Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Election & Selection

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

We live in dangerous times. A once-in-a-century financial tsunami threatens us all. An erratic Iranian president threatens Eretz Yisroel and the free world. A liberal presidential and congressional landslide threatens to reverse political gains for morality and the needs of working people that took years to win.

But that’s not what worries me. Clearly, this election, with its striking, unprecedented developments, is being divinely orchestrated. How else is it conceivable that the frontrunner would turn out to be a man with a dubious background who may not have been born in the United States, who was brought up as a Muslim in Indonesia, and who spent his teen years experimenting with drugs and later working with corrupt organizations under the tutelage of revolutionaries and radicals dedicated to destroying this country?

After a lackluster career in the state senate, this man won a United State Senate seat practically by default when his opponents were chased from the election by scandal. After 143 days of serving in the Senate and doing nothing memorable or distinctive, he decided to run for president—the least experienced and most left-wing candidate to ever seek the office. Amazingly, none of his many liabilities seem to be standing in his way. How can anyone argue that this mystifying phenomenon is not part of a Divine strategy?

We know that Hakadosh Boruch Hu has a plan for all of us and for the world as well. We know that “lev melochim vesorim beyad Hashem” and that elected politicians sometimes surprise the populace after they take office. Perhaps the presidential victor will actually govern in a non-partisan way and jettison all the campaign promises he pledged in his effort to ingratiate himself with the less educated among the masses.

What worries me is that we are all witness to what can only be described as a massive failure of judgment on the part of a broad section of the American electorate. It seems to arise out of a willingness to be dazzled and duped by a celebrity’s façade, and a failure to probe the depths of that person’s character to determine his credentials for leadership.

What worries me is that, putting aside for the moment the implications this has for the country’s future, the prevalence of this tendency will affect us in our own circles regarding our own leaders.

I fear that too many of us will become inclined to fall for meaningless slogans in our own community and to become, as a society, less intelligent and more prone to losing our ability to think, analyze and reach sensible conclusions.

If this tendency continues to hold sway, we will begin making decisions and choosing leaders much the same as the society around us does. We will ignore the facts, ignore history, ignore common sense, and cast our lots with the person who exhibits the most dazzling oratory. We will fall for the charismatic performer whose past may contain red flags signaling danger. When choosing a leader, we will look aside from the more qualified person and choose the one with an ability to market empty slogans while revealing little of his true character.

We will cast aside the decent, honorable person who has spent his life working with and for the people according to the rules, who upholds the values we cherish and possesses a sterling character.

Noach, A Tzaddik In His Time

This week, we learn Parshas Noach where we are reintroduced to the great tzaddik, Noach. The Torah recounts that as the world degenerated into a morass of depravity, immorality and dishonesty, Noach found favor in the eyes of Hakadosh Boruch Hu.The posuk defines Noach as a righteous man, a tzaddik tomim, in his generation. There are various interpretations as to why the Torah uses the qualifying expression of “in his generation.”Some interpret it derisively. They say that Noach was only great in comparison to the people around him who were far beneath him. Had he lived in the generation of Avrohom Avinu, he would not have been considered anything special.Others interpret the expression as a mark of added respect. If he remained upstanding in a generation of evil, he would have been even greater in the generation of Avrohom. In the words of Rashi, “yeish dorshim oso lishevach veyeish dorshim oso ligenai,” some look at him favorably and some with disfavor. Many have questioned the purpose of belittling Noach and appraising him so critically. Among the many answers given, I would like to suggest that the Torah is reminding us that no one is perfect. Genai, disparaging information, can be uncovered about anyone. If a committee had been formed to find someone to build a teivah and then rebuild the world, how likely is it that Noach would have been chosen? The selection committee would have said that he has the wrong accent. They would have claimed that he has no experience in construction and is ill-suited to build a boat over a period of 120 years. He was never a carpenter and never apprenticed in any of the trades. Who in their right mind would deem him an acceptable candidate for building a ship upon which the survival of mankind and the animal world depended? Others would have complained that he was not known for his expertise in animal care. How could he be expected to live in close quarters with all the animals of the world and care for their needs if he didn’t specialize in veterinary care? Part of his job description was that he was expected to stand in his driveway for 120 years building the teivah, prompting passersby to ask him what he was doing. He would forewarn them that a mabul was coming and admonish them to repent in order to save themselves. The selection committee would have sat around the table facing their candidate with glum faces. They’d ask him what kiruv experience he had. Did he take any public speaking courses? What made him think he was qualified to preach to the world for over a century? People tend not to see the big picture when examining a candidate for an important position. They miss the forest for the trees. They either allow themselves to be swept away by superficial charisma or go to the opposite extreme and focus on petty flaws. They look for external factors, for education in prominent institutions and impressive degrees.

