Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Rav Simcha Schustal Zt”l - Nefesh Noki Vetzaddik

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

As night settled and Yidden across America ushered in the seventeenth day of Sefiras Ha’omer, the dark news was passed around in hushed tones.

Rav Simcha is gone.

Klal Yisroel intoned the tefillos, focusing on the special Sefirah of the day, the unique spiritual energy - tiferes shebetiferes - and the pain was acute.

We lost the splendor against which splendor is measured, the tiferes shebetiferes of the American Torah world.

Through this bleak year, as gedolim passed on and tzaddikim were taken, we had a spark of confidence in our souls, for here, in America, we still had our secret. Surely, Reb Simcha would lead us to greet Moshiach. Surely, the aish tomid that burned in the privacy and seclusion of Stamford, far from the public eye, would burn brightly for a long time.

His name was Simcha and he exuded such a pristine, holy joy, unadulterated simchas haTorah, the simcha of true humility, of tzidkus and ahavas Yisroel.

So glorious, the tiferes of tiferes bonim avosam, father to a family that has risen to prominence in the olam haTorah, marbitzei Torah and mussar par excellence camped proudly around its crown, Reb Simcha.

Now, the mourning has hit home. It has gotten personal.

Rav Simcha has been taken from us.

We’ve lost our simcha and our tiferes.

Rav Simcha Schustal was without a doubt one of the purest, holiest people we had. He was a Yid who spent his life doing what Hashem wants us to do. He was so pure. As I sit here trying to type out the words depicting him and the great loss we have suffered, pure and holy are all I can think of.

He sat and learned and served Hashem. He loved everyone, and everyone who knew him loved him. He did mitzvos the way mitzvos are meant to be done. His davening was legendary. His shiurim were masterpieces of hureving to understand the sugya according to the derech of his rebbi muvhak, Rav Shlomo Heiman. With unfailing humility, he personified greatness. He was kulo Torah. Simple goodness, kindness and gentleness.

All who ever came in contact with him were cognizant of his greatness. He was one of the last of the truly great ones.

Rav Elazar Shach zt”l once remarked that he didn’t understand how there could be Lamed Vov secret tzaddikim in our generation. There is so much to do in our world, so many issues that need our urgent attention. How can a person stay hidden as a Lamed Vov tzaddik? A tzaddik does not have the luxury of being able to hide in his own daled amos. He has to make himself available to the masses of people who seek Torah wisdom and guidance.

Rav Simcha provided the answer to Rav Shach’s question. The secret tzaddikim of our generation upon whom the entire world exists do not hide themselves from the public. They are out there in plain view, learning, teaching, davening and doing all they do with so much tzidkus.

They are tzaddikim nistorim not because they hide themselves from us, but rather because we hide ourselves from them. We didn’t take the trip to Stamford to see him. We rarely invited him to speak at our functions. He never sought fame and was zocheh to be able to sit and learn without being bothered. He was able to spend his life toiling valiantly in the vineyard of Hakadosh Boruch Hu.

He was a world-class talmid chochom and tzaddik, American-born and bred, who developed into one upon whose Torah the world stood.

He showed what a person could develop into if he applied himself to learning. From the age of fourteen, when he entered the shiur of Rav Shlomo Heiman, he set his brilliant mind to learning the Torah of his rebbi. He was destined for greatness.

Never seeking anything but the truth, with amkus and a tremendous koach hachiddush, he developed into one of the greatest talmidei chachomim America has given birth to.

His depth in learning was matched by the depth of his pure simplicity and his devotion to his talmidim.

He showed us how Torah and tzidkus can lift man to the loftiest heights. His entire life was Torah, and with that came sweetness, majesty of greatness, and romemus. His davening was a lesson in itself. Every day was like Rosh Hashanah, and on Rosh Hashanah itself he would daven for the amud, leading his talmidim along in his personal tefillah, which was like him: beauty in simplicity, majesty in devotion, a shirah to Hashem ke’eved lifnei rabo.

One who watched Rav Simcha learn Torah wanted to learn, and one who heard him daven became closer to Hashem just by that experience alone.

When Chazal say that one’s rebbi should be like a malach, they were referring to Rav Simcha, for indeed he was an angel in the guise of a man.

