Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Kimu V’Kiblu, Then and Now

In discussing the famous climax to the Purim story, kimu v’kiblu, “[The Jews] fulfilled and accepted,” the Gemorah in Megillah states that we know that Megillas Esther was Divinely inspired from the deeper implication of these words. “Kimu v’kiblu,” implies that they accepted in Heaven what the Jews accepted on earth.

The Gemorah then adds the fascinating insight that the Divine nature of the Megillah cannot be derived from Kimu v’kiblu, because that posuk alludes to the fact that following the miracle of Purim, the Jews re-affirmed [the Torah] they had accepted at Har Sinai.

The impact of the miracle of Purim was that it inspired the Jewish people to re-embrace their religious obligations. It rejuvenated their Torah study, observance and their devotion to Hashem, culminating with the re-consecration of the second Bais Hamikdosh.

That insight sheds light on why the month of Adar is one of the happiest in the Jewish calendar. Obviously, our happiness flows from something more fundamental than that the Jews were saved from wicked Haman so many centuries ago. What does that historical brush with disaster and the nation’s salvation have to do with me today? So much has happened to our people since that day in Shushan over 2,000 years ago. What is so important about the miracle of Purim that it continues to excite us until this very day?

Yes, the story of Purim is fascinating and its twists and turns offer us encouragement as we reel from life’s curveballs.

Many times we think that the game is up; we’re cornered in a hopeless position. Purim reminds us that a Jew never gives up. New developments are always possible, often taking place behind the scenes, hidden from view. G-d looks out for His people in a variety of ways and even when it looks as if our downfall is inevitable, a Divine plan is being played out which leads to our resurrection as a nation, as a people and as individuals.

Jewish history is replete with stories of salvation from the hands of bitter enemies. It seems that in every generation, someone arises against us, promising to wipe the Jews off the face of the earth, only to leave the world stage in defeat. A cursory examination of the past 100 years of Jewish history bears that out. The Haskalah, Bolshevikism, Communism, Hitler, Himmler, Eichmann and the rest of the Third Reich, Mussolini, The Mufti, Idi Amin, Muamar Kadafi, Yasser Arafat, Gamel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, Ayatollah Komeini, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and many others have proclaimed their intent to free the world of its Jewish problem.

Yet here we are and despite what they have done to us, we continue to grow and flourish. What was singular about Purim that its observance continues until this very day and, as the posuk says, will never be forgotten by the Jewish people?

One answer may be that Purim represents a beacon of hope to Jews for all time, symbolizing that G-d is orchestrating world events behind a tapestry of natural-seeming events. Nothing happens by chance. Achashveirosh didn’t just happen to win the throne at a certain time; he didn’t just happen to choose a Jewish queen. The evil Haman’s star didn’t rise because of his prowess. He didn’t just happen to have an ax to grind against Jews; they were deserving of the threat of annihilation he set in motion.

We don’t always appreciate that. Often times, we think that the superficial acts we perform have the ability to extricate us from our troubles. Purim reminds us all that the forces of cause-and-effect that seem to guide history under the influence of politicians and world leaders is but a façade. When Jews opened their newspapers in the 127 countries of Achashveirosh’s empire, few of them connected the dire events of the day to the seudah at which they drank from the keilim of the Bais Hamikdosh.

They may have tried all sorts of various shtadlanus to lobby on behalf of the Jewish people, but it was of no avail. No amount of lobbying was able to change the minds of the king and his advisors until the Jewish people did teshuva on a sweeping level, repenting for their actions.

We think that we are powerful, that we have an ‘in’ with the president; we forget that we are in golus for our sins, and we delude ourselves into believing that we can influence the forces of history through our efforts.

Purim reminds us of the truth.

When we hear of the incitement fomented against us, when we read of nations building nuclear weapons with which to destroy us, Purim proclaims to us that we must do teshuva and repent. We don’t have neviim as did the Jews of Shushan. We don’t have a Mordechai Hatzaddik who can point with certainty to our course of action. But we all know that there is room for improvement in our personal and communal lives. We are all aware of issues which are swept under the rug and ignored. The times we live in demand that we rise above factionalism and divisiveness, superficiality and indecisiveness, and rectify our failings.

