Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Truly Historic

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

All too often, mosdos and organizations tout their events and accomplishments as being historic, as far removed from that appellation as they may be in fact. “Historic” has become an overused and meaningless cliché that we regularly edit the word out of the many articles written on behalf of organizations and sent to us.

This past Shabbos, however, a truly historic event took place, in the form of Bais Medrash Govoah’s “Shabbos of Chizuk” in Monsey. The Lakewood roshei yeshiva spent their Shabbos in different shuls and neighborhoods across the greater Monsey area, touching, inspiring and being mechazeik the town. On Motzoei Shabbos, the people responded with chizuk for the yeshiva at a packed community-wide melava malka, held at the Atrium.

In the middle of the last century, there were two small sleepy resort towns in this country which were destined to play major roles in the history of the Jewish people. Monsey, NY, was a backwater home to farms and catered to summer vacationers with bungalow colonies and hotels. Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz zt”l picked the town to house his Aish Dos Institute, which he founded to train mechanchim to teach the Jewish children spread across the country. That evolved into Bais Medrash Elyon, the advanced bais medrash and kollel of Mesivta Torah Vodaas.

The town of Monsey that we now know grew up around Bais Medrash Elyon and today is an ihr v’eim b’Yisroel.

At the same time that Bais Medrash Elyon was sprouting, Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l was establishing his yeshiva, Bais Medrash Govoah, in Lakewood, home to numerous hotels and a winter vacation destination. Widely derided and given almost no chance of success, he began with a small group of talmidim and spawned a revolution in Torah. It was his fiery determination that changed the thinking of an entire country and brought Torah greatness to the masses. Today, you can’t go anywhere in the world that has not been affected by a student of Lakewood.

This past weekend, Monsey, the former summer resort transformed by Torah, united in support of the great citadel of Torah that has taken root and grown in the former winter resort. The faded origins of these two towns is long forgotten, as the dreams of those who established their yeshivos there flourish beyond anyone’s wildest imaginations.

The Shabbos of Chizuk in my hometown, essentially closed the circle. Many thousands participated in the oneg shabbosos, tefillos and drashos, coming together for the cause which unites us all, Torah. In a time of need and crisis, when there are many problems, it was invigorating to know that we can all unite to rally around Torah.

The historic growth of an institution such as Bais Medrash Govoah requires an equally historic commitment from Jews everywhere to appreciate the gift our generation has been blessed with and direct their tzedakah dollars in its support.

At the time of the founding of these two great empires of Torah, conventional wisdom said they had no chance of success. Great thinkers and laymen alike said that Americans would never develop an appreciation for Torah, and worse, that the “old ways” were not applicable in the new medina. Torah was said to be history, and Yidden would never dedicate their very lives to its study. The general feeling was that Klal Yisroel was about to enter a period during which Jews would be less observant and much less knowledgeable about Torah. Unfortunately, that was a self-fulfilling prophecy for many.

Jews who immigrated to America during the first half of the past century believed that the religious life they led in the old country could not be replicated here. Many despaired of their children following in their footsteps; they surrendered to what struck them as the inevitable process of assimilation. They sent their children to public school and lost them ideologically and spiritually. Others acknowledged that America was utterly alien to their values from the alte heim, but they sacrificed to establish yeshivos and/or send their children to already existing ones. Both types recognized that the world had changed, but they differed radically in their approaches of dealing with the new reality.

The ones who succeeded here did so with much mesirus nefesh. Their hard work, deprivation and unflinching dedication to the lifestyle and ideals of their fathers and mothers were rewarded with siyata diShmayah. Those people understood that adapting to the new reality didn’t mean capitulating, denying or diluting the essence of their existence. The people who were able to transplant their greatness to these shores and establish Torah families defined adapting as strengthening what made them strong and enhancing the attributes that distinguish us from the amorphous mass of humanity. They reinforced their characteristics so that they and their children could excel in the new surroundings.

Those who held fast to their traditions and values survived with their essence and their values intact. They transplanted those values to a new country, they translated them into the new language, and they flourished.

Thanks to those hardy souls, centers of Torah exist all across the continent. Yeshivos abound in the farthest flung corners of this continent. Kollelim spring up in virtual deserts. Children are clamoring to learn more and more Torah. In a country where it was difficult to find a kosher piece of meat, kosher products are omnipresent.

A community which barely had enough money to support a handful of yeshivos and a dozen kollel yungeleit in two kollelim has miraculously expanded to support many thousands who have raised the banner of limud haTorah and shemiras hamitzvos all across the country.

