Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Boruch Elokeinu Shebera’anu Lechvodo

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

One of the blessings of our generation is the gifted kiruv professionals who staff and conduct seminars and conferences, articulating sophisticated proofs that Torah is min hashomayim. They prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Torah is our Divine gift and that we are the Chosen People. Regrettably, in our day, such lessons appear to be necessary for people who live Torah lives much the same as for those who are far from Torah.

For many of us, the feeling we experienced with the break of dawn on Shavuos morning as we sought out someone to be motzie us with the brachos, along with the sublime sense of being connected, the pounding of our hearts as the Aseres Hadibros were read, and the joy we felt as Akdamus was chanted, combined to make those same points. The happiness we experience as we make Kiddush, as we recite Shehecheyonu, and as we sing niggunim associated with the chag kindle something special in our souls and prove to us that Yisroel ve’Oraisah veKudsha Brich Hu chad hu. We are one with Hashem.

Jews all around the world experienced those uplifting feelings as they engaged in the very same customs Jews have been practicing for thousands of years. Yidden in Argentina and Australia, where it is now winter, and our brothers in England, Russia and Yerushalayim, and Jews in every part of this country, all stayed up to learn on the first night of Yom Tov to atone for their forebears thousands of years ago who perhaps didn’t appreciate the spiritual opportunities awaiting them and slept the night before Kabbolas HaTorah.

We are all links in the same glorious chain which stretches back to Har Sinai, whether we davened in the cavernous Bais Aron-Bais Shalom complex in Lakewood with a thousand other people or in the smaller Gerrer shtiebel across the street. Whether we davened in a huge shul or a small bais medrash, we sensed the same feelings of attachment to something larger than us that originated centuries ago, commemorating a transformation that was preordained at the time of the creation of the world. Pure, unadulterated simcha was practically palpable as Yidden worldwide reveled in the Yom Tov, which culminated with the raucous joy at the ne’ilas hachag. We thanked Hashem for making us part of this glorious nation and we proclaimed our recognition of the priceless merit of being part of the am hanivchar, which we wouldn’t trade for anything.

That feeling, the Yiddishe hergesh, is better than any scholarly proofs. We know it in our hearts and souls. If only we could transmit that feeling to our brethren who are lost in a sea of disbelief and uncertainty, we could solve so many of our problems. If we could inject the joy and internal comfort the ma’amin feels into those at risk and wandering, we would all be so much better off.

A prominent Jewish academic entered the Los Angeles yeshiva headed by Rav Simcha Wasserman looking for a minyan so that he could recite Kaddish. After davening, Rav Simcha welcomed him to the yeshiva and struck up a conversation with him.

At one point in the conversation, the professor said to Rav Simcha, “We are both teachers. You teach Talmud, while I teach science. What makes you any different than me? After all, you have hundreds of students, and so do I. Your students respect you and mine respect me. Your students record your classes and mine take diligent notes too. So how are we different?”

Rav Simcha smiled and responded, “How many of your students invited you to their wedding?”

The professor thought for a moment and counted out on one hand the number of invitations he had received during his years of teaching.

The rosh yeshiva smiled again. “No yeshiva student would ever contemplate getting married without inviting his Torah teacher,” said Rav Simcha. “If the teacher is not able to attend, the student is upset and his wedding is incomplete. Torah isn’t merely fact and its study isn’t merely an intellectual pursuit. To us, it is life itself, and thus, the connection between the teacher and the student, between rebbi and talmid, is emotional, warm and vibrant.”

No bochur views his rebbi as his teacher. He looks to him as his connection to Sinai. The rebbi doesn’t look at his classroom and impassively see students pursuing a degree and cramming their brains so they can pass a test. He views them almost as his children, as he transmits to them the word of G-d and prepares them for a full and blessed life. It is a relationship built on love between the nosein and the mekabeil, akin to the bond between a father and a son.

We have just experienced the magnificent Yom Tov of Shavuos, staying up all night as a further indication of our commitment not only to limud haTorah, but also to ahavas haTorah. The externals of Torah living should never satisfy us. Our relationship with Torah and its Giver needs to pulsate with passion and emotion.

The Detroit rosh yeshiva, Rav Leib Bakst, told his talmidim about the time that Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk was learning with his chavrusah and they were unable to satisfactorily understand a Tosafos. As hard as they tried, they were unable to figure out p’shat. After a few hours of hard work, Rav Meir Simcha said, “Let’s pause for a moment and daven that we merit love of Torah.”

“Why pray for love of Torah?” the chavrusah asked in surprise. “If we are going to daven, shouldn’t our request be to understand the Torah, as we ask every morning, ‘Veho’eir eineinu beSorasecha’?”

Rav Meir Simcha responded with a moshol.

“A mother left her toddler with a babysitter, and the child became very fussy, crying and crying, refusing to calm down. The babysitter offered him all sorts of treats and toys, to no avail. Then the mother came home and the baby suddenly stopped screaming. The mother lifted her baby who began to smile without any inducements. Why did that happen? It was because the baby missed his mother and wanted her presence.

“What did she do differently than the babysitter? Nothing. It was simply that her love for her child was so intense that they were like one entity. She was so attached to her child that she understood his cries. Is he hungry? Is he wet? Is he in pain? She knew right away.

“Similarly,” concluded Rav Meir Simcha, “if we love the Torah properly, we become connected to it in such a deep way that if we apply ourselves, we will understand its teachings. That’s why I said that we should daven for ahavas haTorah.”

