Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Don't Give Up

 by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Here we stand, a week before Rosh Hashanah,wondering where we are relative to where we should be at this time of year. We wonder if we have accomplished as much as we have to in order to be zochehin din. How much more can we achieve and how far are we from what Hashem wants us to be? We review the year in our minds and feel as if we have been here before. We have worked so hard in the past to right ourselves, only to fall back to previous levels. We may become disheartened as we ponder whether we can do it again.
It was a Motzoei Yom Kippur in the Mirrer Yeshiva. Far from the familiar embrace of the hallowed building in Mir D’Lita, the yeshivawas in its temporary home in Shanghai. The holiest day of the year had just come to a close. A cloud of intensity and emotion had filled the large Bais Aharon shul, headquarters of hundreds of Mirrer refugees. The echoes of the day’s powerful prayers for themselves and their loved ones still in danger were reverberating off its walls.
The talmidei chachomim of the yeshiva had emptied out to break their fast, removing their hats and jackets after a long, oppressively hot day. A lone figure remained in the cavernous room. The mythical mashgiach, Rav Chatzkel Levenstein, lingered in the bais medrash, walking back and forth, talking to himself in soft and mournful tones. His countenance, always luminous, was angelic at that exalted moment.
The mashgiach had not sat down throughout the long day, his Shemoneh Esrei of Shacharis continued until krias haTorah, when he was called for the aliyah of levi. His Mussafcontinued until the start of Minchah, and again he remained standing in prayer until just before Ne’ilah. At that time, he offered words ofchizuk to the talmidim, ushering forth a last wave of energy before the sun set and Yom Kippur concluded.
Now, with everyone gone, the mashgiach stood in the empty bais medrash speaking gently. “Sometimes a person is able to raise himself and achieve great heights,” the mashgiach said, “but what happens is that after a while at that exalted level, he returns to being the same person he was. Why do we lose the roishem, the impression, of teshuvah?”The mashgiach left the question hanging and then concluded, “A person must work and toil his entire life to be omeid b’nisayon, acquiring and internalizing the means to do battle and succeed.”
By this time, we hope that each of us is engaged in the process of teshuvah, preparing for the holiest days of the year and working to be zocheh b’din. The goal, as Rav Chatzkel taught, isn’t just to make it through Elul and come prepared on some level for Rosh Hashanahand Yom Kippur, but to become elevated in a genuine and lasting way. The objective is to develop ourselves and emerge from this period of introspection and preparation on a higher level than when we began the process.
As we prepare ourselves for the Yom Hadin, we have to do so in a way that will remain with us throughout the rest of the year as well.
The Vilna Gaon, our rebbi in niglahand nistar, drush and sod, reveals the purpose of life. “Ikkar chiyus ha’adam, the purpose of existence,” he says, “is for man to destroy his bad middos. Ve’im lav, lamah lo chaim? If he won’t do so, what’s the point of his life? (Even Sheleimah 1:2).
Life is an ongoing process, and without constant progressive evolution and growth, it is futile. In life, the nisyonoskeep coming. There is seemingly no rest from them. Our task is to continue rising, reaching the next level, firming up, and moving up to the next rung.
The Alter of Kelm once said to his talmidim before Rosh Hashanah, “What is the worst gezeirah possible for us in the new year? That it will be exactly the same as the year before.”
The noted mussar personality, Rav Mordechai Schwab, would eagerly observe the changing seasons. He would watch the summer’s heat give way to the crisp coolness of the fall, which would then morph into the winter’s penetrating cold and finally the rebirth and regeneration of spring. He would say that he saw the changing of the seasons as a metaphor for spiritual life and a reminder that change is the essence of life.
Rav Meir Chodosh, the Chevroner mashgiach, was one of the survivors of the horrific massacres that decimated Chevron in 1929, when bloodthirsty Arabs tore through the city and its yeshiva. As the murderers searched through a pile of corpses looking for signs of life so that they might snuff out yet another Jew, Rav Meir lay there immobile, pretending to be dead so that they might pass him by.
During those moments, as the Arabic conversation swirled around him, he suddenly had a memory of an incident that had taken place years earlier, when he was a young bochur in Russia. He had been seized by Russian soldiers during the tumultuous period leading up to the First World War and was unable to produce proper documentation proving his citizenship. Overjoyed with their find of a hapless undocumented Jew, the soldiers instructed Rav Meir to stand against the wall and told him they were going to kill him on the spot. The lead soldier aimed his gun at him.
Shaking with fright, Rav Meir leaned against the wall, barely able to stand. The soldier began to shout at him, “Stand straight, Jew! Show respect!” Rav Meir was unable to oblige and the soldier grew angry, yelling louder.
Rav Meir recited viduy and Shema Yisroel as he prepared for his young life to come to a sudden and tragic end. Suddenly, a nearby window opened and a high-ranking general looked out. He began to berate the soldiers for yelling and disturbing his afternoon nap. “You woke me,” he said. “Why are you making a commotion? Get out of here.”
The humiliated soldiers beat a hasty retreat and Rav Meir’s life was miraculously saved.
The memory of that incident suddenly came back to him as he lay there in Chevron, amidst a pile of bodies.
Later, in a shmuess, Rav Meir shared a lesson he derived from that fateful experience. The first miracle had elevated him to a high spiritual plateau, and he was determined to remember the kindness of Hashem and live accordingly, keeping the heightened awareness alive.
Alas, the mashgiach continued, in time, he returned to his routine, and the effect of the neis wore off. Eventually, he went back to living life as he had prior to his miraculous deliverance. It was only when he was once again in that awful situation, staring death in the face, that the spectacular moment suddenly came back to him. He resolved that if he would live, the experiences in his past would always be his present and future, and he would never again lose sight of what had transpired to him and the levels ofemunah they had inspired.
Our avodah, as well, is to keep alive those inspired moments, through changing seasons, moods and situations, no matter what nisyonoswe face.
When Golias was wreaking havoc amongst the ranks of Klal Yisroel’s army, a young shepherd showed up at the front to bring provisions to his brother. His name was Dovid. When he arrived at the encampment, he was disturbed by the power of that rasha and the reaction of Klal Yisroel.“Ki mi haPlishti ha’arel hazeh? Who does this impure Plishti think he is that he might mock and taunt the ranks of Elokim Chaim?” (Shmuel I 17:28).
Dovid’s older brother was upset at him, thinking that he had come to the front merely to watch “the action.” Dovid’s fighting words were passed on to Shaul Hamelech and the young shepherd was brought before the king.
Upon meeting him, Shaul was convinced that the physically unintimidating Dovid could never battle the towering Golias. Dovid reassured him. “Your servant was a shepherd…and a lion and a bear came and lifted one of the sheep from the flock. And I went after and killed it and saved the sheep from its mouth… Both the lion and the bear your servant smote - and this Plishti will be as one of them…” (Shmuel I 17:34-36).
