Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Simanah Milsah of the Sukkah

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

On Rosh Hashanah, we partake of selected fruits and vegetables and recite various prayers for a happy, healthy and successful new year. The source of this custom is the Gemara in Horayos (12a) and a similar Gemara in Krisus (6a) where Abaye states that since we derive that a “siman” is “milsah,” an effective sign, we should eat gourds, leeks, beets and dates on Rosh Hashanah.

There are various ways to interpret the meaning of Abaye’s statement and the resulting custom amongst all of Klal Yisroel to eat these various foods and recite a yehi ratzon over them. Examining these approaches will help us gain an understanding of the mitzvah of sukkah.

The commonly understood basis for this custom is, as the Shelah (Perek Ner Mitzvah, 21) explains, that the eating of these foods and the recital of the yehi ratzon prayers which accompany those acts are to remind us to do teshuvah and repent for our sins so that we may be positively judged for the new year.

The Chochmas Shlomo in Shulchan Aruch (583:1) explains it differently. He says that we eat these foods and partake of sweets to demonstrate our belief that all will turn out for the good. By doing so, even if it was decreed otherwise, through emunah and bitachon and the accompanying statements we utter, we can overturn the evil decree.

He adds that a person should be in the habit of saying that everything Hashem does is for the good, and that way, it will indeed turn out to be good. Perhaps this is the source for the Yiddish expression, “Tracht gut, vet zein gut - If you think it is good, it will be good.”

The Maharsha in Horayos also states that we prepare these foods to demonstrate our belief that Hashem will judge us for a successful new year. He adds that through bitachon, a verdict for a sad year can be overturned.

Some Acharonim go even further. The Maharal in Beer Hagolah (2:7) and the Yaavetz in his siddur (Leil Rosh Hashanah) explain that we eat foods with a good “siman,” because through exercising the “milsah” aspect of these simanim, we are able to affect the outcome of the judgment of Rosh Hashanah in our favor.

Rabbeinu Yonah in Shaarei Teshuvah (3, 31-32) derives the obligation to have bitachon and trust in Hashem in a time of need from the pesukim in Devorim (7:17-18) which state that when you go to war against your enemies and you see their many horses and men, you shall not fear them - “lo sirah meihem…” From here we see that when a person feels that trouble is approaching him, he should believe in his heart that Hashem will help him and really have faith that he will be spared.

Every day of Elul and Tishrei, when we say the passage of LeDovid (Tehillim 27), we should see the words of Rabbeinu Yonah reflected there. We recite the words which say that Hashem is our light and salvation and we therefore don’t fear anyone. He is the strength of our life and we are thus not afraid of anyone else. When our evil enemies plot to destroy us and eat our flesh, it is they who will stumble and fall. Reminiscent of the pesukim from which Rabbeinu Yonah derives the mitzvah of bitachon, we declare that even if they prepare an army against us, “lo yirah libi,” we shall not fear.

We then continue and recite that if they bring a war against us, we still maintain our trust in Hashem. The only thing we ask is that we should merit dwelling in the house of Hashem. We declare that when we are in danger, we believe that Hashem will hide us in his sukkah shelter.

We recite this kapittel of Tehillim during this auspicious period, because the Medrash states that when the posuk says that Hashem is our light, this refers to Rosh Hashanah, when we say that He is our salvation, this refers to Yom Kippur, and when we say that He will hide us in his shelter, we are referring to the Yom Tov of Sukkos.

When we construct our sukkos and sit in them, perhaps we are also engaging in an act similar to that of eating the specified foods on Rosh Hashanah. We are demonstrating, through simanah milsah, our unending belief in Hashem and our complete bitachon that He will save and shelter us from our enemies and the darkness which pervades our world. We erect a flimsy room and live in it for a week to show that we take those words of Dovid Hamelech in Tehillim quite literally and recognize that our only source of salvation and support is Hashem.

The Sefer Hachinuch (325) writes that the mitzvah of sukkah is designed so that we remember the miracles which Hashem performed for the Jews in the Midbar after they left Mitzrayim, and that He covered them so that the sun would not burn them during the day and the cold would not freeze them at night.

Rabbeinu Chananel, at the beginning of Maseches Sukkah, writes that there is an obligation to tell our children and family that Hashem gave us sukkos in the Midbar, as the posuk states, “Lemaan yeid’uh doroseichem ki vasukkos hoshavti es Bnei Yisroel.” It isn’t enough to just eat and sleep in the sukkah. There is an inherent obligation that we recognize why we are doing this and discuss it.

The Bnei Yisroel merited the splitting of the Yam Suf because of their bitachon in Hashem [Michiltah], as the posuk states, “Vayaaminu baHashem uveMoshe avdo.” When they saw their belief realized and actualized, they sang the eternal shirah of Az Yoshir and were led into the Midbar for the journey to the Promised Land.