While on a fundraising trip to America, Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Ateres Yisroel, visited the Telzer Yeshiva in Cleveland, eager to meet the rosh yeshiva there, Rav Mordechai Gifter.

Rav Gifter welcomed him warmly and invited him to accompany him to his home. When they were seated, Rav Gifter asked the visiting rosh yeshiva to relate a chiddush. Rav Boruch Mordechai decided to share something he heard from the Brisker Rov.

He recalled sitting at the home of the Brisker Rov when the greatness of two famous brothers, Rav Zalmale Volozhiner and Rav Chaim Volozhiner, was being discussed. A distinction was drawn between the fluency of the two brothers. Rav Chaim Volozhiner, people said, knew the entire Torah - Shas, Medrash, Sifra and Sifri - as one knows Ashrei, but his brother knew it backwards as well.

The depth of the difference is explained in yeshiva circles as follows. Although the Ashrei prayer is recited three times daily and known by heart by everyone, if someone were asked what the word immediately preceding the posuk of “Poseiach ess yodecha” is, he would doubtlessly hesitate and start from the beginning of the posuk. Rav Zalmale knew the Torah with such precision that he could immediately identify the word preceding a posuk.

The Brisker Rov wondered why this is important. Was Rav Zelmale a kuntzmacher? Of what value is it to know the Torah backwards as well as forwards?

The Rov explained that there is a fundamental difference between reciting something from memory and reading it. When you read, you see the words in front of you. The posuk instructs, “Kosveim al luach libecha,” the words of Torah should be written on the heart. Therefore, said the Brisker Rov, one who has the words inscribed upon his heart actually reads them when he recites them. That was the greatness of Rav Zalmale.

Rav Boruch Mordechai completed the thought and the eyes of his host, the Telzer rosh yeshiva, lit up. Rav Gifter reached for the hand of his son-in-law, Rav Avrohom Chaim Feuer, who was seated nearby, and with the other hand, he drew Rav Boruch Mordechai close. He rose and the three men began to dance, Rav Gifter singing the tune of “Boruch Elokeinu shebera’anu lechvodo” with contagious joy.

Rav Boruch Mordechai repeated this anecdote at Rav Gifter’s levaya, remembering the remarkable ahavas haTorah of a man who could grow so emotional after hearing a story regarding the love others felt for Torah.

On Shavuos, we sensed a glimmer of that deep connection. Now it is time to act upon it. Let’s get up and dance. Let’s arouse our love for Hashem and His Torah. Let us rededicate ourselves to limud haTorah.

Our avodah now, with the Yom Tov behind us, is to translate the feelings stirred within us into action, whether by finding a new chavrusah with who we can learn better, starting a new seder, learning with extra geshmak, or loving a good kasha and tirutz. As we toil in Torah, we will remember that our goal is not only to gain chochmah, but to obtain chaim, life, itself.

This week, even with our souls dulled by golus and the relentless pressure of the yeitzer horah, we can feel it too, as dramatically demonstrated over the week prior to Shavuos and on the Yom Tov itself.

Learning Torah changes us and Shavuos grants us the opportunity to renew our dedication and love. The Yom Tov offers an injection of chiyus, ahavah and simcha, a virtual shot in the arm that makes us aware of how deep this relationship goes. Now, we have to act upon it, opening a Gemara and singing the timeless song of “Boruch Elokeinu shebera’anu lechvodo.”

Perhaps the timing of Daf Yomi’s start of the final masechta in the journey through Shas is an opportunity for some of us. Maybe the slower pace of the summer ahead will give others a chance to really sit and work through a sugya.

Any relationship needs work. Shavuos has opened up the floodgates of love that flows between a Yid and the Torah. Our job now is to keep the relationship alive.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Our Mantra

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

In the Torah, there are several references to mountains that are central to Yiddishkeit. The first is Har Hamoriah, which Avrohom saw from the distance as he approached it to offer his son Yitzchok as an akeidah, following the word of Hashem. Although he saw the mountain and recognized it as his destination, those who had journeyed with him did not see it. Those belonging to the am hadomeh lechamor were blind to the hallowed peak destined to play a leading role in Yahadus until this very day.

It was on this very mountain that the angels appeared to Avrohom Avinu and that Yitzchok almost became an olah temimah. It was at this spot that Yaakov Avinu experienced kedushah and, ultimately, the Bais Hamikdosh was built.

The mountain of such holiness also possessed the potential for destruction and experienced its share of the latter. Though it beheld so much kedushah, during the period of churban its kedushah was defiled and it became a place of tumah.

There are the mountains near Sh’chem, Har Gerizim and Har Eivol, which face each other. On one, eternal brachos were delivered, while on the other, eternal damnations rang out for those who don’t follow the path that Hashem laid out in the Torah. One mountain was covered with green growth, while the other was desolate and barren. They remain this way until today.

In Nach, we learn of the peak where Eliyohu Hanovi faced off against the nevi’ei habaal.

But there is no mountain more central to who we are than tiny Har Sinai. Though small as far as mountains are concerned, its glorious summit towers over the landscape of Jewish history. As far as we are concerned, it is the tallest and most monumental peak in the hemisphere.

On Shavuos, we are reminded of that mountain as we conjure up the image of millions of soon-to-be Yidden camped around its perimeter, experiencing the tangible awe of the moment. They had journeyed for forty days, following their leader, Moshe Rabbeinu, through a hot, dusty desert. In actuality, they had been journeying since the beginning of time, a nation headed towards its destiny - a world created for yom hashishi, which Chazal explain refers to the sixth day of Sivan. Bereishis - bishvil haTorah shenikra reishis.

