Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Eternal Wealth

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Madoff. The fascination with this man’s downfall and the manner in which he hoodwinked shrewd, intelligent people seems bottomless. Why is the public appetite for details about how he defrauded people so insatiable?

The thousands of people who were wiped out financially when the web of deceit ripped apart have yet to be quantified. Is it because he abused the trust of so many? Is it because he took every last dime of little old ladies who are now left penniless? Is it because he took money from charities when he knew that he wasn’t really investing their money but rather passing it off to the next sucker in line? Is it because of the unprecedented number of people and charities whose trust he abused and money’s he lost?

Is it the spectacular amounts of money that he supposedly gobbled up that is driving the public’s obsession with this man?

He’s not the first crook and sociopathic liar, and he won’t be the last. He’s not the first person to look into people’s eyes and lie to them. The world is, regrettably, full of fast-talkers who sweet-talk people into a variety of schemes aimed at fleecing them.

Most of us have had the experience of talking to a habitual, bold-faced liar - and realizing that we are being lied to. Most people are intelligent enough to at least be on the lookout for charlatans.

It is true that we live in a period when we are more susceptible to those who are blessed with the gift of oratory and the ability to offer glib optimistic promises. It is doubtful if the current president-elect would be in his position if he wouldn’t have been blessed with the gift of oratory. There are many other individuals in leadership positions who are looked up to by a variety of people strictly because of the way they communicate and not necessarily because of their superior knowledge or intellect. Can it be that the fascination with Madoff is that people are enamored by his salesmanship abilities?

What is so different about this person? Why is everyone so fascinated by his caper?

The fabulously rich generally view themselves and their lives as more important than those of the “little people” who have to sweat for a living. The culture of power and privilege that comes with immense wealth makes the rich feel superior to common folk. With a multitude of subordinates catering to their every need and want, and a way of life so extravagant and luxurious that it defies description, they seem to inhabit a parallel universe.

But it’s more than that. The delusion of superiority enjoyed by the rich is reinforced by the masses who pay homage to them. Even clergy who speak out against the worship of money defer to the rich and bend over backwards to please the wealthy in their community.

A rich man commands respect and attention wherever he goes. People point him out when he walks into a room and seek his counsel on various matters, most of which he often knows nothing about.

Everyone wants to be associated with success and, more often than not, the barometer of success is the size of a gentleman’s bank account. Usually it matters not how the money was made.

With very few exceptions, this is the way of the world. Honesty is viewed as naïveté. One who declines to participate in a money-making scheme because of dubious ethics or refuses benefits he may not be entitled to is scorned as a fool.

The hardworking electrician or craftsman who works from early in the morning to late at night, never overcharging and remaining fastidious about paying his taxes, may not earn anyone’s admiration. It’s the one who cuts corners, gives dishonest answers on government forms, overcharges and plays fast and loose with the rules who often seems to be more respected for his “accomplishments.”

An honest middle class man who pays his tuition and is punctilious in the giving of maaser and charity to the less fortunate isn’t respected enough for his integrity and reliability. The same goes for the kindhearted fellow who doesn’t push his weight around trying to dictate what others should do.

We have in our midst people of sterling character, individuals who are intelligent, capable and resourceful, who can envision solutions and follow through on a project to completion. These people realize that all their talents and possessions are gifts from Hashem. They remain humble and G-d fearing. It is this kind of person whom we need in positions of leadership.

Unfortunately, however, we don’t appreciate these people. We look for people with glitz and glamour surrounding them. Awed by their material success, we put our trust in these people, imagining that they possess the brilliance and competence to lead us to success.

Then, suddenly, our eyes are opened when we see the wealthy cut down by the cheapest trick in the book. We are astounded. How were such successful and prosperous people taken in? How did they allow themselves to ignore the most basic laws of investing that relatively unsophisticated people are familiar with?

The very people who inspired so much envy and hero-worship, and who we turned to for advice and guidance, have been exposed as fatally blinded by their hunger for more money and power. It fascinates people to realize that the rich are no smarter than they, and may even be less intelligent. Middle class people are amazed to see that the wealth they so covet is fleeting and meaningless, while the money they have earned and the homes they own are not figments of imagination and bustable balloons of fantasy.

The media will get over its obsession with Madoff; the public will soon lose its fascination with this story. Yet, long after the allure of this bizarre incident fades, we must remember its lessons.

Don’t rush for quick gain. Don’t become enamored by people who seem to prosper no matter what the economic situation. Don’t judge a person by the amount of money he has.

Remember that prosperity is a Divine gift intended for the recipient to better mankind and those around him. He who uses his gifts wisely has fulfilled his obligations and accomplished what is expected of him. The one who disburses his largesse to mosdos of Torah and chesed has earned eternity for himself and his loved ones. He who squanders it in selfish pursuits leads an empty and purposeless life. He fritters away the benefits he could have accrued in this life and wastes numerous opportunities for eternity.

People who lead honest lives don’t chase after pots of gold behind the rainbow. They make their money the old-fashioned way. They avoid subterfuge and dishonesty. When investing, they take great care to diversify, never putting all their eggs in one basket. They know that nothing works in a straight upward curve; life has its ups and downs that affect every sphere of finance.

They don’t become broken and give up hope when things are pointing down. They maintain their emunah and bitachon. In the good times, they don’t flaunt their success and don’t force others to conform to their meshugasin. They remain committed to the greater good at all times.

