Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Humble Redemption

One beautiful spring day, a chossid of the Chiddushei Harim is said to have come to the rebbe complaining that he was depressed. “Rebbe,” he cried, “the parshiyos the past few weeks have been too much for me to bear. One week we read about the misonenim, the complainers. Then we learn about the meraglim. Then we read about Korach and his followers. Rebbe, I can’t take it all. It’s so disheartening.”

Week after week, we read of the challenges facing a new nation struggling to come to terms with the reality of its own existence. We read the stories, we study them, and we wonder how people who were so smart, so gifted and so blessed, and who had witnessed and experienced unprecedented miracles and salvation, had strayed so far off course.

In fact, it is a mark of heightened spiritual sensitivity for our moods to be influenced by the weekly parsha. However, even those of us not on that level perceive that there is a common theme running through these tragic parshiyos.

Since there is an obvious connection between the stories, Chazal wonder about the placement of the account of the meraglim in this week’s parsha of Shelach. They ask. what the tale of spies dispatched to tour and report on the most splendid country on earth has to do with the story at the end of last week’s parsha pertaining to Miriam?

Parshas Beha’aloscha ended with the story of Miriam, who was punished for speaking ill of her brother, Moshe Rabbeinu.

Chazal explain the connection between the two stories as follows: “Reshoim halalu ra’u velo lokchu mussar - The wicked ones saw what happened to Miriam and didn’t learn a lesson from it” (Rashi, Bamidbar 13:2, quoting the Tanchumah).

On a simple level, the lesson they should have learned from Miriam’s experience relates to the aveirah of lashon hara. Miriam was punished for speaking negatively about her brother. The meraglim were unaffected by her punishment and spoke lashon hara about the land.

Upon further examination of the two parshiyos, another pattern emerges, adding a deeper dimension to the connection between Miriam’s sin and that of the meraglim.

The meraglim were leaders, prominent and sincere people who apparently set out to do good. They returned with graphs, maps and demographic details that were factual and accurate. Their reports regarding the land were correct and were not disputed by Yehoshua and Kaleiv.

What, then, was the taanah on them? What did they do wrong? Where did they err?  They were given a mission and completed it to the best of their abilities. Why were they and the entire nation of Klal Yisroel who accepted their findings punished so severely?

Miriam had spoken to Aharon and questioned their brother Moshe’s decision to separate from his wife. “Al odos ha’ishah hakushis asher lokach…ki ishah kushis lokach.” The conversation continued and they said that Hashem had spoken to Miriam and Aharon as well and they remained married, so why did Moshe think he was different? What Miriam said was true. There were no lies in what she said and no fictitious defamation. So where did she go wrong? 

The Torah comments on their conversation, stating, “Veha’ish Moshe onov me’od mikol ha’adam asher al p’nei ha’adamah - And the man Moshe was extremely humble, more than any person on the face of the earth” (Bamidbar 12:3).

Addressing Miriam’s mistake, the Torah says that the Ribbono Shel Olam himself addressed her, admonishing, “Umadua lo yereisem ledaber be’avdi beMoshe - Why were you not afraid to speak about my servant Moshe?” (Bamidbar 12:8).

The complaint against her was not that she spoke untruths and not that she fabricated a scandal about Moshe, but, rather, that she lacked the requisite humility, reverence and awe when discussing the gadol hador, the k’dosh Hashem, the av hanevi’im.

The monumental mistake of the meraglim was similar. They spoke in a most cavalier fashion about Eretz Yisroel, the land whose properties are intangible. The land whose every four amos carry within them sublime segulos. The land described by the Master of the World as “flowing with milk and honey.” Sure, it may well be that what they said was true, but it was the way they reported their findings - without reverence for the land, without fear of insulting G-d’s paradise, without awe and respect - that they were held to account for.

The family of Rav Mordechai of Chernobyl inherited from him a bottle of wine from Eretz Yisroel that a wealthy chossid had presented him. The bottle was displayed in a place of honor and treated with reverence because it was blessed with the holiness of the land. The bottle remained unopened for years, reserved for the right occasion; one deemed holy and special enough to merit the participation of this treasure. When the rebbe passed away, he left behind eight sons, each one a rebbe in his own right. The bottle remained in the family, unopened, waiting for the proper occasion.

There was a family simcha that brought the eight rebbes together. Amidst the excitement of the reunion, it was decided that the time had come to open the bottle from Eretz Yisroel. A shamash brought it to the table and, with great kavanah, poured some wine into each brother’s cup. As he was about to empty the bottle into the cup of the youngest brother, Rav Yochanan of Rachmastrivka, he quietly shook his head and motioned to the shamash that he didn’t want any of the wine. His brothers looked on in surprise. They had waited for years to open this bottle and partake of its spirits. Now, finally, the time had come. Why was he rejecting the opportunity to partake in the treasure?

The Rachmastrivka Rebbe explained, “I appreciate wine and I am aware of the quality of the wine I drink. I am worried that if I sip this wine from Eretz Yisroel and I have a thought, however brief, that its quality is inferior, I will be guilty of the sin of the meraglim. One isn’t permitted to think negatively of Eretz Yisroel. I’d rather forgo the opportunity than be faced with that aveirah.”

The Rachmastrivka Rebbe understood that when discussing the land, it isn’t about truth or fact, but about reverence and respect. It is Hashem’s chosen land, and just as one is careful when speaking about holy people, one has to be cautious when discussing holy places and things.

