Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Elul Considerations

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Last week, I had the good fortune of meeting Rav Gedaliah Sheinen, a rosh yeshiva of a yeshiva in Yerushalayim for boys who can’t make it in the regular system. He related various amazing stories from his first-person interactions with gedolei Yisroel.

In his native Hebrew, he said that he doesn’t write at all, and since I am an editor, he imagines that I don’t write well either. He asked me if I know anyone who can write, because he feels that the stories he has experienced and the lessons they impart are very important and should be shared with a wide audience.

I asked him to share one story so that I could gauge how good his stories really are and determine whether they should be written up for a wider audience.

Let me share the story with you and you be the judge.

Rav Sheinen has been blowing shofar for many years at the minyan at which Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv davens. After davening, Rav Sheinen goes with Rav Elyashiv to his two-room apartment and blows shofar again according the shitos of certain Rishonim whose opinions regarding the tekios are not codified in Shulchan Aruch. Those who wish to fulfill these opinions have additional sounds of the shofar blown according to all the different interpretations.

Twenty one years ago, on Rosh Hashanah, Rebbetzin Elyashiv was ill and unable to go to shul to hear the shofar. When Rav Sheinen finished blowing the extra tekios for Rav Elyashiv, he asked the gadol if he should go into the Rebbetzin’s room and blow the sounds according to the Shulchan Aruch so that the Rebbetzin could fulfill the mitzvah.

To his amazement, Rav Elyashiv told him not to. “Today is Sunday, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, so the obligation to hear shofar is only miderabonon. Women were not obligated to hear shofar, but they accepted the obligation upon themselves.” ‘Kiblu aleiyhu’ is the terminology in halacha. “Since it is a tirchah for you to blow more kolos, you should rather go home than blow.”

Rav Sheinen left the small apartment and was headed down the steps when he heard Rav Elyashiv coming after him. “Kumpt tzurik - Come back,” said Rav Elyashiv. “It’s true that the obligation to hear shofar today is only miderabonon, and for women it is an even lesser obligation, and that’s why I sent you away. But my wife will be so happy to hear the kol shofar, and by blowing for her, you will be doing a chesed, and chesed is a mide’oraisah. Therefore, I am asking you to come back. For a de’oraisah I can be matri’ach you.”

There are many lessons that can be learned from this story. First and foremost, we see how all of our actions should be dictated by halacha and how, before accepting a favor from someone, we must weigh whether it is absolutely necessary to inconvenience that person. We see how we must be considerate about a person’s feelings. We learn that we must prioritize our obligations and understand how important chesed is.

During this period of Elul, we should take those messages to heart and consider the ramifications of our actions, whatever it is we are doing, and how they will impact others.

Shortly after Rav Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik zt”l was appointed rov of Brisk, the townspeople approached him and said that they had certain misgivings about the local shochet and wanted the new rov to look into the matter and perhaps replace him. The rov called a meeting and insisted that the shochet in question not be invited. Somehow, the shochet found out about the meeting and showed up, taking a seat alongside the concerned citizens of Brisk.

Every time someone attempted to introduce the issue over which the meeting had been called, the rov steered the conversation in another direction. The people were dumbfounded and finally gave up. The meeting ended without addressing the matter of the shochet.

After the shochet left, the rov explained to the remaining people that he did not want to do anything that would cause embarrassment to the shochet. That was why he didn’t want the shochet at the meeting in the first place and that was why he didn’t permit the topic to be raised. The matter was later resolved.

Whatever problem there was with the shochet could be taken care of later, but if the man’s feelings would be hurt, the wound would remain for a long time.

Whatever must be accomplished should be done with the barest minimum of aggravation.

The idea of being so careful not to hurt a person’s feelings must be uppermost in our minds.

In Sefer Machsheves Mussar based on the shmuessen of Maran Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l, the aveirah of chomos, which sealed the gezar din of the Mabul, is discussed.

The posuk states that the Mabul was brought about because the world became full of chomos. The common explanation is that the decree was sealed due to the commonality of swindling and thievery. Rav Shach quotes a Medrash which states that the people who lived at the time of the Mabul were guilty of chomos devorim. He cites the Vilna Gaon who explains that just as it is sinful to steal less than a shavah perutah, one who protests too loudly against a person who robbed him is also considered a chamson. And just as the gezar din was caused by those who were financial chamsonim, so was it caused by verbal chamsonim.

