Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Freilecher, Freilecher, Freilecher

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz


The most dramatic and meaningful bond between Hashem and man is demonstrated in this week’s parsha with the account of a people gathered at the foot of the mountain, a faithful leader ascending the mountain and descending with the most precious gift of all time, the Torah.

We all stood there at that glorious moment encountering our Creator Who addressed us in His Voice. He charged us with keeping His mitzvos, learning His Torah, and safeguarding a sacred trust. He entrusted us with the DNA of creation, the keys to forces of nature, and provided us with the ability to transcend what is normally thought to be human limitations.

At the mountain, Hashem informed us of our role, our title and our mission amongst the people of this world. As the posuk says, “Ve’atem tihiyu li mamleches kohanim vegoy kadosh.” He told us that we will be princes in His kingdom.

Following a long and arduous escape from Europe, the Brisker Rov arrived in Eretz Yisroel accompanied by his sons and daughters. Many quickly recognized the obligation to help the noble family as they resettled. When the Mirrer rosh yeshiva, Rav Leizer Yudel Finkel, heard that the Brisker Rov’s sons were wearing the same suits in which they’d arrived, he sent an envelope with cash for the Rov, writing on it that it is to be used to purchase new suits for his sons.

The Brisker Rov returned the money with a note of appreciation. Rav Leizer Yudel approached him and persisted that he accept the money to buy clothing for his children, but the Rov remained adamant in his refusal.

Rav Leizer Yudel asked him why he was so unwavering in refusing the gift. “Why should these bochurim feel different than every other bochur their age?” exclaimed the Mirrer rosh yeshiva.

The Brisker Rov hesitated, unsure of whether to respond, and finally, out of respect for Rav Leizer Yudel, explained his reasoning.

“It is good for them to feel different,” said the Brisker Rov, “because they are different.”

Being a prince means that a different standard of behavior is expected. As the French saying goes, noblesse oblige. There is a responsibility, an achrayus, that comes with royalty.

We are familiar with Chazal’s account of how Hashem circulated amongst the umos ha’olam to offer them the Torah and how they all turned Him down.

Am Yisroel accepted the Torah, and along with it came the title of mamleches kohanim vegoy kadosh. Occupying that position means, for example, that a talmid chochom who wears dirty clothing is chayov misah (Shabbos 114a), because, as Rashi explains, he causes the general opinion of talmidei chachomim and, by extension, the Torah they represent to be downgraded.

In the written accounts of the final moments of Rav Nachman of Breslov, it is related that when he was too weak to speak or even move, he summoned his final strength to ask his attendant to pull up the hem of his shirtsleeve so that it would not protrude beyond his jacket. Rav Nachman was teaching a final lesson about seder, order, and its place in the life of the oveid Hashem.

The last Rashi in Parshas Yisro reinforces this concept. The Torah directs us not to construct steps to ascend the mizbei’ach in order to show respect for the stones. Rashi tells us that the posuk implies a kal vachomer: Umah avonim halolu she’ein bohem daas lehakpid al bizyonam, these stones lack the perception to care about the humiliation, yet the Torah admonishes us not to treat them in a derogatory fashion. Certainly when dealing with a person, who is fashioned in the image of the Creator and who is particular about the way he is treated, must we be considerate of his feelings.

Great men are never relaxed when it comes to the respect or dignity of another. They are inherently respectful not just of people, but of objects.

When Rav Simcha Zissel Broide, rosh yeshiva of the Chevron Yeshiva, was a bochur, Rav Leizer Yudel Finkel met him and was impressed by his quick mind and sterling middos. The Mirrer rosh yeshiva recommended that the bochur travel to learn in the great yeshivos of Lita, much like those who seek aliyah nowadays go to Eretz Yisroel to learn.

Rav Simcha Zissel followed the advice and, for the rest of his life, he would share stories of his experiences there.

He once recounted how, during his time in Kelm, the washing cup was found away from its proper place. This was considered a disaster by the bnei hayeshiva. Rav Simcha Zissel’s rebbetzin heard him retell the story and she wondered aloud: “From something like a washing cup being out of place does one make a Tisha B’Av?” The Chevroner rosh yeshiva responded, “From a misplaced washing cup one makes a Yom Kippur!”

In this pithy response lies a penetrating truth. Respect and dignity are the hallmarks of royalty, and if we truly felt our sacred role, we would be incapable of showing disregard or a lack of respect. In Kelm, they lived in accordance with the words of Chazal of “Kol Yisroel bnei melachim heim.” Any breach in decorum was a disaster, because it represented a moment when someone forgot their lofty station.

We are not thoughtless, sloppy, careless individuals. We are the bearers of a regal tradition and our every nuance needs to reflect that. It’s certainly easier to remember our superior status when things are calm and easy. Amidst turbulence and instability it becomes harder, but the fact is that a real relationship doesn’t ever allow for forgetting.

In one of the Al Cheit confessions that we recite on Yom Kippur, we bang our chests and beg forgiveness “al cheit shechatanu lefonecha besimhon leivov,” for the sins we committed through confusion of the heart.

Why do we need to ask forgiveness for sins that are caused by confusion? Why are they not onsim, mistakes, for which the Torah absolves us?

The answer is given by way of a moshol. Imagine a man traveling on his boat. A vicious wave tips over the boat and throws the man into the water. After initially flailing about, he summons his inner strength and swims to the shore. When he reaches safety, he realizes that in the confusion and turmoil, he forgot his Cartier watch on his boat and that he will never see it again. Obviously, the man is easily forgiven for forgetting about his watch under those conditions.

Now imagine that the man is thrown from his boat by a strong wave, and after swimming to shore, he realizes that he swam to safety without thinking about saving his wife who was traveling with him. In all the tumult, he forgot about her. The act of forgetfulness in such a situation is unforgivable. Their relationship doesn’t allow for forgetting!

At Har Sinai, we forged a relationship that endures through blood and fire, in good times and bad. Ki anu amecha ve’atah Elokeinu. There is no exclusion in times of confusion.

Today, in 2013, it’s as true as ever. We must seek to live with that reality, pledging allegiance to the ideal and embodying it. Emunah and bitachon are our lifeblood.

