Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Growth and Greatness

With our children embarking on another school year, we find ourselves replaying all our annual hopes and concerns about the new set of challenges facing them. Will they be in good hands? Will they be happy and productive? Will they advance and grow in the right direction?

Thoughtful people are also occupied with broader questions. What should parents be striving for in their children’s education? What should the rabbeim and moros be striving for in their holy task of being mechanech the next generation?

The answer, in a word, is excellence - in all the crucial areas of scholastic, emotional and spiritual growth. Yet, there seems to be a general dumbing-down in society. Too many people seem at peace with mediocrity. They seem satisfied with a standard of “good enough,” instead of “good.” They are happy just getting by; the drive and ambition to excel seem to have fallen by the wayside. Pursuit of perfection is no longer at the top of the agenda.

Shouldn’t the quest for excellence be our motivating factor, the force that drives us in all we do and in the way we bring up and educate our children?

Last week, I quoted from Rav Yeruchom Levovitz about the importance the Alter of Kelm attached to seder, neatness and certain areas of self discipline. I mentioned the mivtzah project I had made with my children to try to train them to neatly return their chairs to their proper places when leaving the table.

Some people wondered why the Alter made such a big deal about it, and why I, too, focused on it. The article quoted Rav Yeruchom saying in the name of the Alter that failure to return a chair to its proper place is as serious as chillul Shabbos. People wondered how that could be and if it was a genuine quote. Others wondered why the fuss over such a seemingly trivial act.

The answer is that the Alter pursued excellence. He sought to produce talmidim who were the best that they could possibly be in every way. As one who sought excellence and perfection, he could not tolerate habits of sloppiness and carelessness that displayed a lack of chashivus for perfection. Such a person was not worthy of being a student of Kelm or of the Alter. Returning a chair to its proper place may sound like a simple task, but it is part of an overall training of character and the inculcation of a value system in which order and self-discipline are paramount.

My grandfather, Rav Leizer Levin, learned in Kelm for seven years. Anyone who knew him in the fifty-plus years he served as rov of Detroit could testify to his remarkable calmness. Every bochur who arrived in Kelm was given a middah to work on while he was in the yeshiva. Rav Levin’s middah was savlonus. Besides working on internalizing all the ideals for which Kelm was famous, he had the added task of working on that particular middah for seven years.

It is very difficult to change a middah, but if you are pursuing excellence, then it is part of a lifetime mission, and you work at it steadily until you have achieved your goal.

Rav Levin would often say that there was no way he could explain Kelm to us and that there is no parallel to it in existence.

With such training, the talmidim of Kelm were understandably examples par excellence of Torah and avodah.

Rav Elchonon Wasserman would leave his yeshiva during the Yomim Noraim and spend the holy days basking in the rarified company of his rebbi, the Chofetz Chaim. After the passing of the Chofetz Chaim, he would leave Baranovich and travel to Kelm and Rav Doniel Movoshovitz, head of the yeshiva during the period before World War II. Such was the holiness and intensity of Kelm.

The Alter and his successors groomed their talmidim toward the goals of perfection. They sought to produce leaders and talmidei chachomim who had refined their character and avodas Hashem as much as possible. One who failed to return a chair to its proper place, or who dressed sloppily, or who peered around the room during davening, displayed casualness in his service of Hashem that was at odds with a Jew’s duty in this world - to be a perfection-seeker.

That pursuit of excellence is lacking in our world. That ambition and drive to excel in every middah nechonah and in Torah and avodah is hard to find. Too many of us are pragmatic about life in general and about our ambitions in particular. We don’t value excellence or appreciate it in others. We don’t demand the best for ourselves in spiritual matters and we don’t demand it from others. We want the best when it comes to material aspirations, but easily settle when it comes to what is really important in life.

As the school year gets underway, we should try to instill in our children the desire to fulfill their potential in every way possible. We want the best for our kids; we have to train them to be the best they can possibly be in learning, mitzvos, middos and in the ideals we want to pass on to them. Every child is different, every person is different, but each and every one of us is endowed with special gifts by our Creator. Our task as parents, teachers and as people is to bring out those kochos.

That is why in regard to limud haTorah we are told that yegiah is so important. It is not enough to simply learn Torah superficially and by rote.

Rashi at the beginning of Parshas Bechukosai quotes the Toras Kohanim to explain the posuk of bechukosai teileichu and alludes to this concept. Rashi says it means shetihiyu ameilim baTorah. The way to achieve holiness and perfection is by working industriously to study and understand every word of Torah. The way to show that we are serious about following the path of Hashem and observing all of his mitzvos is by delving deeply and persistently into the difficult passages of the Torah.

The Rambam in Hilchos Talmud Torah writes that the Torah does not make a permanent impact on one who takes a lackadaisical approach to its study, nor on one who learns while indulging in earthly excess, or while satiated by food and drink.

The Torah belongs to the one who kills himself over understanding its words and refrains from sleep in order to learn and understand the word of Hashem.

That is why a rebbi is obligated to teach the same passage to his student several times until they understand it. If they don’t understand what they are being taught, the rebbi is not permitted to get angry with his talmidim, but rather should patiently explain it to them until they grasp its meaning. By the same token, a student should not be uncomfortable about admitting he didn’t understand what is being taught. He should ask to have it explained and reviewed as many times as necessary until he understands it.