We are currently experiencing a financial recession. Many good people are losing not only their jobs but their savings and the possessions they worked so hard to earn. Everyone we know seems to have been forced, at least somewhat, to lower their standard of living. In the dark as to what tomorrow will bring, many are now cutting back on all forms of spending and holding on to what they have.

People upon whom charitable organizations depended to continue their work are no longer in a position to be of much financial assistance. People with hearts overflowing with the desire to help, and who formerly supported yeshivos and enabled them to maintain the golden chain stretching back millennia, are themselves broken-hearted and in need of support and mercy.

In difficult straits, people may find themselves contemplating various unethical schemes to attain wealth and success by taking moral shortcuts. When tempted by dishonesty and duplicity, one has but to remember Madoff’s downfall. In the end, the truth always emerges.

Frauds and lies will only get you so far. Eventually, the treachery will catch up with you. Together with your wealth, all those adoring friends who couldn’t do enough for you will disappear. Everything temporary comes to a crashing end. Only truth is enduring.

At times like these, we search for things that will uplift and inspire us positively. Neginah, song, has the power to do that in unparalleled ways. Good Jewish music is intended to reach the recesses of our neshamos and make us into better people. Simple poetic words of timeless truth when combined with proper music have a way of doing just that.

The following Sephardic song can serve to reinforce emunah during these bleak times when nothing seems to going right. It’s kind of facile to read it without the music, but you’ll get the point. The words, in Hebrew, are more or less as follows:

Im lefamim nidmeh sheklum lo mistadeir,
Tzarich lehaamin ulevakeish,
Shel’olam assur lehitya’esih,

Lehitchazeik ki yeish lanu baleiv,
Nitzutz shel emunah shemehavaheiv,
Vehu harbeh yoter chazak mikol k’eiv.

Ein davar, zeh yaavor,
Tamid bachoshech mistateret keren ohr,
Assur af pam le’abeid et hatikvah,
Rak latet ulekabeil b’ahavah.

If nothing is working out,
You must believe,
and have no doubt.

We can’t give up,
Despite the dark,
for in our hearts,
we have a spark.

That spark is stronger
than our pains
The pain shall pass,
the spark remains.

And all the anguish, you perceive
With love you’ll give,
likewise receive.

As the song proclaims, let us stay strong and cling to our beliefs. Let us cast aside the alma deshikra that tempts us every day, and strengthen our connection to the One Above and His Torah. In that merit, we will be zoche to greet Moshiach Tzidkeini, may he come speedily, in our day.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Power of Every Man

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Mai Chanukah? What is Chanukah?” asks the Gemara in Maseches Shabbos. What is it that we are commemorating now for eight days? What are we celebrating? What are the lessons inherent in this holiday for all of us to learn?

The Gemara’s answer is one we are all familiar with. It responds that during the period in which the Yevanim ruled over Eretz Yisroel, they entered the Bais Hamikdosh and defiled all the flasks of olive oil used to light the menorah.

When the Maccabim were victorious and beat back the forces of the Yevanim, they searched and were able to find only one flask with the Kohein Gadol’s seal on it. The flask contained just enough oil for the menorah’s lights to burn for one day, yet they miraculously continued burning for eight days. The next year, the chachomim established the days as holy days, with Hallel and thanksgiving.

That is the extent of the Gemara’s explanation of the miracle of Chanukah. The obvious question is why the Gemara does not elaborate upon the extent of the Yevanim’s domination of the Jews in Eretz Yisroel and the Maccabim’s miraculous military victory over Yavan. These episodes which took place during the second Bais Hamikdosh do not appear in Nach, as does the miracle of Purim.

We all know that the Yevanim sought to separate the Jews in Eretz Yisroel from their observance of Torah. They targeted their spiritual lives, as they sought to convert them to a life of secular accomplishment and hedonistic luxury introduced to the world by the Greeks of old. They were not anti-Semitic per se and were content to let the Jews live in peace as long as their allegiance to the Torah and its precepts were abrogated.

To this end, they enacted edicts against Shabbos, bris milah and Rosh Chodesh, and successfully spread their Hellenistic ideals throughout the land. While many resisted the attempted indoctrination and forfeiture of tradition, many more - those referred to as Misyavnim - became Hellenized. They joined the campaign against their brethren who remained loyal to Torah, actively seeking to bring them over to an “enlightened” lifestyle.

No doubt they used Hellenist literature to bolster their arguments. Marshalling their modern-day intellectual proofs, the “enlightened” ones sought to undermine the old-fashioned beliefs and practices of the “backward” Jews who clung to their traditional ways. They tormented the faithful with theories intended to dislodge them from their firm grasp on the Tree of Life.

“We are not out to destroy you or force you to engage in harmful conduct. On the contrary, we’re interested only in improving your lives,” the Misyavnim would taunt them.

“Don’t you understand that if you would abandon milah as it was practiced for thousands of years, your children would be healthier?” the campaign went. After all, who should know better than the educated, advanced Greeks who brought civilization to the European world?


Matisyahu Kohein Gadol decided that it had gone far enough and that he would do all in his power to halt Jewish subjugation to the Greek gods and philosophies. Just as his forefather, Levi, displayed tremendous courage when he went to war to protect the honor of his sister Dinah, Matisyahu took on an insurmountable challenge.