Unfortunately, they don’t generally look into the person’s soul and determine if he is a righteous, G-d-fearing man, and whether he has fire in the soul and is made of the right stuff. They get caught up with what appears to be the genai and don’t allow themselves to see the shevach. The Torah specifically wrote about Noach in a way that is open to interpretation to teach us that even though to superficial observers Noach may not have been the most qualified candidate and could have been perceived bederech genai, in the eyes of Hashem he found favor. Hakadosh Boruch Hu looked throughout the world and found this one man, a tzaddik tomim, and selected him for the job of building the teivah. We should always seek out competence coupled with nobility of character when choosing a leader. We should look for someone with the moral fiber not to bend in the wind nor bow to convention.

People of character fight for what is right. At times, they roll up their sleeves and get dirty. Sometimes they offend certain people by their unyielding stances, but when they are right, they do not crumble. Nobody is perfect and everyone makes mistakes. Imperfection should not automatically discredit or disqualify a person. Noach was an ish tzaddik tomim and was not diminished in the eyes of Hashem because he had detractors. When we find ourselves in a position to judge, hire or appoint people, we should take heed of the Torah’s lessons regarding Noach. If the person is righteous and upstanding, with a heart and soul aflame with kindness, goodness and a passion for good causes, we should look upon such a person with chein - favor and grace. We may not be able to save the world, but we can make it a better place in which to live.

We must be intelligent about what we do and how we arrive at our decisions. Why do people feel compelled to support individuals without any record of accomplishment who are running for high office? Just because a man appears from nowhere flashing a smile and a surplus of personal magnetism doesn’t mean that he has what it takes to get the job done.

When we make decisions in our personal lives as well, we should base our findings on the facts, thoroughly researched and vetted, and not be ruled by simplistic and superficial flights of fancy. Slogans, mantras and bumper sticker answers don’t suffice in the real world. In fact, more often than not, they will head us in the wrong direction.

Simple answers to serious problems rarely resolve anything. Lasting solutions are arrived at through a serious analysis of the issue and the underlying circumstances which contributed to creating the problem to begin with.

Let us be careful not to fall into the trap which seems about to ensnare our country. Let us delve further into our learning of Chumash, Gemara and halacha, and avail ourselves of the true leaders in our communities who remain uncorrupted by the need for honor and recognition that confuse the priorities of smaller people. We must seek out the tzaddikim of the generation and cleave to their word, without surrendering to the urge to deprecate them as the people of Noach’s day belittled the man who saved the world.

Let us remain loyal to the ways of our parents and forefathers who blazed the trail for us to follow in good times and bad.


The blogosphere is rife with stories about the ethnic background of Sarah Palin, many of them concluding that she is undoubtedly a Jew.

The story goes that Palin's mother, Sally Sheigam, was of Lithuanian Jewish heritage, and so were her mother's parents, Shmuel and Louise Sheigam.

The mother of her father, Chuck Heath, was a woman named Beatrice Coleman, and allegedly was also Jewish.

Palin’s maternal grandfather, Shmuel Sheigam, was said to be a Lithuanian Jew, born in 1912 in Volkaviks, Lithuania, and buried in the Jewish cemetery at Budezeriai, Lithuania, near Volkaviks.

At the Ellis Island Immigration Center, the name was entered as Sheeran, instead of Sheigam, a standard practice of Americanizing names of non-English speaking immigrants.

For now, we don't know the truth about these claims. The story may indeed be completely false - but the very fact that such a fable could be told recalls the tragedy of how Torah tradition lived by honest, ehrliche Jews of previous generations ruptured in their children’s lifetimes.

As a person of Lithuanian heritage, I can’t help but be reminded by this speculation regarding Palin’s ethnic background about a tragic piece of Jewish history. I can’t help but think of how many good Jews lost their children to assimilation, poverty, haskallah and so many other temptations at the turn of the nineteenth century.