There were thunder and lightning. The sound of a shofar boomed out, growing increasingly louder. Smoke rose up from the mountain, which sat under a heavy cloud. The Divine Voice resonated throughout the universe, shaking the earth’s foundations. The Bnei Yisroel were very fearful. Then, they watched as their leader approached the cloud and disappeared from view as he ascended the mountain. As the posuk says, “U’Moshe nigash el ho’arofel.” At that dramatic moment, the nation’s leader walked up the mountain, breaking through the smoke and entering into the cloud.

Chassidishe seforim explain that Moshe Rabbeinu represents “daas.” The bechinah of daas understands that in order to reach the Ribbono Shel Olam, we must courageously forge ahead through darkness, represented by the arofel, and not permit ourselves to be deterred by the enveloping darkness.

Wherever there is kedushah, there is tumah seeking to break through and destroy. The more we build, the larger we grow, the more the forces of tumah seek to seep in and spread their poison.

Throughout the ages, inspired Yidden who yearned to raise and purify themselves, would not be weighed down by fog, smoke and loud noises that surrounded them. Rather, they courageously pressed forward towards kedushah.

It is as true now as it was then. Like our forbears throughout the ages, Jews are confronted by darkness and fog. Initially, we get lost, we fumble around, we freeze in our place, and we become cynical, negative, and fearful of the future. We become fearful of change, fearful of what we are facing behind the fog and darkness. The urge is to shirk from the challenge and to fall back in retreat. But it is the Moshe, it is those with daas, who proceed forward into the arofel. They are drawn towards kedushah, towards taharah, towards Hashem, and are not deterred by the tishtush hamochin that affects the majority. They show the way for the rest of us. Klal Yisroel is inherently good. They hear Moshe and follow him so that there will be no “venofal mimenu rov.”

Chazal derive from the posuk of “Af chochmosi amdah li” (Koheles 2:9) that “Torah shelomadeti be’af,” Torah learned through suffering, stands the test of time. Rather than serving as a hindrance, hardship is an aid to Torah study. This phenomenon may have at its roots in Moshe Rabbeinu’s ascent into darkness.

Rav Elozor Menachem Mann Shach writes in the hakdomoh to his classic sefer on the Rambam, “How can I repay Hashem for all His mercies towards me? Beginning with the days of my youth, I went through periods when I had nothing at all... from the beginning of the First World War, when all the Jews were exiled from the Lithuanian towns and I didn’t know where my parents were, for I was alone in Slutzk and I had no contact with them. I spent several years suffering much.”

Rav Shach describes the travails, hardships and loneliness that he endured. He concludes on a somewhat nostalgic note, longing for the Torah he learned during those years. “The Torah that I learned during the period of wrath endured,” he writes.

There is a posuk that Rav Shach adopted as his mantra, reflecting the value and connection with the Torah formed through hardship. As a young couple in Vilna, the Shachs lost a beloved daughter. The famed Vilna Rov and the rabbon shel kol bnei hagolah, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, had lost his own only child. He consoled and counseled Rav Shach, citing the posuk, “Lulei Sorascha sha’ashu’ai, oz ovadeti be’onyi.”

It is said that Rav Chaim Ozer would greet the yungerman and say to him, “Rav Shach, gedenk, remember: lulei Sorascha sha’ashu’ai...”

Rav Shach and the Tchebiner Rov, Rav Dov Berish Weidenfeld, were contemporaries, with different paths in learning. Yet, there was a sugya that they both learned the exact same way.

After the Rov lost his wife and five children during the Second World War, he arrived in Eretz Yisroel with two daughters. One night, there was joy in the Rov’s apartment when word came that his daughter, the wife of Rav Boruch Shimon Schneerson, had given birth to a son.

It was a burst of comfort, a bit of nechomah after horrific tragedies. The baby was the first grandson of the Rov and represented hope for a better tomorrow. Then, when the baby was but a few days old, the doctors grew concerned regarding a developing illness. After a few hours, the dreadful news came. The baby had passed away.

The symbol of rebirth was gone.

Rav Boruch Shimon went to inform his father-in-law of the news, fearing how the devastating besurah would impact his shver. The Tchebiner Rov looked at him and asked, “How is the child?”

An expression of grief crossed the son-in-law’s face and the Rov understood.

Again, he was in mourning.

The Rov reached out and steadied himself against the doorframe, leaning his head against it. Then, he spoke and said, “Lulei Sorascha sha’ashu’ai, az ovadeti be’onyi.”

The reaction of Rav Chaim Ozer, Rav Shach and the Tchebiner Rov. The reaction of Yidden throughout the ages. The reaction of Dovid Hamelech to his own suffering. Just as the mekabel haTorah, Moshe Rabbeinu, confronted the dark cloud, nigash el ho’ arofel.

Rather than stepping away, they moved forward.

No lofty madreigah, this attitude is intrinsic to our personal kabbolas haTorah each day, each moment. We make choices in life. We have to be bocher in chaim. The Torah is eitz chaim. We have to be able to look past the arofel and dedicate ourselves to achieving life.

We can offer an explanation based upon the Ohr Hachaim, at the beginning of Parshas Bechukosai, who explains the posuk of “Im bechukosai teileichu” to mean that if you will be oseik in Torah, then “ve’es mitzvosai tishmoru,” you will be able to properly observe the mitzvos and separate yourself from aveirah.