If you scream too loudly at someone, even someone who caused you a loss, and you embarrass him more than he deserves to be shamed, you have sinned.

A couple of years ago, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman created a storm when he wrote a letter admonishing people to be more careful about the way they speak to each other.

“It’s known that in our holy Torah, there are laws bein adam laMakom as well as bein adam lachaveiro. The Aseres Hadibros are composed of halachos pertaining to the relationship between man and his Creator, and laws that prevent us from harming our fellow man.

Ona’as devorim, the sin of hurtful speech, is more serious than the sin of harming another financially. It applies equally between a man and his wife and a woman and her husband… This ban includes hurtful words of any kind…

“People are moreh heter to themselves, such as when a teacher or rov says that they have to humiliate someone to ensure discipline. But this is not correct. We can only do whatever is necessary to prove the point, but not to humiliate one another! It’s even more serious when the humiliation is done in public.

“A rov or teacher must get his point across, but in a way that doesn’t embarrass. Generally, the one who feels he is being humiliated will retaliate twice as strong. The teacher’s act of shaming the child is certainly in the category of ona’as devorim. One must be very careful about this. Parents, as well, shouldn’t embarrass their children.

“When one causes suffering to others, he is punished in Olam Hazeh, too. Every person must pay attention to what he does and what he says so as not to hurt his fellow man. The truth is that the punishment is much worse in Olam Habah, but most people are not aroused by what they can’t see directly, so I am speaking about something that everyone understands well…

“One who is careful not to hurt other people will merit all the brachos of the Torah and will enjoy a pleasurable life in this world and the next.”

During the time remaining until Rosh Hashanah, let us all resolve to be more thoughtful of others and let us be more careful about how we speak to others and how we conduct ourselves. In that merit, may we all be zoche in the upcoming din.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

It’s Not Their Fault

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Mainstream news outlets have seriously cut down their coverage of news stories. As society dumbs down and spends more time feeding its internet addiction, the news switches to be more entertaining than enlightening, more style than content, and more pop than intelligence. People following current events often find themselves amazed at what passes for news today. The goal in news-reporting was once to inform and enlighten. No more. Today, it’s all about entertainment. Reflecting trends in society, style tends to trump content; trendiness and superficiality have replaced serious values.

Last week, all the news outlets could talk and write about was a flight attendant who snapped while on the job, and, following a tirade against a passenger, slid down the emergency chute and ran home. He rode home to become the biggest hero in America. He had the guts to walk off his job because he had enough and wouldn’t take it anymore.

It is beyond my ability to comprehend what is heroic about a person, whose job definition is helping people as they sit on an airplane, going crazy because a passenger didn’t follow his orders to detail. It is not always easy to reason with people in stressful situations, but an argument with a person who sought to remove a carry-on bag from the upper bin before the plane came to a complete stop doesn’t seem to be the type of act that should cause a service veteran to lose it. A person who was paid to service flying patrons threw away all modicum of decency and became portrayed as the hero of every working person in America.

We notice more and more that people don’t have patience for each other. More often, we note that people who are paid to be waiters, shop clerks, nurses or other types of aides seem to resent when people actually expect to be treated with professional decency.

What has transpired to the national psyche that gives people the idea that they can treat others as they will, ignoring their feelings and rights? You pay hundreds of dollars to fly from here to there, a few more to take along a suitcase, some more to quench your thirst while on the plane, and a few more for some other convenience, and then the people who work for the airline feel empowered to boss you around as if the flying tube were their own private fiefdom. When you resist, they lose it, go crazy, and become American heroes.

Can it be that people have taken the concept of a classless society where all are treated equal overboard? Are we now at the point where people consider it beneath their dignity to assist others with their luggage, meals, or whatever it is they are employed to do?

To be sure, there are legions of fine people who perform their tasks admirably, and thanks to them, businesses hum, orders are processed, planes take off, hospitals treat patients, and government gets you your driver’s license.

Has the culture of refinement become a culture of rudeness? Has rudeness replaced intelligence as a mark of greatness?

