Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Gift of Matzoh

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

A couple of nights before Pesach, I had a dream. In the dream, I came up with a new understanding of the posuk, “V’acharei chein yeitzu b’rechush gadol,” in which Hashem foretold to our forefather Avrohom the future course of Jewish history. After being enslaved for many years, the Jewish people would be freed and would depart their host country with a great treasure.

The common understanding is that this promise of “a great treasure” was fulfilled with the vast quantity of belongings the Jews received from the Mitzriyim prior to being sent out.

In my dream, a new p’shat struck me. The rechush gadol the Jews received was the matzoh which baked on their backs as they left b’chipazon. Matzoh is not simply a physical food; it possesses ruchniyusdike qualities and, as such, is a gift to Bnei Yisroel. Only we have the ability to take flour and water and transform them into a cheftzah shel mitzvah.

Awakening with thoughts of this new p’shat, I was intrigued by the idea and stored it in the back of my mind. Over Yom Yov, I searched about in seforim for something that could substantiate that idea. It wasn’t until the seventh day of Pesach that I found what I was looking for.

I am privileged to own the Netziv of Volozhin’s personal copy of the sefer Shir Hashirim with the pirush “Rina Shel Torah,” which he wrote. The sefer is interspersed with his own handwritten comments, a true treasure to behold. Every year, when we lain Shir Hashirim on Pesach, I take it out and am immensely rewarded by reading the penetrating words of the Netziv.

In the introduction to his commentary, he explains the posuk, “Sheishes yomim tochal matzos uv’yom hashvi’i atzeres l’Hashem Elokechah lo sa’aseh melacha - You shall eat matzos for six days and on the seventh you shall rest for Hashem and you shall not do any work” (Devorim 16:8).

The Netziv explains that on the first day of Pesach, the obligation to eat matzoh is to remember that we left Mitzrayim in such haste that the bread the fleeing Jews took along for the journey had no time to rise. The obligation related to the consumption of matzoh the first six days of Pesach recalls the eating of the korban mincha by the kohanim. The korbanos mincha were only brought of matzoh breads and were never made of chometz. That was to teach the Jewish people that in order to draw closer to G-d and achieve a higher level of holiness, they must reduce their involvement in the pursuits of Olam Hazeh.

On Pesach, we sustain ourselves with matzoh, unleavened bread, for six days, for that same higher purpose: on Pesach, a Jew attempts to rise spiritually and become closer to Hashem.

Therefore, on the seventh and final day of the holiday, Jews are commanded to refrain from work and to inculcate within themselves the message of the six days of eating matzoh.

Not partaking of chometz is supposed to affect us in a fundamental way. It is supposed to change our outlook on life and remind us of our purpose here. Eating matzoh for seven days is not something we do to fill ourselves physically; the change in diet is meant to bring about a spiritual change in our souls.

When I read those words, it occurred to me that this message supports the idea that the matzoh is a rechush gadol. Matzoh is a gift from Hashem that enables us to elevate our rote observance of mitzvos to a higher dimension of avodas Hashem. Partaking of the matzoh for a week is meant to reduce our taavos and drive for physical gratification. If we heed its message, it is truly a gift, a rechush gadol, which has the power to uplift and purify us and draw us closer to our Creator.

Later, I found a similar idea in the words of the Ramchal in Derech Hashem (4:8). He says that as long as the Jews were enslaved in Mitzrayim and living amongst the pagan population, their bodies were darkened by the poison of impurity which overwhelmed them. When they were finally delivered from that society - goy mikerev goy - their bodies underwent a purification process so that they would be able to accept the Torah and mitzvos.

This is the reason why they were commanded to refrain from consuming chometz and to eat matzoh. The bread which we eat all year round is prepared with yeast and rises. Easier to digest and tastier, it is the natural food for man. It feeds man’s Yeitzer Hara and more base inclinations.

Klal Yisroel was commanded to refrain from eating chometz for a week in order to minimize the power of the Yeitzer Hara and their inclination towards the physical, as well as to strengthen their attachment to the spiritual.

It is impossible for people to live on this diet all year round, and it is not Hashem’s intent. But if they we maintain this diet for the duration of Pesach while incorporating the lessons of matzoh, it will energize us spiritually for the remainder of the year.

