Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Yerushalayim Footsteps

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

What is it that is so special about spending a Yom Tov in Yerushalayim? How can that special feeling and atmosphere be described to someone who has never merited to experience it firsthand? With great difficulty, of course.

It is palpable, almost tangible, yet when one tries to put it into words, one is at a loss.

I wish I had the ability to convey the feeling of walking together with thousands of people through the streets of Yerushalayim, heading for the Kosel Hama’arovi, in the predawn hours of leil Shavuos. I wish I knew how to describe the sounds, the smells, the sights and the feelings. I wish I could properly describe the sound of thousands of feet pounding the ancient pavement as they progress toward the holiest place on earth.

People of all ages and from all backgrounds join in a human stream. You hear the anticipation in their voices as they speak to each other. You hear the musical tunes banged out by all those footsteps. There is an overt feeling of simcha in the air. Some actually sing traditional Yom Tov niggunim as they walk. Others quietly hum along, offering quiet prayers that they will have the strength to make it there.

As the moon still shines over the Holy City and the roosters have not yet begun to crow, the hordes of people from all corners of Yerushalayim join together as they enter through Shaar Shechem, a unique experience in itself. The traffic slows as the multitudes squeeze through the narrow streets of the shuk, finally emptying into the Kosel plaza.

It’s a trek like no other. A walk that is essentially uneventful, yet so exhilarating. It seems like a taste of what being oleh regel must have felt like during the times of the Bais Hamikdosh.

At the Kosel, night is waning. Jews of all types begin preparing to put on their taleisim and start assembling at the locations of their respective annual minyanim. Before you know it, hundreds are immersed in prayer, with numerous minyanim taking place simultaneously and thousands of Yidden davening in a variety of dialects. The tefillos rise to the slowly brightening heavens, and suddenly, all is silent as the moment of sunrise arrives. The large crowds are quiet, as every Jew begins his or her private prayer to the One Above with the timeless words of Shemoneh Esrei.

The silence is penetrating. The view is breathtaking, as thousands of men of all ages, clothed in taleisim, sway to and fro, beseeching their Father in Heaven that next year they be joined on the other side of the wall together with the Jews of the Diaspora.

Just as quickly as all became still, the sound of a chassidishe baal tefillah is heard. “Boorich atoo,” he enunciates, beginning chazoras hashatz. Then the voice of a Sefardic chazzan is heard. “Baruch Atah…,” he says. Then a Yerushalayimer chazzan begins, “Boruch Atoh…” And so it goes until the entire plaza is once again enveloped in sounds of tefillah.

What a feeling! What a moment!

Some daven slowly, others a bit faster. With such energy in the air, who would ever know that the majority of those present had spent the previous night hunched over Gemaros and other sifrei kodesh?

Davening concludes on an uplifting note and the mispallelim make Kiddush and begin heading back home to spend the rest of Yom Tov with their families.

It is not exactly aliyah leregel, but it is the closest thing to it in golus.

During my recent visit to Eretz Hakodesh, I also took great pleasure in visiting the legendary Zichron Moshe shul in Geulah. If I had the time and chutzpah, I would simply camp out there for days. I would take photos of the people there and speak to them to get their life stories.

Zichron Moshe is famed for its shtiblach and minyanim as much as for the people who frequent the shul. You look at their faces and the way they are dressed and you know that each one has a tale to tell. No two are dressed the same. Each has a different look in his eyes. Oh, how I wish I could paint portraits of those faces and expressions. Each picture would tell a different story, every face would portray a unique and intriguing character. I wish I could just sit there for weeks talking to each one of them, getting them to open their hearts and regale me with their narratives, their tales of woe, their insights and anecdotes, and what keeps them going each day.

How does one describe this most distinctive shul to someone who has never been there? Davening at Zichron Moshe is so different than anywhere around here. Talmidei chachomim of note and people who are proficient in the entire Torah share well-worn benches with simple laborers and speak to each other as if they are on the same level. Indeed, they are all bnei Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, serving Hashem, subservient to their Maker without any airs or ego. Ashkenazim, Sefardim, Chassidim and Yerushalmim with their distinct long-striped coats mix with assorted beggars and colorful characters, and they all get along remarkably well.

