Wednesday, October 28, 2009

No Shortcuts

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

In Parshas Lech Lecha, we learn how Hakadosh Boruch Hu told Avrohom Avinu to leave his home and birthplace for a promised land. Avrohom received Hashem’s promise that he would be blessed in the new country. The posuk relates that following the command to leave his home, Avrohom gathered Sarai, Lot and the nefashos they had made in Choron and left for Canaan.

Lot’s shepherds were not able to get along with those of Avrohom Avinu, and Avrohom decided that they had to separate. He told his nephew Lot to choose the area where he preferred to live and said that he would find a place for himself at a safe distance from Lot.

The posuk relates that Lot saw that the Kikar Hayardein was blessed with fertile abundance and chose it as the area where he would settle. He was looking for a quick fix. He was seeking to make a fast buck. It didn’t bother him that he would be living with the wicked people of Sedom. All he was interested in was making money. The dollar bills were dancing in front of his eyes as he surveyed the territory he had chosen as his own.

He left the company of Avrohom, the holiest and kindest man alive, to go live among the most wicked and selfish people ever to walk the earth. As soon as Avrohom asked him to leave, he was gone, with not a word of protest, off to the Kikar Hayardein, where he thought he would be better off than living in close proximity to an honest and righteous man.

Avrohom had rules that Lot did not abide by. He was upset when Lot cut corners and fed his animals from other people’s property. Lot couldn’t wait to leave and join the rich and successful people of Sedom.

We all know the rest of the story. Sedom was destroyed and its inhabitants and their wealth were obliterated. Lot was saved in the merit of Avrohom Avinu.

The solution to Lot’s problem would have been to plead with Avrohom Avinu for guidance and direction. The resolution would have been to stay true to the principles taught by Avrohom since they had lived in Choron.

We are all affected by outer appearances. Promises of fame and glory tempt many people. The things we chase after may not be good for us, but we don’t admit that. We rationalize and fall prey to the lure of Sedom. The glitter dazzles us and blinds us to what lies beneath the veneer.

We look out at the beautiful foliage and comment on how gorgeous the trees are. All summer long, they seem bland; they are all the same color. But with fall, the trees change to brilliant red, bright orange and yellow. Warm brown hues emerge and we are all taken by the blast of beauty. But it doesn’t last long. The colorful exhibition is a signal that the end is coming. The brilliant red means that the leaves are about to die, fall off and be swept away to eternal oblivion.

As long as the leaves are green, we know that they will live and endure. The bright colors are a sign that they are about to meet the fate of Sedom and all of Lot’s friends and neighbors there.

Like Lot, at times we look for shortcuts. We look for excuses. We look for a way out of fulfilling our obligations. We fail to act responsibly and utilize our gifts for the betterment of ourselves and mankind.

We should recognize how lucky and blessed we are to live in this age with so many opportunities available to us. We should take advantage of these opportunities and utilize them constructively and responsibly. We should appreciate these gifts, focus on the good and endeavor to increase goodness in our world. We should seek to help more people appreciate the beauty of the old and true and help dispel the allure of the bright and colorful hedonistic enticements.

As we witness the explosion of Torah across the country we should contemplate that not all that long ago we were written off. Yeshivos went begging for talmidim and scrapping for paltry donations to keep the impoverished institutions open.

Acting responsibly means realizing that growth doesn’t come easy and is often associated with growing pangs and various difficulties, including funding. As children of Avrohom, we cannot shirk our obligation to recognize that it is incumbent upon us to do more to help the kol Torah reverberate around our local towns and cities.

Torah is what identifies us as a people. Torah is what makes us who we are and defines what we do. Our Torah institutions should be our priority. They should claim our deepest support and respect. Instead, we allow them to go begging for the financial assistance they need to survive and flourish.

If we care about Torah, if the future of Am Yisroel is important to us, then we have to be prepared to sacrifice for it. Torah has to be our thing.

We are living in a period of financial difficulty and tension and are barely able to keep up with all the demands and obligations pressuring us. Despite that, we have to realize that we live not only for ourselves. We must make time for others. We have to recognize that as members of a larger community, we have responsibilities to each other.

