Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mishenichnas Adar Marbim Besimcha

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Parshas Terumah marks the transition from parshiyos dealing with the creation of Am Yisroel and its development as a people to the parshiyos which deal with the Mishkan and the bringing of korbanos.

The parsha begins with Hakadosh Boruch Hu instructing Moshe on how to collect the gold, silver, copper and other materials vital to the construction of the Mishkan as a home for the Shechinah in the desert.

The posuk states “Veyikchu li terumah mei’eis kol ish asher yidvenu libo tikchu es terumasi - Accept donations from all those whose hearts motivate them; you shall take the collection from them.”

Moshe Rabbeinu was commanded to accept contributions only from people who possessed a “nedivus halev.”

What is “nedivus halev” and why did Moshe take contributions of material required for the construction of the Mishkan only from people who possessed this attribute?

In Parshas Shemos (4:13-14) the Torah relates that Moshe tried to convince Hashem to appoint his brother Aharon instead of himself to be the one who would repeat G-d’s words to the Bnei Yisroel. The posuk recounts that Hashem grew angry with Moshe and informed him that his brother Aharon would travel to greet him and would be happy that Moshe was selected. The lashon of the posuk is, “Vero’achah vesomach beliboh.”

Rashi explains that Hashem was telling Moshe that he was incorrect in assuming that Aharon would feel upstaged by Moshe’s appointment as the leader of the Jewish people.

Moshe was told that, on the contrary, Aharon would be truly happy for him. It is interesting that the posuk states, “Vesomach belibo - In his heart he will rejoice for you.”

Rashi states that as reward for his genuine, heartfelt happiness over the promotion of his younger brother, Aharon was zoche to wear the Choshen - which was placed over the heart - and to serve as the Kohen Gadol in the Mishkan. What proved his worthiness to serve lifnai ulifnim was the fact that he experienced true, selfless joy over his brother’s spiritual attainments.

Aharon Hakohein, the same person who was able to be happy for his brother Moshe, was the one who is described by Chazal as an “Oheiv shalom verodef shalom.” Because he was blessed with a good heart, he was able to pursue peace between his fellow Jews. He was able to relate to other people and their problems, to bring people together and to minimize the elements that separated them.

Aharon was able to bring peace between warring partners and incompatible spouses. He was able to bring people closer to Torah. He was able to wear the Choshen and perform Hashem’s service in the Mishkan because he possessed the middah of “vero’achah vesomach beliboh.”

A selfless giant, he was unencumbered by jealousy.

That may be a hint to the explanation behind the requirement that the Mishkan be built by donations of people “asher yidvenu libo.” Rashi explains that it is a depiction of good intentions, “preshnit belaz,” which my Chumash translates as “a reinhartizgeh present,” a present given with a clean heart.

A Mishkan has to be built with the help of people who possess pure and clean hearts and thus are able to donate their goods with the fullest measure of good intentions.

In order to get a Mishkan built, bring holiness to this world, and effect major accomplishments, you can only partner with people who possess good hearts, who give without conditions and who are genuinely interested in contributing to the public welfare.

Anyone who seeks to utilize their time on this world for positive accomplishments should seek to distance themselves from people who aren’t able to rejoice in another’s happiness and those who donate with the intention of promoting their own divergent agenda. If you want to build, you have to be able to distinguish between those who are giving because they truly want to give and those who give because there is something in it for themselves.

Those who are blessed with good hearts and donate to the cause because they are nedivei lev are people with whom you can realize great achievements. Seek them out and accept their partnership in your endeavor.

Those who are nedivei lev are positive people who look to do good without criticizing others gratuitously. People who are nedivei lev seek to help others and to spread brotherhood, G-dliness and goodness in this world.

People such as these merit to improve themselves to the degree that their hearts become pure and holy and they become incapable of engaging in wrongdoing or harming others in any way. Their entire lives become a chain of goodness, happiness and greatness. They exist to help and support others and thus merit positions of leadership in the Mishkan Hashem.

They are not only an inspiration to others, but their entire life becomes a string of positive reinforcement directed at their fellow man, and thus the ripple effect of their contribution continues to grow.

If you want to be a person whose life is full and marked by accomplishment, you have to seek to mold your heart in the pattern of Aharon Hakohein. You have to work on your middos so that you will be selfless, non-judgmental and not consumed by jealousy of others.

You have to spend time learning the sefer Chovos Halevavos so that you will be imbued with sufficient doses of bitachon to help you survive in a mean and changing world. Studying the Shaar Habitachon will guide one through the turbulence in life and reinforce the knowledge that our ability to navigate and succeed in life is achieved by the degree of faith we maintain in the Borei Olam.

