Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Heavenly Messages and Battles

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The parshiyos of Sefer Bereishis are meant to impart lessons that, if properly understood, provide us with badly needed direction in our personal lives, as well as in the broader arena of communal and world affairs. These lessons are not always self-evident or applicable to every situation. They require serious study and guidance from Torah giants in when and how they can be implemented.

The beginning of this week’s parsha is replete with lessons of this sort. Not only have they guided Jewish communities of yesteryear, but they have a great deal to say to us regarding situations the Jewish people are facing today.

How are we to deal with evil people who want to harm us? How are we supposed to react when we have been wronged?

Eisav, the brother and arch-enemy of Yaakov Avinu, sought to kill him after Yaakov received the immortal blessings from their father Yitzchok. Despite his moral depravity and the illegitimate life he led, Eisav desperately wanted the tzaddik’s blessings. When he couldn’t attain them, he decided to take revenge on Yaakov and end his life.

Interestingly enough, Yaakov didn’t fight back. Why not? Why did Rivkah and Yitzchok advise Yaakov to run away from his brother? Why didn’t Yaakov attempt to justify himself to Eisav, or failing that, meet him on his own turf in battle if necessary, as we find him doing in next week’s parsha of Vayishlach?

When confronted with evil, one of two responses normally prevail—fight or flight. In our world, when confronted by someone with harmful or sinister intentions, people tend reflexively to jump into battle mode. That’s considered the manly approach. Yet that response might not always be the proper one.

The Medrash Tanchumah Hakadum in this week’s parsha, explains Yaakov’s inaction by stating that when the midas hadin is dominant, a person under attack should back off and wait for the midas hadin to retreat.

The Medrash tells of several people who utilized that tactic, eventually emerging victorious. The Medrash cites as examples: Avrohom when he escaped from Nimrod; Yitzchok when he left Eretz Plishtim without a fight; Yosef who didn’t protest against his brothers when they sold him into servitude; Moshe when he ran away from Paroh to the land of Midyan; and Dovid when he slipped away from Shaul.

The Medrash Rabba in Devorim [1, 18] advises: “If you see that Eisav is looking to fight with you, don’t stand up to him, rather hide until his day passes.”

Similarly, in Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer, at the end of perek 29, it is written that when the wicked Izevel wanted to kill Eliyahu, Hashem told him to run away much the same as Yaakov, Moshe and Dovid ran away from their would-be killers, and were thus saved.

Though we are commanded to hate sheker - falsehood and corruption - we have to recognize that not always is it in our hands to successfully combat it. There are times when we have to swallow very hard and restrain ourselves, to wait for the proper moment.
In the first chapter of his sefer, Yemei Chanukah, Rav Dovid Cohen, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Chevron, quotes Rav Elchonon Wasserman regarding the difference between the Yomim Tovim of Chanukah and Purim. Antiyochus and the Greeks were battling the soul of the Jewish people. Had the Jewish people been willing to forsake their religion, the Greeks would have removed the decree. Haman, on the other hand, sought their physical destruction; he wanted all Jews dead.

To combat Haman and his plans, the megillah states that the Jews fasted, prayed and repented. There was no attempt to engage in a physical battle to save themselves. During the period of the neis of Chanukah, though the Jews surely engaged in tefillah and teshuvah, they also took up arms and fought their tormentors, the Greeks.

Rav Elchonon explains that there are times when the midas hadin is so strong that the Soton is given a free hand, so to speak. During times like that, the only way to prevail is by being prepared to die al kiddush Hashem. Tefillah and teshuvah alone will not suffice.

When the edict targets the physical body of the Jew, Rav Elchonon says, the gezeirah is min haShomayim; Hashem is sending the Jews a message to repent and return to the Torah. But when the decree is one that threatens spiritual destruction, that is a sign that the peril is caused by the Soton; thus tefillah and teshuvah cannot overcome him. The Jews have to be prepared to risk their lives in battle, thus sanctifying the name of G-d.

This helps us understand Yaakov’s apparent inaction in the face of Eisav. Since Eisav sought to physically murder his brother, Yaakov understood that he was being punished for his sins. He therefore knew that he could not defeat Eisav until his sins were forgiven.