So many Jews came to this country at the turn of the last century, desperate to escape pogroms and starvation, and looking for a better life for themselves and their children. They ended up in the tenements of New York City, as well as in countless cities and towns across this great country. Though I trace my own heritage to such Jews, most of those people lost their children spiritually. There were no yeshivos, there was no money, and the language, culture and customs of the new country were so alien. Due to the unbearable pressure to work on Shabbos, the immigrants weren't able to maintain jobs. Week after week, they were fired from one job after another when they failed to show up for work on Shabbos.

Many failed the harsh challenges of those days that tested a person’s deepest moral and spiritual resources. Many who held fast to their religion couldn’t bear to subject their children to the grinding poverty of a religious Jewish immigrant’s life. They pushed their children into the melting pot of assimilation so that they would have opportunities to advance in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

It is not for us to judge any of them, but we would do well to appreciate the privileges we enjoy and the changes that have been made in this country. We have an obligation to appreciate the freedoms we have here to worship and live as we please, freedoms that are almost without historical precedent. We can come and go wherever we want and no one stops us. All avenues of employment and possibility are open to us.

Years ago, Jews were chased from place to place. They could only live on certain decrepit streets and work in trades designated for them by a malicious government. They were taxed beyond endurance financially and physically. Their hard-earned money was confiscated and they never knew when or where the next attack would occur. Every season brought with it a new blood libel, every period a new excuse to beat and torment the Jew.

Jewish children were ripped away from their families and forced to serve for 25 years in the army of the Russian czar. Imagine the fright in tens of thousands of Jewish homes in the Pale of Settlement in nineteenth century Russia, terrified parents never knowing when their precious sons would disappear, never to be seen again. Imagine the unrelenting anguish and pain.

And then look around at our communities and count your blessings. Hold your children tight. Hug them and kiss them. And when it comes time for their bar mitzvah, throw a grand party and proclaim to everyone that you appreciate the gifts that Hashem has given you. Let everyone know that you recognize that you are blessed to live at this juncture in history, in this country. Proclaim that you appreciate the liberty of this land and that you are thankful that you have been able to bring up your child tachas kanfei haShechinah, without the interference of the government, the czar, the maskilim, the draft board or any of the others who harassed and persecuted our people not that far back in history.

Let your children know how lucky they are. Let them know how happy you are with them and the way they are growing up.

Hanging on a wall in my father’s home is a photo of his grandfather in the shul he headed in Fall River, Massachusetts, surrounded by his baalei batim - tayere Litvishe, Poilisher and Russisheh Yidden, many with beards and payos. I gaze at that photo and am gripped with sadness. Is there a zeicher of more then one or two of them in their assimilated descendants?

So is the story true about Palin?

Who knows…?

But we know that it could be.

We should count our blessings every day of our lives and be thankful for what we have; never taking for granted any of the priceless treasures Hashem has showered us with.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Genuine Joy

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The Torah commands us to observe the Yom Tov of Sukkos. Why? Ki basukkos hoshavti es Bnei Yisroel behotzee osam maieretz Mitzrayim. Hashem says that we should reside in temporary dwellings for a week to remember that Hashem fashioned protective huts for the Jewish people when he freed them from Egyptian servitude.

When the Jews began preparing for their exit from Mitzrayim, they possessed little more than the clothes on their backs. They gathered sheep they had procured to offer up as a Korban Pesach, and took along dough that the sun baked into matzos. Their primary possession—bitachon—was encased in their hearts; solid faith in the G-d of their forefathers made material possessions unnecessary.

Vaya’aminu baHashem uveMoshe avdo.” Worn down by centuries of exile and slavery, Bnei Yisroel nevertheless placed their trust in Moshe, the messenger of Hashem. At his instructions, they joyfully undertook the exodus from Mitzrayim. They had no clue what they would eat, where they would sleep, how they would care for their children. But when the word came to leave, they rallied behind Moshe and began their trek to the Sinai Desert.

Their taskmasters in Mitzrayim never compensated them for all the years of slave labor, nor treated them with even minimal decency. They didn’t own any stocks or have any savings to fall back on. They set out on foot into the wilderness with nothing to protect them from the elements.

As they were leaving, Hashem caused the Egyptians to willingly share their wealth with them. They arrived at the Red Sea and in a magnificent display of miracles within miracles, it split for them. They walked through the dry seabed triumphantly as the waves engulfed the Mitzriyim, who were chasing after them. They had no idea what lay ahead of them upon their arrival at the shore. But they followed Moshe trustingly.