In pre-war Baranovitch, there was a group of Jewish teenagers who had “proudly” thrown off the observance of their fathers, feeling that the dictates of Shulchan Aruch were too difficult, irrelevant and not for them.

They formed a social group and began hosting myriad anti-Torah events, eventually holding a public mixed dance in the town of Baranovitch. The bnei hayeshiva were offended by their brazen display of prikas ol. As the dance got underway, some bochurim arrived at the hall. Standing at the doorway, they protested aloud, dissuading some participants and causing aggravation for the organizers.

The next day, in the middle of seder, a large group of secular teenagers burst into the bais medrash as the bochurim sat learning to exact revenge for disturbing their dance. The youths were brawny and threatening, walking up and down the aisle of the bais medrash, clearly looking for a victim. The bochurim were scared that when they would find the protesters, they would beat them.

The leader rolled up his sleeves when he identified one of the protesters and approached menacingly. At that moment, the rosh yeshiva, Rav Elchonon Wasserman, walked into the bais medrash and positioned his tall frame directly in front of the leader.

With a mocking jeer, the fellow looked at Rav Elchonon, the gaon and kadosh, mechaber of Kovetz Shiurim and Kovetz He’aros, and said, “Choneh, nisht mit hent (not with your hands),” suggesting that the rosh yeshiva was about to engage in a physical altercation with him.

Rav Elchonon stared at him, not responding. Eventually, the leader gave up and turned to leave, with the rest of the young men following behind him. Those in the bais medrash breathed a sigh of relief.

A few hours later, a harried messenger rushed in to Rav Elchonon. Breathlessly, the messenger blurted out to the rosh yeshiva, “The young man, the leader of that group, is unable to move his arms. Please help him.”

Throughout the day, many others came to inform the rosh yeshiva that the fellow who had brazenly called out, “Choneh, nisht mit hent,” was in agony, his hands locked in place.

Rav Elchonon went to visit the young man and concluded that he had learned his lesson. Rav Elchonon told him that he was mochel the slight to his honor. Immediately, the young man experienced relief. As his hands moved and he gained a new respect for the power of Torah and gedolei Torah; and a new appreciation for the warning of Chazal in regard to antagonizing talmidei chachomim: “Hizharu begachaloson shel talmidei chachomim shelo tikaveh - Beware of their coals, so that you don’t get burned.”

Offending talmidei chachomim is, literally, playing with fire.

Rav Elchonon Wasserman was asked about the permissibility of voting for Jewish representatives who have displayed a hatred for religion. He responded that it is not only forbidden to do so, but that to do so would be wasting one’s vote.

The most effective measure of a person’s greatness and suitability to serve in a position of responsibility for the community is to gauge his humility. The greater the person is, the more humble he is. The smaller the person, the more he is consumed with self-importance.

In order to be an effective public servant and really effect change and make a difference, the shliach tzibbur must put aside his own wishes and needs and practice complete self-negation. If it becomes all about him, he won’t be able to accomplish anything. To vote for shlichim whose primary motivation is to benefit themselves and their own agendas is a total waste. Instead of subjugating themselves to the public, they subjugate the public to their cause.

The quintessential shliach for his people was Moshe Rabbeinu, about whom the Torah testifies that he was onov me’od, free of personal ambition and calculations. Perhaps it was this that made him the most effective shliach and leader the Jewish people have ever been blessed with.

Rabbi Moshe Sherer presented a dilemma before the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah and presented two possible resolutions. He had spent much time preparing for the meeting and forcefully supported a certain course of action, making a detailed presentation before the gedolim and explaining the many reasons he thought they should advocate a certain position.

The assembled gedolim listened and then ruled that the other option was better, directing him to follow the course he had advocated against. He walked out of that meeting and seemed particularly happy. His assistants were surprised. They expected him to be upset, as his carefully prepared presentation had just been shot down. One of them asked him about it and Rabbi Sherer explained: “This is a happy day for me, because this is the reason we have a Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. When they rule in a way that I understand, I’m still working with self-interest, because I agree. It’s when they overrule my opinions that I work purely to carry out the will of my meshalchim, those who sent me here.”

He was a most effective shliach because it wasn’t about him.

In the middle of the parsha of Miriam, the Torah informs us that Moshe Rabbeinu was “anav me’od mikol odom asher al p’nei ha’adomah,” the embodiment of humility and modesty. The mention of Moshe’s anavah seems to be unrelated to what transpired; why is it here?

The Ramban explains that the reason the Torah testifies about Moshe Rabbeinu’s humility after relating what Miriam had done is “lehagid ki Hashem kinei lo ba’avur anvasanuso. Knowing that Moshe wouldn’t speak up in his own defense, Hakadosh Boruch Hu defended him.

As we read Parshas Shelach this year, we are under assault from many individuals who openly denigrate and disagree with our gedolim and our way of life. With smug smirks of hubris, they speak and write cunningly, alleging that they come to help us, offering statistics and studies to support their plans of change. With unabashed demagoguery, they malign the entire community of Torah observers, painting us all as dishonest, unschooled leeches, parasites and abusers. They freely smash laymen, talmidei chachomim, rabbonim, roshei yeshiva and gedolim. Anybody who displays fidelity to the traditional way of life is fair game for mockery and in need of their remedial assistance.

The arrogant, patronizing haters would be well advised to step back for a moment of humble contemplation. Yes, there are issues that need to be addressed, but how dare they attack the Torah, its leaders and its followers with wide smiles on their faces. How do they pontificate in all varieties of media, promoting their own political futures by bashing shomrei Torah umitzvos? How are the religious among them not embarrassed to stand alongside scoffers as they lampoon gedolim as being parochial, provincial, out of touch confused old men?

