Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Lessons For Life

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

We are all familiar with the admonition of Chazal at the beginning of this week’s parsha that explains the posuk, “V’eileh…asher tosim lifneihem - And these are the rules you shall place before them.” Chazal teach that the laws commanding Jews to take their questions and disputes to bais din rather than a secular court flow from this posuk.

Rashi explains further that one who ignores this injunction and takes his case to a secular court is committing a chillul Hashem.

The fear of causing a chillul Hashem should influence our interactions with our fellow Jews. Yet, too often it seems as if we are impervious to this concern as we go about our private and public lives. We conduct ourselves as if it makes no difference how people view us and how they are influenced by our choices.

Asher tosim lifneihem.” We have to put more thought into how we present ourselves to others and the conclusions people are likely to draw from our actions and words.

The effort to prevent chillul Hashem at times requires us to take unpopular positions. It requires us to resist the temptation to veer from the truth, in accordance with the famous mandate in this week’s parsha (23:7), “Midvar sheker tirchok - You must distance yourselves from falsehood.”

Last week, I purchased the newly released second volume of the sefer entitled “Bemichitzosom” by Rabbi Shlomo Lorentz. The veteran Agudist writes of his trip to the Untied States in 1951 on behalf of Sdei Chemed, a project aimed at accommodating youngsters who had survived the Holocaust and settled in Israel.

Rabbi Lorentz stayed at the home of the Telzer rosh yeshiva, Rav Eliyahu Meir Bloch zt”l. At night, the Rosh Yeshiva would make the rounds with him to solicit donations from the baalei batim of Cleveland. In those days, Cleveland was a fierce Mizrachi town. When approached by these two men and asked to support an Israeli Agudah leader, most of the locals gave a chilly response.

Rabbi Lorentz sized up the situation and, after a couple of days, turned to Rav Bloch and said, “This isn’t working. I’m not making much money and you are losing a lot. You are trying to build a yeshiva here, and by identifying yourself with me, you are hurting the yeshiva. The people aren’t giving me much because of their dislike of the Agudah, and the loss to the yeshiva will be great.”

Rav Bloch responded, “Let me tell you a story about my father, Rav Yosef Leib. The Telzer yeshiva, yet in Lithuania, was in dire financial straits. My father sent my brother, Rav Avrohom Yitzchok, and me to America to raise money. We weren’t too successful until we turned to our relative, Rav Meir Berlin, the head of the Mizrachi. He became very involved in our campaign and assisted us in raising a lot of money.

“One day, Rav Berlin told us that he received a letter from one of the kanno’im of Yerushalayim attacking Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Kook, the rav roshi. He showed us that the writer bolstered his position by claiming that it was based on our father’s words; he quoted our father denouncing Rav Kook in scathing terms.

“Rav Berlin gave us an ultimatum. If the quotes are true, he said, if your father did in fact say the reprehensible words that are ascribed to him, then I don’t wish to help you anymore. If they are false and he didn’t say them, I demand that he write a letter stating so.

“I asked my father if he had uttered the words that were written in his name. He told me as follows: ‘The way those thoughts were phrased is not my style; I don’t use such biting adjectives. However, I will not submit to Rav Berlin’s demand that I deny saying them, because in my heart I agree with the criticism expressed by the writer.’

“I complained to my father that if Rav Berlin refused to help us, we wouldn’t be able to succeed in reaching our fundraising goals. The yeshiva would have to declare bankruptcy and its existence would be seriously endangered.

“My father answered us, ‘I don’t know which occupation was determined for me in Heaven. I don’t know whether I was meant to be a rosh yeshiva or a shoemaker. If I was meant to be a rosh yeshiva, then the yeshiva will not be harmed no matter what we do now. The yeshiva will continue to exist. And if I was not meant to be a rosh yeshiva, I am prepared for the yeshiva to close and to be employed as a shoemaker. What I will not do is to deny the truth.’”

Rav Eliyahu Meir Bloch turned to Rabbi Lorentz and said to him, “I try to follow in the ways of my father. If he was prepared to close down the yeshiva and not deny the truth even if that meant becoming a shoemaker, then I, too, am prepared to give up the yeshiva, rather than deny the truth. And since I believe that the Agudah represents the truth and we are all commanded to support it, I will continue to help you regardless of the financial consequences.”

The truth must be our benchmark. Fidelity to the truth is what defines us. We are bidden to remain loyal to the path forged by our fathers who would rather forsake their accomplishments than lie and cause chillul Hashem.

When we are tested, we are not to compromise the truth in order to protect our positions and our station in life. We must do what is correct al pi Torah without making cheshbonos. Wrong is wrong and we have no business trying to whitewash it or rationalize.

A man who decides to adjudicate his case before a secular court, rationalizing that the court will decide the same way a bais din would, is trying in vain to legitimize the illegitimate. He is guilty of chillul Hashem. The man may be living in Billings, Montana, or some other remote location, far from a Jewish community. No one will ever know that he went to the local court. Besides, the closest bais din is in Chicago, many hours away.

