Thursday, December 27, 2007

Public Service

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

In Parshas Vayechi, we are offered some prime examples of men who were unafraid to take action to defend their cherished values.

Yaakov Avinu, in imparting a lasting message to each of his sons before his passing, first addressed Shimon and Levi together. He cursed their rage and the anger they displayed in their reaction to Shechem’s mistreatment of their sister Dinah. He foretold that they would be separated and dispersed throughout Israel.

Rav Yitzchok Karo, in his sefer Toldos Yitzchok published in 1558, offers an explanation as to why Yaakov Avinu spread these two shevotim throughout the rest of Klal Yisroel.

Shimon’s and Levi’s anger against Shechem was triggered by their brotherly care for Dinah. While they carried this loyalty to an extreme, the other brothers did not display enough of it. Therefore, Yaakov sent Shimon and Levi throughout the rest of Israel to dilute some of their own anger, but at the same time, to infuse the rest of the shevotim with the attribute of brotherly feeling and responsibility.

Too often, we see that people are apathetic towards problems confronting our community and the many difficulties our brothers are facing. It seems at times that we urgently need a member of the tribes of Shimon and Levi in our midst to awaken our desire to do good and to stand by one another.

Among the apathetic masses, you find the exceptions - people of conscience and action who are not daunted by the enormity of the issues confronting them. There are people in every community who are able to overcome the urge to do nothing. They really work hard to bring solutions to intractable problems. You find people who seek to calm the agitated, right the wrongs, care for the abused, and fight injustice when it rears its ugly head.

These people bear the positive qualities of kaas as described by Rav Yitzchok Karo. They hold aloft a banner of truth and justice that others can rally around. Though the world may be apathetic to pain and suffering, these dedicated people demonstrate that even in our cynical age, it is possible to fight for truth and honor.

Though sheker remains attractive and at times appears to triumph over the people of emes, a true ish emes does not get flustered when he appears to be on the decline. He perseveres; he remains loyal to the truth and never waivers from fighting the good fight.

In some instances, people involved in community service start off with good intentions but, unfortunately, grow infatuated with the power and glory of their position. They begin to lose sight of what brought them to public service in the first place and begin taking undue liberties with their position. Inevitably, the power-infatuated person ends up compromising truth and justice in an attempt to broaden his authority and influence.

People of this kind are lacking the most vital components of leadership. A leader is a person of sound character who knows right from wrong and possesses the moral courage to stand behind his convictions. A real leader doesn't bend to the whims of the unschooled masses or compromise on cardinal principles. A real leader is an absolutist who remains loyal to his inner conscience; he is honest with himself and his fellow men.

As Torah Jews, we should all strive for these credentials. Even though the rest of the world stumbles about in moral ambiguity, we have an airtight moral code that enables us to discern right from wrong, truth from falsehood. Our leaders should exemplify those qualities of character.

Indeed, many of them do. Yet, there are all types of people in every community; there are some who are good, some who are bad, and some who straddle the fence. Then there are those wanna-be machers who think they are G-d’s gift to the universe. They stoop to promoting less than honorable causes in order to gain fame and fortune for themselves.

Sometimes, in conversation with such a person, you ask him how he could have acted against the ideals which he was appointed to espouse. “What should I do?” he’ll respond. “I’m a politician. I have to be all things to all people in order to accomplish the good that I do for the community.”

That rationale presupposes that a politician is, by definition, a spineless, gutless creature.

Take a look at the people running for president and think about which one you would vote for, irrespective of polls and what the media tells you. If you are reading this newspaper and are a frum Yid, you would no doubt vote for the person with the strongest position on matters that are important to you.

You are probably not inclined to support the person who talks out of both sides of his or her mouth and has no real moral compass. You detest the person who mouths platitudes and promises just to make you feel good, and whom you suspect will break every promise as soon as he’s in office. That type of person does not command our respect or our vote. He doesn’t qualify as a good politician in any sense.

A good politician espouses strong positive ideas around which a community can coalesce. He acts in the best interest of his constituents and with their long-term benefit in mind. He doesn’t check the polls each and every day to determine his position of the day.

Whether or not you agree with his policies, the current president of the United States is such a person. He seriously believes that he was placed in his position by G-d so that he can fight Islamic terror. He has a moral code by which he guides his life and though he is extremely unpopular today, he refuses to abandon his convictions.