Those of us who are a little older remember shuls that had just one Shas - and even that one set was hardly used. Today, most shuls boast six or seven complete sets of Shas, many of which accompany scores of people on their journey through the Daf Yomi cycle.

Greatness in Torah requires total dedication. Only one who is consumed by ambition for spiritual greatness can grow in Torah. Greatness isn’t accomplished overnight. It takes years of persistence and perseverance, constantly striving and aiming higher. Sometimes it takes a lifetime of growth to reach the pinnacle.

While there are yeshivos across the length and breadth of this country, Lakewood is by far the largest and the one that others measure themselves by as they strive to emulate the historic edifice of Torah which anchors a town of thousands of Torah families.

Six thousand men grace the halls of the fourteen botei medrash which comprise Bais Medrash Govoah and dedicate their lives to growth in Torah.

Everyone knows that Lakewood has been experiencing historical growth, but few have paused to recognize that the phenomenon of Lakewood is not just a mass of people learning.

There’s no other place in the world where you can find so many people learning on such an advanced level. In Lakewood, you find accomplished talmidei chachomim learning every sugyah in Shas. Today the yeshiva has 265 chaburos, which means you can find people conversant, on a most advanced and sophisticated level, in any subject of Torah. That is part of what makes Lakewood special and draws people there.

There are large groups of yungeleit learning together and becoming experts in even the most esoteric areas of Shas and poskim, including ribbis, kodshim, eruvin, avodah zarah, shviis and challah, among others. When you think about what a "center of Torah learning" means, you realize BMG really is more than a yeshiva, it is a central gathering place for limud haTorah. There is no other place like it in the world. This is what draws more and more talmidim to it year after year and this is the reason that few want to leave.

The ruach haTorah that exists in Lakewood creates a spirit of greatness in learning which encourages young men to reach higher and higher in depth and understanding of Torah.

The ruach haTorah present there creates a nachas ruach to the Creator which causes Him to reflect kindly on all of Am Yisroel. The Torah studied in Lakewood carries much of the world in its merit.

The impact of Lakewood is felt not only on a spiritual level, but also in a very direct way wherever Jews live. There are few Jewish communities anywhere that don’t benefit from Lakewooders in their midst. The yeshiva’s alumni stand at the helm of hundreds of yeshivos throughout this country and around the world. They have launched kollelim in cities such as Beverly Hills, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Deal, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Miami, Monsey, North Miami Beach, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Scranton and Seattle, as well as in Melbourne, Mexico City, Montreal, Ottawa, Thornhill, Toronto and Yerushalayim, among many other places. Strong Torah communities flourish and thrive thanks to the kollelim.

Graduates of Lakewood have spearheaded Torah outreach projects in towns large and small throughout America, besides serving as mechanchim and rabbonim reaching out to Jews of all levels of observance.

Torah is compared to light, fire and water. It is our essence and reality. It is the root of our being. The greater our support for Torah, the greater we are. The more we do for Torah, the more we are and the more we enable our people to become.

Every generation has its unique tests of faith. Meeting those challenges demands that we have the courage of our convictions and not be deterred by opposition. We have to be mindful of our obligations and make sure to carry them out.

Our world is in turmoil. We must do all we can to produce a new generation of leaders and giants to deal with the complex issues facing us. That is accomplished by supporting Lakewood and the other yeshivos which come knocking on our door seeking support.

Greatness and leadership in the world around us are so fleeting. Titans of American industry, commerce and wealth for a century such as AIG, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, General Motors, Chrysler, Citibank, and so many others collapsed, reminding us once again that the idols of the world are all temporary.

Just one year ago, President Barack Obama was hailed as the man of the future. He was said to be the leader who would restore America’s popularity around the world. He would fix the economy, heal the broken souls, and get everyone who wanted one a job. He was rushed into office with a hail of commemorative books and films heralding his arrival as the man who would change America for the good. He was swept into power with a filibuster-proof Senate, and anyone who doubted him was embarrassed to say so publicly.

What a difference a year makes! Obama’s support has evaporated. His agenda has crumbled. Everyone, Right and Left, is questioning his competence and intelligence.

He responds not by examining his record and adjusting his positions to be more in tune with those of the American people, but by seeking ways to improve his methods of marketing his very positions which the people have expressed displeasure with. Every recent opinion poll shows him doing worse than the previous poll. In each closely watched election since he has sought to promote his progressive agenda, he and his party have lost.

