Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Linked Generations

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz


Some of the most dramatic and compelling stories of the Second World War period revolve around the awful parting moments, when parents were being separated from their beloved children, roshei yeshiva from their talmidim, and rabbonim from their kehillos. Then the shots rang out.

During those heightened moments, the older generation passed on to the younger one a final message. They took advantage of their final moments to transmit a legacy. Baalei batim led from their homes by cruel soldiers, merchants ripped away from their sons at concentration camp entrances, and rabbonim torn sadistically from their flocks all passed on the very same message. Whether they were Hungarian, Polish or Lithuanian, the message was identical.

“You’re a Yid. The Ribbono Shel Olam loves you and He always will, despite the darkness all around. Happier, brighter times will come. There have always been resho’im and always will be, but Hashem’s love for us endures while they fade. It isn’t always easy to be a Yid, but it is always fulfilling and real. Be strong, my child.”

Those dramatic exchanges form the foundation of our emunah in this long, bitter golus. Lehagid baboker chasdecha ve’emunascha baleilos.

Boruch Hashem, we were never forced to condense our entire lives into one hurried sentence. At the Seder, however, we have the opportunity to leave our children with a single message, a clear, unequivocal statement of what we want from them and what we stand for and believe.

Chazal direct us on how we should conduct ourselves at the Seder. The Mishnah in Maseches Pesochim (115b) which we relate at the Seder states, “Bechol dor vador chayov adom liros es atzmo ke’ilu hu yotzah miMitzrayim - In every generation, a person is obligated to view himself as if he left Mitzrayim.”

The wording of this statement is puzzling. Why do Chazal codify the obligation as a generational responsibility? The Mishnah and Haggadah should have stated that every year we are obligated at the Seder to view ourselves as if we have been freed from servitude. With the application of this chiyuv connected to the night of Pesach, it is intriguing that Chazal affirm the obligation as generational - bechol dor vador, and not as annual - bechol shanah veshanah.

While contemplating this question, think of Sedorim past, when you were a child. Most likely, central to the picture is the presence of a zaide, a voice that can address the younger people and tell them, “Yes, kinderlach, it’s still true, but Hakadosh Boruch Hu matzileinu miyodom.

My own earliest Seder memories take me to the Detroit home of my zaide, Rav Leizer Levin zt”l, who exuded sweetness, joy and love that made Yiddishkeit along with its rituals and rules the only things anyone could want.

The images are still so clear, including that of snatching his Afikoman and, with all the certainty and zeal of a new Mishnayos-learner, asking for a set of Mishnayos in return. He bought me a set, which I still cherish. I was bursting with pride.

I knew no Yiddish and the zaide’s English was heavily accented, but he possessed the secret of midor ledor. He knew how to transmit the holy shprach of his rabbeim, the Chofetz Chaim and Rav Doniel of Kelm, to his American grandchildren.

With that, all the trappings of his Pesach table, including the macaroons he would give us from a blue-and-white can, the walnuts, the seltzer and the niggunim, are painted with colors of chavivus and simcha, forever associated with the thrill of being a Yid.

This picture and the one we tried to portray on the cover of this edition is what Chazal were hinting at when they codified the fundamentals of sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim as a generational obligation. At the Seder, when we read aloud that Mishnah and engage in fulfilling the annual obligation of sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim, we have to know that the obligation is generational in nature. The older generation passes on to the younger generation the richness of the mesorah and the tales of Yetzias Mitzrayim.

This idea is reinforced by the version of the Mishnah as codified by the Rambam and as recited at the Seder by Sefardim, who follow his redaction of the Chazal. Rather than saying that the obligation is for every person, “liros es atzmo, to imagine oneself as if one has left Mitzrayim,” the Rambam writes in his Haggadah that the obligation is “leharos es atzmo, to demonstrate for others that one left.” This may be a further reflection of the role of parents and grandparents to transmit the joy and richness of freedom, and what it means to be a Jew, to all who have gathered at the Seder. It is not sufficient to feel that way yourself. You have to endeavor to pass on that feeling to your offspring.

With this we can understand as well why the Baal Haggadah writes in the popular portion of Vehi She’omdah, “shebechol dor vador omdim oleinu lechaloseinu.” Referring to the ever-present enemies of the Jewish people, we proclaim that in every generation they rise up to destroy us. In reality, those who seek to destroy us pop up on a regular basis. The challenge is not once in a generation. We are seemingly in a constant battle for our survival. The unending list of those who seek to do us harm is constantly evolving. Each year, it seems, a new rosha makes headlines by dint of threats and scare tactics. Usually, the aggressor is an outsider. Regrettably, sometimes, the belligerent antagonist is homegrown.

Every generation has an obligation to tell the next dor about the tribulations they experienced and how Hashem saved them. Every person is a survivor in one way or another of someone who was “omad aleinu lechaloseinu.” Every older person has an inspirational tale to tell the younger generation of how Hashem helped him face down his challenges and go on to thrive. Therefore, the Baal Haggadah wrote the paragraph of Vehi She’omdah with generational terminology.