He took a lesson from his great-uncle, Moshe Rabbeinu, who sought volunteers to put down the Eigel rebellion, calling out, “Mi laHashem eilay?” Shevet Levi then gathered around him.

Matisyahu also took inspiration from his grandfather, Pinchos, who, putting his own life in jeopardy, brought an end to a catastrophic plague on the Jewish people.

Armed with the Levite mission to be shomrei mishmeres hakodesh and the knowledge that G-d sides with those who fight battles lemaan Hashem, without any personal agendas, Matisyahu rallied his brothers to his cause. The small band of faithful Jews took on the forces of the Hellenist enlightenment.

As the Jews saw that G-d was with Matisyahu and his fellow Maccabim, they began deserting the Yevanim. As the victories of the traditionalist forces mounted, Misyavnim started having second thoughts. Eventually, almost all the Jews were brought back to Rabbinic Torah Judaism. It was then that the miracle of Chanukah occurred, with the finding of the flask of pure oil.

Yavan is referred to in the Medrash as a force of darkness. The Medrash states that the posuk, “Choshech al p’nei sehom,” refers to Yavan. It alludes to Greek mythology, philosophy, art, gymnastics, olympics - everything perceived by the world as representing advancements in mankind’s so-called evolution from pre-historic times.

All this is regarded by Chazal as the very antithesis of civilization. Since this culture deifies human intellect and prowess, it represents darkness and agents of the dark side of humanity.


Klal Yisroel didn’t feel itself strong enough to throw off the yoke of Greek tyranny until Matisyahu showed that it could be done. Forces of evil often reign supreme because people of good will not join together. As long as every good man sits in his own corner, evil will triumph. Evil can only be toppled when one good man decides that he can bear it no longer and begins to rally people around him.

Chanukah celebrates the miracle that demonstrated the validation of Matisyahu’s approach.

The miracle of Chanukah that we celebrate is primarily that of the tiny flask which burned longer than was thought to be realistically possible. The menorah’s lights signify that the power of light overcame the power of darkness. The oil lasting longer than one day signifies that if you expend the effort and work b’mesirus nefesh, physical rules will not apply.

The miraculous military victory over Yavan is a dramatic example of how the laws of nature are suspended when dedicated souls join together and enable light to triumph over darkness. That reversal of the natural order in their day was made possible by the great acts of courage and heroism carried out by Matisyahu and his followers.

That victory was thus part and parcel of the same dynamic that brought about the miracle of the pach hashemen. That is perhaps the reason it is not singled out in the Gemara’s discussion of what comprised the miracle of Chanukah.

A flask of oil, which according to its physical and chemical attributes can only burn for one day, can indeed last for as long as is necessary, just as the forces of good, though outmatched by evil in terms of numbers and strength, can thoroughly eviscerate the forces of darkness.


At times, when attempting to solve problems, we are told that we cannot do this or that, or that what we are proposing cannot work. Yet, so often we see that people who work with selfless dedication are not limited by logic or the laws of nature. They tread where no one has dared step before and they succeed where lesser people vow that success is absolutely impossible.

Seeing such people in action is contagious and serves to inspire others to scale unattainable heights.

That is why the nes of Chanukah is celebrated by kindling lights in our doorways and on our windowsills facing the street. This is why the mitzvah is to light the menorah as soon as sundown begins and darkness starts spreading across the city.

That is why the shiur that Chazal give for the duration of the lights is “ad shetichleh regel min hashuk” - that the lights of the Chanukah menorah should remain lit as long as there are people out on the street.

As long as people are out in the public thoroughfare, we need to remind them of the miracle. We need to prominently remind them not to yield to the temptations of darkness.

“Don’t surrender to defeatism,” we call out to them. “Don’t regard what you do as being of minor consequence. Remember that Matisyahu started out as one lonely man of faith with all the forces of the world stacked against him. Because he did not let defeatism overtake him, the Yevonim and Misyavnim were conquered and the forces of good prevailed.”

We gather our family around us and light the menorah to proclaim to the world that G-d felled the mighty, the many and the evil. They were demolished by the weak and the few, the just and the holy.

G-d had mercy on us and fought our battles, causing the zeidim to fall into the hands of the oskei Torah. We sing songs of thanksgiving and Hallel, and we remind ourselves that in our day as well, the Yevonim, in other guises, continually attempt to ensnare us.


We have to be ever vigilant, for if we falter, the forces of Hellenism are waiting around the corner to ambush us. As soon as they sense us turning our eyes from the goal, they pounce upon us with cleverly worded propaganda to curtail our hallowed religious practices.

We live in an age when talk is cheap and positive actions are few and far between. People speak strongly, often with little thought or intelligence, but are very slow to act. Leadership is seriously lacking and too many positions of leadership are occupied by people who don’t possess the ability to rally people and join them effectively for good causes.

In today’s day and age, Yevanim hide behind the power of the pen, the web, blogs and populist demagoguery to attack us. Misyavnim offer wild accusations to back up their unfounded charges. They spare no effort to vilify and castigate us, as if they were paragons of virtue. The more growth our community experiences, the more scorn the Misyavnim heap upon us. It is interesting to note that no one has analyzed the religiosity of Bernard Madoff in an attempt to smear all who serve G-d as he does, or doesn’t.