We say to them, “Madua lo yireisem ledabeir be’avdi beMoshe?”

How dare those small people and their followers mock luminaries whose Torah lights up the world, such as Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, a man divested of the pleasures of this world who spent decades far from the public eye toiling in learning.

Who do they think they are to poke fun of Chacham Ovadia Yosef, whose enduring image is one of him hunched over a sefer, whose joy in life comes purely from Torascha sha’ashuai, a prince among his people who spent decades learning mitoch had’chak until all of the Torah was subsumed in his being.

How can anyone not fear ridiculing Rav Chaim Kanievsky, who has inhabited the four amos of halacha since he was a child, son of the holy Steipler, raised on the Chazon Ish’s knee, a man who is famously familiar with kol haTorah kulah, who lives for the Torah and the klal, and whose brachos and advice are sought after by tens of thousands of Yidden.

Those who consider it prudent to challenge this caliber of person in the pursuit of personal agendas of so-called “equality of burden” would do well to heed the words of the Ramban: “lehagid ki Hashem kinei lo ba’avur anvasanuso.”

Madua, we wonder, lo yireisem to deride avdi Rav Aharon Leib, avdi Chacham Ovadia, avdi Rav Chaim, and the other gedolim whose teachings and rulings you disrespectfully scorn. Haven’t you learned the lessons of the history you claim to cherish?

All through the ages, we have suffered from small people who have attempted to aggrandize themselves at the expense of lomdei and shomrei Torah. Throughout our history, we have been victimized by small people who have sought to ingratiate themselves with the governing powers by vilifying Torah observers. They rose and then they fell, forgotten, eventually banished to the ash heap of history.

When Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion established the state he needed to have all of Israel’s Jews on board with the proposal. He promised the religious community that their interests would be protected with a status quo arrangement pertaining to all matters of religion and the draft in the state. Ever since that agreement, our community’s enemies, seeking our demise, meet, plot, speak, vote, legislate and pontificate, but it is all for naught.

To no avail, our secularist foes have tried to accomplish their goals with laws, imprisonment, punitive financial edicts, and a double standard in governmental support and legislation. And now they are back at it, once again with the assistance of religious parties, representatives and leaders.

They would do well to remember the mistakes of those who, armed with facts and figures, lost their reverence and respect for our most important institutions.

They should learn the lesson of this week’s parsha and ponder the fate of those who spoke against the land that Hakadosh Boruch Hu chose, and the people He has marked with greatness and nobility.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Seeing the Sounds

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz


Vekol ha’am ro’im es hakolos. When the Torah was given to man on Har Sinai, we are told, the Jewish people gathered around the mountain and not only heard the sounds of nesinas haTorah, but also saw them.

The obvious difficulty is that sight and sound are separate senses. Sound is heard and not seen. Sights are experienced visually, not aurally.

Last week, I was in Eretz Yisroel for the Yom Tov of Shavuos and had the occasion to experience the answer to this question three separate times during my three visits to the Kosel Hama’arovi.

The first was on Friday morning, Rosh Chodesh Sivan, the day after we arrived. Still jet lagged but eager to daven at the s’rid Bais Mikdosheinu, the place from where the Shechinah has never left since the construction and destruction of the Botei Mikdosh, we awoke early and headed there for Shacharis kevosikin.

There were many thousands of people present at the Kosel that morning. Hundreds had come to daven, but many more had arrived to fulfill the wishes of Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman and Rav Ovadiah Yosef.

An antagonistic, provocative group of women had just received a long-awaited favorable ruling from a district court. The court ruled that for women to form a minyan and pray with tallis and tefillin at the Kosel is a legitimate expression of their customs and is neither a provocation nor a departure from the “minhag hamakom.” This manifestation of judicial hypocrisy and pure fiction is just the latest in a growing list with which we are regrettably becoming more familiar, and frankly expecting, on a regular basis.

Though the decision flies in the face of the facts, is in direct opposition to several Israeli Supreme Court decisions, and is contrary to current law, the new government will not be appealing the ruling. This is yet another example of fallout from the recent election and the resultant coalition deal which empowered enemies of halacha and tradition.

The aforementioned women hold their prayer meetings at the Kosel every Rosh Chodesh. Until the recent ruling, the meetings were illegal and police arrested participants, leading them away amidst minimal fanfare. Rosh Chodesh Sivan was the first time the provocations went on with the imprimatur of the state. This time, the women would be the ones protected, while the offended traditionalists expressing their consternation over the defilement of Judaism’s holiest site would be the targets of police wrath.

Rav Shteinman and Rav Yosef urged high school and seminary girls to be at the Kosel by 6:30 a.m., the time that the “Women of the Wall,” as they call themselves, were scheduled to hold their mock-service, and to peacefully demonstrate by their dignified presence that the overwhelming majority of people who frequent the Kosel and respect its minhagim are opposed to the attention-seeking feminists. These gender-benders got their start in 1988 with what was billed as “The First International Jewish Feminist Conference: The Empowerment of Women in Israel,” which included such luminaries as Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan.

Present that morning at the Kosel were not only teenage girls, but women and men of all ages. As the appointed time arrived, boys at the Kosel began singing to drown out any superfluous sounds sure to be raised. Their gambit didn’t last long, as the media and police began arriving in droves, seemingly anxious to provoke a spectacle they could use to mock the traditionalists. By and large, they failed.