But here’s the clincher: One’s actions can be considered chillul Hashem even if no one witnesses the deviation from Torah and halacha.

Each generation draws its strength from its forbears who were moser nefesh to transmit the Torah in its entirety to their descendants. While each generation faces its own individual trials and tribulations, the admonition of midvar sheker tirchok - along with every single law in the Torah - is eternally applicable. There is no justification for the kind of lying and dishonesty in business that has become standard and habitual in some places.

The cardinal sin of causing chillul Hashem by misleading others and distorting the truth is incalculable.

Parshas Mishpatim follows the narrative of Kabbolas HaTorah on Har Sinai in Parshas Yisro to teach us that the laws governing our financial dealings with others are as sacrosanct as the laws of Yoreh Deah and Orach Chaim. If we want to be good Jews, we will make no distinction between any of the laws of the Torah, in terms of the time, effort and diligence we expend in fulfilling them. We must be as scrupulous in the laws pertaining to finances as we are in the laws of daled minim.

The test of our emunah and bitachon is whether we follow the laws of Mishpatim and Choshen Mishpat with the same care that we demonstrate regarding the other mitzvos handed down at Sinai.

One of the questions a Jew is asked by the Bais Din Shel Maalah is whether his financial dealings with fellow Jews were honest. Let us ensure that Heaven will testify for us in the affirmative. Let us make honesty our policy. It is the essence of the Jew for all ages.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Don’t Just Stand There

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

In Parshas Yisro, we learn of Kabbolas HaTorah. Following the makkos in Mitzrayim, the splitting of the sea at the Yam Suf, and the many miracles the Jewish people experienced there, Klal Yisroel appears primed to complete the transformation from a group of slaves to becoming the chosen Am Hashem.

It is most interesting that the parsha that deals with Matan Torah carries the name of Yisro and not something more descriptive of that world-changing event. It is also intriguing that the Torah interrupts its account of the Jews’ journey in the Midbar and their reaching the apex of their journey at Midbar Sinai to tell the seemingly tangential story of Yisro’s arrival.

The Torah should have continued where it left off at the end of Parshas Beshalach. In that parsha, we learned how the Jews had miraculously crossed the sea and were sustained by the heavenly bread. Parshas Beshalach tells how the Jews were able to beat back their arch-enemy Amalek, and then continued on the journey which took them to Midbar Sinai to receive the Torah. Why is the flow of the narrative interrupted with the story of Yisro’s arrival?

What lessons are implicit in the narrative of Yisro that justifies its insertion after the description of Kriyas Yam Suf, prior to Matan Torah?

The parsha begins with the words “Vayishma Yisro - And Yisro Heard.” Rashi quotes the Gemara in Maseches Zevachim which asks what it was that Yisro heard that prompted him to come. The Gemara answers that he heard about Kriyas Yam Suf and milchemes Amalek. Upon hearing of those events, he left his home in Midyan and came to meet Moshe Rabbeinu in the Midbar.

Obviously, Yisro was not the only one who heard about Kriyas Yam Suf and milchemes Amalek. One would imagine that there were few people who hadn’t heard about these earth-shattering events. Yet only one person was prompted enough to come see for himself what was going on. The Torah does not tell us that anyone other than Yisro came to join the Jewish people.

At the time of the splitting of the Red Sea, all the water in the world split. Whoever witnessed this miraculous suspension of nature was no doubt stunned by it.

People the world over wondered what had happened to make the water in their cups split. Surely it did not take long for word to get around that Hashem had split the Yam Suf to enable the Jews to escape from the Egyptians.

Everyone knew about it. Everyone must have been impressed. Some people might have even been inspired. Everyone had to have been talking about it. The entire world might have been nispa’el, but it was for a mere moment, not long enough for the miracle to have any impact. They quickly returned to their old habits. They reverted back to being exactly the way they were before they were awed by the power of G-d.

The only one who heard about Kriyas Yam Suf and milchemes Amalek and was affected by the events enough to do something about it was Yisro. He was the only person who was so overcome that he was prepared to permit the experience to transform his life.

The pesukim recount: “Vayichad Yisro… - And Yisro rejoiced over all the goodness that Hakadosh Boruch Hu did for the Jews and rescued them from Mitzrayim…And he said ‘Now I know that Hashem is greater than all the gods… And he brought korbanos to Hashem…”

No one else came to the Bnei Yisroel in the Midbar saying, “Atah yodati ki gadol Hashem.” Everyone else remained tied to their pagan beliefs.

This is why the Torah interrupts the chapter of the Bnei Yisroel’s trip to Sinai to tell the tale of Yisro’s arrival. A prerequisite for Kabbolas HaTorah is to let the experience of Hashem’s majesty so envelop the mind and the senses that it forces a person to draw closer to Torah and G-dliness.

Torah demands that a hisorerus last for longer than a day or two. Torah demands that we always seek to learn and grow. Torah demands that when we see unnatural occurrences in the world, we become spiritually aroused in a lasting way. Divine acts are intended to teach us the power of Hashem.

That was the lesson of Yisro and that is why his parsha was placed before Kabbolas HaTorah. Because it is not enough to stand up and take notice; we’ve got to do more.

