Tuesday, March 20, 2007

How Do You Look For Chometz?

In Jewish homes around the world, Pesach is in the air. Houses are being turned upside down. Every drawer is emptied and its contents scrutinized; books are inspected to make sure no one hid any crumbs in them. Pockets are being turned inside out and brushed meticulously clean.

You walk into any Jewish store and you just feel the approaching Yom Tov as shoppers rush through the aisles, stocking up on just about everything.

Boys are trooping home from yeshiva for bein hazemanim. Small children are learning the Haggadah, practicing the mah nishtanah, and dreaming about what they will get if they are lucky enough to find the afikoman.

This is the way our people have celebrated the zeman chairuseinu for hundreds of years. In fact, much of special charm and essence of Pesach is wrapped within the minhagim passed on from one generation to the next, and the hiddur mitzvah that characterizes this Yom Tov.

Jewish women hold onto these hiddurim with all their might. They treat Pesach with exquisite care. They brush aside their husbands’ patient explanations that crumbs are peirurin, are halachically botul and not much of a problem. They don’t want to be told that makom she’ain machnisin bo chometz, a place where chometz does not enter, does not require cleaning, like the kitchen table and refrigerator.

People wash down their walls and scrub everything in sight because that’s the way their mothers did it. Not only are recipes handed down from generation to generation, but so are the various customs of what to buy, how to buy it and how to prepare it for the special chag of Pesach.

Why do some people eat horseradish for maror? Because their fathers and their grandfathers and great-grandfathers ate chrein to fulfill the obligation of eating “bitter herbs.” How do you set up the ka’arah? The same way your father did.

Judaism is based not only on the dry halacha, but on the customs and minhagim which are passed on down through the ages. Our mesorah and traditions are as important as the laws stated in Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, and together they constitute the strength and lifeblood of our people.

We won’t be swept up by new ideologies or fall prey to those who preach doom and gloom. We won’t look for movements with failed or failing messages. Haskala, Zionism, communism, socialism, assimilationism and many other isms rose and fell; they held no attraction for us. We refuse to trade in our sacred heritage for the illusion of safety and for the fleeting attraction of utopian movements.

Several years ago, I wrote a column based on a story I read in the “Rav Shach Hagaddah.”

One year prior to Pesach, a young man came to ask Rav Shach if it was permissible to do bedikas chometz with a flashlight. Responding, Rav Shach asked him how his father conducts the search for chometz. The man answered that his father did it with a candle.

The aged rosh yeshiva said to him, “If your father does bedikas chometz with a candle, why would you think to do it with a flashlight?”

The young man replied that people say that with a flashlight one is able to examine cracks and crevices better than with the traditional candle.

With a wave of his hand, Rav Shach peered at him quizzically and said, “Do you really think you can see better than your father!”

This episode underscores the secret of our existence and survival through the ages. We hold on to the wisdom of our parents and sages; we don’t presume to be smarter or that we can see better than they were able to see.

We observe the mitzvos the same way they did. We do bedikas chometz in our homes the same way they did. Our homes may be grander, they may be furnished differently than the shtetel’s humble abodes, but we are connected to our source by that same little candle with which we go about from room to room, searching to remove that which is forbidden.

We adapt by meeting the challenges of today with our father’s candle of the past; we adapt by following our sages’ advice; we adapt by looking at life through our parents’ lenses and aligning our vision with theirs. That way we are guaranteed to properly observe the Torah and its commandments and avoid evil’s pitfalls.

True, we live in a different age, a different world. We are living in a society that has undergone drastic changes from the society our fathers knew, but it is the same ner nitzvah and ohr Torah which light up our path.

An incident last week brought to the world’s attention - albeit in a twisted light - the historic devotion of Jews to their traditions and their separateness as a people.

Historians from Cambridge University revealed a previously unpublished article by the former prime minister of England, Winston Churchill, in which he makes the argument that Jews were “partly responsible for the antagonism from which they suffer.”

In analyzing the causes of anti-Semitism, Churchill writes: "The central fact which dominates the relations of Jew and non-Jew is that the Jew is 'different'.

"He looks different. He thinks differently. He has a different tradition and background. He refuses to be absorbed."

A contemporary Torah Jew reading his words can only shake his head wistfully at the irony. Churchill accurately identified the defining traits of Jews throughout the ages, but he failed to understand that, rather than leading to our downfall, these stubborn differences - the refusal “to be absorbed” - have preserved the Jewish people through centuries of persecution.

Brilliant statesman though he was, Churchill stumbled when it came to understanding Jews and their mission.