One who is a baal bitachon experiences happiness and serenity that escape others. A baal bitachon rejoices in his friends’ successes and does not become jealous and embittered when his ambitions are not realized the way he would have wanted.

In the last halacha in Orach Chaim, the Mechaber rules that in a year in which there are two months of Adar, there is no obligation to celebrate the fourteenth day of the first Adar with a seudah or with increased joy.

The Rama concurs and says that even though some argue with the Mechaber’s ruling and state that there is an obligation for mishteh and simcha, our custom does not follow that ruling. Nevertheless, says the Rama, in deference to the ruling of those who are more stringent, it is proper to add something special to our meals on the fourteenth day of Adar Alef. To complete this thought, as well as to conclude his discussion of the halacha and the entire Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim, the Rama brings a posuk which seems to sum it all up: “Vetov lev mishteh somid - One who possesses a good heart constantly feasts.” In other words, one who is a lev tov, a good-hearted person, is always happy.

Who is a lev tov? He is someone who delights in the happiness of his fellow Jews. He is a nediv lev. We are speaking of someone who looks with an approving eye at others and what they are seeking to build. A lev tov takes the lead in volunteering his assistance. A lev tov seeks to use his life to increase G-dliness and happiness in this world.

It is noteworthy that Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim opens with the verse, “Shivisi Hashem lenegdi somid,” and ends with the posuk, “Vetov lev mishteh somid.” The connection between the two statements is obvious: A person who always sees Hashem before his eyes is one who can be in a perpetual state of happiness. He who realizes that all that transpires in this world is G-d’s will is one who can be constantly at peace with himself and in harmony with others.

One who fails to recognize that G-d runs the world tends to fall prey to negativity and to be jealous of those around him. One who observes the posuk of “Shivisi Hashem lenegdi somid” is a person who is happy with his lot because he realizes that such is the will of the Creator. Such a person is a “tov lev” and is “mishteh somid.”

The fact that the Rama brings the posuk in Hilchos Megillah in reference to Adar indicates that this month is a propitious time to begin working on utilizing that lesson to increase the measure of happiness in our lives.

During Adar, the weather begins to turn warmer. The snow melts and trees and flowers prepare to begin sprouting. Let us thaw our souls and hearts and seek good causes in which to involve ourselves. In the spirit of Adar, let us rid our hearts of ill will, evil thoughts and malice towards others. It will make us all happier and healthier.

May we all merit healthy and pure hearts, bursting with happiness and joy in Adar and all year round.

Lezchus the tov lev, Shalom Mordechai ben Rivka.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Na’aseh Venishmah Yidden

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

It is the perfect trivia question for a young child. In which parsha does the Torah recount the immortal words of "naaseh venishmah?” Invariably, the child will think long enough to recall the parsha which discusses the Aseres Hadibros and then proudly answer, “Parshas Yisro.”

Actually, the words naaseh venishmah are recorded in Parshas Mishpatim. The posuk (24:3) states, “And all the people answered in one voice and said, ‘We will do - na’aseh - everything that Hashem has spoken.”

It is in posuk 7 that the Torah says that Moshe read the Sefer Habris to them and they said in response, “Naaseh venishmah.” Why is it that naaseh venishmah is found in Parshas Mishpatim and not in Yisro, the parsha of Kabbolas HaTorah?

The Medrashim are replete with exegesis on the superlative reaction that the recitation of these two words caused in the creation. Chazal in Maseches Shabbos [88] tell us that when Hashem heard the Bnei Yisroel say, “Naaseh venishmah,” He asked, “Who revealed this special secret that is used by angels to the Bnei Yisroel?”

What is so special about naaseh venishmah that it is a term ascribed to celestial bodies? To us, it seems understandable that the Jewish people in the desert, having been awed by Hashem’s power, agreed to follow all that He would tell them to do. These are the people who had seen the Mitzriyim being punished with makkos for enslaving them and disobeying the word of Hashem. They had witnessed the miraculous splitting of the Yam Suf, which was a mightier sight than ever witnessed by the greatest prophets. How could they not accept the word of Hashem?

Moreover, they had heard from their parents of the promises that Hashem had made to their forefathers. As they neared the exile and redemption, they had benefited from the leadership of Moshe and Aharon and were intimately aware of the G-d of their parents and grandparents. Why would they not be prepared to accept His guidance and direction?

It would appear that there is more to naaseh venishmah than an unconditional acceptance of the word of G-d.

In last week’s parsha, the Torah states, “Vayishmah Yisro,” literally translated to mean that Yisro heard of all the great things that Hashem did for the Jews. The Torah, describing Yisro as the kohein of Midyan, states that after hearing these things, he took leave of his native land and traveled to join up with the Jewish people in their humble desert encampment.

The man who had achieved power, fame and prestige in Mitzrayim and Midyan was so moved by the stories he had heard that he made the life-altering decision to forsake all and move into a tent with his children and grandchildren.

