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.

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