Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Greatness and Lag Ba’omer

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz


Last week, the eyes of the world were firmly focused on a Boston neighborhood where a single nineteen-year-old monster kept a city at bay, shutting down one of the most powerful and sophisticated metropolises on the globe. Policemen and politicians, all the way up to the president, were focused on the machinations and maneuverings of this lost and misguided soul. His actions and those of his brother reminded us once again about the horrible capacities of man.

We all possess the capacity for tremendous greatness, as well as, regrettably, the potential to sink to awful lows. The Shalah Hakadosh says that this is the reason that the Torah uses the word “odom” when referring to man.

The appellation “odom” is intertwined with the word “adameh,” which means, “I shall emulate,” a reference to man’s mandate of adameh le’Elyon, emulating the Divine. Odom is also related to the word “adamah,” the dirt of the ground, the lowliest substance.

In that one word and name, Hashem invested us with our life mission. Every day presents opportunities to soar to lofty heights and tumble to extreme lows.

Additionally, Odom is lashon yochid, the singular tense, because it possesses another message: each person, alone, an odom shenivra yechidi, can reach the heights of Heaven or the depths of earth all by himself. Man decides in which direction he will go. Every person has free reign over the willpower, energy, intelligence and human abilities that the Creator endowed him with.

Those awful brothers in Boston last week demonstrated how low man can sink.

Lehavdil, when the infant Moshe was found floating in a cradle on the river Nilus, Basya bas Paroh tried feeding him. However, the infant refused to be nourished by an ishah Mitzris. Rashi explains that a mouth destined to speak directly with the Shechinah wouldn’t allow itself to be defiled. Thus, until Miriam brought a meinekes Yehudis, he refused to eat.

The Vilna Gaon writes that this story is the source for the ruling of the Rama (Yoreh Deah 81:7) that although a child may drink the milk of a gentile woman, a Jewish nurse is preferable.

The question is obvious: The reason that Moshe refused the milk was because he was a “peh she’osid ledaber im haShechinah,” the greatest novi who ever lived, and it would have been improper for him to have been nourished from a gentile woman. His singular situation should have no relevance to the halacha pertaining to the masses.

Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky explained that the Rama was able to derive this halacha from Moshe Rabbeinu, because every Jewish child possesses the potential to become as great as Moshe. Therefore, parents are obligated to bring their children up in a manner that will allow them to grow to that level of greatness. Yidden raise their children with the confidence of “adameh le’Elyon,” cognizant of the possibility of them developing into the moshion shel Yisroel.

Until his first visit to the United States, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman was largely unknown to most people. During one of his largely stops during that trip, he faced a crowd of thousands of American youngsters and quoted to them the words of Chazal relating to the birth of the novi Shmuel.

The Yalkut Shimoni (Shmuel I, 1:78) relates that prior to the birth of Shmuel Hanovi, a bas kol rang out across the world proclaiming that a tzaddik named Shmuel would soon be born. Every Jewish mother named her son Shmuel in the hope that he would be the tzaddik foretold by the Heavenly voice.

When people witnessed the acts and conduct of the Shmuel who would go on to become the novi, they knew that he was the tzaddik referred to by the bas kol.

In his message, Rav Shteinman explained that evident in this Medrash is the intense wish and hope of every Jewish parent that his or her son will bring light and salvation to Klal Yisroel.

Later that night, Rav Shteinman demonstrated the potential that he saw in each Jewish child. The day had begun many hours earlier with Shacharis kevosikin at the crack of dawn. Finally, following a day consisting of a long string of meetings, public appearances, shiurim and visits, he returned to the home of his host in Brooklyn. The elderly sage, who subsists on minimal food and little sleep, had never left Eretz Yisroel since the day he arrived there and had never undertaken as strenuous a day.

As he sat down to rest, he was told that there was a young boy on the porch, desperate to meet him. The child had been turned away and was weeping bitterly. Rav Shteinman told the people with him to let the boy in. As he faced the saintly tzaddik, the boy told the interpreter that he had immigrated to New York with his family from Russia and was a student in a yeshiva for immigrant children. He heard about the rabbi’s visit and desperately wanted his blessing. With the inbred akshanus, resilience and tenacity that Russian Jewry adopted to maintain their commitment to Yiddishkeit, this boy succeeded in his goal of receiving a brocha for his future success. Blessing him warmly, Rav Shteinman smiled at the child’s dedication, reminding all that everyone is worthy of the same attention and respect. Every person possesses greatness. Every child has the potential to be a savior, just like Moshe Rabbeinu and Shmuel Hanovi.

We never give up on another Yid. No one is insignificant, for  each Yid is blessed with a neshomah and the ability to rise above all.

This understanding gives meaning to the celebration of the yahrtzeit of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai on Lag Ba’omer. Perhaps with another story we can better appreciate the outpouring of joy and reverence with which the day of his passing is honored.

A group of askonim entered the room of the Gerrer Rebbe, the Pnei Menachem, who served as rosh yeshiva in the Gerrer Yeshiva. They were involved in trying to find a suitable match for a bochur in the yeshiva who had a difficult home situation and background. The dedicated individuals around the table told the Rebbe about a girl they were proposing for that boy. The Rebbe let them make their pitch. Then he spoke.