Hakadosh Boruch Hu made sukkos for them to live in as they traveled through the desert, and this is what we commemorate on Sukkos.

When we observe the Yom Tov of Sukkos, we are remembering more than the sukkos of the midbar. We are recalling an act of immense faith - that of a nation leaving behind the most advanced civilization of their day and blindly following Hashem into a lonely and dangerous wilderness. We are recalling an act of such devotion - lechtaich acharai bamidbar b’eretz lo z’ruah - that it earned for themselves and their descendants an everlasting zechus.

We are proclaiming that just as in those long-ago days in the midbar, when the erstwhile, enslaved and impoverished Jews gathered in the sukkos with the joyous knowledge that all that they had came from Hashem. We too must, in our day, remember that our livelihoods, our homes, our cars and everything that makes us feel so secure is a gift from Above.

We sit in the sukkah and declare that just as our forefathers, who moments prior to kriyas yam suf had nothing, and thus could not help but acknowledge their total dependence on Hashem, so we, too, recognize Him as the sole provider. It is not our might, strength or intelligence that enables us to live comfortably and in freedom. We only live this way because Hashem wishes it to be this way.

This year, as we stood in shul and davened on Rosh Hashanah, the economy of this country teetered and the whole world held its breath to see if the congress and senate would approve a bailout bill after the Yom Hadin. Trillions of dollars of wealth were wiped out; people lost their life’s savings and pensions; banks long established with storied histories, and strong financial sheets almost went bust and had to be taken over.

Business borrowing ground to a halt and realistic fears of a deep depression spread, causing the stock market to drop precipitously on the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah. All this gave us pause and reminded us once again, much as we were shaken up in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah in the year 2001, that we are not the bosses of this world and everything as we know it can disappear or radically change in a split second, if such is the Creator’s wish.

This Sukkos, as we sit in our sukkos we should recognize more potently than ever the lesson “Ki basukkos hoshavti,” that all that we have is from Hashem.
Our most precious commodity must be bitachon, the same as it was for the yotzei Mitzrayim. Because if not for the beneficence of Hashem, we would be barefoot and homeless, scavenging for food and living in a hut.

We come to this realization after the awesome days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
From Elul through the Aseres Yimei Teshuvah, we raised ourselves to higher levels of belief, behavior and holiness, as we increased our devotion to mitzvos and to our fellow man.

Purged of our sins, we are now on the level of the yotzei Mitzrayim, the dor deah. As such, we are indeed ready to accept the lesson of the ki basukkos hoshavti.

We live in the sukkah for seven days and are then so ingrained with our belief in Hashem and the inherent simcha which it engenders that we celebrate the Yom Tov of Simchas Torah.

No one told the Bnei Yisroel to sing shirah. As Chazal state on the posuk of Oz Yoshir, “Olah belibom lashir shirah,” their hearts were so bursting with joy at the comprehension of G-d’s majesty that shirah spontaneously sprang forth. In the same vein, the customs of singing and dancing that we celebrate on Simchas Torah are not Biblical or Talmudic in origin. If you delve into the seforim of the poskim in an attempt to trace the roots of our celebration, it becomes apparent that the holiday was actually created by the Jewish people.

Over the course of many centuries, ehrliche Yidden channeled their overflowing simcha with the Torah into the rich display of joy and festivity that became the hallmark of Simchas Torah as we practice it today.

After living in the sukkah and reigniting our faith in the Almighty as we inculcate the lessons of the Jews who followed Hashem into the midbar, we reach a state of spontaneous ecstasy which will carry us through the oncoming winter season and the continuing exile.

