Wednesday, September 24, 2008


By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Once again, Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, is upon us. The realization that the day on which the future of mankind will be decided is almost here should be enough to rattle anyone. This year, so many of us are in a better position than in the past few years to realize the powerful ramifications this day contains.

The world teeters on a nuclear war. The economic underpinnings of this country have just been exposed to be a facade, susceptible to breakdown without barely any notice. This country is torn over whom to elect in the coming year to lead it into the next four years. As charges and slogans fly in each direction, many are unconvinced that either candidate has what it takes to navigate the thicket that engulfs us.

Our brethren in Eretz Yisroel have just traded in one mediocre political leader for another and no one is convinced that this prime minister will be any better than the previous one. Surrounded by vicious enemies on all sides and with festering problems inside, now is not the time for a learn-on-the-job caretaker.

The banking system of the most developed nation in the world has been shown to be so perverse that now the people in charge of the financial decisions are forced to render judgment and improvise solutions for problems so large and intractable that they have no precedent in history and there is no existing template of rules to follow.

A decade of lies and sloppy lending has caught up with those who thought that the day of reckoning would never come. Now, hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer equity is needed to right the ship of state. Well educated snippy bankers and brokers, driven to work in vehicles people like us could only gawk at, rode private elevators to suites of offices decorated with millions of dollars of artwork and furniture. They sat there making decisions for which they thought there would never be any consequence, taking breaks for delicacies prepared by their private chefs in gourmet kitchens paid for by the largesse of commissions earned by passing along bad loans from one lender to the next.

They spoke big and lived even bigger, earning packages in the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars for hoodwinking each other into keeping the scam going. It sounds like some kind of unbelievable fairy tale, and we’d all be much better off if it was, but sadly it is a true story. The underpinning of the increasingly complicated and entangled economy was a big lie, and if we are not careful, we will all be paying the piper.

The bankers, brokers, insurance companies and complicit politicians charged with oversight behaved as if there was never going to be a day of judgment. They thought they could go in perpetuity ignoring dictates of common sense and economics, with their mega-bucks rolling in forever. They thought they’d be able to fool everyone all the time. The going was good for everyone - and it almost worked. But then it didn’t.

Money has a very corrosive influence on all who touch it or want to get their hands on it. In our private lives, as well, in spheres of communal activism, money is a big motivator. Oftentimes, people act in strange ways because they assume that it will put them on the side of the money and make them winners. Too many people buckle and fold in the face of financial pressures. They ignore their principles and impulses as the money beckons and entices them to go in the direction they ought to know is inherently incorrect.

Rosh Hashanah is a time of repentance. We review our acts of the past year and seek to correct our faults. We examine where we have gone wrong and failed in following the word of G-d and commit to take concrete steps to follow the word of the Torah in the coming year. We say selichos and viduy and klop al cheit. Many of us feel that we aren’t all that bad. We don’t cheat, we don’t steal, we don’t knowingly desecrate the Shabbos, we give charity, we honor our parents and elders, and we smile most of the time.

While that may be true, the Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah, 7:3) writes that the same way we are commanded to do teshuvah for sins that are of an active sinful nature, we must focus on the improper ideas that we have and rid ourselves of them. We have to do teshuvah on the times we were angry, on hatred of other people, on jealousy, on improper competition, on cynicism and mockery, on the pursuit of money and honor, and on gluttony.

The Rambam adds that it is more difficult to atone for these character sins than for those which involve actual sinful acts, because man becomes so accustomed to them that it is very difficult for him to reform himself and desist from acting and thinking in that way.

Teshuvah is not only on what we are used to calling aveiros, but also on our latent urges for prestige and money, and for our petty jealousy of other people. It’s actually quite a difficult process, involving more than we imagine.

I have become acquainted recently with the seforim of a Yid I had never heard of, Rav Aryeh Leib Shapira of Yerushalayim. I was in a seforim store in Teaneck, NJ, a few years ago, and for some reason I picked up his work. I was enraptured by it. Last week, my son Yishai, who is learning in Yerushalayim, sent me his latest work on Elul and Tishrei titled “Keser Meluchah.”

In the sefer, Rav Shapira discusses another, often overlooked, facet of our daily lives which requires teshuvah. We have to repent on things we do which aren’t sins per se, but which we ought to understand, with our own common sense, are wrong.

