Wednesday, September 28, 2005


By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

I was with my dear friend and rebbi, Mr. Avi Shulman, last week when someone approached and asked for his business card. R’ Avi is a life coach; as he proffered his card, a few words in large type jumped out at me: “Live life of design not of default.”

These words were familiar hammered them home in a new way.

Those words suddenly seemed to embody the message of Elul and the essence of teshuva. They crystallize the resolution we should all be making as we approach the Yom Hadin.

We all talk about teshuva, we all know that Elul ushers in the yemai ratzon, when teshuva is easiest and most readily accepted by Hashem. On Rosh Hashana and the aseres yemai teshuva, culminating with Yom Kippur, teshuva is not merely an option but an obligation.

How many of us approach teshuva with the realization that it is actually a painstaking, demanding process?

Teshuva requires a serious cheshbon hanefesh, taking stock of the way we lead our lives and the way we conduct ourselves. It means putting ourselves in touch with our deepest selves so that we know what needs to be corrected.

One of the prerequisites of teshuva is to learn the sifrei mussar that discuss teshuva. Teshuva requires learning the Rambam in Hilchos Teshuva and following his guidelines.

Those guidelines put us in touch with the obstacles blocking teshuva. We learn that the hardest part of teshuva is that our lives are run on auto pilot. We are so conditioned by routine that we are deadened to the awareness of where we have gone wrong. So much of what we do is rote, without thought or foresight. We live lives of default.

We have to live lives of design. We have to plan our actions and reactions. We have to strengthen our midos tovos and our urge to do good. We have to fortify our yeitzer tov so that we will be “k’eitz shasul ahl palgei mayim;” so that we won’t get blown over by the destructive winds of secular society. We won’t fall prey for glib salesmen who appeal to our emotions and not to our good sense.

As we go through the teshuva process, we have to become changed people. It is not enough to klop ahl cheit; we have to actually affect our psyches and adopt different behavior.

How often does it happen that you try to show someone the truth about something and despite the absolute clarity, the person refuses to listen? You can patiently work through a topic and take it apart piece by piece, and reconstruct it to remove all doubt about where the truth lies. All to no avail.

The yeitzer horah is a formidable adversary. It prevents a person from absorbing what is perfectly obvious to everyone else.

That is the most common pitfall as we prepare for Rosh Hashana. Somehow the message doesn’t get through. When it comes to acknowledging our faults we become thickheaded. We hear all the shmoozen, we study the mussar seforim, and it goes in one ear and out the other. It barely scratches the surface.

The road to true change runs through chochmas Hatorah. We have to seek out those from whom we can learn. We have to do less talking about learning and more actual learning.

The posuk in Mishlei states, “emor lechochmah achosi aht.” We have to get more friendly with chochmah and those who are experts in it. If we want to survive and excel in today’s turbulent climate, we have to be more fully absorbed with chochmah.

The pursuit of chochmah is vital for another reason. The Gemorah in Brachos, 17a, states that the ultimate goal of chochmah is teshuva and maasim tovim.

If we would use chochmah to scrutinize how we act and live our lives, then teshuva and maasim tovim would follow. We would realize how misguided we are and that we have to mend our ways.

It is only when we take a step back from the repetitious cycles of our lives that we have the clarity to perceive what our lives are all about.

One of the roadblocks to true change is that we live in such a superficial world where people are judged by their outer appearance and not by their inner selves.

Let’s resolve that in the coming year we will not settle any more for mediocrity and superficiality. Not in our learning, and not in our bein odom lemakom and bein odom lechaveiro.

Rosh Hashana offers us an opportunity to put everything on hold, take inventory and then start again. The root of the word teshuva, in fact, means return. It means to return to our original pure, innocent status.

Teshuva brings us back to where we were before we sinned. It sets us straight on the path we should have been on all along and it gives us the energy we need to do it right this time.

We all go through periods when we wish we could be doing things differently and regret certain things we have done or paths we have taken. Some of those choices feel like fateful, pivotal moves that there is no turning back from.

Many times we feel as if we no longer have a choice regarding a particular situation or course in life. We may feel as if we are stuck in a hole we have dug for ourselves.

