Thursday, June 30, 2011

Looking Through The Window

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

It is frequently said that we live in a dor yasom. Our status as leaderless is so often repeated that we are in danger of believing it and accepting that we are not blessed with great people.

But it’s not true.

It is a lie, a canard, a plot by the Soton to lull people into thinking that they cannot aspire to greatness.

True greatness in Torah and yiras Shomayim is a relic of bygone times, the Soton claims, thus freeing us of the obligation to emulate Torah leaders. If they aren’t really great, why do I have to pay attention to what they say?

In truth, we are blessed with giants, though with each passing week, we seem to lose another one.

Chazal teach us that when Hakadosh Boruch Hu created the world, He took the tzaddikim and “shaslan bechol dor vador, He planted them in each generation. That means that He, in His infinite wisdom, looked at our generation and planted the tzaddikim we would need, much like a farmer plants seeds in the section of his field where they can yield the most.

Rav Michel Yehudah Lefkowitz was just such a person. He was not simply a giant, a gadol. He personified gadlus, and he was given to us, our generation.

I remember the first time I saw him. It was fifteen years ago. Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin of Lev L’Achim brought me to his home. But before we went in, Rabbi Sorotzkin showed me a small window and suggested that I stand there and look in before entering. It was good advice. Peering through that side window into his room was like looking back in time seventy-five years into the room of a Litvishe rov in a small shtetel.

There was an aura about him, an air of complete tranquility that enveloped him. He sat there so calmly, with his tall Litvishe yarmulka perched on his head, learning a blatt Gemara as if there was nothing else going on anywhere. It was clear that this was his only reality. He was a person at peace.

The room was old, the furniture was old, he was old, but at the same time, he was so fresh and so alive. I just stood there by that small window transfixed by the image of simplicity and greatness fused together.

“Come,” Rabbi Sorotzkin said. “Let’s go in.”

It was like waking from a dream. I felt like I was benefitting from Rav Michel Yehudah by simply standing there and studying him in his most natural pose.

When the father is home, even if he is learning or working in his study, the entire family feels more secure and behaves better. He is there if they need him. They feel his presence and his strength.

Rav Michel Yehudah was the father of the bnei Torah. The methods of chinuch which are becoming popular today, in 2011 - love, acceptance, warmth, tolerance - he espoused sixty years ago. Until two years ago, he delivered his daily shiur, bringing his ga’onus and penetrating lomdus to his “tenth grade shteller,” giving young teenagers new dimensions in Torah. He made himself available to his people, sitting in his humble room, where bnei Torah of all ages came to speak to him. Some sought emotional support, while others needed advice.

I saw Rav Michel Yehudah just three weeks ago. I went with my son who is soon to be bar mitzvah and had the zechus of speaking to him one last time. When we came, he was delivering a blatt shiur to a minyan of people, as he did every day since he stopped saying his daily shiur in yeshiva.

As we waited, I stood by the small window, the same one I had looked through during my first visit, and watched a rebbi teaching talmidim. Then they opened the door and allowed us to join him in davening Minchah. It was sad to see how weak he was, how he couldn’t rise from his chair and didn’t even have the strength to turn the pages of his siddur.

After Minchah, his grandson told us to sit down by the table. “But he is so weak. Perhaps we should just leave,” we said.

Rav Michel Yehudah looked at us and motioned to sit down, so we did.

My son was introduced as a bar mitzvah bochur who wanted a bracha. But Rav Michel Yehudah didn’t just give brachos. He grasped my son’s hand and held on to it very tightly. He looked the boy in the eye and spoke to his heart. He told him of the importance of Torah, learning Torah, and being a mentch. His words were barely audible, but to us, they were blaring. This same man, who a few minutes ago needed his grandson to turn the pages of his siddur, was grasping the hand of a young American boy to impress upon him what it means to be a Yid.

He was there for anybody and everybody, at any time. As long as he had strength in his body, he used it to learn, to teach, to support, to be mechazeik, and to transmit the legacy he received, first in Volozhin, where he was born, then in Vilna from his rebbi Rav Shlomo Heiman, followed by the Chevron Yeshiva of old, and from the Chazon Ish. He lived for his talmidim. He lived for bnei Torah the world over. He lived for all of us.

When Mordechai Goldstein from Lakewood came to him before his bar mitzvah two years ago, Rav Michel Yehudah spoke to him. But he spoke in Yiddish and the boy didn’t understand Yiddish. As Rav Michel Yehudah was speaking, the boy burst out crying. The aged rosh yeshiva asked the boy’s father if the young man understood what he was telling him. The father said, “Maybe his head doesn’t understand, but his neshamah surely does.”

Rav Michel Yehudah spoke with the love of a father.

Reb Mendel Tress, who learned in Ponovezh, wrote down what his rebbi, Rav Michel Yehudah, told his own bar mitzvah boy:

“People consider a baal kishron to be a good bochur, an ideal chavrusah, but that’s not the case. A good chavrusah is someone who wants to understand what you have to say, who listens, so that together you can understand what the rebbi has to say. That’s how we learned by my rebbi, Reb Shloime.

“A few years ago, I passed a group of bochurim, and only one of them looked up at me and said, ‘Gut Shabbos.’ Then they all greeted me as well. That bochur was ‘notel sechar kulam.’ With good middos, you can shteig.

“When you daven, don’t show the Ribbono Shel Olam that you are in a rush to take off your tefillin. Keep them on just a bit longer, until after the last Kaddish, and then the Ribbono Shel Olam won’t be in a hurry to leave you.”