If you are looking for a change, if you have had enough of the rat race, take some time off, sit in Zichron Moshe and talk to the Yerushalmi Yidelach. Your entire perception of life will change. Your priorities, your simchas hachaim, the way you view life, and your appreciation of everything you’ve been blessed with will change. With simplicity and reason, the Yidden there will debunk so many of the myths you assume to be true. They’ll infuse you with a view of what is really important in life. With a mix of charm, wit, common sense and emunah temimah, they will delight you and expand your vistas. Engaging in small talk with these humble, good people in that simple shul can make a life-altering impact on you. No exaggeration.

The beauty of simplicity is evident in that shul. Everything is so real. There’s no need for posturing and there’s a total absence of formalities. The people who daven there lead what we Americans would call simple lives, but they really are elevated. Their lives are more meaningful than those lived by the people in the West who are blessed with material wealth but lack in spiritual riches and elevation of purpose.

They are unencumbered by the complexities brought on by the unnecessary wants and needs we so actively pursue. They maintain a singular clarity of purpose, which fills their lives with tremendous, yet subtle, power and simcha.

Another fascinating experience and highlight of the trip was davening at the minyan of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. Even more compelling than that was attending Rav Elyashiv’s daily shiur, which he delivers every evening in the shul built for him near his one-room apartment. The one-hundred-year-old gadol hador delivers a blatt shiur with youthful abandon. With a lively voice, he clearly and lucidly explains the Gemara. Every few minutes, one of the attendees jumps up with a question. “Uber der rebbe hut gezukt… ich vill fregen oif dem…,” says a man, who launches into a question on the sugya that Rav Elyashiv is discussing. A lively discussion ensues. The attendees prod the gadol with probing questions, and he responds with equal gusto to people one-third his age.

The words on the aron kodesh in the bais medrash right next to his seat read, “Toras Hashem temimah meshivas nufesh.” Anyone who wants to see a live demonstration of what those words mean should trek to the end of Meah Shearim and watch this shiur take place. It is an enlightening and invigorating experience and is guaranteed to strengthen your faith.

Wherever you walk in Yerushalayim, you are reminded of the churban. You are prompted to think about what once was and what is now. It is easy to be captivated by the charm of Yerushalayim - its buildings, its streets, and, most of all, its residents of all ages. It is easy to be awed by the simple greatness of its talmidei chachomim and anshei maalah. It is easy to be moved by the way the people there daven and serve Hashem, with simple emunah and bitachon, and a feeling of closeness. The kedushah is evident there in so many places and one is easily influenced to raise his level of belief and conduct.

At the same time, however, signs of what could be, and once was, are all over. There are so many people whose families came to the country clinging to ancient beliefs and traditions and have lost all connection with them. There is poverty and depravity all over. When you see a car traveling down a road on Shabbos, you know that it is your brothers and sisters driving by. The sight stabs you right in the heart as you ponder what could be and what is. When you observe and read about the vilification of the religious community in the Holy Land, and experience the hatred and awful cynicism to things holy, you feel profaned and hurt. You pine for the day of veheishiv lev avos al bonim.

When you stand at the Kosel and hear the symphonious melodic prayers, you recognize that while it sounds beautiful to you, those disparate sounds are actually signs of exile and destruction. When the Bais Hamikdosh stood, we all prayed with the same voice, inflection, dialect and accent. When you walk to the Kosel on Shavuos and think that it resembles aliyah leregel, you realize how far removed we are from the real thing.

We don’t have kohanim performing the avodah, or leviim singing shirah, or Yisroelim walking up to the Holy City with their shepselach in tow. There are no bikkurim-laden baskets, no terumah for the kohanim and maaser for the leviim. We stand at the Kosel, the lone remnant of what was once the most imposing building ever constructed, laid to waste by the Romans 2,000 years ago.

The closest we can get to the site of the Bais Hamikdosh is to climb to the roof of a home in the Rova HaYehudi and peer out as shualim strut about on the Har Habyis.