To a certain extent that may be true. From actions flow consequences and we often have to live with the consequences of improper or less than noble actions. But Rosh Hashana says that even then, there is hope for renewal and redemption.

Even if we are saddled with years of guilt, now is the time to rid ourselves of that baggage which may be weighing us down and begin life refreshed, with a clear conscience. Rosh Hashana gives us a new lease on life, and if we so choose, it can be a blessed, holy life, a life of innocence.

Chazal teach that Yosef was released from the Egyptian jail on Rosh Hashana. The lesson in that facet of Hashgacha is that we can all be released from our imprisonment to physical wants and desires on Rosh Hashanah and begin life transformed as free people.

We can rise from the pitfalls we have sunk into and mend our fences with all those we may have caused hurt or harm. Teshuva allows us to crawl out of the mess.

Some people go through life never pausing to reflect, never thinking through their actions. Such people may think that they are perfect and that everything they do is beyond reproach. We know differently. We know that every person can use improvement. Ein tzadik ba’aretz asher ya’aseh tov velo yechtah.

This period in which we now find ourselves is a gift from Hashem. Let’s show that we appreciate it and really resolve to become better people. Let’s think through the way we deal with each other, the way we speak to people, the way we judge people and let’s really improve ourselves.

We are all part of a Divine plan and fit in somewhere in the Divine jigsaw puzzle. We are interconnected with others and to the degree that we touch others’ lives and become indispensable to our fellow Jews, we become more vital to the larger picture.

One who is a part of the larger group is more important to this world than the one who sits off by himself, benefiting no one, doing little more than succumbing to his own selfish desires.

And that is the secret formula: If we wish to be granted life, health and happiness, we need to make ourselves needed.

We need to live for others. We need to become involved with the klal, doing things that we do not necessarily enjoy, even performing acts that we may think are beneath our dignity. The more that people need us, the more sunshine and happiness we bring into the world and spread around, the more reason there is to keep us here.

There are the popular chasodim that everyone competes for, and the unpopular ones that have no “takers.” One way to make oneself needed in this world is to take on an unpopular but worthy cause that no one else in interested in.

There are always excuses not to give, not to get involved. Rosh Hashana is a time to resist the pull of habit and throw oneself into the effort to help others. With a little creative thought, we can make ourselves indispensable—or nearly so.

We stand a much better chance of a positive verdict if we are judged as part of the group and according to our connection with others, as opposed to standing trial alone.

“Tzedaka Tatzil Mimaves,” charity saves from death. The more we give, the more we share with others, the more unselfish and humble we become and the greater our chances of a favorable outcome on Judgment Day.

The more we realize that all we have is but a gift from G-d, to utilize not only for ourselves, but for the benefit of our fellows, the more He will give us.

Thus we recite, “Teshuva, tefilla utzedaka maavirin es ro’ah hagezeirah.” The evil decree can be set aside through repentance, prayer and charity. When we beg for life, we acknowledge that life is a gift from G-d, meant for us to spend it studying Torah, following its commandments and being a source of goodness, kindness and positive accomplishment.

Let’s open the sifrei mussar and let them to speak to us so that we can really effect change in our lives. Let’s appreciate a new unsullied and pure beginning and make the most of it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Parshas Ki Savo begins with the mitzvah of bikkurim. Through this mitzvah and the rich symbolism of the rituals surrounding it, we are taught how to achieve happiness.

After months of toiling in his field and orchard, a Jew takes the first fruits of his harvest and sets off for Yerushalayim. When he arrives there, he meets up with a kohein and then approaches the mizbei’ach in the Beis Hamikdosh and liturgically recalls the trials Yaakov Avinu endured, followed by our forefathers’ suffering in Mitzrayim.

He then relates how Hashem rescued us with scores of miracles and led us to the Promised Land that 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—“Vesamachta 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 on us—and to contrast that goodness with the difficult time that preceded it—appears to be the key to true happiness.

The road to happiness and fulfillment is often strewn with hardship. A Jew whose livelihood comes from working the fields is a perfect illustration of how this dynamic works.