Rav Yaakov Bender writes in this week’s Chinuch Roundtable about his own Sedorim, relating that his mother, the noted mechaneches, would join his family for Pesach. Each year at the Seder, Rebbetzin Bender would recount to her grandchildren anecdotes about how she survived the Holocaust. It was a highlight of the Seder, as the children learned how Hashem watched over her and, by extension, how He watches over them. The children would emerge from the Seder with a renewed sense of the privilege they have as links in a golden chain stretching back to Har Sinai.    

Besides the chizuk in emunah, our children receive valuable chinuch to stand tall and proud, and a call to continue the chain.

Their zaides and bubbes stared down Poles, Russians, Nazis and Magyars. Their spiritual forebears in the yeshivos battled Maskilim, Communists, Bundists, Yiddishists, and secular Zionists. All of these foes have failed in their promises of change and a better tomorrow. We endured, while they have largely dissipated. Though we always emerged standing, some years taller than others, their progeny are present bechol dor vador, seeking to stem our growth and swallow us.

Perhaps another reason we refer to the enemies of our people in generational terms is because each generation has its own unique nisyonos. Every generation gives birth not only to tyrants with new delusions, but also to styles, language, technology and advances with the potential to demoralize us and disconnect us from Torah.

We must know that the Torah addresses each one. The Torah speaks to all generations. The Torah is not a victim of a generational gap, and never becomes outdated. No matter what questions are confounding a given era, the answers are in the Torah. Thus, we say that the Torah was given in seventy languages. Its Divine wisdom shines like rays of welcome light into all epochs of history and corners of the globe, its lessons a living reality for each one. We therefore say, “Udvorcha emes vekayom lo’ad.” The truth of Torah is eternal.

This might well be the depth of the connection forged by the Baal Haggadah between the thanksgiving we offer for the Torah, and the Arba’ah Bonim. We recite the passage of “Boruch hamakom, boruch Hu, boruch shenosan Torah,” praising Hashem for giving us the Torah, and follow it with paragraphs about the different types of children the Torah speaks to, “Keneged arba’ah bonim dibrah Torah.”

We thank Hashem that the Torah can be transmitted from generation to generation, that its notes and cadences can reach the ears of all types of children, and that it is relevant and meaningful to each Jewish child. It’s a celebration of the timeless and enduring relevance of the Torah. 

This represents an obligation upon every parent to work to find the point where their son can be reached. No one is ever too far gone, too disinterested or too worn out to be written off and to be separated from Torah. There is something in the Torah for everyone. The Torah speaks to every child. Although sometimes it takes superhuman effort, no parent should ever give up on connecting with any of their children, as wayward as they appear to be. Boruch Hamakom.

In the years immediately following the Holocaust, yeshivos formed classes comprised of survivor children in order to better reach them. Chronologically, the poor refugees who populated those classes were teenagers, but there was nothing young about them. Their youth was spent running for their lives, being dragged from place to place, never knowing what the next day would bring. They dealt with every form of depravation possible, and then, when the smoke cleared and the war ended, in more cases than not, they were orphaned and all alone in this world. They had nothing, they knew no one, and hunger and loneliness were their constant companions. When they arrived in America, they were sent to yeshiva and urged to learn to try and compensate for the lost years.

It wasn’t easy acclimating to a yeshiva and trying to learn. It was difficult for many of them to sit in a constrained classroom in a school full of strange people speaking a strange language, especially when the American culture seemed so tempting.

One principal of a school with such students did his best to provide inspiration for them and motivate them to appreciate the meaning and depth that existed between the bais medrash walls they viewed as confining. Failing, he asked the Bobover Rebbe, who had survived the ravages of the war, to speak to the boys.

He was somewhat of a legend among the survivors. The boys were eager to meet someone who, like them, had experienced the war’s horrors.

The rebbe entered the auditorium and looked around at the students. There wasn’t much that he could say to them. He looked into their eyes and into their hearts, searching for a message that could reach them, in their place.

Finally, he stepped back and opened Sefer Mishlei, reading to them words written by Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest of all men. “Beni, al teileich bederech itom My son, do not walk in their ways, restrain your foot from their path…”

The rebbe then called upon a young talmid to join him at the podium. The boy came up to the front holding a violin. “Shpil, mein kind,” the rebbe said. As he played, plaintive sounds began filling the room. The rebbe began singing, matching the tune with words.  Beni, Beni, Beni,” he sang, his tone and expression making it clear that he was talking to them, all of them, expressing a gentle, melodic plea on behalf of their martyred fathers and mothers. His wistful song and his talmid’s music echoed across the room.

Again and again, he sang the words, verses that were so very real and relevant to them and their struggles. They could not sing along; they were sobbing. They were overcome by the message and the love.

Finally, much later, the violin was put down and the rebbe looked out at the boys, his new friends, his sons. They weren’t alone. They weren’t floundering anymore.

The Bobover Rebbe rebuilt here what he had lost, because he found a message that was firmer than the changes all around. My zaide, who learned in Radin and Kelm, was forced to send his own children to public school after the war, but he managed to plant Yiddishe pride in generations of loving children and ainiklach, raising a family of gedolei Torah, because he held on tight, confident in the strength of the music and melodies that his life played out.

