Thursday, September 28, 2006

Perfect Simcha

When asked which mitzvah is the most difficult for a Jew to perform, the Vilna Gaon is said to have responded that the obligation to be happy on Yom Tov, “Vesomachta b’chagecha vehoyisa ach someach,” is the hardest mitzvah.

It seems so simple. Don’t worry; just be happy. What’s so difficult?

The mitzvah is demanding. It obligates a Jew to be in a state of happiness for the duration of the Yom Tov of Sukkos even in the face of troubling or tragic situations which may befall him and can cast a spector of gloom on man.

All year round, we are expected to appreciate Hashem’s gifts and keep everything in its proper perspective. But on Yom Tov it is a mitzvah not to lose sight of one’s priorities and to be in a state of spiritual bliss for an entire eight-day period.

It might rain while you are walking to shul, it might be cold in the sukkah, your kids might pester you to take them somewhere on chol hamoed, things might not go your way, someone might insult you, the Gemorah might be difficult and you cannot grasp it no matter how hard you try. Whatever the provocation, nothing should be able to rob you of your happiness.

How does one manage that? How do we attain the level of inner simcha required in order to be in a state of joy for a whole Yom Tov?

A Remarkable Feat

The Rambam at the end of Hilchos Lulav writes, “Hasimcha sheyismach ha’adam b’asiyas hamitzvah ub’ahavas hakeil shetziva bohen avodah gedolah hi, it is a great feat to achieve simcha when performing mitzvos…”

The state of simcha we are commanded to attain during the yemei hachag is not accomplished by assuming a superficial smile and mouthing clichéd platitudes about being happy and thinking positively. Rather, that simcha arises from the depths of a Jewish heart following the proper performance of the mitzvos hayom and an appreciation of the G-d who commanded us to perform them. This is only achieved by performing the mitzvos to perfection.

Simcha arises when one has achieved shleimus in what one is doing. When we perform the mitzvah in its entirety with all the hiddurim, that produces an inner simcha which overcomes all negativity. A love of G-d sweeps over us and we attain the level of simcha that the Rambam describes as being an avodah gedolah. That state of happiness is what the Vilna Gaon described as the most difficult mitzvah to observe.

Rashi writes on the posuk (Devorim 16:15), “Shivas yomim tochug laHashem Elokecha… Vehoyisah ach someach,” that vehoyisah ach someach is not a commandment, but rather a guarantee. Apparently, the explanation of Rashi’s words is that if you follow Hashem’s words and celebrate the chag in an exemplary way, that will cause you to be in a state of simcha. That is why the Vilna Gaon said it is so hard to achieve the mitzvah of simcha, because it is contingent on all the mitzvos hayom being carried out to perfection.

Perhaps this is why we find an exceptional dikduk hamitzvos with the mitzvos surrounding Sukkos. Everyone seeks out the nicest esrog, the greenest lulav, the lushest s’chach and the sturdiest and most heavily decorated sukkah. People spend hours examining the arbah minim to ensure that they have the best and most kosher species money can buy. Look at these people who spent so much time going from place to place picking out their minim, as they recite Hallel, holding aloft their lulavim. Their faces are radiant; their lips are curled up in a holy smile, reflecting intense spiritual joy. That is the simcha the Gaon is referring to.

Had you been in their sukkah the night before as they made Kiddush, recited the brachos of leisheiv basukkah and shehecheyanu and partook in the first kezayis of challah in the sukkah they worked so hard to put together, you would have seen that same angelic glow on their faces.

Sukkos, with its simcha of so many mitzvos - how can you not be happy!

We sit in the sukkah in the tzilah d’heiminusah, in the shade of Hashem, perform His mitzvos, and await the visit of the biblical guests. We are b’simcha. We know that we are on a different plane, with a singular way of life and a set of goals totally apart from anything out there in the world outside of our sukkah.

The strength of the sukkah is not in its walls, but in the people inside of it. While we customarily build the sukkah of four walls, it is kosher with two, plus a minor resemblance of a third, yet we say that this two-plus walled structure protects us from the world. We feel as safe in our sukkah as if we were in the teivah of Noach, because we look up and recognize that we are in the shadow of G-d’s glory. B’tzilah d’heiminusah, no harm can befall us as long as we appreciate what we have. A Jew who knows that he sits b’tzilah d’heiminusah performing G-d’s commandments cannot help but be happy. In the sukkah of an ehrliche Yid, that joy is almost palpable.