He never showed off or demanded anything from anyone. When his family brought him the galleys of his sefer Chemed Simcha to inspect, the first thing he did was get up from the table and go to his bookshelf to pull out the sefer Chiddushei Reb Shlomo. When they asked him what he was doing, he told them that the pages seemed quite large to him, and he wanted to make sure that they weren’t larger than those of the sefer containing the chiddushim of his rebbi, Rav Shlomo Heiman. “Mein sefer ken nit zein gresser foon der sefer foon der rebbe,” he said. That was the depth of his humility and his devotion to his rebbi.

My earliest memories are walking up the steps to his humble Monsey bungalow on Maple Avenue every Sabbos with my father and siblings. We felt as if we were entering the home of malochim. We would sit on the hi-riser in the dining room, which doubled as a couch, and watched as my father spoke to Rav Simcha. The topics were beyond the level of us children, but we so looked forward to that weekly sojourn into the company of holiness. His smile and warm words were as anticipated as his rebbetzin’s cake and drinks. His image left a lasting impression on us. His face bespoke aristocracy and magnificence. His splendor and radiance developed from spending his entire life engrossed in Torah and avodah.

He always greeted everyone warmly and with a kiss. He was so happy to see you. It was real. And so it was for every talmid and everyone he knew. Real warmth. Real ehrlichkeit. He attended every simcha that anyone in our family made and added so much to it.

He was as ehrlich as could be, a nefesh noki vetzaddik. Rav Shlomo Heiman said about him when he entered his shiur at age fourteen that he had a “fartigeh kup.”

Rav Shlomo also said about him that “Ehr hut zich gemacht ois illui.” Though it could have come easy to him, he worked hard hureving in learning. When he said a sevorah, he thought it through painstakingly from every angle to make sure that it was glatt, pure and correct. He would sit for hours thinking through a sevorah.

One day he announced that he wasn’t going to be saying the shiur klali. The talmidim asked him why and he said he wasn’t sure if what he was going to say was emes, the pure truth. They asked him what it was; to them it sounded good. They asked him what was shver, what was bothering him about the chiddush he wanted to say. He told them. A battle ensued. The tamidim were defending the chiddush, begging the rebbi to say the shiur. But Rav Simcha wouldn’t budge, I don’t feel it’s emes, and I can’t say it. So that day there was no shiur on the sugya, but there was a shiur on how to say a shiur on any sugya, and how to learn.

A person’s life is comprised of many experiences that become linked together, forming a long chain. That was Rav Simcha.

For most of life, most experiences are small. A person is shaped by many small actions that he performs. Not every day is it possible to engage in historic activities and not every person is granted the opportunity and wherewithal to do things that impact a tremendous number of people. However, all people are granted the ability to attain greatness by doing many small things correctly. Rav Simcha was American-born just like us, and he showed us the way.

Our avodah during the Sefirah period is to pay attention to the small things, climbing towards kabbolas haTorah, one Sefirah step at a time. Pesach is a major Yom Tov, commemorating Yetzias Mitzrayim. Shavuos is also one of the shalosh regolim, commemorating the day we received the Torah. Between them are these days of Sefirah. They don’t have the holiness of regolim, but they are here for us to work on ourselves and our middos so that the lessons of the regolim can be learned and the levels attained can be maintained.

Gadlus, greatness, is achieved not only by being great on the great days of the calendar, but also by being good and seeking improvement on the less prominent days.

Rav Simcha had a special love for my revered zaide, Rav Leizer Levin zt”l, who was the beloved av bais din of Detroit and a close talmid of the Chofetz Chaim. Rav Levin once described his rebbi classically to me. He said that if you looked at the Chofetz Chaim and didn’t know who he was and that he was a giant, you didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, but if you knew that he was a great man, then, when you studied his actions, you saw that everything he did reflected gadlus.

There was nothing grandiose or spectacular about the way the Chofetz Chaim acted. Rather, his life was one of simple and perfect harmony, with nothing standing out.

The adam hasholeim lives a life with a consistent regimen of ratzon Hashem which guides each moment of each day. Rav Simcha was such a Yid. The ratzon Hashem was his guide, day after day, and, as such, he grew to become that adam hasholeim.