That’s what Rav Michel Yehudah told a bar mitzvah boy. If he invested so much energy and time into communicating with a twelve-year-old, imagine how he addressed his talmidim and how he spoke to the roshei yeshiva, kollel yungeleit and yeshiva bochurim who entered that simple room on Rechov Vilkomirer, in the shadow of the Ponovezher Yeshiva.

Marbitzei Torah from across Eretz Yisroel flocked to him with all their questions. They asked him which mesechta to learn in their yeshiva. They consulted with him about bochurim who weren’t functioning properly. They consulted with him before they sent a boy away from yeshiva. Kollel yungeleit traveled to him and put all their issues before him, and as he did with everyone who came to him, he patiently and cleverly dispensed advice gleaned from decades as a rosh yeshiva, moreh derech and gadol baTorah. And of course, they came to speak in learning.

We try to find time to learn Torah and to understand it. We tailor our lives to fit the Torah. For Rav Michel Yehudah, Torah was his life. There was no tailoring needed. Rav Michel Yehudah didn’t have to bend his natural inclinations to accommodate the mitzvos of the Torah. His life was formed by Torah and framed by limud haTorah and the teachings and precepts of the Torah were his natural inclinations. His heart beat with the rhythm of Torah.

Since Torah was his essence and his life, as long as he had life in him, as long as he had a drop of strength, he used it to teach Torah, to learn Torah, and to encourage others to learn. He never stopped until Hashem stopped him.

In 1932, Rav Michel Yehudah arrived in Eretz Yisroel with his mother and sister carrying a letter of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky to the Chevroner roshei yeshiva which urged them to accept the young bochur from Volozhin who was to one day illuminate the skies of Torah. His older brother, Aryeh Leib, who reached Eretz Yisroel earlier, had somehow procured for them the priceless immigration certificates grudgingly rationed out by the British Mandate government. Thus, they were spared from the Holocaust and Klal Yisroel was blessed.

Rav Chaim Ozer warned Rav Michel Yehudah to be aware that Zionist elements might be anxious to recruit his talents for their cause and may even be waiting for him upon his arrival at the Yaffo port.

“Don’t speak even one word with them,” he warned. “Go straight to Yeshivas Chevron!”

The Chevroner roshei yeshiva, Rav Yechezkel Sarna and Rav Aharon Cohen, and the mashgiach, Rav Leib Chasman, welcomed him with open arms and he continued his rise to gadlus. Rav Chaim Ozer instructed that he learn once a week with Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer in Yerushalayim, and he attended his shiurim on Seder Kodshim. On one occasion, when Rav Michel Yehudah said a particularly sharp insight, Rav Isser Zalman was so thrilled with the p’shat that he said to his wife, “Bring the shnapps! The Volozhiner has said a wonderful sevarah!”

He was a giant in learning, a treasured talmid of the greatest rabbeim of the last century, such as Rav Shlomo Heiman, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer and the Chazon Ish. When the Chazon Ish was ill and weak, it was his beloved Rav Michel Yehudah who penned his correspondence and answered b’sheim the Chazon Ish.

Rav Michel Yehudah wrote many seforim and delivered shiurim six days a week. He was appointed as rosh yeshiva seventy years ago, at the behest of the Chazon Ish, and was renowned for both his mastery of Torah and his profundity in learning. This Torah giant was the man who felt the achrayus of a father. His Torah was the backdrop to the warm, welcoming smile.

Klal Yisroel is blessed with manhigim, leaders. There are those who are manhigim of the klal and there are those who are manhigim of the p’rat, the yochid. Rav Michel Yehudah was the manhig hador of the yechidim. He was a manhig of the rabim by being manhig of the yechidim. One yochid and another yochid. One shiur, one shmuess, one eitzah, and one bracha at a time.

In his addresses to mechanchim, he advocated treating talmidim as yechidim, showing the love a father displays for his son, literally.

He always knew how to choose the right words. On one occasion, a bochur came to him complaining that he had great difficulty learning. No matter how hard he tried, he simply could not understand. Rav Michel Yehudah asked him about his family, and it turned out that the bochur was the only frum person in his family.

“Do you know what responsibility you have?” Rav Michel Yehudah asked him. “You must carry your whole family!”

“But I simply can’t learn!” said the bochur.

Rav Michel Yehudah broke into tears and the bochur joined him.

“I have been rosh yeshiva for many decades,” he told him, “and my experience shows me that it is not the brilliant boys who succeed, but those who learn with hasmadah and don’t give up. Keep at it and the gates of understanding will suddenly open before you. Any time you feel discouraged, come back and we’ll talk some more.”

He loved Jews. All Jews. When you walked into his room, you felt that this old Yid from Bnei Brak really cared about you.

An accomplished American gentleman accompanied his own rebbi on a visit to Rav Michel Yehudah. When they finished their discussion, Rav Michel Yehudah turned to the man and said, “Obviously I’ll never be your rebbi, but please let me be your zaide!”

Just to put things in perspective: As recently as this past Pesach, Rav Michel Yehudah received a Yom Tov visit from no less a personage than Rav Chaim Kanievsky, who would come to fulfill the mitzvah of visiting his rebbi on Yom Tov. (Rav Chaim had been a talmid of Rav Michel Yehudah many decades ago in Yeshiva Tiferes Tzion.)

An American baal habayis, a bar mitzvah yingel, and every other yochid were all equally loved.

He was passionate and outspoken in his call for love-based chinuch. He would repeat from Rav Chaim Volozhiner that there is no chiyuv of tochacha, no obligation of rebuke, for someone who cannot speak with a soft voice. A warm tone and a pleasant demeanor, he taught, were prerequisites for giving instruction to others.