The same positions he fought for when his popularity was at 90% still drive him today when it hovers in the thirty percentile. His ascendancy to the highest job in the land demonstrates that one need not be a two-faced politician to gain popularity and earn public support. Several of the people running for president in this election appear to be strong individuals who have exhibited real leadership. They haven’t pandered to the public whim by tailoring their campaign to what seems to be popular with the hoi polloi. Though it may cost them votes and support, they stick to their guns.

In order to advance to a position where they can be effective advocates for the common good and leaders for a generation, they require that the people of good support them. If those who value honesty, integrity and fidelity to noble causes don’t raise their voices in support, then the good people can never advance. They remain mired in obscurity with the also-rans.

Every generation has its unique tests of faith. Meeting those challenges demands that we have the courage of our convictions and not be deterred by opposition.

Since the beginning of time, unscrupulous people have shown they have no compunctions about trampling on other people. We, who would never want to be grouped with people of this ilk, should never conduct ourselves as they do.

The posuk in this week’s parsha (Shemos 2:11) relates that as Moshe grew to adulthood, he left the house of Paroh and observed firsthand his brothers’ suffering. The first day he ventured out, he saw a Mitzri beating a Jew. He looked around and, assuring himself that there were no witnesses, killed the Mitzri and hid him in the sand.

On the second day, Moshe saw two Jews, Doson and Avirom, fighting. Addressing the one with a raised fist as “Rasha,” he asked him why he was striking his friend. The man responded, “Who appointed you a ruler and judge over us? Are you going to kill me the way you killed the Mitzri?”

The Torah relates that Moshe became frightened and uttered the words, “Achein nodah hadovor - Indeed the matter is known.” The posuk’s intent seems to be that Moshe feared that it was known that he had killed the Mitzri. In fact, the next posuk relates that Paroh heard about “this matter” and Moshe was forced to flee for his life.

The Medrash offers a different explanation: “Achein nodah hadovor - Now I understand the matter that was troubling me.” Moshe was wondering why the Jewish people suffer more than the other nations of the earth, but now that he witnessed their cruel, vindictive behavior with one another, he understood.

Perhaps we can take that idea a step further. Moshe was brought up in the regal splendor of Paroh’s palace. At the age of twenty, after being appointed by Paroh to a position of authority, he left the palace to identify with the suffering of his people. He was overcome at the sight of their anguish.

When he came across a Mitzri beating a Jew, he struck him down. The sight of a Jew being abused, the sight of evil and injustice, enraged him. He couldn’t stand passively by; he had to do something.

As a member of Paroh’s royal household, he had never seen the Jewish people close up and was baffled by their enslavement and suffering. Why was their inhumane treatment allowed to continue? Why did they not rise up to defend themselves from their evil masters?

The incident with Doson and Avirom, who mocked him when he appealed to them to cease fighting, answered his questions.

He had killed the Mitzri with the Sheim Hameforash; how could they not have seen that? And yet, despite witnessing a supernatural act, they were unfazed. They saw that someone considered Jewish life sacred; they saw that someone actually cared about the way other people were being treated and risked his life to defend them. Yet, their only reaction was to mock him.

Instead of thanking him for his heroic act, they vilified him. Instead of raising their hands to G-d in gratitude that someone was fearless enough to defy the Mitzri authorities in order to come to their defense, they raised their hands to strike each other.

Achein nodah hadovor. Moshe now understood why no leader had emerged. The would-be leaders had their hands full contending with the Mitzriyim. They did not possess the power to intercede for their people when individuals like Doson and Avirom stood ready to sabotage, slander and mock them for their efforts.

If we desire effective leadership, we have to seek out ways to give chizuk to those who do so much for the klal, yet suffer the humiliation of public service.

If we want good people to rise to positions of responsibility, if we want talented people with high standards to exercise leadership, we have to be worthy of that leadership. If we want people to whom we can turn when we need direction, we have to make sure not to obstruct them when they rise to prominence.

If we want to hasten the redemption, we have to be supportive of young people who display communal responsibility and concern. We must encourage people to get involved in helping to build organizations and mosdos, and promote those who seek to resolve community-wide dilemmas that affect each and every one of us.

We have enough Dosons and Aviroms. We see them all over ready to pounce on anyone they don’t like. We recognize them by their petty vindictiveness, by their inability to get along with people, by their opposition to authority. They are conspicuous for their negativism and lack of ahavas Yisroel.

We should support those few individuals whose intentions to benefit the klal are pure and wholehearted. Let us get behind them so that they can realize their goals and ambitions for us all.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Golus and Geulah

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Parshas Vayechi marks the end of Seder Bereishis and the profound lessons of maaseh avos siman lebonim that inform its narratives. The parsha also marks the passing of Yaakov Avinu, and contain his words of parting with Yosef, Efraim, Menashe and the rest of the shevotim.