While it is unclear what Yaakov’s sins were, the Medrash Yalkut M’ein Ganim states that Chazal derive from the words “Vayeitzei Yaakov… vayeilech Charanah” that going into exile cleanses one of sins, since Yaakov left his land (Vayeitzei), the anger of Hashem (Charanah) departed from him.

Yaakov also engaged in tefillah, as the Gemara in Brachos (26b) derives from the posuk of “Vayifgah bamakom,” meaning that Yaakov instituted the prayer of Maariv. It is interesting to note that Tosafos in Brachos (ibid) points out that Yaakov actually davened Maariv while it was still daylight. Nevertheless, Chazal derive that he davened Maariv there, not Minchah. For Yaakov was instituting a prayer for Jews in the darkness of exile. He was foretelling that Hashem will hear our prayers wherever we find oursleves in golus, even from the depths of America, as long as we trust in Him and dedicate ourselves to His service.

It was only after he had gone into exile to cleanse himself of sin, engaged in tefillah, and spent 14 years fortifying himself with Torah in the yeshiva of Sheim and Ever, that Yaakov felt that he would be able to vanquish the evil Eisav.

He could have immediately seized the offensive. He could have engaged Eisav in debate to prove that the brachos were rightfully his, and that he, Yaakov, was justified in orchestrating things so that he would receive them. He could have shown his brother how the latter’s acts of murder and treachery rendered him unfit to be the progenitor of the avos. But had he done that, Yaakov might not have won, for the time wasn’t ripe and he wasn’t sufficiently prepared spiritually.
People may insult and demean us. They tend to twist our words and read ulterior motives into our actions. They stab us in the back and badmouth us, and inside we are churning. Our urge is to lash back and make them feel ashamed. “How can you say that?!” we want to shout.

Yet, if we heed the example that Yaakov Avinu set, we will restrain ourselves. Yaakov demonstrated that the way of a ben Torah is to ensure that our conduct and motives are pure before rushing off into war and revenge.
This does not imply that we should submit to evil-doers and engage in chanifas resha’im. It means that the measures we take have to be carefully weighed so that they are consistent with the rulings of the Torah, with the Yitzchoks and Rivkahs of our day.

It means that before we run out into the streets with banners blazing, declaring war on those who vilify us and our way of life, we must purify our hearts and souls.
There are undoubtedly times when Jews must battle to protect their interests, and to maintain deterrence in a degenerate world where aggression and corruption threaten us. But this action must be accompanied by tefillah and teshuvah, in line with the tradition established by Yaakov Avinu when he finally confronted Eisav and prepared himself for battle.

We live in scary times. Across the globe, our enemies make no secret of their animosity toward the am hanivchar. Jews are targeted on their own turf in country after country. Eretz Yisroel is besieged by terrorist groups and hostile governments. Far from disheartening us, that should send us an encouraging message. Since these haters seek our physical harm, which indicates that we are being sent a Heavenly message to awaken, similar to the message to the Jews of Shushan. Teshuvah and tefillah can bring about our salvation.

Let us heed that message and pray and repent before it is too late. Let us gird ourselves with a renewed fidelity to each other and to Torah.

Our forefather Yaakov went into exile to repent for his sins. We are already in an exile that has dragged on for two millennia. Yaakov showed us the path to remove Hashem’s anger through Torah and tefillah. Let us live by his example and teachings so that we may merit the redemption.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What Are They Thinking?

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

As Democrats lurch further to the left and Republicans tend increasingly to adopt moral and traditional positions, frum Yidden tend to be more aligned ideologically with the Republican Party.

The election of Barack Obama has highlighted a gradual shift in Jewish voting patterns as the changes in party doctrine are being felt at the grassroots level. Obama’s extreme liberal positions on moral issues; his socialistic approaches to the economy; his ingratiating speeches to European and Muslim audiences contrasting with his toughness towards Israel, have many in the Orthodox Jewish community worried.