A recent Yated article titled “Is It Orthodox?”, which raised the alarm regarding the threat posed by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, elicited a voluminous response from readers, some of which reminded us of Churchill’s failure to grasp the essence of Jewish survival.

Words of support and encouragement for our position flowed from a wide spectrum of readers. The response from the YCT camp and their supporters, however, made it clear that they appeared to totally misconstrue the basic premise underlying our opposition.

That premise - both the foundation and a powerfully protective guard to Yiddishkeit - can be summed up in a word: mesorah.

Mesorah is meant here not merely as the transmission of texts from one generation of teachers to the next, replaceable by a capacious hard-drive. Rather, mesorah refers to the contextual basis for understanding the words of Chazal. Mesorah refers to the process by which uniquely Jewish mores, values and sensitivities, which define us as a nation, are passed down from one generation to the next.

Only through mesorah can we grasp the unalterable elements of a true and timeless Torah philosophy.

The article presented examples in the teaching and practices which are departures from mesorah. It showed how a student of Torah at that school, sundered from his moorings to traditional Torah thought, is left in his studies to bob on a sea of “Torah-Relativism.” In that nebulous terrain, he is buffeted by the waves of other theologies, swept by the winds of value systems anathema to Torah.

It is our conviction that the rank and file of contemporary Orthodox Jewry - Modern, Chareidi and everything in between - still possess authentic Torah sensibilities which are repulsed by the erasing of historic conceptual boundaries on the part of YCT faculty and students.

Torah values are not acquired through academic study alone, but through immersion in the atmosphere that once permeated every frum home. They are absorbed from studying at the feet of rabbeim who themselves personify fealty to traditional values. And it is this value system which is eroded by the philosophy of YCT as previously illustrated in these pages.

A pair of responses to the Yated article has been circulated on the internet. Sadly, rather than address the concerns that were raised, these “rebuttals” serve only as further illustration of the failure of this new approach to learning Torah. Having burnt their bridges to traditional Torah thought and values, the authors prove themselves incapable of grasping the simple nature of our objections.

As an example: We expressed repugnance at the portrayal of one of the Avos that dragged the patriarch of the Jewish people down to a base level. What to us is an act of desecration is dismissed in their response as a mere stylistic lapse. We are asked to accept a portrayal of impure motives that, were it ascribed to the author’s teachers at YCT, would be slammed as cynical and offensive. Yet, this twisted portrayal is given a pass as “poetic license” when applied to Yaakov Avinu.

We lamented the state of affairs in which a yeshiva allows the publication, under its official imprimatur, of statements that are clearly contrary to the Torah. In response, we are told that due to “a whole panoply of issues,” this travesty must be tolerated.

When a yeshiva shirks its primary responsibility for guiding its students and graduates in the ways of the Torah and still persists in calling itself a yeshiva, it makes a mockery of a term which denotes a sacred link to the historic system of Torah learning and transmission begun at Volozhin. Such an institution perverts the meaning of “yeshiva.” It redefines it to mean a free-wheeling bazaar of ideas and practices culled from various theologies and cultures.

In our critique, we pointed out the deceptive practice of labeling deviations from accepted halacha as Orthodox. We were told in response of this or that Orthodox rabbi or professor who also deviates in the same way. How do these deviations confer legitimacy? Are we really expected to accept an amorphous definition of Orthodoxy that does not even attempt to tie itself to any defining authority, but which accepts the practices of anyone calling themselves Orthodox as determining what passes for normative Orthodoxy?

We are told that we are mean-spirited and “lacking in ahavat Yisrael.” Actually, it is our compassion for the hapless targets of this approach who are being fed a forged version of Torah and halacha which motivates us. It is our concern for the integrity of Torah learning which drives us to publicly reject their approach. And we are deeply troubled that fellow compassionate, hard-working and dedicated Jews are being trained in a fashion that denies them the ability to appreciate true Torah values.

Ahavas Yisroel does not require turning a blind eye to the blurring of mesorah and the sacred values that have traveled down the centuries. Our trailblazing kiruv programs testify to our solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters. But we trod the path laid out by rabbonim muvhakim and our bubbes and zaydes. We dare not compromise our values in the name of kiruv rechokim. We must not portray a dishonest version of the Torah in order to be more attractive to the world at large.

We must not sit silently in the name of peace when a mockery is made of divrei Chazal. It is precisely by remaining true to our mesorah, and by our intolerance of ziyufim, that we will be zoche to the siyata diShmaya to succeed in spreading the light of the Torah, intact and unsullied by winds of change.