The Road to Perfection

It is interesting that the first time a sukkah is mentioned in the Torah is in Parshas Vayishlach (33:17). The Torah recounts that Yaakov Avinu returned from battling the malach of Eisav and meeting up with Eisav himself, and went to the town of Sukkos. “V’Yaakov nosah Sukkosah… ulimikneihu asah sukkos, ahl kein karah shemo Sukkos, Vayavo Yaakov sholeim ihr Sh’chem… And Yaakov traveled to Sukkos and built there sukkahs for his flocks… and Yaakov arrived sholeim in Sh’chem…”

Yaakov, fresh from meeting up with his evil brother, fashioned sukkahs to protect his flocks, and then he was a sholeim. If you look at a sukkah and its two-plus walls, you wouldn’t necessarily view that structure as the prime method of protection unless you were a sholeim. The Torah affixes that adjective to the name of Yaakov Avinu after he constructed the sukkah, because he demonstrated his awareness, after meeting up with Eisav and his malach, that the safest place for a man and his possessions is in the sukkah.

There, in the tzilah d’heiminusah, it matters not that he doesn’t have four walls, it matters not what the ground cover is made of; all that counts is that he recognizes that G-d hovers over him and protects him from those who do not appreciate the Torah way of life.

We strive to follow the path of our forefather Yaakov, and recognize that it is not the physical aspect of the walls which protect us, but rather it is the G-d of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov. The same Al-mighty who shielded Yaakov’s flocks, and who protected the Jews in the desert after their exodus from Mitzrayim, continues to watch over His people.

Thus, we are commanded to live in a sukkah for seven days and remember that Hashem fashioned sukkos for us when He took us out of bondage in Mitzrayim.

The Jew appreciates that a transient residence of two-plus flimsy walls is all he needs to protect himself from the winds of the times. He leaves his “permanent” home and enters the “temporary” dwelling to remind him of what is really important and permanent in life.

For by then he will appreciate the truth that his “permanent” home is also temporary. He will know that everything physical is fleeting; to gain permanence, a thing must be attached to - and used for - a spiritual purpose.

Celebrating the Permanent

A Jew knows that what the world regards as permanent and secure is merely an illusion. The lesson absorbed by living in a humble sukkah is that only Hashem can afford a person true protection, real permanence and security.

One whose entire life is spent b’tzilah d’heiminusah, in the shade of G-d, is as safe and grounded as when he is in the sukkah. The Jew who internalizes that concept while sitting in the sukkah is overcome with simcha and is experiencing the most fundamental truth of life. He can then apply this to his permanent home at the end of Sukkos.

One who appreciates that he is sitting in the shadow of the Shechinah, in a building designed to protect him from the ruchos of the world, one who recognizes that this small hut is no less permanent than everything else in Olam Hazeh, truly has all he needs in this world.

While the first reference in the Torah to a sukkah is the posuk quoted above pertaining to Yaakov, the Medrash comments on the posuk, “VaHashem beirach es Avrohom bakol” that Avrohom Avinu had a sukkah.

Perhaps we can understand the Medrash to mean that because Avrohom Avinu understood the message of the sukkah, he was blessed with kol, everything. He knew that all his possessions were temporary unless he used them to serve Hashem and to spread G-dliness in the world.

He had everything, kol, because he understood the difference between what is transient and what is permanent and dedicated his life to acquiring everything that is “permanent”. He thus truly had everything.

One who does not hear the call of the sukkah and complains that it is small, damp, cold, hot, uncomfortable and not like home, is termed a mitzta’eir. His life is pained and incomplete without the spiritual happiness that suffuses those who dwell in the sukkah for seven days.

This is why we decorate the sukkah so joyfully. The Gemorah in Shabbos derives from the posuk, “Zeh keili v’anveihu,” the mandate of hisna’eh lefanov b’mtizvos, to enhance and beautify the mitzvos. The first examples given are sukkah and lulav, and, as we know, these are two mitzvos for which people generally go to much extra expense and exert themselves to the utmost to carry out with style.

Decorating the sukkah is our way of expressing our appreciation for the gifts with which Hashem has showered us. That bounty includes our little makeshift sukkah-home of seven days duration.

We display the various decorations and we say that this humble sukkah is as beautiful as our home. What can be more rewarding than basking b’tzilah d’heiminusah?

We awaken in the morning and happily fetch our lulav mehudar and esrog hadar and bring them into our sukkah na’ah. We make the brocha thanking Hashem for sanctifying us and giving us the mitzvah of netilas lulav.

The halacha sets the criteria for determining what constitutes the beauty of the lulav and esrog. A top quality lulav is one which conforms precisely to the halacha and is green until the very top. A beautiful esrog is one which the Shulchan Aruch defines as hadar; free from black spots. Neither the neighbors nor trendsetters can define the highest standard of beauty. We must look to Torah for that. We learn that lesson on Sukkos and try to carry it with us the rest of the year.

Indestructible and Immortal

The posuk teaches us that our people were sheltered by Hashem in sukkos while in the desert. The generation of the people who left Mitzrayim is termed the Dor De’ah, as Chazal say, “Ro’asah shifcha al hayom mah shelo ra’ah Yecheskel ben Buzi.” Perhaps one of the reasons the Torah commands us to observe Sukkos in Tishrei following the Yomim Noraim is because it is at this time of year that we have been purified from sin and it is the closest we will ever come to the level of the Yotzei Mitzrayim and are most receptive to the message of the sukkah.