Perhaps, when Chazal praise the phrase that the Jews unilaterally and anonymously used to accept Hashem’s dominion over them, it is because when they said “venishmah,” they were referring the nishmah of Yisro. They were stating that they were prepared to follow Hashem even if that meant forsaking all and living in a barren desert. They were saying that they would do all that Hashem asked of them, whether they understood it or not, and even if it meant living a life of depravation and isolation. They were totally subjugating themselves to the will of Hashem.

Thus, when they responded, “Naaseh venishmah,” they were using language normally used by malochim, whose total purpose in creation is to serve the Creator. Through their own bechirah, they chose to suppress their natural inquisitive and independent minded impulses and affirm that they would be prepared to do whatever it takes to follow the word of Hashem. They wouldn’t only follow the letter of the law, but they would be prepared to travel to the ends of the world and give up everything they had spent a lifetime acquiring in order to follow the devar Hashem, just like Yisro did. They wouldn’t question or demur. The Torah would be their roadmap through life and they would follow it scrupulously whether they understood its reasons or not.

Because they had expressed their absolute acceptance of the will of Hashem, they merited receiving the Torah and all the blessings reserved therein for those who follow in its path. They were given the double crowns, one for naaseh and one for nishmah, to show that they had risen to fulfill the ultimate purpose of creation. As Chazal expound on the word Bereishis, “Bishvil haTorah shenikreis reishis…ubishvil Yisroel shenikre’uh reishis.” The world was created for Torah and for Klal Yisroel. By accepting the dominion of Torah without reservation, they earned the crown of the creation.

Because they had shown such devotion to the word of G-d and the Torah, Hashem told Moshe at the beginning of this week’s parsha, “Ve’eileh hamishpatim asher tosim lifneihem.” Rashi quotes the Gemarah in Eiruvin which explains that Hashem told Moshe that it wouldn’t suffice to teach the laws two or three times until the people would be able to repeat them. Instead, he had to lay everything out for them like a table set with ready-to-eat food. The halachos of Mishpatim must be given over in a way that the people can understand the underlying principles.

This served a practical purpose, as the people and the judges would be able to extrapolate the laws to various situations.

But perhaps there is another way to understand Hashem’s instruction to Moshe that he ensure that the laws are understood by the people. The deeper reason for it is that because of the Yidden’s extreme acquiescence and announced total subservience to the word of Hashem, they were rewarded that they would be obviated of the obligation to always act without understanding why. Hashem was telling Moshe that since they were prepared to completely transform their lives, they had passed the test and were deserving of Moshe ensuring that they properly understood the laws.

They were given the crown of Torah to signify that they would be able to learn and understand all of Torah if they would purify themselves and devote their lives to it. Those who pursue the Torah and observe it flawlessly not only can be crowned with the keser of naaseh for their actions, but also for nishmah, for dedicating their lives to its study. Attaining this level of holiness and understanding was only possible after they said naaseh venishmah and proclaimed that Hashem’s word would be their guiding light, whether they understood it or not. Only a people so dedicated to Torah could be blessed with the gift of being able to receive the Torah and also comprehend its laws.

The true test of whether a person is sufficiently devoted to the word of Hashem and possesses the proper degree of fidelity to Torah is by the way the person acts regarding the laws taught in Parshas Mishpatim. The way a person conducts himself in business dealings with other people demonstrates his true level of religiosity. One who cheats, steals and lies in the course of his financial dealings has shown that he is not really a believer and thinks that he must bend the law in order to earn the money Hashem sends him.

One who is dishonest and defrauds people is in essence denying the laws of the Torah which clearly define how we must conduct ourselves. He thinks he will get away with it and rejects the punishments the Torah prescribes for those who harm others.

Thus, the test to determine whether a person is worthy of the Keser Torah of naaseh venishmah is the way he conducts himself relative to the halachos of Parshas Mishpatim. Therefore, the narrative pertaining to the Jew’s response of naaseh venishmah is in Parshas Mishpatim and not in Parshas Yisro. Observance of the Aseres Hadibros is not yet an indication that the person is a naaseh venishmah Yid. Adherence to the laws of Mishpatim is.

Let us all search our hearts and wallets and ensure that we are as scrupulous in dealing honestly in financial laws as we are punctilious in our observance of Shabbos and the other cardinal laws. We will thus ensure that we are worthy of the brachos reserved for those who cling to the Torah with sincerity, and merit as much nachas as Yisro.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Yisro and Apathy

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

In Parshas Yisro, we learn of Kabbolas HaTorah. Following the makkos in Mitzrayim, Kriyas Yam Suf and the giluyim the Jewish people had experienced there, Klal Yisroel was ready to become the Am Hashem and receive the Torah.