The sights and sounds that morning left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, they demonstrated the growth and power of the frum community - the number of people who treasure kedushas haMikdosh enough to arise before dawn to daven at that location and the number of young people prepared to forgo sleep to follow the call of gedolim. It was a beautiful sight to see so many people davening at the Kosel. At the same time, the presence of those poor, misguided souls was a depiction of the kulturkampf in that country.

It is really nothing new, but it is gathering steam with the presence in the governing coalition of so many new MKs determined to turn back the clock on Torah and halacha. They don’t hesitate to use everything at their disposal, including every aspect of government, media and social and economic policy, to further their radical agenda.

The pathetic showing by the Women of the Wall reflected a new wave in Israeli activism. It’s all about talking points, exploitation and a sympathetic media. Sure, they grab the easy-to-sell issue of feminism, which is guaranteed to garner sympathy and respect from liberals the world over. But in an interview with the BBC, Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman revealed her true agenda, fuming about the Orthodox monopoly and the rule of halacha.

MK Dov Lipman has also similarly perceptively tapped into the collective desire for an improved chareidi economic structure by claiming that the draconian cuts and arrogant changes that his party wishes to implement are only to help ease the lot of the poor, beleaguered chareidim.

Yair Lapid, ever the TV star, pays homage to the Biblical right to Israel and talks about how his morals are shaped by the Bible, while working overtime to advance lifestyles the Torah terms as abominations.

Like Chazal describe the impure animal, waving its split hooves for all to see, these demagoguing politicians and activists have mastered the art of grabbing the popular issue and waving high a banner of deceit. Those thousands of ehrliche noshim tzidkaniyos filling the Kosel plaza did the opposite. They spoke not for the microphones, but for their Maker, uttering words of tefillah in the sincere hope of change. They desire for the hearts of their sisters to be cleansed and for the holy site to remain as it has been for as long as anyone can remember.

My second visit to the Kosel took place on the night before Shavuos. I went to daven Maariv, expecting to see a smattering of groups engaged in prayer, with a few shouts of “Maariv, Maariv” punctuating the quiet as people sought to form minyonim.

I was in for a surprise. Even before coming close, we were able to feel, hear and see a special energy formed by the collective emotion and excitement of all sorts of Jews who had come, one by one, to daven at the holiest place they know of on the eve of Kabbolas HaTorah.

Then, out of nowhere, a spectacular sight formed. Hundreds of obviously secular Israeli youth who had been davening quietly burst out in song, led by several yeshiva bochurim. Their spirit and sounds spoke of unity, longing and a deep connection between all Jews. The bochurim, representing the Shalom L’Am kiruv organization founded by Rav Yaakov Hillel, and with the sweet sincerity unique to yeshiva bochurim, were clearly exercising a powerful pull on this group of secular youth.

Youngsters obviously far removed from a Torah life, who no doubt have been exposed to the hate and vilification that chareidim endure on a daily basis, were doing their best to daven and to celebrate Yidishkeit in song and dance together with the supposedly parasitic bochurim.

Despite the propaganda sowing distrust of and hate for bochurim, tefillah and Torah, there they were. The sights and sounds of their davening, singing and dancing were like a rushing wave of water meeting the fires of posturing and demagoguery. The neshamos of the Jewish people cannot be held down.

The third and final time I visited the Kosel, I saw the sounds way before I even got there. It was Shavuos morning, when many tens of thousands stream to the Kosel from all over Yerushalayim setting out at 4:00 A.M. to daven with the neitz hachamah. Groups of bochurim lit up the darkness of night, singing and dancing as they walked, in a recreation of a small zeicher of aliyah l’regel. People of all types - some singing, some dancing, some talking, and some just walking quietly - were making their way to the Kosel.

Once we reached our destination, we saw thousands of people continuing to spill into the area in front of the Kosel. It seemed as if there was no room for any more people, yet they kept on coming and pouring in, and somehow there was space for everyone. We saw a reenactment of “omdim tzefufim umishtachavim revochim.” We davened with the minyan of Talmidei Ohr Elchonon, a nice, slow, yeshivishe nusach, with proper baalei tefillah and kriyah, together with all types of Jews who stood as one, superficial differences notwithstanding.

Right next to us was the much larger Yeshivas Mir minyan. As far as the eye could see, there were minyonim of all types and nuschaos. We saw the sounds of Yidden conversing with their Creator, standing at the site of the churban, chanting “Umipnei chatoeinu” and then “shuvah eileinu” and “bnei veischa kevatchilah.”

The various minyonim finished at different times. The sight of some people leaving and others coming mixed with the sounds of laining, kedusha, chazoras hashatz and Birkas Kohanim formed a melodious expression of love and devotion. The chatzi lochem merged with the chatzi laShem. The joy, the longing and the pain of detachment combined with the happiness of this oasis.

As the davening progressed, the darkness gradually dissipated and light began spreading across the sky and the plaza. The chill in the air was gone as the sun peered over the ancient wall, warming not only the temperature of the outside air, but also the hearts and souls of all present.

As their prayers rose on high, they departed for home, basking in the light and the warmth, convinced that the darkness they face will dissipate as well, speedily, smoothly and painlessly.

As the people turned to leave, they caught a final glimpse of those sacred large stones, pocked, marred, and cracked, but still whole, much like the Jews who face them. We are beaten, mocked, and reviled, but still whole, despite everything. They got a final burst of inspiration certain to carry them as they climb the hills of Yerushalayim enthused, reenergized and alive with hope for the very near future when all will dance together leTziyon berinah.

Much of what we saw could lead to fears and worries about what lies ahead, but more of what we saw restored our faith that brighter days lie ahead.