Rav Aryeh Leib Schapiro of Yerushalayim writes in his seferChazon L’Moed,” published this year, that the Ramchal ties this in with the famous dictum of the Rambam in Hilchos De’os (2:1) that a person seeking to rectify his conduct should go to the opposite extreme than his natural inclination, and he will then end up in the middle, where Hashem wants us to be.

The Rambam continues (3:1) that one should not reason that since kinah, taavah and kavod - jealousy, evil desires and the craving for honor - lead to man’s demise from this world, one should adopt the extremes of self-denial, refusing to eat meat or drink wine, marry, live in a nice house or wear nice clothes. Pagan priests lived this way. According to the Rambam, it is forbidden to follow this path; one who does is called a sinner.

The Netziv’s and Ramchal’s understanding of Pesach is in accord with the words of the Rambam. While it is undesirable for people to live this way all year round, if one takes a temporary turn to the extreme, it will help him return to the middle, where we all belong.

The Yom Tov of Pesach is designed to be that respite from the pressures that govern our day-to-day lives. It is meant to give us a break from the rat race which envelops us all year round. Pesach is one week of the year that frees us from the Yeitzer Hara and the pursuits that drive us throughout the year, which lead to dead ends, disappointment and depression.

Matzoh is indeed a rechush gadol, a treasure of the Jewish people. Matzoh weakens our evil inclinations and strengthens our inherent goodness. Matzoh has the ability to raise us above our preoccupation with the mundane.

Pesach is not a holiday of gorging and self-aggrandizement. Pesach is not meant to be a time when we sit around all day stuffing ourselves with food. On the contrary, Pesach is the time given to us to refrain to a certain degree from such pursuits and to absorb the lesson of the lowly matzoh.

Following a week of such elevated behavior, we continue along that pattern as we count to Shavuos, when we mark the acceptance of the Torah as the ultimate gift from G-d to man. It is only after the week of matzoh and seven weeks of Sefirah that we can achieve the highest possible levels of spiritual accomplishment.

We all no doubt enjoyed and benefited from the Yom Tov of Pesach. Letting go of those special days is so difficult. Making Havdalah has to be the hardest bracha we made all week, as we proclaim an end to the holy and commence the mundane and temporal.

But if we properly observed the mitzvos of Pesach, and we take the words of the Netziv to heart and review the lessons the matzoh can teach us, we need not bid the Yom Tov goodbye. If we observed the Yom Tov as we were meant to, its influence and inspiration will long remain with us, giving us the strength to rise above whatever challenges we face throughout the rest of the year.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

I recently walked into the Print House, an art/framing store in Lakewood. I was perusing the sale items when a particular painting stopped me in my tracks. It grabbed me in a strange way and I stood there studying it, unable to move on.

I asked Naftali Kovalenko, the proprietor, what he was thinking when he bought that painting. Who in Lakewood could relate to it? What did he think he was going to be able to do with it?

He shrugged his shoulders and said, “You never know. Someone may like it.”

The painting depicted a still life of a Pesach kitchen, on Erev Pesach sixty years ago, with art so realistic that you could just smell the Pesach aromas. A brass candelabra, a box of Horowitz Margereten matzos, Manischewitz matzoh meal and wine set the tone, with a blue-box pushka, Diamond Crystal kosher salt, apples, nuts and other Seder items creating that special Erev Pesach ambience we know so well. A hock messer, wooden spoon, eggs and a generic paperback Haggadah completed the picture.

The painting is bright and happy, but for the viewer with a sense of history, the holiday spirit it evokes is mixed with a poignant sadness.

It is so charming, and so real, you can picture the hubbub going on in that small kitchen; everyone scurrying about, preparing for Yom Tov and the grand Seder set to begin in a few hours. Decades ago, that very scene unfolded in countless Jewish homes in cities and towns across this vast country.

And that is what is so sad about it. It represents a lost world. The simple bubbes and Yiddishe mammas who would prepare the Seder as depicted in the picture are no more. The women who would cook borscht in the pot so vividly displayed in the painting aren’t cooking borscht anymore. It is doubtful if their grandchildren even know what borscht is.

The world of simple Jews who hung on to the traditions of the past has shrunk terribly. Many of us don’t know anyone like that. Those of us who are older can point to some senior citizens and say, “This is mamesh what So-and-So’s kitchen must have looked like.” Chances are, however, that the person’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren have kitchens far removed from the traditional pre-Yom Tov tumult. Their kitchens are bare of the lofty aromas of borscht, chicken soup, charoses and the chrein of maror.

