Wednesday, May 30, 2007


By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Some things infuriate me. One of them is the way secular Jewish leaders continue to speak of Israel and its army in the face of the deteriorating, frightening situation facing Israel today. I hope those who read this will think about it and share your thoughts with us.

One of the underpinnings of the State of Israel is the claim of Zionist leaders that that it is the natural refuge for Jews from all over the world. These leaders reach out to Jews everywhere, urging them to move to Israel where they are guaranteed to be safe. They preach that had there been a Jewish state and a Jewish army during the period of the Second World War, the Holocaust never would have taken place.

All throughout history, Jews were sitting ducks, but now that we have our own army, never again will we be systematically wiped out, goes the claim. Never again will a nation be able to decimate untold numbers of our brethren. We will fight back; we will be defended by the Israel Defense Forces. We will not go like sheep to slaughter; we will fight like all nations of the world do. We will fight for our lives and we will prevail. So proclaim the self-important secular leaders of the Jewish state.

Every year on Yom Hashoah, the leaders of Israel gather and address the people and feed them this hype. They wax eloquent about how the Holocaust will never happen again thanks to the IDF. They tell them that now we can hold our heads high because we have our own country and our own army. They proclaim that Israel is the ingathering of the exiles and every Jew should make aliyah and flee to The Promised Land where our own army will protect them.

One glance at reality is enough to puncture these myths. Take a look at the most recent news. Iran is getting very close to producing a nuclear bomb. As Israel fiddles, the radical leader of that country continues to repeatedly proclaim that he intends to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. What does Israel do? Not a thing. What can they do? At the end of the day, nothing. Oh, yes, they deliver speeches and warn the world that something must be done before it is too late. But they are powerless to stop the madman of Tehran from achieving his ambition and carrying out his threats.

Forget about Iran. Look at the lowly Palestinians, a people which didn’t even exist at the time of the founding of Israel. This lowly group of stateless vagabonds has the vaunted Israeli leaders stymied. The greatest general and tactician in the history of Israel thought that if he would forcibly evacuate Jews from Gaza, that would usher in salvation and peace for Israel. They would be rid of the contentious conclave and leave the Arabs to deal with the mess.

What actually happened? As was predicted here and elsewhere, Gaza turned into a terror base. Thanks to American insistence on “democratic” elections and Israeli acquiescence, Hamas ran for election and won control of the area on Israel’s southwestern border. Gaza is now a terrorist’s dream. Every terror group has an office there. Every terrorist is armed to the teeth with as many guns, grenades and rockets as he desires.

Every day, the undisciplined and poorly trained Palestinians shoot rockets into Israel, killing some, wounding others and creating mayhem in the border city of Sderot. The people are terrorized to stay there, but many have nowhere to go. Children won’t go to school, people are afraid to go to work. They are afraid to stay home and afraid to leave home.

The poor people of Sderot have been repeatedly promised protection and retaliation against the terrorists by the government, but that same government fails to provide even rudimentary bomb shelters. They promised to reinforce school roofs and haven’t done even that. Private philanthropists had to step in and donate pre-fab simple bunkers for the shell-shocked city. No one even talks anymore of stopping the rockets from falling in the first place

They turn to their army for salvation and there is none. They turn to their elected leaders for some direction and there is none. As a last resort, some raise their eyes to Heaven and beg G-d to deliver them from their enemies and leaders.

The very same people, who just one month ago on Yom Hashoah spoke with so much pride of their many accomplishments since the day Jews were liberated from Auschwitz, now stand as if paralyzed, mouthing empty, meaningless words. They are powerless to stop the rockets, they have no plan, they have no way out.

In the face of constant bombardment of the home front, Israel’s political leaders are shown before the world to be inept, arrogant and ignorant. It’s not just me who is saying this; this shameful truth was codified and documented in the recently released Winograd report set up after the disastrous experience last summer in Lebanon. The usual bravado didn’t work this time and Israel was displayed before the world as a paper tiger.