Chazal teach that even as slaves in Mitzrayim, the Bnei Yisroel remained loyal to their heritage. The fact that “lo shinu es leshonom shemom umalbushom tells us much about their confidence in the words of Hashem and their certainty that they would be freed. We have to remain focused, despite the distractions of temporary turbulence all around us, knowing our place in a sacred chain that goes back midor dor, leading to Moshiach.

The statement thanking Hakadosh Boruch Hu for giving us the Torah which speaks keneged the Arba Bonim is preceded by the story of Rabi Elazar ben Azarya, who is quoted as remarking that he was like a seventy-year-old man, yet he did not merit for Yetzias Mitzrayim to be proclaimed at night as well as by day. We know that when he said that, he was only eighteen years old. Chazal say that he miraculously took on an older, wizened appearance so that he would be able to assert authority as the new av bais din.

Perhaps there is another dimension to that part of his statement.

All the drashos of Chazal which derive halachos from pesukim are not the original creations of the Tanno’im and Amora’im in whose names they are quoted. Rather, they are teachings that were passed down from rebbi to talmid, from generation to generation, all the way back to Moshe Rabbeinu at Har Sinai. The Mishnah and Gemara attribute the lessons to the Torah giant among Chazal who brought it to the bais medrash. 

Perhaps Rabi Elazar ben Azarya was of the sentiment that the parsha of Yetzias Mitzrayim should be recited at night, but he had no mesorah for it from the dor that preceded him. It was only after Ben Zoma revealed the lesson from a posuk that Rabi Elazar was able to announce it as halacha. This is reflected by his statement that it was as if he was seventy years old, meaning that he confirmed his ruling through a mesorah transmitted by the previous generation. This, once again, reinforces the generational nature of the Seder.

Rav Zundel Kroizer, in his peirush on the Haggadah, explains the dispute between Rabi Elazar ben Azarya and Ben Zoma with the chachomim who say that there is no obligation to recite Yetzias Mitzrayim at night. He says that the chachomim agree that there is a steady mitzvah to remember Yetzias Mitzrayim, at night as well as by day. The point of contention was whether it is sufficient to remember Yetzias Mitzrayim or if it must be spoken.

Perhaps we can add that this is the reason we mention it at the Seder. We are reminding everyone present that it is not sufficient to remember Yetzias Mitzrayim for yourself. It is not enough to be thankful for the Hashgochah Protis that you yourself have experienced. You must speak about it and proclaim it for all to hear. Bechol dor vador.

The Mechiltah teaches that it was on the night of the Seder that the visiting malochim told Avrohom and Sorah that she would give birth to Yitzchok the following year.

Additionally, the Zohar and Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer teach that it was on the night of the Seder, that Yitzchok transferred the brachos to Yaakov.

Rav Chaim Vital is often quoted as having said that the energy of a Yom Tov which caused a miracle whose occurrence is being celebrated is present each year on that day.

Leil haSeder, heralding back to the avos, is a night laden with the spiritual power and ability to transfer our heritage and blessings to our children. We have to do what we can to maximize the opportunity the evening presents to us.

Those figures, fathers bestowing farewell messages to children in Auschwitz or elsewhere, seemed so tragic, but now we know that they were really triumphant, for this is our mission - to transmit these riches and safeguard them for another dor. It’s the only thing that endures.

No matter our station in life, we sit at the Seder like kings and queens and transmit our blessings and beliefs, our Torah and mesorah, to the next generation. We talk of Paroh and the others who were “omdim aleinu.” We note that they are gone and forgotten, as those who plot and work against us will shortly be. We discuss divrei Torah, we tell tales, enjoy each other’s company; proudly display our matzos, raise our kosos; and sing songs of victory and jubilation, as Jews have done bechol dor vador forever and ever, lehovi limos haMoshiach, bekarov beyomeinu. Amein.

Have a kosheren and freilichen Yom Tov.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Doh Is Lichtig

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz


It has been said that Jewish history is quite simple.

There is an old fable which depicts the Jewish condition. The drinking water all the animals depended upon was being contaminated. Nobody was able to identify the culprit. Finally, the animal leaders met, examined the facts, and sentenced a poor, hapless goat to death for the crime.

The goat protested that it was unfair to blame him for something he could not have done. He had a perfect alibi: He had never even been near the water.

“You’re right,” replied the wolf. “Maybe it’s not your fault. but we have to kill you.”

In the Middle Ages, when plagues spread throughout Europe, the Jews were always blamed. “The Jews poisoned the wells!” was the refrain that led to the butchery of tens of thousands of our forebears. Whenever there was a problem afflicting the general population, Jews were the scapegoat.

Ever since those dark days, Jews have been attempting to prove that they are normal, productive, loyal citizens. Usually for naught.

“You’re right,” the anti-Semites inevitably respond, “but we hate you anyway.”

