Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Venahafoch Hu

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Adar, month of happiness
Joyous celebration
For Jews the world over
Time of salvation

Adar turned to ashes
Tragedy grief
Wailing, mourning
Beyond belief

Young and old
Pulled from our midst
Gone without warning
So painfully missed

Shabbos we will layn
Vayehi bayom Hashemini,
G-d’s happiest day
Since creation.

Death and confusion
In the holy Mishkon
Divine retribution

The shechinah finally found
A place to rest
The light of sheishes yemei Bereishis
Found a home

Vayidom Aharon.

The happiest
Most promising
Saw Aharon’s two sons
Snatched away

In our times too
Sudden loss
A baal tzedaka
A marbitz Torah
Gone in a flash

Aich noflu giborim!

Yom Kippurim
Deepest joy
Bubbling forth
Boundless simcha
Ahd delo yodah

And then it’s over
Festivities end
Gone from our lives
Hashem’s true friends
Reality crashes in
Uprooting joy
Leaving hearts
Broken and raw

Who can grasp
Who can know
Who can absorb
The staggering blow
Human reason
Reeling in shock
Crying, denying
It can’t be so

Forever after
Purim linked
With memories of disaster
Bitter grief
Greatness cut down
In the prime of life
Beloved friends
Till the end of time

Hu asher diber
B’krovai ekodeish.

Vayidom Aharon.

We shuffle our feet
Continue on
With our service
Crying inside
But outwardly still
Dying inside
Rallying our will

Death at our doorstep
Lurking at night
Sparing no one
Prepared to strike

Ohr zaruah latzadik
U’liyishrei leiv simcha.

Don’t look back
Don’t question His ways
Increase the sunshine
By spreading its rays
Gladdening hearts
Lifting spirits
Spreading truth
Expanding limits

Help the downtrodden
The poor and alone
Widows and orphans
Sick and broken

Live each day
As if it’s your last.
Anger and pettiness
A thing of the past

Prepare the world
For the coming of

Then the great light
Of creation will shine
Of sadness disease
And death
No sign

Prepare the world
For the coming of

Be ready to take on
Injustice and evil
Bow not to convenience
Nor judge other people

Bring happiness to others
Expanding your love
Follow the example
Of the one Above

Lets do it

Remember how simcha
Is contagious
Banishing sadness
Without a trace

One Jew
Another Jew
And another will follow
Until we reach
A special tomorrow
The world will become
At journey’s end
Molei deah es Hashem

With the coming of Moshiach
May it be soon
The real
And permanent
Venahafoch hu

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Smile, It’s Purim

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This year, Purim falls on Friday. As if that isn’t bad enough, Uncle Sam did his best to put a further damper on Purim by instituting Daylight Savings Time early enough to cause Purim to begin later than usual.

But no matter how hard anyone tries, Purim is Purim and the simcha of the day is something no one will ever be able to take away from us.

Purim speaks to us on so many different levels that everyone, from the youngest children to the most seasoned citizens, has an extra spring in their step and boundless smiles, as Purim comes around again.

The Megillah tells a story everyone can relate to. Children relate to the tale of the vanquishing of evil. Who doesn’t know the story of Vashti’s tail and many pimples? Which child can’t dream about Queen Esther and her rise to power in time to save her doomed people?

The more learned among us review Maseches Megillah and gain a much deeper appreciation of all that transpired. Every year, additional seforim are published around this time, drumming in the many messages of the day into our psyches.

Even those who are more simple and unable to study are fascinated with the story. Everyone can point to someone they view as an Achashveirosh, a fickle person playing both sides of the fence, making a foolish spectacle of himself as he deludes himself into thinking that all are worshipping him. Behind his back, they are all giggling at him and his stupidity. Blinded by his vanity, he sees it all as hero worship. Little does he know.

No one has to look far to find a Vashti. They seem to be all over the place. We all know someone we can caricature as Haman. We often see virtuous Mordechai-esque figures ridiculed, even by their own people.

Many times we find ourselves in dire situations from which no escape seems possible. Purim tells us to never give up hope. Purim teaches us that all that transpires in this world is part of a Divine plan. It will all turn out for the good, if we are only patient and follow G-d’s word. The Purim buzzword, “venahafoch hu”, reminds us that Hashem can bring about a stunning reversal of a nation’s destiny in the blink of an eye.

To celebrate the miracle of Purim and the joy of knowing that we are under Hashem’s constant supervision even when His presence is hidden, we are commanded to drink so much that we can no longer tell the difference between arur Haman and boruch Mordechai.