There is no nevuah and the Urim Vetumim is dark and in hiding along with the klei haMikdosh. Reviled, we live under the rule of agnostics and are spread across the world far from the nexus of kedushah.

We drive up Har Hazeisim to visit kevorim and realize how many leaders and loved ones we have lost. We peer down towards the makom haMikdosh and hope for the time when the Shechinah will return to this very mountain at the End of Days and herald techiyas hameisim and the ultimate redemption.

May we merit its occurrence speedily, in our day.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Our Essence

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Shavuos, the sixth and seventh of Sivan, separates us from everyone else. On this Yom Tov we stood at the foot of Har Sinai and heard the voice of Hashem. We were lifted above all mankind for eternity. With the giving of the Torah, the Jewish nation was born. It was at Har Sinai that we became the Bnei Yisroel.

And what does that mean?

The Gemara in Maseches Pesachim (68b) teaches that “Chetzyo LaHashem vechetzyo lochem,” half of the Yom Tov of Shavuos is dedicated to the service of Hashem and the other half is for our own benefit.

This teaches us that it is not sufficient for us to say that we accept the Torah and will study it diligently. The Torah must touch our souls, impact our actions, and improve our behavior.

We all know the story about the man who approached Hillel Hazakein and asked Hillel to teach him the whole Torah “al regel achas,” while standing on one foot. Hillel responded, “Mah de’aloch senei lechavroch lo sa’avid, ve’iduch zil gemor - Don’t do unto others what you don’t want done to you. As for the rest, go study.” What was Hillel telling this man? Is the Torah really only about ve’ahavta lereyachah kamocha?

Hillel may have been teaching a vital lesson regarding talmud hameivi liydei maaseh, that Torah study is about altering the way we behave, positively affecting the way we act. The basis of Torah is to know that its study has to influence our actions and the way we treat others. It is only after we accept this premise that we can set about learning. “Mah de’aloch senei lechavroch lo sa’avid, ve’iduch zil gemor.”

Perhaps we can interpret the Gemara to mean that Chazal are teaching us that Shavuos is “chetzyo laHashem vechetzyo lochem,” they are stating that we are not only frum when we learn, daven and do mitzvos bein adam laMakom. We are also frum in the way we behave bein adam lachaveiro and in the way we conduct ourselves as we go about our regular, daily pursuits. We are honest and upstanding. We don’t lie, cheat, steal or otherwise harm others in order to get ahead.

This past Shabbos at the Torah Umesorah Convention, Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky told a group of talmidim a fascinating insight from his father, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l.

Rav Yaakov recounted the following story. The town of Slabodka, home to the famed yeshiva which carried its name, was a suburb of the larger Lithuanian city of Kovno. The two were separated by a river, with a bridge that ran across it to allow people to travel between the two locales. The bridge, however, was built of wood, not of steel. That way, in case of war, the townspeople would be able to defend themselves from invaders by simply burning down the bridge.

During the winter, when the river froze over, the ice would often crash through the wooden structure and cause it to break up. When the weather warmed, the river became unfrozen and began flowing once again. Enterprising boaters would then open a ferry system with small boats, called lutkas, to transport people from one side to the other.

There was a local Slabodka rov who was bothered by this. He was mekareiv cantonists, those who were forcibly conscripted into the communist army as youngsters for periods of up to 25 years. When they returned home, they were ignorant of their religion and brutish from their life experiences of the past decades. This rov would reach out to them and return them to the religion and the people they were mercilessly ripped away from. He would learn with them and reignite the spiritual flame within them.

Each Shabbos, irreligious residents of Slabodka and Kovno would make use of the ferry service to commute to the other city. To prevent people from riding on the boats on Shabbos, this rov took Shabbos walks with the cantonists near the area where boats departed from. Though they were non-observant, the irreligious Jews, out of respect for the rabbi, wouldn’t ride the boats as long as he was there.

One Shabbos afternoon, as the rov was walking back and forth by the dock, a gentile boat owner very gently approached him and respectfully said, “Rabbi, isn’t it time for you to go daven Minchah?”