The posuk tells us that when Yosef heard that his father was ill, he took his two sons, Efraim and Menashe, and went to visit his father. Yaakov tells Yosef that his two sons will be “like Reuvein and Shimon to me” (48:5). He then reminds Yosef that when his beloved mother, Rochel, passed away, Yaakov buried her at the side of the road to Efras.

Returning to the subject of Yosef’s sons, he blesses them that his name and the name of his fathers, Avrohom and Yitzchok, should be attached to theirs.

Yaakov places his right hand on Efraim, the younger son, and his left hand on Menashe, the older one. Yosef is upset by this reversal. Shouldn’t Menashe’s seniority as the bechor be acknowledged by Yaakov’s right hand instead of the left? Yaakov tells him that both sons will attain greatness, but the younger one will be greater and his children’s fame will spread among the nations.

Rashi explains that that this refers to Yehoshua, who would lead the Jewish people into Eretz Yisroel. His fame would spread amongst the nations of the world when he causes the sun to stop in Givon - “Shemesh b’Givon dam.”

Finally, Yaakov blesses them with the immortal words, “Becha yevoreich Yisroel leimor yesimcha Elokim k’Efraim v’ch’Menashe.”

I would like to pose a few questions: Why did Yaakov elevate the status of Efraim and Menashe to that of the shevotim? Why is the mention of Rochel Imeinu’s burial place interjected here, in the midst of the narrative about the blessings Yaakov gave to Yosef’s sons? What is the connection of the burial place of Rochel to the status of Efraim and Menashe?

Why, in fact, do we bless our children that they should be as Efraim and Menashe and not, for example, like Yehuda?

And why is the fact that Yehoshua led Bnei Yisroel into Eretz Yisroel reason enough to give precedence to Efraim over Menashe?

Lastly, why does the Torah only record Yosef’s bringing his children to the ailing Yaakov? Can it be that the other brothers knew of Yaakov’s condition and didn’t come to be mevaker choleh?

A hint to the answer to these questions may be found in the first Rashi of the parsha. Parshas Vayechi is unique in that it is setumah, meaning that there is no extra space between it and the preceding parsha, unlike the general rule that a parsha begins on a new line or that it is separated from the previous one by a space of nine letters. In explaining why the parsha is a setumah, Rashi notes that with the passing of Yaakov Avinu, the shibud intensified. In other words, the golus of Mitzrayim - particularly the pain and the challenge of being a lonely minority in a hostile environment - first began to become manifest at this point.

When Yaakov realized that his end was near, he decided that it was time to prepare his children and their children and descendants for life in exile. It may very well be that not only Yosef, but all the shevotim, came to visit him and to receive his blessings. The Torah only recounts the encounter with Yosef and his sons who had been born in Mitzrayim, however, because that was the only visit that carried a vital lesson for posterity.

Yosef was the son who had arrived first in golus and had paved the way for the Bnei Yisroel there. Though Yosef lived in golus all alone, he clung to the faith of his father and lived an exemplary life, raising worthy, upright children. Yaakov singled them out for praise, and showcased them as an example of how Jews all through the generations can survive in the golus.

Though they had no community of fellow observant Jews, they did not succumb to the ever-present temptations surrounding them in decadent Mitzrayim. Yaakov was showing the brothers and Jews for all time that even in exile they can still be good Jews, who are loyal to their heritage, while also conducting themselves as successful citizens of their host country.

Yaakov turned to Efraim and Menashe and said, “Becha yevoreich Yisroel,” because though they were born in the exile and lived in Egypt prior to the arrival of Yaakov and his sons, they still were as holy and pure as their cousins who had grown up under the direct influence of Yaakov.

Yaakov said that for all time, wherever they find themselves, Jews should study the example of these two scions of greatness and point to them as examples of how they want their own children to develop, despite the tumah and moral bankruptcy around them.

Yosef Hatzaddik, indeed, showed the way for Bnei Yisroel to live in golus, but he also helped prepare them for the geulah, as did his father Yaakov. Perhaps this is hinted to by Yosef’s words in Parshas Vayigash (45:5) when he revealed himself to his brothers. He told them not to be upset or angry that they sold him into bondage, “ki lemichyah shlochani Elokim lifneichem - for Hashem sent me before you so that you may live.”

