Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Prudence and Reason

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

In this week’s parsha of Bo, we learn of the commandment to rid ourselves of all leavened products before the onset of Pesach. An interesting discussion in the Gemara regarding the deadlines for eating chometz and for bi’ur chometz on Erev Pesach, offers striking insights into the various ways people go about the mitzvah of eradicating se’or.

We can use these insights to probe human behavior when it comes to the need to remove se’or in its more figurative sense—as when human ambition and arrogance block healthy, constructive action. This will give us a handle on some of the most pressing concerns facing us today.

Let’s look into the Gemara’s discussion of why the chachomim gave an earlier deadline for eating chometz on Erev Pesach, than for burning the chometz. According to the Gemara, one is forbidden to eat chometz after the end of the fourth hour, but is given an extra hour until the actual deadline for burning the chometz. Thus, chometz need not be burned until the onset of the sixth hour. What is the reason for this later deadline?

In Gemara Pesachim (12b), Rava explores the reasoning behind Rav Yehuda’s position that the chachomim gave an extra hour so that people can gather branches to prepare the fire to burn their leftover chometz.

Rava postulates that Rav Yehuda holds that the only way to destroy chometz is by burning it. Anyone who has ever burned their own chometz knows that fire fueled with oil burns spectacularly but quickly fizzes out. A fire that is lit with carefully layered twigs lasts far longer and burns all the chometz, as halachically required.

If you take the easy way out and pour an accelerant over the chometz, the fire will likely dissipate before your chometz has been destroyed. Though the flames will erupt instantaneously, your mission will fall short of its goal.

Only if you expend the effort of setting a bed of twigs for the fire and light them methodically will the fire attain and sustain a heat level sufficient to be mekayeim the mitzvah of tashbisu. If you set fire only to the chometz itself, the fire will not catch on. If you douse the flames with oil, the fire will blaze instantly but will become extinguished before the bread has been consumed.

That message is inherent in the p’sak of Rav Yehuda that for chometz to be burned thoroughly, the fire must be built with care and intelligence.

The same holds true when we excise se’or from our hearts and lives. When something undesirable needs to be uprooted from our world, the temptation is to go for the spectacular. Smaller people aim for dazzling fireworks and expedience. Yet, that approach accomplishes little in the long run, and often boomerangs. At the very least, the success it supposedly generates is short-lived.

There is nothing obscure or elusive about these facts of life. Yet, they are largely ignored. What prevents people from appraising things realistically? What part of our personality forces us to act in an ill-advised manner? The culprit seems to be arrogance. Our ego deceives us into letting our emotions rule us instead of our intelligence.

Vayechazeik Hashem es lev Paroh” can be explained to mean that Hashem caused Paroh’s inflated self-regard to prevent him from acting prudently as his brain dictated. He let his emotions blind him from acknowledging what was plainly obvious to any objective observer. “Haterem teidah ki ovdah Mitzrayim?” his servants challenged him. “How can you not see that Mitzrayim is on a collision course with disaster?!”

In our private lives and in the public arena, if we want to merit Divine assistance to enable us to succeed, we have to be honest with ourselves and conduct a frank cheshbon hanefesh about where we are, where we ought to be, and how we will get there. We have to set priorities. We have to seriously examine what is real, what is absolute, and what is farce and pretension. We must learn to separate priorities from trivialities. We have to examine our hearts to ensure that we are acting with responsibility and foresight.

We live in very scary times. Both in this country and in Eretz Yisroel, radical changes are taking place and nobody knows how to deal with these developments. No one can foresee the consequences or the endgame.

We have a new president who was elected primarily on the basis of his rhetorical skills. People are hungry for leadership, and when this man came out of nowhere and swept them off their feet with his beautiful speeches, a majority of the people ignored their valid questions and reservations and impulsively elected him as the chief executive of the country. Without a record of accomplishment in any sphere on which to base their decision, they allowed fantasy and wishful thinking to dictate their response.

Now that he has taken office, some of these questions are surfacing. People aren’t sure what to expect from him. As long as he was campaigning, people projected their hopes onto him and convinced themselves that he would bring these ardent hopes to fruition. They ignored the fact that he had never been tested nor was he ever forced to express a solid opinion about the issues of the day.

It thus remains to be seen whether he will be co-opted by the liberal left which worked so hard for his election, or whether he can govern as the post-partisan unifier he promised to be.

Many fear that our new president may be veering off to the extreme left, based upon his statements and actions during his first week in office. Not only is he working on a trillion dollar spending debacle which will do nothing to stimulate economic growth or fight unemployment in the short run; he will be shutting down the terrorist jail on Guantanamo Bay without a clue of what to do with the hardcore terrorists being held there.

To quote the Washington Post, “President Obama yesterday eliminated the most controversial tools employed by his predecessor against terrorism suspects. With the stroke of his pen, [Obama] effectively declared an end to the war on terror, as President George W. Bush had defined it.”

In addition, this week he publicly criticized China for manipulating its currency. If China stops buying Treasury debt the whole stimulus package will be destroyed. He said he will let states impose new curbs on auto manufacturers who are in enough trouble as is, and force them to produce energy efficient small cars that no one is interested in.

Most disconcerting, he is sending his “objective” Mideast peace envoy to the region—a man who admittedly “feels the Palestinian pain”—to negotiate with Olmert and Livni right before an election. By making their opponent look bad, this maneuver has the power to interfere in a democratic election—which is quite likely its goal.

Adding fuel to the fire, Obama’s UN pick announced that his team will soon commence working on negotiating with a nuclear-driven Iran.

When he won the presidential election, we wrote that he should be given a chance to prove himself, and we’re hopeful that he’ll govern from the center, but so far, it appears as if he is in lock step with the left wing agenda—like lemmings blindly marching over a cliff.

