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.


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