A daughter of our friend, Reb Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, got married last week. The bride’s father did not spend the wedding day doing last-minute errands. He didn’t run to the tailor to fix his frock or visit the barber to get a haircut. Nor did he welcome any guests or fill in the last-minute place cards.

The avi hakallah spent the day in prison, far away from the happy commotion. From afar, he offered his tefillos for the young couple and a message for his family and dear friends. He wrote a note to them, recounting a story told by Reb Mendel Futerfas.

It is a tale of a small-time musician, who made his livelihood traveling from town to town with his instrument, playing in public places. The sound of his happy music would draw a crowd, whom the musician would regale with joyous song for a long while. In turn, the audience would fill his plate with coins, demonstrating their appreciation for the musical entertainment.

Troubadours would often travel with a helper. An unfortunate boy from a poor home that could not afford to care for him was given over to the vagabond. In exchange for food and clothing, the boy’s job was to clap and bang along with the musician. He would also try to create a festive atmosphere by crying out, “Freilecher! Freilecher! Freilecher! spurring on the crowd, encouraging the townspeople to permit the music to gladden their souls and pay the piper.

It happened one day that the young hapless helper was distracted and wasn’t doing his job properly. He was missing his cues to clap and bang along with his boss. The musician tried to get his attention, but the tired helper was oblivious. He was ruining the show and squandering the opportunity for a full plate of coins at the end of the performance. Finally, the musician reached out and slapped the day-dreaming helper across his face.

The poor young man was humiliated and hurt. He was shattered, but the show had to go on. Despite his intense pain and shame, the young man had a job to do, so he began to clap and bang once again, crying, “Freilecher! Freilecher! Freilecher! as his reddened face told a different story.

The helper realized that without this job, he had no home, no food and no drink, nor a place to rest or keep warm. His life depended on maintaining his position as an apprentice to the musician. With no choice, he swallowed his pride and agony, and he pasted a smile on his face. He then continued clapping, smiling, laughing, singing and shouting as loud and convincingly as he could.

Initially, his enthusiasm was only external, as he suffered inside. However, quickly, even as he was in pain, he realized that his agony would soon pass and that his essence, as one who was grateful for and happy with his job, would once again define him. Thus, even in his moment of pain, he was able to shout, “Freilecher! Freilecher! Freilecher! and encourage the crowd to be cheerful, because he recognized that he himself had ample reason to be happy.

His existence was all about him assisting the musician, and everything in his life was connected to this job. He understood that his action of banging and clapping would ensure him his job and his life. When that realization hit home, he himself became freilach once again and he cheered on the crowd.

Reb Mendel Futerfas would conclude his tale by stating that the yeitzer horah tries to cause Yidden to fall into yei’ush and bitterness, but we refuse. Instead, we are “Freilecher! Freilecher! Freilecher! as we sing through the pain, focused on how fortunate we really are.

This was the message of the avi hakallah, who lives with the sting of the slap, but is able to transcend the pain and appreciate that the One Who can give the rebuke is the One Who gives life itself. Perhaps the joy at that special chasunah last week was reflective of that message, a united dance of “Freilecher! Freilecher! Freilecher!

Am Yisroel is bound in a deep relationship with Hashem. We are special. We are princes in His kingdom. No matter where we are and what nisyonos we are facing, we cannot forget that. We cannot become depressed or despondent when things don’t go our way. We have to remember that our avodah and our existence are tied to the Melech Malchei Hamelochim Who controls every movement on earth. We have to absorb the slaps, but remain loyal and freilach.

Being part of the mamleches kohanim vegoy kadosh is a responsibility, but it is a happy one, which continuously reminds us of who we are, what our purpose here is, and what we will merit if we fulfill it.

And so, as we once again hear the Aseres Hadibros being read with the taam ha’elyon, we relive the glory that was back then, and every Yiddishe neshomah feels a rush as we rise in shul, turn our eyes heavenward, and say, “Here we are, loyal as ever, waiting patiently for You to take us home.”

Freilecher, freilecher, freilecher.


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Hands of Victory

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz


This week’s parsha of Beshalach opens with what was a high point for man, the freeing of the Jews from bondage, enabling the formation of Am Yisroel. Tragically, however, a few pesukim later, we read about how the Bnei Yisroel complained, “Hamibli ein kevorim b’Mitzrayim,” once again doubting Moshe Rabbeinu and expressing their wish to return to a state of servitude.

After overcoming that low point, they returned to their position of greatness and recited Oz Yoshir, indicating that they had attained a most lofty moment for man. After seeing all that Hashem had done, they finally recognized His greatness and sang shirah.

The level that leads to an outburst of shirah is reached when a person appreciates that everything that has transpired is part of a Divine plan. As he was experiencing various events, he may have been unsure and worried about the end result. But when it all comes together and he is able to appreciate what Hashem did for him, he is overwhelmed and shirah bursts forth. This is referred to as a time of shleimus, completeness. All doubt has been removed and there is only complete belief and appreciation.

At Krias Yam Suf, everything became evident to everyone at the same time. Describing the song, the Torah uses the singular tense of the word shir, to sing. The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh remarks that the posuk states, “Ashira, I will sing,” because, at that moment, there was no peirud between the multitudes of people who had traversed the Yam Suf.

Perhaps we can explain that since it was a time of shirah and shleimus, there were no divisions between the Jews. There was total achdus. Achdus is the state of shleimus.

Referring to the day of the ultimate revelation, Chazal (Ta’anis 31, Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:23, et al), state, “Osid Hakadosh Boruch Hu la’asos machol latzaddikim… Hakadosh Boruch Hu will form a large circle comprised of all the tzaddikim from throughout the generations. They will all dance before Him in a circle and point and declare, ‘Zeh Hashem kivinu lo...’”

Meforshim explain that the tzaddikim will be gathered in a circle to sing Hashem’s praises, because at the time of shirah, unadulterated thanksgiving, the individual ceases to exist. There is no me or you. Instead, there is complete subservience to the subject of the shirah. There is complete hoda’ah to Hashem. In a circle, every person is equidistant from the center-point. There are no lines of demarcation, as all are united in appreciation of Hashem and His glory.