It is most interesting that the parsha which deals with Matan Torah carries the name of Yisro and not something more descriptive of the gift we received on Har Sinai. It is also intriguing that the Torah interrupts its account of the Jews’ journey in the Midbar and the apex of their journey at Midbar Sinai to tell the seemingly tangential story of Yisro’s arrival.

The parsha should have continued where it left off at the end of Parshas Beshalach, when the Jews had miraculously crossed the Yam Suf, received the monn and were rescued by Hashem’s intervention in the battle with Amaleik, and the next leg of their journey that took them to Midbar Sinai to receive the Torah. Why is the flow of the narrative interrupted with the story of Yisro’s arrival?

What lessons are implicit in the narrative of Yisro that justifies its insertion after the description of Kriyas Yam Suf, prior to Matan Torah?

The parsha begins with the words “Vayishma Yisro - And Yisro heard.” Rashi quotes the Gemara in Maseches Zevachim which asks what it is that Yisro heard that prompted him to come. The Gemara answers that he heard about Kriyas Yam Suf and Milchemes Amaleik. Upon hearing of those events, he left his home in Midyan and came to meet Moshe Rabbeinu in the Midbar.

Obviously, Yisro was not the only one who heard about Kriyas Yam Suf and Milchemes Amaleik. One would imagine that there were few people who hadn’t heard about these two earth-shattering events. Why did these miracles galvanize only Yisro?

Everyone knew about it. Everyone was impressed, even awed. Some might even have been inspired. The entire world might have been nispa’el, but it was for a mere moment, not long enough for the miracle to impact the heart. A fleeting impression was all they experienced and they quickly returned to their old habits of thought. They reverted back to being exactly the way they were before they were amazed by the power of Hashem.

The only one who heard about Kriyas Yam Suf and Milchemes Amaleik and was affected to the core of his being by these events was Yisro. He was the only person who was so overcome that the experience transformed his life.

The pesukim recount: “Vayichad Yisro… - And Yisro rejoiced over all the goodness that Hakadosh Boruch Hu did for the Jews and rescued them from Mitzrayim…And he said, ‘Now I know that Hashem is greater than all the gods… And he brought korbanos to Hashem…”

No one else came to the Bnei Yisroel in the Midbar saying, “Atah yodati kee gadol Hashem.” Everyone else remained mired in their pagan beliefs.

This is why the Torah interrupts the chapter of the Bnei Yisroel’s sojourn in the Midbar to tell the tale of Yisro’s arrival. A prerequisite for Kabbolas HaTorah is to let the experience of Hashem’s majesty envelop the mind and the senses so, that it forces a person to draw closer to Torah and G-dliness.

Divine acts are intended to teach us the power of Hashem. Torah demands that a “hisorerus” last for longer than a day or two. Torah demands that we always seek to learn and grow.

That was the lesson of Yisro and that is why his parsha was placed before Kabbolas HaTorah. That is why the parsha of Kabbolas HaTorah is named for Yisro, the convert.

But it is not enough to stand up and take notice. We’ve got to do more than that.

The Torah recounts that Yisro noticed that Moshe Rabbeinu was teaching halachos and judging the Jewish people from morning until night. Yisro advised Moshe that the system was improper. He urged Moshe to set up a well-functioning court system in which other people would adjudicate the simpler cases and the more difficult ones would be brought to him.

Yisro told Moshe that the present system, in which he was busy all day paskening all the shailos, was too difficult for one person and would end up destroying him. He advised him on how to choose competent judges to whom he would teach the halachos so that they would be knowledgeable enough to educate the people.

He urged him to get Divine approval for the new system and thus be able to function optimally.

Yisro was a newcomer to the Bnei Yisroel’s camp. He wasn’t the first person to see what was happening to Moshe Rabbeinu. Everyone saw that Moshe was consumed all day long with dinei Torah. Anyone could have figured out that is wasn’t a normal situation. Anyone could have figured out a more effective system that would allow Moshe Rabbeinu to spend his time more productively. Anyone could have realized, as Yisro did, that Moshe would become exhausted from the grueling regimen and unceasing pressure.

And that is exactly our point. Everyone saw it. Anyone could have realized where it would lead, but no one did anything about it. It took Yisro to internalize what he saw and to do something constructive about it.

So often, the urge is to turn the other way and make believe we didn’t see. People don’t want to get involved. People don’t want to get dirty. People want everyone to like them. But that is not the way of the Torah; nor is it the way to get a parsha in the Torah named for you or for you to achieve immortality.

Yisro saw, Yisro cared, and Yisro spoke up. Hakadosh Boruch Hu and Moshe Rabbeinu accepted his proposal.