If you will be oseik in Torah, if the Torah will be your shaashuah, then you will be able to be a proper Jew and observe and follow the mitzvos and not get lost be’onyi, in the arofel.

The posuk recounts that when Hashem appeared to the Bnei Yisroel and offered them the Torah, they responded in unison, “Na’aseh venishma - We will do and we will hear.” The Gemara in Maseches Shabbos (88a) relates that Rav Simai explained that when they said, “Na’aseh venishma,” malochim placed two crowns on the head of each Jew, one for na’aseh and one for nishma. Rabi Elazar says that a bas kol rang out, stating, “Who taught my children this secret that is used by the angels?”

Many commentators question what was so extraordinary about the two words of na’aseh venishma that the Jews were so richly praised for enunciating them. Many different answers are offered. Perhaps the greatness of the response was that by responding in that way, they were declaring, “Na’aseh, we will follow the message of ‘im bechukosai teileichu ve’es mitzvosai tishmoru.” We will act according to the dictates of the Torah and follow all its directives. And how will we do that? Venishma, through dedicating ourselves to its study. We will not act on our own and we will not shirk our responsibility. We will not get lost be’onyi and thrash about in the arofel. Rather, we will proclaim, ‘Lulei Sorascha sha’ashu’ai, oz ovadeti be’onyi.’”

Na’aseh. We are a nation of action, not just words. We are people who recognize our obligations in this world, not just a group that offers platitudes.

Na’aseh venishma. We have been reciting that pledge of allegiance to Hashem and his Torah for thousands of years. Jews, wherever they are, and whatever language they speak, and irrespective of geographical distance from Sinai, irrespective of the ravages of the exile, of golus, of churban and of pogroms, all proclaim together the same doctrine: na’aseh venishma. That is what sets us apart and that is what has kept us through the age. We have been guarded by the Torah and our fidelity to it and what it demands of us. All the other nations of the world from that period and throughout our history have long since petered out and are basically forgotten, but we persevere because of those two words.

Heading into the Yom Tov of Kabbolas HaTorah, it’s these two words, na’aseh venishma, that carry us. Despite everything we’ve been through, we proclaim it again and again, and this week we did it louder and more publicly than we have in a long time.

At this past weekend’s inspiring Torah Umesorah convention, attended by over 1,600 people who dedicate their lives to passing on na’aseh venishma to future generations, the Telzer rosh yeshiva, Rav Avrohom Chaim Levin, shared a similar message. We live in an age of impurity and immorality unlike any in modern history. Arofel fills our streets and we fight mightily to protect our homes, our little islands of sanctity.

Rav Levin said that there is an inclination for us to comfort ourselves by thinking that we are better than the others, shelo osonu kegoyei ha’aratzos. He declared that it is not sufficient to think that we are doing our jobs simply because we have not sunk as deeply as society has.

Rav Levin recalled a sad period in Telz when an incident provoked the ire of the rosh yeshiva, Rav Elya Meir Bloch. As Rav Elya Meir began his shmuess to the yeshiva, the entire yeshiva had gathered, expecting a severe lecture about the depths to which some had sunk.

Rav Elya Meir entered and faced his talmidim. “We all know how low a person can fall,” he said, “but now let’s focus on how high man can soar.” He then delivered a shmuess about the limitless potential to grow, leaving his talmidim with the mussar message of gadlus ha’odom. He made them realize the heights to which they can reach and what is expected of them.

Rav Levin concluded by telling the gathered mechanchim, “We can’t limit our focus on protecting our talmidim, and ourselves, from the darkness that surrounds us. We also have to inspire them to rise.”

We are a great people. We have the Torah. We have a neshomah, a cheilek Eloka mima’al. The fire of Torah has the ability to glow in our souls, incinerate the tumah which seeks to envelop us, and light our path through the darkness. We have to kindle that spark that lies within each one of us and set it aflame, so that we will have the ability to walk through the arofel, become kedoshim, and reach for the heavens.

Shavuos is the day when the Torah was given to us 3,324 years ago, and every year we celebrate that anew on this Yom Tov. Let us resolve to fully accept it, proclaiming, “Na’aseh venishma,” dedicating our lives to it, and remembering our mantra, “Lulei Sorascha sha’ashu’ai, oz ovadeti be’onyi.”

A gutten Yom Tov.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Ashreichem Yisroel

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Meron on Lag Ba’omer is like a magnet, drawing in Jews from across the planet. An ancient, dusty hilltop in the town’s heart pulls close hundreds of thousands of Jewish neshamos, uniting them with nothing other than that spark within.

Against the rhythmic rolling of the busses’ wheels as they struggle up the mountain, there is song. From the hillsides on high and from the valleys below, a song rises. Across oceans, from faraway countries, comes song. And on the hilltop, that song is sung louder and louder, a symphony of disparate voices chanting together, “Omar Rabi Akiva, Ashreichem Yisroel. Ashreichem, ashreichem, ashreichem Yisroel.”

What is the song and what are they singing about?

Chazal paint an enduring picture. Rabi Shimon bar Yochai and his son, Rabi Elozor, had spent twelve years in a cave plumbing the deepest depths of Torah as they hid from the Romans. They were informed by Eliyohu Hanovi that the Roman Caesar had died and the decree to banish them was annulled. Upon exiting, they viewed how people went about their daily lives. They could not bear to witness that people were forsaking the pursuit of actions that would lead them to Olam Haba - manichim chayei olam, in favor of mundane activities - ve’oskim bechayei sha’ah. Everything they set their gaze upon was consumed by fire. A bas kol rang out ordering them back into the cave, lest they destroy the world.