At weddings, we witness something akin to this, as the chosson and the kallah, or their parents and grandparents, sit in the middle of a circle, with generations of offspring dancing around them. The dance is a portrayal of reverence, regardless of station or prestige. All in the circle - children drawn together to pay tribute to their father, chaveirim to a friend, or siblings to a brother or sister - are the same.

That circle of tzaddikim will reflect the ma’amad of Krias Yam Suf. On that date soon to come, the tzaddikim will point and say, “Zeh Hashem,” much the same as their predecessors at the Yam Suf proclaimed, “Zeh Keili.

The moment before Oz Yoshir was when everything came together. These same Bnei Yisroel, who just a few pesukim earlier had actually been complaining about being redeemed, and who doubted, grumbled and expressed a wish to return to servitude, suddenly simultaneously realized Hashem’s greatness and total dominion over every facet of creation. At Krias Yam Suf, they finally saw and understood the glory of Hashem.

Taking this a step further, we can answer a question raised by Chazal in the Medrash and in the Zohar. They question why the Torah uses the term shirah to describe Oz Yoshir. Shirah is lashon nekeivah. Shir is lashon zochor and would have been more appropriate.

Perhaps we can explain that the Bnei Yisroel at Krias Yam Suf perceived that they were the ultimate recipients of the Ultimate Giver. In seforim, the appellation for one who receives is “bechinas nukva.” Through the use of lashon nekeivah, the Torah signifies that at that moment, the Bnei Yisroel recognized themselves as recipients. It was this realization and appreciation that enabled them to rise to the level of proclaiming the ultimate shirah and allowed them the zechus to sing the enduring song of creation, which we repeat in perpetuity.

Rav Avidgor Miller would often remark that we mistakenly assume that tefillah is for lofty or important things, like parnossah, health or a good shidduch. “But if you realize that we have nothing, that we are nothing without Hashem’s will and kindness,” he would say, “you know that before you walk into a shoe store, you should say, ‘Yehi ratzon that I should find a nice, comfortable pair of shoes at a good price.’”

That is what it means to be bechinas nukva, aware that we have nothing but His mercy.

Rav Yechezkel Levenstein, a master of emunah and bitachon, whose messages of faith sustained the Mirrer Yeshiva in its darkest hours, was said to derive his inspiration from reciting the shirah each morning. Talmidim relate that before reciting Oz Yoshir, he would prepare himself as he did for Shema or Shemoneh Esrei, realizing that he was entering a new dimension in avodah.

This Shabbos, after the entire shul rises to hear the shirah read with its unique, festive ta’amim, the kriah continues with yet another central moment in our history. Klal Yisroel, a nascent nation, is confronted by Amaleik. We read about Moshe Rabbeinu raising his hands, inspiring his people to victory. When he lowers his hands, the Bnei Yisroel begin to falter. This story is written as a timeless lesson. Hashem tells Moshe, “Kesov zos baseifer ki macho emcheh es zecher Amaleik - Write this down and write that the milchomah will endure, milchomah laHashem b’Amaleik midor dor.

Rashi and the Ramban quote the Medrash (Tanchumah, Teitzei 11) where Chazal teach that the existence of Amaleik prevents the Kisei Hakavod from being whole and renders Hashem’s Name incomplete.

We have to understand, that since Amaleik has such a corrosive influence, why allow him to exist and battle him in every generation. Why keep him around? Why not just finish him off, once and for all?

Perhaps the reason Amaleik is permitted to exist is that, as the Yidden saw on the banks of the Yam Suf, our lot is not to live within perfection, but, rather, to create perfection within what is given.

The path of our nation has always been strewn with obstacles. We have always traversed a road replete with hills and valleys, peaks and drops. We are the people who went from intense labor to witnessing the glory of Hashem, seeing makkos wreak havoc on the lives of our captors. We went from the appearance of Moshe, who promised to save us, to an increased workload, followed by the bringing of the Korban Pesach in defiance of our brutal hosts and, finally, baking matzos and walking to freedom.

And then, in the hot desert, our longing for a return to Mitzrayim was shortly followed by a moment of shirah, when everything became clear. The Bnei Yisroel saw their past, present and futures merge into a seamless song.

And then, against the backdrop of lucidity, came Amaleik.

Amaleik is a reminder that we can never be at peace. We can never rest. We can never think that our jobs are complete and that we can retire. We can never believe that we have overcome every possible trial. Al taamin be’atzmecho ad yom mos’cha.

The existence of Amaleik reminds us that there are always challenges ahead and that we must be prepared for them. There will always be issues that weren’t previously imagined, which will crop up in our day, just as there were challenges back when the Jews were on their way to the land of their dreams. When problems arise, we cannot despair and give in to the urge to say that all is lost and be resigned to an unfortunate fate.

Until the arrival of Moshiach, there will be ups and downs. There will be periods of intense joy and times of dreadful sadness. There will be birth and death, weddings and divorces, employment and unemployment. We must never grow despondent and we must never say that times will not get better. We must never be lulled into thinking that things happen without reason. We must never become depressed, thinking that we are alone.

The hills of life are gifts provided to us to regain our strength, injecting us with energy and stamina to propel us out of the inevitable valleys.

Today, we don’t see Amaleik as we once did, but his seeds are ever-present. Amaleik is the voice that counsels compromise and advises us to be calmer about our beliefs. The modern-day adaptation of Amaleik’s credo of “Asher korcha baderech” declares to people, “Have no fear. Chill out! You don’t really have to listen. You don’t have to respect Klal Yisroel.”

The scoffers have changed their language and dress, but their goal remains the same. The Vilna Gaon taught that the baalei machlokes are Amaleikim. Rav Elchonon Wasserman said the same thing about the secular Zionists.

The Gaon was referring to those who upset the communal equilibrium. Instead of allowing people to follow their proper leaders, a tough guy, or demagogue, or wordsmith, arises and preaches that disagreements are healthy. They convince people to battle someone who did or said something inconsequential with which they disagree and cause division amongst our people and derision of the good. The Gaon says that such people are the progeny of Amaleik.