Back at the very beginning, the nochosh was victorious with his venomous power of leitzonus, scoffing to Chava about the Ribbono Shel Olam. To persuade her to sin, the snake mocked holiness. Ever since, cynicism and scorn have been realities we must deal with. Kedushah, holiness, has for eternity encountered contemptuous resistance. The face of the opponent may be charming, but the motivations are those of the snake.

The sinas am ha’aretz for a talmid chochom is nothing new. As long as there have been Yidden doing mitzvos, they have been scorned by others. Under the guise of concern over social welfare and with calls to “share the burden,” those who fear Hashem have been accused of being anti-social parasites almost forever.

Rabi Akiva (Pesachim 49b) said regarding himself, that in his earlier years as a shepherd when he was not yet familiar with Torah, his hatred of a talmid chochom was intense: “If I saw a talmid chochom,” he recalled, “I wished to bite him like a donkey (whose bite hurts more than that of a dog).”

In telling the story of how Rochel, daughter of the fabulously wealthy Kalba Savua, chose the shepherd, Akiva, for a husband despite her father’s protestations, the Gemara (Kesubos 62b) depicts him as a kind and humble person.

Tosafos points out that although he was gentle and compassionate, he still wished he could bite another human being with the aim of causing him great pain. Despite the fact that he was a shepherd, engaged in a vocation that requires tenderness, and notwithstanding his nature as a good, kind, sympathetic and loving individual, he was consumed with hatred for talmidei chachomim.

Such is the malice of genial, gentle am haaratzim towards talmidei chochomim. That is the way it has always been ever since the Torah was given on Har Sinai, and that is the way it is today.

So get ready for the onslaught, because here we go again.

The media is licking its collective chops in anticipation. A new government has been formed in Eretz Yisroel and its coalition will exclude everyone’s favorite scapegoat. The chareidim are out. The ones who cause so much trouble have been banished to their insular corners. Enough ink to fill the Kinneret will be spilled with self-congratulatory, exultant editorials about how this new government is so much better, friendlier, and more in touch with the people. The politicians will gloat about how much more they can accomplish to benefit the country with the chareidi stranglehold broken.

With Yahadus Hatorah and Shas out of the way, there won’t be anyone to object to empowering liberal rabbis to water down conversion procedures, welcoming all who wish to be accepted as Jews, even if they don’t halachically qualify. Kashrus will also suffer, as will Shabbos and halachic marriage requirements. A revolution will ensue, with the kind, thoughtful, enlightened ones turning back decades of Neanderthal strangulation.

The government bulldozer will aim for the yeshivos, seeking to stem their remarkable post-Holocaust rebirth and growth. They will undo what Menachem Begin and every successive government since his has done to support Torah study. The long-forgotten Mizrachi party, newly revived and revitalized, will roar back to life, proudly waving its compromising agenda. Their all-inclusive Ahavat Yisroel passes over those most scrupulous in their Torah observance, as their concern for all the country’s citizens frighteningly points them to starve the poor children of the contemptible Torah scholars.

While the outside world will focus on Israel’s existential problems, namely the Iranian threat, the festering Palestinian issues and the general outcry against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, beneath the radar the new coalition partners will be busy at work turning back the clock on matters of religion and state.

Davka at a time when the country requires zechuyos to remain viable in an inhospitable neighborhood, Torah and mitzvos, in whose merit the world and Israel exist, will be under attack.

People who don’t appreciate history and the underlying points of conflict, will be lecturing us on how we should have behaved and what we should have done differently while the going was good. The advice to be more welcoming, open and loving will come from all sides, and many will indeed be convinced that if only the chareidim would be more tolerant of deviant behavior and more charitable to all types of Jews, Shas would still be heading up vital ministries, UTJ Knesset members would still be functioning as ministers and in charge of the Knesset Finance Committee; and chareidim would still be chief rabbis and dayonim.

Of course there is always room for improvement and not everything every member of the community says or does is always proper or beneficial to the way we are perceived by our secular brethren and the general world. By and large, however, we are good people, dedicating our lives to growth in Torah, mitzvos, and good deeds. We follow a Divine guide to life, which, while we take it for granted, is singular in the world. Our lives have meaning, as we realize that we each have a mission to complete. We build schools and clinics, and we support the poor and those in need. We give more charity and spend a greater percentage of our days studying than anyone else. We are moral and kind and don’t need to be lectured by anyone.

Sure, every so often there will be positive articles about us in the press, if for no other reason than for them to be able to portray themselves as being objective when they attack us. Just as we should not be overly enthralled when they condemn, we should not be overwhelmed with their sparing embrace. We are not impressed by their platitudes or by those of the apologists. 

There will be trying times ahead and we must be strong and resolute as we wait for the pendulum to swing back in our direction. In the alter heim, no matter what Jews did, it wasn’t enough. No matter how much they paid in taxes, it was never enough. No matter how patriotic they were, they were always accused of having dual loyalties. No matter how friendly they were to their neighbors, come Pesach-time, the local pastor would preach against the bloodthirsty Jews who kill innocent Christian children to use their blood for matzos. Despite all the pogroms, our grandfathers and grandmothers didn’t veer from the path. They never buckled and they never wavered in their beliefs and fidelity to Torah. They possessed the self-confidence and buoyancy to proudly march forward.