Someone once went to Rav Michel Yehudah for his son’s upsherin. The whole family came along. Rav Michel Yehudah welcomed them all into his room and spent time with them, telling them how to be mechanech children. He said that you have to concentrate on the geshmak, on the asei tov and not the sur mei’ra. Speak to your children about the positive, he said. Only speak about the good. “If you want to see nachas from your kinder, you have to sing zemiros with them on Shabbos and they have to understand what they are saying,” Rav Michel Yehudah advised the father.

Rav Michel Yehudah’s entire life was one of shirah and zimrah, stretching over 97 holy years, infusing thousands upon thousands of Yiddishe kinder of all ages with Torah and shirasah.

A teacher in an out-of-town community high school spearheaded a tznius campaign with her students, as they worked together to learn and safeguard the gidrei tznius. Hoping to hammer home the message of Chazal that brachos follow those who are careful with tznius, the teacher suggested that her girls write down their names and requests on a paper, which she would send to the gedolei hador for brachos.

She sent the paper to Rav Michel Yehudah.

He was too weak to write, so his attendant wrote as he dictated:

“Each small step in tznius will have an inestimable effect on your future doros, and I am thrilled to hear about the kabbalos you’ve made. May Hashem shower you with chein, chessed and rachamim.

The teacher received the return letter, dated Sivan 5771, on Monday morning, the 25th of Sivan. As Rav Michel Yehudah’s holy soul was ascending heavenward, he was still speaking to his children, still there for the yochid, still being mechazeik the lone teacher in a small community and her charges.

A close talmid of Rav Elya Svei was in Eretz Yisroel just after his petirah and went to Rav Michel Yehudah for words of chizuk. The talmid asked how one perpetuates the legacy of his rebbi.

“Write a list for yourself of what made him great. Study that list and try to emulate him. Speak with your wife and children about your rebbi, and make sure that they understand. Look,” said Rav Michel Yehudah, pointing at a photo. “The picture that hangs here is of my rebbi, Reb Shloime, since I feel like I owe him everything.”

I look at the picture of Rav Michel Yehudah from our visit just three weeks ago. His frail hands were sapped of strength, yet he gripped the kvittel given to him with the name of a Jew desperate for a yeshua, and he held it, his face burning with concentration.

When I told my son the bitter news of his passing, I saw that he was mentally revisiting our meeting earlier this month with the tzaddik.

After a few moments of silence, he said, “He held my hand very tightly.”

Yes, Ari, he did. He held your hand and our hands, and the hands of Klal Yisroel, very tightly.

We had a father at home.

And now he’s gone.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Overcoming Human Nature

It was, in a sense, the first gathering of the Bnei Yisroel, the twelve pillars of our nation surrounding the bedside of their father. Yaakov Avinu looked at each of his sons in turn, focusing on their gifts and challenges, studying their destiny, before bestowing the brachos and tefillos that would accompany them and their progeny for eternity.

When he looked at Levi, Yaakov foresaw a road with some bumps, but one that led to the loftiest of callings, the right to serve in Hashem’s earthly home, standing guard over the Bais Hamikdosh and its sacred keilim.

But he also saw something else, the dark and turbulent events of this week’s parsha, the uprising of Korach and his people against the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu.

"Bekehalam al teichad kevodi. I want no part in it," Yaakov Avinu pleaded. Therefore, Rashi tells us, Korach’s lineage is traced back to Levi, but not to Yaakov Avinu.

It’s puzzling. If Yaakov foresaw the incident, why did he not ask that there be no machlokes altogether? Why not daven that Hashem’s trusted messenger be untarnished by this rebellion? Why didn’t he daven that Klal Yisroel should not rise up against Moshe?

When his grandfather, Avrohom Avinu, sensed that Sedom was on the verge of destruction, he immediately began to daven, as improbable as the chances were of there being many tzaddikim in Sedom. Yet, his concern for all mankind led him to daven in a valiant attempt to prevent the judgment from being carried out. Why didn’t Yaakov attempt to use tefillah to try to prevent the ugly story from happening?

Perhaps the explanation is that at the root of the machlokes was jealousy. Korach was jealous of Moshe and Aharon, and he was upset that he wasn’t recognized for his greatness and given a position of leadership that he felt he deserved. Yaakov wanted it to be clear that this middah ra’ah was not traced back to him.

Jealousy is part of the teva with which Hashem created the world.

Back at the very onset of creation, the great luminaries, the sun and the moon, fell prey to jealousy. "Who will rule? Who will be bigger?" they questioned.

The upper waters and the lower waters got locked in an epic and enduring battle, each pining for Divine closeness at the expense of the other.

Jealousy is built into creation. It is part of human nature.

Kayin encountered Hevel and revealed the most basic human emotion.

Man ventured forth into the world, interacting with other humans, engaging in commerce and conversation, and there were always undertones of jealousy, competition and rivalry.

Perhaps we can say that Yaakov didn’t feel worthy of davening that Hashem should change the teva ha’adam. It is a well-known rule that we are not mispallel to change teva (see Pachad Yitzchok, Rosh Hashanah, Ma’amarim 10 and 33). Additionally, Yaakov was the av who declared, "Katonti mikol hachassodim umikol ha’emes." The Medrash Hagadol Toldos relates that Rabi Yanai said that a person should not stand in a dangerous place and say that a miracle will occur for him. Firstly, perhaps he won’t merit the miracle, and even if he does, it will diminish his zechuyos. Rabi Chonon adds that this is derived from Yaakov Avinu, who said, "Katonti mikol hachassodim umikol ha’emes."

Yaakov felt that it would be fruitless for him to daven for Hashem to change the teva ha’odam. He felt that he could only daven that he shouldn’t be included in the rebellion that would ensue years later on account of jealousy, praying that the machlokes shouldn’t be traced back to him.

