Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Giving Selflessly

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschut

Rashi in this week’s parsha (50:5) tells of a strange financial discussion. Yaakov Avinu yearned to be buried next to his parents and grandparents in the Me’oras Hamachpeilah. To ensure that his children wouldn’t have any difficulties realizing his desire, he met with his brother, Eisov, to negotiate a clear purchase of the plot.

Rashi relates that Yaakov took the gold and silver he had amassed in the house of Lovon and piled it on the table. He offered it to Eisov in exchange for the plot in the Me’orah.

Meforshim are bothered by this encounter. Many ask why, if Yaakov was coming to negotiate, he would immediately offer all of his money. Why did he not begin the discussion with a low offer and proceed to raise it as necessary to make the deal?

One answer given is that Eisov had a single zechus over his brother, one area in which he had excelled: kibbud av. During the years Yaakov spent in chutz la’aretz, Eisov remained at his father’s side, earning untold merit.

Yaakov was addressing this point. “Eisov,” he told him, “I know that you feel that your eternal place is with our father, since you served him so faithfully while I was away, but know this: The true measure of what a person feels or believes is shown in what he treasures. The fact that I was in chutz la’aretz becoming wealthy cannot be held against me if all that money is meaningless to me. So here it is. Take it.”

By accepting the money in exchange for the burial spot, Eisov conceded that money was his primary value. Gold and silver were more valuable to him than his relationship with his father.

Yaakov Avinu turned the tables on his wily brother, showing his reverence for his father and disdain for the money, and thus earning his eternal place in the hallowed cave of our forefathers.

The most common in a long list of hateful anti-Semitic epithets hurled our way throughout the ages has been that Jews love money, control the banks, and hoard millions in secret accounts.

This Rashi, which is based on a Medrash, through discussion of a brotherly financial deal, sheds light on reality. The word kessef, say the seforim, has the same root as the word kissufim, yearnings. The longing that man has to amass worldly goods is a parable for the most meaningful kissufim, the pining of a neshomah for the divine. Yaakov told Eisov to take the whole pile of gold and silver he slaved for in Lovon’s house, earning his fortune by working through freezing nights and scorching days. However, he knew that money is of temporary value. It has no permanence, unless it is invested in eternity. To Yaakov, money was a vehicle to enable him to become more attached to the divine. To Eisov, amassing a fortune was the ultimate goal.

Being conscious of the purpose of financial blessings is an extremely difficult nisayon. Not all merit passing that test, for often, in the process of accumulating wealth, man loses sight of its purpose. Many have said that the pitfalls of wealth supersede those of poverty. People become enamored with their wealth, seeing it as an end unto itself, and waste it on pursuing temporary pleasures which are soon forgotten, instead of seeking out long-lasting investments in the matters upon which the earth’s existence depends.

A wealthy man expressed his frustration to the Chofetz Chaim regarding his inability to donate large amounts of money to tzedakah. He said that when he was a poor yeshiva bochur, he pleaded with Hashem to bless him with wealth so that he could generously help people. However, when his prayers were answered and he attained financial success, he found himself unable to dip his hand into his pocket for others.

The Chofetz Chaim responded with a moshol about a man who was walking down a street and saw a drunk rolling in the gutter, covered in filth. The passerby shook his head in disgust and said, “Were I to drink, I would never behave that way.”

The Chofetz Chaim smiled and explained the fallacy of the man’s reasoning.

“While he is sober, he has control over his thought process, but when he is drunk, he no longer has control,” said the Chofetz Chaim. “He is neither responsible nor aware of how he behaves. A person who is sober does not know how he would behave under the influence of alcohol.

“So too, the poor man has no concept of the pull that money has over its owner and the difficulty one who has attained wealth has in parting with it. When you were a destitute bochur, you were able to see things clearly, but now, you are controlled by your money, not by the clear thoughts of your youth.”

In recent years, even as the economy has entered a tailspin from which it never really recovered, we have seen individuals in our community rise to this nisayon. Thanks to the generosity of individuals who follow the lesson of Yaakov Avinu, new mosdos have been built, yeshivos have been opened and expanded, and vital initiatives and programs have been launched to help others.

Ma’asei avos simon labonim. Yaakov Avinu’s offer to Eisov is a simon, a sign, illuminating our path ever since.

Yosef, who battled temptations in the exile, provides inspiration until this very day. Far removed from his father and family, he maintained his integrity and belief despite the many obstacles thrown his way. The Ramban (47:14) writes that the Torah describes how Yosef Hatzaddik saved the Egyptian economy not only to portray his wisdom, but to teach that despite all the money that passed through his hands and the opportunity to siphon some cash for himself, he remained loyal and faithful to his boss.

Through this, Yosef earned the love of the people, because the Ribbono Shel Olam, Who bestows grace upon man, provides chein to those who fear Him. Yosef’s faithfulness allowed him to be both effective and beloved.

We hear an echo of this Ramban about the chein bestowed upon those who work with real yiras Shomayim, seeing money not as an end, but as a goal with which to accomplish great things. Those who are selfless in their dedication to others ultimately earn their respect and love.

Two great leaders of pre-war Yahadus, the Chofetz Chaim and Rav Avrohom Mordechai Alter, the Gerrer Rebbe, once traveled together by train to the capital city of Warsaw for an important mission.