“I will share with you a rule by which I have always tried to live my own life.. If you give an eitzah, you can only offer it if you would accept it yourself. It is improper to recommend a course of action that you yourself would not follow. I know that your situations are different and that you are more fortunate, but still, would any one of you consider this shidduch for your own sons?”

There was an uncomfortable silence in the Rebbe’s room.

“If so,” said the Rebbe, “you cannot suggest it for this bochur either.”

The Rebbe noticed the disappointment on the faces of his chassidim, some of whom had invested many hours helping this particular bochur, and he continued speaking.

“I cannot approve of this solution,” said the Rebbe, “but I can offer a brocha that this bochur should find the right girl in the near future, so that you might see the fruit of your labor.”

As the group rose and prepared to leave, the Rebbe addressed them once more.

“Remember one thing, just as I do: Whenever you deal with Yidden and try to work for their benefit, you must keep the words of Chazal in front of you. Kol Yisroel bnei melochim heim. Every single Yid is royalty. When you set out to help people, you can only do so if you have genuine appreciation of them in your hearts and minds.”

Every Yid is a ben melech, with the potential and capacity for greatness.

Who was it who revealed this metzius, the fact that royalty is enmeshed and embedded in every Jewish soul?

It was Rabi Shimon (Shabbos 67 et al), who said, “Kol Yisroel bnei melochim heim, and ruled as halacha lemaaseh that every Jewish person can wear royal clothing on Shabbos without transgressing the prohibition of hotza’ah, because every Yid is a ben melech. Beholding the glory and splendor of every neshomah, he appreciated the greatness inherent in every person. And from whom did he learn this? From his rebbi, Rabi Akiva, who, for the first four decades of his life, was a simple shepherd who no one thought would ever amount to much. But he, too, was a ben melech, and through him the Jewish people were blessed to be led by Rabi Shimon bar Yochai and bequeathed the entire Torah Shebaal Peh.

On Lag Ba’omer, Jews around the world light bonfires and sing songs praising Rabi Shimon and his rebbi, Rabi Akiva. They dance round and round in circles, chanting over and over again the words of Rabi Shimon’s rebbi, “Omar Rabi Akiva ashreichem Yisroel. Praised be the Bnei Yisroel.” Thousands stream to the kever of Rabi Shimon in Meron, and those who are lucky are able to read the words - his words - painted atop the entrance - “Ki lo sishuchach mipi zaro ” - reflecting the greatness of Hashem, His Torah and His people.

We are all familiar with the Gemara which states that Rabi Akiva merited teaching 24,000 disciples, but because they didn’t display proper respect towards each other, they died during the period of Sefirah.

Describing the episode that transpired after the shevotim sold Yosef Hatzaddik into slavery, the posuk says that Yehudah departed, using the lashon of “Vayeired Yehudah.” Rashi quotes the Chazal that the brothers removed him “m’gdulaso,” from his high ranking. Meforshim explain that they no longer treated him as a king.

My rebbi, Rav Elya Svei asked that there is a principle of “ein melech belo am,” meaning that a king only maintains his position when he rules over a nation or an empire. Obviously, at that time, Yehudah didn’t rule over anyone, for Yaakov Avinu was still alive and he was the leader of the family, so in what sense had Yehudah been treated as a king?

Rav Elya explained that the shevotim saw in Yehudah the traits and potential for malchus and thus accorded him the respect of a king. Once they returned from selling Yosef and saw the pain that their act caused their father, they no longer viewed Yehudah as worthy of being a melech.

With this thought, Rav Elya explained why the 24,000 talmidim of Rabi Akiva perished for the sin of not treating each other appropriately. How can it be, he asked, that the disciples of Rabi Akiva, who epitomized the commandment of “Ve’ohavta lerei’acha kamocha,” could be lacking in interpersonal respect?

Rav Elya answered that Rabi Akiva’s talmidim treated each other with the respect that they deserved according to their status at that time, but they didn’t treat them with the respect they were worthy of considering their potential for greatness. They had the ability and the potential to be as great as the five talmidim through whom Rabi Akiva ultimately passed on the mesorah. Their failure to revere them for their potential is what brought about the gezeirah.

The Rama Mipano observes that not including the nine days when Tachanun is not recited, there are 24 days between Pesach and Lag Ba’omer. On each day, including Lag Ba’omer, 1,000 of Rabi Akiva’s talmidim died. If so, he asks, why the celebration on Lag Ba’omer? The celebration should be on the following day, when the plague ended.

The Rama Mipano answers that the gezeirah included that Rabi Akiva would die along with his talmidim. The day of his death was to be Lag Ba’omer. The gezeirah ended and the dying stopped so that Rabi Akiva would be spared. Thus, the outpouring of joy on this day.

The Gemara in Maseches Yevamos (62b) states that following the passing of Rabi Akiva’s 24,000 talmidim, the world was devoid of Torah, until Rabi Akiva approached the rabbonon of the south, namely Rabi Meir, Rabi Yehudah Rabi Yosi, Rabi Shimon and Rabi Elazar ben Shamua. They re-established Torah.