First, he must spend countless hours toiling under the blistering sun and in the freezing cold. It is certainly far more grueling than working in an air-conditioned office or classroom. And then, when he finally has some fruit ready to harvest and eat or sell, he is commanded to take it to Yerushalayim as bikkurim.

The Torah instructs him to think back to the bitter days Yaakov spent at the home of his father-in-law, Lavan, and to the period of slavery we endured in Egypt. Perhaps that is because it is only by approaching our situation in life with this perspective that we merit happiness.

Perhaps part of the reason for the mitzva of bikkurim is to force man to reflect on the good in his life. Too often, people concentrate on the negative; they complain of all the heartache they endure as they struggle to make a living. People fail to thank G-d that they have a job, that they have a boss who guarantees them a salary. People don’t always appreciate that they have a plot of land on which to grow their fruit.

Bikkurim forces a man to mentally revisit the first days of the planting season when he planted one of his shiva minim, not knowing whether the seeds would take root, whether the trees would bear fruit. And it forces him to be thankful that despite all the potential for ruin, in the end, Hashem helped him bring forth a good crop.

In Yerushalayim, he stands at the mizbei’ach and reflects on the mixture of hard times and good times the Jewish people have experienced throughout the ages.

As we approach Rosh Hashonah and examine our actions over the past year, we too must weigh the bad with the good, examining our lives with a spiritual yardstick to measure how far we’ve come in the course of time. Instead of growing despondent over all the mistakes we’ve made, we should be thankful that Hashem has given us this Elul period of reflection during which we can rectify those errors.

All of us face challenges in life. There are times when we feel as if we are backed into a corner with no means of escape. Sometimes we feel as if a conspiracy of lies has spread an impenetrable web. There are times when it appears as if all the odds are stacked against a righteous person, and conventional wisdom seems to indicate it’s time to give up the fight.

The tendency to despair is understandable. But not every story ends in tears; there actually are some with happy endings.

The courage to keep up the struggle is the theme of Elul. As we reflect on how much we are lacking and on the many areas which can use improvement, we may start feeling useless. We may decide we are so far gone that it is impossible for us to straighten ourselves out in time.
We need to maintain our faith as we go through this internal turbulence, as we know Hakadosh Boruch Hu says to us, “Pischu li pesach k’fishcho shel machat, va’ani eftach lochem k’fischo shel ulam.” We have to open the door, we have to plant the seed, we have to take that trip to Yerushalayim, but G-d does the rest.

As we review this past year, we are sure to find some actions which we can point to with pride. We are reminded that there is some good inherent in us. We need not give up; we recognize that there is room for hope.

If we teach ourselves to take our responsibilities to G-d and our fellow man more seriously, we really can succeed in the year to come.

From time to time, we are privileged to witness an example of a noble-minded person who refuses to be cowed by opposition and overcomes the difficulties strewn in his way. Faith, hope and conviction won’t let him surrender, even with the urge to cut the losses and capitulate.

That person’s triumphs inspire the rest of us not to falter in our service of Hashem, not to bend nor comprise as long as we follow the dictates of the Torah and halacha.

Yated readers have been following the disturbing saga surrounding Rabbi Yitzchok Fischer, the famed mohel, who was restrained by the New York City Health Department from practicing metzizah b’peh. We have been covering the story since its beginning and many of you have written letters to the city authorities advocating on behalf of Rabbi Fischer.

Our position was that the city should not claim jurisdiction over religious practice. We pointed out that there was no scientific proof that Rabbi Fischer’s adherence to age-old Jewish customs had caused illness in several infants.

His cause, while unpopular at first, gained the support of many gedolim, rabbonim, askanim, doctors and scientists who rose to the challenge and defended Rabbi Fischer and metzitzah b’peh in the halls of government, as well as in the court of public opinion.

The situation at times seemed to go from bad to worse. Nevertheless, Rabbi Fischer and those who had aligned themselves with him continued to press on. People of weaker will and commitment would have given up and compromised.