One who is too embarrassed to say he doesn’t understand the material places his pride and fear of humiliation ahead of the larger cause of studying G-d’s word. Such an individual cannot excel. In order to excel, one must put his own personal considerations and ego aside and be totally dedicated to the cause of Torah.

We all know stories of gedolei talmidei chachomim who spent sleepless nights straining every faculty to understand the p’shat in a Rambam, and that should be our inspiration. Greatness in Torah requires total dedication. Only one who is consumed by ambition for spiritual greatness can grow in Torah.

As our children begin the school year, let us try to inculcate into them the importance of what they are doing and help them along so that they can grow intellectually as well as spiritually. Just as they require nourishment for the proper development of their bodies, minds and hearts, they need proper nourishment for their souls.

Greatness is not inbred; it must be fed delicately and with love into our children and students. It isn’t accomplished overnight and takes years of persistence and perseverance to constantly strive and aim higher. Sometimes it takes a lifetime of growth to reach the pinnacle. We have to be there to provide the encouragement and support necessary to sustain the will to make that constant uphill climb.

Our world is in turmoil. As we search for leaders to guide us through these difficult periods, we must do all we can to produce a new generation of leaders and giants to deal with the complex issues facing us.

Every person can grow up to be like Moshe Rabbeinu, every child has the potential for true greatness. As our children start school, and even after, it is our duty to help them achieve their potential.

So many of us have had the experience of taking our children to a gadol and asking for a bracha. The aged sage invariably turns to the young boy and says, “Do you want to become a gadol?” The child nods. The gadol then looks at him with a twinkle in his eye and says, “Az du vest velen vest du kenen - if you will want to become great, you will be able to.”

Our job is to give our children the drive tzu velen - to want - and to aspire to greatness. Let us all refresh our own aspirations to see our children grow, and may we merit that they experience a year of rich progress on the path to greatness, and bring their parents and community much nachas.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


With the arrival of Rosh Chodesh Elul, you know that summer will soon be over and a more serious time of the year has arrived. People can’t figure out what happened to the glorious vacation time that just a few days ago was beckoning from the horizon. It started with so much promise and vanished so quickly.

What about to all the plans to get away, take a break, or take a trip? We’ve barely caught a breather and the summer is over!

The days just seemed to roll by. Sun shining, green fields beckoning, country air penetrating our senses and intoxicating… Just as our taut nerves finally release the accumulated tension, it is Shabbos morning and we’re in shul as the words “Rosh Chodesh Elul yehieh beyom hachamishi u’veyom hashishi” ring out.

Elul. The shofar is blown - the Yom Hadin is only a month away. Elul. The boys are going back to yeshiva; elementary and high schools will soon get underway. Elul - it is time to get serious again.

With the hostilities suspended, my two sons who are learning in Eretz Yisroel traveled to northern Israel last week. There, they encountered soldiers their own age returning from Lebanese battles. The soldiers were thrilled to meet Jews again and they had much to say. As people, they were overjoyed to be back on the Israeli side of the border once again; happy to be alive and whole. But as soldiers, they were thoroughly demoralized.

One described being holed up in Bint Jbeil for a week, scared for his life. Another recounted how he lived on tuna fish for a week for lack of anything else. Another complained they didn’t even have water to drink. They all felt as if they had been beaten by Hezbollah.

The New York Times recounted that a group of soldiers returning from Lebanon had some questions for their commander. They wanted to know why they went into Lebanon during the day, and not at night. They wanted to know why there was a lack of food and water.

One soldier confronted the colonel and said, “I left my house, my job, my wife and three kids, and after spending two weeks in Lebanon, you say I have chutzpah because I asked for equipment and food? If that is the attitude and those are your answers, next time we won’t come!”

The response from the colonel? “Don’t come. Don’t bother.” The soldiers roundly booed him.

The colonel couldn’t answer them. He didn’t have answers to justify the way the army had treated its men. He couldn’t explain why the vaunted army couldn’t beat a couple thousand terrorists.

And why did Israel lose the war? The army simply was unprepared for the battles awaiting them in Lebanon. They didn’t do their homework; they didn’t thoroughly review their procedures. They didn’t examine the enemy’s intelligence and strategies, and thus were left unequipped.

They thought, “Kochi ve’otzem yodi osoh li es hachayil hazeh.” They thought they had beaten back Arab armies and terror campaigns for so many years all on their own. They never factored in the obvious hand of G-d which had helped them wage war all these years. They thought they were invincible. They convinced themselves that they were the mightiest around.

It is easy for us to sit back in the comfort of America and criticize our Israeli brethren for their lack of foresight and humility. It is easy for us to mock them and their arrogant over-confidence in their own abilities. But haven’t we stumbled into the same pitfalls?

We all have a day in court coming up very soon. Are we preparing for it? In one month, we will be judged for all of our thoughts and actions of the past year. In 30 days, we will face a trial which will determine the future of our very lives. Everything that we own is at stake. Our health, security and prosperity hang in the balance. The outcome of that trial will determine whether we will live in peace or in war, in luxury or as paupers.

How are we preparing ourselves for the coming day of judgment? Are we doing all we can to tip the scales of justice in our favor? Are we taking a serious inventory of our ammunition, credits and liabilities? Have we attempted to review the year’s events to know what we have going for us? Or are we relying on the fact that we have made it through in the past deluding ourselves into thinking that we have what it takes to get by again?

Elul is serious business; we can’t approach these days lackadaisically or we will end up like the poor soldiers who weren’t given food for days and were happy to escape with their lives and faculties intact.

