Wednesday, November 26, 2008

From the Darkness of Exile to the Light of Redemption

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

In this week’s parsha, we learn how Rivkah was concerned during her much anticipated pregnancy. Worried, she sought out the men of G-d to explain to her why her unborn child was exhibiting tendencies toward kedushah and tumah. The posuk states that she said, “Lamah zeh anochi,” and went to seek Hashem.

What is it that bothered Rivkah so much that she went to Sheim to find out what Hashem had planned for her?

Perhaps the language of the posuk provides us with a hint. The words “Lamah zeh anochi,” commonly translated as, “If so, what am I doing this for? Why did I pray so hard for children?” can be understood allegorically a bit differently. Rivkah was perturbed, as the Medrash states, by the fact that when she passed the bais medrash of Sheim and Eiver, the baby kicked, and then, when she passed a house of avodah zarah, the baby appeared to try to exit as well.

When she said, “Lamah zeh anochi,” perhaps she was referring to the Aseres Hadibros which her offspring were to receive, which commence with the commandment of “Anochi Hashem Elokecha.” She was concerned, for she knew that one who is poseiach al shnei hasei’ifim is not one who can give birth to the Shivtei Kah, the chosen people who will receive the Torah. As the ultimate truth, Torah is not for one who is all things to all people. It is not for one who poses as a holy person when that is advantageous to him, and when he stands to gain more by being pragmatic poses as one who can be unscrupulous and loose with the law.

Rivkah knew that as the child of Yitzchok and grandson of Avrohom, the child she was to give birth to would have to be a leader among men, a standard of virtue and the epitome of goodness and G-dliness in this world. She was worried that this child would be a shameless unprincipled leader, and therefore thought that she would have been better off remaining barren.

This is why she was relieved when she was told that she was to give birth to twins, one righteous and one the embodiment of evil. Though she no doubt would have been happier with two little tzaddikim, she was mollified knowing that one of the two would be a worthy progenitor to Avrohom and Yitzchok.

Not only in her day, but in ours as well, there is a shortage of honest leadership in our world. Wherever you go, in every society, in every country, in every industry, people are bewildered and lost, seeking leadership in a drifting world. People look for someone with virtue to carry their flag. They are looking for someone trustworthy whom they can rally around, and they search desperately for someone who can put their feelings into words and give voice to their concerns. Yet, true leadership - leaders who act in the best interests of the people they serve - is almost impossible to find.

America went to elections a few weeks ago and put its fate in the hands of an inexperienced and untested politician because it was taken by his rising oratory which portrayed him as a person with serious leadership potential. People are so desperate for a leader that they ignored much about his past and placed their faith in his preaching for change and hope for the future.

Chazal teach in Pirkei Avos, “Bemakom she’ein ish, hishtadeil lihiyos ish.” In a place where there are no men, and no leaders, you must work on yourself so that you, yourself, can be a leader. Every person has within themselves the ability to excel and lead. Every one of us who are thirsting for leaders with whom we can identify could become that leader, if only we would believe in ourselves and set our minds to it.

Torah is not some esoteric book available only to the rich and privileged. Torah is for everyone, at every time, and in every period. It is not in the heavens or available only in some remote region. It is here and it is readily available to anyone who dedicates his life to its study and acquisition.

As we grow in Torah, we grow in our ability to lead and provide answers for an impoverished public. As we sit by the feet of our teachers and imbibe the lessons which were inculcated in them by their rabbeim, our minds are opened, our souls are purified and our sensitivities are awakened to the needs and aspirations of our people.

To find answers in a confounding world, we should follow our grandmother Rivkah and seek the word of Hashem in the bais medrash of Sheim V’Eiver. Only those who study the word of Hashem are equipped to guide us in times of disillusionment, confusion and depression. We must seek the true tzaddikim and be able to differentiate between the men of kedushah and those who would be prepared to compromise their honesty in a matter of expedience.

Reading the reports of the actions of government leaders will leave us groping for answers. Trying to comprehend current events through the prism of a newspaper will leave us with more questions than we started with. It is only with the Torah’s perspective that we can appreciate what is going on around us and find direction and purpose in our world.

This week, as we enter the month of Kislev, we begin thinking about the story of Chanukah. We realize that the Bnei Chashmonai were neither warriors nor leaders. They were people in whose hearts burned an insatiable desire to rid the world of evil. As we recite in the immortal words of Al Hanisim, they were few and they were weak. But they were righteous. And they had the courage of their convictions. They refused to subjugate themselves to the profane practices and worldview of the Hellenists.

Under the leadership of Matisyahu ben Yochanan Kohein Gadol, this handful of die-hard tzaddikim and oskei Torah rose up to provide leadership for a dejected, subjugated people. Hashem took note of their courage and self-sacrifice, and empowered them with the ability to rally the bnei Yisroel and to emerge victorious over a powerful and deeply entrenched enemy.