Still, we must keep hope alive that somehow he will succeed in recharging the economy and help the country regain its economic footing. We hope that reports of his studied impartiality in the Mideast mess—and failure, so far, to distinguish between villain and victim—will also prove untrue.

Perhaps he and his envoys will opt to advocate for what is right and proper, and not feel a need to posture to find favor in the eyes of the Axis of Evil.

In Eretz Yisroel, we hope that the elections about to take place will sweep into power people who will truly take responsibility for the welfare of their people. We hope that party hacks who place their own personal ambitions above concern for the security and wellbeing of the embattled citizens of the Jewish state will finally be put out to pasture.

There, as here, people are desperate for leadership and are willing to latch onto anyone who gives the impression of being able to lead in our turbulent times. Exploiting the desperation, arrogant sycophants on both sides of the Atlantic capture positions of influence and power, and force their destructive contrivances upon the people of the country.

These people make decisions and political moves purely to jack up their image and preen themselves in the media’s spotlight. Politicians and private citizens fall into the trap of elevating short-term razzle-dazzle over long-range benefits. They fail to appreciate, or care about, the long-term effects of their actions. If it looks good for now, that’s enough for them. Tomorrow will take care of itself, they muse silently. Meanwhile, today I can play the hero.

Those in power often callously sacrifice the interests of the very supporters who trustingly elected them. They operate as Ponzi-schemers, pushing their luck day by day. They bluster and bluff their way through their responsibilities, bribed by the payoff of the moment. Long-term consequences are never considered; short-term gain is the sole concern.

At times like these, we must seek to wrest power from egotistical schemers and hand it over to people with responsible views who cannot be bribed by temporary flights of fancy.

When important leadership positions need filling, when organizations are floundering, we should put aside petty agendas and support the appointment of wise and mature individuals who will work for solutions that will stand the test of time.

Sure, it’s more difficult. Sure, it’s much more complicated to forego haste and expedience and weigh a problem soberly from all angles. However, if we are to not only endure but thrive during this period of chaos and depression, we must do everything in our power to ensure the election of loyal, capable people at the helm.

We have to deal with the world the way it is, not the way we want it to be. As the posuk states, “Betachbulos taaseh milchama,” when doing battle you must size up the enemy shrewdly, and come up with a grounded, intelligent strategy for victory.

What we need are realistic solutions to real problems and not grandstanding for the glory of the moment, or fanciful thinking that has no application to reality. It is far easier to deliver big speeches and to propose grandiose transformations than to sit far from the limelight and develop a workable approach. Bold, well thought-out solutions will have a lasting and salutary effect on the community long after the rousing speech has been forgotten.

Whatever we are engaged in, we must be careful to ensure that we are not motivated solely by momentary benefit but by a realistic assessment of what our actions will cost us down the road. We can’t afford to let our egos derail us from the epic challenges of our day, or harden our hearts to the uncomfortable realities facing us. We must choose a correct course to follow to ensure that we can endure the tests of time until the arrival of Moshiach speedily in our day.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Thank You

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The attention of the nation was focused on the Hudson River last Thursday as a miracle occurred. An airplane with over 150 people on board lost the power of both its engines and was forced to land in the Hudson River in New York City six minutes after taking off from La Guardia Airport. In the history of aviation, there has never been as successful a water landing as the one executed by the pilot of this airplane. New York’s governor called it “The Miracle on the Hudson,” and the moniker stuck because it was so apt.

Under normal circumstances, the people aboard that plane would have died. However, due to the miraculous coming together of so many different what-ifs, everyone walked off the plane and was scooped to safety aboard one of the ships waiting nearby.

Even those passengers with minimal intelligence must realize that they are living on borrowed time. One minute they were preparing for imminent death. A minute later their lives were spared and they walked on dry land breathing fresh air once again. Think about what went through their minds and how grateful they must be for every step and each breath they take.

A fascinating Gemara states that Chananyah, Mishoel and Azaryah were inspired by the frogs of Mitzrayim to give up their lives al kiddush Hashem.

The Gemara in Pesachim (53b) explains that they learned a kal vachomer from the actions of the frogs during makas tzefardeiah when the frogs jumped into the Egyptian ovens, bringing about their own deaths.

They analyzed the pesukim and concluded that the frogs could have fulfilled their obligation by simply hopping around Mitzrayim and making a general nuisance of themselves. For them to fulfill G-d’s will during that makkah, it was not necessary for them to be roasted to death.

After all, Chananyah, Mishoel and Azaryah reasoned, frogs don’t have the commandment of kiddush Hashem, yet they carried their devotion to this extreme. Certainly, Chananyah, Mishoel and Azaryah who were obligated to be mekadeish sheim Hashem should be prepared to die al kiddush Hashem.

My great-uncle writes in his classic sefer Nachal Yehudah that since animals are not baalei bechirah, they do not receive reward for their acts.

If he is correct, how is it that Chananya, Mishoel and Azaryah assumed that an element of free choice was manifest in the manner in which the frogs carried out their shlichus? If animals act purely on instinct, how could the three neviim have drawn any kind of lesson or inspiration from their acts?

There are instances where the Torah ascribes human attributes and motives to animals. One example is by petter chamor, the mitzvah to redeem a firstborn donkey.
Chazal explain: “Why are firstborn donkeys set apart from firstborn horses or firstborn camels? First, because the Torah decreed it so. Second, they helped Am Yisroel during Yetzias Mitzrayim, for there was not a single Jew who did not have 90 donkeys loaded with the silver and gold of Mitzrayim” (Bechoros 5b).

Chazal are saying that the Torah commanded us to redeem every firstborn donkey for all generations in recognition of the help these animals extended to our forefathers when they were departing Egypt. Stated simply, Chazal are saying that this mitzvah is a way of showing hakoras hatov to the donkeys.