The great euphoria over Obama, who was elected with so much hope and promise, has dissipated. Just one year later, much of the hope has turned to fear and the promise to betrayal. The great potential for change has collapsed into a morass of Washingtonian pragmatic hypocrisy. The promise of inspired leadership has slowly fizzled out.

The shortage of such leadership in the world at large is one of our generation’s most acute problems, affecting every society and industry. People are bewildered and lost, seeking leadership in a drifting world. People look for someone they can rally around. They seek someone who can put their feelings into words and give voice to their concerns. Yet, strong, honest, selfless leaders - who act in the best interests of the people they serve - are in very short supply.

By contrast, manipulative, scheming politicians are ubiquitous to the point where the word “politician” has become synonymous with “con artist.” Nonetheless, people continue to fall for their platitudes and hollow promises, and give them the power to effect radical change.

If people exercised their power to think, they would quickly grasp which party raises taxes as a matter of policy and which seeks to reduce taxes. They would analyze the records of the candidates and determine whose positions most closely match their own. They would realize that their votes have consequences and vote accordingly.

The masses are content to let others do their thinking for them. They hear only what they want to hear, content with half-truths, never really bothering to understand the issues even when they are vitally affected by them. They develop opinions based on snippets of biased and often inaccurate information they happen to pick up.

America thought it had found the answer to its search one year ago when the country elected Obama, who cast himself as a centrist who would be able to unify the American people and govern as a moderate. He down-played his long-time and much criticized association with the radicalist Rev. Jeremiah Wright. He wooed the American public with his eloquent oratory.

As the months passed, people began to realize that they had been hoodwinked once again by a politician who said one thing on his march through the election campaign, and another once he was safely ensconced in the White House.
With Obama, it’s always been form over substance. By now, he has shown that he can’t deliver on his poetic promises. Capable as he is of delivering impactful speeches, when it comes to building coalitions, to being open and honest with the American people about actual laws and proposals, he has displayed his ineptitude.
He promised to create a new mold for elected officials. Instead, he has shown himself to be no different than the typical politician who panders to the masses and tests the wind before reacting. Far from being a unifying force, he has veered even further Left, stooping to mock his political opponents.
For evidence of public disenchantment with the president, consider the drubbing the Democrat party took in two closely watched and hotly contested races. The White House itself had declared early on that these elections would testify to public approval for Obama policy.
The President traveled to Virginia and New Jersey several times to campaign for his boys. He declared their election vital to his ability to carry out his proposed agenda of change. Members of his administration, on all levels, pitched in, doing their best to demonstrate that the American people are supportive of their radical program despite falling poll numbers

When the votes were counted, however, the Democrat party had lost badly in both contests and Republican governors took over for Democrat incumbents. Virginia swung by 24 points since the last election when Obama won the state and New Jersey swung by 20 points to the Republican side.

And here’s the grand irony: Refusing to concede that the double defeat was a blow to her party, Congressional Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi seized on a minor win in another state to declare the elections a victory! Party spokesmen took self-deception to a new level by joining the vain effort to put a positive spin on the night’s results. From Obama himself, there was silence.

This obvious detachment from the will of the people was underscored on Motzoei Shabbos when Congress passed the sweeping health care overhaul by a vote of 220 to 215. The contentious bill will cost the nation over a trillion dollars to solve a problem that is not high priority for the vast number of Americans. In a time of economic recession and widening unemployment, the bill will increase taxes and further hamper already reeling small businesses.

Opinion polls have demonstrated time and again that the American people are opposed to the further expansion of government, higher taxes and more strangling regulation, yet Democrats in Congress - in the dead of night - voted for just such a bill.

Can it be that the politicians are that far detached from reality that instead of concentrating on returning America back to work, instead of enacting legislation that would return consumers to the stores, and health to the economy, they persist in enacting budget-busting boondoggles only their base can support?

Can it be that they are oblivious to the message of last week’s elections as they pursue reform no one is clamoring for and which only a minority support? Can it be that they don’t realize there will be serious consequences when next November rolls around and the entire Congress is up for reelection?