An army that doesn’t properly strategize loses the war; similarly, a person who doesn’t adequately prepare for the Yom Hadin can, chas v’shalom, lose the most important case of his life - with all the dire consequences that suggests.

In order to win, we have to be realistic about what we have done and what we have to do; we must straighten things out and get our profiles and résumés in order.

If we start out early enough we can work on improving ourselves slowly, step by step and day by day. We can start with the easy things and work our way up to the areas of self improvement which are more difficult. Our middos need improvement, as does the way we daven. The amount of time we spend learning can be increased. We can disburse more tzedaka. Our dikduk b’mitzvos can be taken up a level.

We can begin by reading the Igeres HaRamban and inculcating his message to concentrate on speaking benachas - softly - and to refrain from ka’as, anger.

The Vilna Gaon, in his classic Igeres, advised his family before he left for Eretz Yisroel that he had among his seforim a Sefer Mishlei with a translation. “Lema’an Hashem, read it every day,” he wrote them, for “it is better than any mussar sefer.” He adds that Sefer Koheles is also important for them to read regularly. This is advice we can well follow as we seek self-improvement during these days of Elul.

Another facet we can begin with may be the inyan of seder as espoused by the Alter of Kelm and the school of mussar he founded.

I recently read a passage to my children written by the famed Mashgiach, Rav Yeruchom Levovitz, where he writes that he “was mechunach - educated and trained - in Kelm, where they were very particular about the idea of seder. “The Alter of Kelm zt”l would be very angry if a chair was not returned to its exact proper place after use. He was as upset about this as if it were an act of chillul Shabbos,” Rav Yeruchom wrote.

A discussion ensued about why the Alter felt it was as serious as chillul Shabbos, but the point was conveyed to the children that upon leaving the table, they are expected to return their chairs to the proper place. Likewise, when arising in the morning, they should make their beds and leave their rooms clean and neat.

We also discussed not looking around during davening, based upon that which Rav Yeruchom writes about his arrival in Kelm. “I arrived in the Kelmer Bais Medrash at the time of Maariv - which lasted for one hour - and though I very much wanted to see the Alter zt”l, I did not dare lift my eyes [out of the siddur] to look at him and did not see him until the next day. In Kelm, looking aside and around for no special reason was something that was especially frowned upon.”

Another area in which we can begin to seek to improve our middos, is the way we talk to each other. In the latest chelek of the Sefer Machsheves Mussar based on the shmuessen of Maran Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l, the aveira of chomos that sealed the gezar din of the Mabul is discussed.

We regularly learn that the punishment was sealed because the people stole. But Rav Shach quotes the Medrash which states that they were also guilty of chomos devorim. He cites the Vilna Gaon who explains that just as it is sinful to steal less than a shava peruta, one who protests too loudly against a person who robbed him is also considered a chamson. And just as the gezar din was caused by those who were financial chamsonim, so was it caused by verbal chamsonim.

If you scream too loudly at someone, even someone who caused you a loss, and embarrass him more than he deserves to be shamed, it is called chomos. Can you imagine that?

Let us begin with the small things and then we will be able to progress to higher and better things. As Hakadosh Boruch Hu says, “Pishchu li pesach k’chudah shel machat v’ani eftach lochem pesach k’pischo shel ulam. Open a door even the size of the eye of a needle and I will open you an opening the size of a ballroom.”

We have to show that we care and want to improve and then Hakadosh Boruch Hu will help us go all the way. As the Gemara in Yuma (38b and 39a) says, “Odom mekadeish atzmo me’at mekadshin osoh harbei.” “Haboh letaheir mesayin oso.” One who makes the attempt to purify himself, earns Divine assistance to enable him to complete the process.

Yes, it is a fact, the war started on Shiva Assar B’Tammuz and ended in Chodesh Av, engineered by a prime minister who has shown himself to be more adept at politics then at waging war. The army chief of staff seems to be seriously lacking in his ability to strategize; the defense minister as well is out of his league and not too knowledgeable in the art of defending his country.

Yet, we believe with absolute clarity that the outcome of this war was not decided in Chodesh Av. It was decided in Chodesh Tishrei.

Before Sharon had his stroke and was suddenly removed from the scene, before Olmert was elected and Peretz selected, and before Hezbollah shot off one Katyusha, the outcome of the war was already decided. That took place on Rosh Hashanah, as we say in Mussaf of Rosh Hashanah, “V’al hamedinos bo ye’omeir - it is determined on this day which countries will be destined for the sword, and which for peace, which countries will suffer hunger and which will enjoy abundance…”

If we want a year of peace and prosperity, the time to earn it is now. The time to be mispallel for it, the time to work for it, is now. If we want a year of fulfillment, success and good health, let us hear the call of shofar and get to work. Now.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


Living with a dearth of leadership in times like these, with feckless political leaders who exhibit a catastrophic failure of intelligence and common sense, must be a biblical curse.

How else to explain the outcome of the Israeli-Lebanon month-long war?

I don’t know which posuk is appropriate to describe what it is. Is it the posuk in Devorim which describes the way Hashem will cause our enemies to be confused in a time of war, “Vehumom mehumah gedolah?” Is it the posuk in Yeshaya, “Hashmein leiv ha’am hazeh, v’oznov hachbeid v’einuv hosha pen yireh b’einov u’beoznov yishma ulevavo yovin veshuv verafa lo?? Is it the posuk in Tehillim describing how we became an object of mockery to our neighbors, “Hayinu la’ag vokeles l’sevivoseinu?”