To imprint this lesson in our minds and on our hearts, the Torah bestows on firstborn donkeys the kedushah of a cheftzah shel mitzvah, the sanctity of an object that can be used to perform a mitzvah.

If an animal has no bechirah and thus merits no reward or punishment, why do we reward the donkey for having helped us in Mitzrayim?

The dog, too, received a reward for its good behavior toward the Jews who were leaving Egypt. As the posuk says, “Be a holy people to Me. Do not eat flesh torn off by a predator in the field. Cast it to the dogs” (Shemos 22:30).

Rashi, commenting on this posuk, asks, “Why does the Torah specify the dog? To teach that Hashem does not withhold reward from any creature. As it is written, ‘A dog will not even whine to the Jewish People’ (Shemos 11:7). In return, Hashem said, ‘Give [the dog] its reward.’”

The question, once again, is obvious: If an animal has no bechirah and thus earns no reward or punishment, why do we reward the dogs for having helped us in Mitzrayim?

A closer examination of the aforementioned Gemara in Maseches Pesachim may help us understand the lesson derived from the frogs during makkas tzefardeiah, as well as the purpose behind the rewards bestowed on donkeys and dogs. It may also explain Moshe Rabbeinu’s reluctance to strike the water and the earth prior to the makkos of dam and kinnim.
The Gemara doesn’t actually say that Chananya, Mishoel and Azaryah learned a kal vachomer from the tzefarde’im. The Gemara is discussing Todus ish Romi and asks whether he was a gavrah rabbah, a great man, or a baal egrofin, a tough person who people were scared of.

The Gemara proves that Todus was a gavrah rabbah because of the way he searched for the source of the mesiras nefesh displayed by Chananya, Mishoel and Azaryah to die al kiddush Hashem. Todus darshened that they derived their sense of obligation from the pesukim that describe the way the tzefarde’im went about their duty in Mitzrayim.

He reasoned that if tzefarde’im, which are not commanded to be mekadeish Hashem, were moser nefesh, certainly we, who are commanded to be mekadeish Hashem, are obligated to put our lives on the line.

How does the Gemara deduce from this drasha that Todus was a gavrah rabbah? If we can assume that what it says in the sefer Nachal Yehudah is true, and animals have no bechirah and thus no reward and punishment, then it must be that Todus didn’t learn his kal vachomer from the way the frogs actually acted. Rather, he learned his kal vachomer from the way the pesukim describe the frogs’ behavior. From the way the Torah detailed how the frogs swarmed about to every corner of Mitzrayim, Todus determined that there was a lesson to be learned from that description for Jews of all time, including neviim.

A person who examines pesukim so carefully, with the aim of deriving inspiration and moral teaching from the stories in the Torah, is a gavrah rabbah. Someone who can extrapolate such timeless lessons cannot be a baal egrofim.

The salient message is that the precepts commanding us to redeem firstborn donkeys and to throw the bosor treifah to the dogs are not intended to reward the animals but to teach us a serious lesson.

Moshe Rabbeinu could not turn the Yam Suf into blood during makkas dam, for, as Rashi explains, “The Yam Suf protected Moshe when he was cast into it [as a baby]. For this reason, he did not bring about the makkos of dam or tzefardeiah and they were done instead by Aharon” (Rashi, Shemos 7:19).

Likewise, Moshe Rabbeinu did not strike the ground to bring forth lice during the plague of kinnim because, as Rashi explains, the dirt “protected him when he killed the Egyptian and buried him in the sand” (Rashi, Shemos 8:12).
Hakoras hatov is a preamble to Torah. We treat donkeys and dogs differently not to reward them for what they did in Mitzrayim, but to train ourselves to acknowledge those who did us favors and express appreciation for those acts of kindness.

The dogs don’t know the difference, and neither do the donkeys. The ground wouldn’t have any way of knowing that Moshe struck it, and neither would the Yam Suf. The point is that Moshe himself knew. Striking something to which you are indebted demonstrates ingratitude. To ingrain into us the midah of hakoras hatov, we treat these inanimate objects with deference.

Chazal say, “Ro’asah shifcha al hayom mah shelo ra’ah Yechezkel ben Boozi...”

The maidservants at Kriyas Yam Suf merited seeing the greatest visions of G-d’s wonders, even greater than those of the neviim. How can that be?

In order to be a makir tov, you have to be makir tov. In order to recognize greatness in this world, you need to be a person who is appreciative of the goodness that is out there. You need to be the type of person who appreciates the good that is in the world. In order to qualify as a nobler kind of person who can perceive the good, you have to first train yourself to express gratitude for the good you have received.

The humblest servants at the time of Yetzias Mitzrayim had absorbed the lesson taught by Moshe Rabbeinu when he couldn’t strike the inanimate objects that had protected him in his time of need. They had learned that although dirt and water have no feelings or bechirah, we still must show appreciation for the benefits we received from them. And we must draw a lesson from them when warranted.

People who are makir tov to water and sand can learn lessons from frogs as well. Such people are anoshim gedolim, great people. The shfachos al hayom had been so deeply inculcated with lessons from Moshe and his ethical conduct that by the time of Kriyas Yam Suf, they were able to see the gadlus haBorei in a way never repeated by man.

The ultimate hakoras hatov is to appreciate everything that Hakadosh Boruch Hu placed in this world for our benefit. The epitome of hakoras hatov is to recognize the chassodim that are bestowed upon us by G-d, moment by moment, every day of our lives.

But there is more. The Medrash Rabba in Shemos [1, 8] and Rabeinu Bechaya on the same posuk say, “One who denies the favors his friend does for him, will eventually deny what Hashem does for him.” One day he dismisses the favors his friend has performed for him, and the next day he dismisses all the good that his Creator has done for him.