The true Jewish leader is not the one who cheats his way up the political ladder. The true leader is not the one who repeatedly lies to his people and engages in subterfuges in a desperate bid to maintain his hold on power. He doesn’t just pontificate and blame the consequences of his ineptitude on someone else. The true Jewish leader doesn’t hold on desperately to an outdated and disproved ideology. He is not crippled by arrogance and ignorance.

The true Jewish leader sits bent over a sefer in a small nondescript room studying the word of G-d. He imparts his knowledge to others with love and devotion. He parcels out his advice and guidance with humility and subservience to G-d. People flock to him and follow his every word not because they are forced to, but because they want to. There are no enforcers and party chairmen to keep everyone in line. Good Jews have an inbred sense of where to go for leadership and whom to follow.

Every night, as we light the menorah, we are to remember this lesson. With its roots branching out from the avodah of Aharon Hakohein in the Mishkan, the lighting of the menorah is to remind us how Aharon and his family ascended to the kehunah.

At the time of the sin of the eigel, Moshe Rabbeinu proclaimed, “Mi laHashem eilay - Let all the men of G-d appear before me.” The tribe of Levi rallied to the side of Moshe.

Aharon and his tribe did not take a poll to see which side would win. They didn’t take a head count to try to determine which side would emerge victorious from the battle. Moshe needed them and they rose to the occasion. Hashem caused them to win and beat back the idolaters and thus the plague that threatened the Jewish people was squelched.

That same fire for Hashem and His Torah burned in the hearts of his grandchildren, the Chashmonaim, and thanks to them, the forces of evil were defeated. They, too, didn’t check to see which way the wind was blowing before taking action. As grandchildren of Yaakov Avinu and Aharon Hakohein, they were not pragmatists manipulated by public opinion. They did not resort to self-promoting press releases or straddling the fence, blowing hot air in the face of the campaign to separate the Jewish people from the Torah.

As did Aharon Hakohein and his tribe, when they heard the call of “Mi laHashem eilay,” they answered without hesitation. They found the strength within their souls to battle evil and thus caused the spirit of G-d to return to the Bais Hamikdosh.

In our day, too, there is a kolah delo posik, a silent call emanating from Sinai and from the Har Habayis and from every bais medrash around the world. “Mi laHashem eilay,” it proclaims. Those of us who light the menorah hear it and answer, “Hininee shlucheini. You can count on me. I will make myself worthy of this mission.” We light the menorah and remind ourselves that we are up to the sacred task.

The eternal words of Yitzchok Avinu delineating the difference between Yaakov and Eisav are still appropriate. Yaakov’s power is with the lips and mouth, while Eisav’s might is achieved with his hands. Yaakov speaks finely. He offers words of support and chizuk. He is respectful and decorous. Eisav is a boorish ruffian whose heart is full of treachery. When appearing before his father, Eisav presents himself as an upright son concerned with the fine points of the law. When outside of his father’s earshot, he reverts to his murderous true self. Yaakov remains the same gentlemanly ish tom¸ whether his father is there or not. Thus he earns the enduring bracha of Veyiten lecha, which he bequeathed to his children for all time.

As we face financial pressures unprecedented in decades, there is a temptation to act in ways that our grandfather Yaakov wouldn’t exactly be proud of. We are constantly tempted to compromise on our traditions and principles in order to be accepted by others. When those temptations present themselves, we should remember the Chashmonaim and Rivka Imeinu. We should remember her words - “Lamah zeh anochi,” and be able to answer positively that what we are prepared to do and say is in keeping with the commandments of Hashem as epitomized by the Aseres Hadibros which begin with the word anochi.

We will thus be worthy of receiving the blessings of Veyiten lecha and will merit true leadership to guide us as we go mei’afeilah l’or gadol, from the darkness of the exile to the light of the redemption.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Extreme Chesed

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

In this week’s parsha, we learn that following the passing of Sarah Imeinu, Avrohom Avinu sends his trusted aide Eliezer to find a shidduch for Yitzchok.

Having arrived in the city of Nachor in Aram Naharayim, Eliezer prays that Hashem send him the girl destined for Yitzchok. He devises a test to determine if the girl he meets is indeed Yitzchok’s bashert. If the girl would not only offer to quench his thirst but would offer to give water to his camels, Eliezer could then be certain that she was Yitzchok’s intended. And that is exactly how the events played out.

What was the meaning behind the test and what convinced Eliezer that this was the proper way to determine if the girl was the one intended for Yitzchok?

In last week’s parsha, we learned how Avrohom Avinu interrupted his conversation with Hashem in order to entertain three nomads who chanced upon his tent on a scorching hot day.

Every time I learn the parsha, I wonder anew how Avrohom could have done that. I wonder how he could ask G-d to stand aside, kivayachol, so that he could offer a few vagabonds some food and drink. And every year I understand it differently.