Maybe it is vetam lerik kokachem - your might will avail you nothing - which best addresses the situation in Israel today. A standing army equipped with the most modern weaponry is unable to overcome three thousand guerillas armed with primitive rockets that can’t be directed at specific targets.

Is it all of the above?

Israel went to war against Hezbollah over a month ago telling the world that this war was more important than any other Israel has faced in its war-torn 60-year history. This war was not over territory, but over Israel’s right to exist. Iran, which has evil designs for the western world in general, but right now has Israel in its crosshairs, started this war through its Lebanese proxy.

Israel stated that it had to be permitted to finish off Hezbollah lest the terrorists become emboldened and export terrorism to other parts of the world. They said they would not cease firing until their two kidnapped soldiers were released. They said they would never negotiate with Hezbollah and would not trade prisoners to get their two soldiers back. They said they would do whatever it takes to rid the world of Hezbollah and that no one should even think of stopping them until their mission is completed.

The emptiness and grandiosity of those pronouncements is self-evident today.

The so-called peace force will not be entitled to use military force to keep the peace or to disarm Hezbollah. The cease-fire agreement provides no means of enforcement, just as UN resolution 1559 which calls for the disarming of Hezbollah had no “teeth” - and was therefore blatantly ignored by the Lebanese government. Nothing in the agreement will stop Syria and Iran from rearming Hezbollah. Nothing guarantees the return of the two kidnapped soldiers.

Israel spent a month fighting the enemy of mankind with one hand tied behind its back by the country’s political leaders. They telegraphed their intentions to the enemy and every time they threatened to go in and finish them off, they backed down for a couple days - giving the enemy time to escape, or prepare an ambush.

The terrorists used their time wisely, much as they took advantage of the six-year window they were given since Ehud Barak pulled Israel out of Lebanon. The Hezbollah fighters rearmed to the hilt, they trained, they were prepared and ready for an Israeli invasion and they taught Israel and the world a lesson they will not soon forget.

People who are fascinated by the stories of photo manipulation really don’t get it. It doesn’t make a difference how many photos the propagandists and their enablers manipulate. Nobody in the big world really cares that Hezbollah fakes deaths or uses human shields. Nothing is gained by sending each other emails about it. When you enter a war, the purpose is to win. You fight to kill the enemy and wipe him off the face of the earth so that he can never come back to threaten you again.

You don’t fight to earn goodie points; you don’t fight so that your enemies who are observing the battle will magically begin supporting you because they will be won over by the justice of your cause.

Israel was given the opportunity they may not get again anytime soon, and they blew that chance. We have a president in office in the United States who actually understands Israel’s plight and not only feels for Israel but believes G-d placed him in the White House at this time for the specific purpose of fighting Islamic terror. This president gave Israel the green light to do whatever it needed to do in order to beat back Hezbollah; some reports indicate that he even let them know that he would not be opposed to Israel taking on Syria.

And what happened? To our great mortification, nothing. Israel fought haphazardly for one month. Innocent neshamos were lost and wounded, and Israel incurred billions of dollars of lost income and infrastructure. One million Israelis languished in bomb shelters, with thousands dispersed throughout the country like homeless refugees.

Administration officials repeatedly are telling the New York Times, off the record of course, that the reason Bush and Rice got behind the drive to the cease-fire was the realization that Israel would not be able to achieve a military victory. The prospect of winning was no longer a viable option. The reason the United States was opposed to Israel escalating the war last week was because the administration no longer had confidence in Israel’s ability to beat back Hezbollah. “A stepped-up military campaign with no clear Israeli victory would end up handing Hezbollah a moral victory in the Middle East,” officials said.

Elections were held not that long ago and people voted in Ehud Olmert as prime minister. Israelis and Jews like to think of themselves as being of superior intelligence. How can smart people do something so foolish? How can people elect a man so unqualified for the top job of the country and think they won’t suffer the consequences of such blindness?

At election time, you hear people say that it doesn’t really make a difference who you vote for; the candidates are all the same. What is going on now ought to be a reminder that they are not all the same. The last race in Israel was between Olmert and Netanyahu. People complained that Netanyahu also gave back land to the Arabs, and that they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for him. They ignored that he was under intense pressure from then-President Clinton and that he returned part of Chevron, where no Jews lived anyway. They ignored that during his tenure there were no terror attacks because the terrorists feared Israeli retribution. They ignored that while he was prime minister there was no talk of unilateral gifts to Israel’s sworn enemies.

Israel’s voters fell for the mush the media was feeding them, and fell in lockstep behind an untested candidate whose popularity was so low that he barely made it to the Knesset the last time around, coming in number 33 in the Likud primary.

This time around it was all different. You see, media darling Ariel Sharon left his Likud party because his constituents were not coming on board with his grandiose plans. With great hoopla, he sold the people on his idea that abandoning Gaza would bring peace to Israel, much the same as transpired when Barak pulled out of the Lebanon he had invaded.

Hashem pulled Sharon off the stage of history before his theory could be tested. His stand-in, Olmert, ran in his stead against Netanyahu who warned that Gaza would turn into Hamastan and a base for increased terror operations against Jews. He was mocked and vilified as an out-of-touch ultra right-winger. The man who knows more about how terrorists work than anyone else, the man who turned around Israel’s economy, Israel’s best public relations weapon, was trounced at the polls.