Human nature is not always what we want it to be. Ki yeitzer lev ha’adam ra mine’urav. It requires a lot of work for man to break his inclinations and middos ra’os and make a mentch of himself.

It is the goal of the human experience, to try to cultivate the Godly and subjugate the animal that combine to make us what we are. The word ‘odom’, says the Shela Hakadosh, hints at the potential, ‘adameh le’elyon’ and also the risks, ‘adama’, the depths to which man can sink, like dust.

There is one antidote, one tool, with which we can work, and that is the Torah. One who dedicates his life to the precepts of Torah can tame his human inclinations, such as the trait of jealousy and the propensity for machlokes. Torah has the ability to cure man of his pettiness and help him rise above societal ills.

Yaakov was an ish tom yosheiv ohalim. He was purified and cleansed by Torah and its mussar. Having devoted his energy and strength to rising above human frailties, he felt that the machlokes had no connection to him. He wanted to demonstrate that although teva dictates that human interactions lead people to be consumed by jealousy, the condition is not terminal, as one who is a yosheiv ohalim and works on himself to be subservient to the precepts of Torah until he becomes an ish tom, can win these battles.

When Yaakov Avinu beheld Levi, he saw the unfortunate results of jealousy and rivalry, but he also saw something else: the lofty destiny of the shevet and the koach they possess to rise above it all. The fruition of this vision is found later in this week’s parsha.

The pesukim in perek 18 following the tragedy of Korach relate that Hakadosh Boruch Hu tells Aharon what to do to ensure that there won’t be another catastrophe such as the one that took place with Korach and his eidah. Hashem tells Aharon that he, the kohanim and shevet Levi, should be "shomer mishmeres" and then there will be no more "ketzef" on the Bnei Yisroel. The posuk explains that Hashem has separated the kohanim and Leviim from the Bnei Yisroel. They will not engage in everyday commerce with the rest of the Jews. They will perform their work in the Temple of Hashem. They will do the avodah in the Ohel Moed and will receive no nachalah, portion, in Eretz Yisroel. Hashem will be their cheilek and nachalah.

To understand the correlation, we examine the famous words of the Rambam at the end of Hilchos Shmittah V’Yovel (13:12-13). He explains that Levi did not receive any nachalah, because he was chosen to serve Hashem in the Mishkan to teach His righteous ways and laws to the rest of the people. Therefore, says the Rambam, they were separated - "huvdolu midarkei ha’olam."

In other words, in order to ensure that there would never be another ketzef such as that which took place in the time of Korach, shevet Levi was separated and removed midarkei ha’olam, from the ways of the world. They didn’t engage in regular daily business and interactions, as others do, because to do so would once again cause them to become jealous and argumentative. To prevent them from falling back into the teva of man which leads to jealousy and rivalry, allowing human failings to manifest themselves and cause "ketzef," they could no longer engage in the type of human interaction which exposes mortal weaknesses.

From that point forward, Levi would not be subject to these pressures, but would instead be dedicated fully to Hashem’s work. For the only way a person can overcome issues which lead to machlokes and bitterness is by totally dedicated himself to the avodah of Hashem, and rising above mundane everyday commerce. It is only by dedicating oneself fully and wholly to observing the precepts and teachings of the Torah in every field of human endeavor that man can rise above the subliminal earthiness which seeks his downfall.

Thus, the Rambam states in the following halacha that this mode of life is not only reserved for kohanim and Leviim, but can be followed by anyone who sees the light and wishes to earn for himself a life of blessing and peace, walking a straight path and cleansing himself of human trivialities and foibles.

Korach was blinded and hindered by his negios. His desire for personal advancement grew out of his jealousy of Moshe and Aharon. He couldn’t rise above the teva. It seems strange to us, but he was able to convince all the great men of Klal Yisroel to join him in his rebellion. For it wasn’t only Korach who was subsumed by jealousy, but others as well. They all wanted the "big job." Their vision was hampered as well, and they were unable to perceive Moshe’s greatness. Jealousy so clouded their vision and dulled their senses that they were rendered unable to appreciate the significance of what happened to the meraglim, who had doubted Moshe. They weren’t able to rise above the teva of anoshim and thus brought ketzef upon themselves and others.

As we study the parsha, we have the benefit of hindsight, the clarity of Rashi’s lens, and the Rambam’s lucid perspective. We delve into the explanations of the tale and think about how such smart and righteous people could sin so terribly and err so badly. We learn the pesukim, the Rashis and the Rambam, and we resolve to become true bnei Torah, baalei mussar and anshei tom in order to rise above the middos ra’os that can bring down lesser men.

All around us, we see people in positions of power and influence acting foolishly and blindly in a bid to advance their careers and their self-serving agendas. Then we look at our own leaders and we see quite the opposite. We observe instincts that have been honed by decades of toil in Torah, which result in the ability to make decisions that benefit others and that serve the interests of Klal Yisroel.

Rav Elazar Shach would remark that the power of daas Torah is that those who possess it are free of negios; they have no personal investment in what they are called to rule upon. Their only negiah is to the truth. They study Torah and are suffused by it, as the Torah overtakes them and transforms them. All their decisions and actions are guided by Torah. They are possessed by a love of Torah and Am Yisroel.

My youngest son will be bar mitzvah in a few weeks, im yirtzeh Hashem. We traveled together to Eretz Yisroel, where he merited to meet the gedolei hador and receive their brachos.

Just as valuable to him as the brachos of these tzaddikim, was being exposed to their lifestyle. He got to see, close-up, the ability of a human to transcend human limitations. He experienced what it’s like to be viewed through eyes that aren’t clouded by any sort of self-interest. Eyes that radiate pure ahavas Yisroel.