Still, instead of showing remorse he produces more of the same and unleashes his oratory against big business, which must grow in order for employment to pick up. He jawbones against Wall Street and causes the stock market to stop rising, engendering yet more worry about the much-awaited economic recovery.

The first person he hired in the wake of the Massachusetts massacre was not someone versed in economics, nor homeland security, nor health insurance, nor someone who can assist in tuning the president back in to the voices emanating from the American people. Rather, it was a former campaign aide brought on to assist the president in marketing his out-of-touch policy ideas the American people have loudly declared they do not want. When the truth is not your guide, when your personal ego is your barometer, it is very difficult to admit the truth and provide proper leadership to a wanting people. Instead of learning from your mistakes and seeking self-improvement, you blame your losses on others. Rather than hewing to the truth you further entrench yourself in fiction, believing that you can succeed despite basing your future on fallacies.

Every era presents new temptations and challenges. A society that is strong and realistic studies the new situation until it can navigate it competently. One that is weak and fatalistic either continues on as if nothing has changed or compromises away everything that gave it its identity in the first place.

As our forefathers before us who blazed the trail in this country and enabled it to become a land hospitable to Torah greatness, we have to deal with the challenges that face us in our time and confront them wisely. We cannot bury our heads or engage in illegitimate compromises. Neither of those options holds out any chance for long-term success. We need to hold our heads up high, maintain pride of our past, and be resolute with our Torah and minhagim.

In our time as well, we are confronted by a constantly changing society, one that is plagued by ebbing morals and a host of temptations that threaten to invade our lives. New problems arise daily. In order to maintain our existence until the coming of Moshiach, we have to exert ourselves to remain steadfast to that which makes us great. We have to remember why we were created and what our mission is.

We cannot allow ourselves to fall prey to the vagaries of the moment. As our grandparents who immigrated to this country did, we have to remain focused on building, maintaining and improving yeshivos and mosdos for our children. We cannot allow ourselves to be deterred by the naysayers who complain that it is too difficult to maintain and an impossible task. We must remain focused on our goals and not water them down or take refuge in easy excuses to justify inaction.

This past Shabbos in Monsey was historic because wherever the roshei yeshiva went, the people followed, demonstrating that they recognize what it takes to make our people great. They showed that the flame of Torah burns brightly in their hearts and minds. They displayed that they recognize the historic opportunity available to them to support the greatest makom Torah Hashem has ever blessed us with. The people of Monsey showed that the roshei yeshiva of Lakewood and other mosdos of Torah can count on united support as they build on the foundations established for us and spread kedushah in this world, preparing us all for the coming of Moshiach, may it be in our day.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Old, the New, and Us

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

I spent this past Shabbos in the eternal city of Yerushalayim. To say that Yerushalayim is an eternal city is not an empty cliché. It is a correct depiction of the constantly evolving Holy City. Wherever you go, there is construction going on. New buildings are popping up all over the city. Roads are being built and rebuilt in a constantly changing pattern that necessitates constant reprinting of maps and updating of GPS systems.

The city keeps on developing, but as much as it changes, it stays the same. It maintains the same charm. Yerushalayim is blessed with a chein like no other city. Its streets are different, its people are different, its sounds and smells are different, and, of course, its buildings, all clad in Jerusalem stone, are different. But what makes it most extraordinary is its inherent holiness and history. Wherever you go in that city, you are touching, feeling and experiencing history.

On Sunday, I passed a road reconstruction project in Yerushalayim. Anywhere else, fixing a road is no big deal and follows a predictable, oft-repeated pattern. Architects design, engineers plot, construction workers carry out the plans, and, in a set time, a new road is there for everyone to travel on. In Yerushalayim, though, nothing is that simple, especially when it involves digging. In this instance, during their excavation, workers uncovered a Hasmonean-era stone wall. It wasn’t even a big deal. The discovery of a 2,000-year-old wall didn’t make any headlines. People walk by the construction site, which is now partially closed to vehicular traffic, without even taking a second look to peer at the historic relic being uncovered.

It is such a chizuk in emunah when you can see, touch and feel the pesukim of the Torah and Neviim as they come alive right in front of you.

This is true not only in Yerushalayim. Essentially wherever you go in the country, you find evidence of our past and the pesukim in Tanach. How can you not be affected?

