Monday, January 22, 2007

A Letter to the Editor

Reb Pinchos Gelb, a chassidisher Yid from Williamsburg, called me one day with an unusual request. He was in Stamford, Connecticut for Shabbos and had the opportunity to spend time in Yeshiva Bais Binyomin. He told me that he is not fluent enough in English to write a letter to the editor, and asked me to do it for him. “Please write for me a letter about the yeshiva in Stamford,” he said.

I don’t like talking to myself and I don’t make a habit of writing letters to the editor, but I told him I would do something for him.

This individual rarely leaves Williamsburg. He happened to be staying at the Holiday Inn for a Shabbos Sheva Brachos, he said, and upon hearing there was a yeshiva nearby, he decided to take a look. He was overwhelmed at what he witnessed.

He begged me to write about it. “The yeshiva looks like they can use money and you never know,” he said, “if people see a nice letter to the editor in the Yated, maybe someone will be impressed enough to send a donation. I never saw people like the roshei yeshiva of that yeshiva. They are so unassuming, so ehrliche and fine. I felt I had to do something to help them and spread the word about their mosad and their tremendous harbotzas Torah.”

As he was talking, I was thinking that many people have heard of the yeshiva and many have heard of the roshei yeshiva, Rav Simcha Schustal and Rav Meir Hersh-kowitz. Anyone who has ever come in contact with them is cognizant of their greatness, yet we don’t see their names plastered anywhere; they are not as renowned as other leading roshei yeshiva.

Why is that? Why is it that people of their caliber don’t make it to the headlines in the Torah community? What is it about our way of life nowadays that the Stamford Yeshiva is in such close physical proximity, yet so far from our psyche?

The man from Williamsburg continued talking, and as he spoke, I pictured him walking into the yeshiva with his gekreizelteh peyos, not knowing what to expect. I imagined him setting his eyes upon Rav Simcha and Rav Meir. In my mind’s eye, I watched him as he stood in the back of the bais medrash, taking in the sight of the bochurim learning with such hasmada. “Why is it that a yeshiva of this caliber is such a well kept secret?” he asks me.

And then I remembered, that two years ago, I was chairman at the Yeshiva Bais Binyomin dinner and I had the same question. I recalled the gist of what I said when I spoke at the dinner.

I noted that Maran Harav Shach zt”l once remarked that he didn’t understand how there could be lamed vov secret tzaddikim in our generation. There is so much to do in our world, so many issues that need our urgent attention; how can a person stay hidden as a lamed vov tzaddik? A tzaddik does not have the luxury of being able to hide in his own daled amos; he has to make himself available to the masses of people who seek Torah wisdom and guidance.

The roshei yeshiva of Yeshiva Bais Binyomin in Stamford provide the answer to Rav Shach’s question. The secret tzaddikim of our generation upon whom the entire world exists do not hide themselves from the public. They are out there in plain view, learning, teaching, davening and doing all they do with so much tzidkus.

They are tzaddikim nistorim not because they hide themselves from us, but rather because we hide ourselves from them. We don’t take the trip to Stamford to see them. We rarely invite them to speak at our functions. They don’t fit in with the world that is fueled by hype and media exposure. They are too simple, too “old fashioned,” too real to gain notice in today’s world.

This is not to disparage in any way the talmidei chachomim who have gained worldwide fame and are sought out day and night by ehrliche Yidden across the world. This is not to cast aspersions on those who have achieved worldwide renown and whose names appear regularly in this newspaper. The gedolim who stand at the helm of our community and are revered and sought after for their daas Torah are definitely most deserving of our allegiance and admiration.

They are each special in their own ways. The two tzaddikim of Bais Binyomin are special in ways that don’t encourage fame in today’s world.

We recently lost such a Yid, Rav Dovid Barkin zt”l, a rosh yeshiva in Yeshivas Telz in Wickliffe, Ohio. My paper devoted many pages to an appreciation of him and several of our leading writers depicted his greatness. It was a conscious decision to show that we treasure not only the leaders of our people who have achieved fame and renown and have become household names, but also those lamed vov-niks who toil valiantly in the vineyard of Hakadosh Boruch Hu.