It is in Tishrei, after going through the process of purification from sin, that our psyches can accept that only Torah and mitzvos are permanent. The Jewish people, too, retain this quality of immortality and indestructibility.

Additionally, the Torah handed down to us in Midbar Sinai is the exact same Torah the Jewish people have followed for millennia, until this very day. We follow the same hilchos sukkah, and are particular about precisely the same criteria our forbears were meticulous about while seeking the perfect lulav and esrog.

Through all the exiles, through all the years of wandering and dispersal, Jews have used the same daled minim that we use this year.

This idea may be included in the commandment of “Lema’an yeidu doroseichem ki vasukkos hoshavti.” Let your children know throughout all the generations that the Jewish people must recreate and reside for seven days in the same sukkos in which the Jews lived during their 40-year trek through the Midbar.

Is there anything that can gladden a Jew’s heart as much as recognizing the indestructibility of Torah and the Jewish people? That may be another reason simcha is such a significant component of Sukkos. That may be why we celebrate Simchas Torah immediately following Sukkos. We make the siyum haTorah and begin the Torah anew with a fresh understanding of its importance along with a renewed sense of awe for our unique mission.

As we sit in our sukkah looking up at the heavens, we realize that we are never alone. We look around the small room and realize that as children of Avrohom Avinu, we can also be blessed with kol - if we would only open our hearts and minds to appreciate the gifts the Torah bestows on those who follow in its path. We can become sheleimim like Yaakov Avinu if we properly construct the sukkah and understand its message of protection from an ugly, degenerate world. With kol and sheleimus comes the very essence of simcha which defines the Yom Tov and can define us and enhance our lives.

The Rambam [ibid] writes that one who refrains from observing the mitzvos with simcha is deserving of punishment, as the posuk states [Devorim 28:47] that you will be punished “tachas asher lo ovadetah es Hashem Elokecha b’simcha u’betuv leivov…” because you didn’t serve Hashem with happiness.

Why does the Torah punish a person for not doing a mitzvah with simcha? Why must a mitzvah be done with simcha? Nowhere in the Torah is a Jew commanded to perform mitzvos with simcha. Why is it such an integral part of the commandments, so much so that if we don’t perform the mitzvah b’simcha we are severely punished?

Perhaps we can explain it according to the line of reasoning we have been following. Simcha is a state of being which occurs when one performs a mitzvah, bishleimusah, properly. One who does not experience joy while performing the mitzvah indicates that he has not properly carried out G-d’s commandment. For this he is punished.

People who do not appreciate the message of the sukkah and our way of life do not understand the mitzvah of sukkah. They have no clue what simcha is or how to attain it. To them it is a remote, non-realistic concept not applicable to their own lives. They don’t see the difference between what we are doing and a person who lives in a ramshackle unheated shack, huddling in fear and shivering from the cold blowing through it.

But a peek inside a sukkah will drive the difference home better than any words can. When a Jewish family sits in a room made of the very same materials as the pauper’s non-insulated hut, they sing songs of grace to the Borei Olam for blessing them with kol. They are warm, they are happy, they are complete and at peace.

Surrounded by life’s most precious blessings, they reside under the tzilah d’heiminusah, protected from the ruach hazman; they are links in a chain passing back to Sinai, Sukkos and Aram Naharayim.

They are on a journey which will lead them back home with the binyan Bais Hamikdosh b’meheirah b’yomeinu. Amein.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Kesivah Vachasimah Tovah

The kashrus scandal refuses to die down. It seems as if talking about it serves as a form of therapy for an agitated soul. Of course, idle conjecture generally leads to no good, but the fact that so many good Jews are unable to assimilate what happened and continue to feel haunted and distressed by it carries a certain redemptive quality.

Endless, senseless chest-beating has no place in the teshuva process, and thankfully there have been several asifos to help give grieving people the proper perspective on what took place. Rather than harp on the details of what transpired, the focus has been on the lessons we can derive from the debacle and what we can do to improve ourselves as individuals and as a tzibbur.

While regrettably there have been other scandals in Jewish life, we have not become jaded and desensitized, and the present calamity has shaken us to the core. We know that being human, people do, at times, sin for personal benefit, and when faced with the evidence, we wonder how they could sink so low. But when in recent memory has a betrayal of public trust taken place where a person led so many good ehrliche people to unknowingly take part in an aveirah they would have sacrificed so much to avoid?

So many of us find the affair unfathomable. People are lost as they seek answers. We look for clues to help explain the incomprehensible. We look to find causes for what could have led to such a tragic occurrence. Some thoughts expressed by Maran Harav Elazar Shach zt”l in 1988 may shed some light for us.

The setting was the opening of the summer Yarchei Kallah of the Ponovezh Yeshiva. His drasha there was an annual event and people would throng to the Ponovezh Bais Medrash to hear the words of the aged rosh yeshiva and gadol hador.

