Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Spark of Redemption

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz


Although Chanukah is a mitzvah miderabonon, there are several oblique references in the Torah to the yom tov we celebrate this week. The Ramban in Parshas Beha’aloscha famously connects Aharon Hakohein’s lighting of the menorah in the Mishkon to the lighting of the Chanukah menorah in our day.

Additionally, in Moshe Rabbeinu’s final brochah to Klal Yisroel, he blesses shevet Levi, “Boruch Hashem cheilo, Bless his army, Hashem (Devorim 33:11). Rashi explains that Moshe was referring to the Chashmonaim, as they set out to battle the Greeks, begging Hashem to cause the righteous ones to emerge victorious over a much larger, better trained army of scoffers.

We will discuss the hints to the epic events of yemei Chanukah in the parshiyos of Sefer Bereishis we currently study as pointed out by the sifrei Kabbolah.

One of the more cryptic exchanges occurs between Yaakov and Lavan when they part from each other at the end of Parshas Vayeitzei. They formed a mound of stones as testimony to their agreement to keep a safe distance from each other. Lavan referred to this monument as Yegar Sahadusa, while Yaakov called it Galeid, the Lashon Kodesh version of Lavan’s Aramaic name.

The Megaleh Amukos, who, as the name of his sefer suggests, reveals all sorts of deep secrets in his work, explains that the numerical value of the word “Yegar” is 213. He says that this is a reference to the 213th year of the Second Bais Hamikdosh. It was then that “gavra haklippah,” the forces of evil were strengthened, to the point that the rasha Antiyochus was able to slaughter a chazir in the Bais Hamikdosh. Lavan was anticipating that sad day when he said “Yegar.

Yaakov Avinu beheld the same historic moment and beseeched Hashem for mercy. He called the pile Galeid, hinting to the Chashmonaim, who would rise up to avenge the act of Antiyochus and his decrees. Yaakov was pleading for Hashem to hear their prayers and deliver them just as he would hear the pleas of Shmuel in Gilad.

Like many of the accounts in Sefer Bereishis, this one, as well, is replete with historical significance and import. The era of the neis Chanukah was clearly foreseen and influenced by Yaakov Avinu.

Additionally, the sefer Tzeidah Laderech quotes the Maharshal, who saw another connection between Yaakov Avinu and the neis Chanukah. When Yaakov crossed the Yaabok River to retrieve his pachim ketanim, Hashem said to him, “You sacrificed for the sake of pachim ketanim, small jugs, and I will repay your children with a miracle involving pachim, small jugs,” referring to the pach shemen tahor with which the Chashmonaim re-consecrated the menorah in the Bais Hamikdosh.

Beneath the surface of the pesukim depicting our forefather Yaakov, Kabbolah masters see the neis Chanukah playing itself out. Although we aren’t mekubolim, we can benefit from the messages they uncover.

Yosef earned the appendage of “tzaddik.” He is identified for his piety in rising up to face off a challenge in the nisayon involving aishes Potifar in last week’s parsha of Vayeishev.

Yosef’s spiritual heroism and strength are relevant to us in our day. Isolated in a foreign land and an unfriendly environment, Yosef, at the age of seventeen, was cut off from his beloved father, and deprived of his prime role model and teacher.

Yosef was a lonely teenager sold by his own brothers into servitude in the most impure country. If ever a young man had an excuse to fall hard, it was he.

From where did the rejected, hated, handsome young man find the inner fortitude to muster the ability to rise above his nisayon?

The Gemara (Sotah 36b) relates that when confronted by aishes Potifar, Yosef stood at the edge of a spiritual cliff, engaged in a fierce battle with his yeitzer hora. Suddenly, he beheld the image of his father, “Be’osah sha’ah bosah deyukno shel oviv.” Yosef saw the image of his father, Yaakov. Seeing the picture of his father propelled him to the status of a tzaddik.

Like a flash of lightning on a stormy night, it showed him the way.

I recall the time many years ago, as a talmid in the Philadelphia Yeshiva, when we merited a visit from Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky zt”l, father of our rosh yeshiva, Rav Shmuel.

Rav Yaakov shared something he heard from a Litvishe Yid, a former yeshiva student who was faced with challenges in his life. The man related that he never succumbed, because in his youth, he had seen Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz zt”l. Beholding that luminous countenance was an experience that equipped him with resources of purity and strength. Every time he wanted to engage in something he knew he shouldn’t be doing, he thought of that image of Rav Boruch Ber and changed his mind.

Yaakov was the last av, the third of the three avos who imbued nishmas Yisroel with the strength to endure. Yosef was the first of the next generation to tap into those kochos, bringing them to the fore and making them a reality.

Yosef was the first Jew sold into exile. Lonely and seemingly forgotten, he nevertheless was able to make the choice of seeing something bigger and remembering a different time and the message it sent. As he engaged in a fierce battle with his yeitzer hora, he looked out the window, and in its glass he saw his father’s saintly image, the face of Yaakov Avinu, lovingly gazing back at him.

What did that face tell him? The face of Yaakov was a plea, a demand, a rallying cry. He was saying to him, “My dear son, you have the potential for greatness. You are better than them and better than that. My son, you don’t have to do it. You don’t have to sink. You don’t have to succumb! My dear son, I speak from personal experience. I lived with Lavan. Im Lavan garti, vetaryag mitzvos shomarti, velo lomadeti mimaasov haro’im.

“Yosef,” the image proclaimed, “I was also forced from my father’s home, chased and oppressed, alone in a strange land surrounded by impurity. Yet I didn’t fall. I never yielded to the pressure. I never let the rasha, in whose home I lived, influence me, and you, my son, have that same strength. Rise above it! You can do it. Yes, you can.”