On the posuk that tells of the sheep, a seh, there is a mesorah of kri and ksiv - that the word is written aszeh, meaning this, but read as seh, meaning sheep.
The Vilna Gaon explains the interchanging of the word sehwith the word zeh. Dovid Hamelech had a miracle happen to him. He was able to kill a wild beast with his bare hands. He understood that if the Ribbono Shel Olam allowed this to happen, there was a deeper purpose to what had transpired and a lesson for him for life. Dovid was determined to remember the incident so that when further nisyonos arose, he would recall that he had the power to triumph. He wanted to maintain the level.
The Gaon quotes a Medrash which states that Dovid cut off some wool from the sheep whose life he saved and made himself a cloak from that wool.
With this, the Gaon explains the depth of the mesorahin reading the posuk. “Venasa seh meiha’eider is rendered as “Venasa zeh meiha’eider because Dovid would wear that cloak and point to it and say, “Zeh! This is from the wool of the sheep that was attacked by a lion, which I killed with my bare hands. Hashem allowed me to experience this miracle and I want to make sure I will remember it.”
The call of the hour during the final week of Elulis to perceive our own strengths, commit to using them, and pledge to live with that awareness throughout the following year. We must peer into our souls and see what motivates us, what makes us tick, what we are doing right and what we are doing wrong. Then, we can honestly begin fixing what needs repair and doing what we are able to improve ourselves and enhance our behavior and Torah observance.
Many people suffer from insecurity, unaware of their abilities and unsure of themselves. Great mechanchim are able to identify latent qualities of their talmidim and bring them forth, making the students aware of their own capabilities and drawing upon them when a nisayon arises.
When Rav Leib Malin was a talmid in the Mirrer Yeshiva, he felt compelled to protest something that had taken place. He, along with some others, made their way to the back of the bais medrash, planning to walk out as a way of registering their objection to whatever it was they disagreed with. As they walked, they caught sight of the awe-inspiring figure of the mashgiach, Rav Yeruchom Levovitz, standing at the door with his arms crossed. He clearly wished for them to sit down and forget about their intended protest. They did.
Later, Rav Yeruchom called in Rav Leib. “I didn’t agree with what you wanted to do, but you had obviously thought through your plan and were convinced that it was correct. Why, then, did you stop when you saw me? If you felt that what you were doing was proper, you should have been prepared to continue. You have to take responsibility for your thoughts and actions.”
Years later, when the Second World War broke out and difficult decisions had to be made, Rav Leib rose to the challenge. Some of his positions were unpopular (he was among those who were resolute that theyeshiva had to escape to Japan, a decision that saved the lives of the Mirrer talmidim, but, initially, many considered that avenue of escape to be foolish) and there was open resistance to him. He stood firm. “You have to take responsibility,” his rebbi had said. He remembered.
The perceptive mashgiach had made him aware of his own potential for achrayus and leadership. When the situation arose, Rav Leib was aware of his abilities and able to rise to the occasion.
At the beginning of Parshas Vayeilech, as Moshe Rabbeinu prepared to leave this world, he said to the Jewish people, “Louchal od lotzeis velavo - I am no longer able to come and go.
Rav Tzadok Hakohein explains that Moshe Rabbeinu was saying that he had reached a level where there were no more nisyonos. He no longer had the peaks and the valleys, the aliyos and the yeridos, that are part of life. Moshe Rabbeinu was telling Am Yisroel that since he had reached that level, there was no longer a reason for him to remain physically alive in this world.
Nisyonos define us. They give life meaning and substance. We must hold on to moments of inspiration and chizukso that when the inevitable challenges appear, we know how to act.
Rav Moshe Leib Sassover was very active in the mitzvahof pidyon shevuyin, working assiduously to release Jews from prison. There was a man who was jailed for being delinquent in paying rent to a wealthy landowner on whose property he lived.
Rav Moshe Leib’s efforts to raise the funds necessary to pay the debt came up short. He traveled to the poritz anyway, thinking that perhaps he would be able to convince him to accept the money he had raised and free the poor man from jail. The landowner refused the compromise and told the rebbe that he wouldn’t settle for anything less than the full amount.
Having failed in his mission, Rav Moshe Leib left the poritz’s house with the money, dejected.
On his way home, he saw police dragging a Jewish man and mercilessly beating him. This Jew was a highway robber who ambushed people on the roads, and the police had enough of him and were going to hang him in the public square and rid the community of the menace once and for all.
Rav Moshe Leib went over to the bandit, who was gushing blood, severely beaten. He said to the man, “Do you promise to do teshuvahif I free you? Will you live a clean and honest life if I manage to convince them to let you go?”
When the man assured the rebbe that he would repent and never rob anyone ever again, the rebbe took the money he had raised to free the poor Jewish tenant and used it to bribe the policemen to let the robber go.
The rebbe took the man, who was in terrible shape after his beating and near death experience, into his wagon to bring him home.
Along the way, the rebbe spoke to the bandit, trying to convince him to give up his career and earn an honest living, which wouldn’t involve hurting people and placing himself in mortal danger.
As the rebbe spoke, the man remained silent, not uttering a word during the entire journey. When they finally reached the man’s house, the rebbe, who had saved his life, asked the robber to give his hand and promise that he wouldn’t go back to his old ways.
The man refused. He said that he was not going to abandon his chosen career. He explained: “Just because I had a bad day today doesn’t mean I’ll have a bad day tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow will be a better day and I’ll make a big hit.”
Rav Moshe Leib took leave of the man and sadly continued on his way. It was an awful day. His trip was a crushing failure. He wasn’t able to get the first Jew out of jail, and the Jew he did free told him that he wouldn’t give up his life of crime.
That night, Rav Moshe Leib dreamt that everything that happened to him that day was to teach him the proper way to serve Hashem. Never give up. Never let defeat get you down. If things don’t work out today, that doesn’t mean they won’t work out tomorrow. Keep on trying until you get it right.
This is a powerful lesson for us as well. It’s almost Rosh Hashanah. We try to be better and feel we are failing. As long as we don’t give up, as long as we keep on trying, we are succeeding.
Twice a day, we recite “LeDovid,” expressing confidence in our abilities to overcome. “Im tachaneh alai machaneh lo yira libi.” If a nisayon comes my way to test me, I shall not be afraid. I am confident in my ability to withstand the nisayon. With the help of Hashem, I will rise up and triumph.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Unkown Soldier