The Rambam writes in Moreh Nevuchim (3:17) that people are punished for improper actions they have committed even if there is no specific commandment not to do it, since it is an act which human intelligence warns man to desist from. He adds that, conversely, if a person commits a positive act, even if it is not a specific commandment, he is rewarded.

The same idea is put forward by Rabbeinu Nissim Gaon, Rav Yaakov Emden and the Sefer Chassidim. In the Siddur HaGra, the Al Cheit of “Shechatanu lefonecha bevli daas” is explained in this way. We beg forgiveness for not thinking through our actions properly, for we are commanded to think through what we are doing, and if we don’t, we have sinned.

If something is too good to be true, it usually is. If something is not really illegal but anyone with half a brain can figure out that it is improper, then we shouldn’t be doing it. If banks are giving out mortgages to people without jobs, little income and poor credit, it stands to reason that they have a very good chance of not getting repaid. If every bank does it, and it goes on for a decade, that doesn’t mean that it makes sense. Eventually, the bank is going to go bust, along with every other bank that conducts its business in this fashion.

And so it is with us in our own lives. If something doesn’t make sense, we shouldn’t do it. If we wouldn’t want to be treated a certain way, we shouldn’t treat other people that way, even if it doesn’t say anywhere in the Torah that it is forbidden. If we are tempted to act unscrupulously in order to make a quick buck, we must resist the temptation, even if we are promised that there is nothing illegal involved, because we are smart enough to realize that there is. If we let financial incentives override our intelligence, not only are we fools and knaves, but we are sinners.

Rosh Hashanah is the day when all our debts and mortgages are due. Our balance sheet is reviewed and if anything there doesn’t make sense - if the numbers don’t add up - we are forced to pay and jeopardize our income and wellbeing for the coming year.

The Chofetz Chaim would often admonish that “hakol beshvil Yisroel” means that everything that transpires in the world happens so that Klal Yisroel should take a lesson from it and improve themselves.

If the major financial institutions of the country come so close to failing prior to Tishrei because they were believed to be perfectly legal, though thoroughly wrongful, improper and corrupt, that is meant as a warning to us to get our own houses in order prior to Rosh Hashanah so that we can receive a favorable judgment and be granted a year of blessing and simcha.

Every year, I recall reading that on the first night of selichos many years ago, my great-great-great grandfather traveled to Volozhin to study the Eser Sefiros with Rav Chaim Volozhiner. It shakes me up to think how my grandfather delved into the holiest kabbalistic secrets that night so many generations ago. As I scramble for a sefer to study prior to commencing selichos to help prepare myself for the onset of the Yomim Noraim, I feel so small and limited.

And yet, it is not necessary to go back to the days of Rav Chaim Volozhiner to realize the levels that we are capable of attaining. We don’t have to lose ourselves in nostalgia for an irretrievable past. We needn’t despair of living lives of holiness, even though we are so removed from previous doros. We just have to use our seichel and common sense. Rosh Hashanah presents us with an opportunity to escape from the mistakes we have been making and advance to a higher realm.

We are all smart and capable enough to rise above our pettiness and do it. The Rambam writes in Hilchos Teshuvah that every person can turn himself to the good path and be righteous. Every single person is born with the ability to be a tzaddik like Moshe Rabbeinu or a rasha like Yerovom. He can be smart or foolish, kind or mean. He can mold himself in the way that he chooses. There is no one pulling us in one direction or another. We are doing it ourselves.

Therefore, writes the Rambam, someone who sins should be upset about what he has done to himself. It wasn’t preordained for him to be irresponsible, unkind, lazy, arrogant or insensitive. He chose his own path. However, since being human means having the privilege of bechirah, one should exercise that prerogative and choose to be good.

The essence of Rosh Hashanah is the ability to think things through properly. The path towards being just - the road to greatness, is open to each one of us.

Let us be smart and straighten out our lives. Let bygones be bygones and let us do what we can to get the new year off to a good start. There are so many seforim to help guide us on the correct path. Just learning Torah infuses our beings with kedushah and taharah, which in turn enable us to become better and less complicated people.

The meter is about ready to run out, but we all possess within us the ability to earn the change to refill it; to preserve our space in this world and earn our portion for the World to Come. Let’s do it.

Kesivah vachasimah tovah.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Bikkurim and Happiness

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Parshas Ki Savo begins with the mitzvah of bikkurim. Through this mitzvah and the rich symbolism of the rituals surrounding it, we are taught how to achieve happiness.