Yosef saw all that in the window and was energized to resist the pull and temptation to forsake his heritage. He was reminded from where he came and where he was headed. Thus armed, he was able to resist succumbing to the moment and preserved himself for eternity.

The images of Yaakov and Yosef were the inspiration for the tzaddikei bais Chashmonai, the heroes of the neis Chaunkah. Yovon had taken hold of Eretz Yisroel, the Bais Hamikdosh, Am Yisroel, and everything holy. As foretold by Lavan, Antiyochus had sacrificed a pig on the mizbei’ach.

One can only imagine the reaction of the people around them as the Chashmonaim announced their intention to resist the progressive Hellenists and fight for kedushas Yisroel and kedushas haMikdosh.

“The battle is lost. Give it up,” the overwhelming Jewish majority told the recalcitrant Chashmonaim. “The people aren’t with you. You have to accept the fact that we are not in control and that the people lined up against us are more powerful, better armed and better organized than us.”

Sitting in their homes, the Jewish people looked out the window and saw darkness. They saw Yovon gaining on them. They felt weak and pointless. They viewed themselves as small, their actions inconsequential.

The Chashmonaim refused to accept the defeatist attitude. Like Yosef Hatzaddik, they refused to let anyone tell them who they were. They didn’t submit to letting others write the rules for them. They were inspired by Yosef’s example of a Jew living in golus, surrounded by temptation, dominated by a heathen, hedonistic culture. And just as he had done, they channeled succor from Yaakov Avinu. Empowered by his example as well as his tefillos and zechuyos, they embarked upon an impossible task.

Like Yaakov Avinu, who understood that even the smallest jugs can belong to the side of kedushah and was therefore moser nefesh to ensure that they also had a tikkun, the Chashmonaim fought valiantly for the sanctity of the Bais Hamikdosh, to take back Hashem’s earthly abode, re-consecrate it, elevate it and cleanse it of the profane. Just as Yaakov stared down Lavan and the malach of Eisav, they had the courage to face a foe much more powerful than they and triumph.

When they gazed out the window into the darkness of Yovon, they saw light. They saw the light of Yaakov and of Yosef. They saw their images counseling them to fight for kedushah. They heard their voices telling them not to succumb to the temptation of yielding to the moment. They saw Yaakov and were encouraged to battle the forces of Eisov. They wouldn’t permit the defilement of Antiyochus to go unpunished. They davened, they summoned up the tefillos of Yaakov from way back when at Galeid, they girded themselves, and they went to war against the prevailing tumah.

They refused to be pulled down and lowered. They didn’t become disheartened, overwhelmed by the difficult task at hand. They didn’t see what simpler people saw. They didn’t permit their gaze to be directed by those who were spiritually blind and worshipped the forces of darkness. They didn’t let their thought process be influenced by propaganda. They lived lives of correctness and justice in a period dominated by corruption, banality, immorality and evil.

Their message and example, together with that of Yaakov and Yosef, should inspire us as we are faced with temptations the yeitzer hora devises to detour us from our missions as bnei and bnos Torah. We are heirs to a glorious tradition and forerunners of generations following the path laid out for us by the avos and imahos. Let’s never forget that.

If we believe in ourselves and our ability, we can overcome everything. There is nothing that can conquer the demus deyukno of Yaakov.

Alexander was an eleven-year-old boy studying in a Shuvu school in one of Israel’s southern development towns. His Russian immigrant parents had high hopes for their brilliant son. They sent him to the religious school because of its reputation for sterling general studies and well-behaved students.

Alexander’s parents slowly became disillusioned as they watched their beloved son develop a connection with the religion their families had cast off generations prior. It seemed like the boy came home every day with new rules to follow and practices to observe. Loathe to switch schools in the middle of the school year, the parents watched with growing consternation as their son fell in love with Torah Judaism.

One Saturday, the day dedicated to reviewing what was learned in school that week and doing homework, Alexander sat at a table with his homework sheet, books and pen, but he wasn’t writing. His parents asked him why he wasn’t doing his homework. Each time they asked, he brushed off the question.

Finally, his father made a big show of forcefully sitting down next to him and demanding to know why he refused to do his homework. He loved his son and had big dreams for him. The immigrant’s life was in ruin. Not only was the apple of his eye destined for greatness in the sciences falling in love with religion, but he was refusing to do his schoolwork.

The boy met his father’s gaze and explained that it was Shabbos, a day on which Jews are forbidden to write.

The father was furious. Unable to contain his anger, he slapped his son across the face.

“Write! I insist that you write this instant!” he shouted.

The young man remained calm. “I will not write on Shabbos,” he said, equally determined.

The father was apoplectic, screaming and showering his stubborn son with blows.

Finally, he drew an ultimatum. “This is my house. You will write on that paper or I will throw you out,” he hissed.

Alexander stood up and walked to the doorway. He opened the door wide and then suddenly slammed the door, sticking his finger in its way before it closed. The sickening sound of his finger breaking was audible. His hand immediately swelled up and turned colors.

The boy looked at his father. “Now my finger is broken and I can no longer write,” he said.

The father, who repeated the story publicly many years later at the engagement of his yeshiva bochur son, said that it was at that moment that he knew that he would never win and that his son would triumph.

Like generations of Jews in golus before him, like Yosef in Mitzrayim, Alexander would not succumb.

My friend, Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin, who heads Lev L’Achim, related that during Operation Cast Lead, when Israel was at war with the Arabs of Gaza, his organization waged its own battle. As schools in the line of fire were closed, a group of teenagers in Ashkelon were kept busy. Kollel people from Ashdod would come and learn Torah with them in a bomb shelter, providing warmth, instruction and pizza. The teenagers had been so bored that they showed up for the entertainment and food. But something strange happened. When the war was over, the youngsters asked the yungeleit to continue coming. 