Jews are naturally a believing people. The Zionists took advantage of our inbred beliefs and transformed belief in G-d into belief in country, belief in Torah into belief in socialism, and belief in the supremacy of talmidei chachomim and mental giants into worship of those who work by the sweat of their brow tilling the land and shooting enemies. They rejected the traditional belief of a Yid who viewed himself as a bechinas nukvah, being a mekabel from Hashem, and embraced the image of a hardened, muscular body builder who espouses kochi ve’otzem yodi asu li es hachayil hazeh.

They present an attractive but inaccurate picture. Our strength lies in our siddurim, Tehillims and seforim, not in yedei Eisov. Our confidence comes from our relationship with Hashem, not from a well-stocked weapons arsenal.

A talmid of Mesivta Tiferes Yerushalayim was driving the rosh yeshiva, Rav Moshe Feinstein, home from yeshiva when they encountered a rally blocking the street. Several youths were carrying signs that proclaimed, “Never Again!” Their message was that Jews would never again be victims and in the future would defend themselves from all enemies. Rav Moshe grew agitated, telling his driver that the slogan and the sentiments it represented were wrong. A Yid, he said, has a destiny mapped out by our Creator, not by generals or politicians, and we live, die and exist by His will.

Most writers and historians play up the image of the Jew in the ghettos and concentration camps as feeble and pathetic, submitting to their Nazi oppressors with nary a whimper. Yet, reading the accounts of Moshe Prager or the halachic shailos posed to Rav Oshry, the Veitzener Rov and others during the war years, causes one to be awed by the heroism of these individuals. Books by religious writers depicting the Holocaust era leave the reader astonished by the indomitable spirit of these Yidden. You are amazed, knowing that the Jews were stronger than any Nazi beast. Part of that strength was an acceptance of Hashem’s will, plan and design.

Similarly, books of lore depicting the modern-day settlement of Eretz Yisroel typically gloss over the First Aliya and concentrate on the Second Aliyah. This is because those who made up the first were largely religious and did not fit the narrative that the Secular Zionists sought to inculcate. The Second Aliyah immigrants were largely irreligious, or worse, and their Aliyah had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with nationalism.  

What kept the early immigrants of the First Aliyah going in the face of what seemed to be insurmountable hardships? Sam Finkel in his new, exceptional book, “Rebels in the Holy Land,” quotes Avrohom Yaakov Gellman, who arrived in Eretz Yisroel in 1882. “Many difficult and terrible hardships befell us. So many people died… So many men and women became blind… because the air of this locale was unhealthy [and because of disease-carrying flies]. We could barely sleep at night without evading the malarial fever that struck us. We literally put our lives at risk. Through our efforts, we have improved the air quality of the settlement, but at the cost of the lives of our dear ones and with such pain and anguish.”

So how did they do it? “They coped and managed because they believed that they were the shelichim fulfilling a holy commandment.”

That is the true strength of the Jewish people; reflected in the Yad Hachazokah of the Rambam, not in the clenched fist of kochi veotzem yodi.

Today, in the city with the largest Jewish population, in the hub of American democracy, Amaleik mocks our mesorah and portrays our traditions as archaic. The mayor and his defenders who embody “asher korcha” pour cold water on the enthusiasm with which every bris milah is still greeted and performed. Professing concern for our welfare, they vilify us using legalist and modern dignified language.

There are politicians who claim to be defenders of Israel, yet they accept overnight conversions from people who hate us. They enable our sworn enemies to attain positions in which they can act upon their animus of Jews and their state, all for political convenience.

At the conclusion of the parsha (17:11), as we battled the biblical Amaleik, Moshe Rabbeinu raised his hands, telling us to be strong, to stand tall and proud, and not to be buffeted by the prevailing winds. When Moshe’s hands were raised, the Jews were victorious, but when they were lowered, the Jews began to lose.

The only way to effectively battle Amaleik is by the Moshe of the generation raising his hands as a lighthouse for all to follow to safe shores and not become entrapped by the guile, demagoguery and sweet words with which the progeny of our most bitter enemy attempt to lead people away from Hashem.

We must maintain our fidelity to the truth, to Hashem, to Torah, and to the Moshe who raises his hands high and does not succumb to the pressures of the time.  

The Torah (17:12) informs us that Moshe is not able to do it on his own. He requires help. The posuk depicts Aharon and Chur standing alongside Moshe, supporting him and his weary uplifted arms, “mizeh echod, umizeh echod.” The task is great, even for Moshe.

Perhaps the heroes of the account with Amaleik are Aharon and Chur. Rather than fatalistically concluding that the Jewish people must be realistic and recognize that they were destined to lose against a much stronger foe, and instead of saying that Amaleik is too strong an enemy for them and that there is no point in fighting on, they grasped Moshe’s arms and helped wave them aloft, proclaiming, and bringing about, victory.

Today, too, the heroes are those who stand at the side of mesorah and gedolei Yisroel, unafraid and undaunted, giving chizuk to all that’s right and good.

There is a plan, and it has almost finished unfolding.

Each day, during Shacharis, when we conclude the recitation of the shirah, we add three pesukim that are not part of that timeless song. First we say, “Ki laShem hameluchah umoshel bagoyim.” Then we add, “Ve’alu moshi’im beHar Tzion,” and we conclude, “Bayom hahu yihiyeh Hashem echod ushemo echod.”

Rav Moshe Shapiro explains that we add these pesukim because at the time of shirah everything becomes clear. We perceive Hashem’s plan for us. We recognize our destiny and that there is a mehalech throughout history. That destiny, our path, is expressed in these pesukim.

First, ki laShem hameluchah. His Divine desire and will for a universe and people to serve him was the catalyst for brias ha’olam.

The second posuk refers to our task from the time that tov and ra first confronted each other to continue fighting for kevod Shomayim and climb to the top of Eisov’s mountain and claim the world as ours, victorious.

And then, the final posuk, “Bayom hahu, on that day, Hashem will be one.”

May we soon ascend Eisov’s mountain, completing the mission. May we merit seeing and being part of that glorious circle, singing as one, “Zeh Hashem kivinu lo.”

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Appreciating Achdus

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz


Election fever is spreading across Eretz Yisroel. Their campaign season lasts but a few weeks, the people vote, and then the parties try to cobble together a coalition. The resulting government lasts until the next scheduled election or until the prime minster calls for new ones, whichever comes first.