The feckless and hopelessly conceited prime minister should have been thrown out, but the people haven’t mustered enough force to demand his removal. His party, founded on the faulty premise that unilateral withdrawal from Gaza would usher in peace, is fearful to face new elections. Hypocritically, they stand behind him, placing their positions of power and imagined prestige above the security of the beleaguered and besieged country.

The defense minister is not as lucky; his people have thrown him out, though in his stead they seem set to pick another left-wing loser with his head in the sand.

To us, none of this should come as a surprise. We say, “Al tivtichu binedivim, b’ven adom she’ein lo seshua.” The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos states as well, “Ein miskarvin lerashus, she’ein michavnim eloh letovasom,” politicians only do what’s good for them and rarely care about the welfare of the general community.

Israel now celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Six day War of 1967. Way too many of the military and political leaders who ought to know better fail to recognize the many miracles which led to that historic victory, attributing all to the prowess of the vaunted Israeli army, “kochi v’otzem yodi asu li es hachayil hazeh.” They ignore the truth that since that exuberant period four decades earlier, it has become painfully obvious to all that “Im Hashem lo yishmor ihr shav shokad shomer.” The great army which repelled advancing armies from three different directions is rendered powerless when it fails to earn Divine support.

Yes, we are sheep, and our shepherd is the L-rd, who watches over us and leads us to greener and safer pastures when we so merit.

We still have not merited to be delivered from the exile of golus to freedom in Eretz Yisroel as we are so painfully and repeatedly reminded each day. We raise our voices in prayer and beg that a new light rise above Zion, illuminating the truth, and that we all prove worthy of benefiting from it.

We say every day in davening, “Eileh barechev v’eileh basoosim va’anachnu besheim Hashem Elokeinu nazkir.” We don’t place our faith in military might, but rather in G-d. Those who depend strictly on the army and political leaders to defend them will crumble and fall. “Heimah karu venafalu va’anachnu kamnu vanisodad,” but we will rise and ultimately prevail.

May we merit seeing the posuk come to fruition speedily in our day before any more innocent Jewish blood is spilled.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Angelic People

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Shavuos, the day on which the Torah was plucked from its Heavenly abode and transmitted to mortals, is just around the corner. We mark the sixth and seventh of Sivan as the days which separate our nation from all other nations of the world. Only the Jewish religion celebrates the revelation of G-d to millions of people. Only the Jews can lay claim to having heard the word of G-d - literally - in the sight of masses of people.

On this day we stood at the foot of Har Sinai and heard the voice of Hashem. We were lifted above all mankind, for eternity. With the giving of the Torah, the Jewish nation was born.

The Gemorah in Pesachim, 68b, states that half of the Shavuos day is dedicated to service of Hashem and the other half is for our own benefit. In the Gemorah parlance, “Chetzyo LaHashem vechetzyo lochem”. It is not sufficient to simply accept the Torah. It is not enough to study Torah. We must internalize the teachings of the Torah and make ourselves better people. Torah must touch our souls and impact our actions. If we stay up all night learning, but then come home and carp at our wife because she didn’t have breakfast ready for us before we go to sleep, then we have failed in our mission of forging ourselves into true Bnei Torah.

Chetzyo LaHashem vechetzyo lochem. We must demonstrate that we are devout not only when it comes to learning and davening. We are religious also in the way we behave and conduct ourselves as we go about our regular, mundane, pursuits.

The words of Rav Yosef recounted in the Gemorah Pesachim, 66b, are often quoted to convey the extraordinary spiritual power of the day. On Shavuos, he would partake of a meal consisting of the finest meat. He explained that, “Iy lav hay yoma d’kagarim kama Yosef ika b’shuka, if not for this day, there would be no difference between me and all the other Joes in the street.”

Rav Yosef was saying that the study of Torah is not just an intellectual pursuit. It transforms those who absorb its lessons and strive to make themselves into better and holier people.

The greatness of this day is that it celebrates this transformative force of the Torah on all aspects of our lives. If we remain with the same personality we possessed prior to our study, then we are just another Joe. If our limud haTorah falls short of changing us and does nothing for us, the day’s gifts have been wasted.