In the battle for the soul of the Jewish people, we have to turn inward and strengthen ourselves in our dedication to Torah, and dig deep into our pockets and our neshamos to safeguard that which is most holy and precious to us.

There is so much good in our community. There are so many people who dedicate themselves to enhancing the tzibbur in myriad ways. They need our help if they are to succeed.

We can’t take the easy way out and depend upon others to act responsibly, operate within the proper parameters, and always behave honestly as we seek to skirt the rules. As scions of Avrohom Avinu, we shouldn’t be looking to others to faithfully carry out the burdens of communal obligation as we seek easier pastures.

If we want to enjoy the benefits of Divine blessings - and who doesn’t - we have to remain loyal to the precepts of our leaders without attempting to escape their gaze to enjoy misbegotten gains on islands of neglect and negativity. The influence of Torah must guide us in all facets of our lives. Maintaining faith and stability in turbulent times is fundamental if we wish for permanent attainment and achievement.

Temptations abound. In periods of economic downturn, the appeal of looking away from the ramifications of disregarding the rules is more dramatic. The allure of quick financing for our projects while ignoring the larger message that accepting money from dubious sources conveys, becomes yet stronger. The urge to equivocate and rationalize public appearance with corrupt characters, who translate the participation with them as conferring legitimacy on themselves and their adventures, has to be condemned and halted.

That is also part of the legacy of Avrohom Avinu, who, as the Torah relates in this week’s parsha, refused to take as much a shoestring from the King of Sedom, lest he be able to issue press releases proclaiming that he aided Avrohom. We ought not to be any different. All of our actions should be able to pass the test of Avrohom.

As people of faith, we should not be cutting corners and turning a blind eye to our obligations. We must behave in a manner that causes a kiddush Hashem and not the opposite.

The promises that Hashem made to Avrohom are extant for his progeny in posterity if we follow in his ways. As the posuk states, “Venivrichu vecha - They will be blessed through you.” By abiding by the example of Avrohom and adhering to the code he lived by, everyone can be blessed. Us too.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Our Mandate

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Every time I learn Parshas Noach, I am struck again by the words of Rashi which seek to quantify and minimize the greatness of Noach.

The posuk states that Noach was a perfectly righteous man in his generation. In a way in which no other biblical leader is measured, Rashi, the great elucidator of the Chumash for the Jews of all ages, compares the illustriousness of Noach to that of Avrohom Avinu. Though the Torah testifies to his greatness by declaring him a tzaddik tomim in his generation, Rashi is quick to quote the rabbinic debate as to whether Noach would have been recognized as a tzaddik if he had lived in the generation of Avrohom Avinu.

Obviously, there is a lesson for us to be learned here, though I doubt the lesson is to judge our leaders, theoretically rating them on a scale with giants of different generations. We are cautioned not to rate and judge our leaders, and we are taught that “Yiftach bedoro keShmuel bedoro.” Each leader is viewed as he relates to his generation. Furthermore, the Torah declares, “Uvasah el hakohein asher yihiyeh bayomim haheim” - You shall go to the kohein who is in your day and (as Chazal teach us) you should not declare that the kohein of your day doesn’t measure up to the one of previous generations.

Why, then, do Chazal go to great pains to determine how great Noach really was and if his greatness and tzidkus compares to that of Avrohom, who lived in a different place and time?

Additionally, why do Chazal, who measure the greatness of Noach, feel compelled to minimize him to the level of stating had he lived during the period of Avrohom, he wouldn’t have been considered anything - “lo haya nechshav leklum”? Why isn’t it sufficient to say that he wouldn’t have been considered a great person? What is there about Noach's greatness that would have deemed him irrelevant during the lifetime of Avrohom?

Chazal derive that the three avos, Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, observed the Torah before it was delivered to their descendants at Har Sinai. They studied it and followed all its teachings prior to its observance becoming mandatory for the Jewish people.

While Rashi quotes the Medrash which derives that Noach studied the Torah, Chazal do not say that Noach kept the mitzvos of the Torah. Perhaps we can thus understand the need to tell us that had Noach lived during the period of Avrohom, he wouldn’t have been considered anything, for he did not keep the Torah.