One year after Hashem decreed that they were too harsh in their criticism of a world that didn’t meet their expectations, they were permitted to exit the cave and again attempt to re-enter society.

Upon leaving, they saw a simple, elderly Jew who was finishing his Shabbos preparations and rushing home for Shabbos, holding two bundles of green haddasim. If you have been to Eretz Yisroel on a Friday afternoon, you have doubtlessly seen elderly Sefardi gentlemen fitting the description of the man seen by these great Tannaim. Sometimes you see them dressed in their simple Shabbos attire as they scurry to shul with green branches in their hands.

That sight provided them comfort and enabled them to reconcile themselves with the realities of this world. They watched the man go home on Erev Shabbos and found peace.

The Gemara in Maseches Shabbos (33b) tells the story:

“Shabbos was approaching and an elderly Jew was rushing home, clutching two bundles of haddasim in his hands.

“‘What are these for?’ they asked the man.

“‘To honor the Shabbos,’ he replied.

“‘But isn’t one bundle enough?’

“‘One is for zachor,’ he explained, ‘and the other is for shamor.’

“‘See how Jews love the mitzvos!’ said Rabi Shimon to his son, and with that they found peace of mind.”

This experience enabled Rabi Elozor and his father, Rabi Shimon, to embrace the imperfect world we inhabit.

Many mechabrim throughout the ages have analyzed this Gemara, searching for a clue as to what it was in that encounter that changed the attitude of the two great Tannaim toward the Jewish people.

Rav Dovid Cohen, the Chevroner rosh yeshiva, in his sefer Mizmor L’Dovid (chapter 17), quotes the Ramban in Parshas Yisro who famously states that the term “zachor” corresponds to the middah of ahavah, while the term “shamor” corresponds to the middah of yirah. Rav Cohen explains that the epitome of ahavah of Hashem is through Torah and the essence of yirah is kiyum hamitzvos. Thus, the two bundles of haddasim hinted at the complete harmony in the synthesis of both middos, the ahavah of Torah and the yirah of kiyum hamitzvos. This idea was comforting, for it demonstrated that the man had adopted a perfect value system.

Perhaps we can add that as a talmid of Rabi Akiva who taught the full potency of these middos, Rabi Shimon bar Yochai derived special comfort when observing that his rebi’s teachings had impacted the behavior of society, thus allowing him to re-enter.

“Ve’ohavta lerei’acha kamocha, Amar Rabi Akiva, zeh klal gadol baTorah.” Loving each and every Jew, taught Rabi Akiva, is fundamental to Torah study and the Torah way of life.

It was also Rabi Akiva who saw another message in the elusive word “es” in the posuk which states, “Es Hashem Elokecha tira.” His colleagues were at a loss to explain the seemingly extra word “es.” Is there any fear, they wondered, that can be included in, and compared to, the fear of Heaven? Yes, said Rabi Akiva. The fear, reverence and awe for talmidei chachomim are analogous to the fear of Heaven. The extra word “es,” he explained, is lerabos talmidei chachomim, to include them in the mitzvah of “yirah,” being feared.

We can thus explain the significance of the two bundles, which the elderly man was carrying home for Shabbos. One for zachor, or ahavah, which is the klal gadol baTorah that their rebbi had spoken of, and one bundle for shamor, which is akin to yirah, as the posuk states, “Es Hashem Elokecha tira, lerabos talmidei chachomim.” Their fears were ameliorated through the realization that a simple man internalized Rabi Akiva’s messages.

In contrast to their experience the previous year, this time they were able to see that even a simple Jew utilized his kochos and what Hashem had given him to transform the ordinary - the chayei sha’ah - into a heavenly - chayei olam - reminder.

When they saw that, they knew that despite the fact that Rabi Akiva’s 24,000 talmidim had passed away, the rebbi’s Torah had penetrated the consciousness of knesses Yisroel and there would be a rebirth.

Armed with these two gifts, fear and love, mitzvos and Torah, the Jew climbs, for the Torah’s words and teachings are the tools with which we achieve greatness.

Chazal expound upon the words in the Torah that obligate us to count the days of Sefirah. From the posuk of “Usefartem lochem,” they derive that the count must be “lekol echod ve’echod,” performed by each person. Commentators explain this homiletically to mean that each person should climb according to the path that will bring him to the desired destination.

Every person is aware of his own abilities, nature, middos and intelligence, and what requires rectification and purification in order for him to be worthy of receiving the Torah at the climax of the count. The goal is the same for all, but the way to climb that mountain is different. It is dependent upon the level of the climber.

A few weeks ago, we wrote about Rav Mendel Futerfas. A friend read the piece and told me a story he heard from Reb Mendel, who would use lessons from his long, difficult incarceration to spur him and his talmidim to greater heights in avodas Hashem.

He related that playing cards was against prison rules, but somehow, the hardened prisoners he was surrounded by would always play in their cell. The prison guard would see them playing and come to confiscate the contraband. However, when he entered the cell, the cards would, unfailingly, all be gone. He would search everywhere, but try as he might, he was never able to find them.

This went on for a long while, until the guard’s final day on the job. He was being transferred and he begged the prisoners to tell him where their hiding place was.