The current election was called by Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu, whose popularity was at a high point and sought to capitalize on it to keep himself in power for another four years. The calculation was a correct one, but due to hubris and missteps, he is not likely to emerge half as powerful as he thought he would.

There is also serious concern that he will seek to form his next government with parties to his left and freeze the religious parties out of the coalition. Even if he does bring them in, if the poll numbers are correct, the religious parties may not be satisfied with what they are offered. Not only are positions of power, and thus the ability to service the religious constituency in jeopardy, but the very real threat of drafting yeshiva bochurim into the army hangs over the Olam HaTorah.

With this as the backdrop, you would imagine that the frum community is coalescing around the parties that represent it and working to ensure that they receive maximum representation so that they will be in a better position to negotiate for their concerns and be able to prevent anything disastrous from occurring. And you’d be wrong.

On a recent trip to Eretz Yisroel, a friend was walking through the alleyways that form the Bucharim Shuk. On a narrow road, he passed an assortment of small shops where the owners ply their wares, waiting for customers to come by and purchase their spices, pickles from large metal cans, rotating shwarma, chicken, meat, fruits and vegetables. There was one tiny stall that caught my friend’s attention. There was really nothing that caused the store to stand out. It was typical of the duchanim seen all over Yerushalayim. One wonders how they stay in business selling old challah covers and dusty Kiddush bechers alongside shoelaces, glasses and other small odds and ends.

The proprietor of the shop was a Sefardi man, with a flowing white beard and wise eyes, who seemed as ancient as his wares. He sat there reciting Tehillim.

Next to him was a small handwritten sign. On top, in large letters to catch the attention of anyone entering the store, were the words, “Vayidom Aharon.” They were followed by a short message, which read: “Since we are now in the election season and sometimes people who talk about politics end up talking about talmidei chachomim and rabbonim, and sometimes disparagingly, I have accepted upon myself not to discuss the election. I appreciate your understanding. If you come into this store, please respect this kabbolah.”

There are all types of signs wherever you go in Yerushalayim, but this one was different. Too bad it is the only one of its kind.

Eretz Yisroel is a tiny country, surrounded by enemies who seek its destruction. The Iranian threat has dominated headlines for several years now, as its radical, irrational leaders pursue a nuclear weapon with the ability to exterminate Israel. Jews and freedom-lovers the world over fear that Iran is on the precipice of realizing its ambition and have serious concerns about the safety of the citizens of Eretz Yisroel.

Rav Michel Stern, a prominent boki in niglah and nistar in Yerushalayim about whom we have previously written, has recently been telling people that Iran is not what we should be worrying about. He says that the lack of achdus in our camp is much more dangerous than what is going on in Iran. Peirud, division, he says, is a more lethal threat than Iran.

People say and do the worst things in order to get elected and earn themselves some power. There is one politician who is running a TV campaign bashing yeshivos and kollelim. He says that the Rambam would endorse his view. Not only that, but the punch line of his commercial is, “the Rambam would vote for me and you should too!”

When Eretz Yisroel is facing external and internal threats, it is time for Jews to come together under one banner to confront the challenges that must be overcome. Yeshivos are being targeted by politicians from the left and the right, who make no secret of their intention to draft yeshiva bochurim. There is so much at stake in the coming election. It would behoove those who treasure Torah and lomdei Torah to reaffirm their commitment to achieving unity.

Achdus is something we always talk about. Teachers teach about it, public speakers speak about it, and writers write about it. Somehow, it sounds so nice in speeches and in theory, but, in actuality, it appears to be elusive. What can we do to bring about change and draw people closer together?

The Ramban teaches that one of the mitzvos that were given to commemorate Yetzias Mitzrayim is the commandment of petter chamor, redeeming a firstborn donkey. This gives rise to an obvious question: What does petter chamor have to do with Yetzias Mitzrayim?

Chazal (Bechoros 5b) provide the explanation: “Why are firstborn donkeys different than firstborn horses or firstborn camels? First, the Torah decreed it so. Second, they helped Am Yisroel during Yetzias Mitzrayim, for there was not a single Jew who did not have 90 Libyan donkeys loaded with the silver and gold of Mitzrayim.”

In other words, the Torah gave us the mitzvah of petter chamor as a way of expressing appreciation to these beasts of burden for the help they provided Klal Yisroel during the exodus from Mitzrayim. A bechor of a chamor attains the kedushah of a cheftzah shel mitzvah, because two thousand years ago, animals that had no bechirah were used to transport Jewish possessions out of slavery.

The chamor is not the only animal to which we express appreciation for its conduct at the time of Yetzias Mitzrayim. The dog also gets its due. The posuk (Shemos 22:30) states that meat that is unfit for consumption should be thrown to the dogs. Rashi, commenting on this posuk, explains that the Torah specifies to give the meat to dogs as a reward for not barking at the Jews when they left Egypt. Dogs are thus forever remembered for their momentary benevolence centuries ago.

Another lesson of hakoras hatov is learned from the fact that Aharon Hakohein performed the act that brought about the first three makkos of dom, tzefardei’a and kinnim. Moshe couldn’t turn the Nile’s water into blood, because the Nile protected him when his mother cast him there following his premature birth. For the same reason, he couldn’t strike the water to bring about the makkah of tzefardei’a. Aharon, not Moshe, struck the dirt in order to bring about the makkah of kinnim, because when Moshe smote the Egyptian and hid the body in the sand, the sand prevented that act from being discovered.

It seems quite extraordinary that we are commanded to mark our historic indebtedness to donkeys of centuries ago by performing a token of gratitude to their descendants through petter chamor. The notion that hakoras hatov obligates one to feel and show gratitude to inanimate objects is because by acting in that manner we become more perfect beings.

The reason this perplexes us is because most of us view hakoras hatov as belonging in the domain of bein odom lachaveiro, applicable from one person to another. “You did me a favor, so I become obligated to thank you.”