Rabbos machashavos belev ish, va’atzas Hashem hi sokum. Though the evil ones plot and the actions of the misguided cause consternation, the faithful know that the end will be good.

Their faith is strengthened with every step they take and wherever they go, whatever they see and whatever they hear.

May we all merit salvation from whatever it is that tests us. May our dark days turn light and bright. May everyone who needs a yeshuah know that they will shortly be enjoying happiness and fulfillment.

May all the sights and sounds we experience be sources of joy and comfort, nechomah and geulah bekarov.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Yes, We Can

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz


Shavuos, the Yom Tov that commemorates our raison d’etre, the deliverance of the Torah to us on Har Sinai, is most unique in the calendar of Jewish celebrations. It is basically a one - and in golus two - day Yom Tov, the chag that marks the apex of creation. It is the shortest of all the chagim and has the fewest commandments specific to that day.

Hashem offered the Torah to all the nations of the world. Following their rejection of the gift, it was presented to us. When the Jewish people were asked if they wished to subject themselves to the strictures and blessings of Hashem’s written word, they responded as one, “Na’aseh venishma.” With those two immortal words, they rose beyond the level of angels and became Hashem’s eternal people.

The Torah proclaims, “Vayichan shom Yisroel neged hahar.” Chazal emphasize that the Torah uses the singular verb vayichan, because they rested at Har Sinai as one, ke’ish echod beleiv echod. They stood there not as hundreds of thousands of individuals, but as one mass of people, totally unified in their acceptance of the Torah. Each Jew accepted upon himself responsibility for others. Every Jew was saying that he would do what he could to ensure that the others would keep their word.

The Ramchal in Daas Tevunos (155:2) states that at Har Sinai, the Bnei Yisroel received two gifts along with the Torah. They were given the strength that is required to properly observe all the Torah’s mitzvos and they were also granted the ability to bring about change in the briah through their actions.

Our actions don’t just affect us. They impact the entire world. We can each change the world for the better or, chas veshalom, for the worse.

Rav Yisroel Eliyohu Weintraub explains in Yiras Chaim (on Nefesh Hachaim 1:3) that since the Torah is at the root of the world - “istakeil b’Oraisa ubara alma” - it contains the power of chiddush. When the Torah was given to the Bnei Yisroel, they were provided with the ability to bring about chiddush, change and innovation, in the world.

Rav Chaim Volozhiner, in the beginning chapters of Nefesh Hachaim, discusses in detail that all of us have that ability. No Jew should minimize his ability and think that his actions in this world have no meaning or influence.

The Vilna Gaon in Aderes Eliyohu (Parshas Re’eh) explains that this ability is provided anew each day. Regardless of a person’s prior actions, he can improve himself and, through proper observance and Torah study, bring about goodness and better the world.

The yeitzer hora seeks to bring man down from his lofty position and demoralize him into thinking that his actions have no consequence. Our task is to ignore that negativity and cynicism and instead recognize our potential to impact the world in a positive manner.

On Shavuos, we celebrate these gifts and abilities. We remain awake through the night studying Torah to demonstrate the awareness of our task. Shavuos serves not only as a celebration of receiving the Torah and its powers and abilities, but as a reminder that it is incumbent upon us to live life on a daily basis cognizant of our responsibilities.

The greatness of our proclamation at Har Sinai was the inherent acknowledgment of the primacy of the na’aseh. We affirmed that we would study the Torah - nishma - in order to be osim, a nation of people whose actions would have serious impact on all of creation.

Chazal thus refer to the Yom Tov of Shavuos as Atzeres, which, in its literal translation, means break. We take a break from our daily activities to remind ourselves what we are all about and to revive the affirmation of our adherence to our commitment. Half of the Atzeres day, we are occupied with the realm of nishma, studying the Torah. The other half is devoted to the realm of na’aseh, the act of living as a Torah Jew. We don’t linger on this Atzeres break, but rather quickly return to being engaged in carrying out the task of chiddush bechol ha’olamos.

Those among us who are cognizant of their role in this world are able to accomplish much good. They don’t seek excuses for not getting involved in projects and actions for the public betterment. They use whatever talents they have to help, inspire, lead and act for communal welfare.

Eighteen hundred such people gathered this past Shabbos in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains for the annual Torah Umesorah convention. Roshei yeshiva, rabbonim, rabbeim, menahalim, menahalos, moros, and organizational heads and workers, as well as concerned and committed laymen, came together under one roof to celebrate their accomplishments and seek methods of improvement.

Like in the world outside of that convention, everyone present was a unique individual blessed with disparate abilities, yet, as they are people of achrayus, they are concerned, ke’ish echod beleiv echod, about their responsibly to the klal.

It is because of such people that our world is in a spiral of growth. Due to the dedication of those involved in chinuch, Torah flourishes in this land, despite all the problems and challenges that could bring us down. These individuals recognize and appreciate chovasom ba’olomom, the task incumbent upon Yidden.

Last week, the Yated in particular, and Klal Yisroel as a whole, lost a dear friend; a man who recognized that he was here for a higher purpose and that his actions had long-range implications. Mr. Julius (Reb Yoel) Klugmann, born in Germany and a long-time member of the Yekkishe kehillah in Washington Heights, epitomized the grandeur of German Jewry.

Never seeking the limelight and always operating under the radar, he bore the achrayus of always searching for ways in which to improve the plight of Yidden. He pursued the commitment of na’aseh venishma with relentless zeal.