As life returned to normal, word spread about the group and more neighborhood boys joined. The school kids and yungeleit studied regularly, and a year after they began, they completed a masechta.

They held a siyum on Chanukah in the home of Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman in Bnei Brak. Rav Shteinman was emotional as the teenagers proudly promised, Hadran aloch. We will return to you, beloved masechta.”

One of the mesaymim asked the rosh yeshiva for a brochah that the resistance of his parents to his Torah studies weaken.

“In fact,” he told the rosh yeshiva, “if they knew where I am now, they would be furious. I told them that I am going to play soccer.”

Rav Shteinman listened to his request and told the teenager, “You have just answered a question I have always had. Why do we thank Hashem in Al Hanissim for the milchamos, the battles?  Now, however, I know that it is for milchamos such as yours, the battles waged by teenagers determined to be loyal to Torah, that we thank Hashem.”

The Chashmonaim taught us about the glories of a milchamah, a war fought not with strategy or expectation to win, but with a stubborn unwillingness to be dragged down.

Chanukah gives us the eyes to see. Each of us has a demus deyukno shel oviv that reminds us of who we are and what we can accomplish. Chanukah is unique in that it has a birchas haro’eh, a special brochah for one who simply sees the neiros. Perhaps it is because the yom tov owes its existence to those who saw beyond their immediate surroundings and glimpsed the light of truth, the Ohr Haganuz concealed in the lechtelach.

It was true when Yaakov Avinu crossed the dark, lonely river. It was true when Yosef was in the clutches of aishes Potifar and that image saved him. It was true when the Bluzhever Rebbe lit Chanukah candles on a makeshift menorah in Bergen-Belsen. As he recited the brachos, someone asked him what he referred to when he said the brochah of ‘She’asah nissim laavoseinu bayomim haheim bazeman hazeh.”

Rebbe,” the person said, “with all due respect, look at us, a crowd of starving, broken people who’ve lost everything, prisoners in the worst place on earth. What’s the neis?”

“The neis,” replied the rebbe, “is that even here, even though we’re starving and shattered, we still rejoice over the fact that we can come together and see these flickering lights. We see with our own eyes that they endure, and so will we.”

It’s a time when, once again, gavra haklippah. But we know that the light shines bayomim haheim bazeman hazeh, now as then. We look into the flame and we behold its timeless message.

We think of the battles fought by Yaakov and contemplate that Yosef was not just a young orphan who dreamed of a better future. He was the embodiment of the hopes and aspirations of Am Yisroel. He dreamed of redemption and the messianic age. But in order for his dream to be realized, he was forced into exile, slavery and darkness.

He was placed by a malach, who appeared out of nowhere, into a situation with his brothers that led to an awful dispute, causing them to seek his demise.

It was through that tragic period and the chain of events to which it led that he was appointed head of the Egyptian viceroy’s household.

From there, once again, fate intervened. He was tempted by the foreign culture and resisted as he saw the demus deyukno shel oviv. Instead of his heroic strength being rewarded, he was thrown into jail. From there, once again, he was redeemed and eventually placed in a leadership position.

Yosef represents Am Yisroel in golus. He paved our path with ambition and hope, dreaming of redemption and better days. Not always is the realization of his dreams and prayers readily apparent. In the end, he survives and achieves great salvation and prominence.

At the beginning of Parshas Vayeishev, we read, “Aileh toldos Yaakov, Yosef.” Rashi quotes the Medrash, which explains that Yaakov saw the armies of Eisov approaching and wondered how he would defeat them. The Medrash answers with the words of the prophet Ovadiah (1:18): “Vehoyo vais Yaakov aish, uvais Yosef lehovah, uvais Eisov lekash.” One spark will emanate from Yosef and will incinerate the approaching armies of Eisov.

That spark is evident every year as we light the menorah. It is the light of the Ohr Haganuz, created at the beginning of time, but hidden after man sinned. The light with which it was once possible to see misof ha’olam ve’ad sofo has been dimmed every day of the year. The holy seforim say that the light of the Ohr Haganuz is evident on Chanukah in the flickering flames of the menorahs we light in our homes. That tiny spark can illuminate our lives and the world if we contemplate and absorb the messages it bears.

It is interesting to note that we ourselves bring about the great light with our actions. We place oil and a wick in a small container and light it. Just as we activate the Ohr Haganuz with our menorah, we have the ability to cause that light to shine again across the world.

If we believe in ourselves, if we surmount the darkness that surrounds us, if we cleave to Torah in a hedonistic world, if we donate so that others can learn Torah, and if we raise ourselves above the morass that fills our world, we can bring about the awaited geulah.

Yosef gives birth to Moshiach ben Yosef, who prepares the world for Moshiach ben Dovid. May his light shine and enable us to merit strength, succor and redemption.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Honesty Above All

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

We read in this week’s parsha of the unfortunate relationship between the shevotim. They didn’t like Yosef, and the posuk reports that, in fact, they were unable to speak to him peaceably (Bereishis 37:4).

Rashi quotes the Medrash which states that from the Torah’s disparaging remark about the brothers, we derive their praise. They didn’t possess the ability to be two-faced. They were unable to create an outward impression of friendship while feeling otherwise in their hearts.

The shevotim were men of truth and authenticity. Hypocrisy didn’t work for them.

In today’s world, the ability to be two-faced is lauded and referred to as acting diplomatically. In the Torah’s set of values, such conduct is reviled. The Torah’s admonition not to hate your brother, “Lo sisnah es achicha bilevovecha” (Vayikra 19:17), has a double meaning: Don’t hate your brother and don’t keep that hate bottled in your heart and outwardly appear to love him.