Strangely enough, a person can be a world-class talmid chochom and tzaddik and people outside of his immediate circle have never heard of him. A person can be American-born and bred and develop into someone upon whose Torah the world stands.

Perhaps we can glean some insight into this phenomenon with a closer look at parshas Shemos.

The first few parshiyos of Shemos describe the plagues that Hashem inflicted upon Paroh and Mitzrayim. Our children relish these stories of the makos. They giggle at the stupidity and hubris of Paroh and the Mitzriyim. Despite all the spectacular wonders that demonstrated midah k’neged midah, Paroh and the Mitzriyim refused to recognize the hand of G-d. It is a remarkable lesson for our children to learn how Hashem ultimately punishes those who torture his people and exacts revenge from them.

But there is more to the story, and as we mature we should learn to understand the Torah on a more profound level.

In parshas Va’eira, we read how Hakadosh Boruch Hu told Moshe that Paroh will ask for proof of the Divine nature of his message. Hashem instructed Moshe to perform a mofeis. “Tell Aharon to take your stick and throw it on the floor and it will become a snake.”

The posuk relates that Paroh’s magicians were able to do the same with their sticks and thus Paroh was not impressed with Moshe’s abilities.

If Hakadosh Boruch Hu knew that magicians could mimic Moshe’s supernatural act with their sticks, why did He instruct Moshe to perform it? How could such a mofes prove that Hashem had indeed sent Moshe?

Following that incident, the posuk relates that Hashem commanded Moshe to tell Paroh, “With this you shall know that I am Hashem. Strike the water with your stick and it shall turn to blood.”

But, as we all know, the court magicians were able to replicate what they described as alchemy and appeared to turn water to blood.

Since Hakadosh Boruch Hu knew that they could imitate what Moshe and Aharon had done, why did He say that this act would prove to Paroh that He is Hashem, the true L-rd?

In Parshas Bereishis (1:26), the posuk tells us that Hashem said, “Naaseh adam betzalmeinu kidmuseinu - Let us make man in our image.” The Medrash says that when Hashem dictated the Torah for Moshe to write and Moshe came to this posuk, he protested that these words would provide a makom litos, an opportunity for people to justify their denial of Hashem’s Oneness. They would use the words “let us make man in our image” to support their contention that Hashem had other forces helping Him in the act of creation.

Moshe’s objections were overruled by the Creator, who told Moshe that whoever wants to make that mistake will do so, but that Hashem wanted the lesson to be taught that man should always consult with others before undertaking a major project.

Paroh asked Moshe for a sign to prove G-d’s dominion, but no matter what Moshe would have done, the ruler of Mitzrayim would not have been convinced. That is because he wanted to err, he wanted to believe in his own supremacy. Any Divine sign Moshe produced would have been interpreted by Paroh in a way that supported his own arrogance and delusions of grandeur.

Paroh wasn’t about to release the Jews from captivity; he was not about to renounce his egotistical belief in the deity he had fashioned of himself in Mitzrayim.

Hakadosh Boruch Hu provides signs for all to see and follow. Those who are seeking proper direction to learn and grow follow the path, and those who aren’t interested stumble over the path to righteousness and goodness on the way to their ultimate downfall. As the posuk states, “Ki yeshorim darchei Hashem,v’ tzaddikim yeilchu vom, u’foshim yikoshlu vom.”

The Rambam writes (Hilchos Yesodei Torah 8:1) that the Bnei Yisroel did not believe in Moshe Rabbeinu because of the miracles he performed. They believed in him because at Har Sinai they saw and heard the kolos and lapidim. They saw Moshe rise into the clouds and they heard the voice speaking to him and telling him, “Moshe, Moshe, go tell B’nei Yisroel the following words…”

We need people like Rav Schustal and Rav Hershkowitz to remind us why it is that we respect talmidei chachomim and roshei yeshiva. We need yeshivos like theirs to remind us why it is that we support yeshivos. It is not for the fame or the glory; it is not so that we should get kavod for ourselves by attaching ourselves to great and famous people.