From this we can deduce the great joy that is celebrated on Lag Ba’omer, for it was on this day that Rabi Akiva did not die. Had the gezeirah continued and had passed away, it could have meant the end of the mesoras Torah Shebaal Peh. Instead, he lived and was able to transmit his teachings to the five great tanoim, and through them Torah Shebaal Peh continued.

Rabi Akiva taught that “Ve’ohavta lerei’acha kamocha is a great rule in Torah,” loving another as you love yourself is paramount to Torah growth and achievement. The idea that everyone is deserving of being treated the way you want people to treat you is centered upon the middos a Jew must embody, as well as an acknowledgment of the greatness of the Jewish soul.

The Zohar relates that when Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, the talmid of Rabi Akiva, contemplated the happiness apparent on the faces of his students, he remarked that because of their joy and brotherhood their generation merited the revelation of the Torah’s secrets.

This Shabbos, the discerning ear will listen to Krias HaTorah of Parshas Emor and hear the song of the moadim, the various Yomim Tovim. For a moment, we feel the freedom of Pesach, the glory of Shavuos, the awe of Rosh Hashanah and the purity of Yom Kippur, followed by the joy of Sukkos. It’s a reminder of how each of us can lift ourselves above the mundane and enter the realm of melochim once again. The Jewish year is framed by such opportunities - the moadim, the meeting places between man and his Creator - which catapult us into a different dimension.

Recently, we celebrated the Yom Tov of Pesach, contemplating how the Ribbono Shel Olam looked at a broken, overworked, weary nation and saw splendor and beauty when He plucked out goy mikerev goy to make us His own. We learn from this the significance of each individual, the greatness of all of Klal Yisroel as a whole, and the inherent greatness that each one of us possesses.

We dare not forget that lesson in the way we treat people. We also cannot permit those who tarnish our community to define us and cause us to doubt who we are. We are neither parasites nor lazy, neither crooks nor bad citizens. We are a mamleches kohanim, bnei melochim, and the Torah’s definition of us is as true now as it ever was.

Perhaps the reason that the talmidim of Rabi Akiva died during the period following Chag HaPesach is because on Pesach we celebrate the day that the glory of the Jew was revealed and it became evident how much Hashem cherishes each yochid. On Pesach, we saw that Hashem loved us even before we had the Torah. Even before we possessed the refinement that the Torah engenders in us, He lifted us.

This added to the gravity of the mistake made by the talmidim of Rabi Akiva. They didn’t learn the lesson of Pesach and respect each individual Jew. They didn’t appreciate that every one of them was a ben melech, selected and marked for greatness by his King.

At this time of year, we walk along the shore between two lighthouses, two towering reminders of the greatness of Klal Yisroel, Pesach and Shavuos, when we received the ultimate gift, the purpose of creation. How can we not look at each Yid with admiring eyes, seeing him as a chosen one, a receptacle of Hashem’s greatest present?

And perhaps, this Lag Ba’omer, as we dance, with the flickering orange of the fire reflected in joyous eyes and strains of Meron’s clarinets crossing oceans to enliven us as well, we can appreciate the words of the piyut in which we pay tribute to Rabi Shimon bar Yochai: “Na’aseh odom ne’emar baavurecha.”

Hashem’s decision of “Naaseh odom - Let us make man” was realized in Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, the splendid example of tzuras ha’odom, the complete man. But maybe the words have another meaning as well. Na’aseh odom, each of us can become a man, realize our greatness, view ourselves the right way, and view those around us the right way, because of the lesson of Rabi Shimon.

He taught us that we are all bnei melochim. Baavurecha, because of you, Rabi Shimon, we know the truth.

Ashreichem Yisroel.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Yesh Atid: Ours is the Party of the Future

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz


A forgotten chapter of the modern Jewish experience in Eretz Yisroel relates to the vicious clashes that took place regarding tefillah at the Kosel. The Arabs, with the encouragement of the British overseers of what was known then as Palestine, did all they could to restrict Jewish access and prayer at our holiest site.

The issue led to periodic Arab violence. Following one such flagellation during the period of the British Mandate, one of the Englishmen hit upon an idea. He sought to forge a compromise to quell the disturbance. He approached the Jewish Agency, the organized Zionist leadership body prior to the establishment of the state, and told its functionaries that if the Jews would agree to formally relinquish ownership of the Kosel, Arab resistance to their presence in Palestine would significantly simmer down and the Jews would be able to look forward to a peaceful co-existence.

The British diplomat assured the Jewish Agency that the agreement would be nothing more than a symbolic formality. They would sign a worthless document, and be guaranteed that nothing regarding their access to the Kosel would change.

As taken as they were with the proposal, the secular Zionists knew that they needed the Yishuv Hayoshon on board if they were to be able to pull off the stunt. Jewish Agency representatives hurried to Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, certain that in this instance of pikuach nefesh, even the inflexible rov would see things their way. No doubt he would agree to sign the paper and, with that, put an end to the contentiousness and rioting.

Instead, Rav Yosef Chaim heard the proposal and shrugged.

“The Kosel isn’t mine,” he responded. “It’s the Ribbono Shel Olam’s. I have no authority to give it or take it.”