After months of toiling in his field and orchard, a Jew takes the first fruits of his harvest and sets off for Yerushalayim. When he arrives there, he meets up with a kohein and then approaches the mizbei’ach in the Bais Hamikdosh and liturgically recalls the trials Yaakov Avinu endured, followed by our forefathers’ suffering in Mitzrayim.

He then relates how Hashem rescued us with scores of miracles and led us to the Promised Land that flows with milk and honey.

Following that climactic event, the Jew presents the first fruits of his labors and returns home. He is then ready for the next part of the mitzvah - “Vesomachta bechol hatov,” the obligation to rejoice “with all the goodness Hashem, your G-d, has given you and your household.”

The obligation to be thankful for the blessings Hashem has bestowed upon us - and to contrast that goodness with the difficult time that preceded it - appears to be the key to true happiness.

The road to happiness and fulfillment is often strewn with hardship. A Jew whose livelihood comes from working the fields is a perfect illustration of how this dynamic works.

First, he must spend countless hours toiling under the blistering sun and in the freezing cold. And then, when he finally has some fruit ready to harvest and eat or sell, he is commanded to take it to Yerushalayim as bikkurim.

The Torah instructs him to think back to the bitter days Yaakov spent at the home of his father-in-law, Lavan, and to the period of slavery our ancestors endured in Egypt.

Perhaps it is only by approaching our situation in life with this perspective that we merit happiness. Perhaps part of the reason for the mitzvah of bikkurim is to force man to reflect on the good in his life. Too often, people concentrate on the negative; they complain about all the heartache they endure as they struggle to make a living. People fail to thank Hashem that they have a job and that they have a boss who guarantees them a salary. People don’t always appreciate that they have a plot of land on which to grow their fruit.

Bikkurim forces one to mentally revisit the first days of the planting season when he planted one of his shiva minim, not knowing whether the seeds would take root, or whether the trees would bear fruit. And it forces him to be thankful that, despite all the potential for ruin, in the end, Hashem helped him bring forth a good crop.

In Yerushalayim, he stands at the mizbei’ach and reflects on the mixture of hard times and good times the Jewish people have experienced throughout the ages.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah and examine our actions over the past year, we, too, must weigh the bad with the good, examining our lives with a spiritual yardstick to measure how far we’ve come in the course of time. Instead of growing despondent over all the mistakes we’ve made, we should be thankful that Hashem has given us this Elul period of reflection during which we can rectify those errors.

All of us face challenges in life. There are times when we feel as if we are backed into a corner with no means of escape. Sometimes we feel as if a conspiracy of lies has spread an impenetrable web. There are times when it appears as if all the odds are stacked against a righteous person, and conventional wisdom seems to indicate it’s time to give up the fight.

The tendency to despair is understandable. But not every story ends in tears; there actually are some with happy endings.

The courage to keep up the struggle is the theme of Elul. As we reflect on how much we are lacking and on the many areas which can use improvement, we may start feeling useless. We may decide we are so far gone that it is impossible for us to straighten ourselves out in time.

We need to maintain our faith as we go through this internal turbulence. Hakadosh Boruch Hu says to us, “Pischu li pesach kefishcho shel machat, va’ani eftach lochem kefischo shel ulam.” We have to open the door, we have to plant the seed, we have to take that trip to Yerushalayim, and G-d will do the rest.

As we review this past year, we are sure to find some actions that we can point to with pride. We are reminded that there is some good inherent in us. We need not give up; we must recognize that there is room for hope.

If we teach ourselves to take our responsibilities to Hashem and our fellow man more seriously, we really can succeed in the year to come.

From time to time, we are privileged to witness an example of a noble-minded person who refuses to be cowed by opposition and overcomes the difficulties he faces. Faith, hope and conviction won’t let him surrender, even with the urge to cut the losses and capitulate.

That person’s triumphs inspire the rest of us not to falter in our service of Hashem, not to bend nor comprise as long as we follow the dictates of the Torah and halacha.

Living in troubled, beleaguered times, we have to maintain our faith and seek to persevere and do good, no matter how difficult the challenge.

In this season of introspection and retrospection, we should internalize the message of the bikkurim. As we review our failings and the unfortunate occurrences which have befallen us, we must take note and appreciate the good as well. One sure way to merit the blessings of happiness is to recognize the nisyonos we have been able to overcome and the siyata diShmaya that helped us to do so.