Many of us remain silent as we see changes being introduced to our traditions. We sit by as we see hypocritical actions being performed. We shrug our shoulders and say that there is nothing we can do to stop them. Purim says that is not true. Purim tells us that we must rally around the truth and not permit charlatans to dictate our behavior and attitude. There are many things which we know are being done improperly, but we are scared to voice our opinions lest people mock us or think less of us. Mordechai Hatzaddik, dressed in his sackcloth in the palace of the king, tells us to ignore those who mock us and to do what the halacha dictates.

Purim tells us that we must follow the Kimu v’kiblu of the Jews of Achashveirosh’s empire. It tells us that when our survival is threatened, we must rededicate ourselves to the study and observance of Torah. In order to properly follow the Torah and adhere to halacha, we have to be more serious about learning and reviewing Shulchan Aruch.

This point is driven home in Gemorah Bava Basra 8a where the Gemorah discusses the posuk in Hoshea 8 which states, “Gam ki yitnu bagoyim atah akabtzeim...” The Gemorah derives from those words that when all the Jews will study Mishnah - Torah Shebaal Peh - Hashem will redeem us.

The Yalkut in Hoshea, kapittel 8, on the aforementioned posuk, states that “Ein hagolyios miskabtzim eloh bezchus haMishnah - the exiles will be gathered in the merit of [the study of] the Mishnah.

Some of us say that halacha is too difficult and complicated for us to study and review until we master it, but that is not true.

Several weeks ago, an Israeli gentleman by the name of Rav Yosef Halperin insisted on coming to see me on a hectic winter Friday to discuss a project. He sounded like another fellow with an ingenious way to save the world and somewhat skeptically, I agreed to meet him.

I wasn’t sorry, for what he shared with me was quite enlightening. He had noticed that the study of halacha was being somewhat neglected in yeshivos. He devised a creative program to strengthen the learning of halacha by teaching it in a way that young boys could master it and become proper shomrei Shabbos and shomrei mitzvos.

He showed me his books and material. Although it looked like the program had potential, I wasn’t convinced. But then quite thankfully it was adopted in Yeshiva Beis Mikroh in Monsey where my sons go to yeshiva. My eighth grader, Eliezer, neiro yair, was lucky enough to benefit from this program, called Irgun Halacha Lemaaseh. Complex material is broken down and presented in a manner that captivates the boys’ attention, as they begin grasping the complicated concepts of muktzah until they become conversant in the intricate details and laws.

I was very proud when Rabbi Halperin called to tell me that Eliezer had done so well that he printed up a small choveres of his work on muktzah, in which he defines 400 commonly used keilim and their muktzeh status.

Why am I telling you this? Not to brag about my son, but to press the point that it is possible for us to master even intricate halachos, like those of muktzah, if only we would apply ourselves to it and realize their importance. Younger people can be encouraged through competition, prizes and other inducements that spark an intense love of learning.

As mature, thinking adults, we need to find our own inducements to learn. We ought to take inspiration from the events of our day and the recurrence of an ancient pattern of agitation against the Jewish people coming from Iran, Gaza and other places of unrest. Instead of prompting despair, those events should drive us to recommit ourselves to Torah and trust in the One Above, so that it will be said of us, too, “Kimu v’kiblu, velachein nigalu.”

May it come to pass speedily in our day.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


Okay, I admit it. I like taking pictures. I enjoy looking into the small screen on the back of my camera and setting up a photograph. I like waiting until I get my prey exactly in the center of the lens and with the right expression on their face. I like zooming the focus in and out and capturing the moment perfectly.

Faces are my thing. I love taking shots of faces. I don’t get much of a chance to practice my hobby here at home, but when I go to Eretz Yisroel, I can stand forever on a street corner in Geulah or Meah Shearim where I’m anonymous, and just snap away. The people there are so colorful and so full of personality that picture-taking is usually a highlight of my trip.

I love just standing there taking my pictures. Look at this guy, look at that one, let’s see if I can get him, zoom, zoom, click, click. Got him. Oops, he was walking too fast for me.

I have a rather large-sized camera. It is very heavy and bulky and too conspicuous for my taste. So, before my most recent trip to Eretz Yisroel, I called my friend Mendy in J&R and he sold me a nice little camera that I can fit in my pocket - a camera with ten mega-pixels, extra zoom and all the rest. With this camera, I can be unobtrusive. I can take my pictures without feeling self-conscious or making people feel uncomfortable as they go about their daily routines on Rechov Malchei Yisroel.