A troubling new work ethic appears to have gained traction among those who have been raised to feel a sense of entitlement to the American dream. They seemed to have forgotten that success is a result of hard work, ambition and common decency. Those who rely strictly on their sense of entitlement will fail to move ahead until they realize the need to treat other people with the consideration they seek for themselves.

These people are doomed to failure. Their arrogance and laziness will only get them so far. They can only humiliate and denigrate others only so many times before people get fed up with them. Instead of blaming themselves for their failures, they blame everyone else. They blame the people they are paid to work with. They blame the people they have insulted and treated rudely. They blame everyone but themselves. And the cycle of failure continues.

Blaming others for one’s failures and substandard behavior may appear to work in the short term. But over time, it contributes to a cycle of failure that boomerangs. Everyone loses.

This brings me to the next topic. Religious Jews are up in arms over happenings in the news on two successive Shabbosos. The first week it was a marriage that ticked them off, the second it was a Supreme Court appointment. No, it’s not the same as the flight attendant who lost it, but the two issues are related. All three stories came about as a result of people not accepting blame for their own failings.

How, people wondered, could Elana Kagan, President Obama’s Jewish appointee to the Supreme Court, agree to be sworn in on Shabbos? They don’t realize that, sadly, Kagan is so far removed from Shabbos that it plays no role whatsoever in her day-to-day life. It is like any other day. To her, the swearing-in ceremony represents a glorious milestone in her life and an historic event in the life of American Jews.

We neglect to recognize that we have abandoned her and millions like her. We haven’t reached out to her and so many other unaffiliated Jews. We haven’t brought them closer to Torah and Yiddishkeit. We haven’t made a serious attempt to show her and Jews of her background what they would miss out in not getting a Jewish education. We let her and those like her slip through the net and into the American melting pot.

Religious Jews are appalled that a nice Jewish boy would marry a Methodist, on Shabbos no less, dressed in a yarmulke and a tallis, under a chupah, and sign a kesubah to boot. “How can he?” they ask. “How can he trample on Shabbos and on halacha like that? A yarmulka, a chupah, a kesubah, a rabbi… on Shabbos?! Sacrilege! Shame!”

And it’s all true.

But whose fault is it? His or ours? Why is it the boy’s fault? Does he know better? Was he brought up any different? As far as he is concerned, he is a proud Jew. He proudly showed how far Jews have advanced in this country. He married the only daughter of a former president and the current secretary of state, and he did so with Jewish pride. He didn’t bury or hide his religion; it was out there for all to see.

This young man is a tinok shenishbah. It is not his fault. It is ours. Our community has failed this boy and his family. His grandparents were, in all probability, people who sacrificed for Torah, for Shabbos, and for fidelity to halacha. We could have perpetuated that golden chain. But we have failed his future - the beautiful Yiddishe kinderlach he could have fathered and brought up in the path of his forbears.

Instead, we stay locked in our comfortable neighborhoods and ignore the masses of Jews assimilating into oblivion right next door. We give lip service to the idea of reaching out to wayward Jews and educating them about their glorious heritage. And then, when they marry out of the faith, we blame them. When a proud Jew wears a yarmulka and a tallis and tramples on the holy Shabbos and everything else dear to us to marries out of the faith, we wonder how it could be. We write columns condemning him. We sermonize in synagogues across the country bemoaning the action of the tinok shenishbah bein ho’amim. But we fail to point the finger at the guilty party. We fail to accept the blame for the 70% of Jewish kids who don’t marry Jews.

Of course it is not realistic to expect us to be able to reach each and every Jewish kid and teach him what it means to be a Jew. It may not be feasible for us to sign up every child in a Jewish school. But do we care that we are losing the majority of Jews in this country to assimilation? Do we try to reach them? Do we throw them a lifeline?

In a related matter, we are flippant about not accepting children into our schools. And no, we are not talking about non-religious children. We are referring to children in our own communities who, for whatever reason, are left out in the cold as their parents try to grapple with the reality of their children being school-less. We have parents who actually impose their will and desires on school administrations regarding the type of students who should be accepted in their school.