They probably do hold some sort of Seder, with relatives within a radius of 90 miles driving in for the ceremony. Perhaps they celebrate the Jewish people’s liberation from Egyptian bondage in some fashion. Perhaps the event is nothing more than a chance for a family get-together.

It is sad to ponder the rupture of a three-thousand-year legacy.

But there is a flip side.

While most of their grandchildren have strayed far from their grandparents’ moorings, for some the picture is dramatically different.

Some have grandchildren who today are living Torah lives in Yerushalayim, Bnei Brak, Lakewood, Monsey, Brooklyn, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Dallas, Los Angeles and wherever else religious Jews live.

Many of the grandchildren of those who were moser nefesh to hold on to the traditions of their home are not tested in the way their grandparents were. The people who fought to keep kashrus and Shabbos to the best of their abilities in small town America and in the big cities have been rewarded with progeny who take it all for granted.

Their grandchildren look at this painting and wonder what Horowitz Margereten matzos are. They never heard of them. They never saw Pesach matzos that aren’t shemurah. This painting would be foreign to them. Manischewitz wine is a brand that they have never partaken of. They’ve never seen it in their home or anywhere else.

The beauty of this painting sitting in Lakewood is that due to the loyal perseverance of those Jews from an earlier generation, the Torah community continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Every year, more and more children are born who will never know that there was a time that the whole neighborhood didn’t eat shemurah matzoh, because they couldn’t, as it wasn’t available.

Every year, more people take for granted that you can walk into stores such as the one next to this framing/art store, Wine on the Nine, and buy any kind of wine your heart desires, from every corner of the globe.

Today, Malaga kosher wine that is so thick you can cut with a knife is forgotten because you can buy Bordeaux and other wines whose names you can’t pronounce. You read on their labels how they have aromas of blackberries and apricots coupled with cinnamon, and how they go well with brie cheese. You read that and smirk, wondering who they write that for and who they are trying to impress.

We have come so far as a people that we take all this all for granted and forget that there was a time when Pesach and shemiras hamitzvos required true mesiras nefesh.

Are we better off than they were? I sure hope so.

I was in a different store last week. Grand Sterling on 13th Avenue in Boro Park is an emporium of silver. The people who own the store and run it, the Rubin and Kizelnick families, are as outstanding as the wares they sell to beautify Shabbos and Yom Tov. It is a pleasure to walk in there and talk to them even if I don’t buy anything.

The people who work there are also special. Heimishe Hungarian women from ah mol. I was with three of my sons and we got into a conversation with Mrs. Goldner, a saleslady there. We were talking about how many children I have, the regular small talk. She closed her eyes and told me that she came from a large family. She became very emotional. She said that her family “was ten boys and six girls.” There was a long silent pause and several tears. “Hitler left us with three.”

As many times as you encounter this reminder from the not-so-distant past, it is so difficult to bear. You realize what these people went through; you see the tzaar they still struggle to suppress that must have haunted their days and nights as they went about rebuilding their lives on this blessed continent.

But then you see how successful the survivors have been, and how far they have come from the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, and you appreciate what you have. You look around at the plenty that we have and the relative ease with which we are able to lead our lives and you recognize how much you have to be thankful for.

You put on your kittel, choose a favorite Haggadah, raise your becher and recite Kiddush, surrounded by your loving family, shemurah matzos, malchusdikeh wine and grand silver. You make the Shehecheyanu. You think of Mrs. Goldner’s brothers and sisters, and you think of your own relatives who aren’t with you. You think of the people from generations and worlds gone by who gave all they had in order to celebrate Yom Tov.

You shed tears of happiness and joy that you are alive here and now. You thank Hashem for all his goodness and kindness, and you prepare to sit like a king, waiting for Eliyahu Hanovi to come and say that the long, bitter golus is over, and Moshiach is here.

May it happen this Pesach.

Chag kosher vesomeach.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Pesach Preparations

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Some Yomim Tovim have a way of just creeping up on you. Before you realize that they are around the corner, they’ve arrived. Pesach is different. Pesach is in the air weeks before the Yom Tov actually arrives, wherever you go in the Jewish world.

