Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Veritas Fidelis

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Recently, radio talk show host and conservative icon Rush Limbaugh was the victim of a vicious campaign that sought to silence him once and for all. The allegation was that he had spoken ill of the US soldiers fighting in Iraq. The most powerful people in this country were propagating the story and they were determined to make him pay for his sin. Forty US senators, led by Senate majority leader Harry Reid, signed a declaration against him and sent it to his boss. He tried responding and setting the record straight, but got no traction in disputing the claims.

In one of the most brilliant acts of a person under attack, he turned the tables on his assailants. He convinced his boss to put the letter up for auction, with the proceeds going to a military charity. The gambit won, millions were raised for charity, and the scandal was put to rest. He didn’t respond to them. He didn’t get into the gutter with them. He just turned the tables on them.

How do you react when your integrity is called into question? How are you supposed to respond when people close to you accuse you of doing things that are awful and terrible - and they persist in these charges even when they know, and you prove, that they are totally unfounded?

Most people put up a fight, screaming and trying to prove their innocence. Isn’t that what we would all do? Would we just sit by and let people impugn our integrity? We would shout from the rooftops proclaiming our innocence, whether anyone was listening to us or not. Many of us would dirty ourselves, getting into the gutter and debating our adversaries, with the mud flinging back and forth.

From Parshas Vayeitzei, we learn of the futility of such an approach.

Our forefather, Yaakov Avinu, was forced to leave his parents’ home. His mother, Rivkah, warned him that his brother Eisav was plotting to kill him because Yaakov had received the coveted brachos from their father Yitzchok. She advised him to escape to the home of her bother, Lavan.

Yitzchok concurred and sent Yaakov to Lavan in Padan Aram, and instructed him to choose a wife from among Lavan’s daughters.

In Parshas Vayeitzei we learn that on his way to Padan Aram, Yaakov passed by Har Hamoriah and slept there. The posuk relates that he took a stone, placed it by his head and went to sleep. In his dream, he saw malochim who accompanied him on the journey. He was blessed by Hakadosh Boruch Hu and was told that he would be protected.

Upon awaking, Yaakov expressed in wonderment, “Ein zeh ki im Bais Elokim - This place is a home of G-d.” He then took the stone upon which he had slept, set it up as a matzeivah, and vowed that if Hashem would be with him, help him succeed in his journey and return him safely to his father’s home, he would use this matzeivah stone for a Bais Elokim.

Yaakov then went along his way to Padan Aram. He met shepherds standing around a well of water who pointed out Rochel, the daughter of Lavan, as she approached the watering hole with her father’s flock of sheep. A large stone covered the well and the shepherds said that they weren’t able to water their sheep because they couldn’t remove the stone from atop the well.

Yaakov stepped up and rolled off the stone, watered Lavan’s sheep, kissed Rochel and wept.

He was taken by Rochel to the home of Lavan. He married Leah and Rochel, as well as Bilha and Zilpa, and worked for Lavan for 20 years. After being commanded by a malach in a dream to return to his land of birth, Yaakov gathered his wives, children and flocks and departed for home.

Lavan caught up with him and gave him a verbal haranguing, accusing him of behaving like a common thief. Yaakov responded by listing everything he had done for Lavan during his years of servitude to him. He reminded Lavan of how he had endured Lavan’s dishonest dealings. He enumerated all the ways that Lavan had robbed him, and what he owed him, having changed the terms of his employment tens of times.

Totally unfazed, Lavan responds to Yaakov’s emotional and detailed argument by insisting that all that Yaakov owns is his, Lavan’s. “Habanos benosai, v’habonim bonai, v’hatzon tzoni, vechol asher atah ro’eh li hu.”

The posuk doesn’t record that Yaakov responded to Lavan after that. The posuk recounts that Yaakov took a stone and held it up as a matzeivah. He sent his children to gather stones. They took the stones and fashioned from them a “gal,” a mound, and ate there.

When your integrity is compromised and family and friends turn on you; when you give everything you have to your job and your boss accuses you of goofing off, the urge is to fight to set the record straight, no matter what it takes.

It hurts when people don’t judge you fairly; you are pained when people who ought to know better say that you can’t do a good job. But what do you do about it? Do you shout back at them? Do you respond in kind? Do you keep on pressing your point even when you are getting nowhere and your adversary is clearly indifferent to your arguments?

Yaakov Avinu shows us the answer. When accused by Lavan, he set the record straight with his own testimony and refused to debate the issue any further.

When Lavan showed that he wasn’t interested in honestly appraising Yaakov’s track record, Yaakov returned to his even matzeivah. He told his sons to go out and gather stones, not to throw at Lavan, but to use for the construction of a gal.