In order to be a good Jew, one must be a good person. Man comes into this world alone and helpless. That dependency is meant to teach him a lesson. We are not alone. We are part of a group and we are all members of one large family. We have no hope of surviving on our own merit or resources. We need people’s favors. We need services that other people provide in order to stay alive. Life is sustained by give and take. We have to be prepared to accept the assistance of other people if we are to live a meaningful life.

Kol Yisroel areivim zeh lazeh, but friendship and brotherhood come with obligations. Sometimes you help your friend and sometimes you have to let your friend help you. You cannot live by yourself. Some people have a problem with that, because they don’t want to be encumbered with a sense of obligation to anyone. Some would rather experience misery and loneliness than do anything that would produce a feeling of indebtedness to another person.

To be a gavrah rabbah, you have to be prepared to learn from others. As our nation was being formed, that lesson was rigorously instilled along with the imperative to appreciate all we have and all who helped us along the way.

Though no one who is reading this was on that US Airways plane on Thursday now is as good a time as any to pause and reflect on all that we have to be grateful for. Let us appreciate what Hashem does for us and thank Him for the blessings He showers upon us daily.

Let us thank our friends for their friendship and all they have done for us. Let us show gratitude to our parents for investing so much effort into raising us and enabling us to become who we are today. Let us demonstrate our appreciation for our rabbeim and teachers for inspiring us and helping us discover the beauty of Torah learning and the Torah way of life.

Let us thank and appreciate our spouses, who help us in countless ways that we have come to take for granted, and our children, simply for being who they are. Let us not forget all our family members and loved ones.

Just last week someone asked me why we have to experience sadness. Why are sad occurrences so much a part of our lives? Too often, it is only when something bad happens to people that they appreciate the good times they had until that point. We tend not to appreciate our blessings until they are taken away from us. In order for us to appreciate the good that we have, Hashem throws sadness our way. We thus appreciate all the good that we have.

Perhaps, if we would be better makirei tov and wouldn’t need to suffer tragedy in order to appreciate Hashem’s steady kindness, we would merit to experience more times of joy and fewer trials and tribulations.

Let us all be thankful for what we have and be more vocal about expressing our appreciation. In that merit, may we be zocheh to much more simcha in our lives.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Punch Line

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

There are people who love to speak publicly; I am not one of them. I really don’t enjoy delivering speeches. In fact, I hate speaking in public. I usually manage to wiggle out of it when asked. I hate preparing. I abhor the attention. I detest the whole thing. But this week something happened that made me think that I may be wrong.

Lev L’Achim is an organization that is so close to my heart that I don’t know how to say no to them. I have gotten to know the people of Lev L’Achim ever since its founding 15 years ago. Many of the people involved in Lev L’Achim have become like brothers to me. And as I get to know them even better, I keep on thinking that the name of the organization should be spelled Lamed Vov L’achim, not Lamed Veis L’Achim. The people of Lev L’Achim are truly lamed vovniks. So when I was asked by Yanky Arem to speak at the annual Flatbush breakfast reception for which he is moser nefesh, I couldn’t say no.

There were three other speakers at the event Sunday morning, each one an outstanding orator. Each of them tugged at the heartstrings of the people who attended. I would love to publish all the speeches, but for now I will share with you what I said.

We live in very scary times. We live in a period of financial recession. It is the worst economic climate since the Great Depression, which people still shake from with fear when discussing. The economy is in shambles. Every day there is a new report and a new statistic painting the picture as being progressively worse than what was thought the previous day. Israel is at war yet again with an unfriendly neighbor dedicated to its destruction. There are so many tragedies in our community and world that it feels almost as if before we can catch our breath from one, we hear of yet another.

We wonder why these events are transpiring and what we can do to improve the situation. A letter written by the Chofetz Chaim, many decades ago, addresses our situation and offers a solution.

In a letter entitled “Ma’amar Chinuch Habonim,” published in the sefer Kovetz Maamorei Ikvesa DiMeshicha, the Chofetz Chaim writes:

“We think about the distressing challenges of our time and the terrible tragedies which are escalating in the world, together with an increasingly rabid hatred of Jews in many countries in which Jews have lived comfortably until now. This is compounded by the poverty which threatens so many of our brethren. The economic situation is so severe that there is barely a person who is spared from these disasters. And everyone asks why Hashem is punishing us so.

“It is well-known that Chazal teach in Maseches Shabbos that the world exists because of the Torah study of children. Today there are tens of thousands of Jewish children who are distanced from receiving a Torah education. Instead of their mouths being filled with Torah, they are filled with words of silliness and idle music. The foundations upon which the world stands are weakening and the anxiety and concern are compounded daily.

“Therefore, every person who fears Hashem and to whom the torment of Am Yisroel touches his soul, he dare not weaken; rather, he has to muster all his strength to help establish proper Jewish schools for these children, for this is the foundation upon which all depends. We must also awaken our brethren not to give over their children to the Molech by placing them in the secular schools which seek to undermine our holy Torah. The good people must work with all of their strength to establish kosher schools where the children will be taught about Torah and mitzvos by G-d-fearing, observant teachers who will also influence the students positively with the earnestness of their character.”

The Chofetz Chaim is speaking to us today and telling us that if we wonder why thousands of people are demonstrating against us in every Western capital this week, and if we want to stem the financial recession which is ripping us to shreds and striking fear in everyone’s hearts, we should be supporting the work of Lev L’Achim - and other organizations - which seek to introduce children to the world of Torah and expend superhuman efforts to register thousands of children every year into religious schools.

When you add to this the words of the Rambam in Hilchos Teshuvah that doing teshuvah will quicken the coming of the geulah, you can easily deduce that by supporting Lev L’Achim, we will actually help our situation and help hasten the revelation of Moshiach.