Just imagine if it was a chassidishe Yid or a Lakewood resident who had robbed good people, charities and banks of billions of dollars. There isn’t enough newsprint available or gigabytes of memory to contain the invective that would be flowing in our direction, vilifying every frum Yid and blaming one man’s thievery on our way of life and value system.

But since he wasn’t on the board of black hat yeshivos, and he mostly robbed the endowment funds of more enlightened charities, nobody dares insinuate that the hedonistic life he led and enabled had anything to do with the evil that lurked inside of the heart of that man.

It is high time we rose up and said that we’re not going to take this anymore. Our community is blessed with able rabbinic leadership, devoted askonim, capable lawyers, public relation experts and lobbying groups. We ought to stand up to them and engage in a campaign to end the vilification and constant disparaging of our holy traditions.

The menorah and the Yom Tov of Chanukah remind us that we should not hesitate to defend Torah and mitzvos. The lights of the menorah proclaim to us to seek out the people who carry the flag of Torah and the Matisyahu ben Yochanan Kohein Gadols of our day and rally around them. As we light the menorah, we should remember the words of the Rambam that, in our day, every person who devotes his life to Torah is a ben Levi. We are all bnei Levi.

We should resolve to use our abilities to spread goodness and kindness in this world. We should seek to inject greater purpose in our lives. Instead of just sitting back and criticizing others, we should leave the comforts of our coffee rooms to join together and mightily wave the flag of truth and justice where it counts. We should be prepared to forsake some of our physical comforts and put ourselves on the line for the values we believe in and that matter.

When the call of “Mi laHashem eilay” goes out, we must all answer. Whether the call is directed at our wallets, our minds, our time or our physical attendance, we must always be prepared to answer, “Hineini.” I have heard, I have prepared myself, I am ready to carry the banner of the bnei Levi.

The Gemara, in answer to the question of Mai Chanukah, states that the miracle of the pach shemen is to remind us that though we may view ourselves as being but a small pach shemen, a tiny vessel of limited value, if we commit ourselves to the service of G-d with the self-sacrifice of Matisyahu and the bnei Levi, the light of our lives can be enduring and everlasting.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Never Give Up

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

I spent this past Shabbos in the company of some heroic individuals who are dedicating their lives to making a difference. Ignoring all the naysayers who surround them, and being more optimistic than realistic, they change the world. In small towns and large cities all across the country, they go about their holy work day after day, many times receiving little credit or adulation for their heroic work.

Rabbi Zvi Bloom of Torah Umesorah has dreamed for years to bring together the Zevuluns of the schools and yeshivos so that they can support each other and work on solutions for the issues which confront them all. Last weekend in Palm Beach, Florida, leaders learned from each other’s experiences and returned to their home cities across the fruited plain re-energized to confront the challenges which lay ahead.

While there, I met the dedicated people battling mightily to develop a religious elementary school in Palm Beach, Florida. Despite the many obstacles thrown in their path, they are succeeding in planting nascent Torah seeds in one of the fastest growing Jewish population centers in the country. A visit to their beautiful school brought home the realization that even a desert can be transformed into a blooming garden when blessed with able leadership and support. Rabbi Dovid May, Dr. Charles Steinberg and Benjamin Wohl present a partnership which will no doubt yield great benefit for the Jewish people. It is a shame that not all Jewish residents of Palm Beach appreciate the opportunity they present and instead invested their millions with a charlatan who took them down a losing path.

Wherever you live, you can look around you at the people who have utilized their lives to make an enduring difference. Examine some of the people who have really made the world a better place and see what makes them different. You will often discover an ordinary person, with the difference being that when he saw a vacuum, he stuck his neck out and sought to fill it. With dogged determination and persistence, he fought off the urge to pull back and give up. He ignored the nagging voices that said it couldn’t be done and found the strength to accomplish his mission.

People like this refuse to be discouraged by those who advise them that their goals are impossible to attain. Because they work lesheim Shomayim and refuse to be deterred, the Divine Hand reaches down from on high and assists them.

Every one of us was created to carry out a shlichus, or mission, in life. Those who succeed are the ones who don’t let anything deter them for long. With faith in the One Above, they ignore the difficulties that would throw off lesser men. They continue their hishtadlus with the knowledge that Hashem will assist them and take over for them at the proper time.

We learn in Parshas Beha’aloscha that Aharon Hakohein was upset that he had no part in the chanukas haMishkan. Hakadosh Brouch Hu told him, “Shelcha gedolah mishelohem - Your share is greater than that of the nesiim, she’atah madlik umeitiv es haneiros - because you set up and light the wicks of the menorah.”

Rashi explains that the word “beha’aloscha” indicates that the kohein kindles the wick until the fire rises by itself - “ad shetehei shalheves oleh mei’eileha.”

The kohein is commanded to clean out the vessel and light the menorah, but he is told that, in the end, it will light by itself. It is his duty to me meitiv, a word which also can be translated to mean to do good with others. Indeed, Aharon Hakohein was an oheiv shalom verodeif shalom. A kohein who is meitiv, a kohein who is prepared to reach in and do the dirty work, will merit that G-d will help him and the ner will light by itself, if he just carries out the initial steps of lighting it.

The kohein is told that if he does the initial hishtadlus and has the requisite belief and commitment to actualize his shlichus, he is promised that the task will be completed by Hashem.