If he could convince the rabbi to leave the area, the boat owner thought, the people would ride on his little boat and he would be able to make money once again.

The cantonist, with whom the rabbi was walking, erupted in furious anger, screaming and threatening violence against the hapless boat owner. “How dare you speak like that to a rabbi?” he thundered. “I am going to beat you up for speaking that way. Don’t you dare tell the rabbi when he must go…”

Rav Yaakov, upon relating this story, asked why it was that the gentile Slabodka boat owner spoke so respectfully while the Jewish man spoke so gruffly. He explained that the Torah and mussar of the Slabodka Yeshiva were so powerful that even residents of the town behaved differently. Thus, even a person who had never stepped foot into the yeshiva, and never studied a word of Torah or observed any of its mitzvos, behaved differently.

A resident of Slabodka was transformed into a more respectful being merely as a result of living in the same town as the yeshiva. Its Torah and mussar affected him. The cantonist, having been away from town for so long and not having had the benefit of a Torah education, was so markedly different from even the gentile man. He was robbed not only of the benefit of studying Torah, but of the influence of growing up in its shadow.

That is the power of Torah. That is what Torah is meant to accomplish. That is the level of behavior demanded of us, who study and observe Torah.

The words of Rav Yosef recorded in Maseches Pesachim (66b) are often quoted to convey the extraordinary spiritual power of Torah. On Shavuos, he would partake of a meal consisting of the finest meat. He explained: “Eeh lav hai yoma dekogorim, kama Yosef ika beshuka.” Rav Yosef was saying that if not for this day of Shavuos, there would be no difference between him and all the other Joes in the street.

We generally understand Rav Yosef’s comment to mean that the study of Torah is not just an intellectual pursuit. It transforms those who absorb its lessons and strive to make themselves into better and holier people.

We can take it a step further to mean that the greatness of Shavuos is that it celebrates the transformative force of the Torah on our lives. If we remain with the same personality traits we possessed prior to our study of Torah, then we are indeed just another Joe. If our limud haTorah falls short of changing us, the day’s gifts have been wasted.

With the lesson that Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky brought home from the story of the ferry boat driver, perhaps we can take Rav Yosef’s message a step further. The power of Torah is so potent that it transforms not only those who study it, but also those in their company and dalet amos.

Rav Yosef explained at his special seudah on Shavuos that if not for the Torah that he studied, we would have so much more trouble from the Joes in the street. If not for the transformative power of Torah, the Joes in the street would make our lives unbearable. It is only through the Torah that we learn that even the Joes can be made into better people and taught to behave towards us with a modicum of respect and civility.

Thus, the more Torah we study and the stronger we cling to its commandments and precepts, the more protection we are afforded from those around us. Halacha hee beyoduah Eisav sonei l’Yaakov; it is a law built into the universe that Eisav hates Yaakov. It is a law of nature, a fact confirmed by rivers of Jewish blood and tears. The nations of the world detest the Jewish people. The reason that they are not always at our throats is because when we engage in Torah study and adhere to the Torah way of life, they are kept at bay. When we step out of line, they are ready to lunge at us.

The Torah, whose giving we celebrate on Shavuos, transforms us into better and happier people, and raises our life to a different realm. As a side benefit, it improves not only our character, but the moral fiber and integrity of our neighbors and others we come in contact with. It protects us from pestilence, pogroms and perversion of justice. Even in our modern society, it saves us from the awful afflictions which have accompanied us throughout our history in exile whenever we deviated from the Torah.

When we witness anti-Semitism rearing its ugly head, in the heart of this country and in other areas of the world, it should serve as a reminder to us to return to Har Sinai with brotherly love and compassion, ke’ish echod beleiv echad. The Medrash Tanchumah Hakadum, states that when Hashem saw the people who were about to become Am Yisroel standing at the foot of Har Sinai in complete unity, he declared that now they are worthy to receive the gift of the Torah.