Each of the gedolim we visited, regardless of age or workload, made him feel as if he and his bar mitzvah were more important than anything else in the world.

My son doesn’t speak Yiddish or Hebrew, but the love that they displayed was as clear to him as could be. Rav Michel Yehudah Lefkowitz, who is ninety-seven years old, bli ayin hara, and suffering from the pain of a few cracked ribs, managed to speak, in a barely audible whisper, telling my son that he is important.

The venerable Rav Zundel Kroizer barely had the strength to hold a pen, but he insisted on inscribing a siddur for the young boy from America.

Rebbetzin Bas Sheva Kanievsky sat patiently, speaking to the bar mitzvah boy with the warmth of a grandmother, as his father translated. She, too, inscribed a sefer for him, and she twice read the words aloud to ensure that he understood what’s expected of him. I inquired how much the sefer costs and she looked at me in surprise. "This is a gift from my husband and myself. You don’t pay for gifts," she said.

The most distinguished rebbetzin in the world was giving him a gift because she and her husband love Yiddishe kinderlach!

The waiting rooms of these giants are living, breathing testimonies to their selflessness and their commitment to every single Yid. Each day, these humble dwellings admit the tired, the hungry and the poor, the masses in need of salvation encouragement and words of blessing. People come, day after day, week after week, knowing that in the eyes of our gedolim, they are precious, welcomed and cherished.

It was a lesson that I hope my son absorbed and a message that I would hope he takes into adulthood. Indeed, it is possible for a human being to rise to such heights at which he is above agendas and pettiness, and his sole concern is for the ratzon of the Ribbono Shel Olam and the good of His children. May we all merit to aspire to - and reach - that level.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Ure'eh Betuv Yerushalayim

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

It's hard to imagine a more vivid backdrop to this week's parsha and the tragic account of the meraglim than a visit to Eretz Yisroel. Having just returned from a week in the Holy Land, suffused by the glow that only being there can ignite, I've had twelve hours to reflect on it.

One of the most famed of the Yerushalayimer maggidim was Rav Bentzion Yadler, a man with a message for the masses, a figure who traversed the country on the back of a donkey. He went from Metula to Rosh Pina to Beer Sheva, following dusty paths to wherever Jews resided in order to deliver words of hope and inspiration.

His sefer is titled “Ure'eh Betuv Yerushalayim - See the Good of Jerusalem,” based on the posuk in Tehillim. Those knowledgeable in history appreciate the significance of the title. The maggid was visually impaired. He was unable to see. Rav Bentzion's eyes didn't take in the kaleidoscope of color in the city where buildings of brilliant white and roofs of burnt orange seem like carvings against the deep blue sky. He didn't visualize Yerushalayim with the tourist's eye. He had a deeper perception.

He had “Eretz Yisroeldike oigen, eyes that beheld the glory and majesty of the Holy City, even though they were too dim to see anything else. This vision was expressed in his talks and in his sefer.

The previous Boyaner Rebbe, Rav Mordechai Shlomo, lived in America but had a large nucleus of Chassidim in Yerushalayim, the chaburah at the famed Ruzhiner kloiz (originally in the legendary Nissan Bak shul in the Old City and later in Batei Hornstein). The Rebbe's trips to Eretz Yisroel were infrequent, and when he came, it was cause for great rejoicing for Chassidim who had no email or weekly faxes to connect them with their Rebbe.

Upon his arrival in Eretz Yisroel, he was greeted at the Haifa port by a group of prominent Chassidim, and the most fortunate among them were given the honor of joining him in the taxi. They entered the vehicle with trepidation, certain that the Rebbe's conversation would be lofty and replete with meaning, but the Rebbe said nothing. He sat with his face pressed to the window, watching the passing scenery intently, his eyes fixed on the dusty mountains all around him.

One of the Chassidim finally addressed the Rebbe, hoping for a response.

He got more than he bargained for. “The posuk says that Eretz Yisroel is a land ‘asher einei Hashem Elokecha bah,’ the Eyes of Hashem are upon it,” said the Rebbe. “Oib Ehr kukt, if He is looking, than I should certainly look!”

Eretz Yisroeldike oigen.

My own eyes are far less sublime than those of the maggid or the Rebbe, but every Yid has a koach to see Eretz Yisroel, and this week was a memorable one for me.

Yerushalayim is a mystical city. It feels like Shabbos the entire week, and not only if you are a visiting American on vacation. The kedushah, the cumulative effect of two thousand years of Yiddishe tefillos, is tangible.

The davening there is different, the streets are different, the speech is different, and the people are different. The children there possess a chein unseen elsewhere in the world. People there are more serious about their Yiddishkeit and more trusting in Hashem.

Yerushalayimer Yidden rarely appear to be in a rush. They are at peace, comfortable with their lot. They are patient, accommodating and loving. They are this way because they are conscious at all times that they are Hashem’s children, living in His land, and fulfilling His will. Everything is preordained and will happen only if G-d wills it, so why rush? There is no room in their mindset for tension or distress. Their mundane conversations are laced with tranquility and acceptance, and gentle good humor that reflects their attitude. They are content and serene. I envy the way they consider themselves blessed and fortunate if their apartment boasts three full rooms.

If the entire week is a bechinah of Shabbos, then Shabbos itself is Shabbos the way it was meant to be. As Shabbos approaches, silence and calm descend upon the Holy City like a blanket on a cold night, the serenity hovering over the stones and ancient pathways.

You walk to davening and see the Yerushalayimer Yidden in their golden bekeshes and shtreimlech, their clothing proclaiming Shabbos. They clasp the small hands of their children or einiklach and walk to shul, their voices wafting in the air like the song of a bird.