As awful as hatred is, honesty remains an important value. For some reason, political leaders have made a career out of speaking with forked tongues, embracing and smiling at people they despise, saying one thing and meaning another. Such conduct eventually catches up with them, exposing them as the liars they are and causing both sides of any issue to detest them.

Take, as an example, the American president, who was elected on the promise that he would usher in a bipartisan era in which politics would take a back seat to the needs of the people. His administration would be open and honest. Americans were assured that a new world would dawn with his election, the economy would improve, world respect for the country would increase, and everyone would just get along. He’d restore hope to the hopeless and change the direction in which the country was headed.

But leadership isn’t earned through ambition or careful preparation. It requires the readiness to face real issues and confront them, head-on, intelligently, forthrightly and honestly. That is true in the general world and in our world as well.

Barack Obama came out of nowhere and leapfrogged to the top of the heap, because people thought that he was different. They projected upon his blank slate their dreams and those of their fathers.

People are desperate for leadership. They thirst for a savior, looking for a way out of their sadness. They are prepared to hitch their wagons to any charming salesman who comes by. They don’t ask too many questions for fear that their bubble of salvation will burst. They are taken in by sweet talk, pleasant accents, and charisma. They don’t look beneath the thin veneer, but instead, satisfy themselves with superficial gloss.

Thus, Obama won by dint of a glib tongue with persuasive, hopeful talk. But it was just lip service. His signature legislation, the health care plan, is built on lies. Through political tricks, the plan was forced on an unwilling populace by the president and his party. The liberals’ dream plan became law. When he campaigned, Obama promised the people that if they liked their health insurance, they’d be able to keep it, even after his plan went into effect. An examination of the law would have made its failings obvious. It would have been clear that in order for Obamacare to work, the old plans would have to go by the wayside.

When millions lost their coverage, the president sort of said he was sorry, but not really. Then, a week later, he said that people could keep their old plans, for a year. But it’s not that simple, and they probably have no plan to go back to. 

He told Israel that he would defend it against Iran and then negotiated a deal with the country dedicated to the destruction of America and the Jewish state, enabling it to continue its march to nuclear power. He said that he cared about the Arab Spring’s battle for democracy and helped force America’s ally, Hosni Mubarak, out of power in Egypt, supporting his militant Muslim replacements. He helped push out Libya’s reformed leader, and now anarchy rules that African nation. Syrian freedom fighters were given the cold shoulder, and the tyrant Assad seems assured of his job for the foreseeable future.

He said a lot, he promised a ton, and he delivered very little.

We live in vacuous times. Problems abound and there is no shortage of threats. Every week brings new issues for us to surmount.

Last week, we read Yaakov Avinu’s statement, “Katonti mikol hachassodim umikol ha’emes asher asisah es avdecha.” Yaakov declared that he had become small due to all the kindness and truth that Hashem performed for him.

Yaakov arrived at Lavan’s house penniless and alone. Returning to Eretz Yisroel after two decades in Lavan’s home, surrounded by wives and children and laden with possessions, he said “katonti.” In the face of an outpouring of Hashem’s kindness, Yaakov felt humbled and undeserving.

But what did he mean when he said “mikol hachassodim umikol ha’emes, by all the kindness and truth”?

Rashi explains that Yaakov was grateful to Hashem for being true to His word and fulfilling His promises to him.

Why would Hashem dealing truthfully with him evoke humble gratitude in Yaakov?

Perhaps we can understand emes in this posuk in another sense as well. Yaakov was deeply grateful for being dealt with honestly. In a world of darkness, in a world of Lavans, one is confronted with subterfuge at every turn. One must navigate between liars and their lies as he seeks to pave a successful path.

A person is appreciative when meeting someone who deals with him honestly. When people mislead you, they rob you of the ability to make a determination based on fact. You are forced to try to read between the lines and see past the deception in order to proceed safely.

Yaakov was thankful for being dealt with truthfully. Elifaz came to kill Yaakov, but because he was honest enough to spell out his evil intentions, Yaakov was able to outsmart him and remain alive.

Yaakov dispatched scouts to learn what kind of danger he faced as he set out on his trek back home. He certainly wasn’t happy to learn that his brother Eisov was approaching with an army of four hundred men, but he was grateful that since he had been answered truthfully, he was able to prepare himself for the inevitable confrontation.

Too often, we sense danger ahead, but we are unable to properly address our concerns because those we depend upon aren’t honest in their appraisals of the situation. We see ill winds blowing all around us, but if we don’t examine their roots and causes honestly, we can’t expect to be able to fortify ourselves and prepare a proper offense and defense.

Our community is confronted by a wide range of serious problems, including dissension, shidduch difficulties, abuse, drop-outs, children rejected by schools, overcrowded mosdos hachinuch, rising tuitions, inadequate incomes, and the high cost of living, to name a few.

To formulate proper solutions to our problems, we have to be able to honestly examine the issues without being locked in by myopic vision and political correctness. If we are not forthright in our introspection, we will be overwhelmed by the dynamics and complexity of the difficulties. If we are afraid to be open and honest, there is no way we can expect to solve anything.

When faced with serious issues, as we definitely are, we must have the courage, intelligence and maturity to examine them honestly. To come up with solutions for vexing problems, we have to acknowledge their existence.

As bnei Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, we know that sheker ein lo raglayim. Anything built on falsehood will eventually crumble. Yaakov Avinu merited to grow, prosper and be blessed with Hashem’s chessed and emes because he was an ish emes. If we want to succeed in overcoming our challenges, we have to be anshei emes v’chessed.