It is true that all throughout the year we are confronted with all kinds of people and the vast spectrum of human behavior, from righteous and noble, to evil, and the many shades in between. We can usually tell them apart without much difficulty. No one mistakes a Haman for a Mordechai. Quite often, however, evil masquerades as virtue and the task of unmasking the imposter can be difficult. It demands constant vigilance and sensitivity, as well as emotional and intellectual honesty.

Once a year, we are released from this demanding task, and that is on Purim, when one is in fact urged to become so intoxicated he mixes up Haman and Mordechai.

But this once-a-year petur underscores the extreme importance of our job during the rest of the year: to constantly scrutinize ourselves and our surroundings to guard against evil in its myriad guises.

We live in a time where up is down and down is up. We have to resist being blown about and confused by the prevailing winds - not only in our own private lives but in the society around us as well.

How are we supposed to maintain equilibrium in a topsy-turvy world? How are we supposed to keep faith that good will be victorious over evil?

When good things happen to bad people and bad things to good people, the Megillah reminds us that appearances are deceptive; the “wheel of fortune” is manipulated by Hashem, and the one who seems to be rising may soon be falling. The one who seems to be done can quickly rebound. The Megillah reminds us that all occurrences are part of a Divine plan that we can’t expect to understand until the entire story has unfolded.

The evil force may appear to be advancing, but it is only in order for Hashgacha to set that power up for a more drastic descent to the death. Evil may be on the ascent, but it is but a passing phenomenon, destined to fail. Goodness and virtue may appear frail and unimposing, but those who follow the path of G-d will ultimately triumph.

In every generation they plot our destruction, but we are still here, thriving and prospering. And we will do so, with Hashem’s help, until the coming of Moshiach.

That message resonates for all time, wherever Jews find themselves. As we masquerade about, exchanging mishloach manos with friends and dishing out Purim gelt to the less fortunate, we tap into the kedusha and message of the holy day.

That message never loses its timeliness. Every year we gain a new appreciation of what took place during those critical times and its relevance to us today. We also gain a new perspective. Was Haman consumed by hatred or was it jealousy that drove him mad? Was he a megalomaniac or was he just a common anti-Semite? Or was he all of the above?

The lesson for us is that we should avoid all these forms of evil. Humility might have saved Haman just as his high status as a trusted confidant of King Achashveirosh could have - if he had only been satisfied with that prestige. Had he been less greedy for power, he might not have suffered a devastating downfall and would not have ended up on the gallows.

Had he not been in such a mad rush for power, he could have continued climbing until he reached the pinnacle. He would have remained there at the height of power instead of ending up dangling from the end of a rope.

As we read the Purim story, we think of people we know who engage in self-destructive behavior and we thank Hashem that we are not like them. We internalize the tale and take its message to heart. We feel grateful for the clarity that enables us to be happy with our lot.

Many times we wish we had the guts to do what is right, but we are worried about the repercussions. What will people say about us? Perhaps they will call us baalei machlokes or say that we are triggering the wrath of officialdom upon ourselves or the community. Then we read the Megillah and study the various Midrashim about what Mordechai Hatzaddik did. We realize that his actions, though unpopular when he did them, in fact led to the rescue of the Jewish people.

Not everyone in his time agreed with him, but he was vindicated by the Megillah and Chazal.

No, this does not mean that we are to condone headstrong, irresponsible behavior, but it means that we should scrupulously follow halacha, and not fear negative consequences.

Mordechai’s words, “Umi yodeiah im l’eis kazos higaat l’malchus,” ring in the ears of every Jew who is about to make a fateful decision. As one weighs the risks of taking the more ambitious but nobler route, Mordechai’s profound words goad him on.

Those words are an eternal charge inspiring one not to be daunted by the obstacles, but to pour one’s energies into productive projects that benefit themselves and/or our people.

Esther was afraid that she was doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. Mordechai was pushing her to reach out to Achashveirosh eleven months ahead of the date that Haman had chosen on which to wipe out the Jewish people. She would have preferred to stall, in the hope that between Nissan and the next Adar there would be a better time for her to appeal on behalf of her brethren. Why did it have to be now?

The tendency to postpone doing even what we know is crucial for us to do, is familiar to most of us. We say that tomorrow will be a better time. We say that we have several months in which to get it done. Maybe next week we will feel better. Maybe next month the other guy will be in a better mood. Why do I have to rush to do it now?

Mordechai’s message calls out, telling us: “Now is the time. Don’t push it off. Don’t find excuses to do it some other time. Time is of the essence.”