Yisro spoke up and saved Moshe from becoming physically exhausted. The Torah honored him for this worthy deed by naming the parsha for him. This is why the lessons imparted by Yisro’s deeds are inserted into the narrative describing the supernatural events leading up to Matan Torah.

Yisro taught us that everyone has the potential for greatness to the point of being worthy of having a parsha in the Torah named for him. One must care enough to notice what is going on around him, draw the right conclusions, and try to remedy the situation.

Every one of us has the ability to improve the world around us. Each of us can reach out and help people who need a handout of time, money or sympathy. We can all help others get through the day. We can all bring meaning and warmth to the lives of our neighbors, friends and fellow Jews. If only we cared, if only we tried. If only we took Yisro’s example to heart.

Yisro taught us that we can all make a difference. In our day, though, we have become apathetic about many causes. Things have been going so well for us for so long that when a problem develops, we imagine that it will be dealt with and made to go away with minimal effort. Thus, many issues go unaddressed.

This newspaper has been at the forefront of advocating an objective treatment of the Rubashkin family.

We wrote extensively about the injustice and the maligning of the Rubashkins, Agriprocessors, and the Orthodox community in general. We wrote against Hekhsher Tzedek, which was founded in response to PETA and ICE allegations, and explained the dangers inherent in such a group. We warned that we must ensure that they not be allowed to gain a foothold, and that we certainly shouldn’t be working with them in any way.

Lastly, we established a legal defense fund of behalf of Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin as he awaits trial. Dozens of checks of all amounts are flowing in. This is heartening and it shows that people do care and do want to help. It demonstrates that people are prepared to spend money to supportand help this man receive his constitutionally guaranteed rights.

But there are still people who wonder why we do it. Perhaps an article published in the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal, written by the person who more than anyone else caused the downfall of Agri, can provide insight.

Nathaniel Popper of The Forward newspaper wrote an explanation of what caused him to go on a tear against the Postville slaughterhouse. Read his words:

“What was it that so riveted our attention? It was never articulated and it took me a while to see it, but this one story had managed to distill some of the most essential questions and issues that are dividing and defining the Jewish community and indeed religious communities of all stripes today.

“These divisions are, at their most basic, about the proper way to interpret religious law and values: Should we read our ancient texts literally or adapt them to a changing world?

“The Agriprocessors plant slaughtered chickens and cows according to a group of laws — known as kashrut - that have been refined and codified over centuries in books like the Shulchan Aruch. Bearded, Orthodox rabbis had buzzed around the Agriprocessors plant making sure these laws were being followed.”

And just in case you didn’t yet get his message, he goes on:

“When allegations about the working conditions at the company first came to public attention through my 2006 reporting, these Orthodox rabbis vouched for the company. But a group of progressive, socially engaged, and mostly clean-shaven rabbis decided to visit the plant themselves. After a tour of the plant and town, these rabbis said that while the company seemed to be in compliance with narrow kosher laws, there was less attention being paid to another, less codified set of Jewish rules about the proper way to treat workers.

“These rules do not loom large in everyday Jewish life - there is little contemporary rabbinic legislation on the proper minimum wage - but they are strikingly consonant with modern concerns about human dignity and equality. The rabbis pushing this agenda might be compared, in secular terms, with Supreme Court justices like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer who seek to interpret old legal doctrines through a modern lens. As part of this push, these rabbis, who were representing the Conservative movement, created a new program, known as the Hekhsher Tzedek or Justice Certification, which aims to evaluate the business ethics of kosher producers.

“The Hekhsher Tzedek generated intense pushback in large segments of the Orthodox community, where there is a belief in strict adherence to the laws set down in the Jewish holy texts - these are the Antonin Scalias of the Jewish world, to continue the Supreme Court analogy. One influential Orthodox rabbi told me, “I don’t keep kosher because of some sense that it is the right thing to do socially - I do it because G-d said so.”

Don’t you get it? In Popper’s mind, we, who observe Torah and the laws of kashrus, are Neanderthals. We don’t care about the welfare of animals and we don’t care about how people are treated. We are just a bunch of money-grubbing shylocks, looking to squeeze out every penny of profit from pounds of flesh.

We let hair grow on our faces; we aren’t clean shaven and professional-looking. We aren’t progressive in action or thought, and we refuse to adapt to the modern era. We prefer to remain cultists frozen in a time warp. That’s Popper’s perception of us, which he chose to share with the readers of the country’s most widely circulated newspaper.

This person, who caused so much acrimony and pain to so many Jews, and robbed people across the country of the ability to purchase kosher meat at reasonable prices, isn’t sure that we have gotten his message.

He decries the campaign to raise money to help pay for Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin’s defense, again cloaking his argument in an us-versus-them rhetoric.