We support Torah because our neshamos stood at Har Sinai. We need to be reminded that it is not the mofsim and tales of wonder which should impress us, but rather the pure pashtus and anivus, the lomdus, sinai v’oker harim, of talmidei chachomim that is of paramount importance and in whose merit the world exists.

The amount of Torah studied in our day is more than has been studied at any time since our people have gone into exile, but we don’t always appreciate that. We sometimes mock and criticize. There is a makom litos. But then there are the people who are so pure and holy that no one can doubt or mock them. They remind us what is genuine and true. They are the mofsim, the signs, that there is greatness in our midst.

We all seek out tzaddikim, but all too often our vision has been tainted by the sorcery of the Mitzriyim who surround us. The baalei mofeis, such as those our Williamsburg friend found in Stamford, serve to remind us that there is true greatness even in our beleaguered generation.

To find the tzaddikim of our day, we need to look beyond the surface and not be distracted by glitz and glitter. We need to seek out these rare individuals, support them and cling to them, as they will bring meaning and value to our lives and restore our faith in humanity and in greatness. They will guide and inspire us on the path that will lead to growth in Torah and avodah, and, ultimately, the redemption. May it come speedily in our day. Amein.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Jewish Observer

The public appetite for fresh news drives the media to produce newsbreaks even when nothing of import has taken place. Stories are embellished and fabricated; individuals who have done nothing newsworthy are suddenly the focus of elaborate attention.

And so, in the absence of hard news, a spotlight has now swung to the upcoming presidential election, with the media attempting to crank out news to feed a headlines-hungry public that is in constant need of entertainment and diversion.

An election pits two or more people with differing views on the issues of the day in a contest for support of the people they represent. The candidates campaign and tout their opinions on matters of concern to the voters.

Lately, the system seems to have changed. Politicians poll the voters and then attempt to tailor their comments according to what the masses want to hear.

The public doesn’t seem to notice that they are dictating the candidate’s platform.

Take, for example, the junior senator from New York, a woman by the name of Hillary Clinton. Anyone who is reasonably informed about national politics knows that she has had her sights set on the presidency for the longest time. Yet, as she campaigned for re-election to the senate a couple months ago, she issued disclaimers saying that she had no interest in the presidency.

She won the senatorial election by a landslide. Now the media suddenly reports—as if this were a startling new development—that Clinton is looking into joining the presidential race. She is holding meetings with various state Democrat officials as she explores her options, they report.

There is nothing new about politicians talking out of both sides of their mouths. Duplicity is one of the hallmarks of being a politician. So why does the public continue to fall for it? We give these individuals sweeping powers based on worthless campaign promises.

In a democracy such as ours, the people get what they deserve. If voters maintained a grasp on the issues, they wouldn’t act like gullible lemmings falling for the latest poll-tested sound bites. If people would have some depth, they would see past the glib, meaningless platitudes and focus on who is really best for them. They would study which party raises taxes as a matter of policy and which seeks to reduce taxes. They would analyze the records of the candidates and determine which espouses positions closer to theirs.

A person like Barak Hussein Obama would never be touted as a viable presidential contender just two years after entering the senate and with no record of accomplishment in any area. In fact, many of the people in political leadership positions would never have attained office if people would actually stop and think before they voted.

But virtual nonentities do score high in the polls and get elected to high positions. People have become very superficial; they hear only what they want to hear and ignore the rest. They are content to swallow half stories and half truths and never bother to understand what is going on around them and around the world. They develop opinions based on snippets of information tainted with preconceptions and bias.

Newspapers that could inform them are brushed aside. When intelligent people offer clarity and insight, their words are largely ignored. The poorly informed prefer to remain that way, criticizing all who attempt to accomplish something worthwhile.

Such kind of thinking plagues the Torah community as well. We have to contend with the Dossons and Aviroms of our day, the wannabe leaders. They are the cause of the length of the golus. They, the baalei lashon hara and leitzonei hador, weaken the ability of the yorshim of Moshe Rabbeinu, and cause our people to have insufficient zechuyos necessary to overcome the many obstacles blocking the geulah.

Leadership in our world should not emanate from media exposure. Leadership should be determined by those whose knowledge and study of Torah is coupled by a heart that cares deeply about fellow Jews and the difficulties which ensconce them. Leadership in our world is achieved by a lifetime of demonstrating fidelity to G-d and His children, the Jewish people.