Our grandparents and forebears would be mortified to witness child after child being rejected from frum schools, left with little to no options. And while it may make some people feel uncomfortable, it is time to stop making believe that this problem doesn’t exist. It is real and it is tragic. It is a phenomenon that has resulted in children leaving the derech haTorah, searching for satisfaction and recognition elsewhere. We send children and their parents flying, because they don’t fit the mold and we don’t care.

Last week, we commemorated the yahrtzeit of Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz. In 1944, he founded Torah Umesorah to create a sea-change in the attitude of American Jewry to Torah education. Prior to Rav Shraga Feivel, immigrant Jews believed that in order to succeed in this country and to be perceived as loyal Americans, it was incumbent upon them to send their children to public school.

Torah Umesorah successfully challenged that paradigm and introduced the concept of widespread Jewish education through the medium of the Hebrew day school. Over the course of twenty years of incredible hard work and mesirus nefesh, Dr. Joseph Kamenetzky and his staff managed to convince all towns home to more than 10,000 Jews to open a day school and to provide meaningful full-time Jewish and secular education to generations of children.
Today, some 65 years later, Torah Umesorah proudly lists approximately 700 such schools educating in excess of 200,000 children across North America in what ranks as an all-time historic achievement in the hatzolah of an entire country. Prior to Rav Shraga Feivel’s innovation, Jewish children became semi-Jews, and then non-Jews, as they progressed through the educational system.

If you examine those numbers, you will see something very frightening. The vast majority of those children are in frum schools in the New York area and in cities with large religious populations. Very few of those schools and very few of those children are of the type that Rav Shraga Feivel had in mind when he founded his beloved organization. Yes, there are many, and the work of Torah Umesorah is to be commended, but we are so far from the realization of Rav Shraga Feivel’s dream. The percentage of Jewish children enrolled in religious schools in this country is in the single digits. Millions of Jewish children are being lost every year, because we have abandoned the dream of enrolling them in yeshiva day schools.

Additionally, anecdotal evidence shows that as a result of the economic downturn, day school parents are unable to make their tuition payments and are removing their children from day schools and placing them in public schools. Can anything be sadder? Schools founded with immense mesirus nefesh are emptying out and their students are being lost to the Jewish people.

Does it make sense for us to sit back and revel in how far we have come since the days of Rav Shraga Feivel?

For many of us reading this column, yeshiva education is a given. The chareidi school system in our circles is vibrant and flourishing. The substantial number of Hebrew day schools across the country reinforces the misguided notion that we are impacting Jews everywhere and that we have done all we can in the field of Jewish education and outreach.

Yet, there is so much more that can be accomplished if we were to dedicate ourselves towards that goal. How sad to contemplate the outcome years from now if we fail to meet this challenge today. How tragic it will be to witness the massive numbers of Jewish children lost to their people, because our generation was not concerned enough about the spiritual genocide unfolding beyond our communities.

In Eretz Yisroel, Lev L’Achim and Shuvu, among others, have successfully recruited tens of thousands of secular children to religious schools. In this country we are all familiar with groups such as Oorah, which reach out to assimilated Jews and seek to bring them and their children tachas kanfei haShechinah. There are people such as Rabbi Nate Segal, Torah Umesorah’s Community Development Director, who is always on the prowl for a new town in which to open a shul, a kollel, and eventually a school, but we don’t support him nearly enough. Rabbi Zev Dunner, Project Seed’s director, is working painstakingly to open a religious school in Florida for the children of yordim who are currently in public school. Yet, Rabbi Dunner is forced to grovel for the few dollars he needs to make the school a reality.

Returning to the jarring scenario of a young man attired in tallis and yarmulka marrying a Methodist girl in a ceremony under a chupah on Shabbos, let us hear the message a bit differently. The Jewish chosson was telling us that had we reached him, we could have returned him to his heritage. Had he been signed up to study in a Hebrew day school, Marc Mezvinsky would have later stood under the chupah with a daughter of his own people. He might have grown up to be an observant Jew bringing nachas to his family and to Am Yisroel.