Torah is a Divine gift given to man, but it contains many and myriad obligations. The holiday and the accompanying joy is reserved for those who conduct themselves as Rav Yosef did, channeling their lives into a steady upward incline of elevated performance and accomplishments.

The posuk recounts that when Hashem appeared to the Bnei Yisroel and offered them the Torah, they responded in unison, “Na’aseh v’nishmah, we will do and we will hear.” The Gemorah in Shabbos, 88a, cites Rav Simai’s teaching that when they answered thus, placing na’aseh before nishmah, angels descended from Heaven and fastened two crowns on the head of each Jew, one for na’aseh and one for nishmah. Rabi Elazar says a bas kol rang out, stating, “Who taught my children this secret, which is used by the angels?”

Many commentators question what was so extraordinary about the words na’aseh v’nishmah that the Jews were so richly praised for stating them. Many different answers are offered. I was thinking that perhaps the greatness of the response was that they understood that acting is of greater importance than listening. By placing na’aseh ahead of nishmah, they demonstrated their understanding that Torah is not just an esoteric theoretical pursuit. They vowed to make the performance of the Torah’s dictates their highest priority.

In addition, of course, they committed themselves to heeding the teachings of the Torah; poring over them and toiling to understand them. Torah study will be their most important pursuit in life; the nishmah will take precedence over all other occupations. But it will all be ancillary to the na’aseh; the primary purpose of the Torah is that we carry out its chukim and mishpotim. Other intellectual pursuits do not necessarily change the behavior of the person who engages in them. Their study does not improve a person’s character and make a better man. But the study of Torah must have a positive effect upon us.

When we proclaimed na’aseh v’nishmah, we were saying that we were prepared to act like himmeldiker mentchen; we were prepared to act as people suffused with Torah and Kedusha; we were prepared to obligate ourselves lilmod ulelameid lishmor vela’asos ulekayeim.

Thus were the Jews deserving of receiving the Torah and declared to be on the level of angels who follow G-d’s word with steadfast devotion, without deviation or question.

At times, we lose sight of what our goals should be. We get so caught up with the difficulty inherent in the study and observance of Torah that we forget to apply its lessons to our daily lives and to become more cognizant of the others around us. We expect everyone to conform to our wishes, mimic our actions and think exactly as we do. We become intolerant of anyone who deviates one iota from what we consider proper. We forget that there were twelve shevotim at Har Sinai and each was different. They stood at Har Sinai as one, k’ish echod b’leiv echod, proclaimed together naaseh v’nishmah and received the Torah.

It is only when G-d’s nation and the people who remain loyal to Him and his mitzvos, put their internecine squabbles and differences aside that we are worthy of being G-d’s nation. It is only when we stand together as one that we achieve our greatness and are able to overcome all who seek to drive us from the tree of life. Any legitimate path to G-d, consonant with our traditions and halachos, is to be encouraged and praised and not vilified and disparaged.

If we recognize the greatness in each other, we can cross pollinate and enrich each other as Jews and as people. We grow as we respect and learn from each other.

The holy seforim say allegorically that there are 600,000 letters in the Torah corresponding to the number 600,000 that is always used to represent the collective tally of the Jews in the desert. This is to symbolize that there is a letter in the Torah for each Jew and each Jew has a letter in the Torah. The Torah is the collective embodiment of every individual good Jew who adheres to its precepts and commandments; each one can find his place there. Our roots are all in the Torah, whether we daven from an Ashkenaz, Sefard, Ari or Yechaveh Daas siddur.

Let’s treat all people the way we want to be treated, as Hillel the elder told the man who asked him to teach him the whole Torah ahl regel achas. We are all familiar with Hillel’s response. “Mah d’aloch sani lechavroch lo sa’avid, v’iduch zil gemor – don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you; as for the rest, go study.” What was Hillel telling him? Is the Torah really only about veohavta l’reyachah kamochu?