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz


Parshas Ki Savo begins with the mitzvah of bikkurim. Through this mitzvah and the rich symbolism of the mitzvos surrounding it, we are taught how to achieve happiness.

After months of toiling in his field and orchard, a Jew takes the first fruits of his harvest and sets out for Yerushalayim. When he arrives there, he meets up with a kohein and then approaches the mizbei’ach in the Bais Hamikdosh and recites the pesukim that recall the trials that Yaakov Avinu endured, followed by our forefathers’ suffering in Mitzrayim.

He then relates how Hashem rescued us with scores of miracles and led us to the Promised Land which flows with milk and honey.

Following that, the Jew presents the first fruits of his labors to the kohein and returns home. He is then ready for the next part of the mitzvah, “Vesomachta bechol hatov.” There is a specific mitzvah to rejoice with all the goodness that Hashem has blessed him with.

The obligation to be thankful for the blessings Hashem has bestowed upon us, and to contrast that goodness with the difficult time that preceded it, appears to be the key to true happiness. It is by approaching our situation in life with this perspective that we can merit happiness.

The path to happiness and fulfillment is often strewn with hardship. A person who works the fields is a perfect illustration of this dynamic.

First, the farmer spends what feels like endless hours working as the blistering sun beats down upon him. Finally, his hard work pays off and his orchard begins yielding crops, which he can harvest to feed his family and sell for a profit. Yet, the Torah tells him that he must take the first fruits and bring them to Yerushalayim as bikkurim.

The Torah instructs him to think back to the bitter days that Yaakov spent at the home of his father-in-law, Lavan, and to the period of slavery we endured in Mitzrayim.

Bringing bikkurim forces Jews to reflect on the good in their life. Too often, people concentrate only on the negative. They complain about how hard they struggle to make a living. People fail to thank Hashem that they have a job and a boss who guarantees them a salary. Those who live in an agrarian economy don’t always appreciate that they have a plot of land on which to grow their fruit and may complain about all the chores that they must perform in order for their orchard to produce healthy fruit.

The mitzvah of bikkurim forces a person to mentally revisit the first days of the season when he planted one of his shivah minim, not knowing if the seeds would take root or if the trees would bear fruit. It forces him to be thankful that, despite all the potential for ruin, in the end, Hashem helped him bring forth a good crop.

In Yerushalayim, he stands at the mizbei’ach and reflects on the mixture of hard times and good times that the Jewish people have experienced throughout the ages.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah and examine our actions over the past year, we, too, must weigh the bad with the good, examining our lives to measure how far we’ve come over the course of time.

We all face challenges. There are times when we feel as if we are backed into a corner with no means of escape. Some have a tendency to think that their problems are insurmountable and submit to despair.

A few months ago, I was speaking to my rebbi, Rav Avrohom Yehoshua Soloveitchik, and the name of a common acquaintance came up. The rosh yeshiva asked how his talmid was doing.

I responded, “Ess geit em shver. He’s having a hard time.”

Without hesitating for even a moment, he looked at me very seriously, if not angrily, and shot back, “Bei der Ribono Shel Olam iz gornit shver.”

In his pithy, concise way, he was teaching a lesson. For someone facing a challenge, the problem seems so overwhelming and daunting, but we have to remember that the Ribbono Shel Olam has no limitations. However large the issue seems to the person who is experiencing it and to those who love and care about him, in essence, it is but a blip on the radar screen of life, almost like a small imperceptible bump on a road.

We get upset and we become forlorn because we become trapped by the moment and cannot look at the bigger picture. We get locked into the moment. Though we are limited in what we can perceive, we cannot forget that “Bei der Ribono Shel Olam iz gornit shver.