The stores are packed with shoppers buying everything from fish to shoes lekavod Yom tov. Bochurim are home from yeshiva, giving their homes, shuls and streets a different look.

Wherever you go, you hear vacuum cleaners whirring. That sound may give you a headache the rest of the year, but when you hear it now, it sounds so melodious. The machine seems to be singing about the approach of Pesach. “Come on over,” it calls. “Let us prepare for Pesach together.” While we push the vacuum cleaner to and fro, it’s as if we are holding a guitar in our hands, making music.

We are not engaged in some lowly, mundane activity. We are cleaning a house for Pesach. How joyous that is! Who can complain about that? Boruch Hashem, I have a place to live. Boruch Hashem, I have my strength. Boruch Hashem, I can clean the home You blessed me with and I can be mekayeim Your mitzvos. Boruch Hashem, I live in a time when I can freely eat matzos without fearing a blood-libel inspired pogrom breaking out.

Wherever you go in the Jewish world, you will pick up the scent of soap at work. The whiff of ammonia, bleach and Easy-Off® attack you from all corners. All year round, those odors force you to run and open the window to escape them, so offensive are they. But when you walk into a Jewish home during these weeks and are greeted by these pungent smells, they evoke a pleasant association, and you embrace them. They send so many memories rushing into your brain. They remind you that in a few days, chometz will be but a distant memory and you will soon be sitting like a king or queen at the Seder.

Reminders confront us from all sides about the impending Zeman Cheiruseinu. Shloshim yom kodem hachag, thirty days before the holiday, we are told that we must begin reviewing the intricate laws of the Yom Tov. We have Parshas Parah to remind us to purify ourselves in preparation for the korban. Parshas Hachodesh reminds us that Chodesh Nissan is about to arrive.

Unlike the other major holidays of Sukkos and Shavuos, Pesach demands a heightened degree of preparation. The home must be spotlessly cleaned, matzos must be baked, special foods purchased, a different menu prepared, and on and on. The hachanos are especially taxing on the women. For weeks, they work themselves to the point of exhaustion, making sure that everything is perfectly in order in time for the Seder.

When it comes to “bringing in Pesach,” family members have to be careful to share in what can be an overwhelming task if shouldered alone. At no other time of the year is cooperation so vital.

If everyone leaves everything to Mommy to worry about, chances are that Mommy will have a hard time pulling it all together. It is only when every member of the family pools their efforts and abilities that Pesach becomes that rich and rewarding experience that we so eagerly anticipate.

This spirit of cooperation that marks Pesach preparation has its parallel in one of the core elements of Yetzias Mitzrayim - our transformation into a cohesive nation, a family unit on a national scale.

We went from being slaves scattered around Mitzrayim to becoming an organized community of Bnei Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov. A community is defined as a group of people with common interests joining together to contribute towards the public good. When each person cares only about himself and what is good for him, the community suffers. In a community, everyone sacrifices a bit for the common welfare.

And so it is on Pesach. Perhaps this is the reason why the Rama begins Hilchos Pesach with the minhag of maos chittin, obligating all Jews to help those less fortunate who cannot afford to buy what they need for Yom Tov.

We demonstrate to what extent we are part of the greater Jewish community by the way we respond to appeals to come to the aid of those who have difficulty meeting Yom Tov expenses.

For the past several years, together with my dear friend Reb Yossel Czapnik, I have been inserting an envelope into the paper before Pesach on behalf of Keren Hachesed. We depend upon our good readers to assist the Keren Hachesed volunteers and the people they help.

Boruch Hashem, the response has always been truly magnificent and is a tribute to the righteousness and kindness of our readers who are no doubt bombarded with so many pre-Pesach appeals. Those envelopes are mailed by readers throughout the course of the year and Keren Hachesed counts on the donations to help repay the loans they took out to help people with Yom Tov expenses.

Keren Hachesed is an organization founded by Bnei Torah to help kollel yungeleit, rabbonim, rabbeim, roshei yeshiva and other hard-working people who make a living but can’t afford to make ends meet when it comes to Pesach, but will not accept help from public organizations. The Keren carefully screens all potential recipients.