Rav Shmuel Auerbach recounted that the chinuch of his father, Rav Shlomo Zalman, was not for achieving gadlus, but to always be considerate of others. Someone who is inconsiderate not only lacks in middos, but lacks in his very essence. Thus, his entire life, Rav Shlomo Zalman worked on improving his middos, always caring about other people’s needs and concerns. Middos tovos are not just fine attributes for which a person should strive. As the sefer Orchos Tzaddikim states, “If you don’t have good middos, then you don’t have Torah or mitzvos either, for the entire Torah is dependent upon a person improving his middos.”

Rav Simcha was unfailingly considerate of everyone’s feelings. Each despondent person meeting him was uplifted by his smile and kind words. He had the ability to make you feel important to him, because you were. Everyone was. He would do anything and go anywhere for a talmid.

A bochur who learnt b’chavrusah with Rav Simcha when he was already aged said, that when he sat down to learn, “He was like on fire. I never saw anything like that in my life; he was jumping up and down in learning, azah rischa d’oiraisah.”

One time Rav Simcha called his chavrusah into the office and with his simple anavah, he turned to the young bochur and asked him, “Are you tzufriuden with the chavrusahshaft?” When the bochur responded, “Of course, rebbi,” Rav Simcha said to him, “You are a mistapeik b’muot.” It wasn’t fake, it was real. The great gaon in Torah, was a great gaon in middos, especially in the middah of anovah and he wanted to make sure that his chavrusah was truly satisfied with the learning arrangement.

One time, the bochur developed phlebitis and had to go home. Rav Simcha called him every day while he was out to check on his development. When the bochur returned to yeshiva he had to keep his foot up. He was concerned that sitting with his foot in an elevated position while learning with the rosh yeshiva would be a lack of respect and asked that they learn after he was healed. Rav Simcha would have none of it. And that was how they learned in the beis medrash; chavrusos like all other.

The gadlus of Rav Simcha: Torah, gedulah, anavah, leading to a simchas haTorah like none other.

Rav Michel Yehudah Lefkowitz wrote in his tzava’ah that no lofty titles should be used to describe him, as he wasn’t sure that he was deserving of them. He explains: “Even if a person does a great deed, perhaps displaying selflessness or humility, that doesn’t make him a selfless or humble person. It may be that he acted that way because at that moment his yeitzer tov was stronger than his yeitzer hara, but the act does not define him. Doing exceptional mitzvos or displaying exceptional middos doesn’t automatically mean that a person is exceptional. That can only be determined through consistent, repeated deveikus in a middah or path.

“So while people may hear a story about something I did, even if the story is true, that doesn’t mean that I am worthy of a lofty title.”

Rav Michel Yehudah teaches us that acquiring proper middos is a long, slow, steady process, and only when they become a person’s essence can one be defined as a baal middos. Rav Michel Yehudah was a talmid of Rav Shlomo Heiman, as Rav Simcha Schustal was. And just as Rav Shlomo was the quintessential, consummate talmid chochom and baal middos, so were his beloved talmidim, Rav Michel Yehudah and Rav Simcha.

Perhaps this is one of the many reasons that the learning of Pirkei Avos is a prerequisite to kabbolas haTorah. We spend time during the long Shabbos afternoons of the weeks of Sefiras Ha’omer focusing on developing our middos and working to become worthy recipients of the ultimate gift of Hashem’s Torah.

Rav Ovadiah M’Bartenura explains the common phrase found throughout Pirkei Avos of “hu hayah omeir,” which refers to quoted statements that Tannaim “used to say.” The Bartenura says that it doesn’t merely mean that a Tanna quoted this teaching or lesson occasionally. It means that he constantly repeated it, lived with it, and embodied it.

As Rav Michel Yehudah pointed out, unless there was consistency, it wasn’t “his” saying. Becoming a baal middos means working on incorporating these lofty behaviors into one’s life in a consistent way.

Chazal teach in Maseches Shekolim, “Ein osin nefashos letzaddikim, divreihem hein zichronan.” We don’t erect monuments for tzaddikim, for by quoting their words we have an enduring remembrance for them.

Why, one may ask, is this only true for tzaddikim? Why not for the common folk as well? By repeating a good vort or idea heard from an ordinary Jew, he is also remembered, is he not?