One of the prisoners smiled broadly. He told the guard his secret. “We have criminals of all sorts here,” he said. “In the outside world, I was a skilled pickpocket, with hands as deft as can be. When you would come into our room, I would slip the cards into your own pocket! Then, when you had completed your fruitless search, I would pick them out of your pocket.”

Reb Mendel would share the lesson he derived from that conversation. “The cards are in your pocket,” he would say. “Within the soul Hashem gave you are the tools you need to grow, to climb, and to journey to the top of the mountain, each person on his own path.”

On a much higher level, Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz once brought talmidim he was unable to interest in learning to the Chazon Ish. He explained that they had no cheishek to learn and appealed to the Chazon Ish to help them. He thought that with his keen intellect and holiness, the Chazon Ish would find a way to spark their interest in limud haTorah.

The Chazon Ish looked each bochur in the eye and then began to learn a different sugya with each one individually. After that encounter, they each began to learn well and develop in learning. The Chazon Ish explained to Rav Michel Yehuda that the Torah is for everyone, but there are different paths to each person’s soul. Some are affected by learning this sugya, while others are stirred by learning a different sugya. He found a sugya that would be attractive to each one of the boys, and through that sugya he drew them into learning and showed them that they can also experience geshmak and have a cheilek in Torah. Once that had been accomplished, they were able to go on to learn many other sugyos in Shas.

In light of what we have discussed, perhaps we can explain why the name of the upcoming Yom Tov is Shavuos, instead of a title related to kabbolas haTorah. The word Shavuos, meaning weeks, hints at the fact that the success of each person’s individual kabbolas haTorah depends upon how they utilized the previous seven weeks leading up to the chag. Their level of Torah is dependent on the amount of preparation and effort invested in preparing to be worthy of accepting the Torah. It’s a path of seven weeks, shavuos, meant for each person to engage in “usefartem lochem,” doing what he has to do. There are ups and downs, with hills that must be climbed and valleys that are to be traversed.

It is said that Sefirah can also mean to shine, as in the verse “sappir veyahalom,” which refers to the glow of a precious stone. This hints to the need for each person to shine a light upon his personal path. As the saba observed by the Tannaim taught, each person has his own course. As we march to Har Sinai, each of us has his “haddasim,” the mundane accessories which service the raging fires of our souls; and add to our own packages of zechuyos and mitzvos.

On Lag Ba’omer, when we connect with the holiness brought into this world by Rabi Shimon and his son as they studied Torah in the cave, we also celebrate “hahu saba,” the simple old man who rose from the ashes of the destruction wrought on the talmidei Rabi Akiva and announced that the twin messages were heard.

Their holiness burned everything they had seen, because they saw only accessories for chayei sha’ah. The punishment had been dealt to the talmidim of Rabi Akiva because they had shown disrespect for each other. In the old man’s simple gestures, they saw healing, ahavah between all and reverence for those who learn the holy Torah, a yirah so acute as to be compared to the fear of Heaven.

The Gemara tells us that this encounter occurred during the very last few moments of Erev Shabbos, at twilight. Why is this relevant?

This week, most sensitive people wanted to scream when they read a certain news item. Bold headlines in the international media shouted out last week, “‘The Scream’ Auctioned for Record $119.9 Million.” The report went on to tell about the century-old pastel drawing that beat all previous records and became the most expensive painting ever sold. If you look at the drawing, you can’t understand why anyone would pay anything for it, but sophisticated art critics and dealers had no trouble explaining the painting’s appeal.

“The Scream is more than a painting. It’s a symbol of psychology as it anticipates the 20th-century traumas of mankind,” Ivor Braka, a London dealer, told the New York Times.

One hundred and nineteen million dollars for a symbol of depression, anger and pain.

Think about what yeshivos and mosdos you care about and people like Rav Shammai Blobstein and Rav Yaakov Bender, or the good folks at Oorah, Lev L’Achim and Shuvu, think about people who help those who can’t make ends meet and what they could do with that kind of money and you’ll want to scream.

The Berditchever Rebbe, the great defender of Yidden, once made a poignant, powerful observation. “Kvetch ois Yiddishe tefillos, squeeze out the tefillos of Yidden, and you will find money,” said the rebbe. He was saying that so much of what we ask for revolves around parnassah, the needs of our families and ourselves. “Yet,” concluded Rav Levi Yitzchok, “squeeze out Yiddishe gelt and you will find Yiddishe tefillos.”

Even though we ask for sustenance and livelihood, the rebbe was saying, the goal of financial ability is to enable us and our children to learn more Torah and perform mitzvos better. The money is for matzos and Daled Minim and s’char limud.

The “kessef” of a Yid, say seforim, is an expression of his kissufim, his deepest yearnings.

How sad life is for those whose money expresses a different reality. How misguided is a world where one hundred and nineteen million dollars are invested in expressing pain, and in a most crude manner at that.

The significance of twilight as the time for the encounter between the holy Tannaim and this pure, precious Yid was the fact that it is the meeting point between chol and kodesh.

Shamor is a mandate to protect and safeguard the Shabbos, to carefully and zealously avoid muktzah and forbidden melachos, spending the twenty-five hours of Shabbos in a state of awareness of Hashem’s Presence. Zachor is the light of Shabbos spilling over into the week. It is the mandate to remember the Shabbos each morning in the shir shel yom and every time one goes shopping and sees a choice cut of meat or beautiful fruit. Remember the holiness even at times that are seemingly mundane, because to a Yid, there is nothing that isn’t saturated with holiness. Tuesday or Wednesday can be invested with a bit of kedushas Shabbos through the mitzvah of “Zachor es yom haShabbos lekadsho.” That is the significance of the final moments of Erev Shabbos. It is a lesson that chol - money, food, clothing - are all vessels for kedushah.