The Brisker Rov once spent Shabbos in a hotel for the sheva brachos of one of his sons. The Rov, as is the habit of others, did not benefit from Israeli electricity on Shabbos, because the electric company is operated by Jews. A talmid volunteered to arrange for the hotel to provide a large room in which the electricity was shut off, for them to  daven and eat in.

For whatever reason, the job wasn’t done, and when the Rov walked into the room, the lights were shining brightly. He immediately left that room and found a small, dark area where there was no light. He announced that they would be using that room over Shabbos.

In obvious distress, the talmid approached the Rov to apologize. “I am so sorry,” he said, “that the large room is lichtig (illuminated).”

The Rov responded with a surprised look on his face. “Dort iz lichtig?” he asked, indicating the first, well-lit room. “Doh iz lichtig!” he said, pointing to the small, darkened room around him where Yidden sat davening.

We have to reaffirm our belief that as bright as the lights may seem, as wide as the smiles on the coalition members’ faces appear, and as exultant as our enemies seem, doh iz lichtig. We have a rich, vibrant mesorah and the tools to rise above the pettiness and small-mindedness all around us. Our strength and confidence come from horeving in learning, from maasim tovim and chessed, and from tefillah and bitachon. We aren’t the Ribbono Shel Olam’s salesmen, compromising on His Torah, Shabbos or geirus for material gain. Our mission remains to preserve the gaon Yaakov asher oheiv selah. We don’t compromise our ideals in the pursuit of fleeting human accolades.

We have to learn not to get squeamish or bent out of shape when we are attacked over silliness. Nor should we get drunk with excitement when some secular Jew relates a nice anecdote about frumeh Yidden.

The fundamentals of our emunah must be strong. We must have bitachon that when one does what is right and proper; the correct outcome will eventually result. We don’t have to feel apologetic to the women’s libbers who claim that the Torah is unfair. We don’t owe anything to the goyim who want to be codified as Jews. Torah has always been our lifeblood and always will be. Torah and halacha are eternal truths. They are Divinely given and are not subject to passing fads, political needs, or the prevailing zeitgeist.

Popularity is not proof of truth. Of course we have to treat all people the way we want to be treated - with kindness, civility, humility and gentleness - but not out of a feeling of submission and weakness, but rather because the Torah is a Toras Chessed, and mussar and middos tovos are chalokim and s’nifim of the derech we follow.

And if the penetrating truth in that isn’t enough, it behooves us to study the stories of those who came before us and faced the spiritual fathers of Yair Lapid and Naftoli Bennett. One example is that of the Ponovezher Rov, who built Torah at a time when Zionism, with its trappings, uniforms and ideals, was the wave of the future. Speaking in 1941, he famously predicted that one day the children of the most left-wing, diehard, anti-religious Kibbutz Ein Charod would be wearing tefillin.

Many mocked the Rov, as they did when he began building his yeshiva on an empty hill in a small, dusty, hot town. They said that he was an unrealistic dreamer. Yet, the Rov told his son how he knew that what he said wasn’t empty hyperbole. To him, it was as real as the pesukim in the Torah. Like so many who sacrificed themselves so that we can live Torah lives, he knew that the truth would triumph.

Their victory is temporary. Torah is eternal.

The recently departed Reb Yossel Friedenson would tell the story of Reb Akiva Goldstoff, who found a way to bake matzos in the concentration camp in which he was thrust. His overjoyed bunkmates were cherishing their crumbs of a mitzvah when a Nazi strode into the barracks.

“Fools!” he mocked them. “Do you really believe that your G-d is here for you? Why don’t you look around and see how He has forsaken, forgotten and abandoned you?”

With a knowing smile, Reb Yossel would recount the timeless reply of Reb Akiva Goldstoff: “Nisht in gantzen, un nisht oif eibek. It may appear that we are forgotten, but it’s not total and not forever.”

Boruch Hashem, today we can bake matzos and eat as much as we want. As the threatening sounds of derision come our way, we should remember that the scoffers only have the upper hand temporarily. Nisht in gantzen and nisht oif eibek.

My friend, Rav Yechiel Spero, recently shared with me the following story. After World War II, one of those who undertook a campaign to rebuild the ruchniyus of Klal Yisroel was Rav Gershon Libman, the founding rosh yeshiva of the Novardok Yeshiva in France. At a time when many people were disoriented from the ravages of the awful war and were bitter toward G-d, wanting nothing to do with Him, Rabbi Libman yearned to ignite the spark of Yiddishkeit once more.

He traveled to meet with members of the Joint Distribution Committee, hoping they would support his cause and provide funding for the yeshiva he dreamed about building. After a long wait for his chance to speak with them, he went through his plan, soliciting their assistance to help him resurrect the lives of yeshiva bochurim, shattered by the war. When he finished his pitch, the head of the committee spoke.

“It is very noble that you are helping these young men rebuild their lives,” the man told Rav Gershon, “but we will not support the worthless bonk-kvetcher practice of sitting on a bench and learning. If you tell us that after learning in the yeshiva they will go to a university to become doctors, lawyers or accountants and become productive citizens, then we can give you money to support them. If not, we can’t waste our money on them.”