The answer is that the fact that someone says a good vort doesn’t mean that he will be remembered, for he may have been a mere instrument to make that idea heard. Only a tzaddik, who is one with the ideas he espouses and who lives by his own maxims, is remembered through his teachings.

Rav Simcha was that tzaddik.

Hu hayah omeir.

And it can be achieved even by people like us. As one of the very first American-born gedolim, Rav Simcha showed that anyone, anywhere, can make that climb, excel, and reach the pinnacle of greatness.

Perhaps the prime theme of the upcoming Yom Tov of Shavuos is that Torah “lo bashomayim hi,” the high levels demanded by the Torah are accessible to, and attainable by, every one of us.

This past Shabbos, I was discussing with someone a biography on the life of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. The most amazing part of the book is that so many of the anecdotes relating to Rav Shlomo Zalman describe actions that we can perform in our own lives. His mentchlichkeit and middos, the way he treated people, and his unfailing consideration of others are attributes that we can emulate, imitate and make part of ourselves. They are not “bashomayim,” attainable only by malochim and gedolim. The greatness of someone even as distinguished as he was, is achievable and within reach of simple people like us.

The same is true when reading biographies of other gedolim. As we read on, we find ourselves nodding along, realizing that there is so much we can learn from them and adopt in own daily lives. Many of their behaviors and practices aren’t out of reach. If we are sensitive to them and prepared to work on ourselves, we can also attain greatness.

And so it is when we think of someone as great as Rav Simcha. He proved that gadlus is attainable to those who forsake all else and dedicate themselves to Hashem and His Torah.

During this period leading up to kabbolas haTorah, we learn Pirkei Avos. Written by the spiritual fathers of our people, these Mishnayos contain the most vital lessons. It is essentially a guide containing the tools for life. It has the keys to success that most people are sorely in need of.

When you read the hu hayah omeirs of the various Tannaim, their teachings jump off the page right into your heart, as you know that you are reading the quintessential truth. For generations, Jews have studied it all through the spring and summer months. They knew that it contains the answers to the most frequently asked questions, as well as the keys to personal happiness.

Through these Mishnayos, the greatest fathers and teachers of Am Yisroel teach us how to be productive and content, and how to live life with a smile on our faces and a sense of serenity in our hearts. In the Shas in every Jewish home, printed right alongside those Mishnayos is the peirush of the Rambam, bringing the words of the Mishnah home in a way that is so real and immediate that you are forgiven for thinking that his explanations were written today. Rabbeinu Yonah’s explanations are also printed on the page with the hu hayah omeirs. His insights are also remarkably contemporary.

There are hundreds of other commentaries on these Mishnayos, each with a new angle, adding flavor and subtlety to the endless stream of wisdom of how to achieve greatness, how to live life to its fullest potential, and how to deal with other people and ourselves.

Our task is to inculcate the hu hayah omeirs to the point that they become second nature and our very own essence.

Gedolei Yisroel work so hard, for so long, that their sterling middos have become part of them, as natural as breathing. Middos are them. Middos tovos define them.

Torah, gedulah and middos tovos defined Rav Simcha.

On the last Simchas Torah of his life, he was in Lakewood. He was at the hakafos with his talmidim and everyone was dancing and very lebedik. All of a sudden Rav Simcha raised his hand and beckoned them to stop dancing, as he wanted to say something. Everyone, led by Rav Meir Hershkowitz, quickly approached Reb Simcha and bent their ears to hear his soft words.

He said to them that Torah has chochmah, but besides for the chochmas hatorah, the segulas hatorah is daas usevunah. For the posuk states, “mipiv daas usevunah.” When we make the brochah every morning and recite the words, “asher bochar bonu,” He chose us to give us the Torah; although the Torah was offered to other nations, they were not offered the daas usevunah.

We thank Hashem for being bocheir bonu to provide us with the koach hatorah of mipiv daas usevunah which has in it the ability to change a person and raise him maalah maalah.

Rav Simcha concluded that the koach hatorah to be meshaneh ha’odom, is only effective if the Torah is learned with yiras shomayim and with yegiah and ameilus. He concluded, “That is what we are celebrating today on Simchas Torah, the abundance of simchah is for that Torah.”

That was Rav Simcha; that was his essence, his yiras shomayim, yegiah, his ameilus, and that was how he was able to spend his life on a steady incline of greatness, of gadlus, and of simchah.