It was the lesson of the elderly man, at that auspicious hour, just before the onset of Shabbos.

Modim anachnu loch Hashem Elokeinu that You have invested us with the awareness that our money, our kessef, is laden with potential. Our “scream” is that of “Retzoneinu la’asos retzonecha.” We cry out, “Help us serve You.”

That is why on Lag Ba’omer, Jews in Meron and the world over sing what we have been singing since the passing of Rabi Shimon: Omar Rabi Akiva, Ashreichem Yisroel. Ashreichem, ashreichem, ashreichem Yisroel. There is no one like you, Am Yisroel. No one who can turn myrtle branches into Tzfaser haddasim and vehicles for shamor and zachor. There is no one who can love as Yisroel does, and no one who can fear as we do, either. Ashreichem Yisroel.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Timeless Prophecy

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The Yerushalmi in Yoma (1:1) derives from this week’s parsha that the passing of tzaddikim atones for the sins of those left behind. “Rav Chiya bar Abba asks, the sons of Aharon died on the first day of Nissan, so why does the Torah mention their passing together with the laws of Yom Kippur? To teach that just as Yom Kippur atones for the sins of the Jewish people, so is the passing of tzaddikim a kapporah for [Klal] Yisroel.”

Last week, with the passing of the great gaon and tzaddik, Rav Simcha Schustal zt”l, we received another kapporah. His loss is just the latest in a chain of losses we have suffered over the past year with the petiros of so many senior, venerated gedolim and manhigim, talmidei chachomim and anshei maaseh.

There is the inclination to say, “It is all over. We are bereft, left without greatness.” There is the urge to think that we cannot replicate that which has been lost. There are those who would say that we are doomed to mediocrity in leadership and in Torah.

Over one of the most famous archways in the Jewish world, located in Meron, the words “Ki lo sishochach mipi zaro” are written. They reflect the teachings of the holy Tanna buried there: “Amar Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, chas veshalom shetishtakach Torah miyisroel, shene’emar ‘Ki lo sishochach mipi zaro” (Shabbos 138b).

Rabi Shimon bar Yochai taught that the Torah will never be forgotten by Am Yisroel. This lesson, personified by a Tanna so central to the transmission of Torah, is a large part of his legacy. Rav Nachman of Breslov points out that the sofei teivos, final letters, of the words of the quoted posuk, “Ki lo sishochach mipi zaro,” spell the name Yochai, a hidden reference to the one whose soul was bound with the teaching, Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, who did all in his ability to ensure that the Torah would not be forgotten after the 24,000 talmidim of Rabi Akiva, the mamshichei hamesores, were wiped out.

Besides for being seasonal, the words are replaying in my mind, for they symbolize the mission of those charged with mesiras haTorah.

There are always challenges, hardships and bumps in the road, but there is a Divine havtochah in Devorim - ki lo sishochach - that assures eventual triumph.

Sometimes, the challenges are more apparent and obvious to everyone, and at other times they are beneath the surface and not as perceptible. As difficult as the challenges are, though, we must not abandon hope and permit ourselves to despair, losing our drive for excellence and greatness in Torah.

Meforshim point out that Rabi Shimon’s epic teaching was expressed at a time when the Sanhedrin finally completed its wandering and gathered in Kerem B’Yavneh. The period marked the onset of a long, painful golus. Jews would be pulled this way and that, chased and beaten, oppressed and nearly destroyed. Through it all, the Torah would be oppressed along with them, bound with chains of steel to the Jewish soul, its fortunes following theirs.

The rabbonon were convinced that the journeys and travails the Jews would endure in the exile would cause the Torah to be forgotten. Against this backdrop, Rabi Shimon issued his resounding promise: Chas veshalom! It will never be forgotten!

When the Vilna Gaon passed away, his talmidim were distraught and utterly shattered, wondering how they would be able to continue without the oxygen of their rebbi’s Torah. However, it was Chol Hamoed Sukkos, a time when it is forbidden to mourn, so they valiantly battled their sadness.

When Simchas Torah arrived, they felt unable to rise to their feet and dance the Hakafos without their rebbi. The legend goes that one of the talmidim - some say it was Rav Chaim Volozhiner - suddenly stood up from among the group and began to chant a new song: “Olam Haba iz ah gutte zach,” it began. Our rebbi, the gaon, is in a good place, the talmid intoned, but we who are here, in this world, have a mission to learn Torah. So, continued the talmid, “lernen Torah iz ah besserer zach.” Therefore, he concluded, “We must throw away the pain and mourning and sit and learn, noch un noch, more and more.”

The song worked its magic, and the talmidim were soon dancing together, swept up in the obvious truth of the message. Perhaps the ever-relevance of the theme has made the niggun a treasured part of Simchas Torah celebrations until today.

The talmid wasn’t really singing a new song, though. It was the song that Rabi Shimon taught back in Kerem B’Yavneh.

As long as there are Yidden, there is Torah. Nothing can change that.