Noach was a nice person who was blessed with a nobleness of character - and a lot more than that. In a generation of unparalleled evil-doers, he was the one person who stood out for favor in the eyes of G-d and, along with his family, was saved from destruction. But his kindness and his tzidkus didn’t have their roots in Torah and were thus flawed and incomplete. Had he been in the generation of Avrohom, who studied, absorbed and observed the Torah, Noach would have been considered a nothing, for without Torah we are all nothing.

This is not an indictment of Noach. It does not minimize his devotion to Hashem and his good deeds during a time of debauchery. It is a simple statement of fact.

Chazal point out a difference between Noach and Avrohom. When informed by Hashem that He intended to destroy the world, Noach didn’t pray that the decree be overturned. He accepted it and set about building the teivah to save himself, his family, and the animal kingdom. When Avrohom was told by Hashem that He was about to destroy the evil city of Sedom, Avrohom didn’t accept that fate and begged Hashem to spare the city from destruction and its people from death.

This fundamental distinction in the feelings of responsibility for other people is inherent in the difference between one whose chessed is a result of his own understanding and one whose acts of chessed are the result of Torah.

Noach’s kindness, compassion and sense of justice did not emanate from Torah, but rather from his own understanding of the concepts of being a fine person. He was aware of the serious limitations of the people of his generation and therefore, when Hashem told him that mankind as he knew it would be destroyed, he accepted their fate and did not attempt to advocate on their behalf.

Avrohom Avinu did not participate in acts of charity merely because he was a refined person who had spent his entire life devoted to self-improvement. His primary motivator was the mitzvos of the Torah Chesed (Maharal, Tiferes Yisroel, 20). Therefore, when it came to his consideration of other people, there was no limit to what he would do for someone else.

What drove Avrohom was the mitzvah of “Ve’ahavta lerei’acha kamocha,” the precept to love your fellow man as much as you love yourself. Therefore, when informed of the fate of the people of Sedom, he prayed for them in the same manner that he would have wanted someone to pray for him. His feelings for other people were governed by the principles of Torah and not by the thought process of man.

Only someone guided by the axioms of Torah and not by his own levels of understanding would beg of Hashem to spare the lives of the Sedomites. Only a person whose direction is from Torah would interrupt a conversation with Hashem in order to treat other people the way he would have wanted to be treated and offer three travelers lodging and a good meal. Such behavior is beyond the realm of moral righteousness which man can reach through his own understanding.

This point is reinforced in a new sefer of shmuessen of the Alter of Slabodka, where he quotes (Chapter 294) from the Tana Devei Eliyahu that in the final judgment after one leaves this world, one of the first questions we will all be asked is, “Himlachtah es chavercha alecha benachas ruach,” whether we subjugated ourselves to our friends with an inner calmness. He points to this as an example of how far-reaching the mitzvah of Ve’ahavta lerei’acha kamocha is. Surely this degree of love is way above the concept of brotherly love which people would reach based upon their own understanding.

In the sefer Nesivos Ohr, which Rav Yitzchok Blazer wrote about his rebbi, Rav Yisroel Salanter, he recounts that his rebbi told him of the time that he was walking to shul on Erev Yom Kippur and a G-d-fearing man was approaching from the other direction. The man had a look of fear on his face and tears were streaming down his cheeks. Rav Yisroel asked him what his problem was and what was bothering him. The man was in such a state of fear that he did not answer Rav Yisroel and continued walking.

Rav Yisroel is quoted there as telling his talmid, “When I passed that man, I thought to myself, ‘What is it my fault if you are so G-d-fearing and you so are so afraid of the impending Yom Hadin? What does that have to do with me? You have an obligation to respond to my question calmly!’”

That is the extent to which the obligation to be mamlich es chavercha alecha benachas ruach reaches. This is a level that only a person suffused with Torah can reach.

The Chofetz Chaim carries the obligation further and writes in a letter (number 70 in the sefer of his letters) that we are obligated to work on helping out people as much as we would work on helping ourselves. If we can help someone, no matter the difficulty involved, we are obligated to do so, even if it involves putting ourselves out physically, spiritually or financially.