We have to continue to constantly scrutinize our actions, always aiming to improve. We have to remember the arami oveid avi and the avdus in Mitzrayim in order to absorb Hakadosh Boruch Hu’s mercy and kindness in accepting our prayers and rescuing us from those awful situations.

Just as he saved our fathers, he looks out for us and aids us in our daily battles and struggles if we remain staunch in our faith and do not allow setbacks to derail us.

Bearing this in mind will enable us to make a true kabbolah al ha’asid and be zoche to vesomachta bechol hatov.

What can we do to merit Divine intervention, deliverance from the clutches of evil, and the ultimate redemption?

This week’s parsha provides the answer. The Torah states (28:1) that if we will adhere to all the mitzvos we were commanded by Hashem and follow His word, we will merit to be ascendant over all the other nations.

It is interesting to note that this posuk is preceded by the one which states, “Arur asher lo yokim es divrei haTorah hazos - Cursed shall be the one who does not uphold [raise] the Torah.”

The Ramban brings the Yerushalmi in Sotah (7:4) that this curse is referring to people who are in a position to influence others to come closer to Torah and to support Torah and fail to do so. Anyone who shirks his responsibility is included in this arur. Even if the person is a complete tzaddik in everything he does, if he could have drawn others closer to the holiness and truth of Torah but doesn't, he is cursed.

The Chofetz Chaim would repeat this Ramban and strengthen its message by quoting the Gemara in Shabbos (54) that one who has the ability to protest against the wrongful actions of the people of his town and doesn't do so gets caught up in their sins. One who reproaches his fellows and brings them to the right path, thereby strengthening kevod Shomayim, is showered with the brachos mentioned in this week’s parsha that were delivered on Har Gerizim.

The Chofetz Chaim would make the point that there is no better bracha than that. Thus, everyone should use whatever abilities they have to help build Torah. If Hashem blessed someone with money, he should use it to build yeshivos for the study of Torah. If he is blessed with oratory skills, he should use them to raise money for yeshivos and other Torah causes. He should speak out against practices that cause a weakening of our religion.

As the Yom Hadin approaches, we all seek sources of merit and bracha to be zoche in din and be inscribed in the book of tzaddikim. The Ramban informs us that it is not sufficient to be a tzaddik gomur; we must also use our faculties to help strengthen and spread Torah.

As the world spins out of control and our eternal enemies gird themselves with weapons capable of causing colossal damage, we realize that there is no one we can depend on to protect us other than Hashem. We seek sources of merit for ourselves and to be included with those the posuk calls “boruch, the blessed ones.”

We require extra bracha to vanquish the ever-present ruach shtus and remove us from falling, G-d forbid, into the clutches of those who are arur.

We are all blessed with different strengths and abilities which we must use for worthwhile purposes. Hashem made each of us differently for a reason and that is because it takes the varied capabilities of a group of individuals to build a community and strengthen a nation.

Let us all follow the admonition of the Chofetz Chaim and use our kochos to their full potential to increase the study and support of Torah. Let us find more time to learn, and seek worthy causes to support with increased generosity and wholeheartedness. Let us inspire others to do the same. Let us use the power of speech to spread lashon tov and not lashon hara. And let us also seek to do away with some of the evil which pervades our world.

Let us be ever vigilant in our behavior, remaining loyal to the Shulchan Aruch and to what we know is true and proper. Let us maintain the strength of character and purpose necessary to remain upstanding in a tipsy world.

May these activities bring us abundant merit in the final weeks before Rosh Hashanah so that we earn the blessing of a year of success, good health, parnassa, nachas and peace.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

In Every Generation

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

In this week’s parsha, we learn the positive commandment to constantly remember what Amaleik did to us when we left Mitzrayim. “Asher karchah baderech” is commonly explained to mean that Ameleik, by flaunting their contempt for the Jewish people, dispelled the “shock and awe” that suffused the world when details of the miraculous redemption of the Jews reached the surrounding nations.

Amaleik watered down that reaction by brazenly attacking the weary Jews, showing the nations of the world that there was no need to fear people who had so recently been a slave population. For all time, the Torah exhorts us, we are to keep alive the memory of the evil Amaleikim who, out of sheer wickedness, set out to destroy a fledging nation who had never done them any harm. In so doing, they encouraged other nations to treat the Jews with enmity and belligerence.