A Jewish leader examines all that transpires in this world with objective lenses, taking nothing for granted. His antennas are always attuned to identify lessons for his people and indications that portend the arrival of the redeemer. He sees beyond the superficial reading of events to arrive at the deeper wisdom that reveals Hashem’s hand.

This week’s parsha, the first of the Sefer Shemos, offers a portrait of the paradigmatic leader. It describes Moshe Rabbeinu’s first encounter with the Shechina. He was shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep and came across a burning bush. He noticed something different about the bush; the fire continued burning and the bush was not devoured by the fire as one would expect to happen.

Though only a lowly shepherd at that time, Moshe was always alert to what was taking place around him and seeking to learn lessons from it. When he saw the bush continue to burn, he understood it on a deeper level. He saw the fire as the Shechina in exile with the Jews who were in lowly servitude, symbolized by the thorn bush. He noted that the Jews can be tormented but cannot be destroyed, because Hashem is with them.

Moshe Rabbeinu saw an event that transcended nature and turned to analyze it. He took a lesson from the bush that the existence of the Bnei Yisroel is also lemaaleh m’derech hatevah, as they survive in the exile despite the Parohs’ efforts to destroy them.

Thus he was selected as a leader for the Jewish people on the 15th of Nissan, one year prior to the day he would lead the Jews out of subjugation in Mitzrayim.

Yosef Hatzaddik also exhibited the quality of penetrating the surface to discover what was really taking place so that he could understand the deeper wisdom orchestrating events. When his brothers came down to Mitzrayim, they didn’t recognize him, but he recognized them. They weren’t looking for him; he was erased from their memory, and he was a thing of the past. They had sold him and tried to forget about his very existence; they had long forgotten his dreams.

But Yosef never forgot his parents, Yaakov and Rochel. He never stopped wanting to meet his brother Binyomin and get back together with the shevotim. He never gave up on seeing his dream fulfilled and he was therefore gazing at the faces of the people who came down to Mitzrayim looking for food. Consequently, he recognized his brothers - because he was looking for them. They, on the other hand, weren’t looking for him. The furthest thing from their minds was the fantastic possibility that he might have become viceroy of Egypt and they were fulfilling his chalom by bowing down to him.

Rabi Akiva was a lowly, ignorant shepherd, but he noticed water dripping on to a stone. He observed that the soft water had an effect on the hard rock and eventually bored a hole through the stone. He applied the lesson to his own life and said that just as drops of water can break through powerful rock, so too, if he would begin to learn diligently, one word and another word and then another word of Torah would penetrate his mind and heart. He, too, could eventually become a talmid chochom.

Because he probed the deeper truth and applied that truth to his own life, he was able to change his entire destiny and become the great Rabi Akiva, rebbi of Klal Yisroel. Because he wasn’t consumed by superficiality, he was able to plumb the depths of his soul and the essence of this world, and rise to the level of the Jewish nation’s greatest teacher.

The Medrash in Parshas Vayeishev [parsha 85] states that at the time the brothers sold Yosef, the shevotim were occupied with the sale of Yosef, Yosef was overcome with sak and taanis grief at his predicament; Reuvein was occupied with his sak and taanis – repenting; Yaakov was occupied with his sak and taanis - mourning the loss of his beloved son. But Hakadosh Boruch Hu was occupied with creating the light of Moshiach, and thus the posuk says, “Vayehi ba’eis hahi vayeired Yehudah…”

We don’t have the benefit of seeing the entire picture. To any outside observer it looks as if the world is full of tragedy and hovering at the precipice of destruction. The brothers have sold Yosef into an uncertain future. Reuvein mourns, Yosef mourns and Yaakov mourns, but G-d has other plans. A time that to all outward appearances is bleak beyond belief is really a time in which G-d is preparing the light of Moshiach. This is the lesson we learn from Yehuda and Tamar whose union would ultimately produce the much longed for redeemer of the Jews.