On Thursday, we took a drive through the yishuvim of the Shomron. We stood on Har Gerizim and looked out across the valley at Har Eival and down the cliff at the ancient city of Shechem. Chills run down your spine as you contemplate what transpired on this mountain as masses of Jews stood before it and received Hashem’s blessings.

From there, we went to visit the site of the city of Shilo, where, the Gemara in Zevachim (118b) states, the Mishkan stood for 369 years. Wherever you step, there are pieces of broken pottery on the ground. Meir Eisenman, who brought us there, explained that they are remnants from the keilim that the Jews cooked their korbanos chatos in, during the time the Mishkan was in Shiloh. Since the keilim absorbed the juices of the sacred meat, they became forbidden as nosar and thus were smashed and broken as the posuk dictates in Vayikroh 6, 21. These shards are still extant, and as you walk about in ancient Shiloh and its environs, you can’t help but step on them. It is fascinating to know that you are literally stepping on history. You can actually pick up these pieces and put them in your pocket, carrying with you thousands of years of Jewish holiness.

You stand where Jews came to bring their offerings prior to the construction of the Bais Hamikdosh and marvel at the site. You wonder how anyone can deny our truths after standing in these places and realizing that the words of Nach are not simple flights of fancy.

This is all magnified in Yerushalayim, as you see Ihr Dovid, where Dovid Hamelech lived and ruled. You can stand by Yad Avshalom, the memorial that Dovid’s rebellious childless son constructed for himself on Har Hazeisim. Yerushalmi Jews of old used to bring their children to the site and train them to throw stones at the memorial, teaching them the lesson of the fate of a child who rebels against his parents.

To stand in front of the Kosel and to believe that the Shechinah never left this place, and to know that just behind it really stood the Botei Mikdosh, is one thing. A deeper dimension is added when you look around there and realize that you are surrounded by a kibbutz goliyos of Jews of every type from every part of the world.

As you daven there, you hear a cacophony of voices and sounds representing every dialect. It doesn’t disturb your kavanah, but rather serves to enhance it as it forms a symphony of prayer.

Those sounds accompany you wherever you go. You hear so many languages spoken and you recognize that Jews are coming home to their ancestral land, actualizing the visions of the prophets throughout the ages. They all know that they have returned to rebuild and repopulate their own land, the land that was repeatedly destroyed and yet rebuilt and reborn. They see the old and the new merge as one, and their hearts beat stronger and their neshamos become more vigorous and tenacious as a result.

As tourists, we also benefit from that extra bounce in the step knowing that we are traversing hallowed ground, standing on the remnants of keilim that Jews used 3,300 years ago and walking on the same paths and roads that our forefathers walked on.

The people we visit to seek guidance and blessings inspire as well by their very being. When you look at Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and speak to him, you know that you are benefiting from the accumulated Torah knowledge accrued over ten decades. This is enhanced when you appreciate the contributions to that fountain of knowledge by his sainted father, his father-in-law, Rav Aryeh Levin zt”l, as well as his grandfather, the noted Lithuanian Kabbalist and author of the Leshem on the Zohar, and his prodigious rabbeim.

When you speak to Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman and Rav Michel Yehudah Lefkowitz, you see the definition of the words of Chazal that “divrei chachomim benachas nishma’im.” You can sense and feel ten decades devoted to self-improvement through Torah and mussar. You witness the blessed life of a person who has perfected himself by following the 48 Kinyanei HaTorah.

When you think about the greatness that a person like Rav Chaim Kanievsky has achieved through his total dedication to Torah, it shakes you up to know that in our day and age, it is possible for man to reach such a superior level of Torah knowledge. Rav Chaim is a person who knows kol haTorah kulah, and yet you know that he wasn’t born with it. He reached his current state through total dedication to his lifetime pursuit. Add to that his humility and utter simplicity and it is simply breathtaking.

You look at Rav Dovid Abuchatzeirah in Nahariyah and you see in front of you the scion of generations of greatness in niglah and nistar. You observe a person blessed with generous amounts of siyata diShmayah, who imparts a great portion of his time on behalf of the hundreds who travel to him every week seeking encouragement and guidance.

So it goes in the day of a tourist in Eretz Yisroel.

On this most recent trip, however, I was no ordinary tourist. We had gone to celebrate the 100th birthday of a special woman, my wife’s grandmother, may she continue to enjoy good health and happiness. I couldn’t help but think of how thankful her offspring and family should be that they benefit from the wisdom and experience of a good woman who has lived through so much.