As I was reading those words to the crowd on Sunday, I wished I was a screamer. I was feeling inadequate, as I wished I had the ability to stand up in front of the crowd and scream about how important Lev L’Achim is, and in what desperate straits the organization finds itself, and how we all have to do whatever we can and stretch a bit in order to help keep it alive. But I felt funny doing that.

The words of the Chofetz Chaim shout in their own merit. Divrei chachomim b’nachas nishmaim.

The work of Lev L’Achim is being accomplished by individuals. The individuals who make up Lev L’Achim are no plain individuals. They are each very special. They are each lamed vovniks.

It is a huge, mainly volunteer organization comprised of three thousand yungeleit who are out knocking on doors, offering to teach people Torah, but at the end of the day, no system, no corporate structure and no organizational chart can hold a candle to the individual P’eylim - those activists in the field - who set their sights on something and just never let up.

If three hundred Kiryat Sefer yungeleit are changing the face of Ramle with their Wednesday night visits - and they certainly are - it is only because the local advance men like Chaim Heller have paved the way.

If there are five hundred kids learning in really good Torah schools today in Afula - and there certainly are - it is only because Menachem Gold moved into the town ten years ago and has not stopped working for a minute.

These p’eylim, and there are hundreds of them, acting as the spearheads for kiruv and Torah in every corner of the country, are the true heroes at the core of Lev L’Achim.

Read the following amazing tale of one of these p’eylim, Avraham Sa’ada from Netanya.

In towns you have never heard of and will probably never visit, like Kadima, Kfar Yona, Pardesia and Tzoran, Avraham has become a living legend. His official position is that of Rishum Enrollment Coordinator in the Shfeila region of Netanya and Herzliya. His unofficial position is that of one-man crusader for Torah.

First Avraham comes to town and gets people interested in giving their children a frum education. When he has enough children signed up, he goes to the next step, and does what has to be done to get a school off the ground. He doesn’t do this to build a personal empire. Every school he has started and every gan he has founded is integrated into one of the existing school networks. It can be Shas, Chinuch Atzmai or Ohr Tzion. It does not matter to Avraham Sa’ada. His only agenda is to ensure that there is a responsible entity to keep his schools running and the curriculum at a level that will produce nice, fine, frum kids.

A couple of years ago, Avraham had a breakthrough in a town not far from Netanya. After much effort, he convinced enough families to send their children to a religious school that it was time to open a frum kindergarten in this completely secular place.

With much determination, he got permission to house his new kindergarten in the basement of an old building. The municipality promised not to give him a hard time as long as he gave his word that he’d find a real facility before long.

Avraham was ecstatic, but it was the end of August. He needed to open the new school the following Sunday morning or be left with nothing. After all, once the children would be placed elsewhere, he would not be able to get them again for at least another year. Now he had his building and a devoted ganenet ready to teach, and he had let the parents know where to show up. There was just one problem.

It was now Friday and his facility needed to be transformed from a dirty, unused basement into a bright and inviting pre-school, so that the teachers could hang up their pretty signs and make the room come alive on Motzoei Shabbos. There was literally no time to spare.

With no helpers, no budget, and no thought of the fact that none of this was ever included in his job description, Avraham got to work.

Have you ever noticed how things you must do end up taking more time than you thought they would, and before you know it, your day is gone and the job isn’t done? Well, Avraham Sa’ada had such a day that Friday. The place was in much worse shape than he thought it was before he started working that day, but he had no alternative. This was all he had. So he cleaned out all the garbage from the place and tried to make it seem presentable and inviting as a kindergarten. Finally, he got the dust and dirt out of there. He even cleared a path through the overgrown brush to allow the children access to the back door that led down to the basement.

But he still wasn’t happy, because it still looked dingy in there. So he went to the hardware store. He bought paintbrushes and enough bright white and yellow paint to give the gan a fresh look for Sunday morning. He started painting. Throughout the morning and afternoon, he painted and painted. There was so much to paint and so much to do. He kept on saying to himself, “Ode kama dakot and I’ll be out of here on the way home for Shabbos.”

It was now or never. He kept on thinking that he had enough time to make it home.

Avraham painted that Erev Shabbos and painted some more. Before he knew it, the sun was about to set. He figured that he had to keep on going, even if it meant walking home. He finally finished. He washed himself off as best he could and, moments before shkiah, set out to greet the Shabbos Queen by foot. It was too late to drive and too late to take a shower, and he had a 45-minute walk to Maariv in Kiryat Sanz.

Sweat-drenched and paint-splashed, Avraham Sa’ada found a seat in the back of the Sanzer Bais Medrash just in time for davening. As the people around him took in his paint-stained clothes and assumed he was some deranged, homeless person who had wandered in off the street, they moved away from him and shook their heads with a mixture of disgust and pity.

Avraham didn’t notice the dirty looks he was getting. He was in heaven. His clean and newly painted gan would welcome its first class on Sunday. He was envisioning the posters and decorations that his wife and the ganenet would be hanging on the walls Motzoei Shabbos to greet the children and their parents Sunday morning.

The Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe didn’t miss the unusual scene in the back of his bais medrash. He saw the paint-covered shlepper, but he also noticed the simcha on the face of the guest. He saw the way he davened. He studied the man’s face and decided that he wasn’t just some deranged person looking for a place to sit. He suspected that there was a story hiding under those clothes and that face.

When davening was over, the Rebbe motioned for his gabbai to bring Avraham Sa’ada to him.

All motion to the exits stopped, as the tzibbur stopped to gawk at the strange scene unfolding before their eyes.

Git Shabbos,” the Rebbe said to Avraham. “I am guessing that you have a story to tell.”

Avraham could not hide his exhilaration. He shared his story and his excitement over the prospect of twenty precious Yiddishe neshamos who would be beginning Torah lives in their new gan come Sunday.