Since our earliest encounter with the degenerate Amaleikim, they and their descendants throughout the ages have sought to instigate crisis and disaster for the Jewish people. Whether through actual warmongering or outrageous scandals, they have tried to undermine the Jewish nation and to poison our image in the eyes of the world. In every generation, malicious individuals with the defining streak of cruelty that exemplifies the murderous Amaleik have exacted a tremendous human toll from our people.

Amaleik sometimes manifests a Jekyll and Hyde syndrome whereby he appears to want to co-exist benignly with us, but behind the scenes works devilishly to wreak havoc by portraying us as devious bloodsuckers who take advantage of the weak in our zeal to amass fantastic wealth and rule the world.

Thankfully, in our generation, we have been spared the most venomous and powerful manifestation of Amaleik that, in previous times, decimated the Jewish people. But we have suffered acutely in other ways at the hands of this evil nemesis. We have been humiliated and vilified in the court of public opinion. A cursory reading of the current events in today’s newspapers will give ample evidence of the damage done by the Amaleiks of our time.

Consider how the media has taken on the cause of the unions in their battle against the Rubashkins of Agriprocessors in Postville, Iowa.

Anyone who takes the trouble to visit the far-off plant, tour it and interview its employees will find a state-of-the art, modern, safe, clean facility we should all be proud of.

This week, charges were brought against the company for allegedly hiring under-age workers. Let us not be hasty to rush to judgment. Wait until the accused have a chance to defend themselves in a court of law. All the other charges bandied about in the media are mere allegations based on hearsay and don’t deserve to be treated as fact.

That hasn’t stopped the leading media in this country from forming a figurative lynch mob and going after Agriprocessors with the obvious intent of destroying the company. They slam it with all kinds of false allegations, as if it were a cattle- and man-killing jungle of the early 1900s.

Blatant lies are passed around as truths often enough that even many of our own people believe them. Amaleik perceives that he can’t destroy us, so he slanders us instead, telling the world that we don’t know how to treat animals or people. He says that we are mean, vicious and heartless, and he gets all the papers to print this rubbish.

He plants perverse ideas in the minds of hate-driven people who then peddle their wild allegations to mainstream media outlets which, in turn, publish them in their papers as authenticated facts.

Last week, the nation’s “newspaper of record” ran a story headlined, “Kosher Plant Accused of Inhumane Slaughter.” Who accused them? Read on and find out that it was none other than PETA, the group of misfits who parade around the world ludicrously arguing that man is no different than animal and, therefore, both species are entitled to the same rights.

It is only when you get to the fifth paragraph that you find out that the accusation is bogus. The plant, in fact, was found by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to be “in full compliance with humane slaughter regulations.”

The sensational headline was intended not to inform, but to aid and abet the smear campaign against kosher slaughter.

Decency and integrity would have dictated that the story be dropped. Or, had the editors felt that there was a great need for the public to know of the allegations against an already beleaguered kosher plant, they should have at least formatted the story in a way that would leave no doubt that the USDA gave the plant a clean bill of health despite the charges of a radical left-wing vegetarian group.

But if you are doing the work of the enemies of the Jewish people, why worry over a lapse of journalistic integrity?

Amaleik appears in so many different guises. When a Jewish university maintains on its payroll a person who openly lives an immoral lifestyle and the institution’s president tells the New York Post that he is "proud of my university and all my faculty," is that not an expression of "asher karchah"? Such a person is conferring legitimacy on behavior the Torah considers abhorrent.

When its rabbinic faculty sits on the sidelines and does not act vociferously and publicly to project and protect Torah values, are they not reinforcing the moral decline which is eating away at the fabric of the Am Kadosh?

Lately, Amaleik has worn another mask - that of a Jewish reporter and a Jewish news service that continuously distribute libelous reports about Agriprocessors, displaying no sensitivity for the truth. Jewish news groups routinely dispatch articles disparaging religious Jews and halacha, and no one calls them on it.

Some have questioned why I have taken such a strong stand on behalf of the Rubashkins. I believe that the proper course of action is to defend ehrliche Yidden who have been wrongfully accused and maligned. But more than that, it is my perception that the Amaleikim hounding them are targeting not only the Rubashkins. They are targeting you and me and our ability to eat kosher meat in this country.

Equal opportunity destroyers, they fear they are running out of material with which to bash the Lubavitcher Rubashkins, and are therefore taking aim at the Satmar Alle Packing Company.

And they don’t just write against shechitah. They have other pet topics as well. Take yeshivos, for example. They never tire of proclaiming that our yeshivos are dirty, sloppy and intellectually-lacking, and foster no interest in history, community or architecture.