The Torah recounts that Yisro noticed that Moshe Rabbeinu was teaching halachos and judging the Jewish people from morning until night. Yisro told Moshe that he thought that the system was improper and advised him to set up an arrangement where other people would adjudicate simple cases. Only the difficult questions would be posed to Moshe.

Yisro told Moshe that paskening all the shailos all day was too difficult for one person and would end up destroying him. He advised him to choose competent judges to whom he would teach the halachos so that they would be knowledgeable enough to teach them to others. Yisro told Moshe that it would also be helpful for the people if they wouldn’t have to wait all day on line for a chance to speak to him.

Yisro taught Moshe and Klal Yisroel the concept of sarei meios and sarei asaros. Yisro taught that everyone can learn from the local poseik. He taught that “Yivtach bedoro k’Shmuel b’doro.” He taught that it is not necessary to always run to Rav Chaim Ozer with your small questions. He taught that we have to respect the authority of our local rabbonim and poskim and not always seek to go over their heads running to the supreme authorities for every small issue.

Klal Yisroel is a nation of servitude. The leaders serve the people and the people serve their leaders. The people respect the leaders and the leaders respect the people. The mutual recognition of each other’s greatness coupled with an appreciation that the glory and greatness of Klal Yisroel lies in their acceptance of legitimate, qualified authority is what makes us great.

The Torah commands the Jews, “Som tosim alecha melech - You shall appoint for yourselves a king.” Concurrent with that is the admonition directed at the king: “Lebilti rum levavo.” The king is warned that he must not become imperious and conceited. He must remain a man of his people.

It was obvious that Moshe could not physically keep up with the demands of the people, but he respected them far too much to turn them away. Yisro’s advice was more for Klal Yisroel than for Moshe. His advice was directed at them. Their all-encompassing subservience to Moshe prevented them from contemplating turning elsewhere for guidance and direction. Yisro taught that asking smaller questions of people not as great as Moshe was not an affront to Moshe, but a credit to him.

Mesorah is the root of Yiddishkeit, as the Mishnah states, “Moshe kibeil Torah miSinai umesarah…” The equal degree of respect for Moshe and for those who transmitted his teachings was at the root of what Yisro taught.

In order for the Torah to be given at Sinai, the authority of talmidei chachomim had to be established. The Jews had to be admonished that they must revere every link in the chain transmitting the Torah from Moshe and Har Sinai.

There is another lesson to be learnt here. Yisro was a newcomer to the Bnei Yisroel’s camp. He wasn’t the first person to see what was happening to Moshe Rabbeinu. Everyone saw that Moshe was consumed all day long with dinei Torah. Anyone could have figured out that it wasn’t a normal situation. Anyone could have figured out a more affective system that would allow Moshe Rabbeinu to spend his time more productively. Anyone could have realized, as Yisro did, that Moshe would become exhausted from the grueling regimen and unceasing pressure, and that eventually the people would become fed up waiting for him.

And that is exactly our point. Everyone saw it. Anyone could have realized where it would lead, but no one did. It took Yisro to internalize what he saw and to do something constructive about it.

So often, the urge is to turn the other way and make believe we didn’t see. People don’t want to get involved. People want everyone to like them. People don’t want to get their hands dirty. But that is not the way of Torah and it is not the way to get a parsha in the Torah named for you and for you to achieve immortality.

Yisro saw, Yisro cared, and Yisro spoke up. Hakadosh Boruch Hu and Moshe Rabbeinu accepted his proposal.

That is another reason that the parsha of Yisro’s arrival and advice was introduced to us before the parsha of Kabbolas HaTorah. It is because Torah demands that when we see something wrong, we shouldn’t turn away as if we didn’t see it. We shouldn’t only be consumed with ourselves and minding our own business. Torah demands that when we see something which has the potential to embarrass, impose hardship or weaken our rabbeim, we speak up.

It is not enough to learn Torah and to be proficient in it. We have to care for others and look out for their benefit.

Yisro came, noticed and spoke up, thus saving Moshe from becoming physically exhausted. The Torah honored Yisro by naming the parsha for him. Yisro taught that everyone has the potential for greatness to the point of being worthy of having a parsha in the Torah named for him. One must care enough to notice what is going on around him, draw the right conclusions and attempt to remedy the situation.

Things happen and people get shaken up, but with the passage of time, most people revert to acting and thinking as they did before the disaster struck. Most people go back to being apathetic, callous, indifferent and unmoved.

We have to learn from Yisro and recognize that we each can improve the world around us. We are all capable of helping others and providing assistance in times of need. We can all help others get through the day. We can all bring meaning to the lives of the needy. If only we cared, if only we tried. If only we took Yisro’s example to heart.

So this Shabbos, when we stand in shul listening to the kriyah of Parshas Yisro, when we read the story of Yisro’s arrival, when we read how the Bnei Yisroel stood at Har Sinaik’ish echad b’lev echad” and said, “Naaseh venishmah,” let us resolve to do what we can in the spirit of the Torah, to spread goodness and kindness in the world, and to battle evil and the apathy that permits evil to fester and grow.