The Keren helps the people who live next door to you in the most bakavodike and respectful way possible. The Keren helps the very people you would be helping if you only knew how to approach them and offer assistance. Contributing to the Keren is a perfect way to help a family just like yours make Yom Tov. In doing so, you are contributing to one of the greatest tzedakos in our area.

If you live in a Torah community within 90 miles of New York City, chances are you have a neighbor who is enjoying the benefits of Keren Hachesed this Yom Tov. The recipients are good people, with nice, fine families, who dedicate their lives to doing good for the community and have everything but enough money to properly celebrate Yom Tov. Keren Hachesed helps them accomplish that in myriad ways that I cannot describe, lest the recipients recognize that they are benefiting from Keren Hachesed. In fact, the recipients don’t even know that Keren Hachesed exists.

Keren Hachesed, working behind the scenes, comes to the rescue in hidden ways.

The volunteers who run the chesed group are so dedicated to their cause that they would rather work harder at raising the funds necessary to continue their work than permit me to describe their work. They place the dignity and self respect of the people they help above all else. The less attention showered upon their activities, the happier they are. However, as the recession deepens, more and more of our neighbors require their services and it behooves those of us who are able to, to rise to their aid.

Several years ago, some Keren volunteers were involved in multiple mishaps for a few years in a row. They became disturbed by the thought that a Divine message was being sent.

They approached the famed Rav Chaim Kreisworth, ZT”L, a towering talmid chochom, who was well known for his untiring efforts for tzedakah and chesed. He replied that the only one who would be able to interpret what had occurred was the Steipler Rov.

One of the people involved in the Keren traveled to Eretz Yisroel and described to the Steipler Gaon zt”l the organization’s work and the misfortunes that had been experienced by the volunteers. He asked for the Steipler’s insight into the significance of these episodes.

The Steipler answered him that not only was there nothing wrong with what they were doing, but the tzedaka they perform is on such a high level that the Soton was trying to derail them from their noble work.

He suggested that from that year on, all those involved in Keren Hachesed should observe Yom Kippur Kotton on Erev Rosh Chodesh Nissan, including blowing shofar.

Since then, the only problem the Keren has had is raising sufficient funds to keep pace with the need. Let us all do what we can to help these noble people bring Yom Tov goodness to some of the finest families in Klal Yisroel.

As we run around loading our shopping wagons with everything we need for Yom Tov, let us keep in mind the people who cannot afford to fill their wagons. As we try on new suits and shoes, let’s keep in mind those who have to make do with old clothing and hand-me-downs. Let us show we care about those not as financially blessed as we are. Let us show hakaras hatov to the Ribono Shel Olam for all we have.

Every dollar given to Keren Hachesed will bring a smile to Jewish faces of all ages. You will be contributing to their simchas Yom Tov as well as your own.

When contributing to your local maos chittin campaign, and other good causes, including those advertised in this newspaper, please remember the Keren Hachesed envelope.

Shabbos Hagadol comes early this year. Shabbos Hagadol, literally “The Great Shabbos,” heralds the traditional Pesach drasha, but its significance is broader than that. It is the day on which, 3320 years ago, our forefathers rounded up sheep for the Korban Pesach. It is the day which announces that the chag hageulah is about to descend upon us. Every Shabbos is “great,” and every Shabbos is a gift from G-d, but since it comes around every week, we tend to take it for granted.

Shabbos reminds us that G-d created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Shabbos is a day which raises us up to a higher spiritual plane than we are on during the rest of the week.

Yetzias Mitzrayim, when we were taken from bondage in Mitzrayim and separated as the Am Hashem, started on Shabbos with the preparations for the Korban Pesach. That seminal event is remembered every year on Shabbos Hagadol.

Shabbos Hagadol is greater than every other Shabbos of the year because it announces that the days which commemorate that aliyah of the Jewish people - and have the spiritual power to renew that aliyah - are once again with us. Shabbos Hagadol heralds the arrival of the sanctified period of time that took our nation to a new and higher level for eternity.

Let us all pray that in the merit of the mitzvah of tzedaka and the areivus our acts of kindness demonstrate, this coming Shabbos Hagadol should be our last Shabbos in golus. May it herald the arrival of the geulah. Amein.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

We Aren’t In Kansas Anymore

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

It was the talk of town wherever religious Jews congregated. Did you hear about that guy in Lakewood? How could he have pulled it off? There has to be more to the story. A man from Kansas impersonating a Lakewood yungerman? It just can’t be.