Great men always knew how to view what was before them not as isolated incidents but as part of something bigger. They knew that what was transpiring in their lives was part of an evolving process put in place by the Ribono Shel Olam. They knew that what was happening on a national and international sphere was a manifestation of history unfolding by the Creator.

Such people don’t become disheartened when they face struggles; they are cognizant of the fact that Klal Yisroel and its people march to their destiny on a long, winding road, sometimes in the sun, other times in the shade. There are storms of snow and others of rain; avalanches and slides, earthquakes and typhoons. But we continue on the path, irrespective of what is thrown in the way. Because “By der Ribono Shel Olam is gornit shver.”

A fascinating biography was recently published about the great Litvisher gaon, Rav Mordechai Pogromansky. Each page of the book is more fascinating than the next. Reading it is an exercise in mussar and leads to an appreciation of the greatness of Torah, its chachomim, and Litvisher bnei Torah.

Even as he was locked in the Kovno ghetto, with death, destruction and deprivation all around him, Rav Pogremansky never lost his calmness brought about by his deep emunah and bitachon. He remained devoted to Torah and giving chizuk to those around him. With the Jews walled into a small area, constantly patrolled by vicious Nazis, he would tell those who would gather around him that he didn’t see the German beasts who were everywhere. “I don’t see Germans all around us… I see pesukim of the Torah [from the Tochachah] surrounding the ghetto.”

The great giant saw what was transpiring as the realization of the pesukim in this week’s parsha that we read quietly. He saw those words coming to life. He was able to remain calm and sleep at night because he knew that all that was going on, as awful as it was, in actuality, was the pesukim of Tanach having grown skin, bones and muscle. He didn’t see Germans. He didn’t fear Germans. He saw and feared Hashem. He knew that whatever was going to happen was going to be carried out by the Ribono Shel Olam, and bei em iz gornit shver. If he was supposed to live, he would live, no matter what those whose “pihem diber shov” would say or do.

Bombs were falling, devastation and hunger were his daily companions, yet this great soul, with depth, sensitivity and brilliance sensed the stark clarity of the pesukim of the Tochachah and the reality as expressed by the Torah. Everything around him was merely a reflection of that reality, a cause and effect built into creation by the Ribono Shel Olam.

Rav Pogremansky repeated what he heard in the ghetto from the famed Kovno Rov, Rav Avrohom Kahana Schapiro, author of the classic sefer Devar Avrohom. Amidst the commotion and turmoil of the ghetto, the Kovno Rov stated that he was jealous of the kohein who hid the jug of oil that the Chashmonaim found and from which they lit the Menorah following their miraculous victory over the Yevonim.

An unforgotten, anonymous kohein, or, as the Kovno Rov referred to him, “der umbakanter suldat,” had the presence of mind to hide a pach shemen tahor. The Yevonim were plundering everything and most of the Jews had gone over to the other side. Everything seemed lost. Churban was everywhere.

Yet, in this setting, der umbakanter suldat grabbed a holy flask of oil and hid it. He knew that a time would come when the powerful Yevonim would be usurped of their power, when churban would yield to rejuvenation, and the shemen tahor would be needed to ignite the Menorah.

Der umbakanter suldat knew that what he was seeing was pesukim coming to life, and he recognized that one day, the pesukim that foretell rebirth would also jump off the pages.

Der umbakanter suldat was the person the Kovno Rov learned from and was jealous of. He was the person who carried out the teaching expressed in Orchos Chaim LehoRosh (100), which states, “Al tevahel ma’asecha.” Even in a time of confusion and commotion, remain calm and composed.

This lesson was the epitome of Kelmer mussar, though one need not be a student of Kelm to conduct himself in that manner. That suldat certainly wasn’t, but we can all learn from him.

The Alter of Kelm instituted the recital of Orchos Chaim LehoRosh in his yeshiva each morning following Shacharis. With deep concentration and the sincerity that defined them, the Kelmer talmidim would repeat in unison verses from the sefer, internalizing these timeless teachings.

Many yeshivos follow that custom during the month of Elul. Rav Nosson Wachtfogel, mashgiach of Bais Medrash Govoah in Lakewood, would chant the special teachings in the traditional Kelmer niggun.

Al tevahel ma’asecha. Tunnel vision forces a person to panic, while the ability to understand that there is a bigger picture at play offers serenity. The knowledge that everything that is taking place is the fulfillment of pesukim permits one to live a life of calmness and serenity no matter what is transpiring around him.

Every Shabbos morning, in the tefillah of Nishmas, we thank Hashem for saving us from cholo’im ro’im vene’emonim, faithful, bad diseases. What type of illness is faithful? To what and to whom is the illness faithful?

In the Tochachah (28:59), the posuk speaks of makkos gedolos vene’emanos, great and faithful blows, and cholo’im gedolim vene’emonim, great and faithful illnesses. The Gemara says in Maseches Avodah Zara (55a) that before a person becomes ill, the Ribbono Shel Olam makes the illness take an oath that it will leave the person’s body at the proper time. When a person becomes afflicted with an illness, the illness is sworn to the number of days it will reside within that person, the degree of pain it will cause, and instructions about when it will leave. When the illness promises to follow its instructions, it is dispatched to the person’s body.

When people are sick and suffering, they can become despondent and think that they will never be cured. They fear that they will never again be happy and pain-free. Chazal teach that sickness, like everything else in this world, is the result of a Divine plan. The amount the sick person suffers is all planned. Hashem spares us of any pain beyond what has been prescribed for us. 

Veho’ikar lo lefacheid klal. Daunt-
ing as it seems, hard as the situation appears, we should never forget that nothing occurs by happenstance.