So, I ask you, does it make a difference who was elected?

Can you imagine if John Kerry was elected president instead of George Bush? What would America look like with a pacifist at its helm? What kind of judges would he have installed in the Supreme Court? What moral climate would infuse the government? Would we have a tough commander-in-chief dedicated to fighting off Islamo-fascists who seek to destroy us? Bush is far from perfect, but he is squarely on the right side of history and a proven ally of our people.

Does it make a difference who was elected, or should we just stay home on Election Day and then wring our hands for years after?

Last week, Democrats in Connecticut went to the polls and decided that Joe Lieberman has no place in their party. As soon as the results of the primary race become public, Democrats across the country joined the rising chorus in favor of ousting Lieberman because he supports the war against terror in Iraq. There is no room in that party anymore for a highly intelligent, accomplished, honorable public servant who believes that America should continue prosecuting its war in Iraq.

I had the dubious honor of sharing the podium with Senator Charles Schumer a few weeks ago. I was asked to introduce him. By the time I was done, he wasn’t very happy with me. I reminded him that we live in a democracy and that constituents are permitted to share their opinions with their elected representatives. All too often, people who meet incumbents want something from them and thus are hesitant about telling them what they really think about the issues. “I need nothing from you Mr. Senator, so I can tell you what I really think,” I told him.

“You know the religious right you rail against? That is us. Everything that you are for, we oppose and everything you oppose, we support. Our community is supportive of President Bush’s war on terror and on Saddam Hussein; we support his choice of judges; we are for the right to life; we are for a healthy moral climate,” I told him. I also told him that we were supporting Senator Lieberman in his race against Ted Lamont. I could have gone on and on, but I wanted to be respectful.

He was taken aback; he is not used to hearing that. Why is it that the powerful senator of New York State, who is a proud Jew, never hears from us? Why is it that whenever he goes somewhere in our community, he is treated like a star and no one challenges him over his ultra liberal stance on every issue facing this country? Why is it that he can get away with bashing the decent, honorable religious judges nominated to serve on the Supreme Court and no one back home calls him on it?

They are not all the same, and it is myopic to say they are. Open your eyes and look around you. Witness the silly things our government does and wonder what things would be like if different people were writing the nation’s laws and adjudicating them.

As we go through the fear of another terror attack, federal agents in airports are taking away drinks from little old ladies. The law sees all people as equal, and though airline terror is perpetrated by Muslims, it is improper to say so. Racial profiling is a dirty word and illegal as well. So despite the fact that it’s ridiculous to suspect white people from mid-America heading for a vacation in the Rockies of plotting to blow up airplanes, that doesn’t stop security officials from treating these people as hard-core suspects. And who writes those laws if not the types of people we shouldn’t be electing to office in the first place?

When you receive your property tax bill and cannot imagine where all that money is going and wonder how “they” can get away with this, remember that it is you who are letting “them” get away with it, by repeatedly electing the people who are responsible for it. None of them are held accountable by the voters for the constantly rising taxes. This week marks twenty-five years since Ronald Reagan showed that taxes can really be lowered and more money will flow into the government coffers.

Lev melochim vesorim beyad Hashem, but it is up to us to do our hishtadlus and show that we care enough to break out of our inertia. Not all politicians are the same; it makes a difference who we vote for, and it makes a difference who is elected. The sooner we realize that, the closer we will be to the day the world wakes up and stops the surrender to evil.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Answer Is In The Posuk

The Chofetz Chaim taught that disasters which take place in far away lands carry a message even for those of us who are not directly affected by them. We are meant to impress upon ourselves that Hakadosh Boruch Hu runs the world and that we should do teshuva. Certainly if the disasters are occurring daily in Eretz Yisroel, we must understand that Hashem is communicating to all of us.

In this week’s parsha of Eikev, the posuk (11-12) tells us that Hashem focuses unremittingly on Eretz Yisroel. What takes place there has implications and lessons for us as well.

While the media plays up the tragedy of all the Hezbollah sympathizers who have fled their homes to get out of the war zone, no mention is made of the million plus Jews in Israel who have also been driven from their homes—due to being deliberately targeted. Many have fled like refugees and seek shelter in the homes of compassionate baalei chesed in the lower part of the country.

Many others spend their days and nights in dingy, sweltering bomb shelters, with dwindling supplies of food, no privacy and no means of occupying or distracting the kids. Imagine enduring this situation day after day, week after week—and not losing your mind.

Knowing people are suffering so terribly, we should be all the more grateful for our own homes and neighborhoods and the blessings of living in safety. Thank Hashem that we have a comfortable place to rest our head at the end of a long hard day without fear of being bombed to death as we sleep. The room may need a painting, the bed may creak, the mattress may be old, but we do have plenty to be thankful for. Admit it.

We should also think about the tremendous amount of chesed taking place as people welcome whole families of strangers into their cramped apartments and treat them as they would brothers and sisters. Imagine how chesed of this magnitude stretches the budget of a typical Israeli family that is already struggling—and who in Israel, especially in b’nei Torah circles, is not struggling today?

As we tune in to the news reports, anxious about how Israel is faring in its fourth week of battling Hezbollah, other messages filter down to us.

It appears as if the myth of Israeli power will emerge seriously damaged by the time the fighting ends. It does not matter anymore who will win on the battlefield; Hezbollah has punctured the deterrent factor. Hezbollah chief Nasrallah has achieved an almost unprecedented status among the Arabs for facing down Israel. For them, bombing Israel for three weeks is victory, no matter how many Arabs died in the effort.