And what about a president who is facing a world spinning out of control? Events in Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea and Honduras, to mention just a few, are not going according to plan. The young president is facing serious decisions in responding to predicaments which pose a threat to his world-view and have the potential to cause much carnage and destruction. Yet, despite all that, he plows head-first into health care, bizarrely treating it as the crisis of the hour.

The world is up in arms over the Goldstone Report which convicts Israel of crimes against humanity for targeting civilians during its war against Hamas in Gaza. There is almost universal denial that Israel was engaged in a war for its survival against terrorists hiding behind civilians. The world also willfully ignores the fact that accepting the report’s findings compromises their own ability to combat terror. Their hatred for Israel and loathing for the Jewish people blinds them to the inevitable consequences of sanctioning terrorism.

As the UN debated the acceptance of the report, Israel captured a ship loaded with Iranian weaponry on the way to Hezbollah in Lebanon. While Iran, the greatest destabilizing force and the greatest exporter of terrorism in the Middle East, gets a pass from the world body, Israel is slammed for protecting its people against the onslaught of Hamas terror. Could there be a greater irony?

Let’s take a look at the latest act of terror on our own American turf. Last week, a Muslim terrorist killed 13 people and wounded 30 more in Fort Hood, Texas, in a crime that shocked the nation. As he jumped up to begin spraying bullets into the hearts of fellow servicemen, he shouted, “Allahu Akbar,” the traditional salute of terrorists as they engage in murder.

Major Nidal Malik Hasan had a history of spouting radical Islamic propaganda, making anti-American statements, justifying suicide bombings, and visiting and posting on websites condoning terror. Nonetheless, the media and officials investigating the heinous crime did their best to blame the army and associated tensions for the murderous rampage.

The red flags in Hasan’s behavior leading up to his assault were not hard to miss. But common sense was shunted aside in favor of avoiding racial profiling—the same twisted moral relativism that insists on having elderly Americans remove their shoes before boarding a plane lest Muslims be insulted when they are forced to undergo an enhanced security check. Thus, the army allowed itself to ignore dire warnings from fellow servicemen that this army major was exhibiting a frightening identification with extreme Islamic terror.

Amazingly, the media too closed its eyes to the glaring facts. Instead, news outlets vied with one another in trying to lay the blame for the attack on the doorstep of the military. They cited Hasan’s upcoming military service in Iraq and Afghanistan as the trigger for his murderous aggression. They refused to call the incident what it really was; a terrorist attack. They follow the liberalist dictate of never using the term terrorist when referring to Muslims.

The reason for this stunning effort to rationalize away the facts is that people have their minds made up and can’t bear to be wrong. Their agendas are in place and they don’t want to be confused by the truth. The culture of political correctness hamstrings the army, even as it wages a war on terror. The liberal philosophy cannot accept evidence that some people are more prone than others to violence and terror. They would rather twist the facts and impugn innocent people than admit their world view is divorced from reality.

President Obama and his Democratic colleagues would rather press ahead with their radical agenda than recognize that the people are opposed to what they are doing. They continue to claim that they speak and act on behalf of the people, even though signs are unmistakable that they no longer have their finger on the public’s pulse. They watch the dipping of their poll numbers and their party’s election defeats, but instead of absorbing the obvious message, devise all kinds of rationalizations to explain the disappointing results.

Such is the way of men who aren’t interested in the truth, but rather their own personal aggrandizement. They continue to cast a favorable spin on events until forced to confront the ultimate rejection by those whose loyalty they were sure of. Finally, it all comes to a head, and their constituents vote them out of office.

In our world, we are no different. Don’t we too refuse to recognize the truth when analyzing problems in our community? We recognize corruption, yet we ignore it. We see hypocrisy, yet we turn the other way. We are afraid to say the truth and permit ourselves to be terrorized into following what we know to be a deceitful party line. We permit the molesters to molest and the abusers to abuse as we wring our hands in feigned horror.

Of course it is easier to point fingers at others, and mock Obama and Pelosi for their arrogance, shortsightedness and insistence on a course of action that endangers their own careers no less than the health of a nation. It is a lot more painful to turn the spotlight on ourselves and our world. But difficult as it is, we owe it to ourselves and our children to do so.