Obviously, it was pre-ordained that there be a hunger and that the Jews would go down to exile in Mitzrayim, as Hashem told Avrohom Avinu at the Bris Bein Habesorim (Bereishis 15:13).

Yosef was telling his brothers that since they had to be in golus, it was providential that he was the first to be exiled from Eretz Yisroel, because he was able to demonstrate for those who would follow him that it was possible to live an upright life even in a pagan, immoral environment. Thus, the term “lemichyah” can be understood allegorically to mean “to show you the way to live here in the exile.”

Yosef had a history of knowing how to live in golus and how to battle the forces of evil even before he went down to Mitzrayim. The posuk (Bereishis 30:25) states that as soon as Yosef was born, Yaakov told Lavan that it was time for him go back home. Rashi explains that this was because Yosef has the power to devour Eisav. With his birth, Yaakov knew that he could leave the golus of Lavan, vanquish Eisav and return to the Promised Land.

Yosef not only shows the way in golus, he also paves the way for geulah. Once Yosef is on the scene, Yaakov is confident that he can leave golus behind him and make it to Eretz Yisroel. That ability of Yosef to give strength and succor in golus and also to help bring about geulah was inherited from his mother, Rochel.

In connection with the posuk in which Yaakov describes the passing of Rochel and her burial at the side of the road to Efras, Rashi quotes the immortal words of Yirmiyohu Hanovi, that when the Jews went into golus at the time of the churban, Rochel stood on her grave on the road they were traveling and cried out to Hashem to have mercy on the Bnei Yisroel. Rochel was the one who pleaded with G-d to be merciful with the Jews in golus and make sure they don’t lose their way.

This trait of being mindful of the pitfalls of golus and seeking to help strengthen the Jews that live there was passed on to her son, Yosef.

My son, Yitzchok Elchonon, asked me what I was writing about this week. I told him my understanding of these pesukim. He pointed out to me that the second half of Yirmiyohu’s prophecy points to the other key characteristic of Yosef, and that is to help bring about the geulah. For Hashem answers Rochel, “Mini koleich mibechi…ki yeish sochor lifulosaich veshovu vonim lig’vulom,” - as a reward for your efforts, your children will return home.

With this I understood why Yaakov interjects with the tale of Rochel’s kevurah while he is blessing Yosef and his children. For Yaakov was preparing Klal Yisroel for golus and geulah and telling Yosef that his mother’s kochos hanefesh were passed on to his children. And this is the reason that he placed Efraim before Menashe, because Yehoshua, who led the Jews into Eretz Yisroel, was a descendant of Efraim. He was therefore the one who showed the Bnei Yisroel the path to geulah.

Yosef and his children not only demonstrate the way to live and survive in golus, they also lead us to the redemption. To emphasize this point, Yaakov promoted Efraim, grandfather of Yehoshua.

Yosef not only enabled Yaakov to triumph over Eisav, and not only showed how to have a kiyum in golus Mitzrayim and every golus. He also helps lead the Jewish people to geulah, not only in Yaakov’s day by enabling him to return to Eretz Yisroel, but also at the time of Yetzias Mitzrayim.

There is an allusion to this spiritual force of Yosef in Moshe Rabbeinu’s quest to find the atzmos Yosef, as the posuk (Shemos 13:19) recounts, “Ki hashbeiah hishbiah es bnei Yisroel leimor pakod yifkod Elokim es’chem, veha’alisem es atzmosai mizeh itchem.”

Yosef foretold the Jewish people that eventually Hashem would redeem them, and when that time comes, they should remove his remains from Mitzrayim. Yosef has a pivotal role to play in both golus and geulah. That is why he was the first to go into golus and “left” only after all the Jews were ready to depart.

As we go through our lives in the wonderful, benign golus of America, we would do ourselves a great service to bear in mind that as benevolent as this golus is, it is still golus. We should also remember that Hashem hears our tefillos and in His mercy will send us the redeemer who will liberate us from exile.

That long-awaited arrival will be heralded by the appearance of Moshiach ben Yosef. Because, as we have learned from a deeper look into this week’s parsha, Yosef shows the way to geulah. The messianic age and the ultimate final geulah will also be ushered in by Yosef and his progeny.

May we merit the Heavenly response to Rochel’s tears and the arrival of Moshiach ben Yosef speedily in our day. Amein.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

What’s Happening?

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

There is nothing that unites Jews everywhere like Yerushalayim. Even those removed from Torah and observance maintain a reverence for the holy city towards which Jews all over the world bow and pray three times a day.