Rav Shmuel Berenbaum taught the same lesson. The sefer Kisroh Shel Torah recounts that Rav Shmuel commented that the Mirrer mashgiach, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein, left the United States shortly after his arrival here following the Second World War. He emigrated to Eretz Yisroel, saying that he didn’t think that young men would be able to excel in Torah in this land of gashmiyus.

Rav Shmuel pointed out that, in fact, Torah is flourishing here, and there are thousands of bnei Torah, some of whom have risen to the highest levels of learning. Can it be that Rav Chatzkel, the saintly mashgiach, erred in his estimation of this country?

Rav Shmuel explained that according to teva, Rav Chatzkel was correct and Torah should not have been able to take root in this country, but Torah thrives on these shores miraculously as a result of the posuk’s havtochah of “Ki lo sishochach mipi zaro.”

Thus, we are witness to one of the greatest rebirths in our people’s history, a history that has seen pogroms, exiles, and myriad challenges to our gashmiyus and our ruchniyus. Despite it all, we endure, we flourish, and Torah prospers.

The Telzer yeshiva in Cleveland is another manifestation of a fulfillment of that Divine promise, transplanted on these shores by two “oodim mutzolim mei’eish,” giants who miraculously survived the Holocaust. Delivered here divinely before the outset of the war, they saw the Yad Hashem in their salvation and resolved that it was so they could recreate here what was left behind in the Churban of Europe.

Few gave them any chance of success, but Rav Eliyohu Meir Bloch and Rav Chaim Mordechai Katz, would not be deterred. Their yeshiva went on to develop into a beacon of light, spreading Torah from the Midwest all across the land and the world.

The yeshiva has had its ups and downs, and with the passing of its senior rosh hayeshiva Rav Chaim Stein, last year, there was reason to give up hope and declare its mission in Cleveland ended.

But the talmidim and hanhalla rallied to fill the void left by his petirah, and this Sunday many hundreds of talmidim and chovevei Torah will converge on Cleveland to commemorate the yeshiva’s rebirth and proclaim “Ki lo sishochach mipi zaro.”

Rav Simcha Schustal was another fulfillment of that promise. Born in this country, he rose to become an embodiment of the greatness of his rebbi, Rav Shlomo Heiman, transmitting the mesorah of Torah to the next generation. Much the same can be said of his shutaf, ybl”c Rav Meyer Hershkowitz, an American boy who learned under the great gaon, Rav Aharon Kotler, and rose to the highest levels of Torah and gedulah.

The Stamford Yeshiva that they jointly led is one of America’s finest, heir to the golden path tracing its way back to Kletzk, Vilna, Volozhin and beyond. It is a place of intense limud hatorah and intense hasmodas hatorah. It is a place of authentic yiras Shomayim and genuine middos tovos.

If successful chinuch depends on role models, it’s hard to imagine better role models than those who guided generations of Stamford talmidim.

The saintly images of its two roshei yeshiva, Rav Simcha and, ybl”c, Rav Meir, were lessons in humility, kedushah and anavah, and, of course, in ameilus batorah.

And now, Rav Simcha is gone.

Certainly, Rav Simcha will be looking down from Above, concerned for the welfare of his beloved yeshiva, but it’s a time when we need to hold tight to Rabi Shimon’s assurance.

The great rosh yeshiva is gone, but his Torah lives on.

Olam Haba iz ah gutte zach, but lernen Torah iz ah besserer zach.

Something else also happened with the petirah of Rav Simcha. The story of the tzaddik and gaon that was Rav Simcha Schustal has now become common knowledge, and we are aware of the treasure we lost.

We read the articles. We saw the massive outpouring of kavod at the levayos in Lakewood, Stamford and Eretz Yisroel.

And now it behooves us to show him honor by supporting his life’s work.

When a great man leaves the world, there is an opportunity to tap in to his gifts, his strengths and his kochos, and develop some greatness within ourselves. We now have an opportunity to ensure the continuance of the yeshiva in which he invested his neshomah, thus maintaining what he started.

His beloved shutaf, Rav Meir, with whom he had a relationship that was an embodiment of aidlekeit and mutual respect, is left alone, carrying the burden of a thriving yeshiva. We are presented with an opportunity to not only support Torah, but also to be mechazeik a talmid chochom muflag and tzaddik while paying tribute to one who has gone on to the next world.

Lo sishochach.

The Stamford Yeshiva will continue to thrive, be’ezras Hashem. It will grow stronger, continuing to stand tall on the American Torah landscape. Now, in its time of challenge, those who love the Torah will rally around it, extending arms and bending backs, ready to work.

In just a few days, I will have the honor and merit of hosting a parlor meeting for the Stamford Yeshiva. Please join me. Come for the precious talmidim and their dedicated rabbeim. Come for the Torah itself, for its song is heard between the walls of that yeshiva during the long days and through the silent nights. Come for the alumni who look back at those years as the best and most uplifting of their lives.

And come for the roshei yeshiva, both of them: Rav Simcha zt”l, with his sweet, holy smile, and Rav Meyer shlit”a, with his sincere, saintly humility.

Stamford was blessed with two great lights, two gedolim, Rav Simcha and Rav Meir.

Rav Meyer, the ohr and light of Torah, is there being mei’ir, shining brightly and illuminating the way.

Now, however, the simcha is gone. Things are less joyous. Let us help perpetuate the mesorah of the departed rosh yeshiva.

Let’s join together and do our part in realizing the timeless prophecy of Rabi Shimon. Torah will never be forgotten. It will grow and flourish here until the coming of Moshiach, may it be bekarov.