Yisro taught us that we can all make a difference. Let’s show that we learned the lesson.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Rhetoric and Action

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The subject of leadership is indeed on everyone’s mind these days. Ambitious politicians are flying around the country, trying frenziedly to sell themselves as the perfect candidate for president of the United States. Inflated by grandiosity, these people are expert at erecting a façade of superiority to mask their inexperience and ineptitude.

It’s almost comical to watch the media reporting their every statement with utter seriousness, as if their comments are really worth studying. No matter that the candidates’ records are bereft of accomplishment. An undiscerning, naïve public mindlessly swallows the rhetoric and propaganda.

What a field day a presidential election is for the media! They pounce at the unparalleled opportunity to influence the course of human events. They crank out hype in the service of their favorite candidate to satisfy an electorate craving entertainment and diversion. The campaign turns into a colossal game. Petty politicians look upon every event, including the most consequential, and every policy statement, strictly as a means to promote their political advantage. What drives them is not the public interest, or the need to find solutions to the problems of the times, but rather the consuming drive to score points and win primaries.

Polls are conducted and people are asked all kinds of questions concerning the various candidates. Based upon what people answer, these power-hungry hopefuls begin tailoring their message to conform to what pollsters say the people want to hear.

And as the public appetite for fresh news drives the media to embellish and fabricate non-events into major happenings, individuals who are wholly undeserving of attention become the focus of elaborate public recognition.

Ultimately, the people get what they deserve. If voters maintained a grasp on the issues, they wouldn’t become enamored by the latest poll-tested sound bites. If people were less superficial they would see past the glib, meaningless platitudes and focus on who is really best for them. They would study which party raises taxes as a matter of policy and which seeks to reduce taxes, which candidate will fight for a secure and confident country and which is for passivism and compromise. They would analyze the candidates’ records and determine which one espouses positions closest to theirs.

In a sane world, a person like Barack Hussein Obama would never be touted as a viable presidential contender just two years after entering the senate, and with no record of accomplishment in any area. In fact, many of the people in political leadership positions would never have attained office had people actually stopped to think before they voted.

Here’s the biggest testimony to what nonsense the campaign has descended to: A wooden ineffective robotic candidate, sensing she was going downhill in popularity, tried a desperate measure: she shed a crocodile tear. Lo and behold, as if on cue, the compliant media resurrected her moribund campaign. Without asking how she would handle real issues if she can’t handle a silly question in New Hampshire, and why she hasn’t shown any emotion during past stressful periods in her life, the opinion shapers simply pounced on a theatric display of fictional emotion to ratchet up the campaign once again. Thus the campaign that had been already written off by the very same experts as being witless, boring and monotonous, revolving around a woman reviled by half of the country, was injected with new life.

The gullible masses following the story line and fell in line, voting for the preferred candidate. Thus the race continues between incompetents who refer to themselves as “agents of change,” but are unable to validate that title with any specifics. The more qualified people who had records of accomplishment and took principled stands on real issues have disappeared from the race. Doomed prematurely by the media, three democrats – Biden, Dodd and Richardson – who offered solid resumes and platforms are out of the picture.

In their place, virtual nonentities continue to score in the polls and get elected to high positions. People hear only what they want to hear and ignore the rest. They are content to swallow half stories and half truths and never try to penetrate beneath the glibness to determine for themselves what is going on around them and around the world. They develop opinions based on snippets of information tainted with preconceptions and bias.

Newspapers that could inform them are brushed aside. When intelligent people offer clarity and insight, their words are largely ignored. The poorly informed prefer to remain that way, criticizing all who attempt to accomplish something worthwhile. The masses don’t want to be alarmed; they prefer to be pacified with false words of comfort and hope.

The catchword of the moment is “change.” So, in an effort to woo voters who reportedly seek above all, that nebulous achievement, “change,” everyone has become an advocate of change. Change who? Change what? How to go about changing it? They don’t offer a clue.

Barack Hussein Obama, in the best populist demagogue tradition, has perfected the mantra and is succeeding in promoting himself as the most promising agent of “change.” He too offers no specifics on what he will change and how or why. Yet no one seems to care.

In our community, leadership carries different credentials. Change for its own sake is not the panacea—and not even a virtue. We would like to think that experience makes a difference, as does intelligence and a plan. Nobody gets elected in our world by standing up and saying, “Vote for me because I speak well, because my words have a sweet cadence.” Nobody is crowned as leader because he offers hope without any substantive proposal.

The problem, as most of us are aware, is that we are suffering from a dearth of leadership. It appears as if not enough young people are rising to the level of competence and farsightedness to become communal leaders. This situation has serious implications for the future of our community.

Every community requires leadership; every group needs someone who can bring them together and infuse them with drive and ambition to do good and grow as individuals and as a group. Every society needs a figure who has vision, someone who can see the big picture and contemplate solutions for problems that lie ahead.

The masses crave charismatic leaders they can rely upon to point the way through the confusion and turmoil of our times.