Frustrated, the politicians ran to Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Kook, expecting his easy concurrence. After they presented the plan, Rav Kook shrugged. “The Kosel isn’t mine,” he said. “It’s the Ribbono Shel Olam’s. I have no authority to give it or take it.”

There was a time not that long ago when everyone realized that the mekomos hakedoshim, the holiest places in the world, much like the ideals and values of Yahadus, aren’t subject to sale or negotiation, and that matters of hashkofah aren’t things that one barters or bargains over, like the price of a used car.

Times have changed. Now, those who maintain that certain values are more sacred than our limited understanding of them are considered divisive extremists. The others, the self-appointed brokers for the Shulchan Aruch, are the agents of reason and unity.

The Kosel as we know it may change drastically in the coming months. Natan Sharansky, the famed former Russian refusenik who now heads the Jewish Agency, has proposed a compromise to diffuse simmering tensions over the continued untraditional prayers at Judaism’s holiest site. Last week, on Rosh Chodesh, a group of women, no doubt bursting with zeal and passion to pray, were arrested for wearing talleisim and tefillin and thus defiling the holiness of the place. Their arrests came at the same time Sharansky’s solution to the festering problem was publicized.

Sharansky would keep the existing arrangement as it is and construct a new plaza of equal size at the beginning of the Kosel, to the right of the present plaza. That new area would be open to anyone to conduct any type of service they please.

After the arrests on Thursday, the Jewish Agency once again urged compromise. “The events at the Western Wall today are one more reminder of the urgent need to reach a permanent solution and make the Western Wall once again a symbol of unity among the Jewish people, and not one of discord and strife,” the agency said in a statement.

With the makeup of the new government, one expects many such issues to be decided in a way that is contradictory to halacha and Torah hashkofah. Compromise will be the new mantra. The direction the country has been taking since the days of Menachem Begin will now, at least temporarily, be brought to a swift halt. The terrible battles that erupted with regularity and did not always end favorably for traditional Judaism will be the stuff of headlines once again.

In those days, the leftists were in firm control of the country, with the Mizrachi as a fixture of the labor governments. They had the money, power and prestige, while the chareidim, Sefardim and right-wingers had nothing. There were no great expectations from the government, and the role of frum politicians largely consisted of push-back, going to war when the government crossed the line on issues such as giyus banos and nituchei meisim.

Financial support for yeshivos was non-existent, but Ben Gurion’s status quo on religious issues preserved several cardinal areas of traditional Jewish conduct. Shabbos, marriage, divorce, kashrus, geirus, rabbonus and botei din were, for the large part, left alone. There was never a serious attempt to extend the compulsory draft to yeshiva students.

But it’s a new era now. Everything is on the table again. The ruling coalition revels in the image bestowed upon them by a deferential media - a media of open-minded progressives - while the traditionalists are out-of-touch extremists. They have very effectively marginalized us and corralled us into a corner, where we can do little more than shout.

The party founded and propelled to success on its promise to pull yeshiva bochurim away from their shtenders has as its token chareidi a young man who learned in yeshivos. Thus, he is considered an authority on Torah, on mesirus haTorah, and on what is best for chareidim. The former yeshiva talmid who sold his soul for a bit of attention and relevance arrived in America being hailed as a conquering hero. This man, who proudly sits on the wagon that every single chareidi rabbinic leader has denounced in the strongest terms, was given a warm Orthodox and secular welcome.

In case you are wondering what he is about, we will let his own remarks speak for him. Dov Lipman, the so-called chareidi member of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, doesn’t mince words about his philosophy in comments published by Times of Israel:

“This whole daas Torah phenomenon, where a rabbi decides everything in my own life, is something that I think is also foreign. People ask me: which rabbi did I ask before I joined Yair Lapid? I made a decision. I spoke to some people for advice, I did talk it over with some people, because I wanted to make sure, but I didn’t ask for a p’sak. It’s not halacha. Halacha is: is this pot kosher or not kosher? If you don’t know the halacha yourself, you ask the rabbi for that. The idea that the control over our community, and this degree of getting involved in politics - we never had this before.

“In the Hasidic community, I think you had it more. If you study history, a lot of this started happening during the Enlightenment, where the Hatam Sofer [coined the phrase] that chadash assur min haTorah. That’s where all this originates from, for sure. I just feel that the lack of willingness to study basic history and understand what our rabbis used to be like - the average kid in a Haredi school doesn’t know who the Rambam was…

“They’ll open up a Talmud and they’ll read a line in the Talmud. And then they’ll read the Rashi and then they will read the Tosfot and then they will read the Rishonim on it and then the Aharonim on it and they’ll spend a day analyzing that line of the Talmud and all the commentaries, and that’s it… Nashim and Nezikin: Women-related issues and damage are the two primary issues that the yeshivas deal with. I would have a much harder time making my argument if we saw tens of thousands of the most brilliant Talmudic scholars who mastered every possible classic text and were writing great works of new thought and ideas. I’d still argue my case, but it’d be harder for me. But we don’t see that. You don’t see the results…

“While they learn, maybe, all of a sudden in the middle of the page, you’ll have a statement that relates to what you are learning about being a nice, good person. But that’s not the focus of it. The whole notion of derech eretz kadma leTorah - I don’t see it.”