However, from these examples brought in the parshiyos of Yetzias Mitzrayim, which we are currently reading each week, we are introduced to a deeper dimension of the obligation of hakoras hatov. Showing gratitude is not just a social obligation and a nice thing to do. Gratefulness should become an integral part of our personalities. Whether it was water or dirt or an animal from which we derived benefit so long ago, as grandchildren of those yotzei Mitzrayim, we are duty-bound to acknowledge that kindness.

The way we act towards others impacts our souls and proclaims what kind of people we are. If we are cognizant and appreciative of others, it helps us. We become better people and can work to achieve achdus and accomplish much more with our lives.

Hashem created human beings as being unable to see success if we work only for ourselves. It is only as a community and as a member of a group that we can endure. From the time we are born until the very end, we can only survive if we are connected to other people. As infants, we need everything to be done for us. Even as we grow and become more independent, most everything that we require for our daily existence is provided by others.

Arrogant, unappreciative people refuse to recognize that as great as they are, without the contributions of others, they would be hungry, dirty, unclothed, unloved, homeless, illiterate and without much to live for. Everything that we have and everything that we know is only because someone took the trouble to teach us and equip us with the essentials of life and good health.

There really is no way one can be totally independent and live a meaningful life. Those who cause peirud engage in anti-social behavior that is not only detrimental to the broader community, but also to themselves.

In order to maintain our humility and mentchlichkeit, the Torah gives us many mitzvos to ingrain into our psyches the awareness of this world’s abundant blessings and the goodness with which Hashem showers us.

By working on perfecting our middah of hakoras hatov, we come to appreciate the good in others and the benefits we derive from each other. If we look at the bigger picture and see the good, then we are able to overlook the pettiness that divides us and unite, creating the achdus we need to be able to work together to combat those who seek our demise.

A few years ago, the Tolna Rebbe of Yerushalayim led a group of chassidim on a trip to Eastern Europe, where they davened at the kevorim of the admorim of the Tolna dynasty and other tzaddikim.

On the airplane, the Rebbe addressed the chassidim and said that in generations past, a chossid’s trip to his rebbe usually involved enduring long weeks away from home, dangerous travel conditions, and deprivation. Thus, by the time the chossid arrived at the rebbe, he had become purified by virtue of the journey’s hardships. By the time he was at the rebbe’s doorstep, he was a suitable keili for a brocha.

The Tolna Rebbe quoted the Bais Yisroel of Ger, who said that today we no longer have the cleansing process that the journeys of old provided. With the invention of the airplane and convenient travel, a chossid can traverse the globe in comfort, arriving at his rebbe without forgoing any comforts to which he is accustomed.

The Tolna Rebbe told the people traveling with him that there is still a source of merit available for those who joined the chartered flight, with catered meals and pre-planned hotel stays.

“There are organizers and askonim who worked very hard arranging the logistics of this trip. Inevitably, some of you will be unhappy with your seats or accommodations. Perhaps the meals won’t work out and you’ll be left hungry. Don’t say a word! Be mevateir. Make our interactions with others positive and uplifting for them, leaving people with a good feeling whenever we can.

“It sounds easy,” said the Rebbe, “but it’s not easy at all. When there’s one portion of supper left at the end of a long day on the road and two people who haven’t eaten, when someone in the room will need to sleep on the lumpy couch, when there is only one luggage cart remaining and a pile of heavy suitcases, it will require strength to remain easygoing and not complain. But you can do it, and by acting that way, we, too, in our generation, can merit approaching the kevorim of the admorim cleansed.”

The Tolna Rebbe’s message is important and relevant. Though we are blessed with plenty, boruch Hashem, and we don’t face real hunger or privation, we all have many daily opportunities to conduct ourselves in ways that can cleanse and purify us and our communities.

No matter where we are and what we are trying to accomplish, it is crucial that we remain focused on the goal - not the immediate victory, but the ultimate one. Through unity, we can achieve more and be more effective.

The posuk in Devorim (7:7) tells us that Hashem didn’t choose us because of our great numbers, because, in fact, we are the smallest among the nations. Rav Moshe Shapiro asks why the posuk assumes that we would think that Hashem’s love for us is based on our size. We are obviously a small nation. He answers with a moshol.

Imagine a person walking along a path. Another person joins and begins walking alongside the first, so now there are two people on that path. Then a third fellow joins, and then another and another. Each person is walking along the same path as a means to get to a certain point, but their goals are different. They are headed to different places. The fact that they are walking together on the same path fails to unify them. They are walking side by side, but each one is a man to himself. They are individuals, not a group. There may be a thousand of them, but if you were to count them, it would be one and one and one, not one plus one plus one.

When a legion of soldiers marches into battle, even if the soldiers aren’t physically near each other and enter from various paths, they are united by a shared ideal. They are devoted to the same flag and general. There might be fewer of them than there are people on our imaginary path, but their unity gives them strength. They look out for each other, care for each other, and protect each other. There may only be two hundred of them, but when you count them, they are one plus one plus one.

This is how the posuk continues: “Rather, out of Hashem’s love for you... did He take you bring you to the Land…”

We are not the largest in numbers, but we are the most in the sense that our numbers combine and add up, because we are united by a common legacy and goal.

If we are to bring about change at the ballot box in Eretz Yisroel, we have to figure out how to work together as a united group with common goals, not as separate individuals who walk on the same path. In Israel as in America, in order to properly confront the specter of new gezeiros that threaten our freedoms to practice Yiddishkeit as we have become accustomed, we need to appreciate our real strength.

With rising taxes, skyrocketing healthcare costs, prickly secretarial picks and prospects for congressional stalemates on economic issues, Americans are being reminded that elections have consequences. If the religious parties do not receive enough support and Netanyahu is able to form a coalition with the parties of the left, there may be terrible consequences for many of the causes we hold dear.

This past Sunday, the Rubashkin family completed the achdus Sefer Torah that was written as a zechus for Shalom Mordechai ben Rivka. The Sefer Torah was paid for by members of Klal Yisroel of all ages and stripes who sent in sums large and small for the Achdus Sefer Torah campaign. The siyum was celebrated by a small group comprised of Lubavitcher chassidim, Satmar chassidim and a couple of Litvaks at the Rubashkin home in Monsey. It is hoped that in the zechus of the achdus that the Rubashkin case has engendered, coupled with the Sefer Torah, tefillos, tzedakah and maasim tovim performed on Shalom Mordechai’s behalf, he will be zocheh to be reunited with his family bekarov.