This year I understood it as follows. Every person has a shlichus in this world. Every individual has a mission to carry out during his/her time on Earth.

Avrohom’s was to be mesakein the chata’im that led to the Mabul which destroyed the world. Avrohom Avinu rectified the world and purified it from the sins which had led to the great flood in the days of Noach. The people of the time were sinful, but the sin which rose above all others and caused G-d’s fury to bring the flood was the sin of chomos, loosely translated as thievery, chicanery and jealousy wrapped up in one.

The opposite of chomos is chesed, kindness. The opposite of one who is so jealous that he must have the possessions of his friend is the one who is so generous that he would give anything of his to help a stranger. As the one whose shlichus it was to be mesakein the cheit of chomos, Avrohom was the consummate baal chesed. There was nothing that could stop him from offering a helping hand, even to a stranger, even to a shlepper, even if he was engrossed in doing something very important. He would even interrupt his conversation with G-d to help someone out.

Eliezer had seen Avrohom sacrifice so much for others. He knew that Avrohom lived only to perform chesed and spread G-dliness in this world. Thus, he understood that the woman who was destined to enter this family by way of marrying Yitzchok would have to be someone who was a consummate baalas chesed. She would have to be a girl who went above and beyond what would be expected of any normal mortal when it came to understanding another person’s needs. It would have to be a girl who would be as kind to a man’s animals as she was to the man himself. She would have to be the extreme baalas middos tovos, possessing rare refined character and truly excelling in her dealings with others.

And thus he devised his test.

In such times as we live in, it behooves us to learn the lesson of Avrohom and Rivkah. As their grandchildren and as bearers of their great legacy, we must seek to follow in their ways. As the world grows dark, as the air all around us gets murky and polluted, as people become lost in gloom and depression, we must not fail to reach out and offer support.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we cried out, “Useshuvah usefillah utzedakah maavirin es ro’ah hagezeirah - But repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree.”

During these days when the mettle of every human is tested, those words must ring in our ears. The Rambam writes that the reason bad omens are brought upon us is to lead us to teshuvah.

At times, Hashem brings tzaros to the world so that we will cry out to Him and remember that we have a Father in Heaven Who controls the world and cares for us.

If we want Hashem to have mercy upon us and return to us our incomes and businesses, if we want him to bring us health and prosperity, if we want to be blessed with fine children and proper shidduchim for them, we also have to strengthen our commitments to helping others in their times of need. We have to follow in the path of Avrohom and Rivkah in doing extreme chesed.

If we want the news to improve, if we wish for confidence to return to the markets, the only way to generate that is by teshuvah, tefillah and tzedaka.

Nothing else will help.

The Torah spends so much time recounting how Eliezer went about his task of finding Yitzchok’s shidduch, that the Medrash, in Bereishis Rabbah (60:8), states, “Yofeh sichasan shel avdei botei avos mitorasan shel bonim.” The parsha of Eliezer offers so many lessons regarding how we are to lead our lives that the Torah elaborates on everything that Eliezer thought, did and said.

The purpose of the Torah relating this episode is to teach us the importance of middos tovos in our lives. The reason these stories are retold is not to make for interesting, charming tales for youngsters. They are meant to be studied on a deep level and used as a practical guide in our own lives.

Eliezer displayed an unflinching dedication to his master coupled with an unfailing faith in Hashem, despite all of the difficulties inherent in the situation. In fact, in referring to Eliezer, the Medrash (60:1) relates that the posuk in Yeshaya (50:10) which states, “Asher holach chasheichim v’ein nogah lo,” refers to Eliezer when he went to find a shidduch for Yitzchok.

Even when it seemed entirely dark and there was little hope that he would be able to fulfill his master’s request, Hashem lit the way for him. The Medrash states, “Hakadosh Boruch Hu haya me’ir lo bezikim ubevrakim.” When the baal bitachon appears to be lost in the dark, the light of Hashem will burst forth as lightening through the darkness and dread.

The way we go about finding our mates has become so difficult and demeaning that people involved in the parsha of shidduchim sometimes grow so disheartened and despondent that they give up hope. A good study of this week’s parsha and its Medrashim can help instill in us the faith necessary to endure the shidduchim period and other trying times. Even when we find ourselves in difficult situations, we must always remain optimistic and hopeful. The dark clouds will eventually part for men and women of faith and their world will be brightly lit.

We must never let anyone rob us of hope. We are entitled to dream of brighter and happier days. As long as we can keep hope alive, we will not lose sight of our goal and we will remain loyal to our personal ambition. When we lose hope, we have lost everything. Even when we encounter the Besueils and Lavans of this world and people who are thoughtless say things to hurt us as we seek to find what we are looking for, or if we are facing a personal battle or financial hardships, we must not lose our faith and optimism.

Take the time to contrast the behavior of Eliezer with that of some other people we meet in the parsha. Efron and Lavan both professed to be concerned about Avrohom’s welfare, but actually were plotting to take advantage of him. They both sought to exploit his desperation.