So, erev Pesach, when you stand there grating the horseradish and tears flow down your cheeks, think of your grandparents performing the same function, the same way, in some little town in Lithuania, Poland, Hungary or Syria. On Sunday night, when you go from room to room with the candle in your hand, remember that living in the 21st century has not made you smarter than the generations that preceded you. It is presumptuous and naïve for anyone to try to modernize and improve upon the mesorah.

Think of the strength of the Jewish chain and remember that it is you who makes it strong. It is the faith-imbued traditions that you pass on to your children which will guarantee you the merit to welcome Eliyahu Hanavi when he arrives with his joyous, long-awaited message: higiah zeman geulaschem.

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Humble Giants

What is it that makes our people great? It is the unsung heroes. The plain, good people who go about their daily lives doing what they are supposed to do without making waves or making a big deal about themselves. They are happy with themselves and their lot in life.

They are positive, non-judgmental people who accept everything that life deals them with equanimity. Infused with a deep belief in G-d, their emunah and bitachon are palpable and affect all they do.

Sometimes they are learned and sometimes they are not, but they have an unwavering belief in Hashem, an innate sense of right and wrong, and despite serious obstacles, they endeavor to live their lives in an upright way. Observing them and the way they conduct themselves is like seeing a mussar sefer come to life. They treat all with whom they come in contact with a quiet dignity and sincere humility, never recognizing the greatness which lies in their own hearts.

They enhance our world immeasurably and everyone who comes in contact with them feels blessed.

These people are so very special, yet often times we take them for granted and don’t pause to reflect on their inherent greatness until it is too late.

My father wrote a poem several years ago which sums up this thought:

People ask me, are there angels?
Is there a G-d?

I answer them,
Look at my Bubbeh.

She is an angel,
And in her heart, there is G-d.

I had the occasion last week to reflect about two such “unsung heroes.”

Shortly before Shabbos, we received the news that Marci Cohen, who had worked for the Yated until her devastating diagnosis four years ago, passed away. She didn’t have an easy life. Diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of four, she was given six months to live. She went on to live another 46 years. Life threw her many curveballs, but she used each opportunity to hit another homerun.

She was always happy. She always smiled and her smile was infectious. Despite what was going on in her personal life, she came to work every day with contagious joy that cheered up the entire office here. She never complained and to those who didn’t know, it was impossible to tell that there was anything disturbing going on. It wasn’t that she wasn’t in touch with reality; it was that she was a deeply believing woman who always chose to dwell on the positive. Though she was deathly ill, she would find time and strength to write e-mails to her friends, being mechazeik them when she felt they could use it.

She had a nice word for everyone and was able to relate to people of all ages and backgrounds. She cared for others and genuinely shared their happiness and woes. She lightened the atmosphere just by being her optimistic, good-natured, giving self—even when in pain or under duress.

Born in Hartford, Connecticut, she took a long and circuitous route until she finally ended up in Monsey, where she fit right in. She reached out to people and made friends easily.

She left behind almost no worldly possessions, yet it is people like her who enrich our world with their goodness, faith and humility that leave behind a great void when they pass from this world.

It is the strength of character and purpose that characterized her that epitomizes the true beauty of bnos Yisroel and reveals the power implanted in a Jew to persevere in a harsh golus. It is the chochmas noshim she possessed which allows for the transmission of the mesorah of Torah and avodah to the future generations. It is the simple tzidkus of noshim tzidkanios that she embodied which will grant us the merits we need to herald the arrival of Moshiach.

Truly great people do what’s right because it’s right. Even when no one is looking, they consistently act with integrity and compassion, because it is the right thing to do. Serving G-d and following his commandments is what drives them. These are the people who, no matter the situation or circumstance, you can always count on to act honorably and properly. You can expect them to always be fair, generous and dignified. You can expect them to be happy with themselves and increase happiness and goodness in this world.

The second person who gave me reason to contemplate the greatness of unheralded heroes is someone who has faithfully served his community for many years, and continues to be a highly valued member of the community although he has had to curtail his professional involvement.

Doctors can be a strange bunch. While some are devoted to helping people, others are haughty and arrogant and treat their patients as nonentities—little more than data on a chart. Many of them act if they couldn’t care a whit about the welfare of their patients. They force you to wait hours in stuffy waiting rooms before they honor you with their condescending examination and prescription.

A case in point: A doctor who recently examined my son’s allergies charged $600 to tell him to return a month after he has stopped taking a certain anti-histamine prescribed by a different doctor. Thirty seconds and out. That’ll be $600.00.