Rav Gershon was surprised, but not shocked. He knew that these people were not supportive of his way of life, but he could not tolerate the way they mocked yeshivos and bochurim. He stood up and proclaimed, “In this yeshiva, we will develop mentchen!”

Until that point, the leader had been firm, but polite. Suddenly, however, he turned red, pounded on the table, and raised his voice. “Don’t tell me about mentchen!” he hollered, rolling up his sleeve to show the numbers tattooed on his arm, revealing that he was a survivor of the Nazi atrocities.

“You are not the only one who survived the camps,” he continued. “I also went through them. I saw what life was like there. I witnessed the way people acted. We were nothing more than animals struggling to survive. Now, all humanity, all mentchlichkeit, is gone! I’m sorry, but our answer is no!”

Rav Gershon quietly left the room. He walked back and forth for a few moments and then, suddenly, made a beeline toward the meeting room. He informed the secretary that he had to speak to the committee again. She politely explained that he had his chance and there were others who needed the time. Rav Gershon promised her that he was done asking for money and just wanted to tell the committee members in the room a story. He walked in and this is what he said:

“If you don’t want to give me money, I understand. But you said that there are no more mentchen. That’s not true, however, for I was privileged to be among a group of them in the war.”

This was his story:

We worked fourteen-hour days in the camp. The labor broke us, body and spirit. There were many who did not survive. Even those who did were forced to degrade ourselves to walk down into a ditch to retrieve our “food.” It wasn’t much, a paltry bowl of murky, muddy soup. We were each given a bowl and made our way toward the large container. When we got there, our masters would put a ladleful of soup into our bowls, bark at us, and send us on our way.

Holding our bowls, we had to walk back up the hill, contending with the throngs of people who were rushing to get to their meal. They were also starving and unable to take us into account as we carefully walked with our bowls. By the time we got to the top of the hill, there were only a few spoonsful left in our bowls.

There was an older fellow who had lost his will to live. His whole family had died and he was all alone. He just wanted to die and be with his family again. But we would encourage him every day, and we would help him down into the pit to get his soup.

But one day, it seemed that the man’s spark had been extinguished, and all of his spirit was completely sapped. More than ever, he looked as though he had one foot in the grave. And no matter how hard we tried, we could not convince him to go down to get his food. We knew that if he did not get some nourishment, he would die.

Suddenly, we saw a man emerge from the throngs with two bowls of soup. Since he was walking toward us, for a second we thought he had gone to get some food for this man. But as soon as we saw that he was not coming toward us, we asked him if he would be able to share one of his bowls with the man who was dying. He looked at us defiantly and refused. “Over here, it’s each man for himself.”

It did not take long. Within a couple hours, the old man was dead. That night, we didn’t eat supper. Instead, we took the lonely man’s body and buried it. 

Rav Gershon turned once more to the group and said sharply, “Don’t tell me that there are no longer mentchen. That group of bnei Torah gave up everything for a fellow Jew. And he was a stranger.”

The leader of the group started crying as Rav Gershon finished the story. At first, the tears trickled slowly and quietly down his cheeks. And then he began to sob. And through his tears, he blurted out, “I’m so sorry. I couldn’t help myself. We were starving and I thought that I would die. I was the fellow with the two bowls. You are right. Among your kind, there are still mentchen.

The man said that he would give much more than Rav Gershon asked for and added, “Yes, Rabbi Libman, you are correct. Even in the darkest moments and the most difficult times, there are still those who are able to shine.”

That’s our heritage. That’s who we are. That’s the world of Torah.

Let not let the headlines or the grim prognosis get us down. Let us learn to internalize and proclaim, with confidence and joy, the words of the Brisker Rov: “Doh is lichtig!”

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Tapping Our Talents

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz


Everybody has special talents with which they have been blessed. Properly utilized, they can improve the world. If we would recognize and appreciate the gifts with which we have been endowed, we could make a difference in our community and the world.

Many excuse themselves for not aspiring for greatness because they aren’t blessed with a lighting fast mind or a photographic memory they think that they obviously were destined to be followers and not leaders. Others are insecure and don’t appreciate their potential. They therefore don’t apply themselves to accomplish what is within their grasp.

In the center of Yerushalayim sits Botei Rand, a small oasis where the rising sun sets the red rooftops ablaze with a golden hue. Inside the tiny enclave, unassuming tzaddikim and tzidkoniyos and their families live lives devoted to Hashem and Torah.

In the Botei Rand shul, facing the amud, a magnificent, colorful work of art is displayed behind a raised glass. The drawing, designed to bring glory and honor to the shul, contains words of Chazal regarding tefillah interspersed with relevant images.

The artist of the impressive work was the tzaddik in a neighborhood of tzaddikim, Rav Yitzchok Nosson Kuperstock, maggid shiur in the Tchebiner Yeshiva and mechaber of sefer Meoros Nosson. He passed away a few years ago.