Rav Yitzchok of Volozhin writes in the hakdamah to his father’s monumental sefer, Nefesh Hachaim, that his father, Rav Chaim of Volozhin, would rebuke him for not feeling the pain of someone who was suffering. His father would say, “A person is not created for himself, but rather to help other people as much as he possibly can.”

Thus, although Noach didn’t pray for the people of his generation and didn’t feel their pain, he may not have been obligated to and the way he acted didn’t take away from his greatness. Prior to the deliverance of the Torah, not only was there no obligation to act the way Avrohom did in relation to the people of his generation, but the entire concept didn’t exist. Noach was a tzaddik in his day because he kept himself and his family holy and that was all that was expected of man at the period of time during which Noach lived.

Once Avrohom Avinu came to the realization that there is a G-d and accepted upon himself the mitzvos of the Torah, it no longer sufficed to be a tzaddik tomim based upon mortal understanding of right and wrong. From the time of Avrohom onward, a person could only be considered great if he followed the Torah.

This is what Chazal and Rashi are teaching us by stating that had Noach lived in the generation of Avrohom, he wouldn’t have been considered anything - “lo haya nechshav leklum.” They want to make sure that as children of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, we are aware of our obligations to those around us.

We have to be caring about other people. We have to help other people the way we would want to be helped if we were in their situation. We have to be prepared to do everything in our ability to put ourselves into the person’s situation to enable us to feel their pain and do everything we are capable of to be of assistance to them.

As bnei Torah, we must have at our core the knowledge to be cognizant of other people’s feelings and needs, and never to act selfishly and disdainfully towards anyone. We must never be oblivious to other people’s problems. We must daven for them and be a source of succor and sustenance for our friends, neighbors and others we come in contact with.

Chazal derive from the posuk which states “Es Elokim hishaleich Noach - Noach walked together with Hashem,” that Avrohom was greater than Noach, for Noach required a crutch to support himself while Avrohom didn’t. Avrohom was able to strengthen himself and walk alone.

Once again, we would think that the posuk’s testimony that Noach walked with G-d is a sign of virtue. But Chazal make it a point to indicate that this is a sign of weakness. Perhaps this is for the same reason that we expounded upon previously. Since Noach didn’t accept upon himself to observe the mitzvos of the Torah, he was in constant need of support and wasn’t able to raise his level of righteousness on his own. Avrohom Avinu, who kept the Torah, was able to grow through Torah study and observance. Torah raises the level of those who cleave to it and allows them to rise to superhuman levels. Thus, Avrohom, the shomer Torah umitzvos, was able to raise himself to unsurpassed levels.

We, too, who have been given the benefit of Torah, can raise ourselves to lofty levels of character and behavior if we seriously commit ourselves to its study and observance. That is the mandate handed down to us by Avrohom Avinu and part of what makes us special. It is what gives us the ability to stand out among the nations of the world. Let us live up to it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ah Gantz Yohr Freilach

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Once again, a Yom Tov has come and gone.

Once again, after much preparation and hard work, we merited celebrating the beautiful, joyous Yom Tov of Sukkos. Sadly, by the time we turned around, it was over.

Throughout its duration - from constructing the sukkah, to decorating it, to shlepping the tables and chairs and mattresses and making it inhabitable, to selecting a lulav and an esrog, to all the buying and cooking and cleaning that the Yom Tov requires - we fantasized that it would last for a very long time.

We put out of our minds all the things that we had to attend to after Sukkos. We blocked out the thought of having to go back to dealing with the realities of life. After the teshuvah of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the tefillos of the Yomim Noraim and Yom Tov, and being mekayeim all the mitzvos hachag with so much simcha and devotion, we were sure that Moshiach would reveal himself sometime before the end of Yom Tov.

But it was not to be. We have not yet merited the arrival of Moshiach who will deliver us from golus. We are still enmeshed in our problems and worries; we still have to contend with all those unpleasant realities we wished would go away.

Having just experienced a most uplifting experience, we have to hold onto it and keep it fresh in our consciousness to propel us further. The Yomim Tovim are not meant to be like a typical vacation that becomes a distant memory the minute the plane lands and you are back home.

Yomim Tovim have to teach us and change us into better people. They have to leave an impression on our souls and minds. They have to leave us with important lessons that have the capacity to improve us and our lives.