This Heavenly city is the heart of the Jewish nation and has been so since the days of creation. When we think of Yerushalyim, our minds conjure up images of the akeidah, of Yaakov Avinu’s dream, of Shlomo Hamelech completing the Bais Hamikdosh, of masses of Bnei Yisroel converging on the holy city three times a year. We think of the kohanim b’avodosom u’leviim b’shirom u’vizimrom, of the Sanhedrin of 72 sitting in the Lishkas Hagozis.

The images leap at us. The Ramban arriving in the city in his final years. The talmidim of the Vilna Gaon and the Baal Shem Tov who risked their lives to take up residence in the ruins of the holy city to help hasten the arrival of Moshiach.

When we think of Yerushalayim, we think of Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin and Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld and so many tzaddikim of yesteryear. We think of the beautiful Yiddelach of Meah Shearim who help give the city its inimitable charm. We think of the yeshivos of Mir and Brisk and of the seminaries that shaped us, and that are passing on their legacy to our children today.

There is no city in the world with the chein and beauty of Yerushalayim, and there is hardly a Jew anywhere who would want to carve up the city, if given a choice.

Of course, if we believed that dividing the city would lead to increased security for the Jewish people, we would support it, but one has to have his head buried in the sand to still cling to that fantasy. One has to be delusional to think that a Palestinian state with Yerushalayim as its capitol would lead to world peace and to peace in the Mideast.

Given what we know about the reckless and self-promoting political considerations of Ehud Olmert and other members of the Israeli parliament, one has to be hopelessly naive to think that Israel’s security is of paramount concern to any of them.

While everyone’s back is turned, WND reporter Aron Klein reports that Olmert has already conceded the Har Habayis to the Arabs.

Some questioned the picture of Har Hazeisim in last week’s Yated with a caption insinuating that it can be bargained away. Klein has confirmed to us that the Palestinians have told him that Har Hazeisim is on the negotiating table.

A chief Palestinian negotiator told him, “I think [Olmert]’s not yet ready to tell the Israeli public and is waiting for the right time and he fears his coalition with religious extremists will fall apart if he announces it now.”

Klein reports that “the chief Palestinian negotiator said in months leading up to Annapolis, [that] the Palestinian team was ‘surprised’ by Olmert’s willingness to give up the Mount.”

The negotiator told him, “We had intense debates on many topics, which remain open and unsettled, but the Harem Al-Sharif (Har Habayis) is not a sticking point. The Israelis didn’t argue with us. We were pleasantly surprised Olmert didn’t debate about giving the lower section of the (Har Habayis) either, which was a sticking point in the past.”

A leader who lies to his people obviously cannot be trusted to be negotiating honestly on their behalf. It is impossible to have confidence in a corrupt leader whose popularity ratings are at a nadir, and so has nothing to lose.

Leaders who make mistakes ought to be men enough to admit those errors, and rectify them while it is still possible. If they can’t turn the clock back, the least they can do is learn from their past bitter experience. Those who are too impudent and arrogant to deal honestly with the issues have no business being in a leadership position. Their lies and attempts at mass deception will be their ultimate undoing.

One of Israel’s founding principles was its promise to protect the Jewish people. Israel’s leaders and propagandists continuously harp on the argument that had the State of Israel existed in the pre-Holocaust era, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would have defended the Jews and prevented the Holocaust. That myth has been punctured once again.

Two years ago, Israel’s army hero-turned-prime minister made a brave move for peace and pulled the Jews out of Gaza. Deals were made with Egypt to protect its border with Gaza and prevent the smuggling of arms into the Jew-free zone.

Gazans were warned that if any trouble emanated from the area, the army would be back; terror would not be tolerated. Since then, Kassam rockets have been fired almost daily into Israeli cities. So far this year, 2,000 rockets have been shot at Israel proper from Gaza, and there is no end in sight.

Israel fought a war in Lebanon and accomplished nothing. Hezbollah is now better stocked with weapons than it was before the war. Hamas remains firmly entrenched in Gaza, amassing massive amounts of advanced weaponry.

Instead of admitting that land-for-peace didn’t work in Gaza, that the Lebanon War was a mistake, and that the prime minister can’t lead and the defense minister can’t fight, these disastrously inept leaders are permitted to continue wreaking havoc with the nation’s security. People just go about their business as if the situation were perfectly normal. No one seems to grasp the terrifying implications of allowing these men to continue in office.

Al-Qaeda looks on with glee. Ahmadinejad flashes that ugly grin as he taunts the world. And we look on in deepening apprehension, afraid to think of where all this is leading.