The only way to effectively solve a problem is to actually do something about it. Politicians deliver flowery speeches, which sound nice and cause momentary exultation, but actual change is in the hands of those who act.

In order to fix the mess created by the plan that controls one-sixth of the nation’s economy and affects the health of every citizen, the fundamental untruths that were employed to push it through over the past three years have to be acknowledged and rolled back.

The government’s intolerable ineptitude, spending hundreds of millions of dollars irresponsibly, was exposed for all to see.

In an era of communication and technological advancement, the White House leadership waffles, backtracks, and appears lost. People lack confidence in the leadership and try to get by on their own. In our day, there are no secrets. All agendas are eventually exposed.

Leaders have to demonstrate results. They must be prepared to lead, to show the way, to stand up and be counted. They must know where to draw the line and how to defend against onslaughts with affective voices that will be heard and respected.

The posuk says, “Vayaker Yehudah vayomer tzodkah mimeni.” Yehudah admitted that Tamar was correct in what she had done and that he was wrong. She was prepared to give up her life rather than cause him to be embarrassed. He admitted his failings and her life was spared. Due to her act of selflessness and the character of Yehudah, Moshiach, who will save the world, was born.

We all possess the ability to help bring about change and contribute to the better good. We are all grandchildren of the avos and children of people who gave so much of themselves so that we can be here today, living productive Torah lives. Let’s do it honestly and forthrightly.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Peace And Truth

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Every account and detail of the avos and their travels is replete with life-lessons and directives. Parshas Vayishlach, in particular, is a guide-book in relations with the umos ha’olam. Chazal tell us that the chachomim who traveled to Rome to meet with their overlords would carefully study this week’s parsha prior to setting out on their precarious journeys.

In order to succeed in their missions on behalf of the Jewish people ruled by the Romans, they studied this week’s exchange between Yaakov and Eisov.

The opening to Parshas Vayishlach tells us about the malochim sent by Yaakov. Rashi teaches that the messengers sent by Yaakov to scout his brother were malochim mamesh, angels. What was it about this mission that could not be carried out by men and required angels to fulfill the task?

Additionally, we must understand why Yaakov immediately assumed that there was malice in the heart of his approaching brother. How did he know that Eisov intended to harm him? Perhaps upon hearing that his brother was returning home after having done well, he wanted to greet him and express his love.

The Baal Haturim in Parshas Toldos (25:25) states that the numerical equivalent of Eisov is shalom, peace. He writes that the Kallah Rabbosi explains that if his name weren’t shalom, he would destroy the world with his wickedness.

Perhaps we can understand the significance of this gematriah differently. Eisov always presents himself as a man of peace. He seeks peace and walks in peace, and all of his actions appear to be motivated by his desire to spread peace and brotherhood in the world.

Yaakov feared that if he would send a human being to explore his brother’s intentions, the messenger would be taken in by Eisov’s outward appearance and would be comforted with the knowledge that he seeks a peaceful existence with Yaakov.

Yaakov was attempting to influence his brother not to harm him. He sent malochim in a bid to temper Eisov’s wickedness and to probe his intentions.

As soon as he heard that Eisov was on his way to him, Yaakov sensed that he was in danger. The Torah doesn’t recount that the malochim warned Yaakov that Eisov was planning to do battle, only that he was on his way. But Yaakov understood that if Eisov was coming towards him, it could only mean trouble.

The Ramban writes in his introduction to this week’s parsha that it “contains a hint for future generations, for all that transpired between our forefather Yaakov and Eisov will happen to us with Eisov’s children, and it is fitting for us to go in the path of the tzaddik (Yaakov).”

Later in the parsha, we read of Sh’chem’s desire to take Dinah as a wife. He and his ruling father, Chamor, sought to convince their people to agree to the terms set by the shevotim. To secure their agreement, they told their constituents that the Jews were good businessmen, and if they agree to perform milah, they would gain access to the Jews’ possessions and flocks (Bereishis 34:23).

And so it has been throughout the ages. We convince ourselves that the nations of the world care about us, like us, and have our best interests at heart. We forget the admonishment of Chazal [Pirkei Avos 2, 3] that “Hevu zehirin barashus she’ein mikorvin lo l’adam eloh letzorech atzmon.” We hobnob with politicians, deluding ourselves into thinking that they are actually interested in our issues. We forget the lessons Yaakov Avinu taught about how to deal with governments.

We look at Eisov with respect and high regard, as if he is concerned about us and our welfare. We are impressed when he expresses his interests in living with us in peace and are stunned when we read of increasing anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews. We are incredulous when Eisov turns on us.

We read the news of the ongoing talks with Iran and find it hard to believe that America is admonishing Israel for daring to interfere with their mission to reach a peace deal with Iran, to solve the nuclear crisis that Israel’s prime minister created when he warned of Iran’s evil intentions.

Current administration officials are more careful with their language, but a former one wasn’t as diplomatic: Nicholas Burns, formerly a senior State Department official, said that Binyomin Netanyahu had no business publicly calling on the nations of the world not to capitulate to Iran.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu’s public outburst was unfortunate and ill-advised,” said Burns, now a professor in Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “It has gone down very badly in the U.S.”

The nations of the world want peace, but the Jew gets in the way.

Secretary of State John Kerry was in Israel last week, prodding along his doomed peace talks between the murderous Palestinians and Israel. Apparently, the secret talks are not advancing as planned, and Kerry is upset.

He threatened Israel with international isolation and renewed violence if his peace efforts failed. He also said that the construction of apartments in areas such as Kiryat Sefer and Ramat Shlomo raises questions about whether Israel is really interested in peace.