A recent article against the Waterbury Yeshiva in the local Connecticut paper reports: “Leaders of the Hillside Neighborhood Association say the sect has failed to bring enough Jewish families into the neighborhood, has allowed its properties to deteriorate and has failed to maintain the once-grand Benedict-Miller house… Empty buildings owned by the yeshiva pepper the neighborhood. Several are falling into disrepair.”

According to the article, religious Jews are “a sect,” an offshoot branch of Judaism marked by a goofy and unkempt appearance. Yet with all this, they still complain that there aren’t enough of us in their midst! Though the paper, the Republican American, in its September 7th article about the 300-student educational institution, tries to cast the yeshiva as a bunch of weirdoes running a decrepit school, it does quote Waterbury’s mayor as saying that, “We feel comfortable that the yeshiva has held their end of the bargain.”

And so it goes in the world of the objective media.

The same unions which turned countless American factory communities into ghost towns now seek to do to shechitah what they did to the auto manufacturers and knitting mills that used to dot this country.

On Labor Day, the New York Times published a long article on the latest major union battle taking place in New York City. It pertained to no more than 20 workers for a certain company in Brooklyn. Guess which company that was? Agriprocessors. That is the level to which they stoop to vilify religious Jews and our way of life.

Examples abound of the attempts to minimize our accomplishments and cause our neighbors and those less observant to scorn us and to deride our accomplishments in this country.

I received an op-ed called “The Three Most Important American Jews.” It piqued my interest. I thought that if it was sent to the Yated, perhaps it contained a message for me. The author was kind enough to write that the article appeared in last Thursday’s Jerusalem Post, but he was making it available to other newspapers.

To commemorate the 354th anniversary of the arrival of the first boatload of Jews to America, the author “surveyed several dozen leading American Jewish historians about who they think would qualify as the three most important figures in American Jewish history.”

Your answer would likely include Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l, the Satmar Rebbe zt”l, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz zt”l, or some other men of similar caliber. According to this survey, however, you would be wrong.

The winners are:
Louis Brandeis. “He was the first Jew appointed to the Supreme Court, the personification of the American-Jewish synthesis.”
Mordecai Kaplan. “The key figure in the Americanization of Judaism.Kaplan's idea [was] that Judaism is an ‘evolving religious civilization.’ Reform Judaism adopted Kaplan's saying that halacha should have ‘a vote but not a veto.’”
Isaac Mayer Wise. “Put Reform Judaism on the map in the United States. He was one of the earliest American rabbis to push for family pews in the synagogue, a mixed choir, and counting women in the minyan. He wrote a new prayer book entitled Minhag America, with the goal of uniting all American congregations.”

So there you have it. What is the purpose of such articles if not to enshrine those who severed their connection with Torah-true Judaism in the rush to the melting pot? By implication, the article denigrates the accomplishments of Jews who have remained loyal to their traditions and built communities and infrastructure to maintain authentic Jewish life in the face of so many obstacles and roadblocks.

Mainstream media ignores us as if we don’t exist until they find an opportunity to mock us.

But we need not grow despondent. We need to remember the root of it all and why it is happening. We need to recognize the insidious wiles of Amaleik and know that Hashem will rescue us from them if we remain loyal to his commandments.

We need to greet everyone who we meet with kindness and civility. We must display proper patriotic symbols and behave honestly in all our financial interactions. That way, when our neighbors read scandalous charges about us in their local papers and hear ludicrous allegations on the local news, they will know that these charges that tar all Jews with the same brush are far from the truth. They will say, “Well, I have a religious Jewish friend and he’s dignified, upstanding, scrupulous and cordial. These accusations can’t be true.”

This is why the pesukim are there in the Torah for all time. For even when we are not able to identify precisely who Amaleik is, we are to be on the lookout for those who follow in his ways, seeking to badmouth and undermine us. We are to remain undaunted and counter their base tactics with dignity and refined conduct befitting bnei Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Clean Hands

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The Democrats’ well-laid plans were bearing fruit last week. Repeating the liberal mantras night after night was doing the trick and poll numbers were moving up. The only president in history to be impeached, and his wife, both gave speeches to adoring fans, dazzling the convention attendees along with the estimated 18 million people who had hoped to elect the first woman president in U.S. history.