As the school year gets underway, let us stop shifting the blame for the Kagans and Mezvinskys of this world. We cannot all change the world, but we can try to understand why people do the things they do and try to show that at least some people care. You can show that at least one person wants to make a difference. If enough of us show that we care, instead of shifting blame, we can make a difference. We can then commit more generations to Torah and be machzir atarah leyoshnah.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Elul - A Time for Achdus

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

All of a sudden, Elul is upon us. The summer barely started and Elul has arrived. What happened to the glorious vacation that just a few days ago was beckoning from the horizon? It started with so much promise and vanished so quickly.

What about all the plans to get away, take a break, or go on a trip? We’ve barely caught a breather and the summer is over.

The days just seemed to roll by. Sun shining, green fields beckoning, country air penetrating our senses... Just as our nerves finally release the accumulated tension, it is Shabbos morning and we’re in shul as the words “Rosh Chodesh Elul yehiyeh beyom hashlishi ubeyom harevi’i” ring out. And with that, it’s as if summer has ended, vacation has come to a dead halt, and it’s back to serious stuff.

Elul is here. The shofar is blown every morning. The Yom Hadin is only a month away. The boys are going back to yeshiva, and elementary and high schools will soon get underway. Elul. It is time to get serious again.

Elul is a most serious time, with a difficult task at hand: self improvement. Elul represents an awesome challenge. We feel overwhelmed and ill-equipped to deal with it. Where do we start? Is it doable? Can we really improve ourselves in a month? What should we focus on? How do we get started?

Just like the shevatim, we each have our own distinct missions to carry out in life, referred to in sifrei chassidus as a “shlichus.” We are all part of a Divine plan and fit into the Divine jigsaw puzzle. To the degree that we touch other people’s lives and become indispensable to our fellow people, we become vital to the larger picture and an integral part of Klal Yisroel.

Someone who becomes part of a larger group makes themself necessary to the greater world, while those who sit by themselves, benefit no one and give Hashem less reason to grant them life.

As Rav Yisroel Salanter is said to have advised, if we wish to be zoche in the din of Rosh Hashanah, we should strive to be part of the klal. If we wish to be granted life, health and happiness, we need to make ourselves needed.

We need to live for others. We need to become involved with the klal, doing things that we do not necessarily enjoy, even performing acts that we may think are beneath our dignity. The more people need us, the more sunshine and happiness we bring into the world and spread around, the more reason there is for Hashem to keep us here.

We need to recognize that there were twelve tribes of Klal Yisroel and each one was distinct in its mission. Together, they formed the Shivtei Kah, the Chosen People, Am Yisroel.

Making yourself part of a community doesn’t mean surrendering your personality and individuality. The challenge is to be who you are without letting that compromise your loyalty to the community. The challenge of achdus is to subordinate your selfish inclinations and conquer your hubris so that you can work with others for the common good.

But it is more than that. When we are alone, we are vulnerable and isolated. Uniting with others allows us to benefit from their support, and to have friends with whom to celebrate joy and lighten sadness. If you live only for yourself and by yourself, life is as small as you are.

There are always excuses not to get involved and not to help. Elul is a time to resist the pull of habit and throw oneself into the effort to help others. With a little creative thought, we can make ourselves indispensable, or nearly so.

We stand a much better chance of a positive verdict if we are judged as part of the group and based on our connection with others, as opposed to standing trial alone.

Tzedakah tatzil mimovess - Charity saves from death.” The more we give and the more we share with others, the more selfless and humble we become and the greater our chances of a favorable outcome on Judgment Day.

The more we realize that all we have is but a gift from G-d, to utilize not only for ourselves, but for the benefit of our fellows, the more He will give us.

The more we realize that we are part of a group ruled by Hashem, the closer we will be to realizing our goal. When we truly grasp that kol Yisroel areivim zeh bazeh, and we comprehend that we have little to offer when standing alone but can achieve so much when united, the more we find favor in Hashem’s eyes and in the hearts of our fellow Jews.

Chazal say, “Eizehu chochom? Halomeid mikol adam. Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.” The isolationist remains with his tunnel vision, deprived of the scope and richness he could have acquired had he been humble enough to learn from others.

As much as we learn from others, we must take lessons from our own actions and mistakes. That is the work of Chodesh Elul. We all make mistakes. “Ein tzaddik ba’aretz asher yaaseh tov velo yechetah.” There is no one who accomplished anything with his life yet did not made a mistake or two along the way.