Faced with situations from which we think there is no way we can extricate ourselves without getting hurt, we can remember Queen Esther and gain strength from the knowledge that by doing the right thing, she saved her people from certain destruction. In following Mordechai’s instructions, she became immortalized in the consciousness of the Jewish people as a righteous and strong woman who put the fate of her people ahead of her personal safety and happiness.

The Jews of Shushan also taught us a message that carries down through the ages. They had given up all hope. They felt doomed. The lot was drawn and their fate was sealed. But Mordechai and Esther taught them the power of prayer and fasting. They rose to the challenge, and thanks to the leadership of Mordechai and Esther, G-d heard their tefillos and accepted their teshuvah. A day marked for sadness and death was transformed into a day of celebration and deliverance.

During the rest of the year, we may get despondent and lose our smiles, but on Purim we are reminded to never become depressed or downcast

We all have problems, everyone has a pekel, and on Purim we are reminded that just as our ancestors were delivered from despair, so too can we be spared of our burdens in our day.

The sun will shine again. Good will triumph over evil.

It’s Purim. Come on, raise your feet in dance, turn your lips into smiles and erase the frown. Stop dragging your feet. Let the happiness wipe away the sadness today and every day. Be optimistic, not pessimistic. Let the spirit - and spirits - of Purim pervade your psyche and influence your outlook. Simcha is contagious.

It happened in Shushan; it will happen here, too.

Happy Purim.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Tziduk Hadin

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Yerushalayim in shock
Numb with grief
Frozen hearts

In the heart of Yerushalayim
A yeshiva under attack
Unarmed students
Shot in the back
Rifle blazing
No escape
Vicious death trap
Savage hate
Gunfire roaring
Young men falling
No escape

On Rosh Chodesh
Adar Sheini.
Yeshiva bochurim
Close to eighty
The murderer sought
To kill them all
600 bullets
Blasted forth.

Innocent souls
Pure young men
Will never speak
Or laugh again
Victims so young
Leave us behind
To ponder the tragedy
Of how they died

Complacency shattered
Does nonsense still matter?
People misguided, divided

The first report announced
Terror in a yeshiva
All across the world
Headlines screamed
A yeshiva, a yeshiva
Under siege

Jews gasped,
Immediately asked,
Which yeshiva?
Where is the yeshiva?

Is it the yeshiva
Where my son learns?
My brother?
My cousin?
My friend?

We are all sons
All brothers
All cousins
All friends

Can it be that yeshivos, too,
are no longer safe?

Our teivas noach
In stormy waves
The teivah was breached
Bochurim slain
Wounded, bleeding
Searing pain

The Jewish heart punctured
Jewish souls bereaved
Across the world
United in grief

Yerushalmi Yidden
Broke down and cried.
For the yeshiva was taken
To the war’s front lines

All over Eretz Yisroel
As they assembled for Maariv
They said Yaaleh Veyavoh
for Chodesh Adar
And when they finished davening,
A silence so bitter
All they could muster
A tearful whisper
Hashem yishmor

How were there no guns that
day in Merkaz Harav?
Young boys died armed only with
their seforim
Mosru nafshom al kiddush Hashem

Gemaros soaked with victims’ blood
Seforim shot up, survivors numb
Friends gone forever, innocent youth
To their final rest in the world of Truth

Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers
Trying to comfort each other
Sitting shivah, hearts rent
Grief that keeps flowing without end

As vast as the ocean is Jewish pain
The cycle returns in every decade
Hate and persecution take their toll
On a nation with an eternal soul

Down the corridors of history
From the days of Harugei Beitar
The eight crusades
Gezeiros Tach V’Tat

Crisscrossing the globe
The pogroms in Russia
Poland… Chevron.


Kiryat Shemonah

The 12 bus
The 2 bus
Park Hotel
Pesach night

When will it end?

Rain the first night of Sukkos
Signals G-d’s displeasure
What about the innocent
Snatched on the first night of Adar

Do we feel the pain in our
deepest soul?
Do we feel the hurt or are our
hearts cold?

A yeshiva,
Any yeshiva,
Is no longer safe!

The mizbei’ach is mechapeir
for avonos
The bais medrash became a mizbei’ach

What happened to “ein
moridim m’hamizbei’ach”?
What happened to the
zechus haTorah?