One day we celebrate Simchas Torah with all its spiritual highs and the next day we are expected to cheerfully return to business as usual. One day we dance away without a care in the world and the next day it is back to the bleak burdens of work and school.

How is it possible not to feel let down?

Simchas Torah is commonly viewed as a celebration of the completion of Torah, and it surely is. But on Simchas Torah, as soon as we finish Vezos Habracha with great fanfare, we start Bereishis with the very same level of excitement. For many of us, the beginning is an even greater cause for celebration than the siyum.

The laining of Bereishis on Simchas Torah tells us that we all get another chance. Even if we didn’t learn the Torah as well as we could have during the past year, Vezos Habracha tells us that just as there is bracha in completing, there is also bracha in the beginning. We all get a chance to start again from the beginning. Even if things went wrong last year and we didn’t do as well as we should have, we are given a fresh opportunity to try again.

What a cause for celebration that is! What a special blessing is granted to the Jewish people, who for that very reason are compared to the moon. We have been gifted the special ability to bounce back. We are able to come back from near failure and oblivion.

When we dance on Simchas Torah, we do so due to the joy of completion and gratification, but also with a sense of anticipation.

As Jews, whenever we finish a limud, we immediately begin learning something else, Maharsha, Ovada Zara, 19a, D.H. Slick. No matter how hard it may have been to reach our goal, no matter how great the accomplishment, we don’t rest. We begin the trek all over again. The energy that propelled us to this point will now push us on further to even greater heights.

So we learn Bereishis and we understand that Hashem created it all. We realize that it is for a greater purpose. We live in a time when we are forced to work so hard to make ends meet. We are so trapped in the pursuit of our livelihoods that we allow ourselves barely a moment to wonder what it’s all about.

As the winter begins its steady descent, we attempt to keep the embers of the Yom Tov warmth glowing inside our hearts for as long as we can.

As we slide from the yemei kodesh to the yemei chol, we try to recapture the lessons of those sacred days and understand how to apply them during the days and months ahead.

To do otherwise would be to rob ourselves of the full benefits of the special days of Tishrei.

Sukkos is a sort of halfway house. During the days of Elul, we sought to raise ourselves to a higher level of holiness and increase our devotion to mitzvos and our fellow man. Rosh Hashanah and Aseres Yemei Teshuvah brought us to a new level of appreciating our obligations in this world. Yom Kippur was the apex of that evolution. In shul all day with our machzorim and tefillos, nothing came between us and Hashem as we communicated with Him in a way we don’t do all year. Klapping ahl cheit, we went through the list of temptations which can affect man and promised to never fall prey to them again.

But then Yom Kippur is over and we are confronted by our old foibles again. Sukkos comes along and we become ensconced once again in a cloak of holiness. The Yom Tov of Zeman Simchaseinu helps us adapt once again to the real world. While no longer on the lofty plane to which the Yomim Noraim carried us, we are nevertheless enveloped in kedushah and separated for eight days from the mundane stress and pressures that dominate the rest of the year.

As we resolve to tackle life with our renewed attitudes, the simcha of the chag reaches out to us and gives us the strength and skill to do so. Thus, even on days which are not as awe-inspiring and uplifting as Yom Kippur, we work on being better people, stronger in our yiras Shomayim and in our bein adam lachaveiro.

On Simchas Torah, every Jew can reconnect to Torah and begin its study once again with a renewed intensity that has been building up since Rosh Chodesh Elul. Simchas Torah renews a Jew’s feelings for kiyum hamitzvos and on this day he is suffused with an otherworldly joy. On this day, as Vezos Habracha is read, he can appreciate that the Torah is the essence of bracha, blessing. He begins his study of Torah again with Parshas Bereishis armed with a fresh perspective and a determination to understand it better than he did last time around.

He opens up a Chumash and begins learning the first posuk. He then turns to the first Rashi we are all so familiar with, which asks why the Torah begins with the story of creation. Should it not have begun with the parsha of Hachodesh Hazeh Lochem, which describes the first commandment given to the Jews as a nation?