“This campaign for Sholom Rubashkin,” writes Popper, “has faced skepticism from progressive Jews - many of whom had spent months trying to help the immigrants put in jail after the raid. In standing up for the immigrants, the non-Orthodox rabbis have fought for a more explicitly universal vision of mankind, in which a Guatemalan Catholic has the same weight as a Brooklyn Jew.”

The people who battle Rubashkin, shechitah and really all of Shulchan Aruch also deny that we are the Am Hanivchor. They deny the bracha of Atah Bechartanu. They deny that we are the chosen ones. They are bothered by our success. Just like the Yevonim, they seek ways to undermine our way of life and target the things dearest to us, such as milah and shechitah, in short succession.

Popper takes one last jab at observant Jews in his article:

“It is the very vitriol and divisive nature of the Agriprocessors debates that is one of the most characteristic elements of the increasingly polarized Jewish community of today. Progressive Jews passionate about social justice and Orthodox Jews unswerving in Talmudic law have interacted less and less in recent years, and disagreed more and more...”

To be clear, the battle against Agri wasn’t just against Agri. It was against us Jews who hew to the Shulchan Aruch and Talmudic law. It was just another shot at us from those who see themselves as inheritors of the mantle of the maskilim of the past centuries who did not rest as they used the media and government to agitate against ehrliche Yidden.

When charges were brought against the company for allegedly hiring underage workers, we asked our readers not to rush to judgment, but to wait until the accused have a chance to defend themselves in a court of law. All the other charges bandied about in the media are mere allegations based on hearsay and don’t deserve to be treated as fact.

The leading media in this country formed a figurative lynch mob and went after Agriprocessors with the obvious intent of destroying the company. They slammed it with all kinds of false allegations, as if it were a cattle-and-man-killing jungle of the early 1900s.

Amaleik perceives that he can’t destroy us, so instead he slanders us and tells the world that we don’t know how to treat animals or people. He says that we are mean, vicious and heartless, and he gets the media to print the canards.

He plants perverse ideas in the minds of hate-driven people who then peddle their wild allegations to mainstream media outlets which, in turn, publish them as authenticated facts.

In September of 2008, the nation’s “newspaper of record” ran a story headlined, “Kosher Plant Accused of Inhumane Slaughter.” Who accused them? It was none other than PETA, the group of misfits who parade around the world, ludicrously arguing that man is no different than animal and, therefore, both species are entitled to the same rights.

It is only when you got to the fifth paragraph that you find out that the accusation is bogus. The plant, in fact, was found by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to be “in full compliance with humane slaughter regulations.”

The sensational headline was intended not to inform, but to aid and abet the smear campaign against kosher slaughter.

Decency and integrity would have dictated that the story be dropped. Or, had the editors felt that there was a great need for the public to know of the allegations against an already beleaguered kosher plant, they should have at least formatted the story in a way that would leave no doubt that the USDA gave the plant a clean bill of health despite the charges of a radical left-wing vegetarian group.

But if you are doing the work of the enemies of the Jewish people, why worry over a lapse of journalistic integrity?

Lately, Amaleik has worn another mask - that of Jewish reporters and Jewish news services continuously distributing libelous reports about religious Jews in general and Agriprocessors in particular, displaying no sensitivity for the truth. Jewish news groups routinely dispatch articles disparaging religious Jews and halacha, and no one calls them on it.

Some have questioned why we have taken such a strong stand on behalf of the Rubashkins. We believe that the proper course of action is to defend ehrliche Yidden who have been wrongfully accused and maligned. But more than that, it was our perception that the Amaleikim hounding them are targeting not only the Rubashkins. They are targeting you and me and our ability to eat kosher meat and observe mitzvos in this country.

The same unions which turned countless American factory communities into ghost towns now seek to do to shechitah what they did to the auto manufacturers and knitting mills that used to dot this country.

Examples abound of the attempts to minimize our accomplishments and cause our neighbors and those less observant to scorn us and to deride our accomplishments in this country.

The New York Times, in its lead editorial on August 1, 2008, described the Agri plant as follows:

“A slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, develops an ugly reputation for abusing animals and workers. Reports of dirty, dangerous conditions at the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant accumulate for years… The plant has been called “a kosher ‘Jungle’…The conditions at the Agriprocessors plant cry out for the cautious and deliberate application of justice…”

It wasn’t that long ago that pogroms were perpetrated against the Jewish population by illiterate peasants egged on by the Church and government authorities.

Today, thankfully, they don’t come after us with sticks, knives and guns; blood libels are a thing of the past. Today, instead of knives and spears, the warmongers’ implements of battle are The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, JTA, and other compliant media outlets.

