaps another reason for the linkage of shmitah and Har Sinai might be to teach us that one who seeks the brachos of shomrei sheviis should not delude himself into thinking that those blessings come cheaply—that all one has to do to earn them is observe shmitah.

“Mah inyan shmitah eitzel Har Sinai,” is to teach us that in order to merit the rewards of keeping shmitah, a Jew must do far more than observe the laws of shmitah; he must follow all the halachos and dinim that were handed down at Sinai.

This approach might explain an obvious inconsistency at the end of the parsha. The last posuk of Parshas Behar reads, Es shabsosai tishmoru umikdashi tira’u, ani Hashem. The Baal Haturim points out that in this posuk, the word “tishmoru” comes after the word “Shabbos,” whereas in Devorim, the command of shamor precedes the word “Shabbos.”(Shamor es yom haShabbos.)

The Baal Haturim quotes the Mechilta to explain that this is to teach that the Shabbos requires shemirah both before and after the exact time of Shabbos; one must extend the holy day at the beginning and at the end, adding chol to the kodesh.

Perhaps we can find a deeper dimension in this explanation, using the lesson we inferred from the posuk linking shmitah to Har Sinai.

The posuk implies that for one to be a shomer Torah umitzvos, it is not sufficient to only observe the 24 hour period which comprises Shabbos. One must also observe the many commandments governing day-to-day life during the rest of the week. The kedusha of Shabbos demands shemirah lefonav ule’acharav.

I remember the first time I was shown a Jewish cemetery in a small town far from New York. The property was divided in two; and I was told that one side is the Shabbosdiker and the other side is the vochadiker. It was then explained that the Shabbosdiker side held only Jews who had observed the Shabbos, even in the face of hardship. On the other side, the vochadiker, were the people who were unable to resist the temptations to be mechalel Shabbos.

These Jews had arrived in America penniless in the beginning of the past century, and the temptation to escape poverty by working on Shabbos was just too great for them. They would go to shul Shabbos morning and then head off to their jobs, driven by the fear of the heavy price they would have to pay for keeping Shabbos. The consequences of refusing to work on Shabbos meant being fired from one job after another and putting one’s livelihood in jeopardy.

It is not for us to judge them, but the ones who gave up on Shabbos became vochadiker Yidden. Their Yiddishkeit was vochadik—lacking in holiness—even though they did their best to keep all the other mitzvos. Ultimately, most of them and their descendants were lost to the Jewish people and when they passed away, they were laid to rest in the vochadiker bais olam.

The Jews who held fast to Shabbos observance were the Shabbosdiker Yidden, seven days a week; their lives were blessed, their homes were blessed and when they were laid to rest, they were placed in the Shabbosdiker bais olam. There they remain waiting for Moshiach to arrive and bring them back to life as Shabbos Yidden.

Boruch Hashem, our nisyonos are not as great as those faced by the people of that forsaken New England town I visited, but we all need to improve in certain areas to better qualify us as Shabbosdiker Yidden throughout the week. Shabbos has to affect the way we conduct ourselves during the entire week, and the way we behave during the other six days influences our observance of the seventh.

A Shabbos Jew dresses differently, speaks differently and eats differently, not only on Shabbos, but during the whole week. A Shabbos Jew conducts himself with eidelkeit and ehrlichkeit not only on Shabbos but throughout the week. A Shabbos Jew adds to the holiness of Shabbos by sanctifying the days before Shabbos and the days after it.

A Shabbos Jew spreads the kedushas Shabbos to everything he does from Shabbos to Shabbos. He anticipates and plans for Shabbos from Sunday onwards, as he specifies each day in relation to Shabbos, saying, “Hayom yom rishon b’Shabbos, Hayom yom shaini b’Shabbos, etc.”

And so it is with a shmitah gibor. It is very difficult for a person who lives off of the land to wake up one day and decide that although he has been lax in keeping mitzvos, he will observe shmitah. It is only the person who faithfully observes all the halachos hatluyos b’aretz the other six years who can meet the great test of faith of leaving his ground untouched during the seventh year.

The man who is fastidious about his observance of maaser and terumah and leket, shikcha and peah, has no problem with shmitah. The one who ensures that his animals do not run wild and damage other people’s property,; the one who makes sure that there are no michsholim on the paths which cut through his property will be scrupulous with the dinim as given on Har Sinai.

The person who conducts his business with emunah and bitachon and does not resort to chicanery and thievery to make his living, he is the one who will have the strength to let go when shmitah arrives and depend upon Hakadosh Boruch Hu to feed him.

“Vetzivisi es birchasi lochem;” Hashem promises his blessings to those who observe the laws of shmitah, because those people are the ones who observe the laws of Sinai day in and day out and not only on isolated occasions.

This theme runs through the subsequent pesukim [25: 17, 18, 19] in parshas Behar. “Do not harass one another… and you shall perform my chukim and observe my mishpatim and then you shall dwell securely in Eretz Yisroel, and the land will then give its fruit and you will be satisfied when you eat, and you will live securely…”

Those who seek to live with security need look no further than Parshas Behar. Those who seek peace should learn the lesson of “Ma inyan shmitah eitzel Har Sinai.”