The posuk states, “Lechtaich acharay bamidbar b’eretz lo zoruah.” They followed the word of Hashem and entered the desert with no visible means of support or sustenance, and in the merit of their belief, they were fed and protected.

Thus, we go into the sukkah and express our belief in and fidelity to Hashem, and we pray that we merit reaching the levels of bitachon displayed by our forefathers at the Yam Suf as they sang shirah, as the Mechiltah in parshas Beshalach writes that it was in the merit of their emunah that the Bnei Yisroel received ruach hakodesh and said the shirah.

We leave behind everything that we have gained through our work and toil. We declare that we acknowledge that all of our possessions are gifts from Hashem, and that if He wills it, we can survive in a temporal resting place. We show that it is not our might, muscle or money which we worship, but rather the Creator. We leave the comfort of the roofs above our heads which we constructed to protect us from the rain, wind, cold, heat and forces which seek our destruction and envelop ourselves in the sukkah of Hashem.

We demonstrate this theme further as we invite the Ushpizin, the people whose lives were totally dedicated to Hashem. As the Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 47) explains, when Chazal say, “Ha’avos hein hamerkavah,” this means that the Avos were so close to Hashem that the Shechinah was always with them.

The Medrash in Parshas Vayeishev (39:2) quotes Rav Pinchos in the name of Rav Siman that the Shechinah went down to Mitzrayim with Yosef, as the posuk states, “Vayehi Hashem es Yosef.” Thus, Yosef adhered to Hashem, as did Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov. The other Ushpizin, Moshe, Aharon and Dovid, were also completely dovuk in Hashem. Moshe was the closest human to Hashem, Aharon was the one who served Hashem in the Mishkan, and Dovid was na’im zemiros Yisroel; his only urge was to find himself in the house of Hashem

By inviting them in to join us in our sukkah, we are acting as we did on Rosh Hashanah when we said the yehi ratzons as we partook of the designated foods. We are pronouncing that following the days of Rosh Hashanah, Aseres Yemei Teshuvah and Yom Kippur, we have fully repented for our sins and bad middos which prevented us from acknowledging that we are nothing without Hashem. We prove this by entering a roof-less structure without heat, air conditioning or insulation, and we show that we depend on Hashem to protect us from the elements and raw winds which envelop the world. Simanah milsah. We affirm our newfound level of holiness and state our wish to be strictly in the house of Hashem by inviting the Ushpizin, who were the epitome of such devotion, to join with us in our sojourn in the shelter of Hashem.

This is why it is such a terrible omen if it rains on Sukkos. We have prepared ourselves for the simanah milsah of demonstrating how devoted we are to Hashem and the strength of our bitachon in His ability to protect and sustain us, and then the sky opens up and rain pours on us as we are left without any protection. By this, Hashem is showing us that we are not really on the level of bitachon that we should be, because if we were, He would have protected us and made sure that the rain wouldn’t fall on us by the dint of our belief in him.

One who sits in the sukkah as he is soaked by the drenching rain is referred to as a hedyot, because by sitting there and making as if he is oblivious to what is going on around him, he reveals that he has not learned the lesson of the simanah milsah of the sukkah. By ignoring the rain, he is confessing that he refuses to recognize that he lacks the proper bitachon in Hashem. He is thus a hedyot, a small person unworthy of sympathy for the situation he finds himself in.

This is why on Sukkos there is a joy which doesn’t exist at any other time on the Jewish calendar. When we stand in the sukkah, we are like the Jews who were about to set foot into the desert. We are so overcome by our bitachon that we are, in the words of the posuk, “ach sameiach.” This is the reward for people who place their complete faith in Hakadosh Boruch Hu, as is stated in the sefer Chovos Halevavos, Shaar Habitachon.

This Sukkos, as we sit in the sukkah surrounded by friends and family, let us internalize the message of the sukkah and thereby merit the brachos of Hashem reserved for those who place their complete faith in Him.

The Mechiltah quoted above from parshas Beshalach adds that just as the Bnei Yisroel at the yam suf merited to sing the shirah of oz yashir in reward for their emunah, so too the gathering of the exiles will take place at the end of days in reward for emunah.

Let us rejoice with all the good we have and pray that we merit to sit in the sukkah fashioned from the skins of the Livyasan very soon.

Chag sameiach.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Teshuvah, Tefillah, Tzedakah

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The emotional high point of the tefillos of the Yomim Noraim follows the gripping prayer of Unesaneh Tokef, when the entire shul cries out, “Useshuvah, usefillah, utzedakah maavirin es ro’ah hagezeirah!” Teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah have the power to overturn a ruinous judgment on Rosh Hashanah. But how exactly does this work? What is so unique about these three activities that they can reverse a Divine verdict?

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak to Rav Zvi Schvartz from Rechovot in Eretz Yisroel, as he visited here for two days on behalf of Lev L’Achim.

He asked me what the difference is between a person who is a kofer and one who is a ma’amin. The answer, he said, is gratitude. A kofer, at his core, is a kofui tov, whereas a ma’amin is a makir tov.

