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.


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