Asher bochar bonu, we make a brochah that Hashem chose us to give us the Torah so that we can produce giants such as Rav Simcha who pave the way for us. We had the brochah of Rav Simcha among us for so many years, epitomizing the greatness we aim for.

As the world around us spins out of control, with public and private individuals sinking to levels unprecedented in recent memory for their depravity and selfishness, we work on climbing higher and higher. It is almost as if there is a crossroad in front of us. We can follow the majority down a path that ultimately leads to sadness, depression, constant wanting and loneliness, with ruin as its final destination, or we can follow Rav Simcha and take the path that Chazal lay out for us in Pirkei Avos, the path of the few, the chosen, the strong, the proud and the joyous.

The path of Sefiras Ha’omer which we currently traverse, is a daily hike that peaks at Har Sinai. We reach our destination by remembering that gadlus is not necessarily reached by attaining levels that are not accessible to regular, normal people. It is achieved by doing all the small things in life properly and attentively. Torah lo bashomayim hi. It is not a manual for malochim, but for man, and every man can excel by following it.

The Tanna Rabi Akiva plays a great role in our observance of Sefirah. Chazal relate that at the age of forty he adopted a life of Torah after studying the effect of dripping water on a stone. He saw that despite the strength of the stone, the constant drip-drip of small drops of water were eventually able to penetrate the stone. He took that lesson to heart and realized that even at his age and station in life, by studying small amounts of Torah, his brain and soul could be affected and he could develop into the supreme talmid chochom that he became, enriching Klal Yisroel for all time.

We arrive at the destination by working on ourselves bit by bit, Sefirah by Sefirah, day by day, and by learning Pirkei Avos, a perek a week, and following its guidelines and lessons.

I had known Reb Simcha my entire life. My father had learned by him at Bais Medrash Elyon. He traveled with his rebbetzin to Detroit for my parents’ wedding. In those days, such trips weren’t as easy as they are today. You didn’t just get onto an airplane and arrive in Detroit an hour and a half later. It was a journey. But what wouldn’t Reb Simcha do for a talmid? He and his wife both made the trip. It took them a few days to get there and a few days to return, and they stayed in Detroit to fully partake in the simcha for a few days.

Rav Simcha would often remind me of the droshah that my grandfather delivered at my bris. As young children growing up in the Monsey of old, Bais Medrash Elyon was almost our second home. We would daven there, play there and learn there. And Rav Simcha was almost always there in the bais medrash learning. We would see him talking in learning or sitting by himself in deep concentration. When he wasn’t in the bais medrash, he was walking by himself, lost to the world, deep in thought, working through the sugya, or engaged in animated discussion with another of the giants of the hallowed yeshiva.

Indelible impressions, never to be forgotten. An example to always try to emulate.

Later, I learned for a year at Yeshiva Bais Binyomin in Stamford and, once again, I merited to bask in his glow and benefit from his Torah, shiurim and shmuessen, and just by being in his presence. The yeshiva in Stamford sought to recreate the glory days of Bais Medrash Elyon, and through the leadership and examples of Rav Simcha, Rav Moshe Schapiro shlit”a, and Rav Dovid Hersh Mayer zt”l, it probably came close.

Through the ensuing years, we remained very close. He called a few weeks ago to thank me for agreeing to host a parlor meeting for his yeshiva. Though he was obviously weak, he spoke, as always, with warmth and love, expressing effusive brachos.

The last time that Rav Simcha came to our home, he was old and bent over. I went out to the car to welcome him. He was surprised. “You didn’t have to come out,” he said simply. He was my rebbi in so many ways. How could he not have known how much he meant to me? How could he not have understood why I would go out to greet him?

But that was him. He was genuine. He really meant it. He never asked anything of anyone and never wanted to be matriach anyone. Why were you matriach for me? he was saying.

He walked slowly. He came inside and sat down. His voice was strong. His warmth was the same as it had been for decades. His face glowed. He drank a cup of tea and made a brochah that touched my neshomah.

When he softly said “shehakol nihiyeh bidvaro,” I felt his emunah in ma’aseh bereishis come through. The emunah with which he lived his whole life. With which he hureved. With which he davened. With which he was dovuk in the Borei.