The conversation prompted me to gain an insight into the manner in which teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah are intrinsically related, and how they are able to neutralize an evil decree.

His comment is packed with profound insight. Think about it. A kofer won’t acknowledge a Supreme Ruler of the world because that would imply indebtedness to a force other than his own intelligence and strength. In his arrogance, he is convinced that he is totally self-sufficient. He worships his own image.

Hakoras Hatov:
Teshuvah’s ‘Generator’

Jews who sin are contrasted with animals, as the posuk states, “Yodah shor koneihu v’chamor eivus b’alav, Yisroel lo yodah, ami lo hisbonan.” Even an animal recognizes its master who feeds it and cares for it, the posuk states. Am Yisroel, when it sins, doesn’t recognize the G-d Who cares for them.

A ma’amin knows that he was placed in this world by Hashem, Who cares for him and sustains him. He knows that his life and his livelihood are gifts; that every aspect of his existence, including his environment, social standing and day-to-day accomplishments all come from Hashem. The awareness that he owes all of life’s blessings to the One Above stimulates constant gratefulness and appreciation.

A ma’amin wakes up in the morning and says, “Modeh Ani, thank You, Hashem, for giving me another day of life.” He davens and says, “Modim, I thank You for all Your miracles, wonders and favors that sustain me.” He sits down to breakfast, thanking Hashem both before and after he eats. Gratitude to Hashem for another 24 hours of life and hope for His continued munificence set the tone for the rest of his day.

He doesn’t permit his ego to block his awareness of his dependence on his Creator. He doesn’t feel diminished as a human being when he expresses appreciation to Hashem for His guiding hand in every facet of life.

He is not too conceited to recognize that there is Someone above him Who watches over him and cares for him. It doesn’t hurt his ego to be thankful every waking moment. And since he knows that Hashem sustains him, he knows that Hashem created the world and he knows that he must follow the commandments that Hashem laid out in the Torah in order for him to thrive in this world.

Both as appreciation to Hashem for all of the kindness He extends towards us and because he recognizes that the Creator has placed us here for a purpose, the believer engages in teshuvah in order to bring himself closer to his Maker. Hakoras hatov is an integral part of his personality and he understands that if for no other reason than hakoras hatov he has to keep the mitzvos.

For a ma’amin, hakoras hatov sparks a readiness to reciprocate in some small measure by upholding the Torah and clinging to His laws. But just as important, hakoras hatov inspires teshuvah. It generates the desire to purify oneself, strengthen one’s faith, and come closer to the One Who protects and nurtures.

Thus, as Rosh Hashanah approaches, the ma’amin intensifies his efforts to do teshuvah in order to please his Maker to the greatest extent possible. He does this out of a sense of appreciation for the good he has and the recognition that the One Who nourishes him has set a code for him to live by.

How is teshuvah achieved? It requires a serious cheshbon hanefesh. It requires a person to subjugate his deepest self to intense scrutiny, to seriously review every aspect of his conduct. Yet that is only half the battle.

Once we’ve performed that painstaking self-assessment, we have to internalize and apply what we’ve discovered. We have to set about correcting our character flaws, and rectifying all the mistakes and errors of judgment we’ve made.

The process, when performed correctly, can be excruciating. After going through it, we emerge changed people. It is not enough to klap ahl cheit. We have to actually affect our psyches and adopt different behaviors. The teshuvah process has to humble every being as it reminds him of his proper place in creation and prompts a greater appreciation of Hashem’s role in his life.

Teshuvah brings us back to where we were before we sinned. It sets us straight on the path we should have been on all along and gives us the energy we need to do it right this time.

Teshuvah Triggers Tefillah
Teshuvah triggers an outpouring of sincere tefillah. Tefillah is a natural outgrowth of teshuvah. With a fresh awareness of how small and helpless we really are in the face of life’s frightening precariousness comes a spontaneous outpouring of tefillah, on three levels. We proclaim Hashem’s supremacy over all of existence, we thank Him for His daily kindness, and we beg that we merit His continuing generosity.

We pray for His salvation from all our troubles, individually and collectively, and for a year of health, happiness and success.

Middos tovos and proper ethics are prerequisites for teshuvah, for if a person is conceited, he will never come to recognize that it is not his “koach ve’otzem yado” which supports his lifestyle, and it is not his superior intelligence which earns him his living, but rather, he is totally dependent upon a Higher Power for all he has. Tikkun hamiddos and proper ethics are pre-requisites for teshuvah.

A man once arrived in the yeshiva of Kelm. The person sitting next to him during davening noticed that at the portions of davening which called for the return of the Shechinah to Tzion, the distinguished-looking visitor uttered the words with great devotion. During the portion of davening requesting personal sustenance, however, the person rushed through the prayers. The talmid who observed this conduct discussed it with the Alter of Kelm.