The story was told that a man facing trouble in Kansas conned his way into the Lakewood Torah community without anyone catching on to him. The charade lasted a number of years before the man from Kansas ran out of steam and gave it up.

How bizarre. It really is strange. Fact can be stranger than fiction. But can it be that a Kansan blended into a yeshiva without raising anyone’s suspicions?

We like to think that we are so singular and unique that no one can imitate us. We like to think that the way we lead our lives cannot be duplicated by someone outside the fold.

There have always been con artists who prey on unsuspecting individuals, robbing them of their money, their innocence, and everything else. We like to think that we are so smart that no one can fool us. We delude ourselves into thinking that no matter how clever the ruse, we would be able to detect the fraudulence and not be suckered in.

It seems beyond question to us that were an imposter to land in our midst, we would be able to spot him. No guy from Kansas could ever fool us into accepting him as a bona fide member of Am Yisroel. Only a professionally trained spy could escape our detection; an amateur would be quick to get his cover blown, we tell ourselves.

There are just too many details to keep track of, too many cultural nuances to master. Which outsider would even notice the myriad telltale idiosyncrasies characteristic of our community - much less be able to mimic them? A faker would be exposed in seconds.

Or would he?

There is another man with a Kansas past in the news. Like our friend, his past is murky. We don’t really know much about his true beliefs and a lot about him is in question, or dispute. Every day, new bits of the story emanate and a constantly evolving picture of the man emerges.

The other man from Kansas also has a dubious religious figure who helped him find himself in the past.

He also engages in subterfuge as he presents himself to be something he may not be. No one can be sure enough. He seems nice and intelligent, and is certainly well spoken, but the more we get to know him, the more the mystery deepens as to his true core and which beliefs guide him.

This other man is a politician who claims to be all about change. Like our mystery neighbor, his name is also a topic of dispute. Growing up, he was known as Barry. His mother hailed from Kansas and his father was named Hussein. He went to Islamic schools as a child in a far-off land, but he swears that he is a Christian, so much so that it is almost forbidden to refer to him by his real name, Barack Hussein Obama.

Things are not always what they appear to be, and before we rush to judgment, it behooves us to wait until we get all the facts straight.

Life is full of twists and turns. We never really know what is awaiting us around the corner or next door. But foresworn is forewarned and our life experience ought to teach us to treat all people properly, but to be ever vigilant.

It would be a sad world if we suddenly were forced to check into every person we came into contact with.

In this case, good people befriended the new neighbors, took their children into school, and did their best to be mekareiv them. People gave them money, clothing and food in good faith, and they are to be commended.

Although in the beginning, as the story began to unravel, people believed that the man was a total imposter, spy or worse, it may very well turn out to be true that the family thought they had undergone a genuine conversion. This doesn’t excuse any other deceptions they may have perpetrated, but how does it implicate the rest of us?

What ahavas Yisroel! What inclusiveness and acceptance of strangers! The family was showered with love, money, food and every gesture of kindness, without anyone checking their tzitzis. The husband was welcomed to the shul, and yeshiva, with no one suspecting that he wasn’t authentic. No one really checked into his yichus, where he came from, and how he ended up in Lakewood. We are so full of warmth and trust that we take care of our neighbors first and ask embarrassing questions later.

People are wondering whether it can really be that an unlearned redneck showed up in town, shuckeled in front a siddur, and everyone fell for him. Can it be that all one has to do is learn to read a foreign language - in this case Hebrew - and mimic the crowd?

People say that perhaps we are too superficial and perfunctory in our observance of mitzvos and in the way we interact with our fellows. Is it possible that if we would daven like we are supposed to, if we did mitzvos the way G-d meant us to, then a guy in shul who was just imitating us would be totally transparent?

If we had more than superficial relationships with our neighbors, it would not be possible for a family to deceive us through impersonation and imitation. This is not meant in any way to cast aspersions on our behavior and observance of mitzvos, but the thought that such people could possibly have dwelt in our midst undetected for years does give us pause.

We are often accused by our detractors of being insular and self-absorbed, failing to pay attention to those who live among us but are different than us. The gentleman from Kansas proved them wrong. Here came a family as if blown in by a tornado from a land most people in Jersey can’t even find on a map, and they are welcomed with open arms. Nobody asks to see their passport, nobody tests them on their Jewish knowledge, and nobody delves deep enough to find out where they really came from.