Another place I love taking pictures is at the Kosel. I know it sounds strange. You are at the holiest place in the world that we have access to and there you stand with a camera taking pictures. It ought to be sacrilegious.

Of course, there are those who scoff at the picture takers, and I can understand them. If it is just a picture of another “tourist spot”, sandwiched in an album between pictures of the elephant at the Biblical Zoo and the cable car at Masada, then it really isn’t appropriate.

But when we visit the Kosel, we are overwhelmed at the experience of being so close to the makom haMikdash. We see our fellow Jews pouring out their hearts to Hakadosh Boruch Hu mere meters from the place of the Kodesh Hakodoshim and we are inspired to do the same. Suddenly, this small plaza and the wall rising above it dwarf all of the towering edifices in the cities we call home. We desperately think, “If only I could capture this minute in a bottle, if only I could take this feeling home with me, if only…” And out of this desperation, we snap the picture that days, weeks and months later we pore over, remembering and savoring that experience. In some way, we are able to reach out from the tumah of chutz la’aretz and touch the kedusha of Eretz Yisroel. And we take pictures of the kids, of bubby and zaidy, and the collectors, futilely trying to capture every minute detail of the amazing experience.

No, our pictures aren’t just postcards bought as mementos. If we have taken the time to experience the places and sights and contemplate their meaning, the photographs can help us remember that feeling. Where others see a picture of some kids walking down the street, we see the purity in a Yerushalmi child’s eyes. Where others see stones, we see the gates to Heaven. For us, looking at our vacation pictures is a spiritual experience.

In the past, when I had my large camera with me, I’d feel like a tourist snapping pictures at the Kosel, but I did it anyway. Now, with my small, palm-sized picture taker, I’m more comfortable practicing my hobby. And so there I was two weeks ago looking for people to capture on film. Well, not really film - the camera is digital, but you know what I mean.

It was a Thursday morning and there were a couple of Sephardic bar mitzvahs at the Kosel. The pictures were fine, but the sounds were special. As good as my little camera is, it cannot capture the sounds of a Sephardic celebration. The Sephardic davening always touches me in a unique way. It is so special how they all daven together in unison, singing and chanting together. Maybe that’s why they don’t talk during davening. The experience is so moving and inviting, there is no way they would want to interrupt it with idle chatter.

The first time you go to daven at the Kosel and you see people talking during davening, it really bothers you. The second and third time you visit the Kosel, it still rankles. But eventually you get used it. Zeh hachayim; that’s the way people are. It’s hard to change human nature and people don’t always appreciate where they are and/or what they are supposed to be doing there.

When I was at the Kosel I was noticing how people use the Kosel as a backdrop for their pictures. It is the holiest place we have. In our day, this is one of the ways we show respect for it. People treasure it, so they photograph it. They want to have a picture they took of the Kosel hanging in their house; they want to have a picture of themselves at the Kosel. It is the 21st century translation of “liros v’leira’os.”

When you have a picture of something, the experience never leaves you. You look at the picture and you remember being there. Your mind fills in the colors, smells and sounds and you relive it. When you are looking at people because you want to photograph them, you see into their souls. When you are just walking down the street going about your business, you don’t look at anyone and there are so many things and people you don’t notice. You miss so much of the color and flavor that is out there and by the time you get back to your starting point, you have forgotten the experience forever.

Perhaps you have children or grandchildren who you adore. If you take pictures of them as they grow, you will be able one day to look back and remember how cute they were and mark their dramatic progression from young babies into grown people.

Those who fail to appreciate picture-taking don’t have the benefit of flipping through photographs and remembering the places they visited and experiences they accumulated over the course of a lifetime.

We are fortunate in having the ability to take pictures for posterity not only for the memories inherent in each and every photo, but for the myriad lessons we can learn from photography. As we appreciate the nuances and individuality of every person and scene which make the photo unique, photography allows us to comprehend the idea that we are being recorded by the One up above, as he looks down upon his handiwork.

A picture is worth a thousand words – and much, much more. Take a look at any one of the photos of people you may have in your home from a previous generation. So many subtle messages about their ideals and the way they lived are conveyed by their expressions, the way they are dressed and the backdrop of the photo. The stories they tell record a legacy that otherwise would have been long forgotten.

As I write these words, I look at the pictures I have hanging in my room of my grandfather and great-grandfather zichronom l’vrocha.