That year, he expressed some thoughts that he said caused the very walls of his apartment to shake. He quoted the Gemorah in Nedorim, 81a, in which Rav Yehuda expounds in the name of Rav to explain the pesukim in Yirmiyahu (9:11 – 12), “Mi ha’ish hachochom veyovein es zos… ahl mah ovdah haaretz nitzesah kamidbar mei’ein yoshev? Vayomer Hashem, al ozvom es Torasi asher nosati lifneihem… Who is the wise man who can understand this, why the land became lost, parched like a desert with no residents? And Hashem said, “Because they forsook my Torah and did not heed my voice…”

The Gemorah explains that no one was able to understand what caused the churban. They asked the chachomim, neviim, and malachei hashareis and no one could explain it. It was finally Hakadosh Boruch Hu Who enlightened them as to what specific sin led to the catastrophe. Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav that their sin was that they didn’t appreciate Torah enough to recite a bracha before studying it.

The Ran asks why the chachomim and neviim were unable to perceive this. Wouldn’t the lapse have been obvious?

He explains that the Jews at the time of the churban must surely have learned the Torah and kept the mitzvos and therefore no one could explain the destruction. It was only Hakadosh Boruch Hu, Who can see into a man’s heart, Who could provide the answer - that they didn’t make a brocha before learning. The Torah was not important enough in their eyes for them to make a brocha on it. They didn’t learn the Torah lishmah, and therefore didn’t appreciate it enough to make a brocha prior to its study.

Rav Shach expounded on this idea. If the sin would have been egregious, it would have been obvious to the chachomim and neviim, he pointed out. Had their transgression been that they learned Torah sheloh leshmah, the leaders of the generation would have perceived the reason for the punishment. But the sin the Jews were guilty of during that period was so fine that the chachomim could not sense it and the neviim had no clue what it was. Even the Heavenly angels were unable to fathom what the Jews had done that was so reprehensible that the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed because of it.

Can you imagine a sin so fine and minute that the holiest people and the very angels were unable to discern it? Do average rank-and-file Jews have the ability to understand something the chochom, novi and malach can’t? How, then, could Hashem have expected the people of that generation to be aware that they were sinning? Why, then, were they so severely punished with the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh and our dispersal into exile until the present day?

Rav Shach answered that no one - not even a chochom or novi - can know what is going on in the heart of his fellow man; even angels are not equipped to know what lies in a person’s heart. Only G-d can read a person’s mind and know what lies inside of him.

But since each man’s soul is chelek Eloka mimaal, a person can see into his own soul and heart and know what lies there. When it comes to the ability to understand his own personal motives, each person can see the inner truth more accurately than a chochom, novi or malach. G-d has given every person the ability to detect even the slightest defect in his own soul. When it comes to our own failings, we are wiser than the wisest wise man, can see deeper than the greatest seer, and can grasp truths that evade an angel.

We, too, are baffled as we try to figure out the cause and effect behind the communal downfall. We debate back and forth to try to figure out why something like this befell us. We seek out a chochom to explain it to us, and we are still in the dark.

When something like this happens, each one of us must look into our own hearts, and search the crevices of our souls for all possible flaws. We all know we are not perfect, we all know what we need to improve. We don’t need anyone to tell us. We need chachomim to arouse us and force us to perform this self-analysis, but it is up to us to do the heavy lifting and to rectify the weaknesses and lapses that are taking their toll on our spiritual lives.

It takes a level of emotional honesty so penetrating and excruciating to read one’s own soul. At a time like this, we must all try to get to that deep level of self-awareness. We shouldn’t be looking at the next guy, and looking for someone to blame.

Now, as we approach the Yom Hadin, is the hour to begin this process.

Let us all resolve to examine our souls and improve our ways. Let us take stock of all the good we do and the Torah we study, at the same time that we acknowledge how much farther we could reach, how much more we could accomplish if we truly wanted to live up to His expectations of us and bring Him nachas.

Tehei hasha’ah hazos shaas rachamim v’eis ratzon.
Kesivah vachasimah tovah.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The frum world is still reeling with shock over revelations that a Monsey butcher was fraudulently selling non-kosher meat and chicken as kosher. While it remains unclear exactly what was taking place at Shevach Meats and for how long, there is no doubt that people were led astray on a massive scale.

People in Monsey stood on long lines kashering their utensils last week following the p’sak of local rabbonim, as printed in last week’s Yated. That p’sak advised that all utensils used for cooking and eating meat and poultry products purchased at that store require kashering.

Some stories are so sad that it is difficult to write about them. You want to believe that it didn’t really happen. You wait for someone to call you and tell you that it was all a massive misunderstanding.

For once, the cliché that something is “unbelievable” can be taken literally. The news of the betrayal of the public trust in such an egregious manner and in such a vital area of Jewish life is staggering. It has left tens of thousands of Jews dumbfounded, wondering how such a thing could have happened. The initial reaction of shock and horror has not worn off, as responsible leaders seek to determine the details of this case and whether the practice is more widespread.