The Alter of Kelm explained that the person, despite his impressive outer appearance, was in fact not really a great ma’amin. When it comes to himself, he believes that he controls his life, arranges his own success, and doesn’t require G-d’s help. When it comes to other areas, he prays that Hashem bring about the change that everyone is awaiting.

As long as a person is haughty and continues to believe in “kochi ve’otzem yodi,” that his success is due to his superior intelligence, his ga’avah will render him incapable of repenting. He will be unable to reach the level of understanding required to draw himself closer to his Master and he will wallow in sin and self indulgence even as he goes through the motions of religiosity.

A person with an untamed ego will not be able to thoroughly examine himself and his actions in order to repent. His ego will blind him from recognizing that he is not in charge and that he has to subjugate himself to his Creator’s will.

How often does it happen that you try to show someone the truth about something and, despite the absolute clarity, the person refuses to listen? You can patiently work through an issue, take it apart piece by piece and reconstruct it to forcefully drive home the truth, all to no avail because the person you are trying to reason with can’t sidestep his ego and view the matter objectively.

Ga’avah is one of the yeitzer harah’s favorite tools. It prevents a person from comprehending what is obvious to everyone else. It derails a person from properly preparing for Rosh Hashanah and from becoming a special person.

Enlisting Chochmah In The Battle
In the face of the yeitzer harah’s constant maneuvers, we have to throw our energies into seeking strategies to offset the many challenges that prevent us from becoming better people. One of the most effective strategies, the Gemara tells us, is chochmah.

The posuk in Mishlei states, “Emor lechochmah achosi aht.” The Gemara in Brachos (17a) explains that the ultimate goal of chochmah is teshuvah and maasim tovim.

In order to overcome the roadblocks put in place by the yeitzer harah, we have to strengthen our ability to use chochmah. Only with chochmah can we subdue the yeitzer, as the posuk (Mishlei 24) states, “Betachbulos ta’aseh licha milchamah,” in fighting your enemy - the yeitzer harah - you have to use chochmah to outwit him.

The route to chochmah is through learning sifrei mussar which touch our inner core and put us back on course, following the literal translation of the word teshuvah, to return.

A Day of Redemption

Another powerful weapon available to us is embedded in the Yom Hadin itself. The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 11a) states that Rosh Hashanah is the day on which Yosef was freed from the Egyptian jail, as well as the day that marked the end of crushing slavery for the Jews in Miztrayim. Thus, in addition to being a day of judgment, Rosh Hashanah is also a day of redemption. On this day we can all be released from enslavement to the yeitzer harah and to the web of desires that ensnares us. The avodas hayom and the day’s built-in redemptive power can return us to an earlier, more ennobled state.

Once a person reaches that higher level of spiritual awareness brought on by teshuvah, he realizes that he is not superior to other people who were created just as he was, b’tzelem Elokim. His eyes open to the plight of the many people in this world who are in need of assistance, evoking his sympathy and compassion. As part of the spiritual growth triggered by teshuvah and tefillah, he has a growing awareness that it is not enough to care for himself and satisfy his own indulgences, but he must share his blessings with others.

Become a Giver
Ga’avah prevents a person from helping others. An arrogant individual looks down upon others and views them askance from a distance with a measure of scorn and hate. His bad middah keeps him from using his gifts to help others. He looks down upon them and views them as somehow deficient, inferior to himself.

Once the baal teshuvah repents, however, he becomes a moikir tov to the Ribono Shel Olam and thus proves that his convictions have been corrected and his priorities straightened out. He has come to recognize that he is not all-powerful, and that he is dependent upon the grace of Hashem for his wisdom, wealth, health and happiness. He has attained a new level of contentment reserved for those who are humble and walk in the path of Hashem.

This thought echoes the oft-repeated comment of Rav Yisroel of Salant that the way to prevail on the Yom Hadin is to behave selflessly, helping and giving to others, and becoming involved in improving the klal. A communal-minded person indicates by his altruism and benevolence that he recognizes his mission: to emulate Hashem by being a giver. A baal tzedakah who conducts himself l’sheim Shomayim is, in essence, the truest manifestation of a makir tov.

When teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah flow naturally, it indicates that a person has reached the level of observance required to prevail in the din of Rosh Hashanah. Thus, with our hearts focused on implementing the lessons embedded in these words, we proclaim, “Useshuvah, usefillah, utzedakah maavirin es ro’ah hagezeirah!”

May we all reach that lofty level, and may we find favor in Hashem’s eyes so that He will bless us all with a kesivah vachasimah tovah.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

What If?

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The driver who took us from Postville back to the Minneapolis airport for the flight home summed it all up. As we were approaching our destination after a three-hour drive through the darkened cornfields in the wee hours of the morning, Jonathan Saphira turned around and said to me, “I must tell you something. Last year, when you came to visit after ‘the raid’ and I drove you from the Minneapolis airport to Postville, it was a life-altering experience for me.”