The arrogance of his certainty that he has what it takes to make decisions that will affect the future of the yeshiva community is frightening and reminds me of something that Rav Aharon Kotler once said.

The Lakewood rosh yeshiva was meeting with several rabbonim and laypeople, discussing the course of action in regard to a particular issue. Rav Aharon heard the opinions of the various participants and then related the manner in which he thought they should proceed.

The rosh yeshiva spoke and the people listened, realizing that his words weren’t mere conjecture, but rather daas Torah emanating from a Talmudic giant with a brilliant mind infused with Torah greatness and a heart that pulsated with responsibility for Torah. One layman argued with Rav Aharon. Responding to him, the rosh yeshiva related his position once again, explaining the Torah’s directive as to how they should act.

“I’m very sorry,” the man persisted, “ubber ich farshtei nit. I don’t understand your opinion.”

The blue eyes of Rav Aharon flashed fire. “Un ah Tosafos farshteit ihr yoh? And a Tosafos you do understand?”

The debate was over.

Rabbi Lipman, we really are very sorry for you that you so misunderstand what goes on in yeshivos. You don’t comprehend what they are teaching in yeshivos or why chareidim aren’t nicer or more pleasant. You don’t appreciate why we humble ourselves before Torah leaders and why we follow their directives. You don’t grasp the role of chareidim in society or why you aren’t viewed as a savior by the Olam HaTorah, whom you claim to care for.

There is something that goes beyond reason, something truer than the math and science that you revere. We are frum and committed to each word of the Torah and each nuance of halacha, because it was given to us by Hashem, not because it meshes with science and not because it is popular or wins us accolades.

Just as we perform mitzvos with reverence and joy, cherishing the minhogim and mesorah without thinking or caring about whether or not Mayor Bloomberg is happy with them, we learn Torah not to please you, Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennet, your party or your government. We do it because we are links in a chain that stretches back to Har Sinai, when we received a gift and a mandate of vehogisa bo yomam volaylah.

The chaver Knesset recalls a period in his life when he merited tasting amal haTorah:

“Studying Torah day and night is what I went through one year when I was in yeshiva - one year, when I left the beit midrash at 1:30 in the morning and was back in the beit midrash at 6:30 in the morning. I was just on fire in learning, so to speak. And then after a year - I loved it but you can’t do more of that… It’s not a normal thing for a human being to be studying Torah, full-fledged, day and night. It’s hard to do that. How many kids can really do that?

“I think it’s the other way round: The guys who study Torah on the train on the way to work in Tel Aviv every morning are the princes of the Jewish people. They’re the princes of my world. Because they’re in a difficult environment to both work and maintain their [study schedule], but they’re studying and praying on the train… And that’s why I am fully comfortable in Yesh Atid, and I am certainly, from my end, encouraging that we stick this out.”

As he does every year, the Yerushalayimer rosh yeshiva, Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi, addressed a gathering for hundreds of talmidei hayeshivos the Shabbos following Pesach. There was a key difference this year, however, Rav Ezrachi is suffering from a heart ailment and is extremely weak. He was advised not to make the trip and not to speak. He responded that he could not stay away. He attended, he said, “in order to charge the soldiers in what will be a victorious battle against the machshevet haresha.”

“Can those who wish to legislate when, where and how much we should learn ever comprehend the turmoil within a bochur who can’t understand a Rav Akiva Eiger?” Rav Ezrachi cried out in pain. “Do they know what it means not to sleep a whole night over difficulty understanding a Gemara, or a Rishon, or an Acharon? Do they know what amal haTorah means? There is no way they can understand that.

“I cannot explain to those who live in darkness, yoshvei choshech, mah zeh ohr yom, the light of Torah,” he continued.

“They want to shut our faucets and cause that no money will flow to yeshivos. Doing so will cause them to dry up. Although it may be difficult temporarily, we will persevere. Hashem will find a way to provide for us. They will be facing drought.

“Our response must be to study Torah with a bren, with fire, and to know that when we are learning and have a kushya, the world exists upon that kushya. We will fight and defeat them by appreciating Torah, by not resting until we understand the real p’shat of what we are learning. That is what must envelope our being.”

The message to the politicians and activists is that, just like the Kosel, limud haTorah and the values and beliefs of lomdei Torah are neither ours to negotiate nor theirs to analyze and develop. They are not subject to compromise.

Rav Bentzion Halberstam, the Kedushas Tzion of Bobov, led one of the most prestigious yeshivos in Galicia. He was told about a bochur who had begun conversing with young Maskilim in town, hanging around them during his free time.

The boy maintained his learning and davening schedule, and other than sitting in conversation with the others, there was no discernible impact on his conduct.

The rebbe called him in and asked him why he was socializing with these Maskilim.

“Look at me,” said the bochur. “It doesn’t affect who I am. I am the same person whether I hang around them or not. What’s the big deal?”

The rebbe looked at him lovingly and said, “Please translate the following words from the tefillah of Velamalshinim in Shemoneh Esrei: ‘Vehazeidim meheirah se’aker useshaber usemager.’”

The bochur replied that it is a request that the enemies of our people be uprooted and cast down, with us asking Hashem to destroy them and lower them.

“Yes,” said the rebbe, “that is the translation of se’aker useshaber, but what about the word usemager?”