Lechapeir al avonoseinu,
Chodesh nehepach misasson l’eivel

But the story will soon change
In the end of days
As love conquers hate
And comfort removes pain,
Truth will triumph over lies
Darkness will finally yield to light

Ohr chodosh al Tziyon ta’ir
The light of Moshiach will shine
Over Tzion
And Yerushalayim

When we learn to
Feel the pain
Of the exile

When at last we unite
As brothers and sisters
When love binds us close
Despite our differences
No one will defeat us
Armed with our oneness
No enemy can beat us

Amaleik’s power manifests in Adar.
Haman’s dice landed on Adar

Parshas Shekolim tells the secret
Of the machatzis hashekel
Its power to counteract our
eternal foes
Amaleik and Haman.

Because without each other,
We aren’t whole

One half and another half
And another
And another
No longer separate
But part of each other.

Achdus brings us victory
It has no rival
The ‘magic bullet’
That ensures our survival.

Esther said to Mordechai,
Leich kenos es kol haYehudim.”
Bring the Jews together

Only if they are together,
Can I win the king over
Only if they are united
Can we triumph
Over Haman
And prevail over

Leich kenos es kol haYehudim.”
Only if we are together,
Can we defeat Yishmoel

When we are One
Without friction or fighting
No power can hurt us
No force is as mighty.

K’Ish Echad B’Laiv Echad
Under Hashem Echod.
May Hashem bring us safely
To that blessed day
Bayom hahu yehiyeh Hashem Echod
U’shmo Echod

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Unity and Shekalim

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Invested in the ritual of the machatzis hashekel, which we will read about this Shabbos in Parshas Shekalim, are cogent lessons in how to combat jealousy and divisiveness and attain unity between Jews. In so doing, we are made worthy of Hashem’s great salvation.

Such epic goals do not, at first glance, seem connected to the mitzvah of taking a national census through the counting of the shekalim. But that is only until we take a closer look at the rich symbolism and inner meaning of the mitzvah.

Our first discovery is that the purpose of the ritual of machatzis hashekel is multi-layered.

During the times of the Bais Hamikdosh, all of Klal Yisroel was expected to donate the money needed for the korbanos tzibbur, the daily sacrifices brought on behalf of the nation. The collection took place on Rosh Chodesh Nissan.

One month earlier, on Rosh Chodesh Adar, the leaders began reminding the people to prepare their donations - a half-shekel per person. We will soon see the significance of the proclamation being made on this particular date.

[In the absence of the Bais Hamikdosh, we carry out this mitzvah symbolically by reading the parsha of shekalim.]

The machatzis hashekel served a second purpose. It was the vehicle through which a national census was taken of Bnei Yisroel, as Moshe was commanded at the beginning of Parshas Ki Sisa.

The Torah does not allow us to count Jews bodily; everyone eligible to be counted contributes a machatzis hashekel and the coins are counted. The Torah (30:16) relates that the money then went to the Ohel Moed (and later the Bais Hamikdosh) and served as a kapara for Bnei Yisroel.

Rashi, on that posuk, teaches that the machatzis hashekel accomplished yet a third purpose; it was a kapara for the sin of the Eigel, the Golden Calf.

The Medrash Tanchuma (9) states that Moshe Rabbeinu had difficulty understanding the directive of machatzis hashekel and was shown by Hakadosh Boruch Hu a machatzis hashekel coin made of fire.

What was Moshe’s difficulty and how was it answered with the coin of fire?

The Eigel was fashioned out of molten gold - gold that men had eagerly tossed into the fire, each hoping to outdo the other in his contribution so as to own a larger share of the new leader that would be sculpted from the molten mass.

Moshe could not understand how the machatzis hashekel could atone for such an egregious sin.

In displaying a fiery machatzis hashekel, Hashem was telling Moshe, “If you see Jews run to donate their machatzis hashekel to the Mishkan with the same fervor that they dashed off to pluck the jewelry from their wives in order to melt the gold into an Eigel, you will then be assured that the census will not cause a plague.”

If people give of their resources with the same dedication to a dovor shebikedusha as they gave to the avodah zorah, that is a sign that they are giving from the depths of their hearts.

If they maintain the Mishkan with the same bren as they subsidized the Eigel, you will know that they are not giving selfishly, but are donating for the betterment of the community. Such people are worthy of being protected from a plague.

Because every donor could give no more and no less than a half-shekel, the machatzis hashekel “leveled the field.” It made everyone equal before the Shechinah and erased the possibility of any individual gaining personal benefit from his contribution.

If the Jewish people, despite the lack of opportunity for self-aggrandizement in this mitzvah, demonstrated the same bren in donating to the Mishkan as when they poured money into their own private projects, that would signify their attainment of a lofty madreigah. At that level, tzedaka tatzil mimovess - charity for purely altruistic purposes saves one from death.