In a city of Shabbos, the epicenter of peace might just be in the heart of Meah Shearim, at the bais medrash of Toldos Aharon. When the Rebbe's gabbai invited me to join the davening, I resisted. But then he said, “Come. We daven in taleisim, and besides for that, the davening itself is singular - mamesh like Yom Kippur every Friday night.”

He didn’t say that because he was some doe-eyed American tourist. He said it because as a Yerushalayimer Yid, that is how he feels and views it every single week!

If you think the “Reb Arelach” children are charming a whole week, on Shabbos they practically glow, with their white yarmulkes, shirts and long curled peyos framing their cherubic faces. When you hear them davening together and singing Lecha Dodi, you sense the joy that Rav Shlomo Alkabetz was expressing as his eternal stanzas of poetry come to life.

Shabbos morning I davened at the Brisker yeshiva, a different style of davening from Toldos Aharon; unique in its own way, with a world-famed heightened degree of seriousness and kavanah, and an intense focus on properly reciting the tefillos and Krias HaTorah. There is a sense of rigidity in the air regarding details of halacha. I sat there and pondered the amount of Torah studied in that building by some of the best and brightest young talmidei chachomim in our world. I contemplated the impact that these koslei bais hamedrash have had upon the American Torah world and I felt fortunate to be offering my humble tefillos in such a place.

In America, everything is new. It's nice that we don't have a long and bloody history in this country, but we never get to experience the fragrance of a tefillah at Zichron Moshe, standing near windows that have served as portals to tens of thousands of tefillos, rising heavenward, over the past century.

On its worn benches, roshei yeshiva sit alongside laborers, and some of those whose voices join yours as you say, “Amein yehei Shemei rabbah mevorach,” are hidden tzaddikim, the type you read about in books. In a world where we're drowning in cynicism, it's easy to believe that such people don't exist anymore. But then, as you enter the shul in the predawn stillness, you see an old Yerushalmi Yid in a kaftan turned brown from old age. His eyes gleam as they meet yours, and you know you are touching another world.

If weekday is like Shabbos and Shabbos is like Yom Kippur, what is Yom Tov like?

If you ever wondered what aliyah l’regel was like and what it meant that there was room for everyone, walk to the Kosel on Shavuos morning and you get a taste of it. You set out on your own, but as you get closer, more and more people are walking alongside you, in front of you and behind you, all converging on the center of the universe. Its four o'clock in the morning and everyone around you is marching in unison to the same destination, footsteps beating out a song of joy.

They come pouring in through the ancient gates of the Old City, flowing like a river into the Kosel plaza, where they join the mass of people. As more pour in, the space seems to expand. Here, everyone has a place.

I davened with the minyan of the talmidim of Yeshivas Ohr Elchonon. Thanks to my good friend, Rav Gedaliah Sheinen, I had a seat, as did most people at that minyan. A seat makes a big difference. I was davening at the Kosel, serid Bais Mikdosheinu, with thousands of other people davening in a jumble of nuscha’os all around. Being so close to the makom haMikdosh in the company of so many good Yidden forces you to daven better, to be better, to appreciate the gifts we have, and to yearn even stronger for the day when we will be redeemed from exile. The words come alive - “galei kevod malchuscha - in a whole new way.

With these thoughts in mind, we can approach a seeming stirah, a contradiction, in Rashi, as he explains the parshas hameraglim. The posuk refers to them as anoshim, an appellation which connotes prominence or distinction. Yet, later on, Rashi tells us that they set off on their mission “be'eitzah ra,” with an evil scheme and rather dishonorable intentions.

One of the meforshim, the Shemen Hatov, offers an original solution. He suggests that Moshe Rabbeinu wanted anoshim, distinguished individuals, because he knew that every single Yid, each individual, has his own perspective on Eretz Yisroel, with colors and shades that only he sees.

Moshe Rabbeinu sent twelve different people, because he wanted twelve different viewpoints on Eretz Yisroel. He wanted them to look through Eretz Yisroeldike oigen and to return with different reflections, this one amazed by Brisker punctiliousness, the next one by the precision and order of a Yekkishe yeshiva, and yet another by the passion of a Minchah in a Sephardic shul in the Bucharim shuk. He wanted each one to see their Land.

So yes, they were anoshim. But they chose to band together, to look through their ordinary, chutz la'aretz eyes to form a committee that would produce a report for the people.

They swallowed their individuality and created a Commission to Study the Viability of Settling the Land. They missed the point. He didn't want their statistical, footnoted report. He didn't want a spreadsheet.

Their decision to give a unified response was a bad idea, an eitzah ra.

Eretz Yisroel is personal. There is a deep and abiding connection between its stones and the Jewish heart, and Moshe Rabbeinu hoped that each would return with his own song, his own tale, an image visible only to him.

Sadly, it didn't happen.

Later, in Parshas Pinchos, the Ribbono Shel Olam tells Moshe that although he would not merit to enter the Land, he could ascend Har Ha'avarim and see the Land - “Ure'eh es Ha'aretz. The Seforno says that it was to invest it with an ayin tovah. To look at it the way it ought to be looked at, with Eretz Yisroeldike oigen, and perhaps repair the error of the meraglim, who didn't really look at all.

On Shavuos morning, after an uplifting davening at the Kosel, the walk back is uphill. By now the sun is up, pouring its golden heat like liquid, but rather than feeling discomfort, you contemplate the power of the metaphor. When you came, it was dark. It was night. But after your tefillos, there is light and day and renewed hope for a better tomorrow.

Are there problems in Eretz Yisroel? There sure are.

Are the nations of the world lined up to marginalize and destroy the tiny country? Of course.

But when you're there, you’d never know it.