What Chazal are hinting is that we should be aware that if we make a mistake, it is not the end of the world. The point is to learn from our mistakes and emerge from them stronger, more honest and more ehrliche Yidden. The only people who don’t make mistakes are those who take no initiative and therefore accomplish nothing.

Elul is the time for cheshbon hanefesh, to examine what we did right and what we did wrong and what we can do to correct those errors and reinforce the good. The process of teshuvah involves charatah al ha’avar, kabbolah al ha’asid, regret for the past and positive resolutions for the future. The two must be linked. Engaging in charatah over our past failings must bring us to undertake specific kabbalos to better ourselves in the coming year and to conscientiously carry them out.

Perhaps a deeper understanding of Rav Yisroel Salanter’s advice to become indispensable to the klal is that dedicating oneself for the greater common good requires a refinement of many middos. To become needed and important to the klal, one has to develop the attributes of savlanus, anavah and chesed, among many others.

Rav Yisroel Salanter was saying that one who wants to emerge victorious in the judgment of Rosh Hashanah has to uproot his evil inclinations and replace them with good ones. By vanquishing the malignant turpitude which lies in the heart of one who doesn’t learn mussar and which prevents him from doing good for others without ulterior motives, a person will be acquitted in judgment.

The Botei Mikdosh were destroyed because we lacked achdus and judged others with a jaundiced eye. To merit the redemption, we have to overcome the temptation to judge people cynically and belittle others who are different, based on superficial, false notions.

This week’s parsha ends with the mitzvah of eglah arufah, the procedure to follow when a body of an unknown person is found at the outskirts of a town. The elders of the city must wash their hands over the eglah arufah and state that their hands did not kill the person and their eyes did not witness it: “Yodeinu lo shofchu es hadom hazeh ve’eineinu lo ra’uh.”

Obviously, no one would suspect the elders of murdering a person. The lesson of the eglah arufah is that they must declare that they set everything in place under their jurisdiction to prevent the possibility of murder. They proclaim that they established a proper system of justice and compassionate treatment of strangers. They go to the outskirts of the city to state for all to hear that the murder victim did not die due to negligence on their part. With the kohanim at their sides, the zekeinim state that they did all in their ability to ensure that no person suffers abuse, especially of the kind or degree that would lead to such a tragic demise.

In our day, as well, we must all be able to proclaim that we have joined together and worked together to set up institutions of jurisprudence, kindness and charity. We have to be able to act as one, courageously and without fear, to ensure that we can all say with complete honesty, “Yodeinu lo shofchu es hadom hazeh,” our hands did not spill the blood - both literally and figuratively - of the unfortunate victims in our community.

Elul is a good time to start.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Revisiting Titus

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Last week we closed the office to give everyone on our staff a much-needed break. We apologize for the inconvenience to our readers. We have faith in your understanding and hope that you, too, will grant yourself a respite, and come back refreshed.

Never having been to Europe, when the opportunity to travel came my way this summer, I decided it was time to broaden my horizons with a visit there. After touring a number of famous sites, I found myself in Rome, at the Arch of Titus.

I stood there gazing at the carved images of captive Jews bearing aloft the menorah and other keilim of the beis hamikdosh that had been plundered by the Romans. Images flashed through my mind of the terrible scenes of suffering that, centuries ago, unfolded at that very spot.

Hundreds of thousands of brokenhearted Jews had been forced to march past jeering crowds in the Romans’ victory parade. These hapless souls were beaten and brutalized and turned into sport for the masses.

Standing at the Arch of Titus, you can almost hear echoes of their anguished sobs. You can feel the hopelessness that filled Jewish hearts over the catastrophe of the churban bayis, and the torture and subjugation and humiliation of the Jewish people at the hands of their enemies.

After crushing Eretz Yisroel and sacking Yerushalayim, Titus went on to become the emperor of Rome, which was then at the pinnacle of its power. He presided over an empire that ruled the entire civilized world.

The Arch of Titus is a powerful symbol of the ascendancy of savage enemies of the Jewish people and of a bitter golus that has stretched on for millennia. Seeing it up close, how can one not feel shaken?