We tend to take so many of our blessings for granted. Having the benefit of a special woman who has the hindsight and the emunah temimah of one who lived through wars and deprivation is something worth celebrating. As the family gathered to commemorate the special occasion, I thought of it as a seudas hoda’ah, thanking Hashem for granting them the blessings of having a person with such sterling character at the head of the family.

Eminently thankful for all the good Hashem has granted her over the past ten decades, her simplicity, emunah, bitachon and ehrlichkeit are remarkable. In a time of plenty, when most people are never satisfied and are always seeking more, she stands as an example of someone who appreciates what she has and knows that all her needs are provided for by a Father in Heaven Who knows best.

My wife’s grandmother lives in Yerushalayim, the city of the new and the old, the young and the seasoned, and nothing could be more appropriate. The lessons she imparts and the way she davens and cheers others are indigenous to Yerushalayimer Jews who achieve gratification through their relationship with Hashem and his Torah and have no need or respect for affluence and opulence.

She has seen it all since the day she was born in a small Czech town near the Hungarian border. With mesirus nefesh, she raised fine children during trying times in New York, and she subsequently retired with her husband to Yerushalayim in the early ‘60s.

It is the people such as her who make Yerushalayim beautiful, who make our nation great, and who set an example for our generation to emulate and follow. Too often, in this land of plenty, we lose sight of our purpose in this world. Living in a young country with a history of but a few hundred years, we permit a culture steeped in extravagance to degrade our values.

We really shouldn’t have to travel halfway around the world, step on keilim from the Mishkan-era and meet centenarians to rebalance our priorities. But it helps.

We can’t just drop everything and run off to Yerushalayim every time we need chizuk. Thankfully, there are people here with us as well from whom we can learn. There are edifices of kedushah in every city, where, with the proper mindset, we can regain our equilibrium so that our lives can be more productive and purposeful, and so that Hashem will shine his blessings upon us, granting us long life, coupled with good health and nachas, and, ultimately, the coming of Moshiach and the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh, bekarov beyomeinu. Amein.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Leadership on Display

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This past Shabbos I was in Miami, Florida. Lest some of my fellow “northerners” feel a twinge of jealousy at the image of this writer luxuriating in the warm sunshine while so many of us are trapped in frigid temperatures, I hasten to report to you that on Shabbos it rained all day in chilly Miami. On Sunday when we left, the thermometer was having a very difficult time reaching north of the twenties.

To add to the “glamour” of the trip, the hotel we stayed at was not located on the beach, but rather across the street from a noisy airport, which never sleeps.

Ironically, the people we were with didn’t mind the noise, as they too seemed to never sleep. They weren’t there to vacation or to bathe in the sun. This group of individuals - three hundred of the finest, most energetic and devoted in this country - traveled to Miami from all over the United States to learn how to work even harder than they already do. These people are dedicated to making a difference in others’ lives. Driven by an amazing wellspring of optimism, they change the world one child at a time, one family at a time, in city after city. In small towns and large cities all across the country, they go about their holy work quietly, sparking a sweeping revolution.

What fuels this incredible devotion and tireless activism for spreading Torah? We can find a clue in this week’s parsha, where the posuk tells us that the Bnei Yisroel were not able to accept Moshe’s words promising deliverance from Mitzrayim. “Velo shamu el Moshe m’kotzer ruach um’avodah kasha,” they didn’t heed Moshe due to breathlessness and harsh labor.

How is it possible, we wonder. Could they really not respond to the immortal words of redemption that came from Hakadosh Boruch Hu, the stirring words that for milennia Jews have repeated at their seder table every Pesach, as they drink the four cups of wine?

The Jews whom Moshe addressed were so utterly exhausted from the back-breaking labor, they could barely draw a breath. They simply couldn’t absorb his words of consolation and deliverance. Sometimes we are so desperate for salvation that when the salvation arrives, we can’t switch gears to accept it. We crave deliverance yet when it is at hand, we are so wrapped up in our pain that we ignore it.

Although the Jews were almost beyond the point of being able to be reached by Moshe’s words, they were nevertheless redeemed from Mitzrayim because that was their Divinely ordained destiny. Hashem had promised that he would deliver them from their oppression and when the appointed hour arrived, they were plucked from servitude whether they were prepared to leave or not.

Not always are we so lucky. Most often we have to be properly tuned in, in order to hear messages being sent to us, and to grasp their import. If we want to be helped we have to believe that help is possible. If we give up hope and aren’t able to accept that a solution is possible, that very defeatism tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Keeping hope alive is vital to securing success. Once the dream dies, once we claim we are incapable of reviving it, we have in effect surrendered to our fate.