Klal Yisroel must also join b’achdus to combat New York City’s assault on bris milah. Though initial efforts to protect the ancient tradition failed, we remain focused on the goal and undeterred.

May we merit witnessing the growth of achdus and the successes it engenders.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Focused on the Goal

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz


We are all no doubt familiar with the Chazal that  among the catalysts of the Bnei Yisroel’s redemption from Mitzrayim was that “lo shinu es shemom, lo shinu es leshonam, and lo shinu es malbushom,” they didn’t change their names, language or mode of dress.

Throughout tens of centuries of golus, Medroshim such as this one have served to remind us of who we are, where we come from as children of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, and our mandate to stand taller and prouder than those who surround us.

This Chazal can be understood on its most basic level as conveying that man’s name, style of dress and language form his personality. Every nation prides itself on these outward displays of their national identity. Though beaten down in servitude, the Bnei Yisroel realized that they had their own destiny to fulfill. They didn’t permit their inhuman travails and hardships to cause them to lose sight of their own destiny.

But there is also a deeper understanding of this Chazal.

British historian Arthur Toynbee was one of the most influential opinion-shapers of the twentieth century. Allowing himself to be influenced by Adolf Hitler and the Arab viewpoint, he became an outspoken and vitriolic opponent of the Jewish right to Eretz Yisroel. As one who wrote extensively of comparative history of civilizations, his position on Zionism was explained in practical terms. He asked what would happen if every nation would decide to return to its ancient homeland. What would happen, he queried, if Italians around the world would unite and decide to reclaim ancient Rome as their homeland? What if people of Greek extraction would uproot their families and stake out a plot of land in Athens? Or, wondered Toynbee, what would happen if the British would converge on Canada in a bid to retake it? And just imagine, he said, what would go on in this country if Native Americans were to get serious about taking back the land that was theirs. Why, he wondered, should the Jewish people be any different?

A Jewish activist heard him discussing his oft-repeated thesis and responded. Imagine, the fellow told Toynbee, if two Italians were walking down the street and they encountered Julius Caesar. They would behold the legendary figure with fascination, but they certainly would be unable to connect with him. He would be speaking in Latin and about the ideas and values of his time and era. They would neither understand him nor have any concept in what he is talking about. They would lead him to the nearest museum.

Imagine, continued the respondent, if the Greeks would meet Aristotle, the philosopher whose ideas defined their empire. They, too, would be unable to carry on the simplest conversation.

Yet, lehavdil, if Moshe Rabbeinu were to appear in any bais medrash, shul or shtiebel in the world, everyone would immediately understand him. His language, Lashon Hakodesh, is still alive and vibrant. His life’s ideals, teachings and thoughts are as current today as they were in the time he lived. Were he to ask for a pair of tefillin, every bar mitzvah boy could accommodate him and give him a pair with straps painted black in accordance with a halacha leMoshe miSinai.

The gentleman turned to Toynbee and concluded, “You have nothing to worry about. No other nation has a connection with its past in a way that influences its present and guides its future.”

The Jewish people don’t go through life as “kamotz asher tidfenu ruach,” chaff easily blown by the wind. The dream of returning to Eretz Yisroel isn’t merely a passing whim. We are a people with a legacy and a destiny that we never lose sight of. Our lives are focused on achieving the goal of Acharis Hayomim.

The very first posuk in Sefer Shemos, which details the descent into golus, states, “Ve’eileh shemos Bnei Yisroel habo’im Mitzraymah - These are the names of the Bnei Yisroel who are coming to Mitzrayim.” 

Commentators point out that the Hebrew word depicting their arrival in the strange land should have been in the past tense, “ sheba’oo,” which would translate as “who came.” Instead, the posuk uses the present conjugation, “habo’im, which means “who are coming.”

The explanation is that the Yidden never “came” to Mitzrayim and settled there. Instead, they were in a constant state of “habo’im,” refusing to make themselves at home and never forgetting the dream of returning to Eretz Yisroel. They were steadily coming there. They thought that every day would be the day they would leave Mitzrayim. When they didn’t, they were “bo’im” once again. But each time, with sadness and resignation, they accepted their arrival and then they once again began dreaming of leaving. They were thus in a constant state of coming.

The result was “lo shinu.” They refused to change and adapt. They were unwilling to acclimate and forget their own identifying factors, because they were only there temporarily. They knew what was true and what was lasting. They knew what was false, fleeting and temporary, and they knew to which category they belonged.

Rashi (Shemos 3:12) states that the Jewish people were redeemed from Mitzrayim in the merit that they would accept the Torah on Har Sinai. The lo shinus were an indication of their fidelity to what is real, and Hakadosh Boruch Hu thus knew that they were ripe for Kabbolas HaTorah, for the Torah is the complete and total truth. It is the very essence of truth, and truth means to be real, not superficial.

People who live a life that they don’t really believe in are easily dissuaded. They are easy prey for charlatans and false ideas. There is no loyalty to ideas or values, and the only concern is which lifestyle is in fashion and which viewpoint is current. They flow with the stream, veering this way and that as the fashionistas dictate. What they thought yesterday to be ugly and unthinkable can easily become today’s beauty and must-have. Because their view of style is not grounded in any reality, it is easily fungible. It is all superficial and easily transformed.

What is true lasts forever. As the posuk states, “Sefas emes tikon lo’ad.”

The posuk in the first perek of Tehillim describes us as being like trees planted on the banks of rivers, with deep roots - entrenched shoroshim - linking us to Har Sinai and the greatest mortals the world has known. We are guided by their legacy and teachings. We have a rich mesorah. We drink from the palgei mayim of our timeless Torah.

Despite their challenges and obstacles, the Bnei Yisroel in Mitzrayim lived with the ideal of “lo shinu,” remembering where they came from and where they were headed.