Perhaps it is premature to decide what went wrong on the Israeli side, but certain indications can’t be ignored. The army’s chief of staff told the prime minister that Israel could destroy Hezbollah with an air war exclusively. Obviously, he was very wrong. Israel’s vaunted intelligence is not all it is cracked up to be. For six years, they watched Hezbollah’s military stockpiling and did nothing. Perhaps they believed in their own invincible power. Maybe they believed that Arabs simply could not put together an effective fighting force.

Hezbollah has faced Israel before and won. Ehud Barak pulled Israeli forces out of the buffer zone in Lebanon due to the unrelenting terror battle waged against them by Hezbollah. At the time, Barak covered up the act of retreating under fire, insisting he was not handing the terrorists a victory. Israel simply decided that it was time to leave, he protested, fooling no one.

Ehud Olmert said after a few days of war that Hezbollah had been irreparably damaged and their fighting ability had been cut in half. He didn’t get it, and four weeks later he still doesn’t get it. The rockets continue raining in from Lebanon and Israel has been unable to stop or even slow them. Olmert also seems to not understand that to Israel’s enemies who are bent on her destruction, any act of withdrawal emboldens the enemy to demand further withdrawals.

Last Wednesday, he proudly boasted that as soon as all this is over, he will return to his unilateral plan to vacate large portions of the West Bank. He seemed oblivious to the uproar and divisiveness such comments would cause in Israel and the jubilation they would bring to Palestinians and their sympathizers.

He just doesn’t get it. But just like he is entrapped by his mindset, we are also captives to preconceived notions. Examining others and following the news should prompt us to turn the microscope inward and focus on ourselves and on our own behavior.

There are no atheists in foxholes, the saying goes. Wartime should force us to reflect on some fundamental truths, so that we can attain victory over the forces that weaken us spiritually.

For example, we seem to be unable to shake an inflated image of ourselves. Do we think the oft-quoted posuk in this week’s parsha about people who say “kochi veotzem yodi asah li as hachayil hazeh” refers only to the State of Israel or to other people—never to ourselves? We ought to remind ourselves that we must be thankful for everything that we have and realize that it is a Divine gift.

This week saw a big tumult about doctored photos which were sent out by a respected news organization to newspapers around the world. Media everywhere replicated the staged photos from Kana and many others, and used them to invent a massacre of innocent Lebanese civilians by Israel.

Thanks to observers outside the mainstream media, the subterfuge has been exposed and laid bare for people who are interested in the truth. The incident offers a profound lesson.

So often we seek to portray ourselves dishonestly and think we get away with it. We use makeup to cover our blemishes and offer the world a picture-perfect image. Isn’t it time to make an attempt to be less artificial, more sincere in our dialogue with ourselves and others?

How about our tendency to delude ourselves with wishful thinking?

Israel went into battle believing that the more they would bomb Lebanon, the more the Lebanese people would rise up against the murderous terrorists of Hezbollah. That hasn’t happened and it appears as if every bomb Israel drops on Lebanese targets brings more respect and adherents to Hezbollah.

As a terror group, it operates by using civilians as human shields, and hides its rocket batteries in residential areas. Hezbollah uses hospitals and mosques as bases of operation. The populace quietly acquiesced to this arrangement and is now paying the price. For six years the Shiites sat quietly by and let the arsenal grow in their backyards. Now they are paying the price.

Perhaps that ought to be an extreme reminder to us that when we see wrongs being perpetrated, we have a responsibility to do what we can to halt them. We can not sit by and say, “It is not my problem; let someone else worry about it.” Evil is evil and wrong is wrong and it is our duty to oppose it. Looking the other way is not the answer. We can not permit people who harm others to operate in impunity, certain that no one will have the guts to stop them.

We live in a time when we are under a microscope, when there are no secrets. We have to be cognizant of that and be especially careful in all we do to ensure that nothing we do will cause a Chillul Hashem. We have to go the extra mile to ensure that all we do is proper and not try to hide behind facades and improper excuses. When people speak falsehoods in our name, engage in flagrantly improper behavior, and commit destructive actions, we have to exhibit the courage to speak out publicly and make it clear that they do not represent us. Regardless of whether they happen to be powerful and influential, or hapless Neturai Karta kooks, our duty is the same.

This week’s parsha of Eikev is filled with lessons we can incorporate into our daily lives. It is summer and we have more time for learning. We should set aside time and go through the parsha slowly, analyzing and studying it posuk by posuk, inculcating into our moral fibers its many lessons.

Let us take the time to learn the parsha with Rashi and other meforshim so that we find out what G-d wants from us. Perek 10, posuk 12, asks the immortal question: “And now, what does Hashem your G-d ask from you? Only to fear Hashem, to follow in His ways and to love Him and to serve Hashem with all your heart and all your soul.”

The Gemorah in Berachos (32b) asks whether it is such a small thing to fear Hashem that the posuk singles it out as the only thing we have to do. The Gemorah answers that for Moshe Rabbeinu it was a small thing. But that doesn’t really answer the question. If it is no big feat for Moshe Rabbeinu to have the proper Yiras Shomayim, it is still quite difficult for us to do so.