We are not trained to be suspicious; we are not attuned to be alert to false notes and deceptive posing.

When we suffered the terrible calamity of a purveyor of treife meat preying on our community, I turned to my rebbi for an explanation. How can it be that this fraud continued for so long and nobody caught on? Where did we go wrong?

He responded to me that Rav Chaim Soloveitchik zt”l would often repeat the following thought from the sefer Be’er Mayim Chaim that has a bearing on this question.

When Avrohom Avinu sent Eliezer to find a proper shidduch for his son Yitzchok, the Torah in Parshas Chayei Sarah relates, “Vayomer Avrohom el avdo zekan beiso hamoshel bechol asher lo, sim noh yodcha tachas yereichi.” The Torah describes how much confidence Avrohom had in Eliezer. He entrusted him with everything he owned; all of his great wealth and vast possessions. Why is it necessary for the Torah to elaborate on that? And if the servant was so trusted, why did Avrohom make him swear that he wouldn’t go to the Bnos Canaan to find a wife for Yitzchok?

The Be’er Mayim Chaim answered with a moshol. If a person is traveling through a strange city and feels hungry, he goes into a restaurant, asks if it is kosher and sits down for a meal. Someone with higher religious standards asks who gives the hechsher before sitting down to eat. If he is even more G-d fearing, he first goes to the local shul and inquires as to where people eat out, and then makes his way to the restaurant. A traveler who is even more medakdeik b’mitzvos would make his way to the local rov and ask him where he can eat in town before going to a food establishment.

What if the person is coming to town to loan $1,000,000 to someone with a heter iska? Would he content himself with asking the borrower if he is trustworthy and then engage in the deal? Would he be satisfied if a few people in the shul told him that he can trust the man? What if the rov told him that he can feel safe entrusting the local man with his million dollars? He would adopt all these safeguards and more. He’d ask questions, he’d meet the person, he’d talk to him, and he’d check him out thoroughly.

Following all his inquiries, he would only then go into the deal if he had co-signers on the loan and a lien on the man’s house. He’d do everything he could to ascertain that his money would be safe.

The Be’er Mayim Chaim explains that the posuk goes to great lengths to illustrate that regarding Avrohom Avinu, the opposite was the case. When it came to finances, he trusted Eliezer with everything, but when it came to matters of Yiddishkeit, he said, “Sim noh yodcha tachas yereichi.” He made him swear that he would follow Avrohom Avinu’s instructions exactly as he was ordered, without deviating.

We have to learn to ask questions when we are unsure in matters related to Yiddishkeit and ruchniyus. When things are incongruous, when something seems suspicious, we must probe for an explanation. If things don’t add up, we must speak up. There is no shame in asking questions repeatedly until we feel safe and secure that what we are doing is proper and just. We have to take our Yiddishkeit as seriously as we do our finances if we want to be sure we are doing the right thing.

Can it be that if we cared more about our neighbors and their welfare, we wouldn’t fall prey to a con man, if that was the case here? Can it be that if we weren’t so superficial in our relationships, we could have perceived that there was something very wrong with this family and the facade they presented to the world?

People right next door to us may be suffering an ordeal; shouldn’t we be more attuned to our neighbors’ well-being? Can it be that we are so consumed with ourselves that we don’t feel the pain and humiliation they endure?

I am not suggesting that the fact that the Kansas deception succeeded for a number of years reflects shortcomings on our side. This incident could have happened in any community. This man could have been my neighbor or yours. But as the rumors continue to fly, and as people conjecture and speculate about what really happened and who this mysterious man truly is, I am merely thinking aloud that perhaps there is a lesson here for us. Part of the curse of golus is that we have no novi who can interpret for us the actions of Hashem. We don’t any a novi who can help us correct our ways and explain to us the reasons behind disturbing events.

Lacking such explicit guidance, we need to heighten our sensitivity to unusual events taking place around us, trusting that Hashem will send us inspiration and guidance through that medium. We have to learn from what transpires in our world to improve our ways, become more observant in following the ways of the Torah, and be more cognizant of what goes on around us.

We may never know the truth of this seemingly strange incident as the story changes from day to day, but the lessons for us remain there for all time.