When you're there, your eyes see differently. They view things purely. They, too, are Eretz Yisroeldik.

V’sechesenah eineinu b’shuvcha letzion berachamim.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Naaseh Venishma Moments

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Back when the sun first rose, creation unsullied by man and his struggles, the world was waiting.

Even after man settled in the garden, le'avdah uleshamrah, the world was in a state of anticipation.

Throughout the generations that followed, despite Noach's lone piety in a world of darkness, Avrohom Avinu's perception of a Creator, and Yitzchok’s readiness to offer the ultimate sacrifice, something was missing.

Even as Yaakov studied through the long nights and his sons marched forth, an army of soldiers of the Ribbono Shel Olam, the world was not yet perfect.

It was all a journey, a tunnel leading to Yom Hashishi, the sixth day of Sivan, the pinnacle of creation.

The day the Torah was given.

And then the world was complete.

The defining moment of creation came as this new nation, this am nivra, molded and formed in the oppressive cauldron of Mitzrayim, shouted as one, “Naaseh venishma.”

It was the moment when Klal Yisroel issued its mission statement, proclaiming that although they were mere mortals fashioned of flesh and blood, they would live on a higher and loftier plane, using the greatest of all gifts, the holy Torah, to guide them.

The Gemara (Shabbos 88a) quotes Rav Sima’i, who teaches that at the time that Klal Yisroel said naaseh before nishma, six hundred thousand malachim came to every individual and tied two crowns on their heads, one for naaseh and one for nishma. Once Klal Yisroel sinned with the Eigel, one million and two hundred thousand destructive malachim descended and removed them.

It appears from the Gemara that while one malach was needed to place the two crowns on each individual’s head, two angels were required to remove the same two crowns. Why could one angel place the two crowns on every person, but two angels were needed to remove them?

Rav Chaim Vital (Eitz Hadas Tov 290) explains this with an extraordinary idea. There are two streams within man, with completely different and competing roles, chomer and tzurah. Chomer refers to the physical matter, while the tzurah is the spiritual, the abstract, the goal, the direction to be taken through utilizing the chomer. There is a perpetual struggle, or perpetual fusion.

At the time that Klal Yisroel said, “Naaseh venishma,” explains Rav Chaim Vital, the chomer announced its intention to serve as a means for the tzurah to move forward, so that man was one whole, complete entity. There was harmony within man, and so only one malach was needed to crown him.

Once the Yidden sinned, however, the two components within them separated; the chomer went back to being raw material with the tzurah remaining unrealized. Thus, two malachim were necessary to remove the crowns.

There was a national naaseh venishma moment, at the foot of Har Sinai, but there are also individual naaseh venishma moments, when a lone yochid cries out his promise to allow his tzurah to define his path.

One of the most vital links in the chain of our mesorah of Torah Shebaal Peh was Reish Lakish, who famously began his career as a bandit before encountering Rav Yochanan. Rav Yochanan convinced Reish Lakish that his immense strength could be best used in the service of the Creator, and Reish Lakish agreed to join him in the bais medrash.

Suddenly, the strength seeped out of the mighty and courageous bandit and he was too weak to jump back from the water to land. The very acceptance had weakened him, even before he'd learned a single blatt Gemara.

Remarkable! But with Rav Chaim Vital's explanation, we can well understand what occurred. Reish Lakish’s chomer, his brute physical power, was suddenly subjugated to his tzurah. It was his naaseh venishma moment.

The Zohar in Parshas Ki Sisa (190.) tells us that the Toras hasod, the hidden portion of the Torah, was revealed in the time of Rav Shimon bar Yochai, because all the chaveirm in his time were suffused with love for each other.

Perhaps we can explain this to mean that since learning Torah is a process of self-perfection, and souls such as the chaveirim in the time of Rav Shimon were consumed by Torah and its transforming properties, they became people of tzurah, of spiritual sophistication, and so the pettiness and self-interest that serve as a barrier to interpersonal relationships were non-existent. There was true ahavas chaveirim. In order for one chaver to love another, he has to subjugate his own personal wants, desires and ego for the betterment of his chaver. This only comes about through dedication to Torah and its study.

The fact that the chaveirim in the time of Rav Shimon bar Yochai were so caring of each other, is testament that they had mastered the 48 kinyanim of Torah. Their communal naaseh venishma, the allegiance to tzurah above chomer, merited another layer of kabbolas haTorah, but since the entire Torah Shebiksav and Torah Shebaal Peh had already been delivered on Har Sinai at the first naaseh venishmah moment, Klal Yisroel now merited for the inner dimension to be revealed, generated by their acceptance.

The oft-repeated Gemara tells of Rav Yosi's declaration of his intention to feast on Shavuos. If not for this day, he said, I would be just like all the others: “Kama Yosi ikka beshuka. Rashi explains that Rav Yosi was saying that through his Torah study, he became elevated. Perhaps, with this new understanding, we can comprehend this as well. The depth of the statement is that since Rav Yosi lived with a constant kabbolas haTorah, a steady state of reaffirmation of his love for Torah, he was constantly rising above the rest of the Yosefs of the world, because he was living tzurahdik.

This is based upon the Chazal (Pesikta Zutrasa, Va’eschanon) which states that every day a person is obligated to conduct himself as if he accepted the Torah that day at Har Sinai. In other words, every day a person must be prepared to say, “Naaseh venishma,” and subjugate his chomer to his tzurah. That is what Rav Yosi did and that is why he was able to say that he was different than all the other Yosis.

The Gemara in Maseches Shabbos (145) teaches that nations of the world are possessed by zuhamah, impurity. The Gemara explains why this is so. When Chava sinned with the snake in Gan Eden, zuhamah entered man and remained there. When the Jews stood at Har Sinai, they were freed of this venom - “paskah zuhamasam. The akum didn’t stand at Har Sinai, so the zuhamah never left them.