Shelcha gedolah mishelohem.” Thus, the act of kindling the menorah is greater than the korbanos that the nesiim brought up for the chanukas haMishkan. The avodas hahakrovoh was not done by them, and in fact, with the exception of Nachshon ben Aminodov, they didn’t pay for their korbanos, but rather the money was raised by each individual shevet for the korban that their nosi brought.

Such a donation to the Mishkan does not have the same everlasting impact as the hadlakah and hatavah performed by the kohein himself as he was waiting for the shalheves to be oleh mei’eileha.

Additionally, Chazal say that “aron nosei es nosav,” the aron carried those who carried it. Thus, even though the bnei Kehas would place the aron on their shoulders to transport it, carrying it did not require more than the initial effort of lifting. Following that initial exertion, they were in fact assisted by Hashem. The heavy keilim they shouldered actually carried them.

Those who endeavor to accomplish and spread holiness in this world and are prepared to work hard and get dirty are granted Heavenly assistance to complete the task.

The fact is that although our efforts contribute very little to the actual results, there is a factor we do control. Our mesiras nefesh plays a major role in evoking siyata diShmaya.

The only boundaries to what we can achieve are those we set ourselves. If we let the forces of negativity and cynicism get to us, we will achieve as little as those who cultivate the negative forces. If we ignore the chorus of naysayers, there is no limit to what we can achieve to benefit our generation and generations to come.

Let us set out to be madlik and meitiv to the best of our abilities and then watch as the shalheves is oleh mei’eileha. Our children and neighbors will bless us and our cheilek will be with Aharon Hakohein.

As we light the menorah at our doors and windows starting this coming Sunday night, we will be mefarseim the neis of hatzolas Yisroel, bayomim haheim bazeman hazeh.

And while we do that, we will look into the light of the wicks and we will sit there and contemplate. We will think about all that has befallen our people since the days of the Yevanim. We will make the bracha of She’asah Nissim and we will try to learn the lesson of the flames.

We will ask ourselves, what was so great about the miracle of Chanukah? Why is it that we celebrate that miracle till this very day?

In the time of the Chashmonaim, the Jews didn’t cut corners. They didn’t yield to those who advised them to use any oil to light the menorah. They resisted the urge to take the easy route and say “tumah hutrah b’tzibbur.” In the zechus of Aharon Hakohein shelo shinah, they also weren’t meshaneh.

They worked, searched and persevered until they found one small suitable flask of oil and used it to rekindle the menorah. Because they were so dedicated to the proper observance of the mitzvah, they were deserving of a Divine miracle. The one tiny jug was found and the oil in it miraculously burned for eight days, until new pure oil could be squeezed and brought to Yerushalayim.

In the mitzvah of hadlokas neiros Chanukah, we find a distinction that we rarely see. Everyone performs the mitzvah in its mehadrin form. We don’t look to find the cheap way out. We don’t say that one candle on the kitchen table is really all you need for the mitzvah.

We proudly set up our menorahs and set them to face the reshus horabim for everyone to see that we are performing the mitzvah the best way possible.

The mitzvah of pirsumei nisah is primary to Chanukah because it allows us to advertise to the world that we will not give in to the forces of darkness. We will not succumb to the power of evil. We won’t ever listen to those who say to do the mitzvah the easy way. We will be madlik and meitiv the neiros just as Aharon Hakohein did back then.

We light the menorah and say Al Hanisim and proclaim that we will never give up our belief that the menorah will once again light in the Bais Hamikdosh.

When we light the menorah in the window, we are saying that when we are asked to help out in a mitzvah, we won’t just write a check and be yotzeh. We will roll up our sleeves, get dirty, perhaps get embarrassed, throw our whole being into it, and make sure it’s done right. We will do what we can to help out; and we will know that our act will bring eternal reward and its impact will be lasting.

As more darkness descends upon the world, we recharge ourselves to shine more light. We will never permit the forces of darkness to overtake us. In the confusion of darkness, we still manage to still be little fountains of light.

That is the greatness of Am Yisroel and that is how we persevered through all the centuries of exile. And that is what will lead us to the geulah sheleimah. The ability to overcome the dark forces is inbred, but it has to be reinforced and fortified.

When darkness envelopes us, our mission is to spark the realization that we have to bring light into this topsy-turvy world. When we see people around us acting improperly, when people twist the truth, when injustice is perpetrated in the name of justice, when darkness overtakes light, we have to remind ourselves of the message of the menorah.

We have to be the exalted people Hashem intended us to be, capable - even in these frightening, confused times - of discerning truth from falsehood, love from hate, and justice from tyranny.

We have to be brave and have and strength of character to persevere, just like those heroes in Palm Beach and in cities and towns across the country who are moser nefesh to transmit Torah to the future generations.

We have to remember that every time someone says that you can do the mitzvah in a simplified manner and it’s just as good, think of Aharon Hakohein. Think of the neis Chanukah and remember that if you want Hashem to perform nissim for you, if you want light to banish the darkness in your life, throw everything you have into what you do, do it lesheim Shomayim, and you will succeed.

Think of the pach shemen tahor. Think of the menorah which burned brightly and proudly. Remember, shelcha gedolah mishelohem.

Ohr chodosh al Tziyon tair. Bimeheirah biyomeinu. Amein.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Love (Sometimes) Conquers All

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

How are we to deal with evil people who want to harm us? How are we supposed to react when we have been wronged by the nations of the world as well as our own brothers?