There are so many who require advice, assistance and direction. They need a shoulder to cry on, a loyal guide to help them navigate the moral and physical minefields threatening our world.

A leader provides inspiration in an apathetic time. He enables people to find the good in themselves and work towards perfection and positive accomplishment. He exhorts his followers to help themselves and others. He does his best to prevent them from falling into the trap of lethargy and negativity. He gives them a reason to go on despite the obstacles thrown in their way.

Leadership in our community should be determined by those whose knowledge and study of Torah is coupled with a heart that cares deeply about fellow Jews. Leadership comes along with a lifetime of service and fidelity to G-d and His children, the Jewish people.

We can look around us and see desolation and destruction. We can see ill winds blowing from Iran, Iraq, Gaza, Yerushalayim, and other portents of danger. Or we can look at the positive and see how far we have come in the past decades. A real leader looks behind to look ahead. As he guides his followers, he looks to the past and to the future in order to gain a clear understanding of the present.

We are still numbed by the loss of Rav Shmuel Berenbaum zt”l, Rosh Yeshivas Mir, who, among his other saintly qualities, was a true leader of his people. Bnei Torah feel as if they have lost their king. Rav Shmuel was never crowned by any organization, and occupied no formal public position outside of his yeshiva. Yet, he commanded the love, reverence and obedience of tens of thousands of people nonetheless.

The Bnei Torah’s love of Rav Shmuel was reflected back in his devotion to them. He cherished Bnei Torah. He made it part of his life’s mission to encourage, inspire and enable us to grow in learning, to attain gadlus b’Torah.

His unwavering championing of the Torah led to the great outpouring of kavod haTorah his passing triggered.

Rav Shmuel had no gabboim or ambassadors to the outside world. He was unlearned in the sophisticated telecommunications of our contemporary world and had no use for anything other than Torah. As more and more stories emerge about his devotion to Torah and Bnei Torah, the esteem and stature he was held in continues to grow, confirming Klal Yisroel’s unerring instinct for recognizing true gadlus. And bearing witness to the phenomenon, “gedolim tzadikim b’misosom yoser m’bechayeihem.”

Throughout his life, Rav Shmuel was a man of the people without any airs or conceit, without a shred of the hubris that dooms so many leaders who are driven by their thirst for self-aggrandizement. He and his renowned rebbetzin raised a family of gedolim in their simple, spartan home, which was like a bubble of bygone Lita transplanted in Brooklyn.

This gadol lived a life we, the simple people, can all emulate. He showed it was possible to live a life of pashtus and gadlus. At every opportunity he portrayed for us the ability to excel in Torah by recognizing what is important in life and dedicating ourselves to it.

And now that he is gone, we look to the next generation to continue the transmission of the hallowed mesorah and Torah and replace the void which has been created by the loss of Rav Shmuel and the giants of his generation. It is up to us to recognize greatness, nurture it and support it so that it may grow unhindered. We have to separate wheat from chaff, gadlus from katnus, hanhaga from gaavah, and emes from sheker.

In times like these, we have to ensure that we don’t fall for false prophets of change and hope. When a vacuum is apparent, we have to ensure it is properly filled by men of distinction and greatness. We have to do all we can to ensure that our vision does not become clouded, and our judgment remains untainted, so that we can rise together and be machzir atarah leyoshnah at every opportunity.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Torah, Torah and Noch Torah

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Numb. We should all be feeling numb. There should be no words to describe how we feel. Darkness has descended and we should all feel it. The light of Torah has been dimmed. We have all been made poorer. Our world has shrunk. The entire creation has been diminished.

Rav Shmuel Berenbaum as the symbol of Torah is gone. Rav Shmuel as the paradigm of hasmada is no more. The gadol from a world gone by has gone. One whom we could point to as the embodiment of pure Torah has left us. A man who epitomized gadlus baTorah is no longer here for us to point to and emulate. We are bereft, orphaned and numbed.

As long as the tzaddik is among us, we can benefit from his greatness, from his tzidkus, from the direct and indirect influences from every essence of his being to his powerful shiurim and the most subtle nuances of his great character. When he leaves us for the Olam Ha’emes, that daily countenance has dimmed. We are left with the memories and inspiration which have to carry us until techiyas hameisim.

The Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Shmuel Berenbaum, was very ill for the last few months, but we were all so confident, so hopeful that in the zechus of his Torah and our tefillos he would recover. It was not meant to be. Though he had recovered from previous serious illnesses, this time we didn’t merit his return. And now we are left with the stories and recollections.

His love for Torah was all encompassing; there was nothing else in his world besides Torah. He appreciated nothing else like he did gadlus in Torah; nothing else meant much to him. He was unimpressed by the glitz, glory of honor, power, prestige or money and any of the trappings that captures our imagination in this day and age.

He was uncompromising in demonstrating what is truly paramount. It wasn’t just a figure of speech; it was the way he lived his life. Anyone who was ever in his home can testify that the physical comforts of life didn’t speak to him.

Torah was his life; it was his enjoyment. Torah was all that mattered to him.

It was his everything.