Finally, last week, the clouds opened to allow a ray of light. The NYC Health Department decided that the entire matter of the metzizah procedure and Rabbi Fischer’s ability to perform it should be adjudicated in a rabbinic court. They also removed the temporary restraining order which they had placed on Rabbi Fischer.

The secular authorities have recognized that it is beyond their rubric to rule on the religious issues involved in metzitzah, and are deferring to the religious authorities to whom such oversight rightfully belongs.

The very fact that this sacred religious matter has now been returned to the jurisdiction of bais din is a matter worth celebrating.

The issue will now be thoroughly investigated and resolved without any political considerations or lobbying.

Finally, we can rest assured that the relevant halachos and minhagim will be scrupulously considered along with the medical ramifications of metzitzah b’peh.

Last Wednesday, when the city announced their resolution of the issue, Yerushalayim Mayor Uri Lupolianski relayed the good news to Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.

Rav Elyashiv had previously pressed Lupolianky to discuss the matter with New York City Mayor Bloomberg and explain to him that the entire religious community was closely following the case.

He also told him to convey to Bloomberg that the religious community was solidly behind Rabbi Fischer and to ensure that the Mayor understood that.

Upon hearing that the matter was given over to the Central Rabbinic Congress, Rav Elyashiv told Mayor Uri Lupoliansky that the good tidings he brought was a “Keren ohr be’yom kasheh – a ray of light on a dark day.”

We live in a yom kasheh, a difficult period. There are so many stumbling blocks thrown in our path and we experience so many dark and dreary days. But we have to look for the rays of light G-d shines down upon us. We have to recognize that there are silver linings in the clouds and rays of light in even the darkest times.

Living in troubled, beleaguered times, we have to maintain our faith and seek to persevere and do good, no matter how difficult the challenge.

In this season of introspection and retrospection we should inculcate the message of the bikkurim. As we review our failings and the unfortunate occurrences which have befallen us, we must take note and appreciate the good as well. One sure way to merit the blessings of happiness is to recognize the nisyonos we were able to overcome and the siyata diShmaya that helped us to do so.

We have to continue to constantly scrutinize our actions, always aiming to improve. We have to remember the arami oveid avi and the avdus in Mitzrayim, in order to absorb that Hakadosh Boruch Hu’s mercy and kindness in accepting our prayers and rescuing us from that hellish place.

Just as he saved our fathers, he looks out for us and aids us in our daily battles and struggles if we remain staunch in our faith and do not allow setbacks to derail us.

Bearing this in mind will enable us to make a true kabbala al ha’asid and be zoche to vesamachta bechol hatov.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005


By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Hurricane Katrina has unleashed almost as much charity as water. In the wake of the hurricane, Americans have opened their pocketbooks and wallets, donating unprecedented sums to help fellow citizens in distress. Organizations of all stripes are falling over themselves to raise money for “New Orleans.”

There is nothing wrong with that; it is indeed commendable. But the question begs, why does it take a hurricane to recognize that people are in trouble?

The residents of New Orleans who have been displaced are predominantly poor and needy. Most of them were born into poverty and have lived their entire lives that way. They didn’t become penniless overnight. They were in dire straits for as long as anyone can remember.

In fact, so are the people who live in the majority of America’s inner cities. It’s been that way for decades. The federal government seeks to aid them through a plethora of programs, including welfare, medicare, food stamps and subsidized housing. The standard of living for many, however, remains below the poverty line.

So why does it take a hurricane for fellow citizens to recognize that these people are in need before they rush to their aid?

There are so many people in our community as well who are in dire financial straits or in need of other forms of assistance. Even people with good jobs have a hard time making ends meet. Why don’t more of us notice and try to help them?

What will it take for us to realize that many people simply cannot make ends meet? What will it take for us to shake off the emotional lethargy and start to care?

There are so many well intentioned kollel people in our neighborhoods who dedicate their best years to Torah study who do not have independent means of support. What will it take for us to recognize how vital their contribution is so that we acknowledge our debt to them and help them survive?

People are enamored by the tenacity and determination of Israel’s settlers who didn’t back down and fought the good fight before being thrown out of their homes in a misguided political move.