When we read about what is transpiring in Eretz Yisroel, it can be demoralizing, unless we understand the current struggle in light of the bigger picture, a long history of kedushah and tumah battling for the fate and destiny of Yahadus in Eretz Hakodesh.

We must not let ourselves become swept into thinking that what is happening is something new that has never happened before. The same battles that are being waged now have been fought before. Ever since the founding of the state, the status of bachurei yeshiva and the role of halacha have been points of contention. Just as our spiritual fathers triumphed, just as yeshivos rose from the ashes and continued to grow, and just as the Torah community defied the predictions and prognoses of its demise and thrived, so will the good times return.

Rav Mordechai Pogremansky recognized in the destruction a harbinger of hope, because the pesukim of the Tochachah were being realized. Everything was going according to a plan.

Yaakov Avinu, the av who is identified with golus, the father who led his children into Mitzrayim, taught us an enduring lesson. He knew where his children were headed, but he had the foresight to bring along cedar trees as he went into exile. It was from those arazim trees that the Mishkon was constructed.

With those arazim, Yaakov didn’t only bring the physical timber his offspring would require to build a heavenly abode in the desert. He also taught them a lesson that would carry them through golus. Light follows darkness as assuredly as day follows night. There will be destruction, but it will be followed by rebirth.

Better times will come for those who don’t despair. 

We study the parsha of bikkurim prior to Rosh Hashanah to encourage us not to despair and to always maintain our belief in Hashem, even on the dark days when the land lies fallow and an unbelieving person would give up all hope of ever growing anything.

The courage to keep up the struggle is the theme of Elul. We need to maintain our faith as we experience this internal turbulence. Hakadosh Boruch Hu says to us, “Pischu li pesach kefishcho shel machat, va’ani eftach lochem kefischo shel ulam. We have to open the door, we have to plant the seed, we have to take the trip to Yerushalayim, and Hashem will do the rest.

Living in troubled, turbulent times, we have to maintain our faith and seek to persevere and do the right thing, no matter how difficult the challenge.

We have to continue to constantly scrutinize our actions, always aiming to improve. We have to remember the arami oveid avi and the avdus in Mitzrayim in order to absorb Hakadosh Boruch Hu’s mercy and kindness in accepting our prayers and rescuing us from that awful place.

Just as He saved our fathers, He looks out for us and aids us in our daily battles and struggles if we remain staunch in our faith and do not allow setbacks to derail us.

We should all see our problems for what they are - temporary obstacles placed by a knowing and loving Father. May we merit to be inscribed for a happy, healthy and successful new year.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Meaningful Elul

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
The late Slonimer Rebbe, Rav Sholom Noach Berezovsky zt”l, is known for his sefer, Nesivos Sholom, which has become a classic work. The Rebbe once called his chassidim together to relay his dream of the previous night.
He dreamt that he was sitting on Motzoei Simchas Torah, but he had no recollection of the weeks of Elul and Tishrei that led to that night. In his dream, he was broken, wondering how he could have reached Motzoei Simchas Torah without experiencing the landmarks that define the path leading to Simchas Torah. How could it be, he cried out, that he didn’t experience the hopeful concern of chodesh Elul?

“Did I miss the triumphant awe of Rosh Hashanah?” he asked. “Did Yom Kippur’s sweet brokenness skip over me? Was I not worthy of sensing the joy of Sukkos and the last minute desperation of Hoshanah Rabbah? How can it be that I missed out on the awesome day of Simchas Torah, the culmination of the weeks and experiences going back to Rosh Chodesh Elul?”
The Rebbe told his chassidim that when he realized that he missed out on Elul and most of Tishrei, he cried over the precious gifts that passed him by. Then he awoke and realized that it was all a dream. His sadness turned to joy as he appreciated that he had so much to look forward to.

We are now where the Rebbe was when he awoke. We have most of Elul ahead of us. We have Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkos, Hoshanah Rabbah, Simchas Torah and so much more to look forward to.
We stand at the foot of a ladder that reaches to the heavens. If we take the mission seriously and decide to climb the ladder, we can ascend to a realm of blessing and happiness. But in order to successfully reach those high levels, we must first have our feet firmly planted on the ground, as we contemplate the process we face.

It has become de rigueur prior to a fast for people to wish each other “a meaningful fast.” I was never really sure what that meant, but I think that it would be appropriate at the outset of chodesh Elul to wish each other “a meaningful Elul.
A meaningful Elul calls for us to endeavor to be the very best that we can possibly be. We have to examine ourselves and determine what about us is good, what isn’t, and what we can do about improving that which needs betterment. It takes courage to honestly assess our position at the outset of the Elul climb, but if we want to have a meaningful Elul, then we have to find within ourselves the strength and tenacity to begin the climb and to successfully ascend to the top.

This week’s parsha begins with the words, “Ki seitzei lamilchamah al oyvecha - When you go to war against your enemy.” While the Torah is speaking of a time when the Jewish people will go to combat against a physical enemy, many meforshim understand the posuk to be referring allegorically to Jews battling their yeitzer hara. In fact, the Chofetz Chaim remarked, “The most dangerous enemy man has is the yeitzer hara. We can never rest in battling him or we will be defeated by him.”
Elul is meaningful, for it is during this month that we determine anew that we must and can defeat him.

Last week, we read about the preparations Am Yisroel engages in prior to going to battle. Weak soldiers are weeded out, lest their presence lead to defeat.
The posuk (Devorim 20:2) relates that before the Bnei Yisroel go to war, the kohein announces to the entire nation not to fear battling their enemy for Hashem will be with them assisting them and ensuring their victory.