I sensed that my whole house was gebentched because he made a brochah inside it. I felt as if in his zechus the world existed. I prayed that he would be strong enough to lead us to greet Moshiach.

We spoke a little and then it was time for him to go. I walked him to the door and opened it, sort of expecting there to be a crowd of people to see him, to come and catch a glimpse of him, to see true greatness, to set their eyes on a malach b’demus adam. But alas, we were alone.

And now we are truly alone, for Rav Simcha has left us.

He has gone to the better world. To the world where his rabbeim, Rav Shlomo and Rav Shraga Feivel, are. To the world where Rav Akiva Eiger, the Rashba, and Rashi and the Baalei Tosafos are. To the world where the Tannaim and Amoraim, whose divreihem hu hayah omeir, are.

They most definitely welcomed him into their chaburah and are now all together hureving with that same pashtus, teefkeit and ehrlichkeit that he displayed his entire life.

And they are preparing the world for the coming of Moshiach.

Tehei nishmaso tzerurah betzror hachayim.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Vanquishing the Evil

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The Bnei Yisroel in Mitzrayim witnessed ten makkos, a process of becoming acquainted with the Oneness of Hashem and His infinite power. They witnessed the strength and power of His Presence, the potency of His might.

Contemplate, for a moment, that the underpinning of our emunah is that Hakadosh Boruch Hu, bechvodo uve’atzmo, took us out of Mitzrayim in fulfillment of His promises to the avos, to Moshe, and to the Bnei Yisroel.

Why then was it necessary for Paroh to agree that the Jewish people leave their bondage under him? Why did the bnei Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov require Paroh’s permission to leave Mitzrayim?

The length of their bondage in Mitzrayim was calculated down to the last minute. Now that the time was up, they should have been able to leave without his permission. We know that they were taken out by Hakadosh Boruch Hu Himself. “Lo al yedei malach, velo al yedei saraf, velo al yedei shaliach, ela Hakadosh Boruch Hu bechvodo uve’atzmo.” Hashem redeemed them without any intermediaries. Why did He need Paroh to agree to their departure?

It was Hashem Who took us out and Who set everything into motion to force Paroh to free us. It was Hashem Who forged us into a nation at Kriyas Yam Suf. It was Hashem Who plucked us out of Mitzrayim at chatzos, split the sea, and brought about everything else that forms the narrative of Yetzias Mitzrayim.

It was definitely a miraculous undertaking to perform the Ten Makkos, to get all the many hundreds of thousands of people out at the appointed hour, to lead them to and through the Yam Suf, and to perform the many hundreds of mofsim there which we recount in the Haggadah.

Why did Moshe ask Paroh, “Shalach es ami”?

On Shabbos Hagadol, the Bnei Yisroel tied sheep - the symbol of Egyptian religious fervor - to their beds, proclaiming for the first time since creation their loyalty to Hashem Yisborach as a nation.

They saw firsthand how powerless their frustrated taskmasters were, gritting their teeth in anger. They saw Hashem exert control over the cosmos, turning water into blood. Later, they would travel in His embrace, leaving at precisely chatzos, sustained by His love and marching through a path of dry land in midst of the sea.

All Seder night, we will sing of Hashem’s miracles. Who cares about Paroh and his permission?

Simply put, why didn’t a nation secured by the power of Hashem’s love and confident in His limitless ability just march right out, ignoring the futile protests of a puppet king?

Additionally, why do we recite in the Haggadah that had we not left at that moment, we and our children and our children’s children would still be meshubodim to Paroh in Mitzrayim? By now, we would have found a route of escape. Things would have changed. There would have been coups, revolutions and wars. Who is to say that there wouldn’t have been a Jewish Spring of freedom out of there?

Also, why do we say that the Bnei Yisroel were at the 49th level of tumah and would have hit the 50th had they not been redeemed? They had just been moser nefesh to buy sheep and prepare to be makriv them for the Korban Pesach. They followed everything that Moshe told them to do, down to the smallest instruction. This should have been adequate to elevate them from the depths of the 49th level.

We know that they were “metzuyonim shom,” as the Haggadah says. Despite being subjugated as slaves, they were outstanding in many ways. They didn’t change their names, speech or mode of dress, though there must have been great pressure to do so at the hand of their masters.