Given the magnitude of the problems facing our yeshivos and day schools, you would imagine that at a gathering of three hundred heads of educational institutions in cities across the nation, you would hear messages of doom and gloom for the duration of the convention. You would expect to hear tales of woe about mounting deficits, of the inability to raise money in these difficult times. You’d be justified for anticipating a great deal of carping about parents’ failure to come through with their tuition commitments, and how as a result, cash-strapped schools are threatening to buckle under the tremendous financial strain.

It would be natural to hear a barrage of complaints from mechanchim and people involved in school administration about all the difficulties testing them as they try to flourish in a time of depression, and the adversity they face daily in their missions to bring Torah to the next generation.

Yet, remarkably, despite all the many obstacles thrown in their path; these people are so optimistic and upbeat. And they left even more cheerful and confident than when they arrived.

They spent a whole weekend trading success stories with each other on how they are managing to plant nascent Torah seeds all across in the country. Participants drew encouragement from the wonderful esprit de corps, and the ability of so many of those present to take encouragement from achievements that are measured not by sweeping transformations, but in terms of small, incremental victories.

As idealistic as the mechanchim are, they are also clear-eyed and grounded. In no way are they blind to the pressing challenges that would demoralize people with less perseverance and determination. They are so focused on what they are accomplishing that they don’t let anything get in their way. Because they understand that they are working in the vineyard of Hashem, a deep sense of accomplishment compensates for the frustrations and disappointments that threaten to deflate the spirit.

People like this refuse to be discouraged by those who advise them that their goals are impossible to attain. Because they work lesheim Shomayim and refuse to be deterred, the Divine Hand reaches down from on High and assists them.

Every one of us was created to carry out a shlichus, or mission, in life. Those who succeed are the ones who refuse to succumb to faintheartedness and discouragement. With faith in the One Above, they ignore the difficulties that would derail lesser men. They continue their hishtadlus with the faith that Hashem will clear a path for them and help them over the hurdles.

People who don’t work lesheim shomayim become bitter. In their bitterness, they blame others for their difficulties, acting out of bitterness and jealousy without considering how their words and actions will come back to haunt them. They fail to consider the repercussions of their hostile words, hurting themselves and their cause.

The people who gathered at the Torah Umesorah Presidents Conference this past Shabbos are cut from very different cloth. They care deeply about the Jewish people. From one speaker after another, the sense of genuine Ahavas Yisroel shone through. Through their words and the tales they recounted, one could sense how many Yiddishe neshomos have been reached with the power of true caring. They work tirelessly to preserve the pach shemen tahor which survives to this day, thanks to the resolute determination of dedicated intrepid souls.

As I spoke to these people and listened to their speeches, I couldn’t help but think to myself how the defining trait of our great leaders is precisely this devotion to one’s people that I was witnessing. When love for one’s fellow Jew is the core motivation, there is no room for hatred, bitterness and retaliation.

Through their words and the tales they recounted they portrayed how a display of love can accomplish more than a flash of hate, calmness can achieve more than anger, and you don’t always need a hatchet to kill a mosquito

It is true that we live in a period when we are more susceptible to those who are blessed with the gift of oratory and the ability to offer glib optimistic promises. There are many other individuals in leadership positions who are looked up to by a variety of people strictly because of the way they communicate and not necessarily because of their superior knowledge or intellect. Superb communication skills, far more than superior knowledge, intellect or good character, tend to dazzle people. Unfortunately, people find out too late that masters of rhetoric do not necessarily make good leaders.

These leaders demonstrated that in our world true leadership is set by example and leaders rise to their positions by virtue of their quiet, heroic actions, which speak more eloquently than one thousand masters of rhetoric.

We have in our midst people of sterling character, of quiet heroic action, individuals who are intelligent, capable and resourceful, who can envision solutions and follow through on a project to completion. These people realize that all their talents and possessions are gifts from Hashem. They remain humble and G-d fearing. It is this kind of person whom we need in positions of leadership.

The Torah Umesorah Presidents Conference testified that, boruch Hashem, we have people of this caliber sprinkled all across the country as roshei yeshiva, rabbonim, kollel yungaleit, mechanchim, menahalim, teachers, and the baaleibatim who enable their institutions to exist and flourish.