It is said that when Rav Kuperstock was a bochur, his hasmodah was such that he spent the night alone in the bais medrash of the nearby Eitz Chaim Yeshiva. His rebbi, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, worried that it was dangerous for the boy to be alone at night in the unlocked building, which was located on a major thoroughfare. Rav Isser Zalman asked the administrator to give the young boy the key to the otzar haseforim, home to the yeshiva’s valuable collection of antique and rare volumes. Due to their value, the room remained locked and no talmid was trusted with the key. However, since Rav Isser Zalman had asked, the young masmid was granted permission to learn there.

Rav Kuperstock’s friend and chavrusah, Rav Chaim Brim, testified many years later that three decades prior, Rav Kuperstock did not walk four amos without being immersed in learning. Yet, this tremendous masmid was the same person who drew the artwork that is displayed so prominently at the Botei Rand amud.

Rav Kuperstock, who wouldn’t waste a moment, understood that if Hakadosh Boruch Hu had blessed him with artistic talent, he should find a use for it. And he did.

This concept is found in this week’s parsha. In Parshas Vayakhel (35:10), Moshe Rabbeinu tells the Jewish people that Hashem commanded for “kol chacham lev bochem, every wise-hearted person among you,” to step forward and help construct the Mishkon. Apparently, every capable person could be part of the effort to build the Mishknon and its keilim.

Later on in the parsha, (35:30), Moshe relates that Hakadosh Boruch Hu revealed to him the unique role that Betzalel would play in erecting the Mishkon.

So was it a communal effort or was it Betzalel’s job to erect the Mishkon?

Rav Moshe Feinstein explains that even though Betzalel eventually received the personal directive to oversee the construction of the Mishkon and its keilim, every person who was blessed with the abilities necessary to construct the Mishkon was obligated to be prepared to utilize those abilities in this endeavor.

This idea is reinforced by the language of the posuk (ibid.), when Moshe tells the Bnei Yisroel, “Re’u kora Hashem besheim Betzalel ben Uri ben Chur lemateh Yehudah - See that Hashem has called upon Betzalel for this work.”

The word “re’u,” which means to see, is problematic. How could the Bnei Yisroel visualize Hashem’s appointment of Betzalel? There was no bas kol that they could have heard proclaiming Betzalel as the one called upon to construct the Mishkon. There was no finger that pointed down from Shomayim indicating that he was the chosen one.

The sight they could have seen, says Rav Moshe, is the reality expressed by the continuation of the pesukim: “He has filled him with ruach Elokim, with wisdom, with understanding and with knowledge, and with every craft.”

If people are blessed with such apparent abilities, then it is obvious for them and for all to see that they possess those qualities in order to complete the tasks on behalf of the klal that those abilities are suited for.

Since Betzalel was blessed with the skills necessary to build the Mishkon, it was as if there was a bas kol proclaiming that he is the one to build it.

The talents a person has are meant to be utilized for Hashem, for the public betterment, for Torah, for kedushah.

If a person is blessed with the ability to communicate effectively, he should utilize that gift to give chizuk to people, convincing people to grow in Torah and avodah and dispense tzedokah. He should write about yeshivos and mosdos and help address pressing issues from a Torah standpoint. If he can teach, he should use that ability to reach out to people and instruct them on how to read and write. He should assist others in becoming more fluent in the language of Torah and better and more productive people. If a person is a skilled craftsman, he should use his G-d-given talents to help build shuls, botei medrash, schools, and places where chessed can be performed. He should utilize his skills to help people as much as he can. 

Every person is brought into this world for a reason and has a mission to fulfill in life. We identify our mission by recognizing and appreciating the gifts Hashem has given us.

Sometimes we need someone to make us aware of our gifts and give us the confidence we need to bring out the talent that lies inside us. Simple words of encouragement and support can provide the confidence necessary to reach greatness. We all have the potential to accomplish great things. All too often, regrettably, the potential remains untapped.

My friend learned in Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim and was part of a weekly chaburah at the home of the rosh yeshiva, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l. The chaburah was delivered by a different bochur each week based on a rotation system. The rosh yeshiva would listen, ask, and interject.

It was my friend’s turn to deliver the chaburah. He prepared very diligently for it, knowing that everyone present would be listening closely. On a small slip of paper, he jotted down his mareh mekomos and notes to remind him of his points in case he would be too nervous to remember them by heart. When he began to say his chaburah, he placed the sheet of paper near the top of his Gemara.

Everything seemed to be going well. The rosh yeshiva and the others in the room were nodding along, seeming to agree. When they asked questions, he had ready answers.

As he continued, to his consternation, he noticed the rosh yeshiva’s hand slowly moving across the table in his direction. The rosh yeshiva, with the hint of a smile on his face, seized the small piece of paper with the notes for the chaburah and placed it in his own pocket.

“You don’t need it,” he said to the stunned bochur, who wondered how he would manage to get through the complicated chaburah without his notes.

To his utter surprise, he succeeded in delivering a wonderful chaburah that day, just as the rosh yeshiva had predicted. He emerged from the room with a powerful lesson - not just about the sugya in Yevamos, but about himself.