All his actions were lesheim shomayim, emanating from a heart that beat with ahavas Yisroel, the products of a lifetime steeped in shimush talmidei chachomim, coupled with deep emunah and bitachon and strict fidelity to halacha and mesorah.

Mr. Klugmann was heavily influenced by the fiery determination of Rav Yosef Breuer, his rebbi and rov. As a young man of 31, he traveled to Eretz Yisroel for the 1954 Knessiah Gedolah and met the Brisker Rov. That meeting changed his life. The Rov took a liking to him, appreciating his ehrentzkeit and ehrlichkeit. Upon the Rov’s passing, his son, the Brisker rosh yeshiva, Rav Berel Soloveitchik, turned to Mr. Klugmann and asked him if he would be able to raise some much-needed funds for the nascent Brisker Yeshiva.

Never having previously engaged in the daunting and humbling task of fundraising, much less for a small and unknown yeshiva, Mr. Klugmann set out on what would become one of his life tasks. He became the sole fundraiser for the Brisker Yeshiva, without ever calling attention to himself and receiving nothing in return besides the satisfaction of knowing that, in his small way, he was changing the world. The money he raised enabled the yeshiva to grow and flourish, reaching its position at the pinnacle of Torah study in our world.  

Mr. Klugmann didn’t only attach himself to the Brisker Rov and his children and grandchildren. He became close to giants of yesteryear such as Rav Reuvein Grozovsky, Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Elozor Menachem Mann Shach, the Steipler Gaon, the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Elya Svei and so many others. He maintained close relationships with many of today’s leading roshei yeshiva as well. He was their devoted servant, often visiting them, speaking to them, and always consulting with them on ideas to help improve the matzav of Yahadus. He mined them for divrei Torah and hashkofah, not just as a scholarly pursuit or hobby, but to improve himself and enable him to influence others. They all respected him and valued his insight and friendship.

An Israeli businessman took leave of Rav Shach before making his first trip to America. When he told the Ponovezher rosh yeshiva who he was planning to visit to gain an understanding of the country, Rav Shach responded, “Oib ihr vilt trefen mit an ehrlicher mentch, gei red mit Yoel Klugmann - If you wish to meet an ehrlicher Yid, go talk to Yoel Klugmann.”

He was a fixture at Agudah conventions, cajoling, prodding and effecting change in bits and pieces, never seeking anything for himself. His sole goal was to contribute to chiddush ha’olam.

When this newspaper was founded, few gave it a chance of survival. However, because it had the support of gedolim, Mr. Klugmann was one of a handful of friends we had in the early days. He was a constant fount of moral support, advice and encouragement, ultimately delighting in our growth.

When one of his sons came across the manuscript of the Rokeiach’s seforim on Chumash in a British museum, he spared no effort to have the seforim properly transcribed, reviewed, edited, annotated and published. In fact, it was none other than Rav Chaim Kanievsky, who was then totally unknown, whom he engaged to help him produce the classic seforim.

Once again, his ehrlichkeit and determination were rewarded. He was given min hashomayim the zechus to publish a Rishon’s seforim, rescuing them from oblivion. Just as he was the first friend of the Brisker Yeshiva, he was introduced to Rav Chaim, the man who would become the gadol b’Yisroel when he was yet just another unsung kollel yungerman.

We should all learn from his example.

Every one of us is presented with opportunities to improve the world in which we live, helping people in need of assistance and providing support for lomdei and marbitzei Torah. We all know of people who have been abused and hurt through no fault of their own, caught up in a corrupt system and victimized for crimes they did not commit. We know of children, teenagers and adults who are lonely and desperate for friendship and for someone to simply care about them. We know of kids slipping through the cracks, we can help them if we care enough. We know of causes so vital yet so forsaken, because people turn a blind eye to them.

We cannot permit the yeitzer hora to entice us into believing that we are powerless. We cannot let him fool us into thinking that our ma’asim don’t count. Every word of Torah we study and every mitzvah we perform alters the cosmos. Every person we inspire to prevail when they think they are unable to, becomes another positive force who can have great influence, transforming evil into good and tragedy into accomplishment.

Take a break from the negativity and cynicism and recognize that with the proper positive attitude, we can overcome all that stands in our way and build the world of goodness that we committed ourselves to 3,325 years ago, when we joined together and proclaimed, “Na’aseh venishma.”

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Ultimate Harmony

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz


With Lag Ba’omer behind us, we know that Shavuos is rapidly approaching. The Pesach celebration of geulas Mitzrayim is fresh in our memories. The smell of the fire and the poetic strains sung on Lag Ba’omer are still flashing in our senses as we learn the parshiyos of Behar and Bechukosai this week.

All manage to fit in together around the Seder table, all sorts of sons and family members, from the chochom to the one who is a she’eino yodei’a lishol. On Lag Ba’omer, Jews of all types held hands in circles the world over, singing, “Ashreichem Yisroel.” On Shavuos, we celebrate the day 3,325 years ago when, ke’ish echod beleiv echod, all the Bnei Yisroel stood together and proclaimed, “Na’aseh venishma.”

Yet, today, we wonder: Why can’t we all get along? What happened to that achdus? Where has it gone? Why can’t it be recreated on a daily basis, everywhere, all the time?

What can be done to protect Eretz Yisroel? What can the beleaguered country, surrounded by millions of people who want to see its destruction, do to prevent its enemies from carrying out their evil designs? Scores of politicians, diplomats and generals have spent decades trying to figure out the answer to those questions, to no avail.