Rabbonim in the Monsey area were kept busy paskening shailos on this matter as people went about taking stock of their pots and pans and determining which required kashering and which didn’t. Never in their wildest dreams did they imagine such a thing would happen in their community. Rabbonim across the world addressed the issue in their Shabbos drashos as people searched for answers and direction.

One seeks to remember the last time something like this took place, bringing a michshol to this many people. We hope and pray that such an occurrence will never be repeated.

“How can it be? How can it possibly be? What are we missing?” asked people who are medakdeik b’kallah k’bachamurah. Erudite people were unable to answer.

You Couldn’t Miss
The Nobility

Huge crowds of Jews from all sectors were seen shlepping their keilim and waiting on line to do hagollas keilim all across Monsey. You couldn’t miss the nobility and self-sacrifice on the part of so many Yidden who threw out food and keilim and went to exceptional lengths to get rid of any shemetz of tarfus. You saw rabbonim standing for hours on site, answering questions as people stood in line with their pots, pans and flatware. Nobody took shortcuts in this tragedy, trying to get away cheap and easy. On the contrary, they were anxious to fulfill the halachic requirements and then some.

This Elul, people received a lesson in the power of the Yeitzer Hara and chet. We have been reminded to never be complacent or take anything for granted. We were reminded to ask questions; to be ever vigilant. In this land of plenty, where everything seems to come so easy, some reminisced of a world gone by where their mothers stood in their kitchens kashering chickens.

In a world of mass produced everything, certain customs are swept away by the engine of progress and it seems futile to hearken back to the days of yore. No one we know wants to go back to that laborious process, but as it was thrown out, so was a certain feeling for practical halacha. Yiddines would look at and examine the heiliger korkevan and bring their chickens to the local rov. Kitchen counters were lined with newspaper as poultry sat covered in kosher salt. A smell of broiled livers wafted through the tenements as Shabbos approached.

All this went out the window and will not return anytime soon. In truth, not all was well in previous generations, either. People involved in producing and providing kosher meat at the turn of the century were often less than upstanding. It required determined leadership and mesirus nefesh of rabbonim who put their lives on the line to stand up to them. Stories of Rav Yaakov Yosef’s battles with entrenched evil-doers during his tenure as Chief Rabbi of New York City over 100 years ago have become legendary. The Ridbaz writes quite emotionally in an introduction to one of his seforim of his travails as he attempted to raise the level of kashrus while he served as rov in America.

We have come a long way, yet there is always room for improvement in all fields of human endeavor, because man is not infallible. We should remember to be makir tov to the people who work long hours to provide us with kosher products. They slave away in hot kitchens and travel to far away places so that we can walk into virtually any supermarket anywhere in this country and find kosher products. This was not always the case. It was a long, protracted struggle with many setbacks along the way. As bad as things are, we ought to keep things in their proper perspective and be thankful for what we have.

The dust has not yet settled and all the facts in the meat scandal are not yet fully known. Let us wait until the rabbonim responsibly examine what went wrong and decide how to rectify the lapses that allowed it to happen. Let us not fall into the trap of sensationalism and gossip. Let not a communal tragedy become a pretext for further defilement. Let us use our time to study Shulchan Aruch and sifrei halacha so that we can be better and more complete frum Yidden.

Let us not fall prey to the temptation to exaggerate and embellish the most lurid and shocking aspects of anything under discussion or investigation. Let us employ the necessary self control, realizing the fruitless nature of endless and often erroneous analysis. Let us hope and pray that the scandal is not as deep as it appears to be. And let us once again reaffirm our fidelity to the halacha and not let superficial understanding of these matters interfere with the course of action that must be taken.

We are all experiencing a period of sadness and grief. We need to channel those feelings into something positive. As we reflect and engage in a period of introspection, we need to rise above the failures and work to achieve a more perfect state of affairs. When events such as these take place, we struggle, on a personal and communal level, to place it in the appropriate context. It is true that we don’t know why these events occur. But, as always, in the aftermath of such happenings, we must utilize such a tragic occurrence as an opportunity to take spiritual stock of where we are and how we can better ourselves in our eternal quest to be dovuk baHashem.

In the first of this week’s parshiyos, Parshas Nitzovim, the Torah tells us, “Hanistaros laHashem Elokeinu v’haniglos lonu ulevoneinu, the hidden [sins] are for Hashem, our G-d, but the revealed [sins] are for us and our children.” Moshe Rabbeinu reassures Klal Yisroel that hidden sins are the province of Hakadosh Boruch Hu alone, and he holds no one responsible but the sinners themselves. The Ramban adds that the posuk also refers to aveiros that are hidden from the perpetrator himself, as it often happens that people sin out of ignorance of halacha or regarding the facts of a situation. Such a chet belongs to Hashem, in the sense that he does not hold it against the sinner.