What can be a better story than illegal aliens employed by Hasidic Jews in a lily white corner of Middle America? Who will rise to the defense of the Jews? Who will cast doubts on the story of “Jungle” savagery perpetrated by the rich, money-obsessed New York Jews? It’s a perfect real-life illustration of the rich taking advantage of the poor and downtrodden.

I had never met any of the Rubashkins prior to my visit to Postville last year. I found them to be eminently loveable, geshmakeh, heimishe people you’d want for neighbors and friends. They are full of chein and seem to possess good doses of seichel tov. I have since come to know and treasure them as dear friends.

I saw the distinct pride they take in the place that their family built up through many years of hard work and much siyata diShmaya.

It was a priceless gift to have such a large enterprise supplying American Jews - and Jews the world over - with the finest in kosher meat. We didn’t appreciate the worth, quality, importance and magnitude of this gift, so we lost it.

The Torah relates how Yisro went to Moshe, “to the desert.” Obviously, if he went to Moshe, he went to the desert, for that was where Moshe and the Jews were to be found. Rashi explains that the Torah is actually saying this in praise of Yisro. Yisro was sitting “bekvodo shel olam.” He was coming from an environment where he enjoyed prestige and notoriety as a leading light among the cognoscenti of that age. Despite this, he was prepared to venture out into the barren desolation of the desert, in order to seek out the truth of the Torah.

In order to appreciate the beauty and timeless truth of the Torah, one must be prepared to abandon what might appear to be enlightenment based on the prevailing values of society. Journalists and other self-styled intellectuals whose self respect is dependent on viewing themselves as progressive, socially engaged, clean shaven examples of enlightened Jews unshackled by ancient traditions, cannot perceive the deracheha darchei noam inherent in Torah and mitzvos. Rather, their need to be seen as exemplary citizens in the eyes of the world at large compels them to paint ehrliche Yidden as backward, insensitive, unsophisticated barbarians incapable of their own refined sensibilities.

We must have the courage to stand up to those who seek to undermine us and our distinct way of life. We have to recognize our enemies for who they are and not give them or their arguments any credence. We have to be prepared to fight for our rights to properly observe halacha as we have been doing for thousands of years. We have to defend each other without embarrassment.

We have to take Yisro’s message to heart and not be afraid to withstand the ridicule of the Midyanites who surround us.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Lessons from a Tree

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Tu B’Shevat is one of those days on the Jewish calendar that many people don’t appreciate.

Ask the average person about Tu B’Shevat and they will likely respond that it is a day that has something to with eating dates and buksor.

A more knowledgeable person knows that Tu B’Shevat is the “Rosh Hashanah of trees.” If he’s really knowledgeable, he will launch into a halachic dissertation about agricultural laws governing produce grown in Eretz Yisroel, and how Tu B’Shevat is the demarcation date separating this year’s produce from last year’s.

But many wonder what the lesson of Tu B’Shevat is, and what message there is for us on this day.

After all, it’s not every agricultural demarcation date that gets a special holy day named after it or that is strong enough to cancel out Tachanun (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 131). When is the last time you celebrated Rosh Hashanah of maaser beheimah, which falls on Rosh Chodesh Elul? Or Rosh Hashanah of kings, which falls on Rosh Chodesh Nissan?

Clearly, Tu B’Shevat is a day that is supposed to mean more to us than its importance as an agricultural landmark. The Vilna Gaon, in his commentary to Shulchan Aruch, refers to Tu B’Shevat as a “Yom Tov.” Like every Yom Tov, it must contain its own unique, eternal message and spiritual essence, which impact the world anew every year.

The Torah teaches us, “Man is the tree of the field” (Devorim 20:19). The Pnei Menachem explains this posuk by identifying three halachic characteristics of the tree that have some bearing on mankind:

1. Trees, by halachic definition, strike perennial roots that remain in the earth throughout the year, unlike vegetables, which need to be replanted (see Tur 103).

2. Trees stand tall, unlike vegetables, which grow close to the ground (see Tosefta, Orlah 5).

3. Trees provide shade to their immediate vicinity (see Taanis 5b).

There is something we can learn from each of these characteristics. The deeper the tree’s roots, the more nourishment and energy it sends to its branches, and the sweeter its fruit. This may seem self-evident, but in light of the existence of the law of gravity, it is clearly one of those miraculous processes that Hashem instilled into the laws of nature.

Logic would seem to dictate that the deeper the tree’s roots dig themselves into the ground, the less nourishment should reach the top. Yet, we see that the tree has been created in such a way that it defies the law of gravity.

The same applies to the Jew. Every aspect of his environment tries to pull him downward in spirituality - the physical temptations that plague him incessantly from childhood to old age, the constant pressure of making a living, raising children and marrying them off, and the many things that transpire during a stressful day.