A mature society is one which is not afraid to engage in self-scrutiny in order to root out injustice and evil. We need to summon the inner strength to uphold our ideals, even at the cost of alienating the powers that be who may not be happy with us for rocking the boat. Don’t we want the best for our children? The society they inherit from us is the one we create. The values we choose to live by are the ones that become our legacy to future generations. Our lives can be vibrant, growth-oriented and infused with yiras shomayim. Or they can be marked by cynicism, self-deception and banality.

Let us summon the moral and spiritual courage to choose wisely so that we can look forward with hope, and look back without regret.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Our Brotherly Concern

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

As we continue studying Sefer Bereishis, we learn more of the immense stature of the Avos. Parshas Vayeirah is replete with vignettes of the life of Avrohom Avinu, one of the greatest people to ever walk the earth. From his devotion to the mitzvah of hachnosas orchim to the way he dealt with the nisayon of the akeidah, every nuance of his demeanor, speech and actions personified the values he sought to instill in his descendants. His example continues to guide and inspire us to this day.

The stories of our forefathers told in the Torah are not simple tales written for inspiration. They are benchmarks we can all reach and live by.

Maaseh avos siman labonim.” The actions of the fathers serve as signposts for their offspring, pointing out the path to self-perfection in this world.

Some of the stories seem plausible only in relation to someone of Avrohom Avinu’s status. We wonder if we are really expected to reach the levels of chesed and kedushah that he attained. Yet, if the Torah records these spiritual milestones, it is unquestionably for our edification because they really do represent realistic goals for us.

Sometimes we need reminders to prod us to do what Avrohom brought himself to do naturally.

A story was told to me about an 82-year-old woman who was traveling to Eretz Yisroel. She refused to let her advancing age, weak legs and worsening arthritis stop her from visiting her family and spending time in the Holy Land.

As she made her way to the airplane, an airport security officer insisted that the old woman, who could barely hobble along, remove her orthopedic shoes for inspection, to ensure that there were no bombs in them. Her protests brushed aside, it was an understandably distraught elte bubbe who settled herself on a bench without a clue as to how she would manage this ordeal. Suddenly, a 70-something chassidishe Yid approached her.

“Allow me to help you,” he graciously offered.

“Oy, Reb Yid,” the woman replied, “How could I allow you to be zich matri’ach?” She was convinced that there was no way that an alter chassidishe Yid would help a woman remove her shoes.

“Please,” the man persisted. “I was ten years old when they took mein mamme off to Auschwitz. Whenever I see a regal Yiddishe bubbe like you, I think that this is how my mother would appear today had she not been murdered. Please allow me to assist you and pretend that I am helping my old mother!”

Tears streamed down both of their faces as the man gently undid the shoelaces, sent the shoes through the x-ray belt, and, after they passed inspection, put them back on her feet.

“Thank you,” the old woman said, after regaining her composure.

“No,” the man replied simply. “Thank you.”

This precious Yid poignantly exemplified the legacy of Avrohom Avinu. To our forefather Avrohom, every woman in need of help or a meal was his mother. Whenever anyone who needed aid crossed his path, he treated them as if they were his own family. And what don’t you do for family!

Rav Yaakov Neiman, the rosh yeshiva of the Petach Tikvah yeshiva, entered the home of the mashgiach, Rav Moshe Rosenshtein, one Shabbos afternoon, and saw him sitting and studying Chumash with a young child. Certain that it was one of his grandchildren, and wondering which of his children the ainikel belonged to, Rav Neiman asked the aged mashgiach with whose child he was spending his precious time on Shabbos afternoon. The mashgiach answered that it is “Der Ribbono Shel Olam’s ah kind,” a child of Hashem.

If we look at every Jewish child who wants to learn as if he was the child of G-d, we would be able to make time for him. If we recognized that every Jewish child is a yachson, we’d have patience to spend a Shabbos afternoon learning with him. If we remembered that every Jewish child is the Ribbono Shel Olam’s ah kind, we would treat him the way we wish to be treated - with love and care.

