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.


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