The nations of the world want peace, but the Jew gets in the way.

The wicked among us also adopt the posture of Eisov, portraying themselves as poor victims, whose only desire is to achieve peace and harmony. As they thrash about, promoting their agendas, they claim that the heirs of Yaakov are guilty of deviating from some imagined gospel. They smile and we weep. They are smug and we fret. They are calm and intellectual, while we are erratic and frightful.

Under the banner of peace, using niceties and catch-phrases, a new generation of diplomats seeks to destroy the lone lamb amongst seventy wolves. While we fear what plans New York’s new mayor has for the legality of milah, to our north, the premier of Quebec announced her new charter of values last week.

She says that the intention of the plan is to make minorities feel welcome and respected in the province, yet there is much to fear. Officially tabled as Bill 60, the law forbids the wearing of “ostentatious religious symbols,” such as yarmulkas, for anyone in a public position. This includes doctors, clerks, politicians and postal workers. No visible signs of Jewishness will be permitted. The bill also includes a provision forbidding religious day-care centers, which receive government subsidies, from discussing Shabbos or Yom Tov. It also bans distinctive religious foods, such as hamantashen, challah and maybe even latkes. The songs our children come home singing, such as “Eisov is coming with four hundred men,” will be verboten in Montreal day-care centers.

The middah of Eisov is alive and ever-present. It is rare for anyone to publicly proclaim, “We don’t like you. We detest your beanies, beards and long coats. You make us nervous and we are determined to make you feel uncomfortable.” Instead, they say, “We embrace you and welcome you. We only want to make you feel comfortable. This is an exercise in making you fit in, nothing more.”

Eisov is begematria shalom, for that is the garb he uses to gain entry into our camp and upend us.

Great men, descendants of Yaakov, have always opted for the emes of Yaakov, stating the facts as they are and accepting the ramifications.

Rav Yitzchok Hutner, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, once felt it necessary to speak out against a prominent Jewish leader. Rav Hutner called the person and asked for an appointment to see him.

“I will come to the rosh yeshiva,” said the gentleman.

Rav Hutner turned down the offer and traveled to meet him.

“I just wanted to tell you,” said the rosh yeshiva, “that I will be speaking against you to my talmidim. I don’t agree with the ideas you have been expressing of late and I feel an obligation to protest them.”

Rav Hutner then picked himself up and left, leaving the man on the opposite end of the desk astounded. He later related that although he was upset, he was impressed by the courage and confidence of the rosh yeshiva.

A rov was delivering a shiur to professionals, when one of the participants asked a question. “Rabbi, it seems that your chareidi rabbis are always fighting and arguing between themselves. The rabbis from my world seem to get along much better. In fact, they have a weekly golf game where they enjoy each other’s friendship. Why can’t your guys get along?”

“I’m sure you noticed,” responded the rov, “that sometimes you walk into a shivah house and the mourners are sitting together in a huddle, reminiscing and sharing stories. Other times, however, the mourners are unfortunately spread out, in different homes or different parts of the room, rarely exchanging words with each other.

“That phenomenon usually occurs when there is a large inheritance at stake to be probated. The children are tense about the impeding battle, and with the lines already drawn, the tension prevents them from being able to sit together. When there is no major inheritance in the way and no coveted items to be divided between themselves, goodwill can prevail and they can sit and mourn together.”

The rov concluded: “Our rabbis see themselves as heirs to a very serious inheritance, a mesorah they consider life itself. Thus, differences of opinion are inevitable. Your rabbis, to whom the mesorah means little, have no reason to fight. There’s nothing worth fighting over.”

The wisdom of the answer reflects a truth about shalom. Yes, the ultimate goal is to rejoice in each other, to work together to enhance the common good. Too often, shalom is the easiest option, rather than confronting penetrating truths and realities.

Yaakov Avinu also wanted shalom, but he wasn’t prepared to sell out for that ideal. The posuk (ibid. 32:8) relates, “Vayira Yaakov meod.” He feared he’d get killed. He worried about killing someone. Nevertheless, capitulation to Eisov was not an option.

Rav Aharon Kotler was an indefatigable activist for communal causes, often working with other rabbonim and roshei yeshivos achieving historic accomplishments. He knew how to apply the middah of shalom, but that didn’t prevent him from saying what he felt needed to be said.

He was present at a rabbinic gathering when a gadol made a suggestion that a rabbi then shrugged off from the podium, saying that he didn’t understand the logic of it. Rav Aharon turned to him, his blue eyes aflame. “Un ah Tosafos farshteitz du yoh? And a Tosafos you do understand?”

Shalom is only an attribute when it is within the framework of emes.

The novi Michah said (7:20), “Titein emes l’Yaakov.” Yaakov Avinu, the fountain of emes, sent malochim to Eisov to gauge his positions. Yaakov yearned for shalom, but his primary concern was that it be within the context of emes.

He sent malochim mamesh, who could discern the truth of Eisov’s intentions. Yaakov was sending a message: “If you speak of peace, but under your smile lies a dagger, I will have no choice but to kill or be killed. I will not compromise on the emes. I won’t change and will not adapt it to conform to your evil path.”

We seek peace and we seek to harm no one, but the pursuit of the truth is our primary motivator. As our forefather Yaakov did (Rashi 32:9), we prepare ourselves with doron, tefillah and milchomoh. We offer peace, we daven for success, and when all else fails, we prepare to battle. Peace is important. It is way up there on the list of what we seek. But emes trumps it.

Let us endeavor to inculcate a desire for emes and shalom. Let us hope and pray that peace will reign supreme in our camp, and that a united desire for truth leads to calm and harmony. Let us all seek to bring about a truthful truce wherever Jews disagree.