Why don’t we also appreciate the resolve and strength of purpose of the askanim who fight quiet lonely uphill battles to combat evil and to help people keep their heads above water?

It’s because we lose focus, we become myopic, we don’t see past our own noses. We are all immersed in our own personal nisyonos and problems and have little patience to worry about our neighbors’ woes. Our own obligations consume so much of our time and energy that we forget that there are people out there who need our help and attention. Sadly, it takes a hurricane to awaken us and force us to spend some time contemplating the needs of people outside our immediate daled amos.

As a nation of rachmonim and gomlei chasodim, we shouldn’t require a hurricane to wake us up. It shouldn’t take a disaster for the awareness to dawn that there are people silently crying out for help. We have to be attuned to those silent sobs. We have to be more cognizant of others, more kind and compassionate to our fellow Yidden.

Especially now, as we wind our way through Elul, it is imperative for us to heed the call of the hour and open our hearts to the unfortunate.

We know the operational word this month is repentance. In countless ways, we try to prove to G-d that we are indeed worthy and righteous people, deserving of a happy and healthy new year.

We look for sources of merit and increase our acts of charity and kindness. We study more Torah, learn mussar and daven with more kavana.

The mussar seforim are replete with reminders of how Hakadosh Boruch Hu treats us the way we treat others. If we are kind and compassionate to our fellow Jews, Hakadosh Boruch Hu will deal similarly with us.

In this week’s parsha, the Torah forbids a store keeper from keeping two separate weights. The posuk states that one who follows the honest practice when weighing items will merit long life.

The Berditchever Rebbe explains that when a storekeeper weighs the merchandise he is selling, he has a choice. He can weigh the scales with absolute precision or tip the scales to favor the customer, to make absolutely sure he is not being shortchanged.

If he takes the latter approach, Hashem will treat him the way he treated others and will tip the scales in his favor. If he always adds a little to the customer’s orders to make sure that he is not overcharging him, then on Judgment Day, Hashem will add a little to the side of merit to help him pass judgment.

The Gemorah in Shabbos 133b quotes Abba Shaul who derives from the posuk “zeh Keili v’anveihu” that we are commanded to emulate Hashem. “Mah Hu chanun verachum af atoh heyei chanun verachum.” Just as He is compassionate, so should we be. Just as He judges people favorably even if they lack merit, we too should find room in our hearts to help others even if they are not totally deserving.

Additionally, Rav Yisroel Salanter teaches that people should seek ways to benefit the klal. If you become a person that the klal needs, even if you are not totally worthy, Hakadosh Boruch Hu will treat you mercifully since people depend on you.

Ever since I wrote two articles last year on the topic of shidduchim, the topic has haunted me. Prior to the torrential response I received from readers, I hadn’t realized the full extent of the problem facing the Torah community and the degree of pain the subject triggers.

It is one of our most pressing problems and though it is being addressed here and there, there is much talk and little action being taken to resolve the crisis.

It is given a hearing at social events when people scramble for a topic to arouse interest and attendance. Speakers bemoan the problem yet again, and everyone commiserates, sighs, shakes their head and moves on to the next issue.

There are a few good people who take the talk seriously and channel sincere effort into making a few matches. Let’s be honest. It’s not always simple. It’s time-consuming, people are not always receptive to your suggestions, and some people even make you feel ridiculous. You easily lose steam and drop the project, hoping the problem will just go away.

But the issue is not going away anytime soon. It is a serious, mounting problem confronting everyone in our society. There is something wrong with a society which allows hundreds of girls to languish in limbo.

We have to do something about it. We can’t just relegate it to workshops and monthly meetings.

Every time people of good will discuss it they reach the same conclusions. Every one should keep a few girls in mind, they say. They should call shadchanim and friends and acquaintances and persist until they come away with some suitable shidduch suggestions.

But even this is too difficult for some people. Even when asked to call one specific person to “red” one particular boy or girl, they squirm and balk, offering all kinds of excuses.

How can we sit idly by as so many people are tormented and losing hope? How can we sleep at night if we know that there are so many out there who are lonely and despondent over their futures?