Following that, the shotrim address the people and seek out those who fear war, “Mi ho’ish hayorei verach haleivov? Yeileich veyoshuv leveiso - Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him leave and return home” (Ibid 20:8).
What is it about this fellow that causes him to be afraid to go into battle, after the kohein promised that Hashem will be joining them in the war and guaranteeing their success? Rav Yosi Haglili (Sotah 43a) explains that the man who leaves is afraid to go into battle because he is a sinner. In order to be worthy of fighting in Hashem’s army, every soldier must first purge himself of sin. In order to be worthy of victory, there can be no ra - no evil or sin - because ra separates man from Hashem. In order for a soldier to merit Divine beneficence, there can be no aveiros disconnecting man from Hashem.

In order for us to be able to emerge victorious in our battle against the yeitzer hara, we also have to be purged of sin that erects a boundary between us and Hashem; bringing us down and causing our defeat.
A successful campaign is contingent on proper preparation and planning. Therefore, the avodah of Elul begins with the blasts of the shofar each morning, calling to us to awaken from our slumber and begin working on strengthening ourselves, becoming powerful warriors filled with vigor and power and properly equipped to fight the yeitzer hara.

The Munkatcher Rebbe, Rav Chaim Elazar Shapiro, the Minchas Elazar, was drawn to Rav Shlomo Eliezer Alfandari, the elderly Yerushalmi Sefardic mekubal. The fiery Hungarian zealot had been corresponding via mail when Rav Alfandari finally invited the Rebbe to travel to Eretz Yisroel to meet him.
The Rebbe and an entourage made the journey to the Holy Land, eager to meet his mentor. The trip and visit were fascinating, though a few weeks after the Rebbe’s arrival, the 113-year-old mekubal passed away. Many observed that it was Rav Alfandari who had been waiting to meet the Rebbe. The only language they had in common was Lashon Hakodesh, and it was in that patois that they conducted their conversation.

Mosai yavo Moshiach?” asked the Rebbe during their first meeting. “When will Moshiach arrive?”
Yeish ikkuvim. There are things holding him back,” was the answer.

The Rebbe hesitated before posing the follow-up question, very quietly and with much hesitation.
Ha’im anochi bein hame’akvim? Am I one of those who are a barrier to his arrival? Are my chato’im preventing him from coming?”

The Rebbe was an effectual and dynamic leader. It would have been easy to blame Moshiach’s delay on others. As a kanna’i, the Rebbe surely had no shortage of what to blame the hindrances to Moshiach’s arrival on, but in the presence of the Kabbalistic master, he wasn’t looking outside. He was looking internally at himself.
Ki seitzei lamilchamah, when we go to war, al oyvecha, against our enemies, and we seek to do what we can to hasten the redemption, we must look at oyvecha, our personal enemy, the adversary within each of us, and when we defeat him, we can set out to join the army preparing the world for Moshiach.

Where do we start? What can we do to enhance the meaning of Elul personally and for others, thus helping ourselves and those around us merit a successful Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, leading to a joyous Sukkos and an uplifting Simchas Torah? The parshiyos that we layen these weeks offer many lessons and examples for us to follow.
Through looking inward and analyzing what is going on in our own souls as we strive to become better people, we will not only understand ourselves better, but also each other. The Torah commands us to love our fellows as we love ourselves, “V’ahavta lerei’acha kamocha.” By connecting love for another with self-love, the Torah is revealing how we can achieve that level of loving other people.

Our meaningful contemplation allows us to get in touch with ourselves, “kamocha,” and then to apply what we have learned to “rei’acha,” our fellow man.
Great men don’t only understand the words and inflections of the Torah, but through it they also understand people and their needs.

Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, the iconic Yerushalmi rov, asked why the Torah is so strongly critical with regard to charging interest for loans. After all, he wondered, why is it worse than charging rent for a property? When you rent a property, what you are doing is charging the person for using your home or item. Interest is essentially a charge to a person for using your money.
Rav Sonnenfeld answered this question by explaining the mitzvah of shiluach hakan found in this week’s parsha. The Torah says (22:6) that if you chance upon a mother bird sitting on a nest containing her chicks, you must send away the mother and you may then take the offspring. Why, asked Rav Sonnenfeld, is there an obligation to send away the mother?

A mother, he explained, will instinctively do anything to protect her offspring. Generally, if a person approaches a bird’s nest, the bird will sense danger and fly away. However, if the bird’s children are in the nest, the bird will resist the urge of self-preservation and will instead hover over the nest, despite the impending danger, because her concern for her offspring overrides her concern for herself.
The Torah commands us to send away the mother before taking the small chicks to teach us not to take advantage of the mother’s mercy. It would be so easy to capture a mother bird when she stands guard over her nest and chicks. We are not to take advantage of another’s predicament for our own benefit.

The Torah adds that one who heeds this command will merit a long life. Hashem demonstrates mercy for those who demonstrate mercy toward others.
Similarly, the Torah forbids one to take advantage of a person who is in financial stress and needs to borrow money. The Torah seeks to impart an important lesson through this commandment and others. We mustn’t act randomly and without thinking of how our actions will impact others.

It is incumbent upon us to seek to help others, not cause them pain. We must ensure that we don’t take advantage of others and that we help them and advise them without seeking anything in return.

We must seek to help the abused and do what we can to try to bring a stop to abuse in our world. We must not ignore it, looking the other way as people take advantage of others.
If we see that children of our neighbors and friends are, at this late date, still not registered in schools, we should move heaven and earth, treating their predicament as if it were our own children who have been left out.

If we know of children who are at risk, we should do what we can to reach out to them and bring them back, showing them that someone cares about them and loves them.
If we know of someone who is single and in need of a shidduch, we shouldn’t leave it for others to help them. We should do what we can to find a suitable match for them.