They are people who use their gifts wisely, fulfilling their obligations and accomplishing far more than can realistically be expected of them. They are the people who make our nation great and who ensure that the chain of greatness will continue.

The Zohar writes in this week’s parsha that the reason the Jews weren’t able to accept Moshe Rabbeinu’s words of comfort, was because the mekor of cheirus was not yet opened.

It may be that the reason we in our day are able to remain optimistic in the face of the grave threats and dangers assailing us is not because we are better and stronger people, but rather because Hakadosh Boruch Hu has opened the mekor of cheirus.

Despite all the reasons for pessimism and negativity, we are able to remain focused on our goals and accept words of support and hopeful idealism. To overcome the many setbacks and travails, we need to take advantage of that blessing and not surrender to defeatism.

Chazal teach, Ein lecho ben chorin elah mi she’oseik batorah – only one who toils in Torah is truly free. According to our understanding of the Zohar, we can expand that to mean that those who labor at learning, disseminating and supporting Torah are blessed with extra measures of cheirus, the force that enables one to maintain a fortified and uplifted spirit in the face of adversity.

That force was certainly on display this past Shabbos in Miami. If you search deep enough, you will perceive it the hearts and souls of the holy people who toil in the vineyard of Torah in your own community. Blessed are all those who number in their ranks, as well as those who benefit from them, and appreciate their work.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Loyal to Our Mission

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

While a superficial view of our own world and society reveals much strength and growth, just beneath the surface lurk destructive forces. Some people think things never looked worse. Just as in every age there are people who believe that the crisis of the hour is insurmountable and are therefore ready to despair, so too, in our day, we hear the prophets of doom counseling hopelessness and fatalism. We attempt to arrive at solutions to the dilemmas which beset us, and too often we come up empty. The more intrepid souls with a broader vision and a tenacious dedication to their missions as Jews never lose their determination to persevere and flourish.

We preach against corruption. We speak and educate endlessly about the need for honesty in all facets of life. Yet, when people in leadership positions are caught behaving perfidiously, we hypocritically cover for them by engaging in a conspiracy of silence. The absence of clear repudiation of these individuals and their deplorable actions is deeply troubling. It gives rise to allegations that we really don’t care and it reinforces stereotypes about religious Jewry’s motivations.

As we look around, we see that so many people are out of jobs or under-employed that the safety nets are cracking under the pressure. Our wonderful institutions fight to continue to be able to educate our children and provide leadership and services for the broad community of Jews. We became used to plenty and now are being tutored to learn to live with fewer things and with less money.

We are terrorized upon witnessing the spread of radical Islam and the world’s failure to make a serious attempt to stem the rise of murderous extremism. We see Iran rapidly approaching the point of nuclear no-return and watch helplessly as the leading world powers prattle but do little to curtail that country’s deadly ambitions.

As we ponder our own internal problems, along with terrorist attempts to strike at civilization’s core, with tragedies hitting us from all sides and the global economic crunch eating away at our security, it’s safe to say that we are experiencing very difficult times.

This country has been hijacked by attitudes that differ profoundly from those we grew accustomed to since the Ronald Reagan era. America's political leadership today seems seduced by a fatal attraction to raising taxes and further shrinking our wallets. We fear the coming makeover of health care and worry about the fraying relationship between our elected leaders and Israel.

Fears that dog the general society affect the Torah community as well. As leading American writer Peggy Noonan says, “Maybe the most worrying trend the past 10 years can be found in this phrase: ‘They forgot the mission.’ So many great American institutions - institutions that every day help hold us together - acted as if they had forgotten their mission, forgotten what they were about, what their role and purpose was, what they existed to do. You, as you read, can probably think of an institution that has forgotten its reason for being. Maybe it's the one you're part of.”

These words apply not only to grassroots America, but to our own circles as well. Too many people in positions of power and influence in our community seem to have forgotten their mission. Too many of the people we depend on and look up to, appear to have forgotten what it was that made them great and how they reached their positions of prominence.

Public servants seem not to recall that their mission is to serve us, the common people. It seems as if they have lost their communication skills, as they have been proven inept at projecting a respectable image of our community to the outside world. There are people in trouble who aren’t being helped, and scores seeking direction who are left to fend for themselves, lost in the maze of darkness which has become our world.

Having forgotten our mission in this world and forgetting that we are being watched, we engage in pragmatic rationalization, deluding ourselves into thinking that we can ride out the storm without incurring much damage. We elevate the trivial and ignore the essentials, hoping to divert the public’s focus with myopic, shallow rhetoric.