We look forward to the day of which the novi Ovadiah speaks in this week’s haftorah: “Ve’olu moshi’im beHar Tzion lishpot es har Eisov.” The era will soon arrive when Am Yisroel will exact punishment on Eisov for his guile. May it be soon.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Looking Ahead

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This week, we ushered in Chodesh Kislev and with it the feelings of anticipation for the upcoming yom tov of Chanukah, which celebrates the Maccabees and their rallying cry of “Mi laHashem eilai,” drawing the minority of believers in their day to the flag of holiness.

The Chanukah period reminds us of the abilities of me’atim and chalashim. Those who were few in number and weak in body were victorious over powerful armies. They returned home as acknowledged heroes due to their winning attitude, courage and valor. Their emunah and bitachon caused them to stand straight and tall in the face of overwhelming negative odds.
The success of their accomplishments should be a lesson to us in our day, as we are surrounded by trials and a steady onslaught of nisyonos that threaten to cause us to forget what we are capable of achieving and the heights we can reach.
This week’s parsha of Vayeitzei provides an illustration of what can be accomplished by those who maintain the proper perspective.
The Torah (Bereishis 28:11) recounts Yaakov Avinu’s vision as he set out on his long and arduous journey from the home of his parents. As he passed Har Hamoriah (Rashi, ibid.), the sun set early and he went to sleep. As he slept, he saw a ladder, whose feet were planted on the ground - “sulam mutzov artzah,” but whose head reached the heavens - “rosho magia hashomaymah.”
Hashem stood above the ladder and promised Yaakov that He would be with him during his travails and ultimately reward him with ownership of Eretz Yisroel.
When the Tzemach Tzedek was a small child in school, the children came upon a ladder during their recess period. The boys stood around the ladder, bragging how they would climb to the top of it. One by one, they began climbing, each managing a few rungs before sheepishly returning to the ground. Only one of the boys climbed to the top of the ladder.
The Tzemach Tzedek’s grandfather, the Alter Rebbe of Lubavitch, was watching from his window as the boys clambered up and down the ladder. When his grandson came home from school, he asked him why he succeeded where all the other children had failed. The future rebbe answered that he didn’t look down. “They were frightened because they looked down as they were climbing up. I kept my eyes focused on the top. I kept looking ahead, not back.”
If you look up, you aren’t threatened by what lies below.  
Yaakov Avinu left his parents’ home all alone. His parting gift was a threat on his life by his murderous brother. He was stripped of all his possessions and money en route and was left with nothing but the clothes on his back and a walking stick. His response to the pitiful circumstances was to grow ever bolder, more optimistic and positive, turning to Heaven and promising to give maaser from the bounty he would eventually receive.
Yaakov Avinu was a builder. He took twelve stones, which Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer tells us were the very stones that Yitzchok had rested upon at the Akeidah, and those stones became one. The stones, a symbol of endurance and permanence, represented the nation he would spawn, a people resolute, firm and courageous.
Eisov was a destroyer, a murderer of men. His philosophy was: “Hinei anochi holeich lomus. What’s the point if we’re all going to die anyway?” His mindset was in diametric contradiction to the outlook of a brother who saw eternity. “Yaakov Avinu lo meis.” Yaakov, his brother, was eternal. As darkness descended, as his world closed in on him, Yaakov Avinu instituted the nightly Ma’ariv prayer.
The many stones that fill this parsha are obstacles strewn in the path of Yaakov Avinu, who walked alone. His sole possession was his walking staff, as he testified later, “Ki bemakli ovarti es haYardein [Bereishis 32, 11].” He faced Eisov, then Elifaz, before finally encountering Lavan. Yaakov Avinu left Lavan’s impure home and stepped into the embrace of the malachei Eretz Yisroel, which were sent forth to greet him and welcome him home. With angels at his side and the Shivtei Kah surrounding him, he concluded a journey he had started with just a staff, bemakli.
Yaakov’s secret was embodied by the ladder in his dream; for essentially it was an instrument of earth that reached heaven. Yaakov had a heightened view, a vision that transcended that which was before him. When obstacles were placed in his path, he looked beyond them, seeing the potential ahead. He viewed hardships as opportunities for growth. He always concentrated on the future, the positive, and did not permit himself to be held down by negativity and the trappings of a trying moment.
Great people, throughout the ages, have always been defined by their vision and their ability to imagine, dream and react accordingly.
Rav Yisroel Salanter, the originator of the mussar movement, and those who followed in his path took poor, hungry, teenaged bochurim and put them on paths to greatness. They took boys destined for lives as illiterate shoemakers and smiths and trained them to be gedolim and rabbonim. The mussar revolution wasn’t only about learning seforim such as Tomer Devorah, Orchos Chaim LehaRosh and Mesilas Yeshorim for a few minutes each day, but about educating people of their potential. Mussar teaches the heights every person can attain if they are cognizant of their abilities and intent on realizing them. The cure for the human condition is to appreciate that there is a cure. Any person who sets themself on the path of living a Torah life can achieve greatness.
The baalei mussar sought to do away with the practice of eating “teg,” where yeshiva bochurim’s meals were comprised of leftovers provided to them by local families. Poverty was rampant. Yeshivos could not afford to operate kitchens, so the bochurim depended on the scraps of the townspeople.
The baalei mussar taught the bochurim that they were not beggars dependent on others for food. They taught them to wear clean clothes and take pride in every action they did, between the walls of the yeshiva and outside. Cleanliness was stressed, as were proper diction and comportment. Mumbling and sloppy dress were unacceptable.