As our community grows and flourishes, new problems rise to the fore. True leadership entails meeting challenges head on and addressing them. In order to resolve the problem, we have to be honest about what we are dealing with. We have to analyze the roots of the predicament and attack the causes, not just the symptoms.

It seems that a certain source of merit before Rosh Hashanah would be to put ourselves into others’ shoes and knock the door down to help them meet their mates.


Another way to earn zechuyos is to judge others favorably, as we ourselves would like to be judged. That means avoiding snap judgments and faulting others because we don’t understand their motives.

If someone makes a mistake should we pounce on them and allow their lapse to demolish our esteem for them? No one is perfect, we are all human. In but a few weeks we will stand before the Melech Malchei Hamelochim and plead with him to look aside from our mistakes. If we are more forgiving of others, it will increase the chances that G-d will overlook our own imperfect deeds.

We have to get into the habit of looking at people with eyes of a rachum and chanun. If a child has not been accepted by any school, we should feel as if it is our child, and not just stand idly by.

If someone loses their job, we should feel as if we ourselves are out of work and do what we can to help. If someone we know is in trouble we shouldn’t just watch from a distance or make that person’s woes a conversation piece with our friends. We should pick up the phone and get involved, offering our support just as we would want someone to do for us, if we were the ones falling on hard times.

Shouldn’t an establishment which budgets hundreds of thousands of dollars annually for goods and serviced make their purchases from anshei shlomeinu? Shouldn’t we at least give them a chance to compete for our business dollars?

It may not always be as convenient and they may not always be the cheapest, but if their prices and service are comparable, shouldn’t we patronize them and help Yidden make parnossah b’derech Kavod?

This is not an advertisement for us or for our suppliers, but at the Yated, we purchase our office supplies form Fern’s Office supplies; our office machines from Fax Unlimited; our phone service is through Cucumber Communications; our graphic design is done by Dynagrafik and DC Design; we print the paper at International Newspaper; it is laid out by Sabba Printing; and so on. All of these are Jewish-owned businesses.

Just as we want people to buy our products and help us make a living, shouldn’t we extend that courtesy and kindness to others?

Whether in the realm of speech, actions or spending money, we have to look at the bigger picture when we act. We have to get into the habit of acting with others with exactly the same care and compassion with which we want Hashem to treat us.

To act as a community we have to care for each other; we have to anticipate each other’s needs. If we come together as a community and show compassion and understanding for one another, then we can hope to merit seeing the fulfillment of the words of the novi Yeshayahu in this week’s haftorah: “Ki k’isha azuvah v’atzuvas ruach kra’ach Hashem.”

As long as we are in golus, Yerushalayim is compared to a forsaken and broken-hearted bride. At the time of the redemption, the prophet says Hashem will call out to His betrothed to return to Him so that he may bless her with everlasting kindness – B’chesed olam richamtich omar goaleich Hashem. May it come true soon and in our time.

The Rambam writes in Hilchos Teshuva, [7, 5] that all the neviim commanded Klal Yisroel to do Teshuva. He adds that “Yisroel will only be redeemed through doing teshuva. And the Torah has already promised that in the end of days Yisroel will do teshuva and will be immediately redeemed.

Why not start now, helping to ease our friends’ pain, looking out for our neighbors and fellow Jews? Let’s try to cheer up the forlorn; restore hope to those who have lost theirs; rejuvenate those who have become bitter and depressed, and instead of being cynical and judgmental. Let’s train ourselves to be rachmanim and chanunim.

Training ourselves to think, speak and act with care and responsibility would go a long way to helping us gain a favorable verdict on the yom hadin, and to merit a shnas geulah veyeshua for ourselves and for all of Klal Yisroel.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005


by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The United States of America has just experienced one of the worst natural disasters in its history. History books will record for all time that in the year 2005, Hurricane Katrina swept up the Gulf Coast, taking thousands of lives as it wreaked havoc.

Hundreds of thousands were left without their homes, jobs and belongings. The storm uprooted their very identities. Government was unveiled as an achizas einayim—a deceptive illusion. The president failed to communicate with the people. The local authorities were unmasked as bumbling fools. Police charged with public safety couldn’t handle the pressure and walked away from the job, despondent and broken.