Last year, at this time, Binyomin Netanyahu said, “It’s 1938, Iran is Germany, and it is arming itself with atomic weapons.” This year, it’s Shas minister Yitzchok Cohen who is sounding the alarm. He said that the way the United States is relating to Iran is similar to the passive way it dealt with the Holocaust, refusing to acknowledge the magnitude of Hitler’s Final Solution while it was still possible to halt it.

Though the United States and its allies had their armies fully armed and battling nearby, the government refused to heed calls for bombings which would have knocked the killing machines out of operation.

It is so obvious to anyone who follows the news that if the world does not want a nuclear holocaust, Iran’s nuclear ambitions must be stopped. No one wants another war; everyone dreads the thought of young men dying so that their countrymen can live in peace. But if Iran’s nuclear ambitions are not stopped any other way, what choice is there? They make no secret of their ongoing efforts to produce a nuclear weapon, threatening to use it to wipe out Israel, r”l (while at the same time insisting that the nuclear material will be used only “for peaceful purposes”). To believe otherwise is folly. Illusions of a peaceful resolution to the danger, crash in the face of reality.

People long for simple solutions, but the time for wishful thinking is long past. To sit around wondering when Israel will bomb the Iranian nuclear reactors and solve the problem with but a few F-16s is to indulge in fantasy.

It would seem that those charting the future have lost the will to battle the forces of evil. Fantasy and wishful thinking have taken the place of the former tough resolve that once characterized some of these leaders.

The stakes are very high. At present, our world cannot exist without oil. If the 20 million barrels of oil a day which are shipped out of the Persian Gulf would be halted, the world economy would come to a catastrophic halt. Stock markets would crash. Industries you don’t normally connect to oil would be shut down. That would be bad enough. But worse still, the world’s accusing finger would be pointed at the Jews.

It’s an ancient pattern, blaming the Jews for the world’s ills. Just imagine what would happen if Israel were to strike Iran and an oil blockade would ensue. What would happen if the Iranian mullahs retaliated by bombing western targets around the world? What would happen if gas shot up to $200 a barrel and people couldn’t travel and therefore lost their jobs?

It’s 1938, Iran is Germany and it is arming itself with atomic weapons. It’s 2007 and Iran is a bigger menace that Germany was, situated in a much more explosive region. It’s 2007 and Iran may soon have the world in a chokehold. It’s 2007 and the window of opportunity to defuse this nuclear time-bomb is fast closing.

It’s 2007 and the pieces of the cosmic jigsaw puzzle are starting to fit together. We have to daven that Hakadosh Boruch Hu delivers us from the evil designs of those who seek to destroy us and are well on their way to acquiring the means to do so. We have to be mispallel for another nes Chanukah of zeidim b’yad oskei sorasecha.

It’s 2007 and we have to remember shebechol dor vador omdim oleinu lechaloseinu. That means our dor as well. It’s 2007 and we have to remember that Hakadosh Boruch Hu is matzileinu m’yodom, in our day as well.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Leadership and the Menorah

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Annapolis has everyone confounded. How can it be that Israel’s leaders - Olmert, Livni, Barak and Eli Yishai - are so profoundly lacking in intelligence? How can it be that experience has taught Bush and Rice nothing? How is it possible that all these players engaged in such a huge charade are getting away with it? That no one with clout has the guts to stand up and speak the truth?

The absurdity and outrageousness of last week’s events cry out to the Heavens. Yet the self-serving politicians orchestrating those events march on toward disaster.

A summit is held to promote peace, yet Israel’s representative is compelled to enter through the building’s service entrance because the Arabs refused to enter through the same door that a Jew went through. But this infamy is ignored as all present engage in the delusional fantasy that a symbolic surrender on Israel’s part will usher in peace.

Olmert and Foreign Minister Livni broke every promise they made to the voters before going to Annapolis. They vowed that the precondition for negotiation with the Palestinians would be the latter’s acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state and their refusal to have contact with Hamas. Those were the “red lines” that would not be crossed.

What actually happened? The day after Annapolis, PA Chairman Abbas and the PA Prime Minister, Fayad, both publicly avowed that they would not recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Abbas now says that he is prepared to talk to Hamas. Could there be a bigger farce?

How did Israel ever get to this point to begin with? How does a prime minister with a popularity hovering around zero have the audacity to enter into such negotiations over the future of his country when he knows he doesn’t have the support of his countrymen? How do his coalition partners thumb their noses at the will of the people as they prop up the corrupt and inept manipulator, knowing they will get away with it?