The bochur responded that he did not know what that word meant.

The rebbe looked into his eyes and, without telling him what the word meant, taught him a lesson for life. “Just admit to me one thing,” said the rebbe. “If it’s next to se’aker useshaber, it can’t mean anything too nice, right?”

The boy got the message.

Whatever the new chaver haknesset may or may not believe, and however sincere he might be, he should take a moment to look at the people around him, his dear friends in the party with whom he proudly serves and claims to enjoy “such unity.” The truth is neither their guide nor primary interest: The advancement of the fallacious agenda is.

He should look at the coalition partners and their stated goals and take a moment to reflect on the Bobover Rebbe’s question.

Those who welcomed him to their shuls and schools and grant him favorable publicity would do well to ask themselves what flag they are waving when they applaud him and which value system they are subscribing to when they share drinks and backslap “se’aker useshaber.”

We, the legions of bnei Torah and our families, led by our courageous, selfless leaders, have a path with a rich past and a rich future. We know who we are and we know where we are headed. In short time, the new chaver haknesset will have outlived his usefulness to the people who put him in power, and then, when he’s cast aside like yesterday’s leftovers, he might remember, with a pang of guilt, the year that he spent learning day and night. He will be welcomed to return, because we - our yeshivos, shiurim and chavrusos - will still be here.

Because we are the ones who have a future. We are the ones of yesh atid. Ours is the party of the past, present and future, the avar, hoveh and atid. Times ahead will be difficult, but we will not be parched. They will be. As they stumble about in darkness, without the light of truth, we will be basking in the glow of Abaye and Rava, Rashi and Tosafos, the Rambam, the Ramban and the Rashba, the Ketzos and the Nesivos, Rav Chaim and Rav Aharon, as well as the giants of our day.

Heimoh koru venofolu va’anachnu kamnu vanisodad. Hashem hoshiah hamelech ya’aneinu.


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Impact of Idiom

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz


Some years ago, I was in a small, idyllic, mountain town often favorably compared to the famous Swiss towns. While visiting there, I met a young man from Switzerland. I asked him for his opinion as to how the area compared to his native land.

“It’s very hard for me to answer the question,” he responded, “but I would have to say that it is nicer here. You see, in Switzerland, you are in the Alps, so you don’t really appreciate the splendor. Here, you are in a valley surrounded by the mountain ranges. As you look up and around, you are surrounded by the mountains and are better able to appreciate their beauty.”

This, in fact, is a metaphor for so much in our lives. Too often, we don’t appreciate what we have, because we are so close to it. Because we are involved in it, we don’t value the experience. It takes stepping back and viewing something from the outside to have the proper respect for it.

In most of our lives, despite the setbacks, there is more happiness than sadness, more gain than pain, and more to be thankful for than to be upset about. But too often, we don’t step back to take a look at the entire scene. We are thus unable to properly recognize our own situations.

Along the mountains, streams flow with the crystal clear run-off of the melting snow of the ranges. The splendor of Hashem’s majesty is reflected in those calm waters. In fact, it is only in calm waters that you can see reflections. Waters that move rapidly and churn about bear no reflections. In order to appreciate the goodness we are blessed with, we need to reflect with quiet patience upon the world and our gifts.

The Yom Tov of Pesach presented us with just such an opportunity. We experienced a break in the rush and flow of our harried lives. Instead of the plethora of mundane activities that occupy a regular day, we were busy with mitzvos and simcha. On Yom Tov, there are no carpools, no bills to pay, no silly obligations to fulfill. We daven, thanking Hashem for His goodness and kindness towards us, and then we return home to be surrounded by family and friends in effusive joy.

We spent eight days subsisting on matzoh, surrounded and affected by kedushah. We refrained from unnecessary work and pressure.

And then we turned around and it was over. After all the preparation and all the efforts we devoted toward making those days yemei cheirus, we suddenly found ourselves back in the world of avdus.

But perhaps, while we were engrossed in the yemei kedushah, we failed to appreciate their beauty. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we can look back at those rejuvenating days and their restorative qualities. Remembering them and their experiences will help inspire and strengthen us to be able to surmount the challenges we face.

On Pesach, we had ample opportunity to appreciate the glory and splendor of a Yid - what it means to be part of the am hanivchar, a nation taken from the depths of impurity only because of Hashem’s love. The message is one that should inspire us to new heights in ahavas Yisroel, the perfect introduction to the weeks of Sefiras Ha’omer, a time when we work to cleanse and purify our middos. The parshiyos that we lain this Shabbos teach us about the dangers of lashon hara, the negative effects of uncharitable speech.

There is a well-known story about the Ponovezher Rov that transpired while he was in an American hospital undergoing medical treatment. While there, he met an irreligious doctor who had studied in the yeshivos of Lita in his youth.

The Rov engaged the doctor in conversation and learned that the man had no connection to Yiddishkeit. “The only reason that I don’t convert and go to church,” the doctor told him, “is because the kapote (long coat) of the Chofetz Chaim doesn’t allow me to.”

The Rov, himself a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim, looked at the man with curiosity, wondering what he meant. The old doctor explained that when he was a child, his parents had sent him to learn in the yeshiva of Radin.