It is noteworthy that Simchas Torah never falls on Shabbos. When I first learned that fact as a child, I thought that the reason was that Hashem wanted Jewish children to be able to carry their flags and small Sifrei Torah to shul. But as I got older, I began to understand that the reason Simchas Torah never falls on Shabbos is because the Yom Tov teaches us how to live during the six days of chol. The simcha and lessons of the day carry over to make every day like Shabbos, even days when we have no choice but to work and be preoccupied with the mundane. We celebrate the Torah, we celebrate that Hashem gave us the Torah, and we celebrate that we are members of the nation Hashem fed, protected and housed in the desert. On Simchas Torah, every Jew can reconnect to Torah and begin its study once again with the renewed intensity that has been building up since Rosh Chodesh Elul. Sukkos renews a Jew’s feelings for kiyum hamitzvos. On the day of Simchas Torah, a Jew is suffused with an otherworldly joy. On this day, as Parshas Vezos Habracha is read, he can appreciate that the Torah is the essence of bracha, blessing. He begins his study of Torah again with Parshas Bereishis, armed with a fresh perspective and a determination to understand it better than he did last time around. He opens up a Chumash and begins learning the first posuk. He then turns to the first Rashi we are all so familiar with, which asks why the Torah begins with the story of creation. Should it not have begun with the parsha of “Hachodesh hazeh lochem,” which describes the first commandment given to the Jews as a nation? He reads the answer: “So that if the nations of the world accuse the Jews of being land robbers for stealing the land of Eretz Yisroel from other nations, you will be able to answer them and tell them that the entire world belongs to Hashem; He created it and He can give it to whomever He pleases. First He gave Eretz Yisroel to the other nations, and then He took it away from them and gave it to us.” He mulls the obvious question: Do those who deny our connection to Eretz Yisroel really care about what it says in the Torah? Will they be satisfied with an answer derived from the Torah’s choice of one sentence over another sentence? Furthermore, even if it is important to establish Hashem’s exclusive ownership of the earth, why must the Torah begin with this fact? He continues on to the next Rashi: “Bereishis. Bishvil haTorah shenikrah reishis ubishvil Yisroel shenikre’uh reishis…” Why does the Torah open with the word “bereishis”? “Because it signifies that the world was created for the Torah, which is also referred to as reishis, and to teach us that the world was created for Am Yisroel, who are called reishis,” Rashi explains. He ponders the connection between the two Rashis. Rashi doesn’t actually mean to say that the evil heathens of the world will be influenced by the arguments of the Torah. Perhaps Rashi’s intent is for us to continually remind ourselves of some fundamental truths that dictate our purpose in this world: Hashem created the world and singled out the Jewish nation as His chosen people for all time. He designated them as the recipients of the Holy Land in which they could elevate themselves through Torah, to perfection. Since time immemorial, Jews have been singled out for hatred by the nations of the world. They have accused us of every conceivable sin and have sought to evict us from their lands and wipe us out. The Torah opens with the narrative of Hashem’s creation and dominion over the world to remind us that no matter what the nations of the world accuse us of, we know the truth and should not become dejected. The Jew appreciates this and is able to stand up to all the scoffers who mock his devotion to Torah. The Jew recognizes that the Torah is not a history book designed to trace the odyssey of a people. It is the guide to life in this world, written by its Creator. We live our lives by what it says. On the day we end a cycle of study and begin it anew, our celebration and joy are unparalleled. On this happiest of days, we dance and sing songs of praise to Hashem and thank him for choosing us and for giving us the Torah. We sway to tunes which express our love for Torah and our devotion to it. The pesukim of the Torah come alive and infuse the Jew with intense joy as he repeats over and over again, “Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu umah na’im goraleinu.”He realizes that the Torah is as relevant today as on the first day of creation and the day it was delivered to the Bnei Yisroel on Har Sinai. That awareness increases the fervor of his dance and heartfelt simcha. As it sinks in that the world was created for Torah, he wonders, isn’t it strange that davka the holiday we celebrate by leaving our homes and moving outside into a primitive structure is singled out as the Yom Tov of happiness and joy? He quickly recognizes that it is precisely during these few days when we retire to a small, chilly, dimly lit hut that we celebrate and begin to experience true happiness. As he sits in his little sukkah, full of joy and bitachon, surrounded by temporary walls bedecked with the traditional decorations, he looks up to the heavens and realizes he is not alone, nor ever will be. He is happy. He has attained true happiness. He has learned a lesson in what is real and what is illusory, what is temporary and what is permanent. And by the time Simchas Torah comes around, he can contain himself no longer. As soon as Maariv is over, he grabs his children and his chaveirim and puts music to words that Jews have been singing for hundreds of years. He is exultant. His spirits soar. He is full of joy. He is prepared to face whatever the sheishes yemei hamaaseh will bring him. For he knows that Hashem feeds him, clothes him, protects him and keeps him healthy and strong. He feels Hashem’s closeness and that is the deepest source of simcha.

Chag someach.