I was worried that I had done something wrong. I listened with rapt attention as our driver, a resident of Rochester, Minnesota, and a translator who worked with Hispanic Agri workers before the raid, continued.

“You see, I don’t know if you remember, but you were in the car with another rabbi. I had thought that I knew everything about Agriprocessors and the Rubashkins and that I didn’t have to pay attention to the media reports. But then I heard how that rabbi was speaking and how you were arguing with him in vain, and I realized for the first time the power of the media and how their unsubstantiated allegations took root and gained acceptance. Even religious Jews and people like that rabbi fell for what they were writing and that added to the pressure. I am sure that if religious Jews had fought back, the government never would have been able to proceed based on the anonymous, unfounded allegations I knew were wrong, and we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

Jonathan couldn’t have expressed it better. So many of our problems are self-inflicted. We hear a good story, we jump to quick conclusions without bothering to ascertain the truth, and in the process we destroy people, families, careers, and much else.

It’s not a secret to Yated readers that we are haunted by what happened to Agriprocessors and to Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin. I have read the malicious book about the Postville experience and the reports of the disgusting manner in which the workers there were treated. I read the articles painting the company managers as modern-day shylocks trading in human misery and making their living off of the virtual enslavement of a servant class of workers. They were rolling in money like typical evil capitalists, the articles claimed, enjoying the fruits of the labor of the illiterate, the unskilled, and the proletariat, whom they ruled over.

The facts as I saw them with my own eyes on my visit to the plant last year were so obviously contrary to the media portrayals that I didn’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to sense that something deep and sinister was at work.

The plant was ultra-modern, ultra-clean, ultra-efficient, and so far removed from the jungles of Chicago and Upton Sinclair that it was inconceivable how any objective person could confuse the two. The workers, both home-grown Americans and those from Spanish-speaking countries to our south, smiled as they went about their work and, when we spoke to them, had only positive things to say about their jobs, their bosses, and their salaries.

But as the only media outlet to constantly take up the cause of reporting what was really transpiring in that plant and in the town of Postville, our efforts, regrettably, were not enough to turn the tide and convince the masses of the truth.

People who should have known better didn’t. People who are enjoined not to accept lashon hara and hotzo’as sheim rah did. People who should have given their brethren the benefit of the doubt didn’t. People who should have perceived that the real target was shechitah, and should have raised a hue and a cry, didn’t. Thus, the lynch mobs were able to vilify and destroy the reputation of a family renowned for its charity and care of the less-fortunate.

A dream of the highest standards of kashrus coupled with the highest quality of USDA inspected meat was allowed to turn into a nightmare, and few who could have made a difference can say, “Yodeinu lo shofchu es hadom hazeh.”

We didn’t care. It was just another news tidbit for us to talk about. It was fodder for conversation, and we didn’t fathom the human toll and cost it would take.

When I saw how wide the gap was between the facts and the reports, I adopted the cause. I had never met Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin. We became close over the year of his travails by speaking on the phone and through emails and text messages, and then he decided that it was time we met.

My wife and I spent this past Shabbos in Postville, Iowa. We took off to the Shabbos of Chizuk for Shalom Mordechai with great trepidation, not knowing what to expect, but it turned out that we had nothing to fear, and we learned quite a lot over the day and a half that we were there.

Imagine living in a place three hours from anywhere where you can buy a house on a decent piece of property for $25,000. Imagine living in a town where there is no crime and everyone keeps their doors unlocked day and night. There are no hills, the earth is as flat as can be, and when you look around, all you see are fields of green for miles around you. You are enveloped by a calming silence and fresh fragrant air wherever you go. Very rarely does a car come by, and when it does, it is moving at about 15 mph.

The tiny sliver of a town has a shul, a yeshiva, a cheder, a mikvah, and a kosher, fully-stocked grocery store. Everybody davens in the same shul which, if you didn’t know better, could be confused for a chassidishe shteibel in Boro Park or Yerushalayim. As you walk out of davening, you hear the people speaking to each other in a dialect composed of Yiddish, English and Hebrew in a way that you can’t tell who is from here and who is from Israel. They all sound alike and get along so well with each other.

As strange as it sounds, some people live here and commute to their jobs in other states, coming home for Shabbos. One shochet I spoke to is a Klausenberger chossid from Yerushalayim. From his mother’s side, he hails from the Vilna Gaon. His great-great-great-grandmother arrived in Eretz Yisroel with the first organized aliyah shortly after the passing of the Gaon. He went to Postville to shecht for Agri and now commutes to the shechitah in Kansas. He loves it in Postville. What is there not to like? He says this is the best place to bring up children, so far from the vagaries of city life and incipit influences.

In addition to spending a Shabbos in the company of people we had just met but who felt like family, on Friday night there was a shalom zachor, and on Motzoei Shabbos there was a festive melava malka. We experienced real, living Yiddishkeit in the cornfields of Iowa. It was such a lovely experience to spend Shabbos with so many nice, normal, friendly people.