Yaakov Avinu teaches us the response in this week’s parsha. Eisav, his brother, harbored a bitter grudge against him and sought to kill him, yet Yaakov used every strategy he possessed to avoid a head-on confrontation. As Chazal teach, he davened, he prepared gifts to win his brother’s favor, and, as a last recourse, should all else fail, he readied himself to do battle.

Far from relishing the opportunity to finally confront the man who was seeking his destruction, Yaakov used all his wits to avoid a fight. Though he suspected that Eisav might reject his peaceful overtures, he went out of his way to present his brother with generous gifts and to speak to him in calm, measured words of appeasement.

He could have seized the offensive, allowing himself to be driven by anger or spite. He could have engaged Eisav in debate to prove that the brachos were rightfully his, and that he, Yaakov, was justified in orchestrating things so that he would receive them. He could have shown his brother how the latter’s acts of murder and treachery rendered him unfit to be the progenitor of the Avos.

But that is not the way of Yaakov and the Avos. When peaceful talk can mitigate tension, that is always the preferred route, and hatred and a show of might have no place. Hakol kol Yaakov. Am Yisroel is powerful when it utilizes its gift of speech to pray for Divine assistance and whenever possible, to negotiate differences calmly and peacefully.

People may insult and demean us. They tend to twist our words and read ulterior motives into our actions. They stab us in the back and badmouth us, and inside we are churning. Our urge is to lash back and make them feel ashamed. “How could you say that!” we want to shout.

Yet, if we heed the example Yaakov Avinu set, we will restrain ourselves. Yaakov demonstrated that the way of a ben Torah is to always pursue the path of peace and achdus, even when smaller people would sound the call for war and revenge. When it is possible to achieve the desired outcome without engaging in an argument, that is the course we are to pursue.

This does not imply that we should submit to evil-doers and engage in chanifas resha’im. There are times when we have no choice but to go on the offensive to eradicate sheker. But before we go down that road, we need to be absolutely certain in the justice of our complaint and that there is no alternative to confrontation.

Shimon and Levi earned the eternal wrath of their father, Yaakov, when they unilaterally resorted to violence in order to revenge the terrible wrong done to their sister. Without consulting Yaakov, they wiped out Chamor, Shechem, and all the males of their city.

Both Chamor and Shechem were heinous characters who had engaged in depraved behavior. They certainly weren’t deserving of any compassion. There are undoubtedly times when Jews must battle to protect their interests and maintain deterrence in a degenerate world, where aggression and intimidation threaten us. But war should only be a last resort after all other attempts at attaining justice peacefully are exhausted.

Instead of consulting with their aged father, Shimon and Levi rushed to judgment. They were convinced that the abomination demanded immediate and swift action. It is not for us to judge them and their considerations, but there is much that we can learn from the vastly different response to provocation displayed by Yaakov.

We all know certain people who don’t like us or habitually provoke us. We see individuals who appear to be derelict in their responsibilities and wonder if it is our duty to reprove them. Yet, before jumping to conclusions and rushing to condemn, we must ensure that our perspective is correct and that our planned course of action will yield positive results.

Many years ago, Maran Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l taught me this very lesson. There was resentment at that time against a certain institution that took controversial positions and sought to encroach on territory where it did not belong. I wanted to write an article protesting its actions, but before doing so, I consulted with the Ponovezher rosh yeshiva as to the most effective way to wage this campaign.

His response astounded me. He advised me not to write the article and not to fight that battle. He said that before you get into a public dispute you have to be prepared to win. You have to calmly and rationally review your arguments and make sure that they are ironclad. Then you have to carefully anticipate the arguments that will be arrayed against you and make sure that you will be able to counter them convincingly. You have to consider who will align with you and who will oppose you. You must make sure that you won’t be left standing alone and defenseless against everyone else.

Only after you have thoroughly and honestly examined every angle and are confident of a victorious outcome should you pick up the gauntlet. To engage in controversy if you won’t accomplish anything serves no purpose.

“Now,” said Rav Shach, “let’s examine this issue and see what will happen if you write that article.”

We went through it and, indeed, the article was never written and the confrontation never took place.

Too often, we put people in positions where it is almost impossible for them to do something positive with their lives. It is thus no surprise that they become bitter. They then act out of bitterness and jealousy without considering how their words and actions will come back to haunt them. They fail to consider the repercussions of their hostile words, doing themselves and their cause the greatest disservice.

Our great leaders care deeply about Klal Yisroel and love every Jew. At times, they feel that they must fight to preserve the integrity of our emunah and mesorah. They take up the fight reluctantly only when convinced that the alternative of sitting by quietly is worse. Confrontation is undertaken as a painful last resort to preserve the pach shemen tahor which survives to this day, thanks to the resolute allegiance of the faithful.

Even at a time of confrontation, however, our great leaders don’t act out of anger but out of love. They express their disapproval or condemn specific actions that carry the potential for great harm to Klal Yisroel. But there is no rancor. They offer constructive criticism, crafted sensitively to avoid throwing fuel on the flames. They don’t speak with hate, but with great concern and caring. And they don’t become bitter and vicious.

I just began reading Rabbi Paysach Krohn’s latest book, “In the Spirit of the Maggid,” and found a fascinating story making the point that one must carefully weigh a situation before exposing and condemning a misdeed.