If, regrettably, we know of women who are being held as agunos by people who refuse to give them a get, we should use any power and influence we have to bring that cruelty to a halt, preventing people from taking advantage of others in such a fashion.
The Torah is a Toras chessed, and as bnei and bnos Torah, it would surely be a source of merit for us as we seek to experience a meaningful Elul to do what we can not only to help ourselves, but to help others as well. 

As we prepare for the Yom Hadin, we have to engage in serious introspection. We must look into our hearts and determine if we are holding back Moshiach through our aveiros. We must ensure that we are ready to go to war by having purged ourselves of chato’im that can cause separation between us and Hashem, leaving us vulnerable in battle.
May we all merit a meaningful Elul.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Truth, Happiness and Life

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz


The parshiyos of Seder Devorim which we currently lain contain various lessons, eitzos and chizuk that we can all use as we advance toward the Yomim Noraim.

This week’s parsha of Shoftim is no different; providing us with proper perspectives vital in preparing for the yemei hadin.

The Torah in this week’s parsha instructs Klal Yisroel to establish a proper judicial system. The pesukim also discuss the severity of a judge who accepts bribes and commands judges to always seek justice. Finally, the posuk states the obligation to pursue justice: “Tzedek tzedek tirdof lemaan tichyeh veyorashta es ha’aretz” (16:20).

Rashi comments on that posuk, citing the Sifri, who says that appointing proper judges creates a merit for the Jews to remain alive and settle in Eretz Yisroel.

The Gemara in Maseches Shabbos (10a) states that any judge who properly adjudicates a case, even for one moment, is considered as having partnered with Hakadosh Boruch Hu in the creation of the world.

What is the importance of placing judges and policemen in the country, and what is so important about properly arbitrating cases that a dayan who does so is considered to be a partner of Hashem?

Why does the Torah use the double language of tzedek tzedek tirdof when saying it once would suffice?

Additionally, the Torah commands, “Midvar sheker tirchok - Distance yourself from lies.” Why is lying the only aveirah that the Torah demands we maintain a distinct remoteness from?

Honesty is the bedrock of our faith. Dishonesty undermines us personally and religiously, and it destroys the world around us. If we are honest with ourselves, then we don’t fool ourselves into thinking that we are something that we are not. If we are honest about our standing, then we will always seek improvement. If we are honest with what we have accomplished with our lives and what our potential is, then we will be motivated to do more. If we are honest about how good we have it, then we will appreciate Hashem’s chassodim and try to make ourselves worthy of more.

When we wake up in the morning, our first words, even before we wash away the impurity from our hands, are, “Modeh ani lefonecha,” a proclamation that we realize we have nothing - and can accomplish nothing - on our own. It’s the introduction to a new day, a way of expressing thanks that Hashem has once again renewed His creation for our benefit.

We step outside and contemplate the world around us. In a moment of honest reflection, we feel His kindness anew. We realize how ludicrous is the claim that the universe came into existence on its own, and that after a huge bang, so many beautiful flowers, of such luscious color and variety, came about. How silly it is to believe that so many beautiful, nourishing and delicious vegetables suddenly sprouted in an instant. How delusional it is to see animals of all sorts, creatures formed with exactly what they need to survive and function in this world, and believe that they came about on their own. And of course, how very shallow it is to view man, the pinnacle of creation, more sophisticated and refined than the most expensive computer, as having come into existence with no plan.

An honest reflection is what allows us to perceive and appreciate the facts as they are. And that’s why truth is chosamo shel Hakadosh Boruch Hu, the fundamental of Torah and Torah living. Being honest and seeing things without negius or distraction are imperative to living as a Jew. If we are honest, we behave and we don’t steal, lie or harm others. We fight for the truth even when it hurts, even when we think we will lose, and even when it is unpopular.

Being honest is the best way to connect with the Creator. That is the partnership that we merit. We become part of creation itself by upholding honesty.

We must bear this in mind during chodesh Elul, as we battle for our survival. A general who deceives himself about the strength and quality of his enemy, will lose the war. We must approach this month, a gift from Hashem, with humility and self-awareness. If we are serious about tackling the problems that face us, both communally and individually, we need to start with honesty.

In order to succeed in any campaign, you have to honestly assess the situation. You can’t fight with lies, and you can’t solve problems with false solutions. Likewise, personal growth starts with knowing yourself and understating what you are lacking. If you are dishonest with yourself, if you are not connected to Torah, and if you don’t study mussar, you will be overcome with gaavah, deluding yourself into thinking that you are smarter, better, and a whole lot more perfect than you really are.

The wisest of all men, Shlomo Hamelech, tells us (Mishlei 23:23), “Emes kenei - Acquire the truth.” The only way to achieve lasting success in life is to be honest. Ill begotten gains will not last. Fooling others will only get you so far before they catch on and see through you. Fooling yourself will leave you losing time and again, without understanding why. In order to maintain a proper culture and society, it is imperative for people to be honest with themselves and with each other. If the justice system becomes corrupt, society cannot exist for long.

When you find yourself in a large mall or airport and are lost, you seek out a map of the location so that you can find your destination. Invariably, on the map, there will appear a small arrow or star, next to which it says, “You are here.” This is done because it is very difficult to find your way to where you want to go if you don’t know where you are.

With Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipper as our destination, Elul is the time when we search our souls to find out where we are.

This understanding helps us comprehend one of the final preparations we make before tekias shofar.

During the moments prior to tekias shofar, when the heart is pounding with awe and emotion, we proclaim loudly and in unison, “Rosh devorcha emes - The beginning of your word, Hashem, is truth” (Tehillim 119:160). The Baal Haturim explains that the final letters of the first three words of the Torah, bereishis bara Elokim, spell emes. Truth is the underpinning of creation and the world.