The Vilna Gaon answers that if we attach ourselves to a great tzaddik, such as Moshe, then it would be much easier for us to have the proper Yiras Shomayim. In fact, in this week’s parsha (10:20) it states, “You shall fear Hashem your G-d; you shall worship Him and cling to him.” Also in this week’s parsha (11:22), it says again, “You should go in the path of Hashem and cling to him.” Chazal explain that the way to “cling” to Hashem is by becoming close to tzaddikim and talmidei chachomim.

The Vilna Gaon in Mishlei (28:12), writes that though there are few tzaddikim among us in this world, and often they are hidden, we are obligated to find them.

This is but one example of a practical thing we can do and to which learning the parsha will direct us. And even in this one posuk there are myriad explanations. Chazal also teach that a fulfillment of bo sidbuk and uleduvkah bo is to try to act the way Hashem acts. Just as He is merciful, we should be merciful; just as He is gracious, so should we be.

So this Shabbos, when you are sitting on the couch in your bungalow and your neighbor comes in to shmooze and asks what you think this is all about and what Hashem really wants, open the chumash and show him the posuk.

Tell him the poshuter p’shat and then also explain to him that it means to be kind and merciful, to stick with talmidei chachomim, learn from them, support them and marry your daughters to them. Don’t be embarrassed to tell him that we live in serious times and we have to make a cheshbon hanefesh. We have to look at our choices and our actions through the prism of the Torah, of Chazal and tzaddikim.

Maybe you can even get him to sit with you and learn the parsha that way. Though you may not solve the world’s problems, you will certainly attain a better understanding of what Hashem wants from you, him, and from all of Klal Yisroel in these critical days.

Thank you for your continued contributions to our campaign for our needy brethren in Tzefas (You can contribute by sending your donation to NNMC 53 Olympia Lane Monsey NY 10952).

Friday, August 04, 2006

Serious Times, Serious Vision

Shallowness and complacency are dangerous for the human spirit even in peacetime, but in times of combat they are even more perilous. No matter where we are and what we are engaged in, we must be wary of allowing superficial considerations to guide us.

Not that we shouldn’t be lighthearted or enjoy ourselves, or that everything we do must be analyzed to death. But given the precarious times we live in, our responses ought to reflect more discernment and intelligent assessment.

Let me give some examples:

Last week saw a lot of commotion over a Latin book of Psalms found by a bog farmer in Ireland. The one thousand year-old manuscript was said to be lying in the dirt the farmer excavated, with no explanation of how it managed to survive so long. What astounded people was that it was reported to be found open to Chapter 83.

People saw this sign as some sort of message from on high - though precisely what the message was escapes me.

I marveled at the inanity of it. Are we so lost that we grasp at such flimsy straws for support? Are we so lacking in spiritual leadership that we seek out a wire story about a translated sefer Tehillim being found on a farm open to a certain kapitel as a Divine sign? What is becoming of us?

The truth is that we are not leaderless or lost. We are blessed with an untold number of tzaddikim and talmidei chachomim who can inspire us, lead us and provide us with Torah inspiration. We just don’t seek them out, or we choose to ignore what they tell us.

There are so many seforim available to us in a variety of languages and levels of profundity that can guide us in these turbulent times, but many of us choose to read other material. No wonder we are so lost.

A yeshiva in Chaifa was unsure of whether to relocate as the city came under attack in the current war. They turned to Rav Aron Leib Shteinman for guidance. He responded by writing them a letter assuring them that anyone who stays in the yeshiva and learns will not be harmed, even as rockets continue falling in Chaifa.

What an inspiring example of leadership in a time of crisis! Here is someone with the courage to give advice and the certainty that future events will confirm the wisdom of that advice. And people claim that we lack responsible Torah leadership?

We live in such frightening times. There is a war going on. Iran may have a nuclear weapon aimed at us. Al Qaeda can strike at any time. We have to be more serious about what is going on around us.

If all we can focus on is shallow trivia, then, of course, we end up feeling lost and adrift.

We have to resist shallow thinking and living. We have to fight the complacency that drugs us into coasting along peacefully as our brethren in Eretz Yisroel are fighting for their very survival. As we worry about animal crackers, a proxy war is being fought which, if lost, may lead to future wars and calamities, not just for Eretz Yisroel, but also for America and the entire western civilization. All the warning signs have been posted, all the alarms have gone off, yet we fail to absorb their implications.

The Yeitzer Hara clouds our psyche and causes us to concentrate on the wrong things in order to dull our thinking and lead us down the wrong path. Without cogent perspective, one can easily get sidetracked, with trivial concerns skewing his entire mission. Additionally, losing focus is the undoing of every important project and vision. When one makes the trivial important, the important becomes trivial.

An example culled from today’s headlines that illustrates how being out of sync with the messages can lead to defeat, is the electoral battle being waged by Senator Joseph Lieberman from Connecticut. Not that long ago, he was a hero of the Democratic Party.

Yet today he is fighting for his political survival. He failed to recognize the power inherent in modern media. Today, those who are adept at modern methods of communications shape public opinion. People who regard themselves as invincible can be easily toppled if they ignore the power of those equipped to win the public relations war. To his great disadvantage, Lieberman did not recognize the new power centers and minimized their ability to do him in.

Joe Lieberman, who ran a national electoral campaign against President Bush, is now viewed by many of Connecticut’s Democrats as a Bush puppet, thanks to an image cultivated by a spoiled rich guy who may soon topple the former Democratic icon.

His opponent, Ted Lamont, initially had only the support of some leftwing bloggers, but has come so far that this week the New York Times endorsed him for the Senate. This is despite the fact that he has never accomplished anything in the political arena and has no real platform.