Lavan and Efron made their unsavory mark in history as infamous charlatans.

Their ruses didn’t fool anyone and they are remembered for eternity as liars and cheats. Eliezer is lauded for his extraordinary devotion and honesty.

Thanks to Eliezer’s unswerving loyalty, Yitzchok found his life partner and was able to help forge the glorious chain begun by his father, Avrohom, which has spanned the centuries to this very day. Lavan and Efron also contributed to Jewish history - Lavan as the brother-in-law of Yitzchok and father-in-law of Yaakov, and Efron as the man who sold Avrohom the Me’oras Hamachpeilah.

Part of our legacy of chesed is to possess the ability to live by high standards of decency and honesty, despite the daily challenges we face. We must be charitable not only with our money, but also with our hearts and minds. We have to learn how to forgive people for their mistakes and human failings, without condemning them. A true friend accepts your flaws and blemishes, just as you should accept theirs. A true friend doesn’t let go of you when times are rough or when being your friend might be inconvenient or costly. We must be that way in our communal and personal lives.

We must do what we can to support and help each other and remain united.

Triumphalism and one-upmanship should have no room in our world and should not be tolerated.

Eliezer stands for all time as the epitome of a loyal friend and student.

Eliezer achieved immortality because he was a true friend to Avrohom and the Jewish people. He journeyed to a strange land and negotiated with devious people in order to satisfy the wishes of his master Avrohom.

In life, we are tested how far we will go in the pursuit of chesed and tzedaka, and whether we will behave like Lavan or like Eliezer. The Lavans and Efrons of the world think that they have come out ahead because they pocketed some extra change, but this week’s parsha reminds us that the achievements of crooked people are momentary and fleeting.

The children and talmidim of Avrohom Avinu are the ones who are blessed with fine children as Yitzchok. The people who are accused of being naïve in their acts of kindness are the ones who merit eternal blessing.

We all have a shlichus in this world and a mission to complete. Chesed complements whatever it is that we are here to accomplish. Our teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah will light up the darkness of the exile and will cause the redemption to occur speedily in our day.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Move On

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The reaction to this year’s election in our community is different than any other in recent memory. Too many people are genuinely afraid of what will come next. Too many people are expressing a real and deep concern about the future of this country and our place in it. An examination of what transpired and a sober, rational analysis is in order.

Let’s try to keep everything in its proper perspective. It is important to know that presidents come and presidents go and the republic stands. The country is in no danger of lurching dramatically out of control anytime soon. The country faces problems that have no historical precedent and no one is really sure of how to proceed. It is seriously doubtful that the new administration will be able to contemplate initiating a radical leftist economic agenda at this point. Bush sunk the federal government so deeply into debt that it is beyond the realm of seriousness to believe that someone can come in and sink the government much further into debt with no foreseen way of paying it back anytime in the future.

Any student of our system of government will admit that change of any type at this juncture of history should come slowly and carefully.

What the country needs more than anything is a leader who can restore public trust in government, in each other, and in the financial system. President Bush has many fine attributes, but his severe deficiency in communicating with the people of this country doomed his presidency and dropped him to a 20% approval rating.

During the recent campaign, John McCain didn’t display an ability to speak to and connect with the citizens on a level better than Bush.

His campaign was a dismal failure. He lurched between talking points and never presented the voters with a cohesive argument to vote for him. The fact that Obama didn’t walk away with a historic landslide victory is testament to the fact that had McCain been able to project a sense of leadership and communication, he would be the president-elect.

No, I didn’t vote for Obama, but now that he has won, it behooves us to accept his victory and move on. It is unbecoming of us to wallow in what-ifs and torture the thought that he is some type of devil out to consciously destroy the country. It is immature and unintelligent to speak of preparing passports so that we can be prepared to run away from here, and not only because there is nowhere to run.

A generation ago, the country was floundering in depression with a misery index keeping score of how badly things were going. Hakadosh Boruch Hu then sent us the gift of Ronald Reagan. A politician derided as being hopelessly foolish and out of touch who used his gifts of oratory to raise the morale of the country. He promised sunshine for America, and he delivered. Armed with a brave conservative focus, in two terms of office he stabilized the economy, rebuilt the military, stared down our enemies and, by being an effective communicator, re-energized the country.

President-Elect Obama has the ability to be another Reagan. He has the ability to connect with the people and speak to them in a way that can instill the confidence that is so sorely lacking. During the past two years, he has demonstrated a once-in-a-generation talent for being able to charge people of all ages, colors and political persuasions. Until now he has been way too liberal for many of us, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t read the polls which indicate that only 20% of people who voted for him identify themselves as liberals. Only 19% think that raising taxes is a good thing.

He didn’t win the critical state of Ohio because he was able to convince more Ohioans to vote for him than John Kerry was in 2004. In fact, he received about the same amount of votes in that state as Kerry did. He won because John McCain received 300,000 fewer votes there than George Bush did.