May Hashem look down upon us now and witness our dedication to the Torah and how we unite to help our brothers in distress and declare us worthy not only of Torah, but also of the geulah hasheleimah vehakrovah, bemeheirah beyomeinu. Amein.

Chag sameiach. Ah gutten Yom Tov.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Blessings of Bechukosai Teleichu

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Parshas Behar begins by stating that Hashem spoke to Moshe on Har Sinai and then immediately turns to the laws of Shmittah. Rashi asks the classic question invoked when two matters seemingly unconnected are linked together: “Mah inyan Shmittah eitzel Har Sinai?” loosely translated as, “What does Shmittah have to do with Har Sinai?”

Rashi answers that the Torah juxtaposes the two pesukim to teach that just as all the minutia of the laws of Shmittah were expounded at Har Sinai, the myriad details of all the mitzvos were likewise taught at that time.

The Torah discusses the laws of Shmittah and then guarantees the blessings reserved for those who honor these laws, allowing their land to lie fallow every seventh year as a testament to their belief in Hashem.

Perhaps another reason for the linkage of Shmittah and Har Sinai might be to teach us that one who seeks the brachos of shomrei Sheviis should not delude himself into thinking that those blessings come for observing only one component of the mitzvos of Har Sinai.

Mah inyan Shmittah eitzel Har Sinai” teaches us that in order to merit the rewards of keeping Shmittah, a Jew must do far more than observe the laws of Shmittah. He must follow all the halachos and dinim that were handed down at Sinai.

This approach might explain an obvious inconsistency at the end of the parsha. The last posuk of Parshas Behar states, “Es shabbsosai tishmoru umikdashi tira’uh, ani Hashem.” The Baal Haturim points out that in this posuk, the word “tishmoru” comes after the word “Shabbos,” whereas in Devorim, the command of shamor precedes the word “Shabbos” in the posuk of “Shamor es yom haShabbos.”

The Baal Haturim quotes the Mechiltah to explain that this is to teach that Shabbos requires shemirah both before and after the exact time of Shabbos. That is, one must extend the holy day at the beginning and at the end, adding chol to kodesh.

Perhaps we can explain that the posuk is implying that for one to be a shomer Torah umitzvos, it is not sufficient to only observe the 24-hour period which comprises Shabbos. One must also observe the many commandments governing day-to-day life during the rest of the week. The kedushah of Shabbos demands shemirah lefonov ule’acharov.

It is common to describe a frum Jew as a shomer Shabbos. This is because in order to be considered a shomer Shabbos, you also must observe the other commandments. A shomer Shabbos Jew dresses differently, speaks differently, and eats differently, not only on Shabbos, but during the entire week. A shomer Shabbos Jew conducts himself with eidelkeit and ehrlichkeit, not only on Shabbos, but throughout the week as well. A shomer Shabbos Jew adds to the holiness of Shabbos by sanctifying the days before Shabbos and the days after it.

A shomer Shabbos Jew spreads kedushas Shabbos to everything he does from Shabbos to Shabbos. He anticipates and plans for Shabbos from Sunday onwards, as he specifies each day in relation to Shabbos, saying, “Hayom yom rishon b’Shabbos, Hayom yom sheini b’Shabbos, etc.”

And so it is with a shomer Shmittah. It is very difficult for a person who lives off of the land to wake up one day and decide that although he has been lax in his observance of all the mitzvos, he will observe Shmittah. It is only the person who, after faithfully observing all the halachos during the other six years, can meet the great test of faith and leave his ground untouched during the seventh year.

The person who is fastidious about his observance of maaser and terumah, and leket, shikchah and peah, has no problem with Shmittah. The one who ensures that his animals do not run wild and damage other people’s property, and the one who makes sure that there are no michsholim on the paths which cut through his property, will be scrupulous with the dinim given on Har Sinai.

The person who conducts his business with emunah and bitachon and does not resort to chicanery and thievery to make his living is one who has the strength to let go when Shmittah arrives and depend upon Hakadosh Boruch Hu to feed him.

Vetzivisi es birchasi lochem.” Hashem promises His blessings to those who observe Shmittah, because those people are the ones who observe the laws handed down on Har Sinai day in and day out and not only on isolated occasions.