Yated readers are no doubt familiar with the heroic work of Yerachmiel Simins in battling New York’s attempts to tamper with bris milah. Mr. Simins is a real estate lawyer who was always involved in good causes. Initially, he was involved in the milah issue in a peripheral manner as part of his askonus.

That changed when he met Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv several years ago. Realizing his brilliance and tenacity, Rav Elyashiv told him that he should do whatever he can to stop the gezeirah. Since then, he has led the campaign to turn back the designs of the city and state. He became well-versed in all the legal, medical and technical issues. He marshaled support from all segments of the community on legal, financial and rabbinic levels and, as Rav Elyashiv told him, he continues to do everything in his ability to combat the efforts of those who want to interfere and tinker with our time-honored traditions.

He has the ability, Hashem blessed him with many gifts, and he uses them all for the benefit of the greater Jewish community. He is an example we can follow.

Yitzchok Elchonon Spector was 12 years old when he went on a date in the town of Volkovisk. As he sat at the dining room table speaking in learning with the prospective shver, he absentmindedly and repeatedly dipped his hand into the plate of chocolates set at the center of the table, consuming all of them.

The girl refused the shidduch, stating that a boy who eats chocolate while speaking in learning wasn’t for her.

Many years later, when Rav Yitzchok Elchonon was the acknowledged gadol hador, he passed through Volkovisk. The townspeople came out to greet him and seek his brachos.

There was one particularly sad woman waiting in line for a brocha from the rov of Kovna. As she approached him, she recognized that this was the boy she had rejected many decades earlier. She broke out in bitter tears and began to wail, “Woe is to me! Woe is to me!”

According to one version of the story, Rav Yitzchok Elchonon scolded her for failing to recognize the potential he possessed when he was 12 years old. It was a long journey of many years of ameilus from that humble dining room to the position of Kovno Rov, but she could have had the zechus of encouraging him and enabling him to grow. She could have had a life of eternal blessing. Instead, she was just another poor Lithuanian housewife.

Klal Yisroel recently celebrated the Twelfth Siyum Hashas of Daf Yomi. As much as anything else, it was a celebration of the personal dreams of many individuals and their wives and families, who committed themselves to a goal and encouraged each other to attain it. The mesayeim chased his dream and others helped him reach it.

Daf Yomi, a program that enables people to complete the study of Shas, was conceived by a man who himself followed his dreams.

The originator of the concept, Rav Meir Shapiro, the Lubliner rosh yeshiva, was once traveling and stopped at a train station. A man came up to him and introduced himself as Rav Yaakov Halberstam, the Tchakovah Rebbe. He said that he was a son-in-law of the Shotzer Rebbe. Rav Schapiro, born and raised in Shotz, asked the Rebbe if his wife happened to be traveling with him. The Rebbe was surprised by the question but answered that, in fact, his wife was with him. Rav Shapiro asked to speak to her, and when she came forward, he asked her if she recalled how they would play together as children.

The rebbetzin said that she remembered the times they would play in the shul courtyard in Shotz.

“So then you might also remember,” said the man renowned as the Lubliner rosh yeshiva, “how I was obsessed with my idea of implementing a program through which every Yid would learn the very same daf of Gemara every day.”

The rebbetzin nodded.

“Maybe you also remember how the children would all make fun of me and my big ideas.”

The rebbetzin indicated that she remembered that too.

“I want you to know,” said Rav Shapiro, “that the ridicule and scorn almost dissuaded me, but somehow, with siyata diShmaya, we pushed through anyway. Remember this story for its lesson: Never, ever, laugh at the dream of a child.”

The rosh yeshiva turned and rushed off to make his train.

Someone related this story in the presence of Rav Moshe Halberstam, the venerable dayan of the Eidah Hachareidis of Yerushalayim. One of those present said that it was a strange tale that made no sense and that it was surely a bubbe mayseh. A debate broke out. Rav Moshe quieted the discussion and said that the story was true. In fact he himself had heard it from his mother, the Tchakovah Rebbetzin, the woman in the train station.

Rav Meir Shapiro was endowed with the ability to formulate and conceive a plan that would change tens of thousands of lives and greatly increase the amount of Torah learning and knowledge in the world. He followed his mission and thus bequeathed to Klal Yisroel the treasure that is Daf Yomi.

Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector was a poor boy who worked on himself, struggling through Shas and kol haTorah kulah until he was the world’s master decisor of all halachic matters. He believed in himself and in his kochos, so he developed them and used them for the betterment of himself and the klal. In doing so, he enriched us all.

Betzalel ben Uri ben Chur lemateh Yehudah followed his calling and, through his efforts, the Mishkon was built.

Re’u! Open your eyes! Look in the mirror and see the tools that the Ribbono Shel Olam has blessed you with. Identify the job that awaits you and set yourself to carrying it out. You’ll be surprised by how much you can do.

Ability, combined with dreams, indefatigable spirit, self-belief, confidence, vision and resilience, gives birth to great accomplishments. Everyone can build towering spiritual edifices if they believe in themselves and commit themselves to reaching their goals.