He won because McCain gave up his lead when the meltdown hit Wall Street and he acted so irrationally in dealing with the bailout package that people lost confidence in him. Obama remained calm and presidential during the anxious time, offering an upbeat message and promising tax cuts for most Americans. He was only peripherally involved with the bailout, which was opposed by most Americans. Instead, he convinced the majority, who feel that tax cuts - rather than increased spending – will cure the economy, that he advocated their position.

If there is one thing that politicians can do well, it is read polls.

Once a person achieves a position of power and realizes the ramifications of his actions, he begins to behave differently. Very rarely do presidents govern according to the extremes they embodied during a campaign, much the same as it is difficult to ascertain which way Supreme Court justices will rule once they are placed on the court for life. Several of them have been utter surprises and made complete turnarounds once given the mandate. It is doubtful that Obama will behave in office the way his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, did. If he does, he will meet a similar fate, be rendered ineffective, and be counted out in short order.

What worries me more than Obama’s election is that we are becoming less intelligent as a community. We are making snap decisions about people and increasingly judging people based upon superficial indices without enough thoughtful perception.

Instead of fighting a good fight and accepting that we can lose with dignity and live to fight another day, we have become sore losers and seek to utterly destroy our opponents. If we lose an argument or a vote, we fail to learn from our losing experience and take lessons for future disputes. We don’t practice until we persevere. We expect to win every battle, every time. And when we don’t, we become hateful and spiteful.

We demonize people with whom we disagree instead of doing our best to win by engaging in honest and open debate. We don’t fine tune our arguments and present a winning logic. We throw around rhetoric, platitudes and inane polemic instead of dignified reason.

Because Obama palled around with former terrorists doesn’t mean that he is a terrorist. Because he was member of a church with a wacky leader doesn’t make him wacky. Of course his relationships are troubling, but he is definitely a narcissist who uses people to advance his career. Once he arrived in Chicago and sought for himself a path to political office, he set about establishing the credentials he needed in order to win favor with the leftist political bosses and voters. I make no apologies for William Ayers, but perhaps we should bear in mind that the socialist professor was recently declared Chicago Citizen of the Year. As the recipient of a generous Annenberg grant he was in the position to distribute millions of dollars to his cronies’ programs. It is the habit of aspiring politicians to befriend such people.

It may very well be that his dubious friendships and memberships were cynical moves by a pragmatic, ambitious lawyer designed to gain the future support of the local electorate. Once he no longer needed those people and associations, he threw them under the bus and gained a new set of friends and sponsors. There is reason to hope that now that he has attained the power he so craved, he will be smart enough to govern from the center, so that he will maintain public support and be able to win re-election.

His campaign, as is known, was led by Jews. His first appointment following his election was that of a Jew. Certainly, Rahm Emanuel’s religion is not the reason he was chosen for the job of chief-of-staff, but the fact that it didn’t torpedo his selection ought to be an indication that Obama is not the evil anti-Semite many fear he is. It is irresponsible and imprudent to portray him as another Hitler and thus inflame the passions of a people who are just beginning to recover from the real Hitler ym”sh.

It is simplistic to believe that he will be any more forceful than President Bush was towards Israel and obligate Israel to establish a Palestinian state if the Israeli leaders won’t acquiesce to the idea. Let us not forget that Bush was the first American president to openly advocate and call for a Palestinian state. Bush did as much as any of his predecessors to force Israel into nonsensical agreements with its sworn enemies. And we can’t ignore the fact that Bush did not face down the Iranians in a meaningful way to force them to give up their ambition for nuclear weapons with which to threaten Israel.

Don’t forget that it was Bush administration policy which allowed Hamas to become such a powerful force as the elected governing body of Gaza after Israel vacated that area on its own free will.

Even after the Gaza disaster, Israelis voted for the party which was formed to promote more such activity. No one forced Ehud Olmert upon the country; the people elected him on their own free will. Current Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni openly says that she will divide Yerushalayim and establish a Palestinian state if elected in February. If the Israeli people go down that misguided path, blame cannot be placed on the American president, but rather on the Israelis’ own foolishness and blindness.

Do I know that Obama will be a good president? Do I know that he will serve our best interests? No, of course not. But I have to believe that he will try. And we must give him a chance to prove himself before we pine for the election of 2012. If he acts foolishly, there will be plenty of time between now and then to respectfully disagree and criticize his actions. If he governs as the ultra-leftist his past would indicate, his honeymoon with the American people will be over very quickly and he will experience an accelerated downhill roll.

A little boy in the fifth grade of Yeshiva Beis Mikroh in Monsey, NY, was selected by his teacher to campaign for election as Barack Obama. He came home and asked his father to write him a campaign speech. The presidential speechwriter threw in, as an applause line, “If elected, I promise to remember the kids of this country and enact longer recess.”