Perhaps the posuk is also hinting that if we want to ensure that Hashem does not hold us accountable for the hidden sins, we have to demonstrate adequate effort to rectify the sins and inequities that we are aware of. When Hashem observes us working to improve ourselves in areas that are “niglos lonu,” when it is clear that we are cognizant of the areas that need to be addressed and remedied, it is then that Hashem will ensure that there will be no hidden violations of halacha.

We are all aware of problems and concerns that are nigleh - they’re well known; they are out there in the open - yet we haven’t taken the proper steps and we haven’t mustered up the necessary courage to deal with the problems and resolve them.

On all matters which we know we are deficient in, in our own personal lives and as a community, we must demonstrate that we take these issues seriously and that we will do all we can, and then some, to provide effective and lasting solutions.

He Broke
Down Crying

Last week, amidst the tumult surrounding the scandal, I heard a story that drove home an important message regarding the calamity that has hit our community.

The story, as it was told, was that an elderly gentleman, who decades ago survived the concentration camps of Auschwitz, went to kasher his keilim after learning the p’sak of the rabbonim. As he stood there, handing over his pot to be dunked in the boiling water, he broke down in tears, weeping uncontrollably. He wasn’t burned by the steam or splashed by the boiling hot water, but his soul was seared and the pain was unbearable. He said to no one in particular, “All my years in the camps, I was literally moser nefesh not to eat tarfus. I risked my life, many times, just to have kosher food to eat, even as I existed on mere morsels of bread. Many times I starved. And now, so many years later, living in the land of plenty, I may have eaten treif.”

This man cried because, after a lifetime of nisyonos and challenges of all kinds, he understands the severity and the gravity of what has occurred. To a man who risked his life for kashrus, the possible consumption of non-kosher chicken is a cause for weeping, not a reason to gossip.

As many people indeed are, we should all be heartbroken over what took place. The tragedy should leave us speechless and not provide fodder for small talk at get-togethers.

We should focus on ensuring that we never, ever, become accustomed to a lack of fidelity in halacha. And in order to do so, we must learn halacha more often, in depth, with due diligence. We can’t live as frum Yidden without devoting hours upon hours plumbing the depths of Shulchan Aruch and the poskim. That goes for Orach Chaim, as well as Choshen Mishpot, Yoreh Deah and Hilchos Lashon Hara.

When The Stakes
Are That High

Rav Chaim Soloveitchik would often repeat the following thought from the sefer Be’er Mayim Chaim. The posuk recounts in Parshas Chayei Sorah when Avrohom Avinu sent Eliezer to find a proper shidduch for his son Yitzchok: “Vayomer Avrohom el avdo zekan beiso hamoshel bechol asher lo, sim noh yodcha tachas yereichi.” The Torah describes how much confidence Avrohom had in Eliezer, that he trusted him with everything he owned, as he controlled all of Avrohom’s possessions. Why is it necessary for the Torah to elaborate on that? And if the servant was so trusted, why did Avrohom make him swear that he wouldn’t go to the Bnos Canaan to find a wife for Yitzchok?

The Be’er Mayim Chaim answered with a moshol. If a person is traveling through a strange city and feels hungry, he goes into a restaurant, asks if it is kosher and sits down for a meal. Someone with higher religious standards asks who gives the hechsher before sitting down to eat. If he is even more G-d fearing, he first goes to the local shul and inquires as to where people eat out, and then makes his way to the restaurant. A traveler who is even more medakdeik b’mitzvos would make his way the local rov and ask him where he can eat in town before going to a food establishment.

What if the person is coming to town to loan $1,000,000.00 to someone with a heter iska? Would he content himself with asking the borrower if he is trustworthy and then engage in the deal? Would he be satisfied if a few people in the shul told him that he can trust the man? What if the rov told him that he can feel safe entrusting the local man with his million dollars? He would adopt all these safeguards and more. He’d ask questions, he’d meet the person, talk to him and check him out. Following all his inquiries, he would only then go into the deal if he had co-signers on the loan and a lien on the man’s house. He’d do everything he could to ascertain that his money would be safe.

The Be’er Mayim Chaim explains that the posuk goes to great lengths to illustrate that regarding Avrohom Avinu, the opposite was the case. When it came to finances, he trusted Eliezer with everything, but when it came to matters of Yiddishkeit, he said, “Sim noh yodchu tachas yereichi.” He made him swear that he would follow Avrohom Avinu’s instructions exactly as he was ordered, without deviating.

We have to learn to ask questions when we are unsure of the halacha. When things are incongruous, when something seems suspicious, we must probe for an explanation. If things don’t add up we must speak up. There is no shame in asking questions repeatedly until we feel safe and secure that what we are doing is proper and just. We have to take our Yiddishkeit as seriously as we do our finances if we want to be sure we are acting properly.