I think that what Hillel was teaching was that the Torah is all about Talmud hameivi lidai maaseh – Torah study which alters the way we behave, affecting positively the way we act. The basis of Torah is to know that its study has to affect our actions and the way we treat our fellow people. It is only after we accept this premise that we can set about learning. Mah d’aloch sani lechavroch lo sa’avid, v’iduch zil gemor.

This is what is meant by the Toras Kohanim at the beginning of Parshas Bechukosai. “Im bechukosai teileichu v’es mitzvosai tishmiru.” Hashem says that if we follow his chukim and mitzvos all will be good. The Toras Kohanim, which is brought by Rashi, explains that the words v’es mitzvosai tishmiru mean that Hashem will bless us if we will toil in Torah in order to be able to follow its commandments. Ameilus b’Torah is not sufficient if it is not animated by the intention to heed the Torah’s mandates.

For the 49 days of Sefirah, we have climbed the ladder of the 48 ways in which Torah is acquired. Each day corresponds to one of the 48 requirements for having Torah. If you look through the 48 qualifications listed in Pirkei Avos, you will note that many of them involve our actions bein adom lechaveiro. That is because Torah is not just about mere ivory tower study. During the period of Sefirah, as we prepare ourselves for kabbolas haTorah, we refine our middos as well as our deeds because Torah is all about doing.

Let us strive to purify ourselves so that we can be zoche to a true kabbolas haTorah on all levels. May we merit to be molded by the life-giving aitz chaim that is both our sustenance and protection in this world, and our conduit to the next. Let us use the remaining time between now and Shavuos to perfect our middos and the other enumerated prerequisites for true gadlus b’Torah, so that by the sixth and the seventh of Sivan we have proven to be worthy Bnei Torah, ready to accept the greatest gift ever given to man, once again.

Chag Someach. Ah gutten Yom Tov.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

A Flaming Future

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The story is told of a great Chassidic rebbe who related to his chassidim a conversation he had with a slow-witted person. The rebbe asked the man why he never got married. “Why should I get married?” the man asked. The rebbe told him that if for no other reason he should want to get married to have children.

“If I wanted to have children, I would go to the Belzer Rebbe and ask him for a bracha for children!” the man responded in all seriousness.

After everyone giggled at the man’s nonsensical answer, the rebbe took a serious tone and told his followers that the story conveyed a deep lesson. Some people think that they don’t have to expend any effort to accomplish something in life. They think they can go to a rebbe and get a cure-all blessing and presto! - all will be resolved to their satisfaction.

People expect to find quick and easy solutions to problems; they think success can be won by sitting back and taking the easy was out. But it doesn’t work. There are no magic potions.

Just as you can’t just go to the Belzer Rebbe and expect to have children, you can’t just sit down lackadaisically in front of a Gemorah and expect to become a Talmudic expert. You can’t accomplish something worthwhile unless you invest everything you are capable of into the challenge. Successful people have invariably worked long and hard and merited huge doses of siyata diShmaya to reach their pinnacle.

That is the message of this week’s parsha of Bechukosai, “Im bechukosai teileichu,” illuminated by the immortal, oft-quoted words of Rashi, “Shetihyu ameilim baTorah, that you shall study the words of the Torah with intensity.” Hashem tells us that if we want to earn his blessings, we have to work hard to study the Torah and follow its commandments.

I remember how in high school we would skip the required reading of a book and would cram before a test with the Cliff Notes version of the book. That kind of studying and learning may help when all you’re interested in is the grade, but if you want to master a subject, it is of no use.

When it comes to learning Torah, certainly there are no shortcuts to the goal of understanding G-d’s word. It takes intense effort and all-consuming involvement until the Torah touches your soul and enables you to become a true shomer Torah u’mitzvos and to merit the berachos hakesuvos baTorah.

This week, we celebrated Lag Ba’omer. In Eretz Yisroel, hundreds of thousands merited to travel to the kever of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai in Meron and to daven at that holy site together with so many other good Jews. Those who didn’t make the trek built a neighborhood fire which they all danced around as they sang songs dedicated to Rabi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabi Akiva. The festivities injected a spiritual energy into the day.