If people can gather together and declare that they recognize that in the eyes of G-d they are equal - if they can stand in line with their machatzis hashekel and not be jealous of each other - that is a sign that they are G-d-fearing people and no mageifah will befall them.

The Meshech Chochma at the beginning of Parshas Va’eirah regarding the mitzvah of Birkas Hamazon expands on the concept that being content with what Hashem has given us is an expression of deepest emunah.

If people realize that all their possessions are from Hakadosh Boruch Hu, and that He cares for us and all our needs, they will be satisfied with what the Creator, in His wisdom, apportioned to them.

This is the reason we make a bracha acharonah after eating an amount of food equal to the volume of an egg or an olive, and not only when we have eaten our full, as the Biblical commandment prescribes. We demonstrate our belief that all we have is from Hashem and that even if it is minimal, we are grateful and content with it.

People tend to feel that they are being treated unfairly when observing those who are richer, or who have more kavod or status, or have gotten further in life. Such feelings fuel jealousy, which, in turn, spawns anger and hatred.

Those who aren’t satisfied with their lot in life essentially suffer from a lack of emunah.

People who lie, cheat and steal to get ahead are lacking in belief in Hashem. Individuals who promote themselves incessantly at the expense of others are ketanei emunah.

On the other hand, when a Jew eats a kezayis and bentches, thanking Hashem for what He has given him, he pays tribute to the fact that all he has is a gift from G-d, and that G-d provides him with precisely what he needs.

“If He deemed me worthy of eating only a kezayis, that will suffice for me. It will be as filling for me as an entire meal,” one is urged to think. “I realize I must be thankful for what I have and I realize that there is a G-d above Who is looking out for me.”

By submitting to the counting of Bnei Yisroel through the machatzis hashekel, the Jewish people declared their acceptance that one’s possessions come from Hakadosh Boruch Hu and that witnessing another’s good fortune must never trigger jealousy and resentment.

The wealthy Jews, by giving only a pittance, demonstrated their acceptance that, in G-d’s eyes, money is not what defines a person. They understood that when Jews are counted, they are measured for who they are and what they have done with their G-dly gifts, not in terms of their bank accounts.

The Gemara in Maseches Megillah (13b) relates that Reish Lakish taught that the Ribono Shel Olam knew that Haman would one day weigh shekalim with which to bribe Achashveirosh to permit him to kill the Jews on the 14th of Adar.

Hashem therefore caused the chachomim to determine that the proclamation to prepare the shekalim should be made on Rosh Chodesh Adar, to counteract Haman’s evil schemes.

What is there about the shekalim of the Mikdosh which had the power to trump the shekalim of Haman? What special force did they possess that they were able to defeat Haman and his nefarious plans?

The Megillah relates that Haman declared to Achashveirosh, “Yeshno am echod mefuzar umeforad bein ha’amim - There is one nation which is scattered and dispersed amongst the nations…” A deeper explanation offered by the meforshim is that Haman theorized that Am Yisroel suffered from a lack of achdus.

There was no unity among the Jews of his time. They quarreled and were divisive. Haman knew that when harmony and unity are absent among Jews, it is much easier to destroy them.

The Creator therefore caused the chachomim to announce the upcoming collection of the machatzis hashekel on Rosh Chodesh Adar. The machatzis hashekel served to bring Jews together; it cured jealousy and the hatred it generates between people. Through the machatzis hashekel, Jews were reunified and drawn close to one another in ahavas Yisroel.

The achdus that grew in place of envy, rancor and sinas chinom saved them from Haman’s evil designs.

May we merit that in our day as well, when the parsha of Shekalim is read, the message of the machatzis hashekel will inspire us to abandon hatred and jealousy and reunite in harmony and brotherhood.

Achdus means to treat other people the way we would want to be treated. Achdus means not washing our laundry in public. Achdus means to respect that not everyone has to agree with me or do things the way I do them. Achdus means to recognize that there are 12 shevatim in Klal Yisroel and one is no more legitimate than the other. Achdus means giving the other guy the benefit of the doubt before slamming him. Achdus means to act responsibly when dealing with others. Achdus means to carefully consider the ramifications, both personal and communal, of one’s actions. Real Achdus means taking the command of Ve’ohavta lereiacha kamocha literally.

May Hashem grant that by the time Purim arrives, we will be standing k’ish echod b’leiv echod, ready to greet Moshiach Tzidkeinu.