Yet, Hashem has implanted in us the power of the tree. We have the ability to defy the spiritual law of gravity and channel our strength to grow in spirituality despite the anchor trying to pull us downward. Every day, we daven to Hashem to “bend our inclination to submit to Your will.” We plead with him to help us wrestle with those aspects of our lives that are trying to pull us away, to turn them around and to actually use them to elevate ourselves further in ruchniyus.

Another amazing thing about the tree is that its deep roots permit it to stay alive even when the rest of it undergoes a form of death, such as during winter, when it sheds its life-giving leaves and enters a state of deep hibernation which, from the outside, takes on the appearance of grim death.

Our lives, too, have many seasons. The Jew - both on the individual and national levels - experiences his share of bright summer days full of dazzling sunlight and clear blue skies. But, inevitably, winter comes and the days grow short. The skies turn a metallic gray and the elements snarl at us, giving us the chills. At such times, we withdraw, put up our shields and seek shelter within, shedding our leaves and stopping to bring forth fruit, undergoing a process that may appear to be a form of death.

But like the tree, even at depressing times, the force of life continues to pulsate deep within the Jew. It is all due to his deep roots. These roots connect him to the Source, to the wellspring of kedushah, taharah and wisdom. So long as the Jew’s roots remain intact and he continues to grasp firmly to the unbroken chain that connects him to the ways of the Avos, the teachings of Har Sinai and his people’s 3,300 years of uninterrupted Torah study, mitzvah observance and mesiras nefesh, he remains alive even in the worst of circumstances. Eventually, winter passes, the snow melts, and the tree shoots forth blossoms to greet the new spring with renewed vigor and dedication.

At first glance, the tall stature of trees does not seem to be in consonance with the spiritual aims of the Jew, since we are bidden to be humble and subject ourselves to the Divine will. Therefore, standing tall, which symbolizes pride, has negative associations (see Brachos 43b).

On the other hand, Chazal teach, “The Shechinah dwells only with someone who is powerful, wise and rich” (Nedorim 38a).

The Chasam Sofer resolves this apparent contradiction by explaining that humble behavior is a praiseworthy achievement only if the person had reasons to feel haughty but he overcame those feelings and subjugated himself to Hashem’s will. This is the kind of person with whom the Shechinah dwells. The Shechinah does not dwell with a person who has an inferiority complex, who doesn’t have any reason to feel haughty, and for whom behaving modestly is therefore no challenge at all.

From the tree we learn that the Jew can reach a perfect balance. He should stand tall and feel proud of being a member of the chosen nation, who thanks Hashem every day for choosing us. He has been given all the attributes he requires to fulfill his mission in this world and to serve Hashem.

Chazal say that a tree’s height can be estimated by calculating the extent of its shade (see Eiruvin 43b).

Similarly, a person’s spiritual stature is measured by the impact he has on his immediate surroundings. If a person has a positive influence on others and motivates others to learn Torah, observe mitzvos and perform chesed and maasim tovim, he is on a path of spiritual growth and ruchniyus.

However, if he finds himself pulling others down in ruchniyus by encouraging them to become more lenient in mitzvah observance, or slackening off in Torah study, or by turning people against each other, then something has gone wrong. His spiritual growth has become stunted, and it is time for him to examine his actions and find the source of the fault.

Tu B’Shevat comes to remind us of our elemental tasks in this world. It’s a time to ask ourselves where we are going and whether it is the right direction. Is our spiritual side in control, or are we being driven by physical forces that dominate the world around us? Perhaps it is time to take a break and try to get our proper bearings.

Tu B’Shevat is a time to shoot our spiritual roots deeper into the rich soil of our people’s heritage, to channel that invigorating energy high up to our waking consciousness, and to resolve to deepen our devotion to the study of Torah, the Tree of Life.

If we succeed, with Hashem’s help we will merit to see our bare, frozen branches filled with fragrant blossoms and rich green leaves. They will, in turn, cast a shadow over those with whom we come in contact, and bring them closer to Hashem and His Torah.

Chazal say that marriage is akin to the rebuilding of a destroyed Yerushalmi home. Many explanations are given. For the purposes of our discussion, we can understand it to mean that when one builds a Jewish home, he doesn’t do it according to his whim, or in accord with the styles of the day. Those of us who want to succeed must build our homes on the foundations of old, on the traditions passed down to us through the generations since the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh in Yerushalayim.

A couple who establishes a home on that bedrock underpinning is one who will succeed in transplanting and nurturing a healthy, proper life. The deeper we plant our roots, the stronger we will be, and better able to realize the fruition of our dreams.

As we celebrate Tu B’Shevat this year, let us review the posuk at the beginning of Tehillim which states that a person who desires Torah and studies its precepts and words day and night will be like a deeply rooted tree which grows alongside brooks of water, yielding its fruit and never withering. He will succeed in everything that he does.