The candidate read the speech slowly and quietly to himself and returned to his father. “Abba, the speech is very good, but I can’t say this part about recess. I am running for election as president of the United States and a president has to do what’s good for the citizens of the country. Too much recess is not a good thing. Kids go to school to get educated and a president has to do what he can to make sure that kids get a good education, not more recess.”

Okay, I admit, the candidate was my ten-year-old son, but his words portrayed a brilliant comprehension of the responsibility of a president. And if my son Ari understands that, you can be sure that the president-elect, no matter what political persuasion he is, has the intelligence to recognize that his primary obligation is to act in a responsible manner.

The onus is also upon us to behave and think levelheadedly. A while ago, before anyone thought that Obama would go all the way, I did something perhaps rash and irresponsible, but I wanted to teach my children an important lesson and couldn’t think of a better way to do it.

We were driving along the FDR Drive in Manhattan and I exited to the streets of the city for a drive through Harlem. We stopped and parked across the street from an outdoor mall which had no customers. The mall consisted of stands selling African clothing and goods. As we walked through the mall, the shopkeepers couldn’t have been nicer and more courteous to us, though they did seem shocked by our presence there.

My family was petrified as the ordeal began, but as the frightful minutes ticked by, they became noticeably looser, though there was a huge sigh of relief when we retreated to the safety of our car, which, yes, was still there in one piece.

I explained to them that we did this to show that senseless bigotry has no place in our society, and though we must always behave responsibly, preconceived notions of every white person in Harlem being seen as a potential crime victim are gross exaggerations. We should judge people on the basis of their actions and character.

While I don’t advocate for everyone to run out and copy my little lesson with their own families, the experience that lasted about ten minutes taught a lesson that is etched for lifetime.

We have no business jumping to conclusions about this man, or any man, based upon his heritage, the color of his skin, or where he lives. This is doubly so because for centuries people have treated us askance because of bigoted stereotypes. As people who have been victimized by unfair prejudices, we ought to acknowledge that every person, Jew or Gentile, is entitled to be able to establish his own record on which to be judged.

Any examination of the recent campaign and Mr. Obama’s ascent to the most powerful position in the world leads one to the recognition that he could not have been elected without the Divine will. It is unprecedented for a person to be as inexperienced and as liberal as he and yet unify the country to support his election. No prior candidate has ever run as flawless a campaign or raised as much money from as many people as Mr. Obama did.

Let us recognize that all that transpires is part of a Divine plan. We may not always understand the workings of Hashem, but we must recognize them and then observe as the pieces fall into place. As observant Jews, we must ensure that we don’t act erratically and foolishly in golus. Nor should we be complacent or smug. We must maintain the proper proportion of what is transpiring.

We must be thankful that we live in an enlightened democratic country that accepts us and lets us live, worship and work in peace. Jews are not only tolerated, but are treated well and supported in this country. Jews have risen to the highest levels of power in this land, and that is not in jeopardy. We may be in for hard times, but let’s keep it all in perspective and remember that it is up to us and our maasim tovim to determine the outcome of this trying historic period.

Lev melochim vesorim beyad Hashem” is not just some overused cliché, it is the truth. “Yishmah Keil.” Hashem will really listen to us if we trust in Him and reach out to Him as we should.

We all know that it was foretold that in the times of Moshiach, we will recognize that ein lonu lehisha’ein elah al Avinu shebashomayim. We will have no one to depend on but Hashem, as everything else that we believed in will crumble.

Let us do what we all know is incumbent upon us to merit the Divine mercy and countenance as the world prepares for the coming of Moshiach tzidkeinu, bimeheirah beyomeinu.

Now more than ever.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Preparing the World for Moshiach

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Four years ago, he was a state senator in Chicago. Since then, he got himself elected to the US Senate, defeated the Clintons, came out of nowhere and lit up America. McCain seemed all but defeated in the primaries but came roaring back. As the candidate of the incumbent Republican party, he was weighed down by the massive liability of being linked to President Bush, and it is to McCain’s credit that the race wasn’t declared over a long time ago. President Bush is the least popular president in decades, the economy is in tatters, the nation is fighting an unpopular war, and McCain’s opponent out-raised him by hundreds of millions of dollars.

McCain was fighting a liberal takeover of the country, the likes of which it hasn’t seen in decades. He ran a very imperfect campaign and was inept at pointing out his opponent’s flaws, as well as in giving people a good reason to vote Republican this time around. But despite that, everyone knew that John McCain is a real patriot truly dedicated to serving his country in ways Obama never would or could.

Electing Obama as president of the United States is a dangerous gamble, but most Americans remain blissfully oblivious to the risks. The very fact that Barack Obama won so many votes requires explanation. How does a man with his background capture the support of so many people? How can it be that millions of people became so mesmerized by him and his speeches that they didn’t care about his associations or policies? Why is it that, with all the serious attempts to expose his flawed credentials throughout the campaign, he remained ahead in the polls all the way through until the big one, the one that really counted, on November 4th?