Finally, it was the turn of the anointed one. A simple convention center wouldn’t suffice to contain his ego and message. He addressed the faithful in a packed stadium. He roused the delegates and common folk who stood in line all day so that some time in the future they could tell their children and grandchildren that they were present when Barack Hussein Obama, of mixed African and American heritage, accepted his party’s nomination for president.

It was played up and promoted as an historic occasion by the mainstream media, which hung onto his every word and flashed pictures of people of all ages with tears streaming down their faces. How moving to hear a master orator spell out how not only the United States but the entire world would be redeemed if he were elected president!

Democrats, liberals, media types and talking heads were ecstatic. Following that performance, they were convinced that their man would bounce up in the polls and retain that edge until November when he would take over the White House from the loathsome Republicans, and return Democrats to the throne of power.

They went to bed that night with mile-high smiles, confident that they had pulled it off.

And then Friday came.

At noon, John McCain announced his running mate. By the time the newly chosen vice presidential candidate finished introducing herself to the country, the air was sucked out of the Obama campaign. Mrs. Palin was so real, spontaneous and full of common sense. She was like the lady next door exhibiting the finest attributes of a mother, teacher and leader. People listened to her and knew that what she was saying wasn’t contrived. They felt she was a person they would want to trust.

And just like that, the entire dynamic changed. A Zogby poll begun Friday afternoon showed McCain in the lead over the man who had just been proclaimed heir to the Kennedy mystique. The leader of a new generation, the man who can solve all the world’s problems and usher in an era of uber-partisan unity, was shoved to the back burner.

On a certain level, McCain’s pick helped the American people see through the Democrat hype and theatrics. Those gimmicks paled against the realness of Mrs. Palin. They were able to quickly tell the difference between the genuine article and something manufactured by political hacks desperate to return to power. There was a sincerity to her words that made them far more credible than the issues and buzz-words the rival party had hyped up for a week in Denver. Those speeches eloquently crafted by well-paid wordsmiths and expertly read off the teleprompter were seen as artificial and not genuine.

For four days, the Democrats at their convention had heaped scorn on President Bush and, by extension, McCain. They thought they would get away with promoting the image of McCain being nothing but an extension of George W. Bush. They think that no one remembers that in 2000, Bush beat back McCain’s run against him in the primaries with a variety of dirty tricks McCain will never be able to forget. There is very little love lost between the two. There are thus no grounds to assume that McCain will be eager to perpetuate Bush’s legacy were he to be elected.

The attacks were disingenuous on other levels as well, for it is well known that McCain opposed Bush’s tax cuts. McCain co-sponsored the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, which is anathema to Republicans and Bush. He fought Bush on the troop surge in Iraq until he capitulated and undertook the strategy which will lead to a clear and honorable victory.

McCain also joined with Senator Lieberman on an energy independence bill, spurned the party on a bill addressing illegal immigration, and has generally been a thorn on the side of politics-as-usual. He fought against pork barrel projects and never took a dime of earmarked money.

So if you look at the hard facts, McCain has a track record of fighting against party and Washington interests. While his opponent spent his years under the tutelage of rabid anti-white, anti-American, anti-Semites and party hacks, hewing to a liberal party orthodoxy, McCain was in the trenches fighting for what is right.

While Obama was publishing books to enrich and aggrandize himself, McCain was writing books to enrich the American spirit. Of course most of us never heard of them; the media was too busy hyping Obama’s.

But you can only fool people for so long. Eventually, they see through the pretense and the theatrics. They can detect who is a pretender to the throne and who really possesses the credentials for leadership. They can tell who has a padded résumé covering up a hollow, lackluster career, and who is the genuine personage who worked their way up through a succession of responsible positions. If really forced, people can focus on content as opposed to style, and eventually conclude that one candidate is ready to face serious global issues and an ailing economy, while the other can only speak in vague terms and platitudes.

People have an innate intuition which aids them in discerning a true leader from a pretender. Eventually, they reject the pretender and his message. No doubt some believe that if a person is blessed with a commanding presence and has educated himself in the art of communication, skillfully addressing and mesmerizing crowds, the person is qualified to lead. But those with a more discerning heart return home from the performance, realizing that it consisted of little more than emotional semantics. They can see through the showmanship. They sense what is artificial and what is real.

We should learn from this drama playing itself out on the national stage. In our own world, things are far from picture-perfect. Too many positions of power and influence in our community are held by people who have muscled their way in by virtue of their wealth or hubris. Too many issues lay festering because people in leadership positions are ill equipped to deal with them. By promoting unqualified people, we impede our own growth, doing ourselves the greatest disservice of all. By holding gatherings where the same predictable boiler-plate banalities are offered, we will succeed neither in attracting nor energizing large numbers of our people.