With everyone watching, the Rebbe embraced the sweaty Avraham Sa’ada, paint-stained clothes and all. He kissed the hem of Avraham’s shirt and called out in a loud voice, “These are bigdei Shabbos! These are clothes that truly honor the Aibishter!”

What a great story. What a special person. The Lev L’Achim people really are lamed vovniks.

But that is not the punch-line.

Earlier this month, Avraham Sa’ada was laid off. His salary was less than $15,000 a year.

That is not the punch-line either.

He was not the only one who was let go. These terrible economic times are more terrifying for mosdos which depend on donations to survive.

Rabbi Eliezer Sorotzkin, Director of Lev L’Achim in Eretz Yisroel, has been doing the only responsible thing he can under the circumstances. Besides for ratcheting up the fundraising efforts, he has been cutting back on salaries, on programs and even on personnel.

At Sunday’s reception, I made my pitch and sat down, hoping that my words would have some effect. But I was not prepared for the person who came over to me when the program ended and handed me a folded up check. “This is for Avraham Sa’ada,” he said.

Before I had a chance to say anything, the man disappeared into the crowd. I unfolded the check and, to my amazement, saw that it was made out for $15,000, Avraham Sa’ada’s annual salary.

And that, my dear friends, is the punch-line.

Despite all that is going on around us, despite the fact that no one knows what tomorrow will bring, and despite the fact that everyone is holding onto every penny they have, a person can be moved enough to write out a check for $15,000 so that Avraham Sa’ada can run around Eretz Yisroel bringing Jews tachas kanfei haShechinah. Such an act should bring the day closer when Hakadosh Boruch Hu will say, “Higi’ah zeman geulas’chem.”

Let us all remember, and never forget, what a special nation we are fortunate to be a part of. We are each a precious member of a nation that demonstrates altruism and selflessness that defy description. We each have the ability and can merit the siyata diShmaya to make a difference and change the world, just as Avraham Sa’ada is doing, one person at a time.

Let us not wallow in self pity. Let us not worry constantly about what the morrow will bring. Let us not concentrate on all the things that go wrong, but rather sing the praises of the anonymous tzaddikim and lamed vovniks - like the person who wrote out that check - who do all they can to prepare the world for the coming of Moshiach.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Golus Survival

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Parshas Vayechi teaches survival lessons for the Jewish people in exile. Especially in these dangerous times, we need to probe the inner depth of the pesukim to uncover these important messages.

Rashi begins his peirush by explaining that the parsha of Vayechi Yaakov is a “setumah,” because Yaakov Avinu wanted to reveal the keitz, and was prevented from doing so. (“Setumah” refers to the absence of the usual blank space separating two parshios.)

The basic approach to understanding this Rashi is that Yaakov wanted to reveal to his children when the final redemption would arrive, and he was not permitted to do so. The obvious difficulty with this explanation is this: what benefit would it have been to his children to know that the geulah would come in the year 5769-2009? What kind of consolation would it have been for the shevatim and their descendants to learn that the Jewish people would languish in exile for thousands of years?

If Yaakov’s intention was to bolster the flagging spirits of a people longing for redemption, wouldn’t knowledge of a keitz delayed for millennia produce the exact opposite response? Imagine the despairing effect of such a message on all the generations of faithful Jews clinging to the hope, day after day, year after year, that Moshiach was just around the corner.

Another intriguing question: the meforshim discuss that, in actuality, the stimah should have been placed in the middle of the parsha, at the point where the posuk hints that Yaakov wanted to reveal the keitz to the shevatim, and not at the beginning of the parsha. Why, indeed, is it at the beginning of the parsha that we are shown that Yaakov was prevented from revealing the End of Days?

To resolve these questions, let’s take a closer look at the sequence of events as described by the pesukim. The parsha recounts how Yaakov made Yosef swear that he would ensure that Yaakov would be buried in Eretz Yisroel following his passing. The pesukim continue that some time later, Yosef heard that Yaakov was ill and brought his children to him. Yaakov strengthened himself, sat up on his sickbed, and proceeded to bless the two sons of his beloved Yosef. He told Yosef that they are as precious to him as Reuvein and Shimon and that each would be counted as one of the shevatim.

Yaakov then interrupts himself to digress to events in the past. He recounts to Yosef the death of his mother, Rochel, and how he buried her in Bais Lechem. The Torah then relates in posuk 9 that Yaakov saw the sons of Yosef and asked who they were. When Yosef answered that they were his sons, Yaakov told Yosef to bring them closer to him so that he could bless them.

Posuk 10 continues that Yaakov was unable to see. Posuk 11 tells us that Yaakov remarked to Yosef that he never dreamed he would be privileged to see his beloved lost son again, and now, on top of that, he even merited seeing Yosef’s children.

Yosef then approached Yaakov with Menashe on his right and Efraim on his left. Yaakov placed his right hand on the younger Efraim and his left on the bechor, Menashe, and blessed them. Yosef was troubled at how his father reversed his hands so that the younger son “received” the right hand that should rightfully have been placed on the bechor. Yaakov explained that the younger son is destined to achieve greater stature than his older brother in the future. He blessed them again and said that for all time, Jews will bless their sons with the words, “Yesimcha Elokim k’Efraim v’ch’Menashe.”

What transpired here was obviously a great deal more than a simple scenario of an old and blind grandfather blessing two grandchildren he hardly knew. Both Efraim and Menashe were born to Yosef prior to Yaakov’s arrival in Mitzrayim. Yaakov, by now, had been in Mitzrayim for 17 years, so these boys were at least 18 years old. Yaakov has surely come to know them. The Medrash, in fact, states that Efraim would study Torah every day with Yaakov. How could it be that all of a sudden, Yaakov didn’t know who he was?

Yet, bafflingly, posuk 9 states that Yaakov saw the boys but didn’t know who they were, Posuk 10 then says that Yaakov couldn’t see at all, and then finally in posuk 11, the Torah states that he was overjoyed to have seen Yosef’s children!