Lag Ba’omer interrupted our mourning period; we took haircuts, shaved, trimmed our beards and turned up the volume of our iPods as we allowed music to pump into our psyches once again. It’s almost as if, on a certain level, the mourning of the Sefirah period is over.

Why is it that the customs of mourning in commemoration of the passing of the talmidim of Rabi Akiva have so taken over Sefirah? Why is it that Lag Ba’omer has become a day widely celebrated, though it is in no sense a holiday?

Rabi Akiva was the greatest sage of his generation; it is said that he was the shoresh of Torah Sheba’al Peh. The line of transmission of the Torah from Sinai to future generations ran through him and his students. When his 24,000 students were wiped out, it was a major cause of depression. How would the chain continue? Who would provide the light of Torah to future generations? How could they ever be replaced? How could a grieving people on the run from Roman persecution be consoled on the loss of so many great men so crucial to the spiritual survival of the nation?

The urge to say it’s all over must have been overwhelming. The less faithful and more pessimistic among them must have been ready to give up. But Rabi Akiva recovered from his devastating loss to transmit the Torah through a new group of five students. It was on Lag Ba’omer that Rabi Akiva began teaching Torah to these new talmidim. The seeds he planted that day which ultimately produced the massive rejuvenation of Torah are what we celebrate on Lag Ba’omer.

On this day we commemorate the renewal. We celebrate the determination. We cheer the cessation of the plague. We foresee the future bright with hope and determination.

As the centuries pass, and as the Romans of every period seek our destruction and annihilation, we look towards Rabi Akiva and Rabi Shimon bar Yochai for inspiration. We note how they looked the enemy in the face and persevered, thus ensuring that our nation and our Torah are alive and flourishing to this very day. In the wake of a tragedy which would have felled lesser people, Rabi Akiva strengthened himself and set about ensuring that the chain remain unbroken.

As the golus continues and our situation becomes more and more precarious, as enemies surround us within and without, we must not weaken in our devotion to Torah. Noting how many giants our people has lost over the past bitter century, voices are raised that say we can never recoup the losses. We are doomed to mediocrity, they proclaim.

Lag Ba’omer rejects that hopelessness. It stands as a beacon and proclaims to one and all to never give up hope, to never allow the chain of greatness to break. The fires of Lag Ba’omer burn bright and call out to us that the future will burn brightly, the mesorah will continue uninterrupted, and our people can and will be great once again. Never give up and never despair.

The more our exile is prolonged, the more we turn to days like Lag Ba’omer for inspiration and encouragement, and the more popular their observance becomes.

But it is not enough to just light a fire; it is not enough to sing and dance. We have to be prepared to work as hard as Rabi Akiva did. We have to be prepared for the deprivation suffered by Rabi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Rabi Elazar. We have to be “ameilim baTorah” if we want to merit the blessings of rebirth and redemption.

Those fires have to burn through our surface laziness and morose feelings and spark within our souls a flame of holiness and dedication to the mesorah and to Torah. Only in that way will we merit the realization of the prophecies discussed in the works of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai with the arrival of Moshiach Tzidkeinu, b’meheirah b’yomeinu. Amen.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Face of the Dog

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The Gemorah tells that when Rabi Akiva noticed that his talmidim were becoming sleepy, he would intersperse some fantastic and startling statements in his lessons to rouse them.

My rebbi, Rav Mendel Kaplan zt”l, borrowed that strategy with his own students. He would say, “Ich hub a Chicagy maaseh, I have story from Chicago to relate to you,” and our sleepy, nodding heads would snap to attention.

Last week, I was in Chicago and heard what would pass as a “Chicagy maaseh,” a tale with a strong message.

The story was told that a world-renowned basketball player came across a small boy who was playing basketball in his driveway. Overcome with an urge to shoot a few baskets, he ran over to the boy and asked him for the ball. The boy stood in open-mouthed amazement as the giant jumped around with his ball, shooting and hitting one basket after another. Finally, the celebrity had to go. He handed the ball back to the little boy and said, “No one will ever believe you!” With that he was gone.