From the time I remember my grandfather, he was an old man. The picture shows him as he arrived for the Knessiah Gedolah in Eretz Yisroel. He was standing tall, proud and regal as he stepped off the plane and had his picture taken. His rabbinic bearing and pride to be in Eretz Yisroel shout out at you and proclaim the greatness of the photographer’s subject. The picture is a constant inspiration for me.

The picture of my elter zaideh stares out at me. Bedecked in his kapotah, his Volozhiner rabbonisher spodik, beard and payos, he looks out with an austere, serious gaze, reflecting his serious view of life and the deprivation he experienced in his poor shtetel. I never met him, but through the one photograph I have of him, I feel as if I know and understand him.

Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, the act of taking the picture has immeasurable value. It forces you to think into and appreciate the beauty G-d has placed in this world, and retain it in a way that future generations can also learn from it.

Pleasant memories are the sweeteners of life; pictures add to that sweetness and deepen one’s appreciation of the special moments one has recorded. Photography turns the prose of life into poetry.

Even if you don’t have a camera, you can still be more cognizant of what goes on around you. You can still look at people with an eye to appreciating their inner beauty. Appreciate what is going on around you. Be grateful for who you are, where you are and what you are doing.

Life is picturesque if only we would look at it in the proper light and with the right eye, camera in hand or not.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Let Us Sing Shirah

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Parshas Beshalach recounts the dramatic climax to the story of Bnei Yisroel’s enslavement in Mitzrayim: the magnificent, much longed-for exodus of the Jewish people.

After being subjected to inhumane torture, slavery and degradation, Yaakov’s grandchildren were finally set free by the hard-hearted Paroh who had obstinately clung to his legions of slave laborers until he could defy G-d no longer.

He relented, but seeing that the Bnei Yisroel were not returning to his clutches, he quickly changed his mind and chased after the fleeing Jews into the desert. Some Jews were worried and cried out to Hashem and to Moshe to return them to Miztarayim; they weren’t prepared to die in a desert.

Hashem reassured them that this was the final test and their redemption was just around the corner. He commanded Moshe to raise his staff over the water, the sea split and the Jews marched through it on dry land to freedom. Hashem then told Moshe to wave his staff at the rapidly approaching army of Paroh. The water returned to its natural state, enveloping and drowning the marauding Egyptians. They were never heard from again.

Upon seeing their tormentors washed up dead on the side of the sea, the Bnei Yisroel were overcome with an all-encompassing faith in G-d and Moshe.

They raised their voices in shirah, praise, and uttered the prophetically inspired, immortal words of Az Yoshir, which we recite each morning in our tefillos.

The Medrash (23:4) states that this was the first time since creation that people sang a shirah to Hashem. What was so special about the miracle of the splitting of the sea which caused the Jewish people to break out in song in a way they never had before? Why didn’t Adam say shirah on the day of creation? Why didn’t Avrohom say shirah when he was saved from the kivshon ha’eish? Why didn’t Yosef say shirah when he was saved from the Egyptian jail? Why didn’t Yaakov say shirah when he came to Mitzrayim and met his son Yosef, alive and well, serving as a ruler of Mitzrayim?

The Mechiltah states that what transpired at the splitting of the sea was so momentous that simple maidservants present at Kriyas Yam Suf witnessed manifestations of G-d’s greatness that surpassed the inspired visions of the greatest prophets in Klal Yisroel. What is it that they saw which the neviim didn’t?

Chazal say, “Kasha zivugon shel adam k’Kriyas Yam Suf,” it is as difficult for G-d to find shidduchim for people as it was for Him to split the Red Sea. How are we to understand this? What can possibly be difficult for an omnipotent, omniscient G-d who created heaven and earth and is infinite and all-knowing?

The shira which burst forth from the souls of the Jewish people, from the water carriers to Moshe Rabbeinu, was a result of their realization that they were witness to the unprecedented fulfillment of a Divine prophecy. As the posuk states in Parshas Va’eirah, “And I appeared to Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov with my name Keil Shakay, but did not reveal my name Hashem to them.” Rashi explains the verse to mean that Hakadosh Boruch Hu made several promises to the avos but had not yet fulfilled them.

The makkos which G-d was about to unleash upon Mitzrayim were the forerunner of the realization of the Divine promises delivered to Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov. The plagues began the process which ended with the departure through the sea, one step ahead of Paroh and his army.