We live in age when, all too often, perception trumps reality and people who are adept at creating perceptions win and those who don’t get it lose. The warnings from his opponent’s supporters were ignored by Lieberman, who thought that he could easily defeat them, but times change and those who don’t keep abreast of the sifting sands, are doomed.

Proper focus and clarity of vision are essential for every aspect of existence. Nations will topple without a vision and political leaders can fall to the most inexperienced challengers when their vision becomes skewed.

Similarly, our brothers in the Israeli army now find themselves somewhere they have never been before. They have always denigrated their Arab enemies and proudly patted themselves on the back as being intellectually and militarily superior in the series of wars with their enemies.

Going back to the war of liberation in 1948, though the lone sheep was surrounded by a pack of wolves, with all the odds stacked against survival, Israel has successfully beaten back enemy armies and emerged triumphant. Religious people recognized the hand of G-d in each of Israel’s victories; countless soldiers had miraculous tales to retell when they returned home. The Six Day War of 1967 had such an obviously miraculous outcome that it spawned a teshuva revolution whose repercussions are still felt today.

But many military planners chose to close their eyes to the obvious and now face a new reality. Once again, their delusions about their omnipotence have been shattered. It has been shown for all who care to notice that without Divine assistance Israel cannot win.

Israel’s intelligence seriously misjudged Nassralah and his Hezbollah fighters. The Israeli air force pounded Lebanese targets with awesome force and yet the number of rockets slamming into Israeli population centers spiraled daily.

Hezbollah cannot be as easily defeated as the planners thought. It appears as if air power will not be enough to do the job, yet the government does not approve army plans to go in and really fight them the way you have to when you don’t have obvious Divine assistance.

Early on, Israel claimed to have destroyed fifty percent of Hezbollah’s firepower, something which has been shown to be untrue.

Last week, they claimed to have captured a major Hezbollah town, but the next day 9 soldiers were killed there and by the end of the week, the Israelis pulled out of the town.

The world ignored Hezbollah’s build-up over the past two decades. A ruthless, cruel group of murderers with no regard for human life is defended by spokesmen of civilized countries who play into the hands of these barbarians. Armed to the hilt by Syria and Iran, Hezbollah maintained a well-trained, well-oiled fighting machine way above anything Israel thought it was capable of building.

Hezbollah has proven very adept at creating a war of pictures which capture international support. Through cynical use of women and children as human shields, they taunt the IDF to hit civilian targets, presenting Israel with a losing proposition. The army cannot undertake the necessary military moves because the resulting pictures of carnage flashed all over the world will incite world opinion against them.

Finally, on Sunday, Israel was forced to do what Ehud Olmert swore that very same morning he wouldn’t do. He called for an aerial cease-fire in response to the bombing of a residential home in Kana.

We dare not delude ourselves into thinking that this is just another war, with only the north of Eretz Yisroel being targeted. We may actually be witnessing the beginnings of a World War. The world cares little that Hezbollah is a front for Iran in this proxy war. No one is interested in hearing that Israel is carrying out its obligation to defend its citizens from wanton acts of terror.

As the world condemns Israel for its “disproportionate” and “excessive” response, it cares not a wit that Israel was attacked by a group bent on destroying the free world. The civilized world seems to be in total denial about Iran’s plans for Islamic world dominance as are Jews who demonstrate together with enemies of Israel, especially at times like these. They are guilty of much more than callous disregard of innocent Jewish life. Those individuals should be severely castigated and expunged.

In Africa, millions of all ages are massacred as the world sits by and does absolutely nothing. Yet when Israel fights acknowledged forces of evil, everyone rises up in righteous indignation.

We must daven that Hashem continues to bless President Bush and his assistants so that they can continue to alert the nations of the world to the dangers we face.

As much as we would like to ignore the deadliness of these dangers, we have to realize that we live at a pivotal time in history and our actions can have lasting impact. We have to recognize that problems that aren’t taken care of when they are small, fester and grow, turning more threatening with time. We have to understand that no part of Olam Hazeh is constant; everything is subject to steady change.

Most of all, we have to remember that without siyata diShmaya, we will not be successful. We have to do everything in our power to secure Divine merit.

Focus on what counts. Study more Torah; engage in more acts of tzedaka and chesed. Assist those who need our help and to pay attention to issues which are really important. Tough times demand that we act tenderly. Remember that the book of Tehillim is as relevant today as it was when Dovid Hamelech wrote it over 2,800 years ago. Cling to it; don’t just say its words, but comprehend them and let them sink into your soul. When we say Kinnos and pine for the days of the Bais Hamikdosh, let us understand what we are saying as we mourn for what we lost and pray for its return.

Superficiality and small-mindedness breed sinas chinam which caused the churban. Myopically focusing on our own interests without seeing the big picture can be catastrophic. The story of Kamtza, who was more concerned with his own petty grievances than about what he was doing to another Jew, is a classic illustration of this failing. Too often we get locked into a negative mindset and ignore the feelings and interests of others. By fighting this tendency, we can bring about the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh.

Last week was Shabbos Chazon and this week is Shabbos Nachamu. That’s the recurring cycle of our existence. We never sink into yiush, despair. We never give up hope. We know G-d is all merciful and that everything that happens is part of His master plan. History has shown that pain and tragedy often give birth to nechamos.

May we merit to see sustained peace and the fulfillment of the comforting words of Yeshayahu speedily in our days.

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