The greatness of Avrohom Avinu was that he didn’t need little mayselach to remind him of the importance of every individual. He didn’t need to imagine that a little old lady who needed help was his mother. He helped anyway.

Avrohom was so perfect in his beliefs that there was no gap between comprehension and performance. He didn’t need to process the situation in his mind and conclude that positive action was called for. The chesed came reflexively. We, however, need these little reminders to be kind.

The parshiyos of Bereishis are intended to inspire us to train ourselves to do chesed until it becomes second nature, as Avrohom did. These parshiyos remind us that it is indeed possible for us to judge people favorably and to deal forthrightly, honestly and charitably with everyone.

Many ask what the great nisayon of the akeidah was. Hashem commanded Avrohom to bring his son Yitzchok as an offering. How could Avrohom have been expected not to comply?

Rav Elazar Shach answers that the only novi to whom G-d appeared be’aspaklarya hame’irah was Moshe Rabbeinu. Moshe was told exactly what G-d wanted him to do. All other prophets saw their prophecy in a dream and in a moshol. When Hakadosh Boruch Hu appeared to Avrohom and told him regarding Yitzchok, “Vehaaleihu shom le’olah,” Avrohom would have been justified in interpreting the command in numerous ways, none of them involving the death of Yitzchok.

Hashem had promised Avrohom that his name would live on through his son Yitzchok. It would have been reasonable for him to assume that Hashem had something else in mind and that “Vehaaleihu” didn’t mean to sacrifice his beloved son, but rather to raise him.

But Avrohom didn’t take that approach. He removed all negios from the equation, he analyzed G-d’s words as if they were referring to someone other than his son, and he reached the conclusion that Hashem wanted Yitzchok for a korban.

There is always the urge to wiggle out of doing good things. Too often, we look for a way to get ourselves off the hook of having to perform a chesed, or a difficult mitzvah, that was dropped in our lap. We say, “It’s not for me to do. I don’t have a big enough car. I don’t have enough strength or time. They don’t need my money; they only need my advice.” If we are asked to make a phone call to raise money for a needy person, we often procrastinate and offer excuses as to why we are the wrong person to make the call. Many times we simply aren’t in the mood to be bothered with other people’s problems.

Not so Avrohom. He didn’t make any excuses or rationalizations. He didn’t look for a way out. Every person was his brother. He taxed himself to the maximum to understand the word of G-d and then he ran to fulfill it.

When we have a mitzvah to do, when we have obligations, we shouldn’t seek the easy way out. We shouldn’t look for excuses to shirk our duty. We should seek to carry it out to the fullest, with all hiddurim, exactly as Avrohom would have done.

The posuk states, “Vayashkeim Avrohom baboker - And Avrohom awoke in the morning.” Many explain that the posuk is teaching us the greatness of Avrohom. Even though he was going to shecht his son, he still awoke at the crack of dawn to fulfill the word of Hashem.

The Brisker Rov offers another fascinating insight. He says that the chiddush is not that Avrohom awoke early. One who is going to fulfill the word of Hashem would naturally wake up early to go do it. The chiddush is that Avrohom was able to sleep the night before! Even though he knew that he was going to shecht his beloved son in whom all his dreams for the future were invested, he was able to sleep peacefully until morning.

One who is sure of himself, has no doubts about the ways of the L-rd, and doesn’t question but serves with complete faith sleeps very comfortably at night. One who deals honestly with his fellow man; one who hears the pleas of the hungry, the desolate and the poor; one who rises to every occasion and doesn’t turn a deaf ear to the cries of the abused and afflicted; one whose life isn’t a string of excuses and half truths, is a son of Avrohom Avinu and can sleep comfortably at night.

There are people of such nobility in every neighborhood. They are the people who are active in bikur cholim, the Hatzolah men, the menahel who takes in children others would ignore, the mechanchim and mechanchos who care more than anyone will ever know about their students, the people who quietly raise and donate money on behalf of those too embarrassed to ask, the people who empty the trash pails in shul when no one is looking, and all those who do all the little things which help so many people in big ways.

Let’s say thank you to them this week and every week. They are the people who keep the spark of Avrohom Avinu alive and make our people great.