Blacks blamed the upheaval which followed in the wake of the disaster on whites and whites blamed it on blacks. Anarchy ruled. People were killed and countless others died in the chaos. Everyone was pointing a finger at someone else. Weeks after order will be restored and waters drained, life will hopefully start returning to a semblance of normalcy.

The shock and agony will soon recede with the storm waters, but while the calamity is still fresh in our minds we should hear the rush of the levees and take to heart some lessons.

As believing Jews, we know that Hashem is in full control of all that happens and that there is a Divine purpose behind all that transpires. We accept that we do not understand His ways but when tragedy happens, our knee-jerk reaction is to find a guilty party to attach blame to.

More Than An Uncanny ‘Coincidence’

Some of us have the tendency to find fault in others instead of ourselves. It is easier and far more convenient to say that Katrina was G-d’s way of getting even with New Orleans for the decadence that characterized that city.

Others posited that it was G-d getting even with President Bush for forcing Israel to evacuate Gaza. They can even prove it, citing the following phenomenon making the rounds in hundreds of emails:

“Ten thousand Jews were expelled from their homes to satisfy President Bush and Secretary Rice. They were made refugees in their own country. There are approximately 6 million people in Israel. 10,000 divided by 6,000,000 equals 0.00167.

“Two weeks later, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, completely desolating the city. New Orleans has a population of 500,000. US News agencies are openly referring to those displaced by the hurricane “refugees.” There are approximately 300 million people in the United States. 500,000 divided by 300,000,000 equals 0.00167.”

The Gemorah in Yevamos [73a] informs us that ein puronios boh l’olam eluh b’shvil Yisroel, retribution is visited on the world only on behalf of Israel. Rashi explains this to mean that misfortune is inflicted on the nations of the world so that the Jews should become afraid and repent.

When disaster befalls the world, we should look inward and contemplate where and how we fall short, instead of trying to pin the blame on others. We are to heed the call of the hour and do teshuva. It may be that Bush deserves a slap on the wrist; it may be true that New Orleans is a decadent city, but the Gemorah teaches us to look beyond such conclusions and derive other messages from the catastrophe.

We are not prophets, nor do we know of any who can translate the occurrences of the world to us, and it is foolish and unproductive for us to speculate. Our duty at a time like this is to turn the spotlight on our own actions and fix what needs repair.

Witnessing people in the most dire straits, fighting desperately to stay alive, ought to teach us something about our lives. We imagine ourselves to be all powerful and in control of our own destiny. We go through life thinking that nothing can affect us; we are oblivious to the maelstrom around us. We are full of ga’avah, smugness.

If things are going our way we don’t bother to remember that we have to thank Hashem for our good fortune. We tell ourselves, “kochi ve’otzem yodi asoh li es hachayil hazeh.” We delude ourselves into thinking that our success is due to our superior intelligence and business acumen.

We don’t realize how fragile we really are. We fail to remember that the human body is frail, that our intelligence is limited and that it doesn’t take much to incapacitate us. Powerful people who thought they were strong and invincible have withered away. Wealthy men, who thought their money would last them forever, lost everything and sit in refuge centers, broken and impoverished.

Humility, anavah, is the choicest of midos, a way of life we all must aspire to in our dealing with others. When we ponder the frailty of man and our utter dependence upon the grace of G-d for our very existence, it should be obvious that ga’avah has no place.

As we go through Elul we should remember that To’avas Hashem kol gevah lev; we should work to eradicate that odious midah from within ourselves.

From The Heights Of Hubris

Overcome with hubris, people believe that they control the forces of this world. Last week they found out once again they do not and that realization overwhelmed them. People scrambled about and fought to save themselves, as the storm sucked them away. Leaders stood about wringing their hands and shaking their heads.

Everyone thought it couldn’t happen here; these things don’t happen in America, they only happen in other countries.

We like to think that we are safe, even when we hear about terrible things that have actually happened; we lull ourselves into thinking that it can’t happen to us. Perhaps this ought to be a lesson to us that when the Torah prescribes what will happen to people who don’t follow in Hashem’s way, our job is to absorb the truth that it can indeed happen to us as well, Rachmono litzlan. The only way we will be spared is by following the Torah’s guidelines. Only in that way will we be deserving of Hashem’s mercy, not his wrath.