Part of the curse of golus is that we have no novi who can interpret for us the actions of Hashem, who can help us correct our ways and explain to us the reasons behind disturbing events. Thus, we are left in the dark, broken and despondent. Ain lonu novi v’ein lonu chozeh, v’ein lonu shiur rak haTorah hazos.

What took place felt like a 9/11 in the world of kashrus. Our response must be a re-dedication to Torah study and observance with a renewed enthusiasm, allegiance and vigor. In this merit, we will be spared further michsholim and the accompanying agony and sadness and merit a teshuvah sheleima.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


Isn’t it interesting how people tend to be shocked at aspects of human nature that they mistakenly think belong to a bygone era? So often you hear people say, “I can’t believe that in our day and age people would do such a thing and get away with it.” But people today pull the same stunts they always have and prove that the more things change the more they stay the same.

Suppose someone you know would get caught pulling a scam, doing an aveirah which has the potential to destroy him, you would get angry at him. You would want to run over to him and scream, “How can you do this? How could you be so immoral? How did you even think you would get away with this? Is any amount of gain worth the eternal shame and damage such reprehensible actions cause?” You would want to just grab him by the collar, shake him and shout, “What is the matter with you? Are you nuts?”

And the truth is - he is. And was.

Chazal say, “Ein odom choteh elah im kein nichnas bo ruach shtus,” a person only sins because a streak of madness entered him. It takes madness to engage in behavior which can ruin you for the rest of your life. It takes madness to perform evil. And it also takes madness to commit any sin. Chazal make this statement regarding all forms of cheit, not only the chatoim which can jeopardize your career.

Sometimes it takes being shocked and angry to jolt us into realizing the power of the Yeitzer Hara and sin. Sometimes it takes shocking revelations to convince us that we all have to be on the lookout for that “ruach shtus” which is forever seeking to infiltrate and infect us. We must be constantly on guard lest that strain sneak in and overwhelm us.

And just as that ruach shtus affects people like us, it also affects leaders, communities, nations and peoples.

Who would think that with the Holocaust still fresh in many people’s memories, the world would sit by impotently as a leader of a state could brazenly declare his objective of wiping Israel off the map? Nobody suspects that his threats are empty. He has publicized that he is working non-stop to produce a nuclear weapon with which to attack Israel and the world stands by helplessly.

Ever since Israel’s founding, its leaders professed that their goal was to provide Jews a safe haven after the Holocaust. They have steadily been proclaiming over the decades that the Jewish people need a country which will fight for them and protect them from hostile nations bent on destroying them. Israel will fight for you, Israel will make sure there will never be another Holocaust. People who questioned that bravado were called cynical and backward ghetto Jews. The few and the proud would build an army and stand up for the rights of the Jewish people against all who would do them harm.

Now, at a most critical juncture in its history, Israel’s national security is in the hands of mediocre people who cannot lead. The prime minister, defense minister, president and the government pretend to have the country’s best interests at heart, but are corrupt and untrustworthy. Israel’s army has been embarrassed before the entire world and shown itself to be ill-equipped, ill-prepared and ill-trained to confront the challenges it must face. Calls are mounting for the replacement of the Chief of Staff, General Chalutz, for having precipitated a loss of motivation and faith within the army, coupled with a crisis of trust.

At the end of World War I, the nations of the world joined under the banner of President Wilson in forming the League of Nations, so that there would never again be a world war. Following the Second World War, leaders of western nations resolved that they would never again permit a monstrous demagogue like Hitler to come to power and formed the United Nations.

After 9-11, everyone said it was a new world and a new age and we will never again allow terror to wreak mayhem of such magnitude. President Bush declared a new doctrine for fighting the axis of evil and Americans and members of other freedom loving nations supported him. However, wars are not won overnight and people weaned on television specials quickly lose patience if the battle is not over and done with quickly. Americans and Britons now tell pollsters they are fed up with the war in Iraq and want to elect leaders who oppose this war.

Today, the president of Iran mocks the Holocaust, denies it ever happened and lets everyone know that he is serious about wiping Israel off the face of the earth. And neither Israel nor the United Nations nor President Bush or anyone else is prepared to stop him. The ruach shtus seems to have invaded everywhere, infecting people large and small, inflicting all types of damage.

We live in a surreal time. The world is so technologically advanced in so many ways, yet leaders of the most primitive and backward nations have their fingers on the trigger, ready to destroy the planet. Who can stop them?

The words of Rav Chaim Vital on this topic, largely unknown among the public until recently, speak with immediacy and urgency about our own times.

In his Sefer Eitz Hadaas Tov, Tehillim 124, the disciple of the Arizal writes, “There are four exiles, Bovel, Modai, Yovon and Edom, but at the end of days, Yisroel will be in golus Yishmael as is brought in Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer and in Midrashim and in the Sefer Hazohar at the end of Parshas Lech lecho… This exile will be more difficult than the others. This is why his name is Yishmoel, because Yisroel will cry out during that golus, and Hashem will listen and respond to them, Yishma El V’ya’aneim.