Did you notice that throughout the primary and general election campaign, most of the media coverage and the primary point of interest for most people consisted of the polls? News headlines in the major media were all about who was ahead at any given moment in the polls. This guy was up and this guy was down. The news glossed over the candidates’ positions, concentrating instead on who the polls showed faring better in convincing the masses to support them.

It was almost as if their positions were of secondary importance. It was one big popularity contest. Do you like the way this one looks? Do you like the way this candidate dresses? Or do you think that the other one presents himself better? The future of the country and the world is at stake, and yet people were using a candidate’s clothing as a yardstick to gauge the man’s credentials.

How did we end up here?

Ever since the election of President George W. Bush, the media and their Democrat allies have been out to get him. They were never able to accept his slim margin of victory; instead they set about to undermine and malign him. He couldn’t do anything right, and when he did accomplish positive things, they were quickly forgotten. For six years, they have been saying that we are on the verge of a recession. They have been saying that the war in Iraq was a lost cause. When it turned out that it wasn’t and isn’t, the issue dropped off the radar.

Bush moved into the White House determined to cross party lines to govern as a unity president. Then 9/11 happened. He rose to the challenge and rallied a weary country to be strong. He played to the inbred American strengths and coached the country, city and their economies to bounce back after the attacks virtually shut them down. The most memorable picture of Bush will be the one of him standing aside the still-smoldering rubble with megaphone in hand, pledging to return the country to its former glory.

Something happened to him that day. He decided that G-d had chosen him and placed him in power at that moment to make sure that this would never happen again on his watch. He resolved to ignore polls, political considerations and anything that could be thrown in his path to deter him from his mission to protect the American people. He declared war on al-Qaeda, the Axis of Evil, and of course, Iraq.

Liberals are against anything they dub “absolutist.” They don’t believe in absolute truths or absolute evil. They don’t believe in black and white. To them, morals and values are relative. Their religion is relativism. Bush challenged that view, infuriating the liberals and triggering their opposition and hatred.

Barack Obama emerged from anonymity and began tapping in to that hatred. He correctly sensed that if he could capitalize on the liberal fixation with Bush, he would be able to coast to victory. He didn’t have to espouse an ideology. He didn’t have to explain to the people what he would do when elected. All he had to do was present himself as the candidate of change. He would change the country’s present course to… whatever. He didn’t even have to say what, where, when and how; he didn’t have to spell out what was wrong with the nation under Bush. He simply had to come across as a candidate for change.

He did it very well. He performed admirably. His rhetoric for change was brilliant. All through the primaries, he kept at it with bite-sized promises of “Change,” “Hope” and “Yes, we can.” With these mantras, he brought down the Clintons and everyone else who stood in his way. Doggedly, they tried beating him back with ideology, with arguments, and with a fair amount of mud, but it didn’t work. The rallying cry, “Change!” won the day and swept the nation.

On the other side of the aisle, Republicans chose John McCain as their candidate. He may not have known the meaning of the word “change,” but he was and is an independent thinker, a real reformer, an authentic war hero and patriot, a coalition builder and just the type of Republican who could appeal to middle-of-the-road Americans. The man who kept hope alive in his heart as he languished heroically in a Vietnamese prison, was deemed beyond “hope” by half of the country. That flame of hope to serve his country remained burning in his heart until the results came in on November 4th. He never gave up.

As his running mate, he chose another independent-minded person, a woman who fought special interests and party bosses her whole life. A woman governor with an 80% approval rating. A down-home person blessed with uncommon amounts of common sense. Just the type of person you would think that people who are voting against Washington wait for. A person of the people. An individual like you and me who just happens to be in government. Not a person who has spent decades as an insider, appealing for donations, conforming to lobbyists and playing a very cynical political game. She was just the type of person the Founding Fathers had in mind when they established the republic, a democracy led by its run-of-the-mill citizens and not by a ruling class.

The selection helped McCain for about a week, and then it all began to collapse.

Because at the end of the day, the people didn’t really care. They didn’t care about issues. They didn’t care about positions. All they cared about was “change” and Barack.

Obama presented himself as a blank canvas upon which people could project their own hopes, dreams and ambitions. He crafted himself as a man who could appeal to all people of all persuasions at the same time. His mesmerizing speeches cast their spell upon people of all ages and income levels who were looking to improve their lives, and let’s face it, who isn’t?

Wherever he went, a cadre of citizens became enraptured with him and signed on to his team. In his campaign, they saw themselves and their aspirations. As he rolled up state after state, they felt exhilarated and triumphant. As their man inched closer to the presidency, they felt a validation of their own inner stirrings and ambitions.