Fatal Oversights

That New Orleans was headed for trouble was nothing new. For years experts had predicted the catastrophe that struck last week but no one listened.

In 2001, the Federal Emergency Management Agency warned that a hurricane hitting New Orleans would be the deadliest of the three disasters most likely to occur in America; the other two were the long-feared “big one” in San Francisco and a terrorist attack on New York.

“No one can say they did not see it coming,” reported the Times-Picayune from New Orleans. Five years ago that newspaper published a series predicting the disaster.

Everyone was warned; they knew it was coming, they knew why it was coming, but they did nothing to prevent it from happening. The levees could have been built up and other precautions could have been taken. None were.

Those oversights turned out to be fatal. The response of the city’s leaders in dealing with the disaster demonstrated their inadequacy. The mayor and governor were as if paralyzed. They seemed to be occupied solely with transferring blame to the federal government and away from themselves.

Apparently, people have to be coached and groomed for greatness. We count on leaders possessing the requisite authority, wisdom and will power to deal effectively with an emergency. Without effective leadership, society is like a ship adrift in a storm. New Orleans suffered precisely this fate.

By contrast, when faced with the unparalleled 9/11 disaster, New York had the good fortune to be led by a mayor and governor who demonstrated solid leadership. They exhorted people to rise above the situation and act bravely in the face of the horror. People heeded the example of their leaders and behaved nobly.

Just attaching blame will get us nowhere, we have to use tragedy to spur us to the greatness which lies dormant inside each and every one of us.

Elul issued us a wake up call. We all know that Rosh Hashana is coming. We all know that on Rosh Hashana we are judged for all we have done throughout the year. We all know that our lives depend on how we are judged on that fateful day. But we ignore the warnings. We coast along, thinking we have all the time in the world.

Katrina sent us a thunderous message, urging us to get our houses in order before Tishrei arrives, to use the gift of Elul to prepare ourselves for the Yom Hadin. We have a month to cleanse ourselves, and to repair the breaches in our dealings with one another and in our observance of the mitzvos. We are given four weeks to right ourselves and straighten out our accounts with Hashem and our fellow Jews.

Let this hurricane serve as a warning of what can happen if we fail to make the necessary repairs in our avodah bein odom lamakom and bein odom lachaveiro.

Four years ago, also in the month of Elul, 19 terrorists flew airplanes into the Twin Towers and Pentagon, killing approximately 3,000 innocent people and sending a shudder down hundreds of millions of spines. The atrocity shook us all up; we all said that the world would never be the same. We got the message and were determined to improve our ways. We all davened that year as we never davened before.

And then the effect wore off. Some of us may have retained the impact of that devastating event but most of us forgot and went back to our old ways.

Four years later, another, perhaps even greater human tragedy befalls the country. Four years later we are shown again how impotent we really are. Four Eluls later we are witness to the utter powerlessness of man in the face of Hashem’s fury.

The novi exhorts us rachatzu hizaku, hosiru roah maaleleichem,- wash yourselves off of your sins.

Hakadosh Boruch Hu has shown that his patience can wear out. He has sent yet another reminder that time is running out and we must heed His warnings.

Rav Elazar ben Avina, in Yevomos [ibid], explains from where he derives that misfortune befalls the world because of Am Yisroel: Shene’emar hichrati goyim, nashamu pinosam, hechravti chutzosam U’chsiv, omarti al tiree osi, tikchu mussar.

“Hakadosh Boruch Hu says, ‘I have destroyed nations; their buildings have become desolate; their streets have been destroyed.’ The reason for this follows in the next posuk. ‘Hashem says the purpose of this is to inspire you to fear Me and take mussar’ [and improve yourselves.]”

Throughout the month of Elul, as we hear the shofar blown every morning after Shacharis, we are reminded that the day is fast approaching when the excuses will run out.

We all have work to do, let’s get to it faster than the federal government got to New Orleans.