Many years ago, the Chazon Ish addressed the passionate resentment secular Israelis feel towards bnei yeshiva. He explained it as follows: “Hasinah sheyeish bohem, the hatred that exists within them, hu machmas nitzotz hakedushah sheyeish bohem, is due to the spark of holiness within them.”

Perhaps, by delving into this week’s parsha, we can understand the depths of the Chazon Ish’s reference to the emotional and ideological tug-of-war that has prevailed in Eretz Yisroel since the days of the early Zionists.

The pesukim at the beginning of Parshas Bechukosai provide a clear solution to the issue of peace in the land, an answer that has eluded so many politicians, diplomats and generals over the years.

The posuk (26:3) promises, “Im bechukosai teileichu - If you will walk in the path of My laws and observe the mitzvos of Hashem, then the rains will fall on time, the earth will produce its proper harvest… vishavtem lovetach be’artzechem. Venosati shalom ba’aretz, ushechavtem ve’ein machrid - and you will live confidently and in peace.”

The absence of external enemies can lead to internal friction. If the nation is not engaged in a battle for its survival against outside enemies, there is a danger that its citizens will battle each other. The Ramban (ibid.) posits that this is why after promising vishavtem lovetach, the posuk promises shalom, peace. Hashem is promising the Jewish people that if they behave properly, they will not only be safe from attacks across their borders, but they will also not have to worry about internecine battles. There will be peace, complete and total.

The very spot where heaven and earth meet is also the epicenter of the perpetual struggle between them. If the Bnei Yisroel observe the Torah, they will merit peace in their land. They will be spared enemies on their borders and harmony will reign in the country. If they are lacking in their observance of the Torah, their enemies who seek to engulf them will be empowered and there will be discord between brothers.

The posuk in the Tochachah (26:15) declares, “Ve’im es mishpotai tigal nafshechem levilti asos es kol mitzvosai lehafrichem es brisi.” The Toras Kohanim explains that the posuk is stating that someone who doesn’t learn Torah and perform mitzvos will eventually develop into one who despises talmidei chachomim and those who properly observe the mitzvos. This is the meaning of the posuk: Initially, the scoffer becomes disgusted by Hashem’s mishpotim and says, “Es mishpotai tigal nafshechem.” He then stops other people from doing mitzvos - “levilti asos” - until, eventually, that person becomes a total kofer - “lehafrichem es brisi.”

In midst of the brachos contained in the parsha, the posuk says (26:11), “Venosati Mishkoni besochechem, velo sigal nafshi es’chem - I will place my Mishkon amongst you and My Soul will not purge itself of you.” The Alter of Novardok wondered about the nature of this brochah and the implications of Hashem’s guarantee. 

He answered that according to the natural order of things, the spiritual nefesh, which is on a higher level of kedushah, should despise being in a body, which is lowly and physical. The only reason that the nefesh is not disgusted by its place in the guf is because of the special brochah depicted in this posuk. The soul of a Jew can acquiesce to its placement in the physical body, because when the guf fulfills the wishes of Hashem, it raises its status and can equal that of the neshomah.

It is this synthesis that allows man to function, experiencing the desires of his guf and the longing of his neshomah and learning to work with this duality.

The Ponovezher rosh yeshiva, Rav Dovid Povarsky in Yishmiru Daas amplifies this concept. He explains that harmony can only be achieved by observing mitzvos and fulfilling the ratzon Hashem, because then the guf and neshomah work together. Since the neshomah will never lower itself to the level of the guf, the only way the duality with which man was created can be achieved is if the guf raises itself beyond the physical, to a higher plane.

He explains further that the relationship between people who fulfill the ratzon Hashem and those who ignore it parallels this association.

This, the rosh yeshiva says, is the reason for the intense dislike displayed by chilonim towards chareidim. According to teva, there is a dichotomy between the guf and the neshomah, but Hashem created man with the ability to turn his guf into neshomah. Thus, the neshomah doesn’t hate the guf, because it knows thatthe guf can raise itself to its level.

However, the guf despises the neshomah, for the neshomah never lowers its level to that of the guf. Therefore, those who have not raised their guf to the level of neshomah revert to the natural hatred of the guf toward the neshomah and anything that resembles it.

People who choose to focus their lives and choices on the world of neshomah are despised by those who choose guf; which is only natural. But the people who have chosen a life of guf aren’t disliked by the others, for the world of neshomah remains optimistic that, one day, those who choose guf will also adopt the lifestyle of the neshomah.

In Eretz Yisroel, we are witness to that constant tug of war between guf and neshomah. Unlike in other countries, no citizen there is indifferent, content to live and let live.

The chareidim burn with a zeal to “fill the land with the knowledge of Hashem like water covers the ocean floor,” improving their own levels of the sublime neshomah and attempting to bring that holiness to their brothers who have been robbed of it by the disciples of Achad Ha’am and Ben Yehudah.

Meanwhile, as those who despise the mishpotim of the Torah remain obsessed in their desire to carve out a secular state unencumbered by age-old laws, passionate Yidden don’t rest from trying to bring wayward souls back to Torah and achieving harmony between the neshomah and the guf of the nation.

It is in the passion of those who spread Torah and kedushah and engage in kiruv rechokim that we find comfort in times such as these.

This week marks the fifteenth yahrtzeit of one of the most passionate Jewish leaders in recent memory, Rabbi Moshe Sherer.

As he related decades later, Rabbi Sherer owed his career to the passion of someone else. He recalled a period when the Agudah was suffering severe financial hardship and a general apathy in the ranks, and it seemed that asserting Orthodoxy as a dominant force in American Jewish life was too daunting a task for him to fill. He wrote a letter of resignation and sent it to the head of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, Rav Aharon Kotler.