In the land of Paroh, this was so important. His leadership was based on the make-believe and false perceptions, as Rashi states on the words “Hinei hu yotzei hamoymah” (7:15). Paroh created a fiction about himself which anyone could have seen through had they cared enough to follow him around one day.No one did, because they were content to play along. They didn’t care. It made them feel good about themselves to have a king who passed himself off as being superhuman.

They were like the chaff, blown about, representing nothing and standing for nothing. They were a nation of sheker. They were happy and comfortable with the lie they lived.

It was difficult for the people of Mitzrayim when the makkos rained down upon them. People whose lives are predicated upon truth are able to recognize that they have erred and change their lives accordingly. The Mitzriyim were unable to accept the truth. They turned away from it. They grew accustomed to the fiction of Paroh and the comforts it afforded them. When it was proven to them that they had erred, they were unable to change course and adapt to the truth.

The posuk states repeatedly that Paroh was unable to redirect his life because Hashem hardened his heart. However, the posuk doesn’t say that the hearts of citizenry were hardened. Why did they not do teshuvah? It is because their inertia was a given. They lived superficial lives, parroting old stories about the greatness of their king and his mission even as the forces all around them showed otherwise. They couldn’t be confronted with the truth, for it would have ruined their blissful lives.

It was in the climate of Mitzrayim, ruled by fiction and dominated with lies, that the People of Truth distinguished themselves, a goy mikerev goy standing tall, a people of destiny.

Today, as well, we see a generation that chases every fad, so unsure of its own identity and so insecure with its own destiny that it identifies itself by the toys it owns, the gadgets it carries, and the cars being driven. A rootless generation looks to superficial signposts to mark its way. We see a gullible generation, easily lied to and eager to buy into anything that promises enjoyment. We see vacuous people without values, living selfishly and hedonistically, covering their impulses with a fig leaf of religiosity. 

True leadership grounded in truth is unafraid to confront its own failings. A good leader knows that to truly service the people, honesty is requisite. There are no cover-ups and no media blackouts. Great men aren’t afraid of scrutiny. They welcome it.

A true leader such as Moshe Rabbeinu and those who follow in his footsteps in every generation, including ours, are always honest with themselves and with their flock. They are able to confront their imperfections and overcome them. They provide a goal for themselves and their followers to live up to. They are never satisfied, never resting from mightily laboring in the pursuit of excellence and G-dliness. They are courageous enough to stand out and stand apart, and provide the inspiration necessary for others to follow that lead. The truth is their guide and concern; nothing can divert them from its pursuit. They are ambitious for themselves and for their talmidim, always seeking improvement and growth. They always build up their people and at every opportunity remind them of what they are capable.

Rav Michel Shurkin of Yerushalayim is a talmid chochom and marbitz Torah of note. He related that when his daughter became engaged to a grandson of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, the family went with the chosson and kallah to Rav Elozor Menachem Man Shach to receive his blessings.

Rav Shach welcomed the baalei simcha and began to ask Rav Michel about his maternal grandfather, a gaon named Rav Yaakov Kantrowitz. In the old country, Rav Yaakov was rov in Timkovitch, Russia. After arriving in America (with his nephew, Rav Moshe Feinstein), he was rov of Trenton, NJ, and authored a classic sefer, Tzilusa D’Shmaatsa on the Shev Shmaatsa.

Rav Shach asked Rav Michel many questions about his zaide’s yichus, his history, and his accomplishments, seeming to be inordinately interested in the answers. Rav Michel found it interesting that the gadol hador was so enthralled by his zaide’s particulars. It wasn’t until he left that he understood the elderly rosh yeshiva’s intense curiosity about his maternal grandfather.

The chosson, as a grandson of Rav Shlomo Zalman, was no doubt deeply aware and appreciative of his yichus. As attuned as he was to people’s sensitivities, Rav Shach wanted the newcomer to the Shurkin family to know that his new shver, Rav Michel, also had a prestigious history.

That is our story too. It is the story of every single Yid. We have a past and a future, and each step we take, we are aware of this bridge. We are all meyuchosim. We all have a glorious past to be immensely proud of and loyal to.

An American talmid chochom once introduced himself to Rav Berel Soloveitchik, telling him about a common cousin they shared and saying that they were thus related. The Brisker rosh yeshiva wasn’t overly impressed. “Ah. Veiter krovim (We are but distant relatives),” he remarked.

The American shared a chassidishe story of a Yid who approached a great rebbe and asked him to help him financially, since they were related. The rebbe asked the petitioner how they were related. Upon hearing the convoluted family history, the rebbe responded to the man with those same words: “Ah. Veiter krovim.

The distant relative waited for Minchah, whereupon he made his way to stand near the rebbe as the chazzan repeated Shemoneh Esrei for chazoras hashatz. When the chazzan said the words “vezocher chasdei avos,” beseeching Hashem to have mercy on us in the merit of our great forefathers, the Yid leaned over and whispered in the rebbe’s ear, “Ah. Veiter krovim.”

The rebbe understood the man’s message. Thrice daily, we ask Hashem to help us in the merit of ancestors who lived thousands of years ago. The rebbe relented and helped the Yid with what he needed.

The American concluded the story, thinking he had bested the Brisker rosh yeshiva. Rav Berel was unmoved, though. “Ess iz nit doh azah zach vi a veiter tatte (There is no such thing as a distant father),” he said.

Our avos are not some faraway relatives from the forgotten past. They are real and present.

It is our task, as we study these parshiyos of geulah, to rededicate ourselves to living lives of truth and being true to ourselves and our destiny. We have to be ever cognizant of who our forefathers are - those we know, those of recent memory, and those from the distant past.

We must not be impressed by the allure and glamour of fleeting beauty and popularity based upon superficiality and fallacy. We have to remain a people of depth and intelligence, of loyalty and determination. If things are too good to be true, they are. Just because everyone we know does something doesn’t mean that we should follow. We should learn more and with greater depth so that we can better appreciate our way of life. We shouldn’t take anything for granted. We should always seek to promote knowledge and truth.

Popularity and fanciful accolades are fleeting. What counts is what our avos would say about us and our actions. If what we are doing brings us closer to the geulah, then we should continue pursuing that path. If it doesn’t, we should be honest enough with ourselves to recognize the error of our ways and make our relatives - the close ones and those who aren’t so close – proud.