• • • • •
This week’s parsha opens with the posuk, “Atem nitzovim hayom kulchem - You are standing today, all of you…” The Medrash Tanchumah states that we can only be Nitzavim and merit the light of Hashem when we are united b’agudah achas. Additionally, the Medrash says, the Jewish people will not be redeemed until they are united together b’aguda achas.” If we want to merit the geulah; if we are to succeed in golus, we have to be all together. We have to see past the hype, past the headlines, past our own daled amos, and we have to give people with reputations as ehrliche Yidden the benefit of the doubt.

When an unholy alliance is comprised of conservative rabbis, the liberal media and unions who have contributed to the losses of millions of American jobs, we ought to know that they are up to no good and we should be prepared to engage them and defend our way of life before they destroy it.

When people who don’t believe in the divinity of the Torah, nor observe the laws of kashrus and Shabbos, discover new mitzvos, such as declaring that when employees are improperly treated the products they produce become unfit for Jewish consumption, alarm bells ought to go off. We should realize that not only is one factory and one family under attack, but all of us and our families have become fair game for those who have been battling our existence ever since the days of Mendelsohn, Graetz, Achad Ha’am, Solomon Schechter and all the rest.

They raise allegations and reinforce them with age-old stereotypes, neither proving nor substantiating their charges, and then they convict the religious Jew of living an antiquated way of life which leads to anti-social behavior.

We are vilified daily in the media and painted as extremist, backward weirdos who must be combated and put into our rightful places. We ignore it and let it fester. While a religious Jew used to be treated with a measure of respect, today we are barely tolerated and are looked at with contempt wherever we go. The lie gains traction if it isn’t batted down and has the potential of eventually becoming universally accepted as the truth.

Not only gentiles and secular Jews, but even we, the Torah observant community, begin viewing our co-religionists with added degrees of suspicion and cynicism. After all, the media has proven that frum Jews are dishonest schemers who can’t be trusted, we are repeatedly told. Not only that, but these Orthodox Jews are also dirty, unkempt, vile Neanderthals whom one should do his very best to avoid. They say we are anti-social, refer to cops as Nazis, walk around with hatchets with which to kill hapless Arabs we find in our midst, defend baby killers, and our rabbis moonlight as money-launderers.

An acknowledged baal chesed, baal tzedaka, decent, honorable person is about to stand trial for his life. Who would have believed that the beautiful experiment in kosher production and establishment of an entire town around it, would end this way? Who could have dreamed that the person who devised the most modern system of kosher shechitah, processing and distribution would be preparing to stand trial, being accused of running a decrepit operation, without the money to defend himself?

When you see that ad which we run here in the Yated every week for the Pidyon Shvuyim Fund, think to yourself that this is not just an effort to help one person. It is an undertaking to defend our right to practice our religion responsibly without people casting stones at us and depicting us as frauds, as has been the pattern throughout our history in exile.

We will keep this story alive until it reaches its conclusion and will continue to report the truth so that perhaps, one day, when people look back at this sorry episode and wonder what really happened, there will be a record for those who really care about the truth.

As we have done in the past, we will continue to try our very best to defend ehrliche Yidden, without respect to their affiliation, dress, or mother country. No frum Jew should ever again be considered fair game.

When religious Jews are selected for prosecution for engaging in standard industry practice, we must stand beside them and fight the biased racial and religious profiling.

Just last week, American Apparel Company worked out a deal with the government and laid off 1,500 immigrant workers whom the government determined to be working illegally. The factory wasn’t subject to a raid and the workers and managers weren’t led away to jail in shackles. A gentlemanly, professional agreement was negotiated and everyone got on with their lives. Why was the Agri experience so different? Why weren't they taken up on their offer to fire anyone who the government felt shouldn't be working in the plant?

Also last week, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was indicted for robbing charities as well as the Israeli taxpayer. There was no hand-wringing from the same people who have castigated our education system and entire way of life because of some unproven allegations splashed around in the press. The news was reported and that was it. No one dared call the Zionist system into question. No one spoke of Olmert’s heritage as a prince of the Likud party and a scion of a storied Zionist party. No one called on the state to learn lessons and adopt a moral code for all to follow. The people who are quick to tar all religious Jews at the slightest hint of scandal were not heard from when the embarrassment of the indictment of the head of the Jewish state spread across the globe.

Just imagine what would have happened if Olmert had been loyal to his Jewish religion and been a yid with a beard and payos. Imagine the commotion. Imagine the demagoguery and oratory that would have been let loose on religious Jewry. We wouldn’t have had where to hide. But since this corrupt decrepit leader is a consumer of treif and walks around with a bare head, he and his ilk get a free pass.

Yet we accept that double standard and take it for granted. Many times, we don’t even realize it is taking place.