He didn’t only teach through his words, he taught and led by example. Whether it was from his seat in the back of the Mirrer bais medrash where he sat and learned with youthful vigor, or the shiurim we heard him deliver at so many different occasions in so many different places, his excitement, sheer ecstasy and joy over every word of Torah was contagious.

He loved every Ben Torah and every Ben Torah loved him. Wherever he was, if there was a Ben Torah in sight, the magnetism of redden in lernin attracted the two - almost as if they had to be forced apart. Every opportunity was an opportunity to speak in learning. A wedding wasn’t a wedding. It was a place where he could talk in learning. A dinner was only a dinner, if he could deliver a shiur at the hall and talk in learning. It made no difference to him how old or learned the person was; there was always the same fire, the same burning desire to grow, to learn, to attain a deeper understanding, a new derher, a new kneitch, or a new sevara.

Several years ago, my son, a young yeshiva bochur, went to visit him in his summer bungalow to speak in learning. As they were talking, a family member entered the room and asked the bochur to leave. “The Rosh Yeshiva needs to rest now,” the bochur was told. “It’s his vacation time.” Rav Shmuel turned to them and said incredulously, “Der bochur vill lernen - dus iz rest, dus iz vacation!”

That was the core of Rav Shmuel and that is how he is remembered by that bochur and by so many others. That depiction of Torah encapsulates Rav Shmuel’s eternal mantra. Torah is not a burden; Torah is not something you have to take a break from. Torah is rest. Torah is vacation. Torah is winter. Torah is summer. Torah is life.

A talmid asked him what he could do for a segulah to be blessed with children. He told him to learn the sefer of Rav Chaim Soloveitchik on the Rambam. He explained, “Der grester segulah iz Torah - The greatest segulah is Torah.”

When the yungerman looked at him with amazement, Rav Shmuel explained that he had another reason why he suggested to learn the classic sefer of Rav Chaim Soloveitchik. ‘Rav Chaim was the father of the yesomim of Brisk. Rav Chaim cared for the poor children, he cared for those who had no one else. “Together with the merit of Rav Chaim’s Torah there is no greater zechus.”

Torah, Torah and noch Torah.

Rav Shmuel headed the Keren which distributes funds to Bnei Torah in Eretz Yisroel for Yomim Tovim. Not one to be involved in organizations, he was a gadol in chesed as he was a gadol in Torah. When the Israeli government cut the allocations to Bnei Torah, families were hungering for daily bread. A group of yungeleit in Lakewood organized and held an urgent asifah to raise money for needy families in Elul of 2003.

Rav Shmuel was in Eretz Yisroel for Sukkos and heard about the asifah.

Without any prompting, it was he who called one of the askonim and told him to come to Eretz Yisroel during Chol Hamoed, as he wanted to help the Bnei Torah of Eretz Yisroel. They arranged a meeting in Bnei Brak and Rav Shmuel raised one million dollars for the cause that became so dear to him. This was how the Keren was founded.

This past Chol Hamoed Sukkos, the sukkah of the noted asikan Reb Rubin Schron in the Shaarei Chesed neighborhood of Yerushalayim was a magnet for gedolei Torah and gedolei tomchei Torah. On leil Hoshanah Rabbah, they gathered to offer support for the Keren.

It was an amazing sight to see so many great people dedicating themselves to the cause of supporting kiyum haTorah.

The emotional highlight of the evening was when Rav Shmuel arrived. Despite his severe illness and weakened condition, he traveled from Bnei Brak to speak of the importance of the Keren and the work it does distributing much-needed funds to thousands of yungeleit for Yom Tov.

With a strong voice matching his fiery determination to help the cause of the Keren, he held the audience spellbound as he rallied support for the cause of spreading Torah and supporting Torah.

He appeared so fragile, but his voice was fresh and powerful. It was to be the last time I saw him. As he spoke, I closed my eyes and imagined the Rav Shmuel of old holding forth. He spoke with power, feeling and humor of the cause so dear to his heart that even in his state, he traveled from Bnei Brak to raise money for the Bnei Torah of Eretz Yisroel. He spoke for about 20 minutes, but it sounded as if he could have continued speaking much longer, for his strength came from Torah. He was powered by boundless spiritual strength. Torah drove him, motivated him and sustained him.

He spoke about mesiras nefesh for Torah. He didn’t have to speak about it. By his very presence that evening in Yerushalayim, he demonstrated the lengths to which one who has chavivus haTorah must go for Torah and hachzokas Torah.

A talmid went to his rebbi this past Erev Yom Kippur for a bracha. The Rosh Yeshiva was sitting with a Gemara, learning. He told the talmid a story. A yeshiva was in tremendous debt and appealed to its major supporter to help bail them out. The benefactor, who was tight for cash, came to Rav Shmuel to ask him if it was permissible for him to take out a $3,000,000 mortgage on some properties in order to help keep the yeshiva afloat.

The Rosh Yeshiva told the talmid that Rav Shmuel responded to the magnanimous baal tzedaka that probably, al pi din, he should not, “uber az min hut a hartz far Torah, vi ken men zuggen nein?”