Those who look for nachas from their children, for stable lives, for a healthy livelihood, should heed the lesson of the Shabbosdiker Yidden and of the shmitah Yidden throughout the ages.

Despite all the temptations thrown at them by society, no matter what pressures and inducements they faced to bend the rules a little bit here and there, they remained fastidiously devoted to the laws of Sinai. They did not bend in the wind, nor welt in the heat of the times. They remained steadfast, focused, honest and upstanding, seven days a week, seven years of shmitah and fifty years of yovel.

They were our parents and grandparents who led the way for us and lit up the path. Let’s follow their example and do the same for our children and grandchildren. We will thus merit the brachos of this week’s parsha and the other parshiyos of the Torah reserved for those who follow in the well-trodden path stretching from Sinai through the desert, the holy land… the inquisitions… Auschwitz… and the very streets on which we ourselves walk today, leading to the yom shekulo Shabbos, bimheira beyomienu, amen.

Thursday, May 12, 2005


By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This week’s parsha, Parshas Emor, recalls the familiar adage, “Acharei Mos Kedoshim Emor, [only] after a person dies does everyone call him 'holy.'”

When was the last time you heard a living person being praised unless it was at a dinner in their honor?

Maybe it is time we curbed our tendency to criticize people and practiced paying tribute to those who utilize their kochos for the welfare of the community.

Why do we tend to talk positively about people only after they are no longer with us? Why is it hard to compliment the living? If somehow people could hear the hespeidim delivered at their funerals while they are alive, they would not only live another ten years, they would live ten much happier years.

We are all familiar with special people in our own communities, a few examples of the many follow. Look at the wonderful work of the bikur cholim women. Consider the work of someone like Mrs. Miriam Lubling of Brooklyn and the immense help she gives sick people who come to New York from all over the world. She appears from out of nowhere and works tirelessly to provide assistance in finding doctors, setting up appointments and providing whatever help is needed. What motivates such a woman? Only the relentless will and insatiable desire to help people.

Ask anyone in Monsey who has been seriously ill or who is close to someone who has been through a medical crisis, about Shimshon Lauber. They will tell you he is a tzaddik, yet he walks the streets like everyone else and has to struggle to maintain his organization.

How many desperate people from around the world have been helped by Yossi Stern in Flatbush, who knocks himself out with one cause after another?

In the field of chinuch, as well, there are so many outstanding people who put their neshamos into their work, working around the clock to make a difference in others’ lives. Is there anyone who has done as much as Rabbi Yaakov Bender of Far Rockaway to raise the standards of education? What he has done for students and adults of all ages and levels is simply outstanding.

Did you ever hear of Rabbi Shamai Blobstein and what he does for teen-aged boys? Rabbi Refoel Wallerstein of Brooklyn is a one-man army keeping boys on the right track, while he stays in constant touch with his rebbi, Rav Shmuel Berenbaum, for direction and inspiration to save even more Jewish youth from being wasted.

When is the last time these people and others like them received their due? There are so many more unsung heroes out there in our world. Yet, we lose sight of them, we forget they exist, and when they knock on our doors, we turn them away as if they are not glib and sophisticated. Instead of putting these individuals on a pedestal, we are forever poised to find fault. We feed off of scandal; without a new piece of gossip, people are disgruntled. They don’t have enough to talk about.

We can have a rosh yeshiva who is a boki in kol haTorah kulah, sits and learns yomam valaylah and doesn’t venture out of his Beis Medrash, yet his opinions are belittled and he doesn’t receive the respect he has earned because he is a nechboh el hakeilim.

American kollel yungeleit and their families are moser nefesh to live lives of Torah. Yet, were a nondescript yeshiva- mahn to knock on our door saying he needs money to put bread on the table to feed his family, what response is he likely to get?

Why is it that we are drawn to the glamour and the glitz and lose sight of what it is all about?

The world exists on Torah, Avodah and Gemilus Chassodim; why is it so difficult to get past the external packaging and give credit to the people who keep the world going?

Of course, no one is perfect. Yes, there is always room for improvement, but perhaps if we would befriend and help people who seek to do good, they would be able to do so much more.

If people would rally to others’ assistance while they are alive, perhaps it would become more popular to do good, and the heroes in our midst would be able to accomplish so much more.

There really are many good people out there. Indeed, most of the people in our community are basically good and kind, but we lose sight of this fact because our discourse is too often preoccupied with tales of wrongdoing and machlokes.

In these days of Sefirah, it is not enough to refrain from listening to music and cutting our hair. We have to also hear the message of Sefirah and remember why it is that this period has become marked by the restrictions and symbols of mourning.

In last week’s parsha, Parshas Kedoshim, we encountered the mitzvah of ve’ohavtah lerei’acha komochah which exhorts us to love our friends as much as we love ourselves. We are all so familiar with that mitzvah and adage that we take it for granted, without giving it a second thought.

The Ramban offers an incisive insight into this mitzvah. He holds that the word komocha, like yourself, is not meant to be taken literally, for the rule is chayecha kodmim - ultimately, your own life takes precedence over that of your friend. When the chips are down, a person’s foremost obligation is to preserve his own life before anyone else’s.