• • • • •

The shul in Postville is named Achdus Yisroel and that is exactly what it is. It is a place that draws all types of Jews, who speak a collection of languages and hail from various parts of the globe. They all get along. A spirit of calmness pervades the shul where everyone knows everyone else, each person feels at home, and all attendees get along magnificently.

I couldn’t help but think of the Chazal which states that when Jews are b’achdus and together, they can stand up to any enemy, except those who we ourselves empower. But the thought that this idyllic little town of Torah in the middle of nowhere in Postville, Iowa, may be headed for Ghostville hung over the place. Despite all the smiles and the cheerfulness, and the pervasive simcha and bitachon apparent there, nobody knows what the next year will bring. This is because it is not only our external, eternal enemies who have been empowered to destroy this place of transplanted kedushah by themselves, but the fact that they have been aided and abetted by wolves in sheep’s clothing disguised as do-gooders concerned with the ethical treatment of animals and the people who process them.

As we approach the Yom Hadin and seek zechuyos for ourselves, let us daven for the success of the good Yidden of Postville and all the others in economic distress across the country, and resolve to improve in the middah of kol Yisroel areivim zeh bazeh in every aspect of our communal and Jewish lives.

Ish lereyeihu ya’azoru ule’achiv yomar chazak. When what divides us is external and minor, we have to ignore those differences and be able to support each other and come together as one nation for our eternal benefit.

Let it not be said of us in the coming year that we remained apathetic and didn’t rise up when the occasion demanded it. Let it not be said that we didn’t fight for the truth and help it emerge from the dark clouds of golus and treachery.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Emunah and Bitachon

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Parshas Ki Savo begins with the mitzvah of bikkurim. Through this mitzvah and the rich symbolism of the mitzvos surrounding it, we are taught how to achieve happiness.

After months of toiling in his field and orchard, a Jew takes the first fruits of his harvest and sets off for Yerushalayim. When he arrives there, he meets up with a kohein and then approaches the mizbei’ach in the Bais Hamikdosh and recites the pesukim which recall the trials that Yaakov Avinu endured, followed by our forefathers’ suffering in Mitzrayim.

He then relates how Hashem rescued us with scores of miracles and led us to the Promised Land which flows with milk and honey.

Following that, the Jew presents the first fruits of his labors to the kohein and returns home. He is then ready for the next part of the mitzvah: “Vesomachta bechol hatov.” There is an obligation to rejoice “with all the goodness that Hashem, your G-d, has given you and your household.”

The obligation to be thankful for the blessings Hashem has bestowed upon us - and to contrast that goodness with the difficult time that preceded it - appears to be the key to true happiness.

The road to happiness and fulfillment is often strewn with hardship. A Jew whose livelihood comes from working the fields is a perfect illustration of how this dynamic works.

First, he must spend countless hours toiling under the blistering sun and in the freezing cold. Then, when he finally has some fruit ready to harvest and eat or sell, he is told that he cannot use them for his personal enjoyment, but must take them to Yerushalayim as bikkurim.

The Torah instructs him to think back to the bitter days that Yaakov spent at the home of his father-in-law, Lavan, and to the period of slavery we endured in Egypt. Perhaps that is because it is only by approaching our situation in life with this perspective that we can merit happiness.

Perhaps part of the reason for the mitzvah of bikkurim is to force man to reflect on the good in his life. Too often, people concentrate on the negative; they complain about all the heartache they endure as they struggle to make a living. People fail to thank Hashem that they have a job and that they have a boss who guarantees them a salary. People don’t always appreciate that they have a plot of land on which to grow their fruit and instead complain about all the chores that they must perform in order for their orchard to produce healthy fruit.

The mitzvah of bikkurim forces one to mentally revisit the first days of the season when he planted one of his shivah minim, not knowing whether the seeds would take root or whether the trees would bear fruit. And it forces him to be thankful that, despite all the potential for ruin, in the end, Hashem helped him bring forth a good crop.

In Yerushalayim, he stands at the mizbei’ach and reflects on the mixture of hard times and good times the Jewish people have experienced throughout the ages.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah and examine our actions over the past year, we, too, must weigh the bad with the good, examining our lives with a spiritual yardstick to measure how far we’ve come in the course of time. Instead of growing despondent over all the mistakes we’ve made, we should be thankful that Hashem has given us this Elul period of reflection during which we can rectify those errors.

All of us face challenges in life. There are times when we feel as if we are backed into a corner with no means of escape. Sometimes we feel as if a conspiracy of lies has spread an impenetrable web. There are times when it appears as if all the odds are stacked against a righteous person, and conventional wisdom seems to indicate that it’s time to give up the fight.

The tendency to despair is understandable. But not every story ends in tears; there actually are some with happy endings. The mitzvah of bikkurim encourages us to never despair and to always maintain our belief in Hashem even on the dark days when the land lies fallow and an unbelieving person would give up all hope of ever growing anything.

The courage to keep up the struggle is the theme of Elul. As we reflect on how much we are lacking and on the many areas which can use improvement, we may start feeling useless. We may decide that we are so far gone that it is impossible for us to straighten ourselves out in time.