At the beginning of Parshas Bechukosai, Rashi quotes the Toras Kohanim to explain the posuk of “bechukosai teileichu.” Rashi says that it means “shetihiyu ameilim baTorah.” The way to achieve holiness and perfection is by expending much energy to study and understand the Torah. The way to show that we are serious about following the path of Hashem and observing His mitzvos is by delving deeply and persistently into the difficult passages of the Torah.

The Rambam in Hilchos Talmud Torah writes that the Torah does not make a permanent impact on one who takes a lackadaisical approach to its study, nor on one who learns while indulging in earthly excess, or while satiated by food and drink.

The Torah belongs to the one who knocks himself out, so to speak, working to understand its words, and refrains from sleep in order to learn and understand the word of Hashem.

That is why a rebbi is obligated to teach the same passage to his student several times until the student understands it. If the student doesn’t understand what is being taught, the rebbi is not permitted to get angry, but should patiently explain it until its meaning is grasped. By the same token, a student should not be uncomfortable about admitting that he didn’t understand what is being taught. He should ask to have it explained and reviewed as many times as necessary until he understands it. Greatness in Torah requires total dedication. Only one who is consumed by ambition for spiritual greatness can grow in Torah.

Greatness is not inbred. It doesn’t come about from learning once a week. It isn’t accomplished overnight. It takes years of persistence and perseverance to constantly strive and aim higher. Sometimes it takes a lifetime of growth to reach the pinnacle.

As Torah mechanchim and mechanchos meet this week at the Torah Umesorah Convention, the 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.

Our ambition and drive must be to excel in Torah and avodah. We have to value excellence and appreciate it in others. We should demand the best for ourselves when it comes to spiritual matters and not easily compromise when it comes to what is really important in life. In a word, we must become ameilim baTorah.

Our chinuch system must teach our children to appreciate the gift of Torah they have been given. They need to realize that they are the Chosen People, chosen to live a life of kedushah and taharah, of simcha and sasson, and that they are not mutually exclusive. Torah breathes life into those who follow its ways. A Torah life is a blessing. One who understands that will happily dedicate their life to ameilus baTorah.

Children who appreciate the full picture of Yiddishkeit and know that ehrlichkeit and middos tovos are an integral part of their being, understand that fidelity to a value system is their birthright.

Jews who are reminded from a young age onward that shemiras Shabbos involves more than observing the lamed tes melachos, live on a higher plane the entire week and recognize that, by doing so, they are among the luckiest people alive.

Despite all the temptations thrown at them by society, and no matter what pressures and inducements they face, they will remain steadfast, focused, honest and upstanding. They will bring us all much nachas.

The Torah promises that if we are ameilim baTorah, if we work according to the Torah and concentrate our main efforts on Torah study and observance, we will be blessed and successful in all we do.

The Torah is what gives us our identity and what defines us. As we stand in the Sefirah period, we commemorate that we were freed from Mitzrayim so that we could accept the Torah on Har Sinai.

We count towards Shavuos, the day which marks our receiving of the Torah, to demonstrate that we are striving and reaching upward. Each day of the count we seek to improve ourselves so that we better appreciate the gift that is the Torah.

We don’t count the way one would normally count down to an anticipated date. We count upward. We are each saying, “I am not the same person I was yesterday. I am better. I have progressed yet another day and have taken another step towards my goal. I am on the way to realizing that the most important thing I can do is accept the Torah, study it, and follow it with devotion.”

If we want to excel in our lives as Torah Jews, we have to realize what those successful people described above realize. The key to success, both spiritual and material, is to devote oneself to the task with all our strength and talent.

We have to take ourselves and our responsibilities seriously. We have to take pride in our mission, so that we can succeed in being good Jews and good people. It won’t happen with a haphazard, lackadaisical approach, or by going through the motions perfunctorily. It demands a lifetime of ameilus coupled with discipline and determination.

Let us devote ourselves to our G-d-given task and thus merit the brachos that the parsha reserves for those who are ameil in Torah.