We look around us and all we see is desolation and destruction. We see ill winds blowing from Iran, Iraq, Gaza, Yerushalayim, and other portents of danger, yet we must dig deeper. We must have a deeper vision and recognize that if we scratch beneath the surface and occupy ourselves with sak and taanis, allegories for teshuvah, we will merit the revelation of the light of Moshiach for which Hakadosh Boruch Hu is preparing the world.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Courage and Convictions

The wicked think they operate with impunity. All throughout history, tyrants have oppressed their countrymen, deluding themselves that they would live forever without having to pay for their crimes. In the end, however, these despots suffer ignominious defeat and their names become synonymous with evil.

Saddam Hussein was one such embodiment of evil. The full measure of his wickedness is unfathomable. He murdered and tortured countless people without provocation. He was a rabid hater of Jews and sought their destruction. How many remember the reign of fear he engendered by sending his scuds into Israeli homes during the Gulf War? His nuclear ambitions were brought to a sudden, shocking halt by Menachem Begin, yet he continued to promote the killing of Jews, offering a $25,000 prize to any Palestinian terrorist who pulled off a successful attack against Jews.

He taunted the world and his countrymen with remorseless brutality while he led his country into disastrous wars against the United States and Iran, finally meeting his match in George W. Bush.

While he was in power, people trembled in fear before him and his torture chambers; they quaked from his secret police and from his insatiable urge to torture human beings.

His countrymen thought he was invulnerable, that no force could topple him. He seemed more powerful that Stalin and Hitler, history’s most notorious despots. His enemies dreamed of his death, but dared not rise up against him.

As maaminim bnei maaminim, we know that nothing happens by accident and history does not operate in a vacuum. The fact that Saddam’s downfall began on Purim was a potent reminder that all events are orchestrated from Above. This evil human being modeled himself after Nevuchadnetzar Harasha and claimed to be his reincarnation.

He spent hundreds of millions of dollars rebuilding ancient Bavel in the mold of the infamous tyrant who destroyed the Bais Hamikdosh 2,500 years ago. How striking that he was executed one day before Jews around the world mark the day Nevuchadnetzar launched his armies against Yerushalayim!

How many people in the world at large have ever heard of Nevuchadnetzar? How many know what he stood for and what he did? Yet, this madman, Saddam Hussein, convinced himself that he was sent to the world to finish up this ancient tyrant’s odious work.

Seeing the downfall of reshoim who sought our destruction should serve as a chizuk to our emunah. It gives us a handle on understanding a world that seems to have gone mad.

Perhaps the hanging of Saddam should be a lesson to us that when we see evil being perpetrated, we shouldn’t just sit on the sidelines, insisting there is nothing we can do to stop it. Seeing pictures of Saddam at the literal end of his rope should be a reminder to us that man’s power - no matter how awesome it appears - is fleeting. A person’s ability to commit evil may appear unlimited and unstoppable, but the downfall of the wicked is simply a matter of time.

Most people are cowed by ostentatious power. We forget how temporal it is. We attach otherworldly, super powers to mortal man and then tremble before the seemingly all-powerful monster we have allowed to take root in our imaginations.

We need to be reminded that the wicked can only cling to power over a weakened populace. If the subjugated would realize the raw power of their numbers when they are united, they would be able to topple the tyrant.

We, too, in our daily lives, must not flinch before people who molest the community. We have to recognize that properly armed and prepared, we can bring down evil-doers and uproot the effects of their acts.

We calm our conscience by claiming we are not worthy. We say that we are not strong enough or smart enough to get anything done. But time and time again, it has been shown that this is not the case. If we cared enough, we would be able to help rectify some of the world’s most grievous lapses and prepare it for the coming of Moshiach.

I once wrote that we learn how far-reaching the impact of one’s actions can be from Parshas Vayechi, where we learn that as Yaakov Avinu was approaching the end of his life, he called for his son, Yosef, and asked the powerful son for one last favor. “Swear to me that I will not be buried in Mitzrayim.

In justifying his request to Yosef, Yaakov refers to the tragic episode of Rochel’s death, which had taken place many years earlier, when he was returning from Padan Aram after his long sojourn with Lavan.