Yet this ancient artifact also stands witness to another lesson of history: When Hashem had no more need of the ruthless Titus, He cut him down in his prime.

The all-powerful Titus who had statues and monuments erected to deify himself, died soon after crushing Eretz Yisroel and sacking Yerushalayim. He was felled by illness, like any common mortal. His vaunted military prowess and unparalleled might were impotent against the Divine will.

On the other hand, the defeated Jews that he and his henchmen hunted down, murdered in the millions, and drove into exile, are still very much alive. The Roman Empire and Titus are mere artifacts of history, while the Jewish people continues to flourish, loyal to our heritage, awaiting redemption and the return of our Holy Temple.
In Yerushalayim, where, in the days of Titus, no Jew could be found alive, Jews today walk freely. In the land where it was once inconceivable that the Jewish nation would experience resurgence, millions of Jews celebrate their traditions and beliefs.

The ‘Advanced’ Society That Was Rome

As one visits Rome’s tourist sites, the encounter with history reveals some of the most inhumane aspects of that ancient society—regarded in its day as the most “advanced.” Parts of the city today are like a giant outdoor museum, featuring relics of the ancient past. Tour guides show you the great Roman coliseum where gladiators killed each other for sport, and where the Romans forced their captives to fight beasts of prey to entertain thousands of bloodthirsty spectators.

That form of savagery is thankfully a thing of the past. The coliseum stands as a massive empty hulk where people buy trinkets, and stand on line for hours to pay an entrance fee to enter the edifice built with the sweat and tears of trapped Jews fighting for their very lives.

The glory that was Rome and the arrogant Caesars are all the stuff of history, studied in order to get a passing grade on a school exam, and promptly forgotten. Today they are nothing more than tourist attractions. People who need diversion from the real world travel to Rome to inspect the sights and photograph them for the folks back home.Titus thought the Jewish people had been wiped off the face of the earth. But it was he whose life is today a mere footnote in history. His accomplishments were of no ultimate value to the world, and the legacy he had craved dissipated, and his life left behind no positive trace.

The ruthless actions of Titus and all the latter day “Tituses” who followed in his footsteps, have failed to extinguish Am Yisroel. Over the centuries, we have been persecuted by an endless stream of arch-foes dedicated to destroying the Jewish nation. We have been decimated, plundered, exiled from country after country, yet miraculously, we survive to rebuild and regain our stature. Those who sought our annihilation have been swept into the trash heap of history.

We are an eternal people, and no matter how weak or vanquished we appear at a given moment in history, we gather strength and rededicate ourselves to our mission.

That is the lesson of the Arch of Titus. It is a poignant reminder of past tragedy and current exile, but also a harbinger of hope.

I am sure that I am not the first Jew who took particular pleasure in absorbing these lessons at the site of the Arch. I am surely not the first to experience the sense of vindication in telling Titus that Am Yisroel is triumphant; that Torah is studied loudly and proudly across the world in multiple languages and dialects. In most places in the world today, Jews practice their religion freely, in peace. Jews continue observing the Torah and practicing the lifestyle that Titus was convinced he had suppressed forever.

A Testament To The Evil Of Which Man Is Capable

The Roman Coliseum is another, much larger, emotional site for Jews. The massive stadium, constructed largely by Jewish slave labor two thousand years ago, still stands as a testament to the evil of which man is capable.

The human toil required in ancient times to construct an edifice of that size, strength and girth is astounding. But it’s even more staggering to consider the fact that the very same society that was so advanced in the science of engineering, displayed its utter lack of humanity in the activities for which this structure was designed.

In this building the masses would regularly gather to watch human beings fight to the death against wild, ferocious animals trained to feast on human flesh. This was the most popular form of entertainment. Many of the victims torn to shreds in that building as a sport for the perverted spectators were our forefathers.

We think we have it rough at times, when things don’t go our way. After all, we are a nation in exile, far from home. But we should never forget to be thankful to our host country for providing us a safe harbor, endowed with unprecedented rights, privileges and opportunities for advancement.

If we do encounter evil people in this moral, humane society, and even if those evil people hold positions of power and influence, a system of jurisprudence is in place which most of the time can be relied upon to right wrongs and protect the vulnerable.