So how is it that we say that they were at the precipice of being at the lowest level of tumah possible? What could they have been doing already? They were slaves, they were tormented by their masters, they were tortured, their children were stolen from them and killed, and they worked from dusk to dawn. There was no time to do aveiros even if they had wanted to.

Perhaps we can approach this quandary with an appreciation of what ra, evil, is. We must understand what it does to a person and how it affects those in its vicinity. Mitzrayim was the epicenter of evil. Paroh was an evil ruler of an evil state. He was a melech ra, who was ra and who represented ra.

Ra has the ability to overpower tov. It influences the good and ruins it, causing it to become bad. Ra comes up against tov and sinks its tentacles into it. Even when it doesn’t triumph over the good, its effect lingers and corrupts.

The ra of Mitzrayim so overwhelmed the tov of the Bnei Yisroel that it sunk them down to the 49th level of tumah. Their actions were pure and good, and they were indeed moser nefesh just four days prior to fulfill the word of Hashem, but they were unable to prevent the koach hora from doing its damage.

Had Paroh not relinquished his rights to the Bnei Yisroel, he would have still had a grasp on them. The chains of their enslavement would have been broken by their escape, but the chain would still be present, ready to be attached should the forces of evil reassert themselves. But worse than that, the roshem of the chains would always be there, the evil would always have something over the Bnei Yisroel, and they would never be entirely free from it.

What Moshe Rabbeinu sought was a full release from Paroh and Mitzrayim. He was demanding from them that they promise to no longer have any shaychus with us. Moshe was telling Paroh that they would be going separate ways and Paroh would no longer have any power over us. Am Yisroel would be a nation of kulo tov and no entity which is ra would have relationship with it, or a shibud on it.

Thus, even though it was Hakadosh Boruch Hu Who took us out of Mitzrayim and caused the changes to ma’aseh bereishis to accomplish that, it was necessary to not only remove the Jews physically, mentally and spiritually from their exile, but to ensure as well that those who enslaved them would have no shaychus at all with the Jewish nation. That could only be done if Paroh himself agreed to their departure, for if they broke out and escaped, they would still be under a shibdud to Mitzrayim - “meshubodim hoyinu l’Paroh b’Mitzrayim,” until this very day.

With an understanding of the dangers of ra, we can appreciate the extreme sensitivity in halacha regarding even a mashehu of chometz on Pesach. Unlike other issurim, there is no process of bittul, nullification, because the se’or shebe’isah, one drop of ra, one small victory for the yeitzer hara, can ruin an entire person.

Thus, in commemoration of Yetzias Mitzrayim and our escape from ra, there can be no tolerance for even the minutest amount of chometz.

The Kotzker Rebbe famously closed himself off from the world, feeling that the impurity and hedonism of the street would sully his neshomah. Chassidim once opened a window in his room and the Rebbe urged them to close it. He said, “Please close the window. There is an odor coming in from outside.”

A lofty soul perceived the intangible tumah. We may not sense it, but we know it is there and we need to stay far away.

The power of ra is such that the Torah repeatedly admonishes us to maintain a distance from resha’im and evil. If we accept money from impure sources or through chicanery, the money is tainted and taints the endeavors it is used for. If we become friendly with resha’im and involved with them, they will influence us and bring down our level of kedushah and shemiras hamitzvos.

When Avrohom Avinu detected thievery on the part of Lot’s shepherds, he told Lot that they had to part ways. “Im hasmol, ve’ayminah ve’im hayomin ve’asme’ilah.” Avrohom didn’t want to have any relationship with a person who countenanced ra. Similarly, Avrohom told the king of Sedom that he would not share spoils of a hard-fought war with him - “im michut ve’ad seroch naal” - for he didn’t want to benefit from, or have a relationship with, ra.

A group of Mitzriyim appended themselves to Am Yisroel as they left Mitzrayim. This group, known infamously as the Eirev Rav, led the Jews to craft the Eigel when Moshe was in Shomayim receiving the Torah. They caused one of the highest points in our history to become one of the lowest, as they led Am Yisroel to commit a sin whose repercussions we still suffer from to this very day. The presence of ra, though vastly outnumbered, was sufficient to cause a bechiyah ledoros for all of Am Yisroel.