He reads the answer: “So that if the nations of the world accuse the Jews of being land robbers for stealing the land of Eretz Yisroel from other nations, you will be able to answer them and tell them that the entire world belongs to Hashem; He created it and He can give it to whomever He pleases. First he gave Eretz Yisroel to the other nations, and then He took it away from them and gave it to us.”

But the Jew wonders: Do the nations of the world really care about what it says in the Torah? Will they be satisfied with an answer based upon what it says in the Torah? Even if it is important to establish Hashem’s exclusive ownership of Earth, why must the Torah begin with this fact?

He continues on to the next Rashi: “Bereishis, bishvil Torah shenikrah reishis ubishvil Yisroel shenkire’uh reishis… Why does the Torah open with the word Bereishis? Because it signifies that the world was created for the Torah, which is also referred to as reishis, and to teach us that the world was created for Am Yisroel, which is called reishis.”

He ponders the connection between the two Rashis. Rashi doesn’t actually mean to say that the goyim will be influenced by the arguments of the Torah. Perhaps Rashi’s intent is for us to continually remind ourselves of some fundamental truths that dictate our purpose in this world: Hashem created the world and singled out the Jewish nation as His chosen people for all time. He designated them as the recipients of the Holy Land where they could elevate themselves through Torah to perfection.

Since time immemorial, Jews have been singled out for hatred by the nations of the world. They have accused us of every conceivable sin and have sought our destruction. The Torah opens with the statement of creation and Hashem’s dominion over the world to remind us that where ever we are and no matter what the nations of the world accuse us of, we should not become dejected.

The Aleph-Bais of Torah is to know that Hashem created the world and fashioned a special place for us in that world. This is why the second Rashi tells us that the world was created for Torah and Am Yisroel.

The Jew appreciates this and is able to stand up to all the scoffers who mock his devotion to Torah. The Jew recognizes that the Torah is not a history book designed to trace the odyssey of a people. It is the Creator’s “guidebook,” whose purpose is to teach His people how to live in the land he created in six days. Nothing that anyone says or does can change that immutable fact. We cleave to its every word and base our lives upon it.

On the day we end a cycle of study and begin anew, our celebration and joy are unparalleled. On this happiest of days, we dance and sing songs of praise of Hashem and thank him for choosing us and for giving us the Torah. We sway to tunes which express our love for Torah and our devotion to it.

We realize that the Torah is as relevant today as on the day it was delivered to the Bnei Yisroel on Har Sinai, and on the first day of creation. That awareness increases the fervor of his dance and heartfelt simcha.

As he danced away until he felt that his feet could no longer carry him, he understood why Sukkos follows Yom Kippur and why Simchas Torah follows Sukkos. Because following the spiritual levels that he attained on Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, he needs a little sukkah to wrap it all together and to enable him to hold onto it.

He can only do that, however, if he detaches himself from all that is temporary and all the figments of his Olam Hazeh-ish imagination. He’s got to get back in touch with what is real and permanent.

He sits in his little sukkah, surrounded by his children’s little decorations, and he looks up to the heavens and realizes that he is not alone. He is happy. For once in his life, he has merited true happiness. He has learned a lesson in what is real and what is not, what is temporary and what is permanent.

Now he knows the secret of simcha - simcha that comes from working to understand Torah, simcha that comes from knowing that a Jew is never alone, simcha that is contagious. And nothing will deter him from being b’simcha.

He can now move back into the temporary world and still keep that simcha in his heart. He resolves to remember that simcha, that feeling of joy, of finally understanding what is important in life and what is temporary, as he returns to his job or to school to face the countless pressures and challenging moments that fill our lives. Nothing can take that feeling of satisfaction he attained on Simchas Torah away from him.

He has a new beginning and he intends to take full advantage of it. He will improve in every way possible as he carries the messages of Elul and Tishrei with him. No matter what is thrown in his path, he will maintain his belief in the Creator Who guides his life. He will be neither broken nor depressed during the coming cold days of winter, for he knows that he is not alone and he knows that if he tries hard enough, he can attain the blessings of Vezos Habracha.

Yes, it really is difficult to be freilach ah gantz yohr, but the memories of the warmth of the sukkah and Simchas Torah, the joy of the esrog and lulav, will certainly help.

Ah gutten, freilechen, un gezunter vinter to all.