Israel continues to make concessions for peace, while the Palestinians keep on demanding more. They don’t only want a couple of dilapidated neighborhoods in Yerushalayim; they want the whole thing, including the Kosel Hamarovi. They want the entire West Bank and Gaza. In fact, they want Israel to vanish, as illustrated by the map they published after Annapolis, which was somehow missing the hated Jewish country.

The Kadima party pulled Israel out of Gaza and now it is a terror state; there are no indications that the West Bank experience would be any different.

And how is it that President Bush behaves as if totally devoid of intelligence and judgment? Has he not studied the history of former presidents who tried to enhance their legacies by dabbling in Mideast peace? How can it be that the president who declared war on Islamic terror is the same one seeking to establish a state that would surely turn into the Middle East’s newest launching pad for terror?

To be sure, his enemies on the left would have liked for him to stoop even lower. The day following Annapolis, the New York Times criticized the president for trying to bring the sides together. “Mr. Bush could have said Jerusalem would serve as the capitol of two states. He did not, “ the Times complained.

“He could have said there would be compensation and resettlement for the Palestinian refugees. He did not do that either.

“Middle East specialists are saying that if Ms. Rice is to succeed in actually brokering a peace deal, she will have to get Mr. Bush to push Israel to agree to all of that and much more in the give and take of the haggling to come.”

But Rice might actually be spared the job of twisting the President’s arm. The Times reports that “Some Israeli officials say Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will actually need public American pressure to silence critics at home who will undoubtedly complain that he is giving away the store. ‘She hasn’t even pushed them as far as they want to be pushed,’ said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli negotiator.

“'A smart American administration understands that this is very difficult for an Israeli prime minister,’ Mr. Levy said, ‘and sometimes [Israeli leaders] need to be able to say, ‘Washington is holding my feet to the fire on this.’”

Edward Djerejian, who was ambassador to Syria under the first President Bush and then ambassador to Israel under Bill Clinton, predicted the same scenario. “The Israelis are going to have to make painful compromises and it’s much easier for them to go to their domestic constituencies and say, ‘Look, this is not my preferred option, but the president of the United States is asking me to do this.’”

These quotes lift the veil on the cynical game of politics to which the Israeli people are being held hostage by their own leaders. Each leader blames the other. Everyone knows it’s a farce; everyone involved is intelligent enough to realize that they are engaging in an exercise in futility. No one is really deluding themselves into thinking that after 60 years of unremitting lies and terror, the Arab mentality has changed.

No one thinks that by pulling out of the West Bank, Israel will earn the love of the nations besieging them as a wolf surrounds its prey. But they carry out these maneuvers nonetheless, because it serves the purpose of the moment. Most important of all, these cynical, self-promoting statesmen know that they will not have to suffer any consequences for betraying their country. They will simply shift the blame onto the other guy.

So in Israel, Olmert blames it on Bush and Rice. Barak blames it on Olmert. Livni blames it on Abbas. Netanyahu blames it on Lieberman and Lieberman blames it on Shas. Shas says, “What are you talking about? We’re number one for Yerushalayim. But no one is talking about dividing Yerushalayim.”

And they think you are stupid enough to believe it. The Israeli people are punch drunk from having had so many elected leaders lie to them and go back on their promises that they can’t get behind any one candidate who has the power to unseat Olmert. And so the music plays on as the security and future of a nascent country is bargained away.

There is a shortage of leadership in our world. Wherever you go, in every society, in every country, in every industry, people are bewildered and lost, seeking leadership in a drifting world. People look for someone to carry their flag, they seek out someone they can rally around, and they search desperately for someone who can put their feelings into words and give voice to their concerns. Yet, true leadership - leaders who act in the best interests of the people they serve - is almost impossible to find.

Chazal teach in Pirkei Avos, “Bemakom she’ein ish, hishtadeil lihiyos ish.” In a place where there are no men, and no leaders, you must work on yourself so that you, yourself, can be a leader. Every person has within themselves the ability to excel and lead. Every one of us who are thirsting for leaders with whom we can identify could become that leader, if only we would believe in ourselves and set our minds to it.

Torah is not some esoteric book available only to the rich and privileged. Torah is for everyone, at every time and period. It is not in the heavens or available only in some remote region. It is here and now and readily available to anyone who dedicates his life to its study and acquisition.