A fifth grade boy came to school one day wearing a fancy new watch. He took it off during recess and left it on his desk. When he returned, the watch was gone. When no one would come foward with the missing watch, the rebbi lined up all the children against the wall and began searching through their pockets to find the culprit.

The rebbi found the watch in the pocket of the third boy in the line. But instead of embarrassing him and turning him into a spectacle, the rebbi continued checking each boy to see if he had the watch. When the search was over, the rebbi announced that he had retrieved the watch and class could resume.

The rebbi didn’t even look in the boy’s direction. He didn’t do anything to betray his secret. Thanks to that rebbi and the consideration he displayed to a contrite boy who, in a moment of weakness, had succumbed to temptation, the boy went on to model himself after that rebbi and, by his own testimony, never stole again.

The way to a boy’s heart and soul is not always with a smack and a yell. A Jew consumed with a loving heart can reach the core of another Jew through an act of quiet mussar. Without even saying one word of admonition, the rebbi’s noble consideration not only straightened out the boy, but provided a living example for the boy to emulate and aspire to in his crucial formative years.

So if you think you have seen, heard or read someone doing something hideous, and when faced with someone’s outrageous behavior, remember that oftentimes a display of love can accomplish more than a flash of hate, calmness can achieve more than anger, and you don’t always need a hatchet to kill a mosquito.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

We Are One

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Two weeks ago, 4,200 Chabad shluchim gathered in New York to celebrate their accomplishments and dedication. This week, no one is celebrating. But they are more united than ever before. After the atrocities in India, all of us are more united.

Today, the shluchim sit in their outposts around the world and mourn the loss of a couple who gave their lives al kiddush Hashem. All disputes between brothers are brushed aside as Jews everywhere join in mourning the senseless slaughter of beloved, exemplary Jews.

Lubavitch, Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok, Bobov and Volover chassidim, along with Mexican and Indian Jews, and unaffiliated Israeli Jews. Jews of all stripes are mourning as one.

Today we ought to realize that while we view the world with different perspectives, the ties that bind us are stronger than our differences. Wherever we live, we are one with Jews across the globe. The world is a small place. The things that divide us are marginal compared to the fundamental values and beliefs that make us brothers. When one of us is targeted, we are all under attack.

This hits home especially in an era such as ours when we are surrounded by evil forces bent on our destruction. As Iran points nuclear weapons at us and radical Islamists scour the internet for Jewish addresses to target, it is a time for reconciling and coming together. With incomes down, contributions to charitable causes taking a steep dive, and people fearing for their very homes, it is time for unity.

Our hold on life is as delicate as it is precious. We like to think we are strong and in control of our lives, yet all too often we are reminded of the temporary nature of it all. At a time when we are reminded of how vulnerable we are, we must attempt to untie the knots that separate us from each other and strive for togetherness.

That doesn’t mean that we all have to agree on everything. It means that despite our disagreements, as long as we are in concurrence on the ikkrim, we should be able to sit together without demonizing each other.

Chanukah commemorates a dynamic that has operated since the dawn of our history as a nation. When righteous Jews band together to fight the forces of evil and darkness, Hashem brings them victory. A tiny, dedicated and united force was able to vanquish a vastly more numerous and better-equipped army. That victory cleared the way for the relighting of the menorah in the Bais Hamikdosh which brought G-dly light down to this world.

Our mission, too, is to do our utmost to fight evil, and to be on guard against the foe lurking in every corner it can infiltrate. We cannot sit by and rationalize that there is nothing that we can do. We must be able to rise above the inertia which paralyzes us and declare that we have had enough.

We have had enough of ineffectual leadership, ‘pragmatic’ organizations, lethargy and apathy. We have had enough of being afraid to stand up for the truth. We have had enough of being perpetual punching bags.

We have had enough of wallowing in exile in confusion and turmoil, without any sense of where we are going.

We will hew to the path as laid out for us by the Rambam. That means repenting for our misdeeds and rising above the maelstrom so that we can arouse ourselves and our brothers to correct the breaches of faith that hold back the geulah.

Desperate times require desperate moves. Desperate times call for people to break with habit and come forward to shed light on the true path. They demand that we move outside our comfort zone and venture forth to right wrongs, to tread where smaller men fear to go.

Desperate times dictate that we maintain our faith and never give up in the face of mounting pressures and losses.

People stumble about in the dark not knowing which way to turn, not knowing whether they will have enough money to make next month’s rent or mortgage payment. People search desperately for leadership, for guidance, for succor and support, and we have to be there to provide it for them.

As we are reminded of our tenuous hold on life and finances, and the temporal nature of much of our lives, we rediscover the permanence of Torah and Am Yisroel. We resolve to do what we can to cleave to that which is permanent and real, and leave behind the petty and trivial.

We shouldn’t need a tragedy of this magnitude to remind us that we are all brethren in exile. But now that we have been reminded, we shouldn’t forget the message. We should reach out and befriend others and draw them near. No Jew should ever feel alone and left behind. He should know that he has brothers who care, who are ready to embrace him and help him.

The power of achdus is underscored in this week’s parsha of Vayeitzei, where we learn how Yaakov Avinu prepared himself for his first rest in fourteen years. He gathered twelve stones to place around his head for protection. The stones joined together and became one, and then he slept.

The question is obvious. How would these stones offer protection for Yaakov? How did they enable him to sleep securely at that location and dream the magnificent dream in which Hashem made epic promises to him and his descendants?