A Very Young Nation In an Old World

Being in a country with buildings hundreds of years old reminds us of our precarious position in golus. From history’s vantage point, we are but a flash away from the most recent attempt to annihilate us. Most of our infrastructure is relatively new. The yeshivos and shuls are new, our organizations are young, and though they are building and growing there is no comparison between a 1000 year-old facility and one recently erected.

Similarly, most of our homes and neighborhoods are relatively new or currently being built.

That ought to remind us how tentative our existence actually is. We can never grow too comfortable. But at the same time we should take strength from our remarkable resilience. While many nations that oppressed and dominated us have long vanished from the stage of history, the Jewish people forge a path through the ashes, relocate, and re-establish ourselves.

Ancient Jewish Community Graces Rome

Another fascinating thing about Rome is its Jewish population which dates back 22 generations in an unbroken chain. The forbearers of today’s Roman Jews were in Rome before the Churban Habayis. While they are not punctiliously observant of the mitzvos, they are proud Jews, cognizant of their heritage.

They have their own minhagim, which are neither Sephardic nor Ashkenazic, since they were established before the golus introduced those distinctions, based on where the exile led us. For hundreds of years, the Jews of Rome were locked into ghettos and tortured by the church, yet they refused to surrender their Jewish identity and held fast to the religion of their fathers.

Italian Jews can pray in shuls many hundreds of years old, many of which are remarkable architectural marvels. The shuls all have mechitzos and reflect no influence of the Reform movement which decimated Western European Jewry. Their davening is much like ours, though interestingly, the Aron Kodesh is in the front of the shul, and the amud and bimah are all the way in the rear, located on an ornately carved platform.

What Ensures A Nation’s Survival?

An encounter with the history of Rome teaches us that neither arches and edifices, nor military triumphs mark a nation’s greatness or ensure its survival.

This message is brought home by a passage in Avos D’Rabi Noson [4, 5], in which the Tana states that Raban Yochanon Ben Zachai was once walking with Rabi Yehoshua when they passed the site of the destroyed Bais Hamikdosh.

Rabi Yehoshua said, “Woe is to us that the site where the sins of Yisroel are forgiven and lies in ruin.” Raban Yochanon Ben Zachai responded that we have a spiritual tool that activates Divine forgiveness just as the Beis Hamikdosh did. That is the power of gemilus chesed – acts of kindness—that elicit atonement as korbonos were able to do.

Raban Yochanon Ben Zachai lived at the time of the churban and fought to bring an end to the Jewish rebellion against Rome, which he knew would fail. He sought to inspire brotherhood among the Jewish people and to erase the hatred which ultimately led to the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh.

When he saw that his efforts would prove futile, he had himself smuggled out of Yerushalayim for an audience with the Roman ruler, Vespasian. Foreseeing the impending destruction, Avos D’Rabi Noson [ibid] and the Gemorah Gitin [56b] relate, Raban Yochanon Ben Zachai requested that the city of Yavneh, which housed the central yeshiva, be spared.

The great Tana understood that in the absence of the Beis Hamikdosh, it would be the Torah, the giants who teach it and their students who study it, who would maintain the Jewish people through the ensuing centuries of golus with their terrible suffering, turmoil and upheavals.

By saving Yavneh, Raban Yochanon Ben Zachai saved the Jewish people from Roman destruction. He couldn’t prevent the conquerors from destroying the great buildings, residences and the communal infrastructure, but he was able to guarantee the survival of Am Yisroel until this very day.

He taught us the importance of chesed and its unparalleled value in the absence of the Beis Hamikdosh. He risked his life to guarantee that the yeshiva of Yavneh be maintained and that Raban Gamliel and Rabi Tzadok be spared. For without proper leadership and without Torah, the Romans would have triumphed in their mission to annihilate the Jewish nation.

In our own day, as we face so many internal and external threats to our survival, let us heed the message of the ancient Arch of Titus—that the seeds of survival and redemption can sprout even from the tragedy of destruction. Let us do everything in our power to activate the Divine formula for longevity and forgiveness through our study and support of Torah coupled with the practice of chesed, so that we are found worthy of the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdosh, bimheirah b’yomeinu, amen.