As we grow in Torah, we grow in our ability to lead and provide answers for an impoverished public. As we sit by the feet of our teachers and imbibe the lessons which were inculcated in them by their rabbeim, our minds are opened, our souls are purified and our sensitivities are awakened to the needs and aspirations of our people.

Reading the reports of the actions of government leaders will leave us groping for answers. Trying to comprehend current events through the prism of a newspaper will leave us with more questions than we started with. It is only with the Torah’s perspective that we can appreciate what is going on around us and find direction and purpose in our world.

The Bnei Chashmonai were not warriors and were not leaders. They were people in whose hearts burned an insatiable desire to rid the world of evil. As we recite in the immortal words of Al Hanisim, they were few and they were weak. But they were righteous. And they had the courage of their convictions. They refused to subjugate themselves to the profane practices and worldview of the Hellenists.

Under the leadership of Matisyahu ben Yochanan Kohein Gadol, this handful of die-hard tzaddikim and oskei Torah rose up to provide leadership for a dejected, subjugated people. Hashem took note of their courage and self-sacrifice and empowered them with the ability to rally the Bnei Yisroel and to emerge victorious over a powerful and deeply entrenched enemy.

The true Jewish leader is not the one who cheats his way up the political ladder. The true leader is not the one who repeatedly lies to his people and engages in subterfuges in a desperate bid to maintain his hold on power. He doesn’t just pontificate and blame the consequences of his ineptitude on someone else. The true Jewish leader doesn’t hold on desperately to an outdated and disproved ideology. He is not crippled by arrogance and ignorance.

The true Jewish leader sits bent over a book in a small nondescript room studying the word of G-d. He imparts his knowledge to others with love and devotion. He parcels out his advice and guidance with humility and subservience to G-d. People flock to him and follow his every word not because they are forced to, but because they want to. There are no enforcers and party chairmen to keep everyone in line. Good Jews have an inbred sense of where to go for leadership and whom to follow.

Every night, as we light the menorah, we are to remember this lesson. With its roots branching out from the avodah of Aharon Hakohein in the Mishkan, the lighting of the menorah is to remind us how Aharon and his family ascended to the kehunah.

At the time of the sin of the eigel, Moshe Rabbeinu proclaimed, “Mi laHashem eilay - Let all the men of G-d appear before me.” The tribe of Levi rallied to the side of Moshe.

My grandfather, Rav Leizer Levin zt”l, was privileged to learn for seven years in the yeshiva of the great kohein and descendent of Aharon Hakohein, the Chofetz Chaim. My grandfather was a Levi, and he told me that his rebbi, the Chofetz Chaim, explained to him the reason he was a Levi.

“It is because when Moshe Rabbeinu called out, ‘Mi laHashem eilay,’ your grandfather [and mine] responded positively. Remember that when the call ‘Mi laHashem eilay’ rings out in our day, make sure to give the right answer,” the Chofetz Chaim urged.

Aharon and his tribe did not take a poll to see which side would win. They didn’t take a head count to try to determine which side would emerge victorious from the battle. Moshe needed them and they rose to the occasion. Hashem caused them to win and beat back the idolaters and thus the plague that threatened the Jewish people was squelched.

That same fire for Hashem and His Torah burned in the hearts of his grandchildren, the Chashmonaim, and thanks to them the forces of evil were defeated. They, too, didn’t check to see which way the wind was blowing before taking action. They were not manipulated by public opinion. They did not resort to self-promoting press releases or straddle the fence blowing hot air in the face of the campaign to separate the Jewish people from the Torah.

As did Aharon Hakohein and his tribe, when they heard the call “Mi laHashem eilay,” they answered without hesitation. They found the strength within their souls to battle evil and thus caused the spirit of G-d to return to the Bais Hamikdosh.

Therefore, we celebrate the miraculous military victory of Chanukah by lighting the menorah - the same menorah that Aharon Hakohein lit, the same menorah that Matisyohu ben Yochanan Kohein Gadol lit, and the same menorah that the Chofetz Chaim lit.

It is also the same menorah that my grandfather and your grandfather lit. It is the same menorah kindled by all the valiant Jews throughout history who stood up to those seeking their destruction, all those who answered the call of “Mi laHashem eilay” throughout the generations.

In our day, too, there is a kolah d’lo posik, a silent call emanating from Sinai and from the Har Habayis and from every bais medrash around the world. “Mi laHashem eilay,” it proclaims. Those of us who light the menorah hear it and answer, “Hininee shlucheini - You can count on me; I will make myself worthy of this mission.” We light the menorah and remind ourselves that we are up to the sacred task.