Yaakov was teaching his sons, and us, that when the Lavans of the world are determined to vilify you, don’t waste your time in senseless debate; don’t get snared in a battle of one-upmanship. Instead, busy yourself with positive acts. Don’t throw stones; instead, gather them together and build. Don’t get bogged down with negativity.

Dedicate yourself to spreading G-dliness and goodness among your family and the world at large.

Perhaps it can be said allegorically that Yaakov Avinu took that original stone which he dedicated following his dream on Har Hamoriah and carried it with him as a memory of that fateful night and of the pledge that he made. Wherever he went in golus, he had a memory of the prophetic vision he had. He had a piece of kedusha with him as he sat in Lavan’s house.

In fact, a careful examination of the pesukim bears this out. At the beginning of the parsha, following his dream, Yaakov says, “How holy is this place, for it is a Bais Elokim” (28:17). The next posuk states that when he awoke, he took the stone upon which he slept and made it into a matzeivah.

The pesukim then recount the pledge he made, climaxing with, “This stone [with] which I made a matzeivah shall be a Bais Elokim…”

The obvious difficulty is that he himself had already noted that the place where he slept was a Bais Elokim. What did he mean when he said that he would use the stone to fashion a Bais Elokim?

If we understand it to mean that Yaakov took this very stone on which he had slept with him as he traveled, and used it as a Bais Elokim, then Yaakov was saying that he would establish an actual Bais Elokim from which he would spread the truth of G-d. Similarly, we find that the Bnei Yisroel built the Mishkan from Atzei Shitim that Yaakov Avinu had brought with him to Mitzrayim. Even when he was descending to golus, Yaakov carried with him material necessary for the construction of the Bais Elokim.

Chazal teach that Yaakov instituted Tefillas Arvis, the prayer we say in the dark of night. From Yaakov comes a special legacy of faith and hope that enables us to endure the bitter exile. Even as we grope our way in the darkness, we can still make room for light in our lives.

Even when all we have is an inert stone, we can transform it into a tool of holiness and use it to fashion a temple of G-d. We can be enslaved by tyrannical, maniacal people like Lavan, but if we are bearers of kedusha, we can ignore them and build edifices of holiness.

Yaakov was able to roll the stone of darkness off the well of water and life while the others just stood by, lacking the strength of purpose to accomplish the feat. They did not know that it was possible to raise the stones which impede the forces of good. They had various excuses for their inaction. Because they thought that it couldn’t be done, they didn’t even make the attempt.

Yaakov showed us that we should let nothing stand in the way of our pursuit of Torah, of goodness and of life itself.

The next time you are told that it can’t be done, or people attempt to minimize your qualities and qualifications or doubt your accomplishments, remember Yaakov Avinu and his matzeivah. Always endeavor to bring kedusha to your life, wherever you are and whatever you do.

Remember how Yaakov instructed his sons after Lavan’s tongue-lashing. Gather your strength, collect yourself and look to build, not to destroy. Let your success be your response. Don’t get into a shouting match; don’t attempt to rationally explain the truth.

Your positive actions will speak louder, last longer and accomplish much more than angry words.

Every time another newspaper writes a negative article about religious Jews, people go crazy, passing the article around. They write letters to unsympathetic editors, and wonder how to set the record straight about us and our ways. They fail to recognize that the Lavans of the world are not interested in the truth. The only way for us to refute their claims is to ensure that we always conduct ourselves properly, in public and private, and don’t engage in any practices that would bring shame upon our community and ourselves.

My father, shlit”a, commented that a drawback of not reading the daily newspaper is that people don’t realize how their actions will be written up in the newspaper when the press gets wind of what they are doing. You can rationalize your actions as being legal, as being necessary, as hedging a bet, and in many other ways, but think about the possibility that what you have done will be written about in the New York Times or any local paper, and you may think twice before doing it.

As children of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, we must remember to always conduct ourselves properly and above board, not to support evil or evil-doers, and not to engage in activity which can be misconstrued. If we are maligned and challenged, we state the facts and move on, continuing our legacy of compassion, honesty and fidelity to a higher code of duty and honor with an even stronger dedication. We have to be secure enough in our beliefs and true to them, so that we can ignore the naysayers.

The parsha concludes, “V’Yaakov holach ledarko vayifge’uh bo malachei Elokim. Vayomer Yaakov ka’asher ra’am machaneh Elokim zeh…” Because Yaakov didn’t get into the gutter with Lavan, he merited that malochim came to greet him as he left Lavan behind.

May we all be zoche to see the brocha in our homes and lives, with our reputations intact.


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