We need to maintain our faith as we experience this internal turbulence. Hakadosh Boruch Hu says to us, “Pischu li pesach kefishcho shel machat, va’ani eftach lochem kefischo shel ulam.” We have to open the door, we have to plant the seed, we have to take that trip to Yerushalayim, and G-d will do the rest.

As we review this past year, we are sure to find some actions that we can point to with pride. We are reminded that there is some good inherent in us. We need not give up; we must recognize that there is room for hope.

If we teach ourselves to take our responsibilities to Hashem and our fellow man more seriously, we really can succeed in the year to come.

Living in troubled, turbulent times, we have to maintain our faith and seek to persevere and do the right thing, no matter how difficult the challenge.

In this season of introspection and retrospection, we should internalize the message of the bikkurim. As we review our failings and the unfortunate occurrences which have befallen us, we must take note of and appreciate the good as well. One sure way to merit the blessings of happiness is to recognize the nisyonos we have been able to overcome and the siyata diShmaya that has helped us do so.

We have to continue to constantly scrutinize our actions, always aiming to improve. We have to remember the arami oveid avi and the avdus in Mitzrayim in order to absorb Hakadosh Boruch Hu’s mercy and kindness in accepting our prayers and rescuing us from that awful place.

Just as He saved our fathers, He looks out for us and aids us in our daily battles and struggles if we remain staunch in our faith and do not allow setbacks to derail us.

And while we are doing that, we ponder what we can do to merit Divine intervention, deliverance from the clutches of evil, and the ultimate redemption.

This week’s parsha of Ki Savo also provides the answer to that age-old question. The Torah states (28:1) that if we will adhere to all the mitzvos which we were commanded by G-d and follow His word, we will merit to be ascendant over all the other nations.

It is interesting to note that this posuk is preceded by the one which states, “Arur asher lo yokim es divrei haTorah hazos - Cursed shall be the one who does not uphold [raise] the Torah.”

The Ramban brings the Yerushalmi in Maseches Sotah (7:4) which states that this curse is referring to people who are in a position to influence others to come closer to Torah and to support Torah but fail to do so. Anyone who shirks his responsibility is included in this arur. Even if the person is a complete tzaddik in everything he does, if he could have drawn others closer to the holiness and truth of Torah but doesn’t, he is cursed.

The Chofetz Chaim often repeated this Ramban and would strengthen the message by quoting the Gemara in Maseches Shabbos (54) which states that one who has the ability to protest against the wrongful actions of the people of his town and doesn’t do so, gets caught up in their sins. One who reproaches his fellows and brings them to the right path, thereby increasing kevod Shomayim, is showered with the brachos that were delivered in this week’s parsha on Har Gerizim.

The Chofetz Chaim would make the point that there is no better bracha than that. Thus, everyone should use whatever abilities they have to help build Torah. If Hashem blessed someone with money, then he should use it to build yeshivos for the study of Torah. If he is blessed with oratorical skills, he should use them to raise money for yeshivos and for Torah causes. He should speak out against practices that cause a weakening of our religion.

As the Yom Hadin approaches, we all seek out sources of merit and bracha to be zoche in din and be inscribed in the book of tzaddikim. The Ramban informs us that it is not sufficient to be a tzaddik gomur. We must also use our faculties to help strengthen and spread Torah.

As the world spins out of control, and as so many of acheinu Bnei Yisroel are affected by the economic downturn and our eternal enemies strengthen themselves with impunity, we realize that there is no one we can depend on to protect us other than Hashem. We seek sources of merit for ourselves and to be included with those the posuk calls “boruch,” the blessed ones.

We require extra bracha to prevent us from falling into the hands of those who are arur.

We are all blessed with different strengths and abilities which we must use for worthwhile purposes. Hashem made each of us differently, because it takes the varied capabilities of a group of individuals to build a community and strengthen a nation.

Let us all follow the admonition of the Chofetz Chaim and use our kochos to increase the study and support of Torah. Let us find more time to learn and worthy causes to support with increased generosity and wholeheartedness. Let us inspire others to do the same. Let us use the power of speech to spread leshon tov and not lashon harah. And let us also seek to do away with some of the evil which pervades our world.

Let us be ever vigilant in our behavior, remaining loyal to the Shulchan Aruch and to what we know is true and proper. Let us maintain the strength of character and purpose necessary to remain upstanding in a tipsy world. As the spotlight of the media and the authorities is focused upon us, let us be exceedingly careful not to appear to countenance any form of chicanery or unethical conduct. Let us be sure that we conduct ourselves as a mamleches kohanim vegoy kadosh, even when we think no one is watching.

May our emunah in the Borei Olam and our hakoras hatov for all He does for us, coupled with these activities, bring us abundant merit in the final weeks before Rosh Hashanah so that we earn the blessing of a year of success, good health, parnassah tovah and nachas.