And that was how the Rosh Yeshiva lived his life. He had a heart that burned with Torah and for Torah; he could never say no to Torah. He could never say no to anything that had to do with enhancing the cause of Torah. He could never say no to learning Torah. It was his life. It was his very essence from his youngest years until his final day.

As long as he was alive, we had an image to point to of the Mir of old. The influence of Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l was walking amongst us. The greatness that was Toras Lita was felt and seen. There was a model for us to emulate. We saw that it could be done. We saw that it was real. We saw that it wasn’t just legends and stories of a generation gone by. There was a real life portrayal of the countenance of the distinguished eminence of Torah.

When the end was near, the dying Rosh Yeshiva turned to his son and told him that he felt as if his time on this world was about to end. “Un ich hob nisht vos moirah tzu hoben,” said Rav Shmuel. “I don’t fear death; I don’t fear meeting my maker.”

He was so real, he was so pure. He spent his life following and learning Torah to the degree that he himself became a cheftzah shel Torah.

Rav Shmuel asked that a Gemara Kesubos be brought to him. He opened to Daf 103b and 104a to learn the sugyah of the passing of Rebbi. Everything he did in this world was al pi Torah, including leaving it. And just as the Gemara describes, “Nitzchu ereilim es hametzukim v’nishbah aron hakodesh - The Heavenly beings overcame the good people of this world and captured the aron of Hashem.”

Rav Shmuel Berenbaum leaves us with a legacy of ameilus baTorah, gadlus baTorah, as well as chavivus and chashivus for Torah and Bnei Torah. It is left to us, his spiritual yorshim, to fill the great void left by his passing.

One nechama was the obvious remarkable growth of Torah and Bnei Torah which was evident at the levaya. Standing on Ocean Parkway awash in a sea of black was a consolation. Look at what he leaves behind; look at what we have become.

When Rav Shmuel came to this country, we were barely given a chance of survival. There was a smattering of yeshivos. Kollel was a foreign concept. Today, there are legions of yeshiva bochurim and yungeleit who bask in the glow of Torah. The mesiras nefesh, determination and leadership of Rav Shmuel and his colleagues to transplant that which went up in flames has borne fruit.

May we be zoche to continue to flourish until the coming of Moshiach tzidkeinu b’meheirah.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Tov and Hakoras Hatov

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

A great baal chesed called me the other day and asked for a favor. “Please write an article on hakoras hatov,” he said. “It is a middah severely lacking in our generation.” He ought to know.

But it’s not only the great baalei chesed who sometimes feel that their acts of kindness are not appreciated. Ordinary people, too, feel that the good they do goes unacknowledged. We are all guilty to some degree of failing to appreciate the favors that others do for us. Even when we do grasp the benefits, we don’t express our appreciation as we should.

The Ramban teaches that one of the mitzvos that were given to commemorate Yetzias Mitzrayim is the commandment of petter chamor, redeeming a first-born donkey. That gives rise to the obvious question: What does petter chamor have to do with Yetzias Mitzrayim?

Chazal provide the explanation: “Why are first-born donkeys different than first-born horses, or first-born camels? First, the Torah decreed it so. Second, they helped Am Yisroel during Yetzias Mitzrayim, for there was not a single Jew who did not have 90 Libyan donkeys loaded with the silver and gold of Mitzrayim.” (Bechoros 5b)

In other words, the Torah gave us the mitzvah of petter chamor as a way of expressing thanks to these beasts of burden for the help they afforded Klal Yisroel during the exodus from Mitzrayim. A bechor of a chamor attains the kedusha of a cheftza shel mitzvah because two thousand years ago, beheimos that had no bechira were used to transport Jewish possessions out of slavery.

The chamor is not the only animal to which we express appreciation for its conduct at the time of Yetzias Mitzrayim. The dog also gets its due. The posuk (Shemos 22:30) states that meat which is unfit for consumption should be thrown to the dogs. Rashi, commenting on this posuk, explains that the Torah specifies to give the meat to dogs as a reward for not barking at the Jews when they left Egypt. Dogs are thus forever remembered for their momentary benevolence centuries ago.

Another lesson of hakoras hatov is gleaned from the fact that Aharon performed the first three makkos of dom, tzefardayah and kinim. Moshe couldn’t turn the Nile’s water into blood because the Nile protected him when his mother cast him there, following his premature birth. For the same reason, he couldn’t strike the water to bring about the makkah of tzefardayah. Aharon, not Moshe, struck the dirt in order to bring about the makkah of kinim, because when Moshe smote the Egyptian and hid the body in the sand, the sand prevented that act from being discovered.

The notion that hakoras hatov obliges one to feel and show gratitude to inanimate objects is not natural to our way of thinking. It seems quite extraordinary that we are commanded to mark our historic indebtedness to Libyan donkeys of centuries ago by performing a token of gratitude to their descendants through petter chamor.

That is because most of us view hakoras hatov as belonging in the domain of bein odom lachaveiro, applicable from one person to another: You did me a favor, and I become obligated to thank you.