In those days, the train would wait for some time at each station. Chassidim would pass word to each other along the Rebbe’s path, and they would throng to the local stations. For many, it represented the best chance to catch a glimpse of the Rebbe. As the train approached the first stop, the Rebbe’s gabbai told him that they were almost at the station. The Rebbe rose to oblige the people waiting on the platform. The Rebbe asked the Chofetz Chaim to join him, but the elderly giant said that he was worried that the kavod received from so many people would affect him. He said that he would remain in his seat.

The Rebbe turned to the Chofetz Chaim. “Fahr Yidden’s veggen, to satisfy the sincere, authentic will of Jews to express kavod haTorah, it’s worth enduring the heat of gehennom,” said the Rebbe.

Upon hearing this, the Chofetz Chaim linked arms with the Rebbe, joining him. To benefit Yidden, he was prepared to suffer. Together, they stepped out at that station, and at each subsequent one on the way to their destination.

Two humble giants, sacrificing their own inhibitions for the benefit of others. Such has been Jewish leadership throughout the ages, giants overcoming their own reticence and desire for privacy and personal growth for the needs of the time, never deriving any benefit for themselves.

In the news, we read about how the newly empowered American president is playing class warfare, seeking to divide the people along lines of financial success under the guise of righting the economy. There is no one who thinks that raising taxes in a time of economic uncertainty will encourage people to spend money and fuel growth. Were the government to take all the money of all the rich people, it would not be enough to fund the government for even eight days. But the president and his allies in politics, the media and intelligentsia, press on with the plan because their primary interest does not concern the country’s economic health, but rather their own narrow agenda.

That type of poor leadership cannot lead to long-term success.

After much public consternation, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appointed a commission to investigate what went wrong in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11 of this year. The report was released last week, but Clinton wasn’t even interviewed and has been totally exonerated. This is because no one seems to really care about what happened and what went wrong there, leading to the death of four Americans, including the US ambassador to Libya. What we have is yet another bureaucratic report and another set of recommendations that will be ignored. The president escapes blame for the lies he told, as does Mrs. Clinton for the failings of her office. Obama is free to ignore Benghazi, while Clinton’s road to the presidency in 2016 remains cleared. Republicans are tongue-tied.

President Barack Obama would like former Senator Chuck Hagel as defense secretary, though Hagel is a notorious anti-Semite. Politicians, such as New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer, who pride themselves on their fidelity to Israel and Jewish causes were remarkably quiet on the selection, lest they incur the administration’s wrath. Once again, they prove that their prime motivation is personal advancement and enrichment. Examples abound in all areas of public service of people in leadership positions acting irresponsibly. Ultimately, the communal welfare suffers and leaders are thought of derisively.

The cornerstone of this week’s parsha, the close to the drama and the highs and lows of Sefer Bereishis, is the Birchos Yaakov. The father of our nation gathered his children around his bed and addressed each one, imparting brachos that would define the unique role each sheivet would play in our people’s history.

Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky explains that they are referred to as the “Birchos Yaakov,” even though, upon examination, one can readily see that some of the shevotim didn’t receive brachos, but mussar. This is because the fact that Yaakov realized and appreciated that each of his sons was a distinct personality, with unique character traits and middos, was itself a brochah. A parental perspective that celebrates differences and allows individuals to flourish with their unique gifts will result in brochah for those children.

In Tehillim, Dovid Hamelech asked Hashem to open the gates of righteousness for him: “Zeh hasha’ar laHashem - This is the gate of Hashem.” Commentators question why Dovid uses the singular “zeh,” referring to the gate of Hashem, but then asks, in the plural, that the gates be opened for him: “pis’chu li shaarei tzedek.” One answer given is that the gematriah of “zeh” is 12, a hint to the twelve paths of the shevotim which all lead to one focal point, the sha’ar laHashem. Yaakov Avinu enabled each one of his sons to maximize his gifts and contribute his abilities and strengths to the others. Because each shared selflessly with the others, shevotim were created from twelve individuals and a nation was born.

When we demonstrate through our actions that we understand and appreciate why Hashem has blessed us with financial ability, everyone gains. When we all contribute that with which Hashem has blessed us for the benefit of each other, we gain and the community gains. When we give selflessly, we grow. We cause each other to grow and enable success to take root.

One of the most popular columns in the Yated is the Chinuch Roundtable. It is worth mentioning that this week is the two hundred and fiftieth edition of the column, representing five years of providing counsel, empathy and direction to the parents of a nation who want to be mechaneich their children properly.

The educators who comprise the Roundtable are all busy people with responsibility for mosdos, talmidim, and, in many cases, daunting financial burdens as well, yet they find the time and energy to respond to their searching questioners. They live with a responsibility to help every Yid they possibly can. They don’t just teach and lead. They inspire.

They embody the teaching of the Medrash which says that Hakadosh Boruch Hu didn’t trust our biblical leaders with public responsibility until they displayed dedication to individual sheep, really feeling the thirst and desperation of His creatures. The panelists care for each parent and each talmid.

We are honored to be the vehicle for their ideas, messages and insights. May the zechus horabbim stand by them, their families and their students, bringing them brochah and hatzlachah.

May Hakadosh Boruch Hu shower our people with parnossah b’revach, and may our roshei yeshiva, rabbonim, mechanchim and askonim continue to build, expand and merit the ultimate redemption, which will soon be upon us in the merit of this great mitzvah, veshovehah b’tzedakah.


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