Upon receiving the letter, Rav Aharon asked Rabbi Sherer to immediately come to his home. As soon as he entered the rosh yeshiva’s apartment, Rabbi Sherer was confronted by the rebbetzin.

“Rabbi Sherer,” exclaimed Rebbetzin Chana Perel Kotler, “how can you consider such a thing?” She began to cry. “How can you do this to my husband? How can you do this to my father, Rav Isser Zalman, who sacrificed so much for Agudas Yisroel? How can you do this to Klal Yisroel?” She kept weeping as Rabbi Sherer remained silent.

Several years after having successfully built the Agudah, Rabbi Sherer stood at the podium and reflected: “It was those tears of the rebbetzin, her emotion and deep tza’ar, that convinced me to stop and take a step back, giving it another try.”

Owing his career to a rebbetzin’s passionate tears, he injected a passion for da’as Torah and unapologetic pride in authentic Yiddishkeit into many hearts.

On one of his many trips to Eretz Yisroel, Rabbi Sherer walked into a hotel lobby and encountered an elderly gentleman he thought he recognized. The fellow, who was sipping a drink bare-headed, had been his Talmud Torah rebbi many years earlier.

Rabbi Sherer introduced himself and said, “I have to thank you for something. Seeing you sitting here answers a question that gnawed at me for many years. I often wondered why I didn’t grow in learning when I was a young student in your third grade class. I was perturbed by why davka in the third grade my natural urge to succeed in learning wasn’t realized. It bothered me that the year was so uninspiring for me. I never understood why it was that way.

“Now,” he continued, “as I see you sitting here, without a yarmulka, I realize that even back then, when you taught in the Talmud Torah, you didn’t really believe the fundamentals of emunah that you were teaching. Therefore, you weren’t enthusiastic about what you were teaching us children. If the teacher isn’t passionate, the students will never learn. So I thank you,” concluded Rabbi Sherer, “for answering my question.”

It answers another question as well.

How is it that legions of rabbeim and moros, who usually struggle to make ends meet and rarely get to go away during the school year, expend so much effort to take off a weekend, making arrangements for their children and driving for hours so that they can attend the Torah Umesorah convention this Shabbos?

The answer is that they are passionate individuals, people of the soul, and they have thus been selected by the Ribbono Shel Olam to kindle other souls. It is important to them, so they find a way.

The mechanchim our generation is blessed with, and the devoted baalei batim who support our chinuch system, raise the dor, elevating the collective guf to the level of neshomah. Envisioning each child as a youngster blessed with unlimited potential, they labor to transform each one into a neshomah filled with endless light, able to conquer all and succeed.

The great rejoicing and dancing on Lag Ba’omer in Meron and all around the world were expressions of the neshomah’s yearning, an appreciation of our great rebbi, Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, and the heights he reached. He revealed the depth and potential of each Yid, assuring us that wherever he is, a Jew can always raise himself ever higher.

The words selected as Rabi Shimon’s enduring legacy, emblazoned on the famous entranceway in Meron, quote his teaching, “Ki lo sishochach mipi zaro,” representing his assurance that Hashem’s children will never forget the Torah, despite all that will befall them. The final letters of the words spell Yochai, a hint at how they are bound up with the essence of the one who said them: Ki lo sishachach mipi zaro.

This past Motzoei Shabbos, as I stood among tens of thousands at the bais medrash in Kiryas Yoel, where the Satmar Rebbe presided over a magnificent hadlakah and inspiring tish, I was thinking that the glowing fire in the center, with its smoke rising heavenward, surrounded by tens of thousands of individuals overtaken by song and prayer, was a potent symbol of the burning neshamos all around us, Yidden everywhere seeking to raise the levels of their guf to that of their neshomah, a reminder of the enduring truth of retzoneinu la’asos retzoncha.

Shortly after the Second World War, a group of survivors gathered at the tish of the Klausenberger Rebbe. The pain of loss and devastation was evident on their faces, as they struggled to rebuild and rise above the loneliness and sorrow. It was Shabbos parshas Bechukosai. The Rebbe discussed the juxtaposition of the parsha of eirchin, which addresses the valuation of a person who pledges his worth to the Bais Hamikdosh, and the Tochachah, the horrific account of that which will befall Klal Yisroel if the nation disregards the Torah.

“The full erech, value, of a Yid,” the Rebbe explained, “can only be appreciated after he experiences the Tochachah. After encountering suffering of this magnitude, a Yid who stands tall and strong is worth so much…”

His message that Shabbos to the Yidden around the table who had lost everything they owned or knew was a physical loss. It was a plaintive cry that they should let their neshamos guide them, uplift them, and lead them to happier and better  times.

As the fame of the Chofetz Chaim grew, people flocked to him, asking for brachos. Many times he would respond with advice. “Why did you come to me for brachos?” he would say. “I am just a simple human being. Real brachos can be obtained by following the pesukim in Parshas Bechukosai, which proclaim that all the blessings of the world will flow to those who observe Hashem’s path - ‘Im bechukosai teileichu.’ The holy Torah, whose every word is pure and true, guarantees brachos for shemiras hamitzvos. If it is blessings you seek, you would be well advised to spend your time advancing your shemiras hamitzvos and forgetting about me.”

May the words of this parsha, with its promises of brachos and yeshuos, fill all Jews everywhere and the entire world with light, blessings, peace and the ultimate brochah.