We have forgotten our responsibility to the community and our obligation to look at the big picture and take a long-term view. We begin believing the stories we have created as a feeble replacement for a clear and honest vision. Having lost the will and strength required to remain conscientiously upstanding, we seek to mold perceptions instead of reality.

Chazal teach us that one of the special attributes of the Jews in Mitzrayim was that they never changed their names. Many question what the significance of that is in the face of all they endured and the various levels of depravity to which they sank.

Perhaps, an explanation can be derived based on the understanding that a person’s name is indicative of his shlichus and mission in life. Perhaps, what Chazal are teaching us is that despite everything that beset them in the golus of Mitzrayim, the Jews remained loyal to their individual missions which their names indicated their neshamos had been charged with. It was in this merit that they were granted geulah.

In times like these, in order to remain loyal to our shlichus, we desperately search for the leadership necessary to guide us. So often, we are forced to settle for mediocrity and we lose our sense of what constitutes true, inspired leadership.

We find the embodiment of such leadership in Parshas Shemos. The Torah describes Moshe Rabbeinu’s first encounter with the Shechinah. Moshe was shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep and came across a burning bush. He noticed something strange about the bush. The fire continued burning, yet the bush was not devoured by the fire.

Though he was but a shepherd at that time, Moshe utilized the experience of witnessing the miraculous occurrence to glean lessons that would guide him on his mission in life. When he saw the bush continue to burn, he contemplated the vision until he understood it on a deeper level. He saw the fire as the Shechinah in exile with the Jews who were enslaved, symbolized by the thorn bush. He noted that although the Jews can be tormented, they cannot be destroyed, because Hashem is with them.

Every Jew has a mission in life and Moshe never lost sight of his. Wherever he was and whatever he did, he sought to enhance his understanding of life and his role in the world. Moshe Rabbeinu saw an event that transcended nature and turned to analyze it. He understood the lesson from the burning bush that the existence of the Bnei Yisroel is also lemaalah miderech hatevah. They would survive the cruelest conditions of exile, refusing to succumb to the Parohs’ relentless efforts to destroy them.

Moshe was thus selected as the leader of the Jewish people and given the task of freeing them from the subjugation in Mitzrayim.

Yosef Hatzaddik also excelled at penetrating the surface to discover the deeper wisdom orchestrating events. When his brothers came down to Mitzrayim, they didn’t recognize him, but he immediately recognized them. They weren’t looking for him. He was erased from their memory; he was a thing of the past. They had sold him and tried to forget about his very existence. They had long forgotten his dreams.

But Yosef never forgot his parents, Yaakov and Rochel. He never stopped wanting to meet his brother Binyomin and get back together with the shevatim. He never gave up on seeing his mission, as foretold in his dream, fulfilled. He would gaze at the faces of the people who came down to Mitzrayim seeking to buy food and try to identify his brothers. Because he was actively on the lookout for his brothers, he recognized them when they finally crossed his path. They, on the other hand, were not on the lookout for him. The furthest thing from their minds was the fantastic possibility that he might have become viceroy of Egypt and they were fulfilling his dream by bowing down to him.

Rabi Akiva was a lowly, ignorant shepherd, but he noticed water dripping onto a stone and the hole created by that persistent drip-drip over many years. Observing that water, one of the softest substances in the world, had been able to erode solid rock, he applied the lesson to his own life. Just as drops of water can break through impenetrable rock, so too, if he would begin to learn diligently, words of Torah would gradually penetrate his mind and heart. He, too, could eventually become a talmid chochom.

Because he probed deeper and applied the truth he found to his own life, he was able to change his entire destiny and become the great Rabi Akiva, rebbi of Klal Yisroel. Identifying life’s priorities, he was able to plumb the depths of his soul and the essence of this world, and realize his mission of becoming one of the Jewish nation’s greatest teachers.

Our world is besieged by danger on both the physical and spiritual levels. Instead of despairing or growing cynical and insensitive, we must work toward acquiring a deeper vision and recognize that we are charged with a mission; we are called upon to respond to a Higher Authority. We must seek out and promote leaders who exemplify, and demand fidelity to, the lofty standards that have set the Jewish people apart throughout the ages. We need to demonstrate intolerance for all forms of corruption, depravity and dishonesty so that we merit the revelation of the light of Moshiach for which Hakadosh Boruch Hu is preparing the world.