Couldn’t he have asked beforehand which medications the boy is taking and saved us the trip and the fee?

You all have your favorite doctor horror stories and don’t need me to belabor the point.

But the fact that there are also many fine and caring people in the medical profession often gets overlooked. Dr. David Simons has been our faithful family doctor for twenty years. He has been unfailingly caring and generous. A scion of a respected Yekkishe family, he is the embodiment of Torah im derech eretz. He treated every patient with Torah values, much derech eretz and huge doses of mentchlichkeit.

Last week, Dr. Simons mailed a letter to his patients stating that he will no longer be able to practice medicine due to a hearing loss. We were shocked and dismayed. Yes, there are other doctors in town, and among them are those who are frum and competent, but will they become family members like Dr. Simons?

He spent so much time with each patient, putting them at ease and explaining the ailment and how he planned to treat it. He respected each patient beyond the call of duty. He was so humble and self-effacing as he discussed the prognosis as if you were partners in the decision, because he felt you should in fact be a partner.

You didn’t have to be embarrassed to discuss your symptoms with him and he would always reassure you in his nice, kind, thoughtful way that you will be better soon, that what ails you is not nearly as serious as you feared it might be.

He had so much patience when dealing with his patients; it only could have come from a Jewish heart feeling for its brethren. When you went to him, you weren’t going to a doctor who was looking at you as a dollar sign. You felt as if you were visiting a family member who happened to practice medicine - a twist on the title ‘family doctor’—which unfortunately, is not too commonplace.

Prior to moving to Monsey, we lived in Yerushalayim where our doctor was the famed tzaddik, Dr. Bloch, and we were sure we’d never find anyone who would approach his level of care, concern and competence. Thankfully we were wrong and for twenty years were blessed by being under the benevolent care of Dr. Simons.

Now, as that chapter is about to draw to a close, we, along with hundreds of other Monsey families, wonder how we can ever replace this exceptional physician.

His uncommon humility, breath of knowledge, coupled with his sincere frumkeit and ehrlichkeit, deep humanity and mentchlichkeit instilled by the Washington Heights community, won the love, admiration and trust of so many people who can say, “He was my doctor; he was my family. I will miss him. He proved it is possible to be engaged with people all day in the most pressured and trying situations and still lovingly care for them. He has earned the unwavering respect of our community.”

Hashem should continue to shine his blessings upon him, and though he will not be able to peer down our throats and listen to our heartbeats anymore, all who know him will be able to point to him and say, “There stands a giant with a big heart and an ear clearly tuned to the pain and greatness of Am Yisroel.”

Whatever we do with our lives, we can learn from people like Marci a”h and yblc”t Dr. Simons, to be as great as we can as we fulfill our shlichus in this world. We can be secure in our beliefs, gracious when dealing with others, honest, forthright, compassionate and happy.

We can also be among those who elevate others through simple acts of kindness and goodness, an inherent sense of righteousness, common sense and decency. We can also be respectful, courteous, patient and non-judgmental, maintaining a positive outlook on life and people.

Each and every one of us can bring about that “yisgadeil v’yiskadesih shmei rabbah” every day of our lives.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Ah Gantz Yahr Purim

Purim is not only a uniquely joyous Yom Tov; it also is an eye-opener. It unmasks a side of people you don’t get to see during the rest of the year, an unbounded generosity that is truly inspiring.

Every year, I go with a friend of mine to raise money for various causes on Purim. Every year, when we add up what we collected, we are amazed. No, it’s not in the tens of thousands, but it is enough to make a dent. However, when you add that amount to the sums raised by all the people who utilize this special opportunity to collect for their pet causes, the final tally is far beyond what you would expect.

Yes, there are those who complain that Purim fundraising has gotten out of hand, but there are always people who can find something to harp about in any situation. They are the ones who can find the black lining in the silver cloud.

The fact remains that Jews still respond to Purim. People sit in their homes and write check after check for tzedakos of all stripes. The doorbell doesn’t stop ringing, groups continue prancing in, and the money continues to flow.

Young, idealistic people plead for their causes with serious eyes and heartfelt words. They can’t take no for an answer. They have no idea how many checks you’ve written that day, they have no idea how much you have in your checking account, nor do they care. It’s none of their business. They are out to raise money for a good cause and ring in a bit of Purim cheer while they’re at it.

The bigger story is that the Jewish people are so blessed with good hearts that they respond with their hearts, souls and pocketbooks when called upon to aid others in distress. The amount of tzedakah that people give out Purim and all year round is phenomenal.