When the children of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov saw the bodies of their Mitzri oppressors cast about on the beaches of the Yam Suf, they erupted in elated song, for they realized that they had witnessed the completion of the Divine promise as delivered to their forefathers. They saw that every word that Hashem had promised the avos had now come true and their souls burst forth with inspired song, shira.

This was the first time in history that the Jewish people had seen the Divine plan play out in a concrete fashion, right in front of their very eyes. Other prophets foresaw what would happen, but they themselves were never privileged to see their vision come to fruition. Avrohom had been saved from Nimrod’s inferno and Yosef from the pit, but the joy they experienced was not born of witnessing the full majesty of G-d’s sovereignty, but rather the experience of personal salvation.

The collective experience of shira as expressed at the Yam Suf was a singular one, which transpires very infrequently during human history. We believe in the word of G-d and the messages of his prophets, but the privilege of witnessing the full revelation of G-d’s greatness in all its glory is granted only in very rare instances.

Chazal derive that there will be techiyas hameisim from the words “Az yoshir,” because at that future time, “az,” then, once again we will all be able to look back and recognize that we have witnessed the full-blown realization of Divine prophecy.

This interpretation sheds light on the words of Chazal that it is as difficult for Hashem to match up a shidduch as it is to split the Yam Suf. Every prospective bride and groom has a vision of a life partner that hovers in their mind’s eye. They search to find the one individual who fits the image. Few people are willing to compromise on that vision.

This is the difficulty, k’vayachol, for Hashem. He has to be able to convince people that the one he has designated for them ever since their earliest days is indeed the person of their dreams. In order for the match to work, G-d has to be able to open the hearts and minds of the couple to be able to recognize the dreamed-of image in the spouse G-d intended for them.

Just as at Krias Yam Suf everyone appreciated that they were witnessing the realization of a Divine prophecy, so too, a chosson and kallah must be able to perceive the unfolding of Hashem’s plan in their own union.

When that occurs and their eyes and hearts are opened to the point that they recognize the Divine blessing in bringing them together, they erupt in simcha and shira and agree to become chosson and kallah.

This is why when the Novi prophesizes the imminent coming of the much-awaited Moshiach, he does so with the allegory of the joy experienced by a chosson and kallah. Yirmiyahu Hanovi stated those words we sing so often without thinking into them. “Od yishama b’arei Yehudah u’vechutzos Yerushalayim kol sasson vekol simcha kol chosson vekol kallah…”

Referring to the day when Moshiach will arrive and bring with him the ultimate simcha, Yirmiyahu uses the metaphor of the joyous outbreak of elation experienced by a bride and groom. That is because the chosson and kallah’s jubilant discovery of one another mirrors the profound exhilaration of comprehending G-d’s plan.

The chosson and kallah, at the height of their celebration, are akin to the maidservant at Kriyas Yam Suf, for they have experienced the soaring inspiration of witnessing G-d’s plan and prophecy in its fruition.

There is no joy like that of seeing the actualization of G-d’s promise, with everything that has transpired until that point coming into clear focus and granting more meaning than we ever thought possible.

With the arrival of Moshiach, a great light will shine upon the souls of each and every one of us and we will all celebrate joyfully like a chosson and kallah. Our souls will expand and we will comprehend all that has transpired to us and to mankind throughout the ages, all culminating with this earthshaking, defining moment.

“Az.” At that moment we will all break out in an unprecedented shira. With hearts overflowing with gratitude and love, we will dance about as a chosson beyom chupaso, as a kallah beyom chupasa, because the light of G-d will have shone upon us and opened up our hearts.

The gates of our minds and souls will be radiant with the ohr chodosh; the wondrousness and majesty of it all will be revealed, b’meheirah b’yomeinu. Amein.

As we go through life, there are things that happen to us whose meanings are not readily apparent. People sometimes question why this happens and why that happens, and we don’t always have the answers. But we continue to sing Az Yoshir every day for we know that one day soon, the G-d who revealed himself to our forefathers and promised to redeem their children from the darkness of Mitzrayim will cause us to burst forth in shira once again as He delivers us from the darkness which currently envelops us. At that time, all the questions will be answered. The darkness will turn to light, the sadness to glee. We will sing as we march behind Moshiach and Moshe Rabbeinu through that which encircles and attempts to drown us, into the Promised Land, b’meheirah b’yomeinu. Amein.