At Har Sinai, when the Jews proclaimed in unison, “Naaseh venishma,” they broke their chomer, regaining the purity of Gan Eden.

At that moment, people became more like angels, rising a bit higher.

But what, asks the Meshech Chochmah at the end of Parshas Yisro, did Moshe Rabbeinu gain from kabbolas haTorah? How was the Ribbono Shel Olam's beloved servant affected, if he had been worthy and able to rise Heavenward even before the giving of the Torah? Had he not already achieved perfection before Sinai?

The Meshech Chochmah's answer is instructive and relevant. Until Mattan Torah, he says, Moshe Rabbeinu and man were able to serve Hashem, but only with ruchniyus. The novelty of kabbolas haTorah was that, suddenly, acts of pure gashmiyus were invested with kedushah. Man, with his chomer and his tzurah working together, was charged with a new mandate: to sanctify himself, his corporeal needs, and animal instincts. In other words, at Matan Torah, man attained the ability to rise to the highest levels by subjugating his chomer to his tzurah.

This, says the Meshech Chochmah, is the idea of Hashem telling Moshe Rabbeinu at the sneh, the burning bush, “Shal ne’alecha mei’al raglecha - Remove your shoes, the vehicles for your gashmiyusdike living. Remove your chomer as you approach Me. Here you must be an angel.” That was before Matan Torah. Afterward, the shoes are part of the package - the package called a mentch, to whom the Torah was given.

On Shavuos, we celebrate this chiddush, that Hakadosh Boruch Hu desires us over angels and that we are to use His Torah to guide us and address our very physical existence. We celebrate the potential of lowly man, who can use the Torah as the ladder.

The Gemara states that while regarding other Yomim Tovim the rabbis disagree how much of the day should be dedicated to the purely spiritual, on Shavuos “hakol modim debeinan nami lachem.” They all agree that we need to please the more physical side as well.

We can understand it to mean that the rabbis proclaim that on Shavuos, we definitely need lachem, to proclaim that the physical is the great mechutan of Shavuos. We must demonstrate through our actions that the chomer has become one with our tzurah.

Sometimes, we lose sight of the simplicity of this truth. We, mere people, can connect to the Torah and rise to supernatural heights. We don't perceive that, though, so we look for shortcuts. We are thirsty for the spiritual rush, but all too often, we are in too much of a rush to climb the straight path. We long for the abstract, but the work of subjugating chomer is too difficult and too time consuming.

We forget that the goal we are after is to overcome the chumrios with which we were created. We jump to the tzurah, thinking that we can leapfrog over the details, but tzurah alone doesn’t cut it as long as we permit the chomer to survive, for it sits there like a malignant bacteria eating away at our essence. Outwardly, we may seem like super-holy beings, but if we haven’t mastered the 48 kinyanim of Torah, it is all but a fleeting facade, sure to be exposed and crumble.

Young bochurim in the Philadelphia Yeshiva once found a small, dusty sefer. It was an old copy of the mystical work Raziel Hamalach, which is said to have been written by an actual malach. With great amazement and their hearts beating fast, the boys passed it around reverently, gazing at the words penned by an emissary from On High.

Out of nowhere, the unforgettable rebbi, Rav Mendel Kaplan, entered the room and walked over nonchalantly to examine the source of the excitement. Upon hearing the explanation, in typical Rav Mendel fashion and with a glint in his eye, he decided to teach the boys a lesson in his loving and understated style. He probably knew that the bochurim regarded him with great reverence, not only for his chochmah, tzidkus and yedios haTorah, but also because they suspected that he was a boki in the Toras hachein as well.

Rav Mendel told the boys that he could show them something even more fascinating than that sefer. “A sefer written by a malach,” he commented, “is very special, but I have something even more precious.”

They couldn't imagine what could compete with the small booklet that had so impacted them, but they followed him to his desk.

“This sefer,” he announced, picking up a Chumash, “was written by the Ribbono Shel Olam himself.”

Nothing is as remarkable as that. Not angels or mystics or supernatural occurrences. Just man and his Maker, connected through the Torah.

The story is told that Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, upon the birth of a great-great-grandson, was asked to serve as sandek at the bris. The elderly gaon replied that he was unable to travel to Bnei Brak for the bris, since it would tire him out and affect his learning schedule.

“But zaide,” his grandchildren argued, “it is said that the zechus of serving as sandek at the bris of a fifth generation ainikel is a segulah to go straight to Gan Eden.”

The gadol hador's reply is equally relevant to each of us, on our levels. Rav Elyashiv listened and turned them down. With a smile on his face, he explained that he wants to be granted Olam Haba based upon his limud haTorah, kiyum mitzvos and maasim tovim, not through shortcuts.

This, then, is the message. This is the secret of this Yom Tov.

Not despite the fact that we are mere people, but specifically because we are mere people, can we raise ourselves to perfection.

We, with our feet dragging through the dust of real life, of parnassah and health challenges; and all sorts of temptations, persist in walking with our eyes on Him and on His Torah, knowing that it is meant for us, to give us the tools to climb higher. No, there are no shortcuts, but it is doable. “Pis’chu li pesach kepischo shel machat va’ani eftach lochem pesach kepischo shel ulam.” Show that you want it, show that you care, show that you aim for perfection, and Hashem will be there, walking alongside you, holding your hand, wherever you are.

Show that you are a naaseh venishma Yid and always in your moment. You will be blessed with a life of tzurah, of reality, purpose, accomplishment and joy. Vechayei olam nuta besocheinu.

Ah gutten Yom Tov.