However, from these examples brought in the parshiyos of Yetzias Mitzrayim, we are introduced to a deeper dimension of the obligation of hakoras hatov. Showing gratitude is not just a social obligation and a nice thing to do. Gratefulness is supposed to be an integral part of our personalities. Whether it was water or dirt or an animal from which we derived benefit so long ago, as grandchildren of those yotzei Mitzrayim, we are duty bound to acknowledge that kindness.

The way we act towards others impacts our souls and proclaims what kind of people we are. If we are cognizant and appreciative of others’ assistance, we prove ourselves worthy of Divine blessing. But if we are arrogant and behave as if we are totally self-sufficient, we will find out the hard way just how needy and dependent we really are.

G-d created human beings in a way that we cannot succeed if we are only for ourselves; it is only as a community and as part of a group that we can endure. From the time we care born until the very end, we can only survive if we are connected to other people. As infants, we need everything to be done for us. Even as we grow and become more independent, most everything that we require for our daily existence is provided by others.

Arrogant, unappreciative people refuse to recognize that as great as they are, without the contributions of others, they would be hungry, dirty, unclothed, unloved, homeless, illiterate and without much to live for. Everything that we have and everything that we know is only because someone took the trouble to teach us and equip us with the essentials of life and good health.

There really is no way one can be totally independent and live a meaningful life.

In order to maintain our humility and menchlichkeit, the Torah gives us many mitzvos to ingrain into our psyches the awareness of this world’s abundant blessings and the goodness Hashem showers us with.

Some people cannot muster up any level of hakoras hatov because they refuse to feel indebted to others. They would rather remain lonely and sorely lacking than be faced with acknowledging that someone helped them. They don’t want to be obligated to anyone. They don’t want to owe anyone any favors. Such people can be particularly ungrateful and may choose to repay kindness with bitterness and acrimony. They create distance between themselves and the person who did them a favor in order not to have to acknowledge that kindness.

That is not the Jewish way. We have to get into the habit of recognizing the untold benefits we enjoy thanks to the kindness of other people. We need to recognize that were it not for other people, our own lives would be much darker and poorer. Arousing in ourselves a sense of gratefulness for the good we received from others trains us to realize the unceasing kindness we receive from the ultimate Giver.

Only by recognizing the existence of so much tov in our lives can we attain the middah of hakoras hatov, deep gratitude for that boundless flow of blessing.

Everyone needs to feel appreciated; it is a basic human need. It may be that we were created this way so that we should benefit others. In order to be appreciated, we have to demonstrate our value to those around us. We need to give them a reason for them to appreciate us.

It follows that when we express our thanks to others, we are filling a vital need that contributes to their own well-being. At the same time, with our gracious words of thanks, we are repaying their action toward us.

Not surprisingly, studies have shown that grateful people are also happier, more helpful, forgiving, and less depressed.

It is so easy to do; we simply have to be aware of the opportunities. This is why the Torah mentions it repeatedly, so that it becomes ingrained and second nature.

If you are blessed by the greatest Giver of all to grow and mature, you gain many benefits, one of them being that you can become friendly with your rabbeim and teachers. Mr. Avi Shulman was my rebbi in first grade. I am indebted to him for so many things. I am thankful that way back then, he taught me to read and write Aleph Bais and gave me a geshmak in being a Yid. He taught us the basics of davening from the siddur and learning Chumash, the beauty of Shabbos and Yom Tov, as well as how to play well with others.

And he has taught me much more since I left his class. One of his greatest attributes is the way he expresses appreciation to people. So often I have received little notes from him saying thank you for the smallest things I did. Such notes are so rare in our world and always bring a smile to my face, as I’m sure they do to many others. And every time I get a note from him, I say to myself that I should really learn from him and dash off similar letters, but since my middos are not as refined as his, I rarely do.

Being thankful is so important, that “thank you” are the first words we utter as we wake up each day. We say “Modeh Ani,” thank You Hashem. Thank You for returning my soul to me, for waking me, for giving me a new day, for giving me a new lease on life, for giving me a new chance to excel, to do good and to be good. And as we begin our day, we thank Hashem every step of the way; for making us the way he did, for not making us slaves, for dressing us, for opening our eyes, for granting us intelligence and strength.

Beginning the day recognizing that we have so much to be thankful for helps us see the good in everything. We see the chesed in din, the rachamim in chayim and thus all that transpires throughout the day is seen in a different perspective. This transforms the way we experience that day’s challenges and frustrations.

Ingrates are not only lacking an important quality of good character; they are missing a fundamental prerequisite of avodas Hashem. Without recognition of the endless, undeserved stream of kindness we receive from Him, one cannot come close to the Divine or even aspire to any level of ahavas Hashem.

As we tell the tales of the makkos, let us learn the lessons implied here and resolve to be more thankful to those around us whose affection, consideration, courtesy, decency, goodness, graciousness, thoughtfulness, tolerance, understanding, warmth and unselfishness grace and brighten our day. Let us learn to behave toward others in the same way.

Let us learn how to receive and how to give and we will all be making the world a better place, helping us merit the yetziah m’golus b’meheirah.