The Ramban explains that the mitzvah is to be as deeply, truly happy for the good fortune that befalls your friend as you would be if you were the one blessed. If your friend wins the lottery, be as happy for him as if you had won. If your friend buys a fancy new car, don’t be jealous of him. Instead, imagine how thrilled you would be if you were in his shoes, and rejoice just as much for your friend.

The Ramban’s concept of ve’ohavtah lerei’acha komochah may be more difficult to observe than the traditional application of this mitzvah.

Love is a word we throw around loosely, without thinking of its ramifications. We all like to think that we love our friends, but if our friend were to achieve fame and fortune, would we be consumed with love or would jealousy begin setting in?

The Ramban admonishes that it is not sufficient to just love every Jew; we also have to be happy for them and treat them as we would want to be treated by others.

It may not be easy to love everyone that we are bidden to love; it may take all our inner strength to be happy for everyone else’s success as we wait for triumph to come our way, but that is what the Torah expects of us, nonetheless.

One thing is certain: By using this intermediate period between Pesach and Shavuos to delve deeper into the teachings of our sages, to study Pirkei Avos and our own personal failings, we will find we have less difficulty observing the commandment of ve’ohavtah lerei’acha komochah.

Learning Pirkei Avos and listening to the message of Sefirah will also help us tune out all the static and find the abundance of good surrounding us. Our task it to highlight it and bring more of it into our lives.

Let’s not wait for Acharei-Mos for Kedoshim Emor.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005


By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

My rebbe Rav Mendel Kaplan was a gaon in Torah and Mussar, but he is most often remembered for his gaonus in examining the human condition and explaining it in a pithy comment.

One of his cherished reflections was presented to me when I was just a young teenager, but it sticks in my mind with an impact that has helped me form a perspective on many of life’s most eventful moments. “The world is like chewing gum; there is a little bit of sugar, and the rest is chew, chew, chew.”

This comment came to mind once again as we return to everyday life following eight days of Yom Tov.

Yesterday was Pesach and today we are back at work, back at doing whatever it is we do six days a week. One week ago we sat at the Seder dressed in our kittels and Yom Tov finest, drinking from silver cups and reclining like kings. Now we are back at the grind wondering if there is any way we can keep some of that “sugar” taste of Yom Tov alive in our hearts, minds and palettes.

Yom Tov flew by so quickly; unless we do something about making sure that something remains, soon it will be but a distant memory; a blip on the screen of life.

Pesach is referred to as z’man cheiruseinu, our holiday of freedom as it marks the day we received our freedom upon leaving Mitzrayim.

As we count the days since we sat derech cheirus, like free men, we recognize that the day when we first learned the profound truth of ein licha ben chorin elah mi she’oseik b’Torah—freedom exists only for those who devote themselves to Torah—is right around the corner.

Sukkos is followed immediately by Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah, but the Atzeres of Pesach comes 49 days later with Shavuos, with a significant count down in between.

Sefirah enables us to hold on to the gains we achieved on Yom Tov and grow them. It helps us maintain the goals of the Yom Tov and its spirit in our system long after the final drops of Havdalah are sipped. The dishes are packed, the macaroons are gone and chometz is back with a vengeance as if it never left. But every night when we count those days of sefira it ought to help us keep the flame of Yom Tov flickering in our hearts.

There are no shortcuts to cheirus. In order to achieve true freedom and to hold on to the flavor of Yom Tov in our lives we have to go through the degrees each of the 49 days of Sefirah represent, and climb the 48 steps with which Torah is attained.

It is true that in life there is only a small amount of sugar, the test is to dip into that sugar and make it last as long as possible. If we are looking for shortcuts, if we devour the whole serving in one sitting, nothing will remain, but if we savor the flavor and study it, we can find the recipe and discover which components are necessary for achieving sweetness, we can attain that which we all seek.

Get rich schemes are destined to fail; success takes a lot of hard work so does happiness and freedom. If we wish to sustain the levels we attained on Yom Tov we have to work at it.

Chazal understood that in order to hold on to the Yom Tov flavor we must toil. Sefiras HaOmer, Pirkei Avos and a period of serious reflection serve that purpose. For true freedom comes with a price in the spiritual world as well as the physical.

On Yom Tov we enjoy festive holiday meals with our families, unrushed and without the pressure of having to run off to somewhere to fulfill an obligation less important than quality time with the family, but pressing nevertheless. Throughout the days of the chag we are surrounded by family and friends, eating, talking, visiting and doing the things we enjoy.

We spend more time in the learning and davening and doing what is important than we do during the course of the year. We ignore work and outside pressures and concentrate on what is truly important for a week of Yom Tov enveloped in Kedusha.

Even as Pesach has ended and we return to the mundane we should try to concentrate on doing what is truly important and in that way maintain our status of bnei chorin.

The sugar of life is during those special Yom Tov moments and to the extent that we are able to transfer them to the days when we have to chew, chew, chew, our lives will have greater meaning and lasting flavor.