Many years ago as a bochur in the Philadelphia yeshiva I heard a shmuess from my rebbi, the rosh yeshiva Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, in which he told of a Kelmer talmid who fainted when he noticed that he was missing a button. “Ah mentch darf gein vi ah mentch,” he said when I recently reminded him of the story.
An essential component of being a person of character is to be driven to succeed. We need to possess a strong desire to accomplish something in order to feel that we have a purpose in this world. We have to be driven to excel at what we do. We must know that we will accomplish whatever goals we set for ourselves if we ignore all the inevitable michsholim that will crop up. If we are not lazy, we can change the world as long as “rosho magia hashomaymah.” Hashem blessed us each with tremendous abilities with which to enhance the world, but we can only dream of utilizing them if those three words remain uppermost in our psyche.
Study great people who leave a mark on this world and you will see a passion to grow and spread their wings. Greatness is inside of us, but without drive, it goes to waste. Too many people are lost, too many have no direction, too many can’t read or write or function properly in our world, because they were never taught or given the tools to believe in themselves and their abilities. If at-risk kids who hang around wasting their days would be convinced that their lives have meaning, that they have value, that they are intelligent and capable, and that they can make something of their lives if they would set their minds to it, they could be rescued from the precipice of despair.
How can that be accomplished? By educating children, teenagers and grown people that roshom magia hashomaymah.
Rav Eizek Sher was a relic of the pre-war Slabodka Yeshiva. As a son-in-law of the famed Alter and a head of the yeshiva when it was reconstituted and known as “Chevron,” the young bochurim who learned there revered him.
Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi, one of today’s prominent Israeli roshei yeshiva, recalled that as a young bochur learning in the Chevron Yeshiva, he worked hard to develop a relationship with Rav Eizek. He finally merited a daily session with the mussar great, walking Rav Sher home from the yeshiva after davening.
One day, he accompanied Rav Eizek on the walk home, but upon reaching their destination, the rebbi turned to the talmid, shook his head and said, “Nisht azoi. Not like that.” They retraced their route to the yeshiva and then walked back to Rav Sher’s home.
Once again, Rav Sher was displeased by something and the two returned to the yeshiva. The young bochur was perplexed. What did Rav Eizek want from him? He mustered up the courage and finally asked.
Rav Eizek straightened his shoulders, stood ramrod straight and looked the bochur in the eye.
Azoi geit ah general. This is the way a general walks,” he said.
He was instructing young Boruch Mordechai regarding the proper deportment and comportment of a ben Torah.
It’s a lesson that was well learned, as anyone acquainted with the rosh yeshiva, Rav Boruch Mordechai, can attest. He learned to talk as a general, walk as a general, and always be seen as a general would. He learned what he could accomplish, the army he could yet lead, and his responsibility to view himself that way. He and so many of the talmidim of Slabodka and Chevron learned the definition of rosho magia hashomaymah.
The secret of having courage and remaining strong in the face of difficult challenges is to live with that awareness, seeing the ladder at all times and remaining true to the vision.
This past summer, an ailing Reb Moshe Reichmann was undergoing radiation treatments. It was a brutally hot day, and as they set out in the car to the hospital, his son, who was driving him, offered him a bottle of water so that Reb Moshe could refresh himself. He refused the offer.
“But it’s hot. You need to drink,” his son protested. “Please drink. It is so hot outside. You might faint if you don’t drink.”
The weakened, deathly ill Mr. Reichmann refused to even take a sip from the bottle. He explained: “I don’t have a cup from which to drink. In my entire life, I never drank from a bottle and I am not about to start now.”
Simple, yet elegant. Alone in a car with his son, weak and no doubt thirsty, but determined and strong enough not to forfeit his self-respect.
If you read all the coverage in our paper last week about this great man and were left wondering how he succeeded in erecting a Torah world and a business empire, failing and then weathering difficult challenges to rise again, the answer lies in this little story. Reb Moshe Reichmann knew who he was. Though he was humble, as a ben Torah he understood the greatness he embodied. He knew that rosho magia hashomaymah.
A friend once told me of the time he was standing at a Yerushalayim bus stop when he noticed Rav Moshe Shapiro, one of the great talmidei chachomim and baalei machshovah of this generation, approaching. Rav Moshe, heading home to Bayit Vegan, made his way to the stop to take the 21 bus. The bus pulled up to the stop and Rav Moshe was still some distance away.
Rav Moshe saw the bus, and it was obvious that if he wouldn’t quicken his pace, he would miss the bus and have to wait twenty minutes for the next one to come by. Nevertheless, he didn’t run and didn’t even walk any faster. He continued to the stop, walking at the very same pace. He might miss the bus, but he wouldn’t compromise his personal dignity. Rav Moshe carries himself with an awareness of who he is and what he represents.
With Rav Eizek Sher’s image of a generahl ever-present, missing a bus isn’t a factor. The significance of one’s role, not the smaller issue of the inconvenience of missing a bus, defines Rav Shapiro’s actions.
As it happened, the bus driver noticed the dignified man walking towards the stop. He waited for him to board the bus before taking off… but that’s a whole other story.
Yaakov Avinu imbued us with these dimensions, with a sense of gadlus ha’adam. Generations later, his descendants reflect these qualities.
Reb Moshe Reichmann was a great man. Money and fame didn’t ruin him. In times of incredible success and failure, he maintained his equilibrium.
We can emulate this if we work on ourselves.
We don’t have to be a talmid of Kelm or Slabodka to live this way, carrying ourselves with a sense of respect, cleanliness, dignity and poise.
We have the power and wherewithal, because we are children of Yaakov.
We are children of dignity and grace. These attributes are part of our legacy, a heritage that we are to treasure and perpetuate, thus bringing great nachas to our Heavenly Father, to the world and to ourselves.