Rav Mordechai Pogramanski was famed in the pre-war yeshiva world for his brilliance and tzidkus. He was an uncommon genius of historic proportion, beloved by all who met him and conversed with him in learning. As the Second World War began, he made his way along with many other yeshiva refugees to Vilna. One of the many talmidei chachomim with whom he spent hours engaged in deep discussion was the Brisker Rov. When asked to describe the Rov, the illuy summed him up by saying that “meeting him was like being face to face with the truth.” Indeed there is no better way to encapsulate the greatness of a Torah giant whose very fiber is imbued with Torah.  

A good Jew is traditionally referred to as an “ehrliche Yid,” which essentially translates to mean a Jew who is honest. This is because in order to be a good Jew, you must be honest in all your dealings and in all your actions. One who hews to an honorable and scrupulous path cannot tolerate sheker and thus develops as an oveid Hashem. The intricate and complex set of rules given in the Torah invests us with a mandate to live lives of tzedek and emes.

The Chazon Ish wrote a letter to a rov who had visited him and left a walking stick behind in the Chazon Ish’s room. “Please,” urged the Chazon Ish, “come retrieve the stick. It is not mine and it disturbs my peace.” Something so seemingly insignificant as a walking stick that was not his completely disoriented the Chazon Ish. It upset the perfect balance of his world, where the rules of the Torah were the only reality. Having someone else’s possession in his room was as unnerving as a kushya on Tosafos.

The Torah says that a person of deceit, who refuses to follow the ruling of the kohein and shofeit, must die (17:12), and when he does, “You will rid evil from Yisroel.” A dishonest person isn’t bound by the rules. He denies their validity and relevance to him, and he is thus capable of committing all sorts of evil. There is nothing to hold him back.

When the Torah permits the appointment of a king, it makes it contingent on the monarch keeping a Sefer Torah with him at all times. He must learn from it so that he won’t become haughty and consider himself greater and mightier than a regular Jew. The same rules that govern all of creation and each individual apply to him, and only with that awareness can his malchus succeed.

Torah is emes, and one who lives with the emes is cognizant of his own insignificance in the scheme of things. He realizes his faults and knows what he is lacking. He honestly assesses himself and constantly seeks to improve as he helps others grow. Such a person will not become a baal gaavah, even if he is a king.

One Chol Hamoed, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer asked his talmid, Rav Dovid Finkel, for a pen and paper. Rav Dovid was surprised that his rebbi would write on Chol Hamoed, until the aged gaon said to him, “It’s pikuach nefesh.”

Upon receiving the pen and paper, Rav Isser Zalman wrote down a few words and was quite satisfied. What did he write? A posuk in Mishlei (4:25): “Einecha lenoach yabitu ve’afapecha yayshiru negdecha - Let your eyes look straight ahead and your eyelids remain straight before you.” The admonition represents Shlomo Hamelech’s advice to a leader, rov or dayan to see all people as equal and not to dwell on other people’s failings, only your own.

Rav Isser Zalman explained to his talmid why it was pikuach nefesh for him to have the pen and paper. “Today,” he said, “many people will be coming here to visit. Some of them will be talmidei chachomim and some will be simple individuals. There will be enjoyable people and there will be some who can be irritating. I need to have this piece of paper ready in front of me to remind myself to look straight ahead and see my own flaws and failings, not theirs.”

To Rav Isser Zalman, with his finely honed sense of right and wrong, this was pikuach nefesh. The rules of the Torah necessitated writing on Chol Hamoed so that he would be an upright judge, capable and ready to receive other Jews properly, focused on the truth.

The lessons of this week’s parsha and their call for truth are the yesod of Elul, as we say goodbye to the care-free air of summer and embark on the path to the sheleimus and temimus demanded by emes.

A bochur once approached the Lakewood mashgiach, Rav Nosson Wachtfogel, for advice regarding his future. Rav Nosson told the talmid to come to the yeshiva for Elul and that they would then make the decision together.

“During Elul,” he explained,everyone refocuses on who they are, taking the time to contemplate why they are here and their particular value and role in Hashem’s plan. During the rest of the year, we are easily distracted and not always honest about what we should be doing. Elul is a time of Ani LeDodi VeDodi Li, when we ponder our relationship with Hashem. Only after an honest assessment of who you are, can you make a decision about what you should do and what path you should take.”

Earlier this year, Reb Meyer Birnbaum, better known as Lieutenant Birnbaum, passed away. At his levaya in Yerushalayim, Rav Moshe Shapiro was maspid him in Hebrew. He kept repeating two words over and over: ‘Yehudi amiti … Yehudi amiti … Yehudi amiti…”

Rav Shapiro was expressing pain at the loss of a simple Jew who was ehrlich with every step he took. In his long life, Reb Meyer faced many problems and challenges. He lost his beloved brother to war, faced bankruptcy and divorce, and other problems that can conspire to destroy a person. What made him special was that where others would have seen themselves as victims and grown bitter from their many challenges, he remained humble, aware that Hashem has His cheshbonos and that there is a specific plan. The task of an ehrliche Yid, a Yehudi amiti, is to comprehend that and conduct himself accordingly.

Reb Meyer’s reaction to hard times was to repeat an expression he loved: “Don’t tell Hashem how big your problems are. Tell your problems how big Hashem is.”

That’s a Yehudi amiti.

Once again, Chodesh Elul is here. Our opportunity to refocus on why we are here and what we are meant to do is back. With it, is our chance to contemplate the rules that govern the universe, the Torah, which is a guidebook for our lives and the world. By studying it and immersing ourselves in its timeless truth, we can become people of truth, happiness and life.

We can ready ourselves to stand before the Judge of Truth, on the Day of Truth, as true Jews.