So often, people seek to find fault in things going on in our community. They ought to take a Purim tour and see how much charity is disbursed on this most happy of days. It is a day of extreme happiness, joy, feasting and drinking and it will be that way forever. It is a day of sharing and caring, of love and devotion; it is a day that brings out the best in our people.

Mi ke’amcha Yisroel.

On Purim, we feel it more than all year around, because on this day we know that we only have a few hours to squeeze in all the people and places we want to get to, to be b’simcha and to be mesameiach. As we go through the day being careful to make sure we have observed its mitzvos, we meet people we have never seen before and make new friends, and we make sure to hook up with old friends. We are introduced to new causes and we introduce others to causes we have long held dear.

We go from one address to the next looking for converts to our charity before time runs out. We shlep our children from rebbi to rebbi and teacher to teacher with one eye on the road and one on the clock. There is so much to accomplish in so short amount of time. With smiles on our faces, we hope we can get it all in.

Part of the simcha we feel on this special day is connected to dressing up and disguising ourselves. What is the connection of Purim to masks? What is there about Purim that people feel it is part of the holiday to alter their appearance?

Purim is a day on which we put everything else aside and spend the time in revelry with broad smiles on our lips. We mask our day-in and day-out preoccupations and concerns. We tailor our mood and impulses to the mitzvah of simcha and mishteh. For many people, it’s as if they’ve been granted a new face; the simcha shines from them with a blessed new countenance. Perhaps through the inducement of yayin, they gain a new perspective on life in general. They realize that whatever worries or pressures may beset them can be put on hold, for at least a day. And thus they smile.

They gain a new “face,” a new perspective, and thus a mask. The test of success is if you can keep that mask on for longer than one day. The lesson of Purim is to keep on the mask after the yayin has worn off and after the last mishloach manos has been eaten. Remember the difference between the toful and the ikar. Remember that whatever you do, do it with a smile. On Purim and all year round.

That Purim feeling should be with us every day. Each day of our lives presents us with one-time opportunities which we can use to increase and spread happiness and G-dliness in this world. Every day is a day on which we can grow, learn and rise to a challenge. Not only Purim, but every day we have is a pure gift from G-d.

And just as on Purim we run around doing the mitzvos hayom with boundless energy; just as on Purim we give and give and when we thought we were done we gave a little more; so must we stretch our material and spiritual resources every day. When we’ve pushed and pulled and extracted every bit of ability and talent we have in carrying out our obligations, we will merit the eternal blessings promised to the eternal people.

As we go through life, we learn that appearances are often deceiving.

In fact, people don’t always behave the way we would like them to. People say the wrong things at the wrong times. People we look to for support and friendship sometimes fail us. Only in books does everyone behave predictably, in ways consistent with the plot. Only in fiction do all parts of the story blend together with a beginning, middle and satisfying end.

Real life is complicated and sometimes not satisfying at all. But then Purim comes and reminds us. As we listen to the Megillah being read, we hear how nothing was the way it appeared to be. The name of Hashem appears nowhere in the entire written transcript of the Megillah story; though, when you put it all together, it becomes obvious that He was orchestrating everything behind the scenes. The Jewish people were all but doomed to destruction, a heartbeat away from being wiped off the map. By following Mordechai’s guidance, Queen Esther was able to use her connections to save the beleaguered people.

At that time, most people had no clue what was transpiring until it was all over. You can be sure that there were people who blamed Mordechai for Haman’s hatred of the Jews and his attempt to annihilate them. There were others who were fed up with Esther and wanted her impeached. They blamed her for not doing enough for them, fast enough; they couldn’t understand why it was taking her so long to get the royal decree annulled.

We misjudge people and their motives. Often, our own motives are misjudged as well. So much enmity is caused by misunderstanding, by preconceptions and unexamined biases. Purim is a day which strips off that instinctive prejudice against others. On Purim, we peel away the layers of sinas chinom which have built up and left their grimy residue on our relationships with others.

Purim is a day designed by Chazal to bring us all together so that we can merit redemption just as in the times of Shushan. The Jews became unified as they faced the edict of destruction. We celebrate the unity on Purim that the commandments of the day bring about. We give more, we share more, we laugh more, and we celebrate more.

If the achdus the day engenders would only last longer than the hangover caused by the mishteh and simcha, then we can also merit a yeshuah as did the Jews of Shushan.

Purim should be a day that teaches us how to behave and how to treat each other; to carry on performing mitzvos and living our lives b’simcha, with joy, happiness and fulfillment. Don’t let it be just a one-day experience.

Let’s try it; we have only to gain!