If we seek to continue to grow and thrive, we have to be more real and allow people who are authentic to attain positions of power, where they can influence others to follow in Hashem’s path and dedicate their lives to goodness and righteousness.

If we want to make a dent in the massive problems confronting us today, we have to get past the knee-jerk impulse to remain loyal to what is politically correct and safe. Lack of information and an inability to think boldly cripples some people in positions of leadership. It prompts people to offer safe and simplistic solutions, relying on “conventional wisdom,” even when dealing with serious and multi-faceted conundrums, because they fear the new and unknown.

This week’s parsha admonishes us, “Shoftim veshotrim titein lecha.” In order to maintain a healthy society, we must appoint over ourselves a system of judges and people to enforce the rule of law. They must be learned, intelligent, honest, upstanding and incorruptible. They must be men whose life ambition is to pursue justice. It does not suffice to have one supreme Sanhedrin staffed with such leaders. The Torah commands that every town establish a court to ensure that its citizens have a place to turn to for direction and adjudication of their grievances.

The officers of the bais din must be beyond reproach. They must be men of uncompromising honor and power who do not cower in the face of opposition and intimidation. They must possess the skill and determination to enforce the edicts and rulings of the shoftim with strength and dignity. Anarchy and mediocrity have no place in our system of rule, lest they result in a breakdown of respect for authority and righteousness.

This week’s entire parsha is replete with laws pertaining to leadership and decency. In the days when child-sacrifice was an almost universal pagan practice, the Jewish people were given the Toras Emes which set forth the blueprint of an ethical, moral life for all of mankind.

The Torah prescribes that when the people choose a king, the candidate for royalty must be an individual who is not interested in enriching himself or indulging in senseless trappings of power. The posuk further commands that the king write for himself two Sifrei Torah from which he should read and learn throughout his life.

The posuk says, “Vehaya imo vekara bo kol yemei chayov, lemaan yilmad leyirah es Hashem…levilti rom levavo mei’echov ulevilti sur yomin usemol - The Torah shall be with him and he should read it his entire life, so that he learns to fear Hashem and doesn’t become haughty and doesn’t deviate from the word of Hashem.”

The language of the posuk can perhaps be understood homiletically to teach another lesson. The words “vekara bo kol yemei chayov” can be translated a bit differently to mean that he should read his entire life in the Torah.

The king should write a Sefer Torah for himself and keep it with him at all times so that before he acts, he should ponder how the Torah would write up his actions. If the king assessed everything he did with the perspective of how the Torah would view him, he would act responsibly and honorably. He would resist the demands of a raging ego driving him to become a corrupt, hypocritical figure.

The Torah’s priority is to encourage people to follow an honorable, humble and just path. The monarchy, the Sanhedrin and other institutions were created for the sole purpose of fostering correct behavior and ensuring that society is governed by Torah norms. Though today we unfortunately no longer have a Sanhedrin, kings or shoftim, we still must act as if our every deed is destined to be written up in the Torah, and conduct ourselves with that imaginary publication of our personal lives in mind.

The parsha ends with the mitzvah of eglah arufa, the procedure to follow when a dead body of an unknown person is found at the outskirts of a town. The elders of the city must wash their hands over the eglah arufa and state that their hands did not kill the person and their eyes did not witness it: “Yodeinu lo shofchu es hadom hazeh ve’eineinu lo ra’uh.”

Obviously, no one would suspect the elders of murdering a person. The lesson of the eglah arufa is that they must declare that they set everything in place under their jurisdiction which would preclude the travesty of murder. They proclaim that they established a proper system of justice and compassionate treatment of strangers. They come to the outskirts of the city to state for all to hear that the murder victim did not die due to negligence on their part. With the kohanim at their sides, the zekeinim confess that they did all in their ability to ensure that no person suffers abuse of any kind, especially of the kind or degree that would lead to such a tragic demise.

In our day, as well, we must all be able to proclaim that we have done what we can to set up institutions of jurisprudence, kindness and charity, and proper schools for chinuch and the transmission of our mesorah. We have to be able to act courageously and without fear to ensure that we can all say with complete honesty, “Yodeinu lo shofchu es hadom hazeh,” our hands did not spill the blood - both literally and figuratively - of the unfortunate victims in our community.

Elul is a good time to start.