When he arrived, he joined the line of new bochurim at the humble home of the Chofetz Chaim, waiting to introduce himself and receive instructions as to where he would be lodging. His journey had been lengthy and exhausting. As he sat waiting for his turn to meet the sage, he was overcome by fatigue and fell asleep.

He barely felt hands lifting him and carrying him to a bed, but when he awoke late that night, he realized that the host himself, the great tzaddik, had carried him to a bed and covered him with his kapote. The Chofetz Chaim was sitting and learning nearby in his shirtsleeves.

The compassion and simplicity of the Chofetz Chaim affected him profoundly. After the many decades, tribulations and a change of continents, a warm glow remained from that evening, preventing him from leaving Judaism completely.

Rav Mordechai Weinberg, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Gedolah of Montreal, suggested a possible understanding of the story. He said that from the fact that there are three different types of nega’im that come for speaking lashon hara - namely, blemishes on homes, clothing and people - we see the seriousness of the sin of lashon hara. The sin has the power to affect not only the person who speaks ill of others, but also his home and possessions. The rosh yeshiva pointed out that the rule is that “middah tovah merubah mimiddas puraniyos,” a positive force is always stronger than a negative one. Thus, it stands to reason that since speaking lashon hara negatively impacts clothing, exercising care when speaking should have a positive effect on the speaker’s clothing. It is no wonder, concluded the rosh yeshiva, that the Chofetz Chaim’s jacket had the ability to affect others. It was worn by a person who epitomized proper speech.

Sometimes, we hear words and we cry from emotion or we laugh from joy. Words can uplift and inform us, expanding our horizons. And sometimes, words can be poorly chosen, and even false, painting an inaccurate picture and leading to mistaken conclusions. We must always endeavor to be careful about what we say, for our words have ramifications and influence others.

We feel the impact of words in our world, as demagogues churn out one lie after another to insulate themselves, to shift responsibility for their ill-conceived actions, and to promote their agendas. For four years, former President George W. Bush was blamed for the lingering economic recession. Now, the chronic unemployment is being blamed by media types and the administration in the White House on the sequester brought on by the Republicans.

Facts seem to matter very little. Never mind that the sequester was Obama’s idea to begin with or that it is impossible to assume that jobs were not created during the month of March because of the budgetary act that had just gone into effect. Besides, all it did was cut a miniscule amount of government spending out of the budget - nowhere near enough to have such an exaggerated impact. But all this is ignored by the administration and the opinion-shapers in the media. All people are told is that Republicans are evil, the sequester is evil, and the economy is in shambles because of the Republicans and the sequester.

This pattern is repeated with regularity on a variety of issues. The politically correct are able to successfully advance their agenda by repeating the same canard until it becomes accepted by a majority of the country.

The recent elections in Israel provided a vivid demonstration of how this works; as parties led by demagogic public relations geniuses successfully demonized the chareidi community. They built their campaigns on clever, though false, slogans, and achieved unprecedented success. Today, our Israeli brethren are paying the price.

The power of unchallenged lies is that they not only thrive, but multiply. Sharp, malicious words spoken well enough, and repeated often enough, creep into our souls and thinking process and create a coldness and intrinsic disrespect for halacha, minhag and mesorah.

The same concept applies to the way metzitzah b’peh has become a rallying cry in this country. Since the New York departments of health decided several years ago to campaign to have the procedure banned, they have been engaging in an all-out propaganda war to paint the constitutionally protected religious practice as being something deadly and archaic, practiced by a backward fringe group more intent on preserving ancient rites than caring for human life. 

It began with a lie that a certain Monsey mohel was killing children and morphed into a full-blown attack. Neither Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has led the fight, nor any of the health professionals who have carried his water have been able to scientifically cite conclusively that even one child has died as a result of metzitzah b’peh, but that has not stopped them from aggressively promoting the agenda through the court of public opinion and the court of law, while seeking to enact legislation, as if metzitzah b’peh is a proven deadly practice.

Cleverly employing a mixture of pseudo-science, a feigned concern for human life, and denigration of time-honored religious practices and those who follow them, they remain undeterred by the truth. Though disputed by infectious diseases experts, epidemiologists and statistics, as time goes on, regrettably, more and more people buy into the lie and it gains traction even among those in our community who ought to know better.   

Recently, a noted Orthodox leader spoke out regarding the supposed danger of metzitzah b’peh:

“In Columbia Presbyterian [hospital in New York City]… approximately three babies every year suffer from herpes. And it’s clear… that these children are from chassidishe families. And its klor vi di tog they come in a week after the bris. It’s clear that [they are suffering of herpes] because of metzitzah b’peh...

“There are five major hospitals in New York, and each hospital has the same report. There are frumme doctors in all the hospitals. All the hospitals, they’re afraid to say anything out loud or the frumme, chassidish clients won’t come to them, but, lemaaseh, fifteen Jewish babies are dying each year in New York because of this metzitzah b’peh…

“… it’s a sakanah. Fifteen babies a year in the New York area clearly die from this, from this chumrah they have. I think it’s a terrible thing.”