“Va’ani bevo’i miPadan meisoh alai Rochel b’Eretz Kenaan, baderech, be’od kivras eretz lavo Efrasah, va’ekbereha shom be’derech Efras, hee Bais Lochem.” Rashi, in words that have been chanted with a special nigun by cheder children for hundreds of years, explains that Yaakov was saying to Yosef, “I am troubling you to bring my body back to Eretz Yisroel for burial, though I didn’t do the same for your mother, Rochel, (when she died on the journey, after giving birth to Binyomin). I didn’t even bring her to Bais Lechem, and I knew that you were unhappy with what I did.

“Now I want you to know that I acted according to the Divine wishes, for when the tyrant Nevuzaradun will exile the Jewish people from their land, they will pass by the grave of your mother, Rochel. She will then go out onto the kever and cry and beg the Ribono Shel Olam to have mercy on the Jewish people, as the posuk states in Yirmiyahu, “Kol beRamah nishmah, nehi b’chi samrurim” (A voice is heard in Ramah, bitter weeping…).

And Hakadosh Boruch Hu answers, “Yeish sochor lifulosaich ne’um Hashem, veshovu vonim ligvulam.”

Yaakov explains to Yosef that he buried Rochel just outside of Bais Lechem because of an event destined to take place centuries later. But something seems not quite right with this explanation. Does it seem fair that Rochel Imeinu should be left in a lonely, deserted kever for millennia because of a single moment in history - albeit one of great importance - when she would intercede for the Jewish people and win the promise of Hashem’s salvation?

Perhaps the lesson here is that yes, indeed, a single act can be of such sweeping, far-reaching importance that it transcends every other consideration and justifies enormous sacrifice. That act may be the defining moment of a lifetime. It may have the potential to alter a person’s or nation’s destiny.

It takes wisdom to recognize such an act for what it is. And it may take great courage to carry it out.

During the course of life, one encounters many pivotal moments when a specific action or inaction may be the ticket to eternity, but we don’t notice them and we miss our chance. Those special moments when we are presented an opportunity to do something significant and lasting are often overlooked. Perhaps we wimp out. It may be an act of great self-restraint or self-sacrifice that is asked of us. It may be an act of Kiddush Hashem, mesiras nefesh for a mitzvah, or for an ideal.

We say we’re not strong enough to do it. We leave it for someone else.

Esther Hamalkah was alerted to her moment when she was reminded by Mordechai, “Mi yodaiya im l’ais kozos higaat lamalchus.” Mordechai told her that the entire chain of events leading her to the heights of wealth and power had been orchestrated for this defining moment. Most of us don’t have a Mordechai to tip us off when our defining moment has arrived, and thus we fumble the ball and mess up when it comes our way.

There is no one who stands by ready to whisper in our ear that this is our chance to achieve immortality and to give our lives purpose and meaning. We have to be on standby for that moment, prepared to jump into the breach and prevail. Even if no one else alerts us, we have to do the job ourselves.

If you study history, you see that not all men and women who accomplished great things with their lives and led great revolutions were brilliant or charismatic. Many were, but just as many were just simple people who were committed enough to their goals that they were not cowed by naysayers. They had the courage of their convictions to stand tall against people who stood in their way and refused to bend to the dominant thinking of their day.

They didn’t offer up the lame excuses that they weren’t brilliant or dazzling orators; they didn’t cop out by saying that they weren’t wealthy or strong. And we shouldn’t either.

We may be called upon to do things we feel very uncomfortable doing, or deny ourselves what we feel entitled to; we may have to face embarrassment as people question us and our motives. It may cost us money, prestige or time. Things will not go our way each time and we may not win every battle. But we should not shirk the responsibility. We should not run from confronting evil.

There is no price that is too high for nitzchiyus. What shouldn’t we be prepared to do to attain the eternity of Rochel Imeinu?

The reshoim will gain temporary victories. The wicked will seem to prosper and grow in power. The weak among us will say it is impossible to confront them. The meek will say that we should let someone else get dirty battling them. But those of us who heed the examples set by the ancients will remain focused on our missions in this world, exerting ourselves to do whatever we can to strengthen goodness and diminish evil, and prepare the world for the coming of Moshiach tzidkeinu, bimeheira b’yomeinu. Amein.