In order to maintain our status as an am kadosh, our instincts must be to automatically resist ra in whatever form it presents itself.

The reason people don’t behave properly in a shul building is because there were forces of ra involved in its construction. It is said in the name of the Vilna Gaon that were a bais medrash constructed only by ehrliche workmen lesheim Shomayim, there would be no possibility of machshovah zorah taking place in that building.

When Rav Shlomo Freifeld was building his yeshiva, he met a contractor, a fine frum Jew. The fellow came to a meeting with the rosh yeshiva accompanied by his young son, a nine-year-old boy. Rav Freifeld warmly greeted the boy, asking the father which yeshiva his son attended.

The father replied but added, “My older son is eleven, and he is a real metzuyon. He got great marks on his tests and the rabbeim love him.” He continued to discuss the accomplishments of the older boy, praising him profusely. As he spoke, Rav Shlomo began to grip the edge of the table, growing visibly more upset by the second.

When the meeting was over, Rav Shlomo instructed the talmid who was overseeing the construction project to find another contractor.

“Why?” asked the perplexed talmid.

“Because that man is an achzor. He is cruel. What type of father sings the praises of one child when he has another one sitting there? I don’t want him building our yeshiva.”

Rav Shlomo realized the effect of a middah ra’ah and determined that a person who can’t build people can’t build a yeshiva building.

We have to be aware of how ra can overtake a person and limit his ability to achieve perfection and kedushah.

I recently read that when Adolf Hitler was found after having committed suicide in a Berlin bunker, a Gemorah Pesochim was discovered among his possessions. The soldiers who found the sefer didn’t know what to do with it. Somehow, the volume found itself in the hands of someone at the Israeli State Department. Someone there thought that it would be fitting to present it to Israel’s chief rabbi, Rav Yitzchok Isaac Haleivi Herzog.

Thankfully, Hitler is no longer present and we cannot ask him why he had that Gemorah with him when he died, so it remains a mystery. Perhaps it was a message from Above that netzach Yisroel lo yeshakeir and lo yomush sefer hatorah hazeh mipicha umipi zaracha ad olam.

Pesochim is a masechta that hints at the fact that we don’t accept ra, not even a crumb of it. Hitler yemach shemo stood out in a line of men who tried to stamp us out, as Paroh had done centuries ago. That the masechta, which codifies how we commemorate our deliverance from Paroh, was found in the bunker of his dead heir, is another testament to the fact that, try as they might, they cannot snuff us out.

There is a question asked by the Kadmonim. When Hakadosh Boruch Hu first met His people at the foot of the mountain, he introduced Himself as “Anochi Hashem... asher hotzeisicha mei’eretz Mitzrayim – I am Hashem… Who took you out of Mitzrayim.” Wouldn’t it have made more sense to identify Himself as the creator of heaven and earth, master of the universe and all that’s in it - asher borosi shomayim va’aretz?

An answer that is offered is that as a hakdomah to the giving of the Torah, there was no introduction more appropriate than this, for it sent a powerful message to the newly fashioned Jewish nation. Hashem was telling them that forty days prior they were wallowing in the depths of tumah, and now they were standing before Me, purified and cleansed, as angels. Look how quickly man can rise. Look at your abilities. Look how close you can come even when you’ve been so far.

There is a message of hope here. Chazal teach us that middah tovah merubah mimiddas puraniyos, a positive force is always stronger than its negative counterpart. We’ve analyzed the powerful effect of just a bit of ra. Certainly, we can assume that the strength of a bit of tov goes an even longer way.

The insidious and often unseen effects of ra are everywhere. It is entirely conceivable that the ra that our generation faces is stronger than the onslaught they faced back then. We need to step back and obtain release from its hold. What better time is there to do that than Pesach?

We were able to exit Mitzrayim, despite the odds, and forty days later we received the Torah, proving that Am Yisroel has the ability to raise itself from the deepest depths of tumah and purify itself, rising to the highest levels of kedusha.

“Anochi, I am the One Who took you out,” then and still now. He is still taking us out today. He lifts us above the bullets and arrows shot our way, just as He always did, and helps us remain pure in a flood of impurity.

May we join together and sing as one on the road back home, Venomar lefonov shirah chadoshah.

Venochal shom min hazevochim umin hapesochim. Amen.