This person bought into it, too, after hearing the lies for so long. The questions are obvious. Are we to believe that the five major hospitals independently decided to “keep quiet” about this danger since it could be bad for business if it became publicized? Are we to accept that internationally recognized medical professionals and advocates knowingly stand by and do nothing as frum babies die because they are afraid of angering the chassidishe community even at the cost of human life? In the era of Obamacare and malpractice suits which are driving hospitals into bankruptcy, are we to believe that five major hospitals are aware of fifteen annual deaths attributed to a certain practice, yet they conspire to remain silent lest they lose a few customers?

And if it is true, why doesn’t this rabbi and his students and colleagues bang down the doors of the hospitals, the mayor, the medical authorities, and the rabbinic leaders who promote this procedure and do all they can to put a stop to it?

The whole thing is bizarre.

But it all doesn’t make a difference, because the tale of the dangers of metzitzah b’peh has been publicized so well and so often that the speaker accepts it and nobody goes on the record disputing what he says, allowing the wound to fester and spread even more.

The liberal agenda of allowing millions of people who are in this country illegally to be granted amnesty and be permitted to vote in elections, because polls show that they overwhelmingly favor the Democrat party, is another case in point. The Associated Press has now decided that it will no longer use the term “illegal immigrant,” as a bi-partisan group of senators negotiates an immigration bill, because the Republicans accept the narrative that they will never win another national election if they aren’t more compassionate to the illegal entrants to the country.

Raising taxes on successful people is another such agenda that gains credibility with every passing day, although previously it was known that you don’t raise taxes in a recession and certainly not on those who provide the engine for economic growth through their spending. Until recently, it was believed that the more money the private sector retains, the more its members are able to spend, keeping the economy alive and factories humming. But now, thanks to the words of an affective communicator and a brilliant campaign against a rich entrepreneur, those orthodox theories are no longer in vogue, as Republicans are blasted for not allowing the president to continue to raise taxes on the rich to pay for handouts to the not-so-rich.

The Chofetz Chaim was the master of pure speech, teaching generations to remain silent even when the urge to speak is powerful. Yet, the same Chofetz Chaim was the quintessential ish devorim, speaking and writing prolifically, meeting with individuals and groups, and being involved in so many communal issues. His aversion to lashon hara wasn’t because he didn’t appreciate the role of dibbur, but davka because he did appreciate it, perceiving the power and potency of every word and phrase. Speech is a tool that must be cherished, a force that should be unleashed only in a positive fashion.

The Ramban in Parshas Tazria (13:47), which the annotator of the popular Mosad Harav Kook edition compares to the beautiful words of the Kuzari, explains that nega’im come about when a person separates himself from Hashem. As long as there is a connection to the Divine, his clothes are clean, his house is in good shape, and his skin shines brightly, keYad Hashem hatovah olov. But when a person sins and loses that perfect connection to Hashem, he begins showing blemishes. He must repent and reestablish the relationship, leading to a recovery in his appearance and in that of his clothes and home.

In order to achieve the connection with Hashem, the metzorah must bring korbanos comprised of birds, cedar wood, a red thread and grass. Rashi (ibid. 14:4) explains that the metzorah’s affliction was brought on by his haughtiness, so “the way for him to redeem himself and be cured [is by] lowering himself from his haughtiness and [stoop as low as] a string and a blade of grass.”

The Sefas Emes explains that if the path to redemption is achieved by the sinner simply lowering himself from his conceited thoughts, every person will sin and then find humility and be forgiven for his sin. This is impossible, he says, because a sinner is so arrogant and conceited that he is unable to be humble. Thus, it is only after repenting and doing a complete teshuvah that a metzorah is able to learn the lesson and compare himself to a blade of grass. Someone who does so has undergone the proper teshuvah process and is no doubt forgiven for his sin of speaking ill of his fellow.

Anovah, humility, encompasses all the positive traits of a baal middos. It is the epitome of what a Torah observer, and a person undergoing teshuva aspires to. A Ben Torah recognizes that all he has is from Hashem and that on his own he is nothing. One who is consumed with ga’avah by definition negates Hashem’s role in his life.

The Chazon Ish would take a daily walk down his sparsely populated street. As more people moved in, the township erected a streetlight to provide lumination for those walking on the street. As he walked on the newly brightened route, the Chazon Ish commented, that the greater the distance from the light, the larger the size of his shadow. So, it is with Torah and Hashem, he said. The further a man is from his source, the greater he thinks he is.

Not just anovah, but all middos of appropriate ethical behavior, are a precondition for proper Torah observance and study. In fact, Rav Chaim Vital says that the Torah never explicitly instructs us regarding proper middos, because they are the prerequisite for connecting with Torah and their observance is obvious, as all of Torah is predicated upon them. Before we can accept the yoke of Torah observance, we are expected to develop good middos. During the weeks of Sefirah which lead from Pesach to Shavuos, we endeavor to develop and cultivate good middos.

As we march towards Kabbolas HaTorah, ready to accept our mantle as a mamleches kohanim vegoy kadosh, we contemplate our mandate. With pure hearts and clean mouths; empowered by the mesorah; reinforced with emunah, bitachon and the koach haTorah; and infused with the middos that make us worthy links in the golden chain, we progress on our daily advance towards the Yom Tov of Shavuos.