“Yishmael will rule over the world and over Yisroel… and attempt to wipe out the name of Yisroel from under the sky as if it never existed… They will cause Yisroel great tzaros, the likes of which have never before been seen.”

The posuk in Tehillim in which Dovid Hamelech says, “Lulei Hashem shehoyah lonu bekum aleinu odom, azai chaim bela’unu,” alludes to this era. “If Hashem had not been with us when they rose against us, we would have been swallowed up alive.”

Rav Chaim Vital writes that b’acharis hayomim, during the period of the end of days leading up to the arrival of Moshiach, when the Arabs will dominate the world, the Jews will be at their wits’ end. They will have no choice other than to cry out to Hashem and He will answer them. “We will have no hope or recourse other than our trust in Hakadosh Boruch Hu that he will save us from their evil hands.”

The nevuah, that the Jews will have no one to turn to help them out of their predicament, clearly appears to be addressing our own times. Had you looked at that p’shat from Rav Chaim Vital six months ago, you might not have viewed it as applicable to our own days. You would have protested, “The armies of the world would stop these murderers, America will never permit it to happen; Israel’s army would step in and wipe them out.”

But now, when you hear those words of Rav Chaim Vital, they resonate with the immediacy of today’s news. We indeed have nowhere and no one to turn to other than Avinu Shebashomayim.

The whole world stands by as the Bnei Yishmael increase their power and threaten murderous acts against the Bnei Yisroel. They want to respond, but it appears as if their ability to do so is frozen. Israel is controlled by people proven to be incapable. The Israeli army is saddled with its own deficiencies. The American army is bogged down in a war in Iraq as Americans increasingly lose their will to wage war against those who seek to destroy their way of life.

There is only one solution, and as the days pass, it becomes clearer to all what that is: only G-d can help us overcome this deadly foe.

What can we do to merit the Divine intervention, deliverance from the clutches of evil, and the ultimate redemption?

This week’s parsha of Ki Savo provides the answer when it states in perek 28 posuk 1 that if we will adhere to all the mitzvos we were commanded by G-d and follow His word, we will merit to be ascendant over all the other nations.

It is interesting to note that this posuk is preceded by the one which states, “Arur asher lo yokim es divrei haTorah hazos - Cursed shall be the one who does not uphold [raise] the Torah.”

The Ramban brings the Yerushalmi in Sotah (7:4) that this curse is referring to people who are in a position to influence others to come closer to Torah and to support Torah and fail to do so. Anyone who shirks his responsibility is included in this arur. Even if the person is a complete tzaddik in everything he does, if he could have drawn others closer to the holiness and truth of Torah but doesn’t, he is cursed.

The Chofetz Chaim would repeat this Ramban and strengthen its message by quoting the Gemara in Shabbos (54), that one who has the ability to protest against the wrongful actions of the people of his town and doesn’t do so gets caught up in their sins. One who reproaches his fellows and brings them to the right path, thereby strengthening kevod Shomayim, is showered with the brachos that were delivered in this week’s parsha on Har Gerizim.

He would make the point that there is no better brocha than that. And thus everyone should use whatever abilities they have to help build Torah. If Hashem blessed someone with money, then he should use it to build yeshivos for the study of Torah. If he is blessed with oratorical skills, he should use them to raise money for yeshivos and for other Torah causes. He should speak out against practices that cause a weakening of our religion.

As the Yom Hadin approaches, we all seek out sources of merit and brocha to be zoche in din and be inscribed in the book of tzaddikim. The Ramban informs us that it is not sufficient to be a tzaddik gomur, but we must also use our faculties to help strengthen and spread Torah.

As the world spins out of control and our eternal enemies gird themselves with weapons capable of causing colossal damage, we realize that there is no one we can depend on to protect us other than Hashem. We seek sources of merit for ourselves and to be included with those the posuk calls boruch, the blessed ones.

We require extra brocha to vanquish the ever-present ruach shtus and remove us from falling, G-d forbid, into the clutches of those who are arur.

We are all blessed with different strengths and abilities which we must use for worthwhile purposes. Hashem made each of us differently for a reason and that is because it takes the varied capabilities of a group of individuals to build a community and strengthen a nation.

Let us all follow the admonition of the Chofetz Chaim and use our kochos to their full potential to increase the study and support of Torah. Let us find more time to learn, and seek out worthy causes to support with increased generosity and wholeheartedness. Let us inspire others to do the same. Let us use the power of speech to spread leshon tov and not leshon horah. And let us also seek to do away with some of the evil which pervades our world.

Let us be ever vigilant in our behavior, remaining loyal to Shulchan Aruch and to what we know is true and proper. Let us maintain the strength of character and purpose necessary to remain upstanding in a tipsy world.

May these activities bring us abundant merit in the final weeks before Rosh Hashanah so that we earn the blessing of a year of success, good health, parnassa, nachas and peace.