It is obvious that in the give-and-take between our hallowed forefathers, lofty matters far removed from the mundane were being discussed. Perhaps we can glean some insight into these profound exchanges by exploring a new angle to the Rashi and Medrash that discuss why the parsha is a setumah.

Yaakov wanted to reveal to his sons the secrets of how to bring about the period of Acharis Hayomim. He wanted to tell them what they had to do to bring about the keitz that we so desperately yearn for. The world must be prepared for Moshiach to arrive and reveal himself to the masses. Yaakov wanted to teach them the kabbalistic principles which deal with preparing the world for the ultimate redemption.

This knowledge was suddenly withheld from him. Hakadosh Boruch Hu, so to speak, told him that these mystical truths must be concealed. They can only be revealed through the pious efforts of ehrliche Yidden who dedicate themselves to Torah learning and purify themselves to the degree that they merit to attain that deeper wisdom.

Am Yisroel must work on itself to reach those levels of holiness and purity that lead to a grasp of the ratzon haBoreh. It’s not something that can be taught or fed to us. We have to reach it on our own through limud haTorah.

The middah of Yaakov is that he brought down to Mitzrayim the arazim that the bnei Yisroel would require to construct the Mishkan in the desert. He was preparing them for a life of kedushah in the exile of the Midbar. In the same vein, when, prior to his passing, Yaakov saw that he wasn’t able to teach his sons how to bring about the geulah, he instead taught them how to live and persevere in golus.

That’s why the parsha is a setumah before the story of the encounter between Yaakov and Yosef, and Efraim and Menashe. Moshiach ben Yosef is the harbinger of the geulah. Thus, Yaakov wanted to reveal to Yosef the secrets of how to bring about the inception of the messianic era. But suddenly, the information vanished, triggering confusion for Yaakov.

Yaakov wondered if there was something faulty with his vision. He thought that perhaps the boys who accompanied Yosef were actually not Yosef’s sons. He pondered whether this was the reason he wasn’t able to impart to Yosef and his sons the ability to awaken within them their middah of Bais Yosef lehava in order to bring about the geulah.

Yaakov told Yosef that his sons, Efraim and Menashe, would be like his own sons, the Shivtei Kah. Yaakov saw them, but didn’t recognize them so he knew that something was amiss, and that he wouldn’t be able to deliver the secrets of ikvisah diMeshicha.

Instead, he revealed to them the secrets of golus survival. He said that Jews would bless their children to be as Menashe and Efraim. Just as these two sons were born in a strange land and yet merited to attain the level of Reuvein and Shimon, so too, for all time, Jewish boys would be reminded that although they are in exile, if they work on themselves, they can rise to the highest levels of Torah and gedulah.

Yaakov revealed to Yosef that his mother was buried at a lonely site along the side of the road because of something that was to transpire centuries later. As the Jews would be driven out of Yerushalayim and Eretz Yisroel, der mama Rochel would cry for them and Hashem would promise, in her merit, to return them to the Promised Land.

Yaakov blessed the sons that the angels who accompanied him as he went into exile and protected him throughout its duration, would stand by them in golus. The angels would call upon them the names of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, and Am Yisroel would thus prosper in the Diaspora.

He foretold to Yosef that Yerovom and Achav would come from Efraim and Yeihu would descend from Menashe. But he also told him that Menashe would give birth to Gideon, and Efraim to Yehoshua, who would lead the Jews into Eretz Yisroel after Moshe’s passing. And then he set about revealing other secrets of the golus to the rest of shevatim.

Here and Now

We have not yet perfected ourselves and made ourselves worthy of the Bais Yosef lehava. We have not yet reached the level necessary for Moshiach ben Yosef to arrive and foretell the arrival of Moshiach ben Dovid. Thus we remain mired in golus.

As we contemplate the latest bitter twist of golus, we know we’ve been here before. Once again, we find ourselves caught up in a senseless war. How many times have we been here? How often in our lifetimes have the Jews of Eretz Yisroel been forced to take up weapons to defend themselves? And how many times have we recoiled in horror at the response of the nations of the world? It’s always the same. As long as innocent Jewish blood is being spilled like water, they are quiet. Once the Jews fight back and seek to quiet their enemies, the pursuers of justice awaken and begin issuing statements calling for the Jews to crawl back into their bomb shelters.

It’s a tired, worn-out cliché, yet it never ceases to astound us. We can’t stand to be reminded that we are in golus. We can’t stand to be reminded that most nations of the world detest us and have no use for us. We don’t like to be reminded regularly that the leaders of the West and their followers really despise us. And for some reason, we also don’t like to be reminded that the situation in America is different and that we have to be very thankful to the political leaders of this country for their enduring friendship.

We take their friendship for granted. We parade down their streets as if they were ours; we do things to provoke our neighbors into disliking us, and we don’t take care to show appreciation to gentiles who show us friendliness and sympathy.

Once again, the flashing lights of emergency vehicles cast their frightful red glow upon the stone walls of cities and towns across Eretz Yisroel. Once more, bombs rain down upon our brethren. Men, women and children have no menucha as alarms go off, giving them merely 15 seconds to run for cover. We shudder to imagine the horror of never being able to sit comfortably. At any time of the day or night, no matter where they are or what they are doing, they must pick themselves up and run for their lives. It’s enough to make people go crazy.

Once more, the terrifying booms of the bombs frighten all those within earshot. The shrieks of sirens pierce the quiet of the night and the hauntingly familiar thuds send shudders up and down the spines of Jews around the world.

We have the comfort of living in freedom, with the military draft long ago abolished. Do we know the fear of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, and wives and children, as their sons and husbands paint their faces, load up their gear and go to battle, never knowing whether they will come back again alive and whole?