Allegorically, those stones represent the twelve tribes of Klal Yisroel whom he was to propagate. He set them under his head as a symbolic reminder to Hashem of the future Am Yisroel which he was on his way to launch.

Each stone represented a shevet and a derech in avodah. When the stones united and became one, Yaakov knew that he would be safe, for he understood the symbolism that the twelve singular individuals would mesh and combine to form Am Yisroel.

The message is there for all time. When there is achdus and unity, we are safe as children of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov. When divided, we are at the mercy of forces seeking our destruction.

Yaakov said he would fashion this stone - ha’even hazos - as a matzeivah and a bais Elokim, as a reminder that in unity there is security and holiness. In dissention, there is fear, uncertainty and the driving away of the Shechinah.

Chazal teach that Yaakov instituted Tefillas Arvis, the prayer we say in the dark of night. From Yaakov comes a special legacy of faith and hope that enables us to endure the bitter exile. Even as we grope our way in the darkness, we can still pry open a window to admit light in our lives.

Even when all we have is an inert stone, we can transform it into a tool of holiness and use it to fashion a temple of G-d. We can be enslaved by tyrannical, maniacal people like Lavan, but if we are bearers of kedushah, we can outmaneuver them and build edifices of holiness.

Yaakov was able to roll the stone of darkness off the well of water and life while the others just stood by, lacking the strength of purpose to accomplish the feat. They did not know that it was possible to lift stones which impede the forces of good. Because they assumed it couldn’t be done, they didn’t even make the attempt.

Yaakov showed us that we should let nothing stand in the way of our pursuit of Torah, of goodness and of life itself.

The next time you face what appears to be an impossible task, remember Yaakov Avinu and the stone he lifted from the well. Always endeavor to bring kedushah to your life, wherever you are and whatever you do.

Gather your strength, collect yourself and focus your energies in worthwhile ways. Fight back by building. Let our success be our response. Our positive actions will speak louder, last longer and accomplish much more than negative acts of retaliation and spite.

The parsha concludes, “V’Yaakov holach ledarko veyifge’uh bo malachei Elokim.” Because Yaakov didn’t join Lavan in the gutter, he merited that malachim came to greet him as he left Lavan behind.

In the face of evil, there is hope. In the face of tragedy, there is consolation. In the face of despair, there is expectation.

R’ Gavriel and Rivky Holtzberg Hy”d were killed, but their child lives on as a testament to the kindness of a nanny. They are dead, but will never be forgotten. And their young child will be the repository of many tears, but also many prayers and much hope.

Purveyors of evil and hatred spent a year painstakingly planning a depraved attack on unarmed innocents in an attempt to settle old scores. A handful of madmen meticulously schemed and executed their plan to terrorize civilians and cause as much harm as possible to Britons, Americans and Jews.

While others seek to destroy the world, we seek to repair it. Others seek to spread darkness and hatred; we must be as dedicated to causing light and love to shine wherever we go.

As radical Islamists increase their appetites for terror, security forces are unable to keep pace with them. Governments’ retaliation and counter measures don't inspire confidence. Law enforcement in our own country is paralyzed by its subservience to political correctness. Security has become a handmaiden to politics and instituted a mass of unrealistic laws to delude us into a feeling of safety.

Rational people ought to know that forcing obviously harmless, innocent people to remove their shoes before boarding planes will not deter attacks. Such measures accomplish little more than to annoy law-abiding citizens and remind them of their government’s ineffectiveness in the face of serious concerns.

Even in Israel, where you'd think experience would have made a better teacher, and where every public building has a person providing security at the front door, anyone can gain access from an unguarded rear door.

We repeatedly place our faith in men and fail to remember that were it dependent on human protection, we would all have been victims long ago. It is only because Hashem protects us that we do not succumb to the evil machinations of wicked people. But we must be worthy of that Divine protection. We must display fidelity to our Heavenly Father if we want to be treated as beloved children worthy of protection.

We have been slapped in the face and need to be roused from our complacency. To remain indifferent, as if we feel unthreatened in the face of the storm winds swirling around us, does not bode well for our future.

The economy stumbles in fits and starts. Crisis dominates foreign affairs. Terror rears its ugly head and exacts a terrible price. Yet, despite it all, we remain unruffled, betraying no anxiety beneath our equilibrium.

We cannot survive in this world by backing away from the challenge and failing to rise to the occasion. We have to stop undermining each other and looking for things to criticize. Cynicism should be out of vogue at a time when the first order of business is to repair and build.

We don't have the luxury now of being able to be perfectionists. When a fire burns, we can’t afford to waste a second. We don’t check the identification papers of the firemen who come to fight the fire, or ensure that the water coming out of their hoses is unpolluted and chlorinated.

Our brothers and sisters are being lost to the Jewish people at an alarming rate. Assimilation and intermarriage have wreaked a heavier toll on our people than bin Laden or Hitler, yemach shemom. We are under attack and have to become more organized and resolute in fighting back. Jews of all stripes who believe in the same G-d and follow the same Torah must band together and fight this battle more energetically and with renewed dedication and a well thought-out strategy.

As we are reminded once again of man's capacity for evil, we must fight back by displaying our capacity for good. We cannot be deterred by those who seek to demean us and our way of life. Nor will we be derailed from our collective shlichus to prepare the world for the coming of Moshiach tzidkeinu.