So much of what we do in our lives is fueled by the desire to let others know what we have done. The activity itself - whether good or bad - is secondary to the satisfaction and pride that comes with people knowing about it and talking about it. If nobody knows you went on a wonderful trip somewhere, if no one knows what you did when you were there, it’s almost as if it was a waste. If the greatest star comes by and plays ball with you but nobody will believe you, it is a source of consternation instead of happiness.

Why is that? What is behind the constant craving for attention? Perhaps it is due to an innate insecurity about what one truly believes and what one stands for. A confident, secure person doesn’t seek the constant reinforcement and approval of friends, neighbors and society in general. He is confident in what he is accomplishing and in the values he lives by.

As we count down to Shavuos and kabbolas haTorah, we would do well to make that strength of character our own gold standard.

People whose core is weak derive support from what others say about them. People who need propping up look around at what others are doing to know what they themselves should be doing. Those weak in Torah and avodah seek approval from others similarly lacking in depth of character and strength of purpose. These people constantly look over their shoulder, trying to fit in with what is most popular, afraid to stand up for what is right and true.

And what does such behavior lead to? Where do those with such moral ineptitude end up? If they are private people, they end up being quite unhappy, until they discover the truth and return to the path of Torah. If they are public people, they continue pandering to the masses, often ending up on the ash heap of history alongside people like themselves.

Following the last election in Israel, most people didn’t think things would end up the way they have. The party, Kadima, touted as the future of Israel, took office with much hope and promise. War hero Ariel Sharon had fashioned the new party as the future of Israel and said it consolidated within its ranks the best and brightest of Likud and Labor. Who could argue with that?

But G-d had different plans and removed Sharon from the world stage. The people of Israel continued to be drawn by the magnetism of the man and his idea and swept the party into power in the last election.

Though it was headed by Ehud Olmert, a political and moral lightweight, who seemed to excel at little else but back room deals designed to enrich himself, the people voted for Kadima anyway. Olmert cobbled together a government in his image, staffed with people whose egos by far outweighed their abilities. A labor rabble rouser became the Defense Minister, an abuser the Justice Minister, a thief the Finance Minister and so on.

No one cared, no one had the intelligence and honesty to rise up and say, “Stop. This is madness. This will lead us straight to disaster.” And so these leaders were left to reel from one catastrophe to the next.

It may very well be that the jig is up and the game of musical chairs is about to begin again. Olmert will be shoved off to an ignominious retirement and Peretz will go back to shutting down the country to preserve archaic labor conditions for a slew of lazy workers. Newcomers, not much better equipped than their predecessors, will attempt to take the steering wheel of the floundering country as it bops around a deeply rutted path.

It would be almost comical if it were not so sad; it would be unbelievable if it weren’t true.

“Reishit tzmichat geulateinu.” Is this the portent that will lead to the arrival of the Messiah? Can anyone still really believe that? Is this the way people who believe in their mission act? Is there a person in that government who sets as his or her primary agenda the salvation of the people of Israel? Is there anyone in that government who cares about the downtrodden of Israel? What of the fate of the Jews evicted from Gaza? Does anyone give a thought to them? Or the Jews in Northern Israel who huddled for so many days in their bomb shelters during the Lebanon War last year? For the elected leadership of the country, it’s all about me, me, me. My ego, my pocketbook, my future.

As Ari Shavit wrote in Haaretz this week, “For many years, Israelis sought a government without the religious. In Olmert’s government, they got a government without G-d. It is now clear that a government without G-d is also a government without talent. Without a moral compass, without a political agenda and without a grip on reality.”

The Gemorah relates in Sotah 49b that in the time of Moshiach, the generation will appear like a dog. The explanation is offered that just as a dog runs ahead of its master but keeps turning around to see which direction the master takes, so too, in the time of Moshiach, people will lack the intelligence and courage to act sensibly on their own. They will take their cue by watching and copying others - who are just as confused and directionless.

The Gemorah there states that at that time, we will have nowhere to turn but to our Father in Heaven. With that woeful situation so plainly on display in our time, may we merit rachamei Shomayim and a speedy redemption. Amen.