They became his fans and he was their man. Just as sports fans see their favorite teams as an extension of themselves, they viewed Barack in similar fashion. People who can’t run five yards without gasping for breath get enraptured with a new young quarterback and identify with his victories as if they were their own. Every time he eludes a tackle and escapes a four-man-rush, they jump up and cheer, “We did it! We did it!”

In essence, they did nothing but sit on their favorite reclining chair, guzzling beer, but once a fan becomes attached, he sees his hero’s success as his own. He transposes the heroic accomplishments on his own bland, boring life and exults in the victory, which becomes his.

The fan could care less about what his hero player believes and does in the off-time; his only interest is to win. He’s not concerned with his hero’s positions on issues of the day. All of that is irrelevant.

When a political candidate achieves the same status as a football hero and people project their hope and drives onto him, seeing his victories as their own, it no longer matters what he really thinks or says when no one is looking. It matters not who his friends are or where he prayed or whether he is a socialist. All that counts is that he keeps on racking up those wins. His supporters couldn’t care less about the facts. They kept on coming in droves to his rallies, by the tens and hundreds of thousands.

Obama continued to talk about change, as he tied McCain to Bush. He was the good guy fighting the bad guys. McCain didn’t think it would work. After all, he was the one who ran against Bush in 2000. He hated Bush. He went up against Bush himself repeatedly. He fought entrenched special interests and he fought corrupt earmarks. How could he be confused with Bush?

McCain just didn’t get it. In a year where uncertainty about the future coupled with deep dissatisfaction infected Americans, it matters not what the facts are. What counts is perception, and the perception was created that a vote for McCain would be the same as a vote for Bush. Once a perception is formed in a person’s mind, it is very difficult to convince the person otherwise. It was Team Obama against Team Bush-McCain. Why would anyone want to be associated with that loser, Bush?

McCain had a chance to establish his own identity but failed to. He had a chance to win his own fans, but didn’t. He never gave anyone a positive reason to rally to his side. He wasn’t able to convince people that a vote for him would be a vote for their own interests. He didn’t project change, he didn’t embody leadership, and he had no fans.

And so the election became a popularity contest. With baseball season over, no one caring about the World Series and with football games holding people’s interest only once a week, fans became transfixed with the polls. In fact more polls were conducted this past October than in the entire 2004 race.

One reason for the preoccupation and fascination with sports is that sports is totally unpredictable. It may seem that this or that team is headed for victory, but things happen in a sports season; people get hurt, players fall out. People no one ever thought had it in them, rise to the top and carry the team over the finish line. One never knows until the end of the game—and the end of the season—who will come out on top. That accounts for the excitement in every game. As the great baseball philosopher intoned, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

So much in life is predictable, but not sports. And this year neither was politics. Until the very end people thought that their man would win. And thus, the drama of following poll numbers replaced the daily studying of sports scores and standings. How are we doing today? Are we up or down? Will we win? Will we force the other guy to lose?

And so it went.

There is a lesson for us in this election: Don’t let yourself be painted into a box where you don’t belong. Don’t let your detractors define you. Give people a reason to like and support you. Don’t expect them to perceive your virtues and appreciate your accomplishments on their own. What might seem totally self-evident to you is not obvious to others.

Never take anything for granted. Remember that Hashem runs the world. One year ago, nobody would have believed that on November 4th, Americans would be choosing between Barack Obama and John McCain. There was absolutely no chance that the Clinton machine could be toppled. It was an exercise in futility to run against her.

McCain was favored by no one. The Republican establishment wasn’t interested in him. His campaign was out of money and unable to stir any interest. The nomination was Giuliani’s for the asking and a good many thought it would go to Romney. Huckabee was much more entertaining. Thompson had better credentials and knew how to deliver a good home-spun speech, but sputtered to an early demise.

Immigration and Iraq were the big issues, but then they fell off the screen. Obama’s abilities and perfectly-run campaign fought doggedly against Hillary and he went on to vanquish Mrs. Clinton

McCain went on to win the Republican nod as one opponent after another dropped out. Palin gave him a boost and then the floor fell out from under Wall Street and it was smooth sailing from there for Obama.

Obama’s calm, presidential demeanor and eloquent speeches kept his supporters in line. They were enraptured with his message, counting down to the day they would empower him to change America and change the world.

Keep hope alive and remember that now that the election is over and the new president is preparing to take office, don’t necessarily expect him to govern the way he promised he would. President Bush became a victim of circumstances and acted in ways no one who knew him could have predicted.

We all know that “lev melochim vesarim beyad Hashem,” the hearts and minds of kings and ministers are controlled by G-d. As long as a person is but a candidate he can choose his agenda, but once selected to lead the nation, he becomes a pawn in a Divine plan. Fear not, for G-d is with us. Fear not, for Hashem has a plan for each and every one of us.

Yes, it was an historic election, but we have no idea, now that it is over, how the results will play out. We will continue to pray and believe that all that transpired is intended to prepare the world for the imminent coming of Moshiach, speedily and in our day.