There seems to be no end to the pain, suffering and korbanos. “Ein keitz l’ishei chovoseinu v’ein mispar lenichochei ashmoseinu.”

Those who are younger and those who aren’t tuned in well enough forget about the rivers of tears and oceans of blood which have been spilled over the past decades. But all of us know, as we hear about these ruthless attacks and take in the daily occurrences, that we are living in unprecedented times. We realize that history is being made at every moment, and as the events unfold, they are carefully guided and orchestrated by our Heavenly Father.

Hashem favors neither the might of the horse nor the prowess of its rider. We hear the country’s political leaders pledging to “put the brakes on terror” and implement a new “blueprint for action” and shake our heads sadly at the blindness of these people. Everything from fighter jets and helicopter gunships to naval vessels and undercover squads sent to kill targeted terrorists, are unsuccessful in silencing the terror. No matter what they do, the rockets keep falling.

Yet, we know that al pi derech hatevah, if the terrorists win here and now, they and their supporters and confederates will be emboldened to move their terror to other places. They must be made to realize that they can’t get away with this. The American and world media plays into their hands by equalizing tragedy and calling for a “proportionate” response, whatever that means. This, coupled with the media exposure they are now receiving, emboldens the terrorists to continue shooting their rockets into Israel. They don’t have to beat the Israeli army in order to win. All they have to do is continue shooting their feeble rockets—which, despite their primitiveness, have the power to destroy and kill—and continue to make defiant, bombastic claims in the media. So far, they have been able to do just that.

Political leaders and military generals will ultimately have to face the infuriating fact that they are powerless; they are pawns in Hashem’s hands. Israeli military leaders thought that by deserting Gaza, they would appease their enemies and never hear from them again. Yet, the world is indifferent to the enormous sacrifice Israel made. It turns a blind eye to the fact that ever since Gaza was evacuated, Hamas has ignored its mandate to build a country for the Palestinians, and instead, has hurled all its resources into feverishly building up its military capability in order to destroy Israel.

The terrorists’ promises of making a better life for the people of Gaza proved to be empty propaganda, as fictitious as the very notion itself of a “Palestinian people.” Since Israel abandoned Gaza, Hamas has done nothing for the people who voted them into power. There have been no efforts to establish peace or a life of normalcy for the residents of that strip of land. On the contrary, Hamas has so little regard for the lives of Gaza’s citizens that they readily use the civilian population as human shields. They welcome civilian casualties, using the carnage they provoke to incite global outrage and hatred against Israel.

So many countries have suffered death and destruction at the hands of militant Islam that you would think they would be cheering on Israel to defeat the dark forces which seek to topple the West and supplant their power. Yet, all we hear are calls for restraint. Thousands upon thousands demonstrate against Israel, not only in Arab capitals, but in every major Western city.

None of this should surprise us. We have to be sure to view what is transpiring through the lens of golus, and remember the double standard which has prevailed since time immemorial. We have to turn to sifrei kodesh to understand how we are to respond to the current crisis.

The mussar greats of Kelm taught that under normal circumstances, man’s evil inclinations are kept in check by the “normal” stream of tragedies and calamities, lo aleinu. However, when man fails to head the messages embedded in these “natural” misfortunes and continues along his flawed path, Hashem causes new, unique “agents” of terror to emerge. It is His way of prompting us to halt our mindless “autopilot” behavior with all its faults and strive to improve.

The novi Tzefania speaks of a Yerushalayim sullied with blood. She disobeyed the voice of the nevi’im, did not accepted mussar, failed to have bitachon in Hashem, and did not draw herself close to Him. The novi speaks of ministers “roaring like lions” in the midst of the city, where there are “rebellious robbers of the Torah.” Hashem’s justice remains exact. “I have cut down nations, made their towers desolate, in the hope that you might take heed and learn a mussar haskeil, so that your dwellings should not be destroyed.”

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we approach the stirring Unesaneh Tokef prayer with trepidation. Mi yichyeh? Mi yomus? Who will live? Who will die? Who will be torn apart? Who will live comfortably? Who will be rich? Who will be poor? These cries ram home the realization that there is a G-d above who decides all of human fate. He controls all aspects of our lives and destinies. Then, we reach the highest emotional point in the tefillah. We shout out and proclaim to the world, to each other and to ourselves “Useshuvah, usefillah, utzedakah ma’avirin es ro’ah hagezeirah,” that teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah can cancel the negative decrees.

Teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah help dictate where the bombs will fall. Teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah determine in which countries terrorists will succeed and in which they will fail. Teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah will preordain whether we have lives of peace or lives of war. They determine whether our lives will be sedative or tumultuous, full of terror or tranquility.

Teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah aren’t just words. And they’re not just meant for the Yomim Noraim. They have to be our guiding lights, especially in times such as ours.

We live in trying times. We live in sad times. We live in the times of ikvisah diMeshicha, the times that Chazal warned us about. “Yeisei velo’achminei,” Rabbah said. He hoped fervently that Moshiach would soon arrive, but at the same time he wished that he would not have to witness the events leading up to his coming.

Mah ya’aseh adam veyinotzeil mei’chevlei Moshiach? Ya’asok baTorah ugemillus chassodim.”

Teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah have helped Klal Yisroel survive the darkest of days and will not fail us now. We have to be tofeis umnas avoseinu. We must cling to the ways of faithful Jews throughout all the ages.

We must not only bless our children that they should be like Menashe and Efraim, but we must do our best to help them grow and mature into tzaddikim gedolim who can light up the world with their Torah and tzidkus.

Grow not despondent. Never give up hope. We will prevail. Yosef, Efraim and Menashe are so close to sending their grandson, Moshiach ben Yosef, that we can almost hear his footsteps.

Let us strengthen ourselves so that we may merit the complete redemption swiftly.